Perspectives on the &Quot;New Sociology&Quot; of Consumer Research: Addressing the Structure/Agency Dilemma

Douglas E. Allen, Pennsylvania State University
Paul F. Anderson, Pennsylvania State University
[ to cite ]:
Douglas E. Allen and Paul F. Anderson (1995) ,"Perspectives on the &Quot;New Sociology&Quot; of Consumer Research: Addressing the Structure/Agency Dilemma", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 176.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Page 176


Douglas E. Allen, Pennsylvania State University

Paul F. Anderson, Pennsylvania State University

In recent years, consumer researchers have begun to return to the field of sociology, a discipline that proved to be particularly important during the early years of consumer behavior's growth. For more than two decades the dominant paradigms of cognitive and social psychology made important substantive and methodological contributions to our field while sociology's contribution remained relatively modest. In the interim, sociological theory was reinvigorated by both new approaches and the elaboration of extant paradigms by younger scholars.

This special session explored some of the implications that this "new sociology" has for the study of consumption. In particular, it focused on the structure/agency debate which has plagued the social sciences, and it introduced several contemporary theoretical frameworks designed to transcend this dualism. The general thesis is that sociology does not, as traditionally thought, focus solely on the role that external collectivities (structures) play in determining behavior. Rather, to fully explain behavior, it must take into account the individual-level perspectives (agency) that actors invest in their day-to-day interactions. The three presentations revolved around this central topic.

The first presentation by Craig J. Thompson and Diana L. Haytko addressed the traditional structure/agency dichotomy in their empirical study of fashion consciousness by employing the philosophy and methodology of hermeneutics. Thompson and Haytko argued that one's sense of fashion emerges out of the dialectic between shared cultural meanings (structural considerations) and the personal understandings (agency considerations) that individuals derive from the "fashion system". Through use of an iterative part-to-whole method of interpreting their data, the authors were able to place the individual level data that they derived from phenomenological interviews into the broader context of socio-cultural and reference group influences that help to shape personal perceptions.

In the second presentation, Aaron C. Ahuvia and Michael Bernard-Donals argued that extant methodologies used to assess the social impact of consumer exposure to various marketing-related texts (e.g., advertisements, films, television shows, etc.) tend to neglect the way in which a text is received by its audience. As a result it was argued that it is necessary to go beyond mere analysis of the text to understand the reader-level understandings derived from texts. The talk concluded with directions for future research in this area.

The third presentation by Douglas E. Allen and Paul F. Anderson was based on nine months of ethnographic research at a two-year business school. Based on this study, Allen and Anderson introduced a model of consumer choice designed to transcend the structure/agency dichotomy. This model viewed choice as a relationship between socio-historical factors practically inscribed in the consumer and socio-historical factors objectified in the form of the product. Implications that such a view of choice has for understanding decisions based on diffuse affective responses were discussed. Additionally, this conceptualization of choice was used to question what it means to "satisfy customer needs" in the context of the marketing of non-traditional goods or services (e.g., education, health care, etc.).