May the Circle Be Unbroken: a Hermeneutic Consideration of How Interpretive Approaches to Consumer Research Are Understood By Consumer Researchers

Craig J. Thompson, University of Tennessee
ABSTRACT - As consumer research has broadened its methodological orientation, a question has arisen as to the epistemological status of knowledge claims ensuing from interpretivist approaches. The present paper offers a hermeneutic consideration of Calder and Tybout's classification of consumer research into the broad categories of qualitative, scientific, and interpretive. It is proposed that this typology assumes that "objective" knowledge ensues from an ahistoric, archimedean perspective. Using the Calder and Tybout typology as an illustrative vehicle, several conceptual inconsistencies are noted in this foundational view of social science. It is further proposed that these inconsistencies undermine Calder and Tybout's stated goal of encouraging methodological pluralism in consumer research. Finally, a hermeneutic perspective is offered on the role of interpretation in consumer research.
[ to cite ]:
Craig J. Thompson (1991) ,"May the Circle Be Unbroken: a Hermeneutic Consideration of How Interpretive Approaches to Consumer Research Are Understood By Consumer Researchers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 63-69.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 63-69


Craig J. Thompson, University of Tennessee


As consumer research has broadened its methodological orientation, a question has arisen as to the epistemological status of knowledge claims ensuing from interpretivist approaches. The present paper offers a hermeneutic consideration of Calder and Tybout's classification of consumer research into the broad categories of qualitative, scientific, and interpretive. It is proposed that this typology assumes that "objective" knowledge ensues from an ahistoric, archimedean perspective. Using the Calder and Tybout typology as an illustrative vehicle, several conceptual inconsistencies are noted in this foundational view of social science. It is further proposed that these inconsistencies undermine Calder and Tybout's stated goal of encouraging methodological pluralism in consumer research. Finally, a hermeneutic perspective is offered on the role of interpretation in consumer research.


There is little doubt that consumer research has undergone a significant broadening of its philosophical and methodological orientations. A wide array of interpretivist approaches can now be found in the consumer research literature such as ethno-methodologies (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; McCracken 1988), literary criticism (Stern 1989), structural analysis (Hirschman 1988), semiotics (Holbrook and Grayson 1987; Mick 1986) and existential-phenomenology (Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989). Consequent to this methodological diversity, a philosophical question has arisen concerning the role of interpretivism within consumer research and the type of knowledge such approaches provide (Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

Calder and Tybout (1987, 1989) have recently addressed this question by offering a typology which categorizes consumer research into three distinct classes: 1) qualitative research which seeks to describe the everyday knowledge that consumers use to understand their own behaviors; 2) scientific research which is guided by the research logic of sophisticated methodological falsificationism and subjects explanatory theories to rigorous empirical testing; and 3) interpretive research which seeks to gain a "subjective" insight into consumer phenomena through the imposition of an interpretive viewpoint. While this typology has engendered some critical commentary (Anderson 1989; Holbrook and O'Shaugnessy 1988), it merits serious consideration by consumer researchers because it represents a systematic attempt to incorporate qualitative/interpretive methods into the mainstream of consumer research and provides a set of criteria by which to evaluate the each class of consumer research.

One major appeal of this typology is its overt pluralistic spirit. While being philosophically aligned with the approach of the "traditional scientific enterprise," Calder and Tybout propose that no one class of knowledge is of more or less inherent value than another. Rather than being relegated to the "pre-science" role of discovering testable hypotheses, qualitative/interpretive approaches are seen as generating their own unique forms of knowledge. It is worth noting that Calder (1977) has been a longtime advocate for the utility and conceptual independence of qualitative research in marketing, noting that "focus group research must basically stand alone" (p. 361).

Despite this attractive quality, the Calder and Tybout framework is undermined by a failure to reflectively assess - implicit philosophical assumptions on which it is constructed. By being - in accord with the established Western view of knowledge (Anderson 1989), this typology is easily - seen as being philosophically and value neutral. This sense of value-neutral objectivity is further reinforced by the common-sense plausibility of claiming that there should be some sharp distinction between "everyday" and "scientific" knowledge. The Calder and Tybout framework, however, ensues from a network of background assumptions which have been historically prominent within the social sciences. While these background assumptions have typically been discussed under the global rubric of "positivism," the more philosophically descriptive term, foundationalism, will be used in the present paper (Bernstein 1986; Hekman 1986; Thompson 1990).

In proposing a typology based on foundationalist criteria, theoretical primacy is being placed on a world-view which is inconsistent with the aims of most interpretive approaches. Using such a foundationalist framework to understand the nature of qualitative/interpretive research yields several problematic conceptual inconsistencies, misrepresents the process of qualitative/interpretive research, and suggests inappropriate evaluative criteria. The present hermeneutic consideration seeks to profile this foundationalist world-view and illustrate how these background assumptions systematically subjugate Calder and Tybout's pluralistic aims. In a broader sense, the present hermeneutic assessment will also illustrate the dilemmas which confront any foundationalist account of the social sciences and the nature of human knowledge. Finally, some suggestions will be made as to how a hermeneutic orientation may better serve the cause of methodological pluralism within consumer research.

The two poles of foundationalism

Foundationalist philosophers, such as Francis Bacon, August Comte, and Rene Descarte, developed a highly influential distinction between beliefs which are "objective," in the sense of being unprejudiced by historical forces, and those which are "subjective" in the sense of being socially mediated and culturally contingent. For the contemporary social sciences, this distinction has served as the philosophical origin for two prominent research orientations: objectivism and subjectivism (Bernstein 1983; Rorty 1979; Thompson 1990)

"Objectivist" researchers seek lawlike principles which explain human phenomena in terms whose truth value is not contingent on cultural beliefs or personal values. With this orientation, the goal is to base knowledge claims on some "objective" foundation which allows a knowledge claim's truth value to be determined solely by degree of correspondence to actual states of the world (e.g. Bernstein 1986; Hekman 1986). The methodological approach characteristic of the natural sciences--featuring analysis, control, precision of measurement, and logical rigor--is often taken as providing these objective foundations.

Subjectivist researchers, following in the tradition of theorists such as Dithey, Mannheim, Schutz, and Weber, contend that the atemporal, acultural explanations characteristic of the natural sciences are not attainable by the social sciences and, instead, seek descriptions of the "subjective" beliefs held by the culture's participants (Hekman 1986). With a subjectivist orientation, the methodological focus is placed on attaining an empathetic understanding of the subject's experiences (Lincoln and Guba 1986).

As Rorty (1979) has noted, subjectivism and objectivism are mirror images of the same foundationalist world-view. Both adhere to a belief that scientific knowledge claims must be based on some foundation of "neutral" observation. For example, Dilthey (1926/1985) proposed that the interpreter's experience of "verstehen" (i.e. empathetic understanding) was analogous to the "objective" observation which supposedly grounded the knowledge claims of the natural sciences. In more contemporary terms, Rorty characterizes the goal of humanistic research as seeking to "crack the code" of the subject's private intentions and meanings. With both objectivist and subjectivist approaches, there is an assumption that a "perspective-free" truth can be attained through methodological procedure and their epistemological dispute between concerns which methods serve as the appropriate foundation for the social sciences.

The Calder and Tybout typology clearly follows in this foundationalist tradition. Qualitative research serves the subjectivist goal of describing the culturally contingent beliefs of consumers while scientific research uses the "objective" logic of sophisticated methodological falsificationism to develop knowledge whose truth value is not contingent on social consensus or cultural belief. Subjective and objective knowledge are easily assimilated into this foundationalist framework because both are seen-as resulting from a "neutral" view of a phenomenon. Within such a framework, however, the issue of interpretive knowledge (e.g. the world as understood from some perspective) is more problematic. In this post-Kuhnian social milieu, it is difficult to maintain that any form of knowledge can be attained without some degree of interpretation. This concession, however, compromises both the distinction between objective and subjective knowledge and the related claim that interpretive knowledge is a "special case."

As an illustrative example, Calder and Tybout describe qualitative research as a case where "the data are considered to be self-reflexive [and] supply there own meaning" (p.199). This characterization of qualitative research seen as a projection of the objectivist dream of attaining knowledge of the world which is unmediated by human interpretation. The qualitative researcher is rendered as passive entity who simply records the phenomenon as it "really is." To be consistent with this construction, Calder and Tybout (1989) make a distinction between qualitative and interpretive approaches which even they admit is equivocal:

The qualitative approach can obviously be viewed as version of the interpretive in which behavior is being interpreted from the standpoint of the ideas of consumers. We believe, however, that separating the two is useful (p. 199).

What this brief passage reflects is an implicit recognition that no "data" can supply their own meaning because social phenomena only have meaning within an interpretive framework. The typology's "useful" distinction between qualitative and interpretive knowledge is not only misleading but has a consequence which runs counter to Calder and Tybout's stated purpose of encouraging methodological pluralism. In presupposing a foundationalist world-view, any phenomenologically motivated qualitative study will be deemed invalid because such research is necessarily interpretive. Methodological pluralism cannot be facilitated by institutionalizing epistemological standards which are neither attainable nor paradigmatically appropriate for interpretivist research.

The presence of interpretation in the traditional scientific enterprise also poses difficulty for Calder and Tybout's framework. One paradox of their typology is that the qualitative approach is actually rendered as more "objective," in the sense of being free of interpretation, than the scientific one. Consider Calder and Tybout's (1989) comments regarding scientific knowledge:

All we suggest is that a process of ongoing testing, and a preference at any point in time for theories that provide a better explanation than their rivals offers the possibility of scientific progress. This is the best we can hope for, no matter what the criterion, judgment will always play a role in choosing among theories. But, if individuals share the overall goal of progress in understanding/ accounting for the phenomena, then many disputes can be resolved and general guidelines are possible (p. 202).

In these terms, the quest for scientific knowledge is a noble but flawed endeavor. This "tragic" point is further developed by reference to an earlier work by Calder, Sternthal, and Tybout (1987) which argues that no methodological procedure necessarily guarantees rigor and validity and, accordingly, the adequacy of a theory test can only be known post hoc. Thus, the best "hope" for an objective, value-free epistemological foundation is seen as the rigorous empirical comparison of rival theories.

Unfortunately for advocates of falsificationism, this comparative foundation is itself on rather shaky ground. Judging the rigor of empirical test is an interpretive act which uses a process resembling what phenomenologists refer to as "imaginative variation" (Giorgi 1986). As an example, a scientist could imagine various ways a methodological procedure, such as a manipulation check, could compromise the rigor of a comparative test and then judge if the scenario was actually played out. Sternthal et al. offer several of these imaginative scenarios to demonstrate the theoretical futility of confirmatory theory testing. This strategy, however, opens the proverbial pandora's box for the falsificationist position. Given a sufficient level of creative imagination, potential confounds can be found with any given empirical study. Thus, a supposedly "falsified" theory can always be defended on the grounds of an inadequately conducted empirical test (see Anderson 1989 for a more extensive discussion).

The history of psychology provides an excellent example of how a theory can be insulated from attempts at empirical refutation. Empirical and conceptual anomalies began to accumulate for behaviorism almost from the outset of Watson's "Little Albert" experiment (Valle and King 1978). "Mentalistic" theories such as found in the work William James (1890), gestalt psychology (Kohler 1947, and Bartlett's schema theory (1932) were available as empirically viable, theoretical alternatives. Indeed, much of the gestalt literature was devoted to demonstrating the empirical superiority of gestalt theory over the stimulus-response models of behaviorism (see Koffka 1935; Kohler 1947; Merleau-Ponty 1942/1963). The proponents of behaviorism once confronted with such anomalies, however, simply did not fold up their theoretical tents. Behavorists avoided "falsification" in two ways. The first was by appeal to a paradigmatic value: mentalistic explanations were proclaimed as per se unscientific. The second was continually modifying behaviorist models to better account for anomalous findings (e.g. Pollio 1982). Of these two strategies, the former was by far the most central to the fifty-year hegemony of behavioristic psychology. Only when a major shift in world-view occurred within psychology (the so-called cognitive revolution) did empirical anomalies serve as evidence for falsification (Gardner 1985).

What this historical example demonstrates is that scientific theories do not exist independently of a socio-cultural context of shared metaphysical beliefs, commitments, and accepted practices (Anderson 1986). This interpretive background of the scientific enterprise is what Kuhn (1970) broadly referred to as a "paradigm." In taking a foundationalist stance, the Calder and Tybout typology has extreme difficulty in accounting for the interpretive and socio-historically contingent aspects of "scientific" knowledge.

To maintain their distinction between interpretive and scientific knowledge, Calder and Tybout are left with a demarcating criterion which misrepresents the nature of interpretive research and which poses a serious, and somewhat ironic, conceptual dilemma for the typology itself. In conceding that scientific knowledge involves some interpretation (or human judgment), Calder and Tybout propose that the difference between scientific and interpretive approaches is given by the intentions of the researchers. That is, scientists intend to challenge theories with empirical data whereas interpretivists do not. In the Calder and Tybout scheme, interpretivists use a conceptualization to give an account of the data and their intention is solely to show that their conceptualization fits the data As Calder and Tybout (1987) phrase it, "because data may be used selectively and multiple interpretations of them may exist, there is no intention of comparing interpretations to choose among them....The immediate goal is support and confirmation of the conceptualization" (p: 139).

This appeal to researcher intentions, however, erroneously portrays interpretive researchers as inexorably committed to a single conceptual framework. In the conduct of interpretive research, multiple and sometimes competing interpretations are compared on the basis of which provide the more encompassing understanding of the phenomena (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Holbrook and O'Shaugenessy 1988). Their characterization also ignores the dialectical nature of the interpretative process. That is, precursory interpretations are continually modified to accommodate the emergent characteristics of the phenomenon (Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989). The Calder and Tybout typlogy cannot recognize the dialectic nature of interpretative research, however, without equivocating its own critical distinction between scientific and interpretive knowledge.

Since Calder and Tybout acknowledge that scientific research involves "some" interpretation, they must reinforce their tenuous categorical distinction by denying that interpretivist research is an empirically grounded process and, instead, adhere to the problematic claim that interpretivists "escape" from the data by basing knowledge claims exclusively on societal consensus. Calder and Tybout (1987) wield this assumption in a pernicious fashion by asking the rhetorical question, "if relativism [which they see as a method of interpretivism] is true, then what do scientists persuade each other about (p. 138)?" Thus, the dubiousness of their distinction between scientific and interpretive knowledge is treated as an inconsistency confronting an alternative world-view. [Calder and Tybout (1989) later retracted this problematic supposition: ....we were arguing that the possibility of appealing to nonempirical factors in evaluating theories is more an illusion than reality. How might one argue the merits of a methodology, axiology, ontology, etc., if not by appealing to some form of data or empirical observation. We did not intend to suggest that critical relativists ignore the data-just the opposite. We suggest that they are no better or worse than empiricists in their reliance on data. The primary difference lies in whether the data under consideration are limited to controlled studies or give greater emphasis to the observation of naturally occurring events (p. 203)" This clarification, however, only further obfuscates the issue by confusing approaches to evaluating consumer research with those for conducting consumer research. Is the implication that only data from controlled studies can be "empirical" or that the merits of competing ontologies and axiologies can somehow be determined through a controlled study or, perhaps, that the observation of "naturally occurring events" is taboo for empiricist researchers?]

Another conceptual dilemma facing the Calder and Tybout framework is that researcher intentions do not serve as a workable criterion for categorizing research approaches. As Calder and Tybout (1987, 1989) astutely note, no particular method or set of quantitative procedures can guarantees scientific adequacy. Thus, "researcher intention" is not revealed by choice of method. Nor is researcher intention revealed by theoretical orientation as Calder and Tybout also note that a seemingly ''unscientific'' theory, such as parapsychology, could potentially meet the criteria for scientific knowledge. The situation is further complicated by the indeterminate nature of researcher intent. That is, an "interpretivist" could choose among competing accounts and, thus, have a supposedly ''scientific'' intention while a "scientist" (for reasons of paradigmatic commitment or "unconscious desire") might interpret the data to fit a preferred theory. As such, the Calder and Tybout typology requires an inference about what a given researcher "really intended." In so doing, the assessment of consumer research is removed from the domain of public discourse and becomes a matter of "cracking the code" of the researcher's private thoughts. This consequence is ironic given Calder and Tybout's (1989) view that a "troubling" feature of some interpretivist research is "the idea that one's personal intentions in submitting a paper somehow matter and that reviewers are somehow obligated to read between the lines to detect larger meanings" (p. 207). In offering researcher intentions as a demarcation criterion, however, their typology implicitly endorsers this very idea.

The legacy of the foundationalist tradition

Like other foundationalists approaches, the Calder and Tybout framework cannot adequately account for the essential role of interpretation in human knowledge. In seeing qualititative and scientific knowledge as arising from a neutral perspective, both are treated as undeniably worthwhile ways of knowing. This point is not made so incontrovertibly with respect to interpretive knowledge. While overtly endorsed as valid way of knowing, Calder and Tybout treat so-called interpretive knowledge with a great deal of suspicion. An implicit theme underlying the Calder and Tybout typology is that interpretive knowledge is a potential danger which must be carefully controlled and segregated from scientific and everyday knowledge, lest the consumer research literature become vulnerable to what they term as an 'anything goes" anarchy, "weirdness," and 'paroxysms of self-expression."

This concern over interpretive knowledge is not unique to Calder and Tybout's typology. The "crisis" of social science has long been discussed by foundationalist thinkers. This philosophical dissonance arises from the implicit awareness that interpretation can never be fully purged from the social sciences. As such, the knowledge generated by the social sciences is seen as more dubitable and less well-founded than that provided by the natural sciences. The-normative quest has been to make the social sciences more "scientific" in terms of an idealized conception of the natural sciences. Hermeneutic philosophers see the crisis of the social sciences in entirely different terms: the crisis emerges from an unwillingness to accept that knowledge is not absolute and that interpretation grounds all knowledge claims, including those of the natural sciences (Gadamer 1975).


Hermeneutic philosophy sees the quest for a neutral perspective as significantly misrepresenting the nature of human understanding (Gadamer 1975; Habermas 1986; Heidegger 1926; Ricouer 1976). In Gadamer's terms, all social science knowledge reflects a fusion of horizons (i.e. perspectives) between the researcher and the experiencing individual. In these terms, the "neutral view' coveted by foundationalists is ontologically impossible because researchers cannot step outside of their historical context to view the world from an unsituated perspective. For hermeneutic thinkers, this situatedness is not a problem to be minimized or solved but, rather, is a necessary precondition for understanding. The forefather of modern hermeneutics, Martin Heidegger (1926), pictured human knowledge as emerging from a circular process in which a preunderstanding is applied to apprehend a worldly phenomenon, which in turn gives rise to a new understanding. On this view, understanding is ongoing process rather than a final product. While a full discussion of the hermeneutic circle is beyond the scope of the present paper, one of its major implications for the "crisis" of consumer research will be addressed.

Proponents of foundationalism typically endorse the so-called unified science hypothesis which states that the approach characteristic of the natural sciences is the logic of science (e.g. Apel 1968). In adopting the logic of a natural science approach, however, a normative assumption is made about what form explanations of human phenomena should take and this implied value may be an inappropriate one with respect to social science research.

Historically, the natural sciences--especially physics--have shown that the world of everyday experience is radically different from the world as explained scientifically (Romanyshyn 1989). In seeking scientific credibility, social scientists have developed a phobia of theories which resemble a common-sense understanding (Kohler 1947; Merleau-Ponty 1962). That is, a social science approach which is closely grounded in everyday life and accounts for human phenomena in experience-near terms seems highly suspect when the standards of scientific knowledge are based on the conceptual abstraction found in the natural sciences. With such an orientation, a social scientific account of human phenomena must be rendered in terms of second-order constructs, that ideally, bear little direct resemblance to the experiential world being explained. For example, a sizable proportion of research in psychology has been devoted to explaining why the world of everyday experience is, from a scientific standpoint, illusory or epi-phenomenal (e.g. Giorgi 1986).

This normative implication of the unified science hypothesis, however, creates a dilemma for social science research. The theoretical accounts of the social sciences have not been sufficiently divorced from everyday experience to be unequivocally considered "scientific." Calder (1977) notes this problem in the following way:

Some sociologists, mainly the ethnomethodologists, lodge a powerful criticism against conventional social science. They claim that all too often researchers confuse first-degree [everyday] constructs with second-degree ones. The explanatory constructs of everyday life are assumed implicitly to have some scientific status...The point is that much of what is considered to be scientific may belong more to everyday explanation. Phenomenological qualitative research therefore may have a stronger claim to the use of social science constructs than does scientific research (p.360).

While being truly "scientific" is commonly associated with more abstract conceptual explanations, the history of psychology shows that theoretical models which become too removed from everyday life prove sterile. The demise of Hullian behaviorism again serves as a case in point. Prior to the advent of the information processing paradigm, mainstream psychologists dismissed mentalistic accounts of human phenomena as unscientific. The Hullian paradigm accounted for psychological phenomena in a "scientific" way which was mathematically precise and used constructs removed from everyday beliefs. With the possible exception of devout behavioral psychologists, however, probably very individuals think of themselves as being mindless bundles of stimulus-response associations. Rather, the more common-sense belief is that a person is a mindful entity who actions are purposeful and goal directed. This appeal to "common-sense" understanding was a principal argument used by cognitive psychologists to assail Hullian behaviorism (e.g. Miller, Galanter and Pribram 1960). A widely shared conclusion is that the cause of psychology was greatly advanced by embracing this "everyday" view of people as mindful beings (Bower and Hilgard 1981).

In terms of a natural science model, the dialectic between the knowledge of "social science" and the whole of cultural knowledge is a sign of disciplinary immaturity. In terms of a hermeneutic world-view, social scientists do not need to somehow become detached observers of the social world. Rather, social science is seen as a human activity for understanding other human activities.

Rather than an idealized notion of objectivity, hermeneutic thinkers propose that social sciences should strive for an effective historical consciousness in which there is a reflective awareness of the background assumptions (i.e. historic tradition) from which an understanding emerges (Gadamer 1975). An effective historical consciousness is never attained "once and for all" but is-ongoing effort; the explication of background assumptions requires a critical perspective which itself will be based on assumptions. In these terms, knowledge is rendered as a human practice and not a complete ahistoric product. The risk of an idealized notion of objectivity is background assumptions can become reified and their link to a historic tradition artificially severed. With a hermeneutic approach, a researcher can never become fully comfortable with a preferred world-view nor see one set of paradigmatic assumptions as objectively cutting the world at its joints. By fully embracing the interpretive nature of understanding, a hermeneutic orientation cannot promise to consumer researchers absolute certainty or an aperspectival "truth." It can provide, however, a means for understanding what is perhaps the most basic and intriguing of all human phenomena: how one human being can come to understand the world of another.


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