Discussant Comments the Transition From Communism to Capitalism

Eric J. Arnould, California State University, Long Beach
[ to cite ]:
Eric J. Arnould (1993) ,"Discussant Comments the Transition From Communism to Capitalism", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 23-25.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993        Pages 23-25



Eric J. Arnould, California State University, Long Beach

Perhaps inspired by momentous political and economic change in Eastern Europe and East Asia, consumer resarchers have plunged into cross- and inter-cultural research with surprising vigor. From a substantive perspective this research has focused mainly on two issues: 1) the significance of the transition from production-oriented economies to consumer-oriented economies, and 2) ascertaining the emic meanings associated with marketing mix variables and purchase behaviors. The mix of papers presented in this session raise both of these issues in varied ways.

In much of cross-cultural consumer research so far survey or content analytical methods have been employed. Much of this research seems to be concerned with developing equal measures of phenomena in two or more cultures. However, in this session only the Feick, Higie and Price paper dealing with search and decision processes related to women's cosmetics employed such techniques. In general, survey scales developed for U.S. samples are adapted for use with non-U.S. samples through back translation methods. This technique inevitably introduces systematic ethnocentric bias into the research process since back translation primarily resolves problems of denotative parallelism, rather than connotative and domain parallelism. The Feick, Higie and Price paper finesses this problem admirably by developing survey items from themes that emerged from Hungarian focus groups and participant observation in Budapest.

Consumer researchers are beginning to apply naturalistic techniques in cross-cultural contexts in an effort to understand behavior in context. Each of these studies claims to apply such methods. I applaud these authors for their recognition that naturalistic techniques are well-suited to providing a framework for translation between domains of culturally constructed experience. The most elaborate form of such research, ethnography, indeed can help us to understand others as they understand themselves. In addition, ethnography clarifies the ways culture directs the experiences of the members of a culture or sub-culture, something members may not grasp, nor articulate themselves.

But were these papers ethnographic as is claimed? A key feature distinguishing ethnography from other research traditions is the primacy given to observing human action. Ethnographic observation has the advantage of granting the researcher access to the world of everyday life. Rather than merely asking people what (they think) they usually do, what (they think) they recently did, or what (they think) they will do, ethnographic observers watch them do it. Each of these papers involved researchers in observation of behaviors occuring in Poland and Hungary, respectively. Professor Witkowski observed the development of urban open air markets in Warsaw for example, and recorded interesting details of their organization. Professor Lohman observed behaviors in a sort of new wave beer garden.

Further instead of asking respondents to form and report generalizations about their patterns of behavior as survey researchers may do, the ethnographic observer records the particular details of specific events as they are enacted. Each of the authors here reports observations like this.

In addition, ethnographers employ unstructured questioning during participant observation. Ethnographic unstructured interviews are designed to elicit material concerning shared cultural categories and meanings as behavior unfolds. Such categories and meanings provide the basis for the emergent cultural plans through which participants recall, interpret and script consumption events and give them meaning. None of the presenters in these sessions gathered data in this way, because none of them were fluent in the national languages of Hungary or Poland.

Finally, through examination of behavioral regularities across time and across many specific, detailed cases, the ethnographic researcher constructs generalizations about underlying social or cultural processes. Again, because of the short duration of their studies, a few weeks in Professor Witkowski's case, a few months in Mr. Lohman's case, and a few weeks in the case of Professors Feick, Higie, and Price, the authors could not hope to do this. In the latter case, however, the authors benefitted from a lengthy association with Hungarian marketing scholars and the frequent visits of Professor Feick to Hungary.

Although these authors did make use of at least some of the elements of ethnographic research, it cannot be said that any of them engaged in deep immersion in cultural context for any length of time. Thus, while they employed naturalistic techniques of data gatheringC observation, interviews, and photographyC none of them engaged in ethnography. Nor are their results ethnographies, since a well-crafted ethnography should provide a framework for understanding both convergent as well as divergent data.

In listening to these papers, I was convinved that we are witnessing a dramatic transformation of markets in eastern Europe, a transformation that is proceeding at a fantastic clip. These authors are to be applauded for their attempt to register these changes as they unfold. Indeed Professor Witkowski, speaking in a historical register, argued that description and recording of these changes should be the first order of business for academic marketing scholars since the changes underway are so far reaching and unprecedented.

Mr. Lohman and Professors Price, Higie, and Feick, however, had more ambitious aims. All sought to provide a sense of the meaning of emergent patterns in consumer beahvior. Both papers provided insight into these emergent patterns. Professors Price, Higie, and Feick providing convincing discussions of emergent heuristics consumers use in choosing cosmetics, as well as of the frustrations experienced in coping with new forms of consumer risk. Professor Lohman is also right to argue that the nature of consumer decision making has altered dramatically in Poland, requiring both more and different kinds of cognitive search and information processing than under the command economy.

As the presenters spoke, however, I couldn't help but be reminded of two critiques often made of ethnographic studies conducted by anthropologists. The first of these is the problem of drawing longitudinal inferences from cross-sectional data. A two-week or two-month study conducted in a particular neighborhood, city, or town, no matter how thorough, simply does not constitute a reliable basis for drawing conclusions about historical change. It may, however, provide a basis for discussing the very interesting questions of local perceptions of social, economic and cultural dynamics. This after all is likely to be of more interest to marketing practioners.

A second and related problem, most evident in Mr. Lohman's paper is a tendency to impose a teleological sequence on events unfolding in real time. There can be no doubt that the command economies of Poland and Hungary are becoming market oriented economies. It may also be that consumers in these countries look to the West for models and values associated with a consumer economy. Nonetheless, this does not provide evidence that such consumers are, in fact, becoming more like "us" as Mr. Lohman appears to be arguing. Assuming "us" refers to Euro-American rather than African-, Asian-, or Latin-American consumers this would mean eastern European consumers are now beginning to share and shuttle between the Calvinist and Romantic consumption norms and values that guide Euro-American consumer behavior (Campbell 1988).

Why is the evidence untenable? First, because a small sample of consumers is unlikely to be able to report factually on emergent regularities in their behavior, particularly in an unprecedented situation, no matter how deeply felt they may be. Second, because cultures rarely change with the apparent drama evident in eastern Europe; events in the former Yugoslavia suggest continuity rather than change. And finally, there is ample evidence that the development of a market economy is not predictive of emergent cultural homogeneity (Smith 1976). For example, well-developed market economies have existed in West Africa for hundreds of years, but Islamic transnationalism rather than European secularism seems to be the emergent cultural paradigm there (Arnould 1989). And what serious scholar would argue that the Japanese are becoming Americanized in spite of their mastery of capitalism, and tremendous consumption of things occidental.

I want to close with some general comments drawn from several generations of cross-cultural work by anthropologists. These may provide some general cautions for the laudable new cross-cultural research effort by marketing scholars. Comprising cross-culturally comparable outlines of cultural materials is the ongoing project of the Human Relations Areas Files (HRAF, Murdock 1971). The journal Ethnology is devoted entirely to cross-cultural research. Review of these works indicates that anthropologists have developed broad general coding schemes for analyzing small group interaction (Bates and Cohen 1979); children's behavior (B. Whiting, J. Whiting and Longabaugh 1975; J. Whiting, Child and Lambert 1966); interpersonal exchange behavior (Longabaugh 1963); non-verbal behavior (Birdwhistle 1952); subsistence activities (e.g., Dufour 1983); color terminology (Berlin and Kay 1969), and kin terminologies (Fox 1967). Several of these coding schemes, notably the latter two, are the fruit of several generations of research. Conspicuous in all these efforts is the limited concern with emic meanings per se, despite cultural anthropology's general preoccupation with emic meaning. Most of the solid comparative, or ethnological, research is focused on relationships between observable elements of behavior and/or very limited domains of denotative meaning. The reasons for this are first, that getting good, comparable cross-cultural data about even simple, fundamental aspects of human behavior has proved to be extraordinarily "tough work" (Bernard 1988, p.275).

Second, developing reliable, cross-culturally valid interpretations of connotative meanings and values has proved elusive despite half a century of effort (Frazer 1950/1922; Levi-Strauss 1969). Efforts of this kind usually result in the imposition, sometimes overt, but usually subtle, of ethnocentric metaphors on alien patterns of culture. An exemplary case is Benedict's (1934) classic Patterns of Culture in which Native American cultural patterns were assimilated to Dionesian and Epicurian patterns derived from classical Greek models. As in the well-known experiments with perceptual closure, what the observor does not know he or she fills in, and in so doing cannot help but be guided by his or her own cultural expectations. Consequently, few contemporary anthropologists actively pursue the comparative line of inquiry (cf. Berline, Breedlove, and Raven 1973).

What cross-cultural consumer research will need is comparable rather than equivalent measures for the cultures being researched. This will often mean coming up with culturally appropriate measures that may differ in form and substance. To attain this goal, a variety of time-consuming exercises in method might be required. For example, different levels of arithmetic discrimination in two cultures might require different scales (cf. Wallendorf and Arnould 1988), or consumers tendencies to score scales in biased ways may require ipsatizing responses. Application of multiple methods rather than the same method in both cultures might be appropriate, especially the use of participant observation to develop culturally appropriate categories of purchase behaviors or household purchase roles, followed by surveys to test for variations in their distribuion. Continuous observation of behavior combined with intensive debriefing by informants of observer interpretations might be employed (Murtagh 1985) to control for the tendency to impose North American metaphors on non-North American historical experience.


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