Cross-Cultural Consumer Research: a Twenty-Year Review

Jane Sojka, Washington State University
Patriya S. Tansuhaj, Washington State University
[ to cite ]:
Jane Sojka and Patriya S. Tansuhaj (1995) ,"Cross-Cultural Consumer Research: a Twenty-Year Review", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 461-474.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 461-474

CROSS-CULTURAL CONSUMER RESEARCH: A TWENTY-YEAR REVIEW

Jane Sojka, Washington State University

Patriya S. Tansuhaj, Washington State University

[The authors gratefully acknowledge valuable comments from Jim Gentry and three anonymous reviewers, and the editorial and graphic assistance from Kris Kilgore.]

ABSTRACT -

We examined cross-cultural consumer behavior publications which have appeared in four major marketing journals and proceedings, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, and Advances in Consumer Research over a twenty-year period ranging from 1970-1990. The review and analysis are organized by chronological order, by geographic order, and by cultural variablesClanguage, artifacts, and values. Publication trends, cross-cultural similarities across seemingly diverse cultures, are discussed. Suggestions for future research are then provided.

INTRODUCTION

The diversity and overwhelming scope of cross-cultural consumer behavior research necessitates an integrative review of pertinent research appearing in marketing journals if the field is to progress in a systematic fashion. There have been numerous literature reviews of consumer behavior topics which have relevance to cross-cultural studies (cf., Folkes 1988; Helegson, Kluge, Mager and Taylor 1984; McAlister and Pessemier 1982; Sheppard, Hartwick and Warshaw 1988; Sirgy 1982). These reviews, however, focus on a particular consumer topic as opposed to the international focus presented in this paper. The purpose of this literature review is to review systematically cross-cultural consumer research over a twenty-year period. An examination of twenty years' worth of diverse research in this discipline allows for identification of shifts and changes in a longitudinal manner.

The comprehensive literature review of cross-cultural consumer behavior research undertaken in this paper could advance the consumer behavior discipline in several ways. First, it identifies areas needing additional research. Second, an agreed upon set of terminology and definitions are desirable to advance the field of cross-cultural consumer behavior research. Finally, an added benefit of exploring consumer behavior in other cultures is that it frequently offers additional insight into future subcultural consumer behavior both in the United States and other countries (van Raaij 1978).

REVIEW METHOD

Article Selection

The all-encompassing nature of culture made the selection of research to be studied a crucial point in conducting a systematic literature review. First, consumer behavior research that dealt with a country other than the U.S. was cited as cross-cultural. The second criterion was the inclusion of the term "culture" in the article title. Articles dealing with a subculture, ethnic group, or group of people with minority status were also included in the literature review. The final criterion used for selecting articles appropriate for this literature review is the requirement that the research deal with consumers and consumer behavior.

With the focus of cultural implications on marketing and consumer behavior, the research scope was limited to major marketing publications: Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Advances in Consumer Research, and The Journal of Marketing. To be certain that these are representative sources for the majority of cross-cultural consumer research, a manual and computerized search of the Social Science Citation Index from 1970-1990 was undertaken. While this search yielded a total of 25 additional cross-cultural articles, virtually all of the citations were from different journals; hence it is reasonable to assume that the four journals surveyed adequately represent the concentration of cross-cultural consumer research. A twenty-year time frame, 1970 to 1990, was determined to be appropriate for a longitudinal analysis. In using the aforementioned selection criteria, a total of 118 articles are included in this review.

Framework for Review

After examining the published research as our data, it became apparent that cross-cultural consumer behavior researchers operationalized "culture" in three primary classifications. We categorized the various operationalizations and grouped them as occurring (1) through language, (2) through material goods or artifacts, and (3) through beliefs or value systems.

RESULTS

Publication Trends

Cross-cultural research has been steadily increasing since 1970, both in terms of the number of studies published (see Figure 1) and with respect to the countries explored (see Figures 3 - 5). A frequency count of published research reveals that France was the most studied country followed by England and Japan. The publication trend corresponds with the increased number of anthropological citations as noted by Leong (1989) in his examinations of the Journal of Consumer Research from 1974-1988. Both findings reiterate the rising interest and importance of cross-cultural consumer behavior research.

U.S. Subcultural Research Trends

Over time, not only has the number of subcultural studies increased, but the cultures being investigated have broadened in scope. Figure 2 illustrates the diversity of American subcultures examined by consumer behavior researchers. Each subculture is presented as a box. In 1970, for example, the African American subculture was studied twice (as indicated by the letter "A"). Figure 2 illustrates the diverse subcultures investigated as well as the trend away from studying the African-American subculture to studies of the Hispanic subculture in the mid-1980s.

Reflecting the social influences of the 1960s, most subcultural studies published between 1970-1975 dealt with the African-American subcultureCfrequently referred to as "negroes" (Bush, Gwinner, and Solomon 1974; Cohen 1970; Gensch, and Staelin 1972; Gould, Sigband, and Zoerner 1970; Pruden and Longman 1972; Sexton 1971a, 1971b, 1972). The research produced was largely descriptive. Once researchers began holding income constant, racial differences seemed to disappear as well as publication opportunities. Only one study prior to 1975 (Pruden and Longman 1972) examined more than one subculture simultaneously. In an initial attempt to examine race, alienation and consumerism, Pruden and Longman (1972) contrasted high-income Anglo-Americans with low-income Mexican-Americans and African-American consumers. Researchers investigating topics such as food purchasing behavior, black/white reaction to integrated advertisements, and African-American shopping behavior, for example, noted similarities and differences between the two ethnic groups, but neglected to take the next step in explaining the behavior they cited. Indeed, the term "culture" was scarcely seen in the literature until 1974 when the consumer behavior field came into its own journal and conference.

FIGURE 1

PUBLICATION TRENDS (NUMBER OF ARTICLES PER YEAR)

Expanding to Other U.S. Subcultures

From 1975 to 1985, cross-cultural research continued to expand both in terms of the number of articles published and the diversity of subcultures investigated. Following on the heels of the 1975-85 expansion, during the 1986-1990 period, only 7 of the 37 articles published examined subcultures (as opposed to cultures outside the United States). Yet, even the subcultures studied reflect the discipline's increasing range. As reflected in demographic and sociological changes within the U.S., the Hispanic subculture was frequently topic for research as shown in Figure 2. Subcultural research has become increasingly sophisticated with comparison of more diverse groups. Hirschman (1985), for example, examined similarities of the consumption patterns of U.S. Blacks, Italians, WASPs, and Jews with those of non-industrialized cultures. If the U.S. continues the trend toward "ethnic upsurges" as noted by Schlesinger (1991) in his book, The Disuniting of America, continued research with additional subcultures represented is warranted. After 1986, only one article examined the African-American subculture and that was in conjunction with the Hispanic and Polish subcultures (Reilly and Wallendorf 1987).

Cross-cultural Consumer Research Trends: Beyond U.S. Subcultures

In reviewing the countries and cultures studied by consumer researchers during the last two decades, a diverse and substantial number of cultures have been investigated. Classifying research by country, as straightforward as it sounds, proved challenging in some cases such as in studies of ethnicity where ethnic values (such as Chineseness) were examined not in China, but in Singapore (McCullough 1986; Tan and McCullough 1985). In such cases, the articles were classified by where the sample was taken. Also, since some researchers examined more than one country or culture at a time, a single article may be cross-listed under several countries.

The level of investigation of cross-cultural research has become more sophisticated over the years with researchers comparing and contrasting two or more cultures simultaneously. Green et al. (1983), for example, examined family purchases in the U.S., France, Holland, Gabon, and Venezuela, while Kim, Laroche and Joy (1990) examined the French and English subcultures in Canada. Prior to 1975, cross-cultural research focused on comparing a single culture with the U.S. Clearly the 1975-85 decade saw cross-cultural researchers expanding the scope of their research to include more diverse cultures and subcultures in a simultaneous examination.

Cultures Studied. The majority of cultures or countries investigated are located in the Pacific Rim or Europe. Figures 3-5 summarize published research by country in diverse geographic regions of the world. Under each country heading, the name of the first author and date of publication are noted in a "box." Consistent with the previous Figure, an "*" signifies that more than one country/culture was studied. For example, the boxes containing "Cote 1989" have an asterisk and are therefore listed under countries studied in that article: Jordan and Thailand (see Figures 3 and 5). Finally, while most of the cross-cultural research dealt with industrialized cultures, articles that explicitly examined primitive (meaning nonindustrialized cultures indigenous to the geographical region) cultures are marked with "P" and will be discussed in a separate section.

FIGURE 2

NUMBER OF U.S. SUBCULTURES STUDIED

In reviewing the literature, we attempted to distinguish studies of cross-national nature from those examining more specific cultural elements in the consumer behavior context. Consumer behavior researchers have done an admirable job in the initial step of studying a large and diverse number of countries; nonetheless, a cross-national study (noted as a letter "N" in Figures 3-5) does not always translate into a cross-cultural analysis (indicated by the letter "C" in the Figures). For instance, Douglas' (1976, 1979) descriptive study of family decision-making or women's life-styles in different countries without an attempt to explain results on the basis of cultural differences is an example of a cross-national analysis examining the differences between two countries. Since the research compared France with the U.S., these articles are listed in Figure 3 under France with an "N" signifying a cross-national study. Culture, on the other hand, is not bound by national or state borders. A cross-cultural study, therefore, examines data and explains results on the basis of cultural meaning, not national boundaries.

Differences between European and Asian Studies. The majority of research on the Asian countries was culturally oriented, specific cultural elements were examined more closely. Researchers seem fascinated with understanding differences between Eastern and Western values, language, and artifacts as exemplified by the number of cross-cultural studies (noted with a "C" in Figure 5). In contrast, studies of Europe are more likely to be cross-national (i.e., comparing consumer behavior in the U.S. with that of a Western European country, as noted with an "N" in Figure 3). The difference in research focus may imply that American researchers assume more cultural similarities with Western culture counterparts than Oriental countries. Furthermore, cultures of Eastern Europe were not examined during the twenty-year period of this review.

Investigating Cultural Elements

Language and Culture. To each culture, language offers an interpretative code or schema for organizing and presenting the world. Hence, language serves various functions in a cultural context. Socio-linguists postulate that language is important in the formation of thought patterns and behavioral responses (Douglas 1979). As Mick (1986) notes, meaning is not an individual enterprise, but rather "a social procedure for defining objects to achieve a practical effect" (p. 204). Thus, language represents one aspect of an emic (defined as the articulation of native understanding as they see them) view of the external cultural environment.

When dealing with a subculture speaking a language distinct from the dominant culture (e.g., Hispanics in the U.S.) or as in bilingual countries (e.g., Canada) language was often used as a segmentation variable or measure of ethnicity.

Not surprisingly, it appears, that language is a poor indicator of ethnicity. Conflicting reports on hispanic brand loyalty and English/French Canadian purchase patterns represent a need to more clearly isolate subpopulations on a variable other than language (O'Guinn and Faber 1985; Saegert Hoover and Hilger 1985; Schaninger, Bourgeois, and Buss 1985; Valencia 1985). Indeed, three separate studies comparing three distinct cultures/subculturesCHispanics in the U.S. (Deshpande, Hoyer, and Donthu 1986), French and English speaking Canadians (Kim, Larouche, and Joy 1990), and Mexicans, Australians, and Americans (Gilly 1988)Call concluded that language alone could not accurately predict or explain differences found between subcultures and cultures.

FIGURE 3

CROSS-CULTURAL STUDIES OF EUROPE AND MIDDLE EAST

As opposed to using language as a subcultural identifier, Hirschman (1981) proposes using an emic measure of ethnicity which permits the individual to ascribe religious and cultural identity to him/herself. While Hirschman's work on ethnicity was initially tested on the Jewish subculture, it appears to have promise in cross-cultural and subcultural contexts (Ellis, Wallendorf, and Tan 1985; Hirschman 1983; Laroche, Joy, Hui, and Kim 1991; McCullough, Tan, and Wong 1986). The self-identification measure proposed by Hirschman avoids ethnocentric bias of the researcher as might be present in determining subpopulations on the basis of language alone. Although language may prove to be a poor segmentation variable, language preference is still the predominant determinant of acculturation in cross-cultural psychology literature and research suggests it may be instrumental in anticipating and encouraging diffusion of innovations among different cultures (Takada and Jain 1991).

Artifacts as Cultural Representations. Material possessions and tangible goods, including food, represented another avenue pursued by consumer researchers to make operational definitions of the abstract culture concept more concrete. Goods carry and communicate visible evidence of cultural meaning (Lee 1989; McCracken 1986; Mick 1986), and in some cultures offer evidence of social success (Belk 1984). The study of goods and material possessions is closely linked to the concept of materialism proposed by Belk and Bryce (1986) as "the tendency to view possessions as the primary sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction" (p. 568). While materialism is an internalized value, it outwardly results in possessions obtained to enhance that materialistic value.

Figure 7 notes an array of cultural artifacts examined in a cross-cultural context. Types of goods or artifacts studied are obviously broad categories. The "general" category (as noted in Arnould 1989) is used when the researcher examined artifacts in general as opposed to a specific class of goods such as durables.

FIGURE 4

CROSS-CULTURAL CONSUMER STUDIES OF THE AMERICAS (EXCLUDING U.S.) AND AFRICA

FIGURE 5

CROSS-CULTURAL CONSUMER BEHAVIOR RESEARCH ASIA AND AUSTRALIA

FIGURE 6

OPERATIONALIZATION OF CULTURE: LANGUAGE

Substituting tangible goods for representations of cultural values is intuitively appealing and overcomes many of the methodological challenges of accessing and evaluating consumers' internal beliefs and values which become further convoluted by cross-cultural analysis. And yet, it is crucial in a cross-cultural analysis to remember that meanings assigned to goods by the researcher may or may not accurately represent the meanings understood by the host culture. Hence, a phenomenological approachCwhere description exists at the level of the respondentCor a hermeneutical approachCin which cultural artifacts are examined as an embodiment of cultural valuesCwould both be appropriate (Dilthey 1972; Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989).

While materialism is generally accepted to be an important cultural trait in the U.S., it does not appear that materialism expressed through tangible possessions is culturally universal (Lee 1989; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). Dawson and Bamossy (1990) found the "increased saliency of ownership of material goods" to be related to Calvinist idealism expressed through organized religion; thus including many cultures outside the U.S.. Regardless of the dominant religion, Ger and Belk (1990) found the protestant work ethic and the subsequent increased value of material possessions to be surprisingly prevalent in Third World countries (Lee 1989; Wallendorf and Arnould 1987). The degree of importance a culture places on material goods still is open to debate. However, because of the close link between materialism and tangible goods, U.S. researchers in particular must be aware of potential ethnocentric bias when using material possessions as cultural measures.

In spite of the potential for ethnocentric bias, however, two themes worth noting emerge from the current literature utilizing material goods for cultural analysis. Sex differences, as a moderating variable, may represent an underlying variable accounting for differing levels of material importance on a cross-cultural basis (Arnould 1989; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). For example, a study comparing German and Canadian students (Rudman 1990), a study comparing residents of India with Indian immigrants (Mehta and Belk 1991), and a comparison between Mexican and French couples (Jolibert and Fernandez-Moreno 1983), found that men and women apparently associate different meanings with goods, regardless of cultural differences. While this observation is merely in the speculative stages at this point of cross-cultural research, nonetheless commonalities between the sexes across cultures offer great potential as a basis for uncovering cross-cultural similarities.

Second, it initially appears that the cultural value of materialism can be taught. Subsequently, an increased value and need for goods can also be taught. Evidence suggests that the diffusion of Western values and goods, currently occurring in the Pacific Rim, is a result of language similarity and other variables which communicate materialistic values through advertising and other communication mechanisms (Takada and Jain 1991; Tse, Belk, and Zhou 1989). Clearly the study of archaeology holds promise for future investigation in consumer research.

FIGURE 7

OPERATIONALIZATION OF CULTURE: ARTIFACTS

Beliefs and Values as Indicants of Culture. The third set of variables used frequently by researchers studying cross-cultural consumer behavior reflect the belief and value systems inherent in each cultural setting (see Figure 8). Judging by the number of articles utilizing values and beliefs as operational definitions of culture, many researchers feel that the knowledge of value and belief systems is instrumental in understanding and predicting consumer behavior in cross-cultural settings (Henry 1976; Munson and McIntyre 1978; O'Guinn, Lee, and Faber 1986; Roth and Moorman 1988).

In addition to materialism previously discussed, two key valuesCfate orientation and relationship to others (including individual determinism)Creceived sufficient attention in the reviewed literature to warrant comparisons across cultures. Fate orientation, or fatalism, may be defined as "the belief that all events are predetermined by fate and therefore unalterable by man" (Gentry, Tansuhaj, Manzer, and John 1988). Literature examining fatalistic beliefs cuts across a diverse cross-section of world cultureCincluding Mexico, India, Jordan, and geographic regions of the U.S. and Brazil, for exampleCthat at first glance would have seemingly little in common. Yet initial findings suggest that cross-culturally, a fatalistic approach to life may affect behavioral intentions which in turn influence attitudes towards brand loyalty and perceived risk (Cote and Tansuhaj 1989; Gentry, Tansuhaj, Manzer, and John 1988; Mehta and Belk 1991; Saegert, Hoover, and Tharp 1985; Stanton, Chandran, and Lowenhar 1981). Contradictory research exists to question the validity of using potentially stereotypical values to explain and predict consumer behavior. The dynamic nature of culture means changing cultural values over time. In his study of the Europeanizing of America, Kanter (1978) proposes that as a result of external conditions, Americans are becoming more fatalistic in their approach to life. Douglas (1987) reports a similar Japanese phenomenon where in certain areas of their lives, the Japanese are placing a growing emphasis on personal goals and achievement as opposed to group objectives.

FIGURE 8

OPERATIONALIZATION OF CULTURE: BELIEFS AND VALUES

Furthermore, because values are internalized, the danger of ethnocentrism and overly broad generalizations distorting perceptions is quite probable. Clarke and Soutar (1982) cite a "greater orientation to convenience and labor-saving devices in North America" (p. 459). Most Americans might argue that laziness is not an American value and is certainly not a value held by our North American neighbors. While measures of values may be culturally bound, and hence, somewhat limited in their predictive abilities, nonetheless, researchers have continued to study values in different cultural contexts.

Consumer Behavior Topics under Cross-Cultural Examination

As illustrated in Figures 6-8, a variety of consumer behavior topics are discussed in a cross-cultural context. As might be surmised, the topics of consumer acculturation, adoption, decision processes and diffusion are frequently examined. Other topics discussed in more than one article include advertising, gift-giving, family decision-making, brand loyalty, and information processing. Another group of cross-cultural studies was focused on validating various value scales used in the consumer behavior discipline.

DISCUSSION AND SUGGESTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH

While cross-cultural consumer behavior research has certainly progressed as a field throughout the twenty years of work examined in this review, there nonetheless are aspects of this research which warrant further attention if the field is to contribute to our understanding of consumer behavior. Issues of particular concern include: definition of cultural concepts, re-visiting early cross-cultural research, critical assessment of cross-cultural methods, focus on commonalities among cultures, and increased emphasis on theoretical underpinnings of cross-cultural consumer behavior.

Much of the reviewed cross-cultural did not mention which definition of the term 'culture' was adopted. The large number of definitions and the fact that the term is used frequently in common conversation (with no apparent communication confusion) does not excuse scientific researchers from providing readers with a theoretical and/or operational definition of the construct under investigation. To this end, we propose that culture be conceptually defined as "a dynamic set of socially acquired behavior patterns and meanings common to the members of a particular society or human group, including the key elements of language, artifacts, beliefs, and values." Other terms used in cross-cultural research such as socio-culture, assimilation, acculturation, and socialization need to be explicitly defined by the researcher to avoid the terminology confusion that now exists.

A second criticism of the cross-cultural consumer behavior field is the need to re-visit early topics of research: most notably consumer research on the African-American culture. While the early research was fundamental in sparking the interest on cross-cultural topics, as a society and discipline we have moved beyond "negro" perceptions to a broader-based African-American culture. Examinations of the Hispanic subculture has produced a number of theoretical observations on the assimilation and acculturation of Hispanic consumer behavior; likewise, it is time to re-examine the consumer behavior of the African-American culture with a fresh perspective. In addition, the Asian or Oriental subculture deserves more attention.

While a discussion on cross-cultural methods is beyond the scope of this paper, it nonetheless, needs to be addressed if the field is to move beyond the descriptive research stage. Briefly stated, cross-cultural research is a field ripe for post-positivist inquiry.

To advance this area further, there needs to be a greater emphasis on seeking out commonalities among cultures. Hirschman (1985), for example, found similar consumption patterns among primitive cultures and U.S. subcultures. From a preliminary overview, several topics such as materialism, consumption patterns between same sexed individuals, and family structure similarities offer commonalities between unique cultures that need further investigation.

Another criticism of the cross-cultural field is the relatively large number of descriptive research articles and the relatively small number of articles offering theoretical explanations. The descriptive research was necessary for the beginning rudimentary exploration; yet theoretical explanations of the phenomenon described must be included in the analysis.

CONCLUSION

The articles examined in this study attest to the fact that consumer researchers have expanded their research horizons to include cultures other than their own. However, the field remains ripe for additional research on explanations of cultural phenomena and impacts upon consumer behavior. In addition, the real challenge for consumer researchers is to look further for similarities among people of the world, as opposed to differences. Yet the focus on cultural similarities and theoretical explanations may ultimately transform the culturally bound theories in consumer behavior to a field with generalizable theories. Hence, the future holds promise for building additional sources of cross-cultural knowledge rooted in the foundations already established.

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