A Critique of the Communicative Assumptions Within Consumer Behavior Research

Torsten Ringberg, Penn State University
ABSTRACT - Successful communication, that is the reception of meaning by consumers as intended by marketers, underlies marketers’ very existence as well as researchers’ justification for empirical and theoretical analyses. In spite of its importance the assumed location of meaning in the communicative act varies tremendously among three major epistemological approaches (cognitive, structuralist, post-structuralist) in Consumer Behavior Research. The approaches are critiqued, and it is suggested that meaning emerges from a complex transaction between the socio-cultural competence of the reader and the kind of competence that a given text postulates in order to be read according to the author’s intentions.
[ to cite ]:
Torsten Ringberg (1999) ,"A Critique of the Communicative Assumptions Within Consumer Behavior Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 320-324.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 320-324


Torsten Ringberg, Penn State University


Successful communication, that is the reception of meaning by consumers as intended by marketers, underlies marketers’ very existence as well as researchers’ justification for empirical and theoretical analyses. In spite of its importance the assumed location of meaning in the communicative act varies tremendously among three major epistemological approaches (cognitive, structuralist, post-structuralist) in Consumer Behavior Research. The approaches are critiqued, and it is suggested that meaning emerges from a complex transaction between the socio-cultural competence of the reader and the kind of competence that a given text postulates in order to be read according to the author’s intentions.


Communication plays a crucial role in most of our daily life activities. More importantly for Marketing, the successful transfer of intended meaning to the consumer underlies marketers’ very existence in the market place. While all Consumer Behavior Research (CBR) employs communicative assumptions, these are often not acknowledged or critically addressed prior to research. The aim is not to dismiss existing CBR approaches but to call attention to how assumptions about the communicative act inadvertently may limit these research efforts. It is proposed that the knowledge base upon which existing CBR approaches are based can be revised once researchers acquire a heightened sensitivity and reflectivity to the dynamic aspects involved in the communicative act. The goal is to be both critical and constructive, although the space limitations of the present paper may prevent a fully balanced presentation as well as empirical justification for the theoretical claims. Three major epistemological approaches within CBR are cognitive CBR; structuralist CBR (structuralist, formalist, semiotic, and phenomenology); post-structuralist CBR (hermeneutics and reader-response theory.) The categorization follows, to a large extent, several literary critics (see for example Eagleton 1996, Selden & Widdowson 1993). The epistemological assumptions within CBR range from being very static (cognitive/structuralist) to an extremely dynamic (post-structuralist) view of the communicative act. The former case is exemplified by, on the one hand, Cognitive CBR where meaning is univocal and clear, and on the other, Structuralist CBR where meaning is located in the text. In both instances the reader is regarded as passively reproducing the encoded meaning. The latter case is exemplified by Post-structuralist CBR where meaning is produced, either by the reader alone, or through some sort of interaction between the reader and the text. In both instances, the intended meaning of the author is perceived of little interest and relevance. lt is suggested, following, that all of the aforementioned epistemological positions fall short of providing a convincing and coherent representation of how and where meaning evolves during the communicative act. In other words, while each of the approaches may be relevant in certain circumscribed situations, we need to develop more comprehensive theoretical and empirical frameworks that allow us to understand the communicative act as it unfolds in more naturalistic settings, in everyday life. The implication for the marketer is a better understanding of, for example, when a successful campaign is caused by the intended rather than unintended meaning production by the target audience.


The first category consists of cognitive CBR (e.g., Petty & Cacioppo 1986, Chaiken 1987, Friestad & Wright 1994). Here, the communicative act is traditionally left unexamined as meaning is assumed to be objectively apparent and based upon rational thoughts free from "potentially irrational forces of emotional impulse and social conformity" (Thompson et al. 1994, p. 446). Meaning is perceived as somehow physical and objectifiable (Ngwenyama 1997, p149) and as unproblematically transferred between encoder and decoder through text as long as the textual properties follow some basic grammatical codes and both parties speak the same phonetic language. This view is also illustrated within earlier critical mass communication studies where researchers "subscribed to texts as powerful and influential while giving little attention to the role of the audience, except as helpless pawns receiving given messages and circulating them through society" (Fejes 1984 in Livingstone, 1990, p.9). Cognitive CBR basicallydisplays a realist position in which we perceive reality without its intervention. The sign is a mere reflection of what is "out" there. And what is out there is assumed (not in a physical but mental sense) to exist prior to our conceptualization of it. In Bernstein’s (1985, p.8) words the assumption is that "there is or must be some permanent ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality" (in Lindlof 1988, p. 84).

Cognitive research typically uses experiments to investigate individual reactions to particular concepts in an attempt to look for universally shared responses to objectifiable stimuli. It is assumed that author and reader operate according to identical sets of semiotic and semantic rules, that meaning is "transparent." Within cognitive CBR variations in meaning are presumably controlled by eliciting simple responses (e.g., yes/no or 1-7 Likert scales) to pre-determined categorized concepts. According to Lindlof (1988, p. 84) "the research interest is in what persons #get out of’ the content (in terms of recall, evaluation, or cognitive-affective gratifications), or how persons’ behaviors or attitudes are influenced by exposure to the content." Conflicting interpretations are typically treated as mis-readings, accidents of individual biography, noise, as a form of error (Scott 1994, p.474), or poorly executed experimental set-ups, and consequently eliminated. Intersubjectivity and inter-communication are simply presupposed as resources which are taken for granted for the conduct of research (Wilson, 1971, p.71). Without such underlying assumptions traditional experimental research would be impossible as statistical procedures, such as correlation, draw their significance from the testing of stable and univocal meaning structures. Without such an assumption an experiment on cognition would not be possible, as it can no longer be assumed that the subjects’ reactions are, in fact, in response to what the researcher assumes to be the message. According to MacLachlan & Reid (1994, p. 89), "the grandfathers of cognitive CBR, cognitive psychology shows curious insensitivity to the fact that what, in a given domain, counts as literal knowledge is always institutionally determined."

Some of the more fetishized models in consumer behavior research include the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) (Petty and Cacioppo 1986) and the Heuristic model of Persuasion (HSM) (Chaiken 1987). For example, Scott (1994, p. 474) points out that for Petty et al. (1983, 1991) involvement does not represent the reader’s active participation and interpretation as it treats outcome in the reader as either information correctly/incorrectly processed, or as positive/negative attitude. Chaiken (1987) suggests that people develop heuristics for judging the validity of message claims from observing simple features of a presentation or situation, and Friestadt and Wright (1994, p. 11) endorse this universalistic perspective as they state "people may learn to identify generic persuasion tactics by developing simple #tactic recognition’ heuristic. These heuristic are often based on the presence of one or two features of a persuasion attempt." According to Sherry (1983), cognitive researchers presumably believe that objects and language are invested with some psychic or metaphysical energy. This assumption has faced some serious criticism. To perceive meaning as deriving from simple heuristics independent from interaction situation is according to Derrida (1979b) highly problematic, as "no meaning can be fixed or decided upon, no border is guaranteed, inside or out" (in Stern, 1996, p142). In the words of the famous linguist, Whorf (1956, p.211) the amazingly complex system of linguistic patterns and classifications, which A and B must have in common before they can adjust to each other, are all background assumptions. The subject is simply not conceived of as already constituted in other discursive formations and social relations at the moment of textual contact or experimental setting (Morley 1992, p.61). Preventing "arbitrary" subjectivity from entering eases the task of measuring and controling for external "noise" but at the same time creates an epistemological straight-jacket. The problem for the cognitive researcher is, of course, that without an epistemological straight-jacket (assumption of clear and univocal communication), the researcher is left with little support for his/her interpretation of main effects and interactions. It is perhaps interesting to note that within a neighboring discipline, socio-cognitive psychology, researchers have begun acknowledging, according to Livingstone (1990, p. 42) "that the social knowledge of readers provides them with interpretative frames independent and possibly different from those offered by the text."


The second major epistemological category is Structuralist CBR including, structuralism, formalism, semiotics, and phenomenology. Formalism (Stern 1988) and semiotics (Mick 1986, Mick and Buhl 1992) are subsumed under Structuralist CBR as these orientations primarily refer to the form of the text (Scott, 1994, p. 461), and differ from structuralism in focus rather than in content. Phenomenology as represented by Husserl (1964), Heidegger (1992), and Gadamer (1975) is dealt with first as the avid reader of literary criticism may wonder why this school of thought is positioned under Structuralist CBR rather than as a member of Post-structuralist CBR (following group). The reason is that phenomenology, for the purpose of the study of the communicative act, shares some important structuralist assumptions, presented below. According to Eagleton (1996, p. 55) "Heidegger’s thinking closely parallels the theories of structuralism" and, consequently, falls prey to the same criticism. While phenomenology as a method is used to support various other epistemological claims, e.g., Cognitive CBR (O’Guinn and Faber 1989), Structuralist CBR (Stern 1988, 1995; Hirschman 1988), and Hermeneutics CBR (Thompson 1989,1994), its basic epistemological assumption is that a text transmits a pure transcription of its essence unaffected by anything outside it (Eagleton, 1996, p. 51/52). Another similarity to structuralism is that in phenomenology, individual world-views are perceived as determined by pre-existing systems of "difference" which operate through language and allow the researcher to analyze the structure of (author’s) consciousness which is manifested directly in the text (Selden, 1989, p. 103 (parenthesis mine)).

Structuralists, such as McCracken (1988), Hirschman (1988), Bourdieu (1984), and Douglas & Isherwood (1996) are frequently cited in the consumer behavior literature, and at times are the topic of entire articles (e.g., Applebaum and Jordt 1996). According to Holt (1997, p. 328) this particular perspective "has become a foundational assumption for cultural consumer research." For structuralist CBR, meaning is "discovered" from deep socio-cultural structures that underlie linguistic properties of a text. Meaning is not assumed to be natural, a question of just looking and seeing, but is circumscribed and defined by pre-existing socially constituted and shared systems of signification. Meaning is based upon inherent linguistic properties that are linked by a set of formal structures. As such, individually intended communicative acts can always be reduced to "a systematic relation between people and objects in the world and universal meaning systems (Holt 1997, p.328). Highly referenced academic texts, such as Williamson’s (1995) Decoding dvertisement, now in its 12th edition, and McCracken’s (1988) Culture and Consumption, both base their arguments on the assumption that ideology and symbolic meaning systems are widely agreed upon. This allows Williamson (1995, p. 25) to assert that advertisement is part of a meta-system, which is used to translate between systems of structures in the marketplace. McCracken’s (1988) work is also "grounded in the object signification approach that assumes that meaning inheres naturally in symbols as well as objects or categories of objects" (Holt 1997, p.328) where "objects become containers of connotative meaning" (Sherry, 1983, p159). According to Campbell, it is not only Marketing theories, but theories in general that "presume that consumer goods carry complex messages and that a common understanding exist of the language in which a message is conveyed" (Campbell, 1995, p. 114). Whereas for cognitive CBR meaning is determined by the encoder, for structuralist CBR meaning is determined by social structures. From the perspective of the receiver/reader/decoder the communicative consequence is identical as meaning is fixed prior to the symbol’s (text/image) interaction with the decoder. From a structuralist perspective, meaning can be extrapolated objectively from symbols as long as one is in possession of the underlying cultural codes that are assumed to be unreflectively shared among everyone in a society. Variations of interpretations are relegated to mere surface variations of deep stable semiotic structures; as such meaning is an emergent property of systematic relations of difference. The supposedly stable association between signifier and signified is what leads to the popular assumption that signs/objects act as carriers of meaning. The following critique centers primarily on structuralism but can readily be applied to formalism, semiotics and phenomenology, too.

Structuralism has had a tremendous impact within the humanities and social sciences. Nevertheless, during the last two decades an increasing opposition has been raised from an emerging post-structuralist field of scholars in linguistics (Overstreet & Yule, 1997), cultural studies (Fish 1980a, Hall 1980e, Morley 1992, see Grossberg et al 1992), communication (Scott 1994), critical mass communication (Fiske 1994), cultural anthropology (Clifford and Markus 1986), history (Clifford 1988) and more recently in marketing (Thompson 1997, Holt 1998, Firat and Venkatesh 1995, Bristor and Fischer 1993, among others). The major point of critique is that a structuralist approach cannot account for dynamic changes that stem from the interaction between structures and intending individuals as "structuralism and phenomenology spring from the ironic act of shutting out the material world in order to better illuminate our conscious of it" (Eagleton 1996, p. 95). In Scott’s words, "to explain a consumer’s response to an ad, we cannot rely on a theory of signs that is axiomatically removed from the circumstance of use" (1994, p. 462). Next, we turn to Post-Structuralist CBR (Hermeneutics and Reader-Response Theory).


While structuralists perceive meaning to stem from stable, logocentric, and systematic relations of differences, for post-structuralists "meanings aresignificantly constituted by the ways in which people act in particular social context. As such meaning is not locked into a single abstracted semiotic system but exists as multiple and overlapping resources from which the social actor selects, combines and juxtaposes" (Holt 1997, p. 328/329). "Another way of putting it is that meaning is not immediately present in a sign. Meaning will never quite stay the same from context to context: the signified will be altered by the various chains of signifiers in which it is entangled" (Eagleton 1996, p.112). Within post-structuralism certain meanings are elevated by social ideologies to a privileged position around which others meanings are forced to turn. While meaning emerges from difference between signs, such difference is not itself a concept. Where the difference resides depends very much on the reader’s particular perspective; thus, language contains a surplus of meaning. Within the Hermeneutics approach the author’s encoded meaning is perceived to be inaccessible, as the encoder’s idiosyncratically internalized socio-linguistic structures never can be fully grasped. Only divergent significations of the intended meaning are produced (decoded) by the reader. Decoded meaning (or more properly significations) emerges from the reader’s particular socio-cultural perspective which is brought to bear on particular linguistic properties in the text as the reader "tacks back and forth" between the particular and the text as a whole. In other words, meaning emerges dialogically as parts of the text inform the whole and the whole its parts. An interpretation or "sense making" is perceived as validated when a particular meaning can be presented that coherently and unambiguously accounts for the content of the text as a whole. While the reader’s own "store of experience" will take some part in the interpretative process, the text is conceived as "incorporating a network of response-inviting structures which predispose us to read in certain ways" (Selden & Widdowson 1993, p.55). The hermeneutic interpretation basically gets at a "number of personalized cultural frames-of-reference which illustrate the multitude of interpretative positions and personalized transformation of established cultural meanings" (Thompson, 1997, p. 445). The hermeneutic approaches (i.e., existential, philosophical, and critical ones) face several criticisms. Existential-hermeneutics is criticized for its assumption that interpretation is complete only when one "coherent and unambiguous" meaning is reached by the interpreter/ decoder. That an interview/text may include multiple competing and contradicting meanings is left unexplored. Another criticism is that existential-hermeneutic interpretations are primarily textually focused and "do not tie individual experiences back into a socio-cultural web and as such cannot address the full complexity of consumption meanings and practices" (Thompson, 1997, p. 451). Critical-hermeneutics is criticized for its assumption that it may lead to the dissolving of a text into a thousand competing readings (Eagleton, 1996, p. 74) each of which is based on the last roll of the hermeneutic wheel (Rorty 1992, p.97). Ultimately, the relationship between encoder, text, and decoder is undermined, as it involves a leveling of subject positions which makes any evaluative, and therefore critical approach to the communicative act, impossible. The overthrow of the author in hermeneutics, according to Angus (1994, p.239), "eliminates the basis for evaluating any type of fixture in audience interpretation and thereby occludes the whole question of the status of a discourse within society and culture in the postmodern world."

As a guard against hermeneutic anarchy the reader-response theory offers an interesting post-structuralist alternative to understanding the communicative act (e.g., Scott 1994). This approach draws on important works by, among others, Tompkins (1980), Fish (1980), Hall (1980e), de Certeau (1984), and Fiske (1995). Reader-response theory, in order to get a handle on the communicative act, "appeals to certain #interpretative strategies’ which readers have in common, and whih will govern their personal response" (Eagleton 1996, p. 74). Not any odd reading will do as readers are perceived to be situated within interpretative communities and are unlikely to diverge too wildly from each other as they share a kind of common competence. According to Scott, "what binds together the intention and the anticipated response is shared knowledge of cultural conventions and the invocation of probable strategies for reading" (1994, p. 463). Reading, like other social practices, is according to Fiske (1995, p. 181) "the activity of a social agent negotiating contradictions and constructing relevance and allegiances from among them, it is not the subjected reception of already-made meaning." The reader is viewed as actively engaged in constructing meaning, albeit this activity is still confined according to internalized cultural schemes. For Fish reading is not a matter of discovering what the text means, but a process of experiencing what it does to you (in Eagleton 1996, p.74). Scott (1994) differs from Fish (1980a) as she notes that it is the text’s particular genre that determines whether the preferred meaning of an ad is successfully transferred. Thus, some disagreement exists as to exactly where meaning is produced in the communicative act. Fish’s position draws fire from Eagleton (1996, p.74) as he states, "what the text does to us, however, is actually a matter of what we do to it, ; the object of critical attentions is the structure of the reader’s experience, not any objective structure to be found in the work itself. Everything in the text, its grammar, meanings, formal unitsCis a product of interpretation, and is in no way factually given. "Eagleton’s own position can in turn be criticized for primarily focusing on the individual and backgrounding individuals’ cultural situatedness and ongoing socialization process.

The post-structuralist approach introduced to CBR by Scott (1994) and other post-structuralist CBR researchers (e.g., Holt 1998) stops short of pursuing its full implications as they perceive, perhaps in an attempt to make it empirically "testable," that meaning is still produced according to clearly pre-defined group affiliations (e.g., shared demographics, social class, cultural capital, gender, literacy rates, political beliefs, income, life style, etc.). This perspective implies a paradoxical structuralist assumption, namely that these categories structure meaning of consumption. While there is something intuitively plausible about this assumption, according to Milroy (1987: 14) "these categories have been objectified and abused by mainstream social science research." Similarly, reader-response theorists in cultural studies and critical mass-communication studies (e.g., Fiske 1994, Jensen 1991, Ang 1990, Schroeder 1994, Lindlof 1988) view communication as less structured and as constituted by a shifting set of allegiances that cross social, socio-economic, and demographic categories. According to Fiske (1994, p. 24), various individuals belong to different popular formations at different times, often moving between them quite fluidly. This shifting set of social allegiances is better described in terms of people’s felt collectivity than in terms of external sociological factors such as class, income, gender, age, race, geographical region, religion etc.

Similarly, the categorical references of signs have been problematized. According to Campbell (1995, p. 99), citing Featherstone (1988, 1990), "what individuals can be regarded as consuming, however, is less product and services than their meanings or #emancipated’ signs; that is signs which no longer have any fixed referent. This results in a vast system of hyper-reality in which any object, in principle, can take on any meaning." On the other hand, as Angus (1994) states, if there is no relevant constraint there is no need for a critical theory. This also follows Corner’s (1991, p. 29) observation, about Eagleton’s perspctive, that it falls "into complacent relativism by which the interpretative contribution of the reader is perceived to be of such a scale and range as to render the very idea of media power nanve."


All of above CBR approaches face critique; cognitive CBR for assuming meaning is lexically determined, structuralist CBR for assuming that meaning is determined from deep and stable (and generally inaccessible) socio-cultural structures, and post-structuralist CBR for either leading to extreme relativism or from reading "backwards" from pre-defined categorical allegiances. A first reaction is perhaps to disregard all of the "old" paradigmatic baggage. However, as each paradigm also has provided valuable insight to CBR we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water and to dismiss everything developed within aforementioned schools of thought. Consequently, an alternative resolution should, apart from providing a convincing new route to the communicative act, also be able to account for when "older" epistemological approaches are useful and when they are not. Furthermore, a solution has to be both theoretically sound and empirically supportable.

The theoretical stance has to forge a balance between extreme relativism and cultural determinism so as to conceptually present a solution that accounts for dynamic interactions between idiosyncratic positioned individuals and dominant socio-cultural factors. More specifically, we need to account for how individuals’ use of symbolic meaning systems resonate with structures in text and images to produce particular interpretations. It becomes the task of the CB researcher to analyze how shared symbolic meaning systems systematically affect meaning construction. Indeed, it is not an easy task, but one that may offer new understandings of the complex and dynamic aspect of the communicative act. This proposition follows in the foot-steps of Fish’s (1980a) interpretative communities and Eco (1990, p. 86), who reminds us, that "every act of reading is a difficult transaction between the competence of the reader and the kind of competence that a given text postulates in order to be read according to the author’s intentions." Eco is careful to use the term "postulates" as a text or image has no overall intrinsic message or meaning. This also follows Hobson’s (1982, p. 170) view that a text only comes alive and communicates when the reader adds his/her own interpretation. This interpretation, in turn, is both facilitated and constrained by internalized socio-cultural models, particular practices, and ideological hegemonies. It is the researcher’s task, then, to understand the various interpretive strategies people use and to show the extent and ideological foundation of these strategies within our society. Seen from a marketer’s perspective, the role of the marketing specialist becomes "to elucidate the #model reader’ and to determine how this reader is required to contribute in order for the message to #hold’ together within the communicative act" (Eco, 1979a in Livingstone 1990, p.39/40). Meaning must be captured with constant reference to the semi-stable socio-cultural networks that situate the individual viewer (Jensen, 1987: 25). Cognitive and Structuralist CBR research still has an important role to lay in analyzing these semi-stable socio-cultural networks where cognitive and structural "resonance" exist.


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