&Quot;Tea and the Viennese&Quot;: a Pioneering Episode in the Analysis of Consumer Behavior

Ronald A. Fullerton, Providence College
ABSTRACT - Before Consumer Behavior as a self-aware discipline developed during the 1950s and 1960s, there were sustained episodes of serious study of the phenomenon in both U.S. and Europe. This paper examines one such episode, the consumer research done by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at the University of Vienna during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Particular attention is paid to their study, "Tea and the Viennese". The research combined quantitative and qualitative analyses and evinced an unusually high skill in interpreting consumer experience.
[ to cite ]:
Ronald A. Fullerton (1994) ,"&Quot;Tea and the Viennese&Quot;: a Pioneering Episode in the Analysis of Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 418-421.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 418-421


Ronald A. Fullerton, Providence College


Before Consumer Behavior as a self-aware discipline developed during the 1950s and 1960s, there were sustained episodes of serious study of the phenomenon in both U.S. and Europe. This paper examines one such episode, the consumer research done by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at the University of Vienna during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Particular attention is paid to their study, "Tea and the Viennese". The research combined quantitative and qualitative analyses and evinced an unusually high skill in interpreting consumer experience.


Interest in the history of consumer behavior has risen strikingly during the past decade. The interest embraces both the development of the discipline of Consumer Behavior (e.g., Mittelstaedt 1990), and studies of past behavior by consumers (e.g., McCracken 1988, Part I; Sheth & Gross 1988). As a discipline with self-awareness and such institutions as regular conferences and journals, Consumer Behavior developed only after 1950 (Mittelstaedt 1990).

There was, however, organized study of consumer behavior on both sides of the Atlantic before World War II (1939-1945). The groups doing it had neither contact with one another nor consciousness of building a discipline; their senses of identity lay elsewhere. In the United States consumer behavior was studied by market researchers, some sociologists (e.g., Lynd 1933), and by university home economists (e.g., Kyrk 1923). In Germany the Society for Consumption Research (Gesellschaft fuer Konsumforschung) in Nuernberg developed a dense network of trained consumer observers across the country's cities and towns (Vershofen 1937, 1940).

The focus of this paper is on still another group in Central Europe, the social scientists who clustered about Paul F. Lazarsfeld's Office of Economic-Psychological Research (Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle) at the University of Vienna from about 1927 to 1934. Drawn partly by Lazarsfeld's (1901-1976) personal magnetism, and partly by the lack of employment for university graduates in those economically depressed years, some of the most talented social researchers of this century worked on the Office's research projects involving consumers. They included several who, like Lazarsfeld, emigrated to the U.S. during the mid-1930s: Hans Zeisel (1905-1992), who excelled at sociology, statistics, market research, and legal scholarship; Herta Herzog, whose research prowess made her one of the most respected figures in the marketing and the advertising communities during the 1950s; and Ernest Dichter (d. 1991), whose flamboyant advocacy of "motivation research" made him the most famous marketing figure since Phineas T. Barnum. Another alumnus, Marie Jahoda, became one of Britain's leading sociologists.

The Work of the Office

Jahoda, Zeisel, and Lazarsfeld wrote The Unemployed of Marienthal, a classic of Sociology which analyzed the impact of long-term unemployment. To finance such research-the conservative University administration of that time was not prepared to lavish support upon a group so heavily composed of Jews and Socialists-Lazarsfeld had hit upon the idea of conducting market research for Austrian firms. Market research was still rare in Austria at the time.

Market Research and the Boundaries of Social Research

The Office researchers actually valued market research projects for their own sake as well as for the modest fees that they brought in. Both Lazarsfeld and Zeisel believed (and continued to believe throughout their lives) that market research provided social researchers fine opportunities to explore the richness of human behavior (Abrams 1977; Bartos 1986; Lazarsfeld 1982, p. 20; Zeisel 1967). Lazarsfeld was always interested in why people made the choices which they did, whether in everyday products, radio programs, or voting (Coleman 1982, p. 5). In the early 1930s, he had a special interest in determining "to what amount emotional factors influence use of commodities in addition to [the] purely economic and technical factors which [have] only [been] taken into consideration [by market researchers] until now" (Lazarsfeld 1934a, emphasis in original).

To Office researchers fired by Lazarsfeld's enthusiasm, the thirty odd market research studies which they conducted on consumers and noodles, vinegar, laundry service, radio programming, movies, milk, shoes, edible fats and other everyday products, were opportunities to expand the bounds of social research with searching examinations of consumer behavior. For each project researchers strove to: "question hundreds of people from all social circles about everything which they have ever experienced or done with a given product" (Herzog 1933, translated by the author [all translations from the German are by the author]),..."seeking to uncover all of the connections among a certain group of consumers and a certain product" (Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle 1933). A consumer's purchase of even a mundane product, Lazarsfeld later told American researchers, "has not one reason but a great many" (In Wheeler 1937, p. 82)-whether or not the consumer was consciously aware of these. Reasons typically included promotional and word-of-mouth influences, price and product attributes, and the consumer's own attitudinal tendencies (Wheeler 1937, p. 83). All of these could be uncovered through large-scale intensive interviewing whose results were carefully analyzed from cross-disciplinary perspectives.

A Dynamic Research Atmosphere

For each project the Office sent out several interviewers (most had university degrees) with long questionnaires, to query respondents "selected in such a way as to represent a fair sample of the population involved in the purchase of the particular commodity being investigated" (Lazarsfeld 1934c, p. 101). The interview procedure was described by Lazarsfeld as follows:

[The interviewer] talks quite freely with the interviewee concerning the latter's experiences in regard to this particular commodity. The interviewer notes everything the interviewee has to say, but at the same time keeps in mind a number of definite questions which he knows to be essential... He asks one of these questions whenever a good opportunity presents itself in the course of the conversation until the whole set is exhausted. In this way the free expression of the interviewee is combined with the set directions established by the basic plan of the investigation. (Lazarsfeld 1934c, pp. 101-102).

As a project progressed there were frequent meetings at which Lazarsfeld exhorted, cajoled, and criticized, stimulating further analysis and effort in both research methods and interpretation of results (Lazarsfeld 1933; Wagner 1989). "The proverbial Austrian sloppiness, of which we all had our share, was... transformed into a flexible, adoptive, and non-hierarchical organization...[in which] improvisation was a permanent feature in all our work" (Jahoda 1983, pp. 347-348; corroborated by Wagner 1989)).

The Office's approach to consumer research, as Zeisel later noted, assured that "All its studies were brilliant, late, and cost more than we could bill our client... The only thing we ever paid for on time was the coffee our researchers needed when they worked on their reports in a lonely corner of a coffeehouse" (Zeisel 1979, p. 13; corroborated by Neurath 1989). The remainder of this paper will elucidate one of these studies, which explored tea drinking among the citizens of Vienna.


"Tea and the Viennese" was one of the most charming reports produced by Lazarsfeld's Office. He discussed it briefly in several of his early American publications (e.g., Lazarsfeld 1934b, p. 66; 1935, p. 33; Wheeler 1937, p. 275). When Lazarsfeld brought a copy with him to the U.S. in 1934, Rensis Likert liked it so much that he prepared a translation for his students at New York University (Lazarsfeld 1982, p. 34); this has since been lost. The discussion here is based on the 58 page typed German version in the Lazarsfeld Archive at the University of Vienna ("Der Tee und die Wiener" ca. 1932. Hereafter "Der Tee").

Genesis of the Study

The tea study was commissioned by the Viennese firm of Julius Meinl, then a coffee and tea importer, now a well-known grocery chain in the city. Ever alert for new projects, Lazarsfeld had presumably convinced Meinl managers that the Office would be able to discover why some Viennese did drink tea, and how others could be induced to join them.

Tea drinkers were far outnumbered by coffee drinkers in Vienna, following a pattern found across Western Europe generally (Britain's preference for tea was an historical anomaly which has never been explained well). Both beverages had been widely introduced in Europe three centuries before (Becher 1990, pp. 77-87; Schivelbush 1980, Chapter 2). Upper class Viennese drank mostly genuine ("bean") coffee, middle and working class people chicory and grain-based ersatz coffee much of the time (Becher 1990). Coffeehouses were as much a part of Viennese culture on all social levels as were afternoon tea rituals in Britain (See Repplier 1932).

Research Begins

Still, there were tea drinkers in Vienna. A research team co-directed by Lazarsfeld and one Hans Herma, and including among its principle investigators two university graduates named Renee Bittner and Gertrud Falk, began to explore the tea consumption experience from multiple perspectives. The research was done during winter months. Vienna's citizens loved to talk with market researchers at that time (Herzog 1933), and Lazarsfeld's investigators gave many the opportunity to do so. 353 tea drinkers were intensively interviewed about their personal histories as tea consumers. 18% were working class, 47% lower middle class (white and pink collar employees, government bureaucrats, etc.), and 35% higher on the socio-economic scale: "lawyers, teachers, doctors, hoteliers, fur dealers, artists, higher bureaucrats, privy councilors, deputies (Prokuristen), bank directors, craftspeople, publishing executives, etc." ("Der Tee", Anhang I).

An additional 288 respondents were queried about their receptivity to different words and phrases which could describe tea, a technique intended to elicit promotable, desirable characteristics of a product ("Der Tee", pp. 13, 32ff).

Finally, in order to derive overall consumption statistics, 1749 Viennese were questioned about "which [warm] beverages they drank and how often" (Ibid., p. 49). Nearly four fifths of those questioned lived in less affluent areas of the city; the rationale for this proportion is not explained in the report.


As expected, only a minority of Viennese described themselves as regular tea drinkers. Usage among the working class was especially low. Meinl was advised that it could best promote sales of its tea by promoting primary demand ("Der Tee" p. 42). Two thirds of the middle and upper-middle class people did report drinking tea occasionally. Even among those who used it, tea was drunk less regularly than coffee. In contrast to coffee, however, whose consumption peaked early in the day, tea drinking increased over the course of the day.

Approximately 30% of the Viennese tea drinkers had learned to drink it as children in households where it was the customary beverage. For example: "When the respondent was still a girl her family found it agreeably cozy (gemutlich) during the winter to sit together over cups of tea" ("Der Tee" p. 15). [Office reports were rich in such citations, some of them like this summarizing a respondent's comments, others direct quotations from respondents. Both kinds will be seen in this paper. The italicized words, phrases, and sentences follow the interviewers' emphases.] A working class female told an interviewer: "We got tea even when we were still children, especially tea with milk, and especially when we were sick. I still today drink milk tea with great pleasure, but the tea must be strong" (Ibid., p. 16).

The great majority of Viennese were socialized into coffee and not tea drinkers, however. "Coffee for breakfast is a family tradition. Vienna is indeed the city of coffee," asserted an upper middle class respondent (Ibid., p. 11). The city's tea drinkers had developed the habit after childhood. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues found that the propensity to try tea increased with age, just as that to drink milk declined. "In most cases-when it is tried at all-tea drinking sets in relatively late and increases...in importance only in stages" (Ibid., p. 12).

Tea Drinking and Rational Decision-Making

Among the Viennese, the choice to try tea was usually made after childhood, during adolescence and adulthood. "Generally speaking this choice is grounded in rational decision-making" (Ibid., p. 12). The choice to drink tea was a conscious one. "One is not just aroused [by external stimuli] to drink tea, he also makes his own decision to do so" (Ibid., p. 12, emphasis in original). One reflection of such conscious decision-making was that tea drinkers had more words to describe the beverage, and spoke more about its physical characteristics (taste, stimulative properties, ease of preparation, etc.) than did drinkers of milk or coffee.

Much of "Tea and the Viennese" explores the reasons why adolescents and adults made the choice to adopt tea as a regular or fairly regular drink. Lazarsfeld identified two major categories of reasons. One involved personal expansion-decisions which were bound up in conscious choices to expand one's efficacy or horizons. The other, which applied to even more people, involved external occasions which stimulated the choice process.

Tea and Personal Expansion

For nearly a quarter of the tea drinkers, the choice was closely linked with important life changes such as asserting independence from parents, getting one's first flat, migrating to the big city, getting one's first adult job, and getting married. Adopting tea was a way of expressing the expanded possibilities inherent in life's turning points and rites of passage.

To apprentices, secondary school pupils, and university students, drinking tea frequently represented emancipation from parental oppression. Here are three examples:

-Her mother did not want to allow her to drink tea...[The mother] was even willing to spare her the work and cook the coffee for her. But she wanted to drink tea because it tasted good to her, because it won't make her fat, because it's cheaper than coffee, and then too because she wanted to assert her will. Her mother should drink coffee herself but not try to convince her that [tea] is unhealthy just because she doesn't like its taste. She has drunk tea for many years and will remain with it (Ibid., p. 18).

-Has drunk tea since she was 14. That is when she came to prevail, earlier her parents didn't allow it. (Ibid., p. 18).

-Since this respondent has studied in Vienna she drinks lots of tea. At home it was supposed to be bad for the health and never allowed. Even now her mother has no idea that she has tea for breakfast. (Ibid., p. 18).

Among slightly older people (who presumably got along better with their parents) adoption of tea "was often explicitly associated with new living conditions" (Ibid., p. 19). Some examples follow:

-Earlier, in childhood, only cocoa or milk. Tea only when sick. When she went to work in the office she got accustomed to it as a breakfast beverage. On a trip with her boss got used to English breakfasts. Since then... (Ibid., p. 19).

-Since childhood only coffee for breakfast. When he lived alone as a university student he got used to drinking tea every night and also on other occasions. (Ibid., p. 19)

-I came from the country, didn't know about tea there. When I came to Vienna as a servant I quickly got used to drinking tea and since then have enjoyed drinking it. When I went home to visit, it was in autumn and very cold, I cooked a big pot of tea; it was looked at with astonishment and they said, "Such a thing we don't drink the entire year." (Ibid., p. 19)

-Previously she equated tea drinking with taking medicine. Since her husband, who loves tea, always laughed at the face she made [when] she prepared him his tea, she has gotten used to drinking tea. (Ibid., p. 20).

-As a child and young woman never preferred tea, drank it only when forced to do so at social events or when a guest. First liked to drink tea when she owned her own home. One can chat pleasantly over tea, it dispels boredom. (Ibid., p. 20).

External Stimuli

Slightly over a third of the tea drinkers had chosen to adopt the beverage because of influences from external stimuli. Such stimuli included travel to and living in areas where tea drinking was the norm, e.g., China, India, and Russia. For example:

-Respondent has made many journeys and has learned to esteem tea, especially in places where there was no drinking water. In China and India in particular he has gotten as accustomed as a native to tea. (Ibid., p. 21).

For others, the external influences flowed from social mores and norms, especially those of parts of Vienna's upper middle class refined society. Some had come to view tea as the "modern" drink, a perfect accompaniment to the fashionable cold suppers. A "tea culture" analogous to that of the fussiest Oxbridge undergraduates (Repplier 1932) had developed. "Strikingly often the correct preparation [of the tea], the correct trimmings [to the tea], and the correct side dishes [to serve with the tea] play important roles" (Ibid., pp. 21-22). One upper-middle class respondent explained to an interviewer:

-I am often invited to the M.'s. The tea is exquisite there because the lady of the house takes great pains with its preparation. One cannot leave the preparation of tea to common people. They simply cannot understand anything about it. There come into play certain national constants which simply cannot be learned. For me tea adds to the supply reservoir of my best internal charm impulses. Many like tea only out of an imitative quest, but to me tea signifies joy, festivity. A thousand charming ideas well up in a social circle after enjoying this noble beverage. After the enjoyment of a fine tea there springs forth a social scintillation which flows over all participants. (Ibid., p. 22).

Finally, some Viennese adopted tea when sick, especially because of its milder impact on their stomachs, then stayed with it whether their stomachs remained sensitive or not:

-Until four years ago this respondent drank coffee at breakfast and during breaks. After his stomach sickness he took tea because coffee caused pains. His wife never drinks tea, she is a real coffee sister. (Ibid., p. 24).

-The respondent has drunk tea for three years, before that coffee. Previously drank tea only now and then as she lay in bed, felt chilled, or had something wrong with her stomach. Tried tea once and it tasted very good. It is above all lighter than coffee. She also saw that tea in the coffeehouse and also at home is cheaper.

The last respondent was unusual in that she was motivated in part by tea's lower cost. One of the striking findings of Lazarsfeld and his colleagues was that the lower price of tea was seldom mentioned as an attraction-despite the fact that the report was researched during the depths of the Great Depression.


There is a sense of wonder and excitement about the tea and other Office studies which reflect the best side of the youth of a discipline. These consumers seem so alive, pouring out their souls to researchers who understood and appreciated their revelations. The diversity of consumers' experiences with tea, and the complex interplay of emotion and reason which shaped their choices, testify to the power and richness of the consumer research which revealed them sixty years ago. Neither respondents nor investigators were yet jaded; methodologies had not yet hardened into opposed dogmas, allowing the Office researchers to select freely from a wide variety of methods of analysis. The tea study shows the skill of Lazarsfeld and his colleagues in formulating questions and in extracting rich meaning from responses. As Converse (1987, p. 137) argues, Lazarsfeld was almost without peer as an interpreter of social research.

Lazarsfeld, who came to exercise great influence upon social researchers in the United States after emigrating there in 1934, was an important pioneer of psychological "depth" analyses of qualitative research-but also of statistical analysis (his doctorate was in applied mathematics, his four-by-four tables were famous, he invented latent structure analysis). His Viennese studies combined both. Eventually, however, the two approaches diverged in consumer research, as in social research generally. Methodologies became more elaborate, increasing rigor but decreasing inspiration and creativity in interpretation of research. The stereotype of sinister "motivation research" which Vance Packard (1957) concocted from Dichter's boasts, discredited qualitative research for a quarter century. Only during the past decade have we again developed that awareness of the breadth of consumer experience which allows us to appreciate fully Lazarsfeld's Austrian work.


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