Special Session Summary the Alongitudinal Turn@ in Interpretive Consumer Research

Cele Otnes, The University of Illinois
[ to cite ]:
Cele Otnes (1999) ,"Special Session Summary the Alongitudinal Turn@ in Interpretive Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 176-177.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 176-177



Cele Otnes, The University of Illinois

While the techniques and traditions of the interpretive paradigm have become more accepted in consumer research, many aspects of this area remain underexplored. This session brought together three papers that explored a neglected aspect of interpretive consumer researchBthe longitudinal study. Each paper focused on one unique aspect of this topic. Cele Otnes (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Tina M. Lowrey (Rider University), and Michelle Nelson (Emerson College) focused on conducting interpretive research with the same informants over time. In contrast, Linda Price (University of South Florida) explored the issue of returning to venues that had either remained stable or changed dramatically over time. Mary Ann McGrath (Loyola University of Chicago) examined the challenges of remaining in the same research venue for many years.

Furthermore, this session raised provocative questions about the nature of conducting longitudinal research within a discipline that demands research productivity in the short term, but that also now embraces the research tenets of disciplines with more generous time frames within which to conduct research. Each paper is summarized below.



Cele Otnes, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Tina M. Lowry, Rider University

Michelle Nelson, Emerson College

Otnes, Lowrey and Nelson described the purpose of their presentation as follows: 1) to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of conducting research with the same informants in a longitudinal study; 2) to explore how what was learned about shoppers changed over the seven years of the study; and 3) to pose issues that pertain to conducting research with the same informants over time. After providing a brief overview of the use of longitudinal data in other disciplines, the auhors presented the pros and cons of conducting longitudinal research with the same informants. The advantages included the ability to build trust and rapport with informants, the ability to secure "diachronic reliability" or the stability of an observation over time, and the ability to identify trends and attitude changes over time.

Negative repercussions of staying with the same informants over time included the difficulty of maintaining an informant sample, and the issue of mortalityBboth literal, and that caused by waning disinterest in participating in the study. Moreover, the issue of overrapport also arose. Finally, the authors stated that longitudinal research can certainly be more expensive than other types of research efforts.

The authors then described their research procedures for their longitudinal study of Christmas shopping. Research had begun in 1990, with 15 shoppers in a small Midwestern city. Researchers interviewed each informant twice and accompanied them on two Christmas-related shopping trips. By 1992, only five informants could be located. These "core informants" remained with the project in 1994 and 1997.

The shoppers are middle-class, white, and ranging in age from 29 to 42 (as of 1998). Over the course of the study, over 1,000 pages of text have been accumulated. Plans are underway to interview these women again in the year 2000.

The authors then reviewed what they had learned over the seven years of this project. The most surprising information was that each year, there was a difference in terms of what issues the researchers thought would emerge as important, and what the most salient issues actually proved to be. For example, in 1990, researchers assumed they would be exploring the Christmas shopping strategies of the informants, but it was the roles expressed by informants during Christmas shopping that truly became significant. The assumptions versus actualities for the remaining years in the study were as follows: 1992: changes in givers versus changes in recipients; 1994: family dynamics versus a more global understanding of the entire rituals, and 1997: consumers’ ideals of perfection at Christmas, versus how they really defined the perfect Christmas holiday.

Moreover, the metaphors used to define the narratives emerging in each subsequent round of data also changed over the course of the study. For example, in 1990 the most apt metaphor to describe the informants’ stories was the "autobiography." In 1992 it was the "soap opera," in 1994 it was the "How-To Book" (as our informants began to outline in detail the ways in which they constructed their Christmas holidays) and 1997 the most salient narrative structure was the "fairy tale."

At the end of the presentation, Otnes, et al. offered four issues with respect to interviewing the same informants over time. These included: 1) screening informants for stability (e.g., questioning them with respect to their plans to move out of the area); 2) asking them about their level of interest in remaining in a long-term study; and 3) screening consumers as to why they would want to be involved in a long-term study; and 4) conducting follow-ups with informants in between interactions, to ensure that researchers have correct addresses and telephone numbers when they attempt to relocate them.

In summary, then, longitudinal research might lead researchers to reframe a substantial amount of their initial assumptions about each subsequent interaction with the same informants. Yet to a certain extent, this reframing can be expected, as researchers come to understand more about informants’ lives and the phenomena under study.



Linda L. Price, University of South Florida

Linda L. Price presented the scond paper in this session. She began by offering a definition of longitudinal design as "a type of design involving a fixed sample of population elements measured repeatedly. The sample remains the same over time, thus providing a series of pictures that, when viewed together portray a vivid illustration of the changes that are taking place" (Maholtra, Marketing Research: An Applied Orientation). She then described the two major types of longitudinal research projects: 1) the "restudy"Bor a major initial study followed by a typically shorter visit to the field a few years later, and 2) the "repeat" or "continuous" study, which features periodic visits over a number of years (Foster, et al., 1979).

The purpose of Price’s presentation was to focus on the complexities and opportunities in understanding change through long-term fieldwork. Specifically, her presentation drew from research conducted from 1990 to 1999, with special attention to two multi-method ethnographic projects. These were: 1) "repeat" studies of white-water river rafting in Utah and Colorado from 1990-1999 and 2) a "restudy" of consumption patterns in Budapest, HungaryBwith fieldwork conducted in 1991/1992 and 1998/1999.

She described the rafting context as one characterized by relative stability; in contrast, Hungary had undergone major changes between the two times of immersion in the field.

Dynamics of a Stable Consumption Venue. Price observed that some of the characteristics of a "stable" consumption venue that were captured over time included 1) the fact that "out-of-the-ordinary" experiences are the rule in river rafting; 2) the isolated canyon is not a "closed community," but in fact is an open system affected by outside influences; 3) expectations of consumers are often framed by the ways they have experienced the wilderness through the media; and 4) the "everyday world" becomes a backdrop for what consumers are seeking to escape. Moreover, as the river experience changes, so does the nature of their escape.

Changes in the researchers’ perspectives in this relatively stable river environment included a shift from "serendipity" to understanding, as researchers became more familiar with patterns of experience, and as the researchers experiences changes in roles within this venue. Other metaphors and ideas that emerged from this site included consumers’ romance with nature, the idea of wilderness servicescapes, consumers’ emotional responses in these settings, and the issue of extraordinary experience.

Between the first and second phases of data collection in Hungary, the country had undergone a transformation from an Eastern bloc communist country to one that was beginning to embrace capitalism. For example, in 1991 there were no fashion magazines, no shopping malls, and few cosmetic brands in the marketplace. Price remarked that had she known the economy would have been transformed so dramatically, she would have attempted to retain artifacts from the first phase of data collection that better reflected that change. For example, one magazine had been targeted to homemakers in 1991Bbut by 1998, it had shifted its editorial focus to fashion and beauty.

With this experience in mind, Price offered several "hindsight guidelines" for conducting research in stable and dynamic consumption venues. For example, she recommended that researchers enter the field under the assumption that they might return, because this attitude might help the researchers remain more attentive to their surroundings. Second, she argued that it is important to view the consumption venue as a dynamic, open system. Third, she stated that the researcher should view the consumption venue as something that changes the researcher, and that the continued presence of the researcher likewise changes. Finally, Price stated that it was important to collect basic "core data" during each visit to a venue, even if this data does not seem significan at the time.



Mary Ann McGrath, Loyola University, Chicago

Mary Ann McGrath presented the final paper in this session. She explored the issues that arise when one remains at a single site over a multi-year research project. She stated that several issues influence the ability to remain at a site, such as the objectives of the immersion, the objectives of the study, and resource issues such as time, money, and the length of the tenure clock.

McGrath described her experiences with two different single-site studies. The first pertained to two studies of a gift storeBone that was conducted for six weeks and one that was conducted during separate holiday seasons over a three-year period. McGrath stated that in the shorter study, the following interpretive findings and issues emerged as salient: 1) the concept of "place" in the retail setting; 2) gift giving as the work of women; and 3) the separation of frontstage and backstage behavior.

However, when the same venues were explored over a three-year period, other more retailer-focused issues arose. These included: relationships versus tasks as the guiding constructs in the retail environment, the progression of retailers from "smart" to "lucky," and the importance of the fashion of merchandise.

Similarly, McGrath has been involved in field studies of farmers’ markets of two different lengths. The longer study revealed more of an interest in micro versus macro issues, such as a concern on the part of the retailers with display alternatives, color and contrast, sales tactics, sampling, and relationship marketing. However, a shorter study conducted in that venue focused on more macro issues such as ambiance, authenticity, activism and artificiality.

McGrath concluded by observing that longer-term immersion appeared to lead the researcher in both micro and macro dimensions. Moreover, there is greater ability to conduct field experiments when longer-term designs are implemented. Moreover, one must find trustworthy key informants in order to successfully implement a long-term study in the same venue. She believes that the challenges that face researchers who conduct long-range studies in the same venues include the need to keep diligent field notes, the need to maintain the role of a "partial native," and the challenge to pay attention to issues such as time constraints and external validity.

After the session, a question-and-answer session followed, where many of the issues brought up in the presentationsBand several new onesBwere discussed by the presenters and by the attendees.