Presidential Address Consumer Behavior As a Social Science

Marsha L. Richins, University of Missouri
[ to cite ]:
Marsha L. Richins (2001) ,"Presidential Address Consumer Behavior As a Social Science", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-5.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 1-5

PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS

CONSUMER BEHAVIOR AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE

Marsha L. Richins, University of Missouri

I am going to use my president’s address today to challenge you and, I hope, to make us all feel proud of our field and what it can be. I am frequently struck by how important a topic consumer behavior is. It is of compelling interest to society for many reasons. In my address today, I will attempt to describe some of these reasons, and at the same time convince some of you to change slightly your perspective on the scope of consumer behavior research.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CONSUMER BEHAVIOR

So, what is it about consumer behavior that makes it so compelling to everyone, not just consumer scholars?

First, as the Wall Street Journal and CNBC constantly remind us, consumption is important to economic performance. Consumption-related factors such as spending, saving, and consumer confidence have important impacts on cash flows, employment rates, and capital investments. Workers’ desires to consume often increase their work motivation and employee productivity in the aggregate.

At a more individual level, consumption is necessary for our health and well-being. Many consumption experiences are associated with delight and joy, some with disappointment or anger. Consumption problems create frustration, stress, and ill-will. Deficits in individuals’ ability to consume over a long period of time, or in a large portion of a population subgroup, are associated with property crime, hopelessness, and a general debilitation of the spirit.

Consumer behavior is important, also, because many pressing social problems are related to consumer behavior gone awry. Inappropriate consumption of drugs, alcohol, and firearms can have devastating impacts on individuals and families. Improper consumption of cellphones causes traffic accidents. A diet heavy in Twinkies and Jolt cola is hazardous to our health. Excessive consumption of all types creates pollution and endangers the planet and all its inhabitants.

Finally, casual observation reveals that consumption is an important topic in everyday interpersonal discourse. It influences what we talk aboutCas we describe our shopping experiences to co-workers, as we discuss the movie we just saw, the new restaurant we tried, and our hopes and dreams for the future.

Consumption influences how we interact with othersCmore frequently, perhaps, via email; more selectively, perhaps, when we tune out the world and into a Walkman. And consumption is a source of conflictCas when spouses disagree over what to buy and when children badger their parents for more things, more expensive things, or simply things their parents don’t want them to have.

Consumption, simply, is about the way we live. When people, politicians, and pundits talk about the concerns of the day, the following issues come up again and again.

$How can people get close to one another?

$How can parents raise kids to be responsible and well-adjusted?

$How can people achieve happiness?

$How can we maintain good health and productivity?

$How can inequalities in the distribution of wealth and knowledge be reduced?

Every one of these questions is intimately associated with consumer behavior. These are big, important topics. Yet consumer researchers don’t study them much. We have yielded these topics to scholars in other disciplines.

For example, an economist, Robert Frank (1999), in his book Luxury Fever, documents the rise in luxury consumption over the past two decades and assesses its impact on consumers’ daily lives.

Sociologist John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey (1997), in their book Time for Life, analyze how consumers use their time and find that our sense of "time famine" stems from our increased emphasis on the consumption of experiences.

An anthropologist, Katherine S. Newman (1993), has examined the effects of economic decline on consumption patterns, lifestyle, and family relationships.

BIG PICTURE RESEARCH

These are what I call "big picture" research. It is useful, I think, to consider what qualities these examples have in common. First, they take a macro perspective. The analyses are carried out at the social system level and look at multiple causes and multiple effects of actions and circumstances.

Second, they have had big impact. These books have been the subject of social and political discourse in the media and have provoked reflection and further research in several academic disciplines.

Third, they are the result of programmatic investigations that covered a period of several years. Newman’s book, for example, is based on research that took her five years to complete.

Another characteristic is that their focus is on the substantive domain rather than the conceptual domain; that is, their research involves ongoing, real-world systems and has social, economic, technological, political, and moral content (see Brinberg and McGrath 1985).

And finally, this research takes a lot of pages to report. Such topics can’t be effectively dealt with in a single journal article. Complex issues usually require a book-length effort to be covered appropriately.

THE NEGLECT OF BIG ISSUES IN CONSUMER RESEARCH

In consumer behavior, with few exceptions, we tend to look at focused issuesCusually at the individual levelCand not big issues. And we do this very well. We have well-trained scholars who publish well-crafted research in journals with rigorous standards. This is something that we as a discipline can be rightfully proud of. Yet this focus comes at a costCthe neglect of larger issues. We have ceded these larger issues to other social science disciplines less centrally concerned with consumption and with consumers.

Why has this happened? How has the consumer behavior discipline, for the large part, ended up with a micro focus rather than a broader view? It stems, I think, from an overly-narrow perspective on our discipline. Although we consumer scholars consider ourselves social scientists, in fact we have failed to treat consumer behavior as such. Social science is "the study of society and human relationships" (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 1994) and deals with human behavior in its social and cultural aspects.

Nicosia and Mayer, in a seminal article in 1976, encouraged scholars to treat consumer behavior as a social science, particularly urging us to examine the influence of cultural values, institutions and their norms, and consumption activities as they relate to the network of social and cultural relationships. But as a discipline, we have failed to do this. Instead of looking at consumers in social systems and involved in social relationships, we have focused primarily on the individual. A review of articles published in the Journal of Consumer Research supports this conclusion.

Using the loosest possible definition of "social," I tallied the number of articles in JCR over the past 12 years that dealt with anything social. Ay research that included social influence, norms, institutions, dyads of any sort, or social context, no matter how superficially, was counted as "social." I found that studies that include social variables comprise only about 20% of JCR articles, and that percentage is falling. The number of articles in which social variables feature prominently is even less, about 10% of the total. This is about two and one-half articles a year in JCR.

This journal represents the best research efforts in our field, yet few of the published articles in any one year deal with social or cultural relationships of any sort. Consumer behavior textbooks routinely acknowledge the importance of these topics, allocating large sections to them. But despite occasional pleas from consumer scholars to take a larger, more social view of consumer behavior (see Belk 1987; Lutz 1991; Zaltman 1991), we have failed to do so.

REASONS FOR NEGLECT

After some thought, I have concluded that there are several reasons for our collective neglect of these issues in consumer behavior. First is socialization. Most consumer scholars are neither trained nor socialized to address big picture issues. We tend to do the kind of research our mentors have done, and a social perspective in consumer behavior simply has not evolved yet.

Second is institutional factors. Institutional constraints associated with tenure pressures and annual merit reviews encourage faculty to take a short-run perspective on publication. We are rewarded for pursuing relatively "safe" research projects of limited scope, which have a better chance of attaining the standards of rigor and control employed by our top journals.

Business school residency is another factor. Most ACR members reside in marketing departments in business schools. We teach business courses, sometimes to executives, and interact with colleagues in finance, accounting, management, and other business fields. We commingle with business people whom our deans hope will contribute to the b school’s endowment. All this encourages a focus on business as the constituency for our research (see Holbrook 1985 for a fuller discussion). We concentrate on dependent variables like brand attitude and purchase intention. Certainly, these are important dependent variables, and doing research that is relevant to business and the effective functioning of the economy is meritorious.

But our discipline is larger than just business, and business is only one of our possible constituencies. By limiting our research to business-relevant topics, we are unnecessarily limiting our impact and our field of inquiry. For instance, our narrow focus has caused us to overlook interesting questions about the interaction between business and society and, especially, questions about how business practices influence social structure and social relations among consumers.

Finally, the discipline of consumer research in recent years has undergone some intense debate about the type of methods and the philosophical assumptions that should appropriately undergird consumer research. This debate has been a healthy and important one. However, it has served to upstage the equally important issue of what types of research topics we as a discipline should choose to study. Although assumptions, methods, and research topic are intimately intertwined, the debate has focused on the first two of theseCassumptions and methodsCwithout explicitly addressing the questions of scope and emphasis in the discipline.

THE DIFFICULTIES

Perhaps the biggest inhibitor to big-picture research, however, is that it is hard to do well, and it is messy. How is it hard? Let me count the ways!

To illustrate, I will use a hypothesis that appeared several years ago in a Wall Street Journal article. A reporter noted that today’s teens spend many hours in shopping malls, either working there or hanging out with friends. She speculated that this gives teens an unrealistic taste for goods that they can’t satisfy once they become economically independent of their parents, and that this leads to unhappiness and disillusionment among young adults. That’s an interesting question. Does hanging out at malls cause kids to be unhappy later on? Or, might it have the opposite effect of socializing young people to be savvier, more competent consumers? Any seasoned consumer researcher can immediately see some of the difficulties in trying to answer this question. These problems, some of which I will now describe, plague many big-picture consumer research topics.

An important impediment concerns theoretical framing of the problem. There aren’t well-established literatures and theories in any one discipline that will help us get a handle on this problem. We would need to travel far and wide throughout the social sciences to find appropriate theoretical bases. We’re talking about kids, so we’d need to look at developmental psychology. We can easily burn up a few months sorting through that literature. We can also look at learning theories, at sociology to understand how cultural expectations and norms develop, and while we’re at it, some anthropologists have probably looked at similar issues in different cultural contexts. Then there’s reference group theory and social comparison theory and yet more. Doing big picture research requires us to broaden our theoretical horizonsCa time-consuming activity, but one that makes this type of research more rewarding.

One of the frustrating aspects of big-picture research is that it usually isn’t amenable to traditional hypothesis testing approaches, and causal inference becomes ambiguous. For this reason, multiple studies using a variety of research approaches may be required. To answer the research question about teenagers and shopping malls, one might need to conduct longitudinal surveys, ethnographic research, and econometric analysis. Since no one scholar is likely to be well-versed in all these approaches, it may be necessary to gain new methodological skills or new colleagues. It may be necessary to use data sources that are unfamiliar to the researcher, such as archives of economic data on teen employment, expenditure patterns of teens and young adults, high school student tracking studies, and social survey data.

Yet finally, after all this work digging into new and diverse literatures, learning new methods and running lots of studies, the conclusions we draw would not be clear-cut. Our findings would be open to dispute, particularly if they cast a negative light on marketers, shopping malls, or parenting practices relating to those malls. Pundits and scholars would be quick to describe alternative explanations for our findings, as would journal reviewers.

These hindrances to big picture research loom large. They may seem insurmountable to some. And the risks are large. I suspect that at least 50% of the audience is mumblingC@They won’t publish it in JCR." Perhaps it’s time for us as JCR reviewers to have a more open mind to this kind of messyCbut importantCresearch.

THE PAYOFFS

Despite the difficulties, I urge ACR scholars to embrace a broader research perspective. In addition to our more typical research programs, each of us can and should think about some larger issue of interest to consumers themselves, to society, or to business in a long-term sort of way.

Why? you might ask. Big-picture research is labor-intensive and potentially riskyCwhy do it? What’s the payoff? I would argue that the payoffs are enormous.

First, it’s fun. This kind of research is challenging, but for scholars, rising to a challenge and solving theoretical and methodological problems are fun. Discovering new, insightful literatures is fun. Learning new methods that allow new forms of discovery is fun. Meeting thoughtful scholars from other disciplines with different perspectives is stimulating and enjoyable.

Also, big picture research can make an important contribution to society. It can influence public policy decisions, child-rearing recommendations by "experts," and result in greater consumer satisfaction and well-being. It can also help companies, in the long run, better meet consumer and societal needs.

As a result of these contributions, this research can serve to enhance the stature of our discipline. Colleagues in other departments of our universities, decision-makers at grant-making institutions, the press, and perhaps even politicians will see that consumer behavior researchers are doing important work.

Many of us also will feel more pride in what we do as we plan our day’s research activities, contemplate our accomplishments, or describe "what we do" to people we encounter.

SOME RESEARCH QUESTIONS

I would like, now, to take this opportunity to stimulate your thinking about some of the important issues that consumer scholars might pursue. The list I present contains topics that are personally interesting to me, but in no way represents the entire range of potential worthy topics. I offer them in the form of research questions that I hope will pique the interest of at least some of you here today.

$ How does consumption bring people closer together?

Goods have important uses in interpersonal relationships, yet aside from some studies of gift exchange, we’ve neglected to examne how this is so. Some goods, like the gas grill on the patio or a game table, bring people together. OthersCa Walkman or a Gameboy, for instanceCcan isolate their users. Yet we’ve done no systematic analysis of the interpersonal uses of consumption. We know little about how people use consumption rituals to reinforce relationships. What about shopping, for instance? How do people use shopping to enhance a sense of togetherness? When is the annual back-to-school family shopping rite a positive event for families and when is it stressful?

$ How does consumption drive people apart?

In many cases, consumption can be a source of conflict. It can create family conflict, as when spouses disagree about consumption priorities or when parents and children disagree on the appropriate objects and limits of consumption. It can create tension among friends, as when one family displays photos of their trip to Disneyworld that their neighbors can’t afford.

And it can create social class conflict. Disparities in consumption levels among social classes leads to dissatisfaction and envy and is implicated in criminal behavior as people try to get or destroy what they don’t have. Such problems will only escalate as disparities among the social classes continue to increase. These are some of the most compelling issues concerning consumer behavior, yet consumer scholars to date have essentially ignored them.

$ How does consumption lead to happiness?

The consumer behavior discipline has been largely the study of choices, but we usually study only a small part of the choice process. We look at brand choice, but fail to look carefully at how consumers allocate resources across product classes. Fundamentally, people buy things to improve their happiness and their quality of life. Yet we don’t know how consumers decide what will make them happy. For example, how do they choose whether to buy a home theater for the family or a new car for themselves? How do they decide whether to save for the future or to spend now on an exotic vacation, more fashionable new clothes, or extra Christmas presents for the kids?

We don’t know how effective consumers are in making resource allocation decisions that will maximize their well-being. We don’t know what consumption patterns are most likely to lead to happiness. These issues are at the core of consumer behavior, and we need to understand them better.

$ What are the effects of consumption unhappiness?

When does consumption and its pursuit make us miserable? We can all think of instances. The carefuly tended lawn that is dead when you return from vacation. A celebration at an expensive restaurant ruined by a bad waiter. A travel agent who books you into a motel you’d like to forget. Door dings in your just-delivered new car. The excitement of your new gas grill suddenly dampened when you find that your co-worker just bought one that’s even better. Rude salespeople. Ignorant salespeople. Bad haircuts....

Really, just how much consumption unhappiness is out there? How do these events influence people’s moods and their relationships with others? What is the cumulative effect of all these dissatisfactions and what are their long-term implications? More generally, to what extent does the pursuit of consumption lead to time pressure and stress, family tensions, and general frustration?

$ In what ways does marketing affect child socialization?

Consumer scholars have done quite a bit of research on the socialization of children as decision-makers (see John 1999 for a review). We know much less, however, about marketing’s effects on other aspects of socialization. For instance, what is the personal and social impact on children of inviting shopping environments that entice kids to want? How does advertising influence the formation of values in children? Do certain family structures or particular social statuses make some children more susceptible to these influences?

$ What effects does consumption itself have on children?

Goods and brand names have become increasingly central to children’s livesCindeed, to the lives of all AmericansCyet we know little about the effects of their consumption on children. When is consumption an aid to children’s interpersonal relationships? When is it a hindrance?

How do products themselves affect our children? For instance, some children are heavy consumers of video games and associated products that simulate murder and mayhem. To what extent is marketing, versus other factors, responsible for the demand for these products? How are the peers of children who heavily consume these images and activities affected?

$ How do marketing and product use affect family functioning?

The effects of marketing and consumption on family functioning is another area that has been largely neglected. To what extent does the consumption of convenience products create more time for high-quality parent-child interaction? What role does marketing and consumption play in the formation of family rituals, as when a family celebrates Friday evenings at the shopping mall or Saturday mornings with breakfast at McDonalds? How are produts and gifts of products used in families disrupted by divorce to bring family members closer together or drive them apart?

$ What are the effects of consumption patterns and marketing activities on society?

Critics have suggested that marketing selectively amplifies and reinforces some values, while ignoring or even denigrating others (see Pollay 1986). Is this true? If so, what are the long term effects on society at large?

We have devoted even less study to the impact of consumption patterns on the physical characteristics of a culture. Effects of consumption patterns on architecture and the aesthetics of roadways have been ignored by consumer scholars, as have effects on traffic patterns. What is the impact of e-commerce delivery trucks rumbling through quiet residential streets many times a day? Does it reduce crime? increase the number of children maimed in traffic accidents? increase or reduce air pollution and traffic congestion?

And what about the sensory over-stimulation resulting from marketing activities? We are flooded with visual stimuli whenever we enter a shopping environment or drive on city streets. The auditory environment is also overloaded. On one recent shopping trip I was simultaneously bombarded with Musak from store-wide loudspeakers, blaring rap lyrics from the electronics department, and a loud audiovisual presentation about how to apply wallpaper. Odor intrusion is increasingly an annoyance, as when the too-strong odor of Tommy Hilfiger cologne wafts from the pages of Sports Illustrated.

Does this incessant flood of stimuli have an effect on consumer well-being? Does it make us less able to hear the chirp of crickets on a quiet evening, less likely to savor the scent of fresh-mown grass? Or does the constant bombardment on our senses make people more likely to seek out opportunities for contemplation and reflection? And how does this unremitting assault on our senses influence our feelings of well-being, our relationships with others, and our general levels of irritability and civility?

$ What is the proper relationship between marketing and the promotion of death and danger?

Advertisements encourage people to drink alcohol but are silent on the carnage caused by drunk drivers. Images of Double-deluxe Whoppers with cheese entice us into Burger King, but a steady diet of highly-advertised fatty products will eventually send many consumers to a cardiac care unit. During the summer months, my university’s hospital has an organ transplant team on call around the clock to handle organ donations from jet ski and other boating accidents at the Lake of the Ozarks. As a discipline, we have failed to examine the extent to which marketing contributes to these tragedies. We have done little to investigate how consumption can be made safer or consumers be made wiser, or what marketing’s responsibility should be in all of this.

CHOOSING A RESEARCH TOPIC

These are just a few of the questions consumer behavior scholars should rightfully be asking. Topics like these are truly exciting, and I hope every consumer scholar will devote at least some of his or her research efforts to issues that deal with consumption as part of a web of interpersonal relationships within society. I hope, that for at least a portion of their research activities, scholars will do the following three things.

First, when choosing a research topic, I hope that scholars will look to the world and their hearts. What about consumers, marketing, and society do you as a person truly care about? Where and how do consumption delights and consumption disasters occur? The things that most deeply affect us often provoke the most thoughtful research programs.

I hope also that on occasion scholars will look at phenomena first, then at theory. Theory has a high priority in our discipline, as well it should. But for at least part of our research, we should focus first on the substantive area of inquiry and cast theory in a supporting role. For part of our research, we should first ask what the phenomenon is that we want to understand. Perhaps what interests you is how consumers use products to build relationships. Perhaps you want to know how consumption conflicts are implicated in divorce. Or maybe you want to understand why on earth parents buy dangerous fireworks for their kids. The subject matter of most interest to consumer scholars, especially recently, has been purchase decisions. But that is only a tiny island in the world of consumer behavior, and it’s time for us to do some exploring.

Third, we should occasionally ask the "who cares?" question. Before starting a line of research, we should at least sometimes ask "Would anyone besides me and three of my colleagues care about the outcome of this research? Does this research increase understanding about something of direct concern to consumers, policy makers, or business?"

THE TIME IS NOW

"Yes," you might say, "but I have to get tenure. Maybe I’ll do some of this later." Yet we learn our research styles early in our careers, and it is difficult to break out of established patterns. Young scholars tend to have open minds and boundless enthusiasm. So the early part of one’s career is a good time to begin thinking about big problems and to gain practice in struggling with research questions that cannot be answered with a one-shot survey or a 2 X 2 experimental design.

And the elders among us are not off the hook. Later career is also a good time to refocus on larger issues. Many senior scholars develop a sense of burnout or a sense that their research efforts have become somewhat repetitive or incremental. Turning to big picture topics can be refreshing and is perhaps an appropriate response to the considerable status and freedom that society gives to tenured professors.

SOME POSITIVE SIGNS

Fortunately, there are some positive trends in the discipline that make it easier for consumer scholars to pursue such topics and successfully publish them. First, the growth in interpretive research and its increasing acceptance in major journals is a positive sign. Study of many of the issues I’ve mentioned, and others like them, can profitably begin with interpretive approaches and perhaps be extended with more positivist research.

Also, there is an increasing number of publication outlets for this kind of research. The JCR Monograph series now provides an option for CB scholars to publish big-picture research in a prestigious setting. The Journal of Macromarketing and Journal of Public Policy and Marketing also provide publication outlets for system level research.

The Social Marketing Institute, recently founded and under the direction of Alan Andreasen, provides an excellent opportunity for scholars to apply their knowledge at a system level. Hopefully, academics working on SMI initiatives will also be moved to undertake basic research of relevance to social issues and social systems.

A CALL TO ACTION

In closing, I want to note that doctoral students are interested in the relationships between marketing, consumption, and society. A 1997 survey of student participants at the AMA doctoral consortium indicated that three-quarters of these students were moderately or highly interested in such issues (Wilkie and Moore-Shay 1997). It is the responsibility of more senior members of the disciplineCfaculty mentors, journal editors, and department chairsCto foster this interest.

I hope that some of you here today will be inspired to think again about the scope of consumer behavior research and take on some of the bigger issues that involve marketing and consumption. And perhaps, the next time you’re at a university gathering talking to researchers who are working on cures for sickle cell anemia, trying to stop the transmission of AIDS, monitoring holes in the ozone layer, or studying political coups, you too will have something interesting to talk about. And when we’re old and explaining our lives to our great grandchildren, perhaps we too can say we’ve had some small part in changing the world.

REFERENCES

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Brinberg, David and Joseph E. McGrath (1985), Validity and the Research Process, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Frank, Robert H. (1999), Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess, New York: Free Press.

Holbrook, Morris B. (1985), "Why Business is Bad for Consumer Research," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 145-146.

John, Deborah Roedder (1999), "Consumer Socialization of Children: A Retrospective Look at Twenty-Five Years of Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 26 (December), 183-213.

Lutz, Richard J. (1991), "Editorial," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March).

Marshall, Gordon, ed. (1994), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, New York: Oxford University Press.

Newman, Katherine S. (1993), Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream, New York: Basic Books.

Nicosia, Francesco M. and Robert N. Mayer (1976), "Toward a Sociology of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 3 (September), 65-75.

Pollay, Richard W. (1986). "The Distorted Mirror: Reflections on the Unintended Consequences of Advertising." Journal of Marketing, 50 (April), 18-36.

Robinson, John P. and Geoffrey Godbey (1997), Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Wilkie, William L. and Elizabeth S. Moore-Shay (1997), "Consortium Survey on Marketing and Society Issues: Summary and Results," Journal of Macromarketing, 17 (Fall), 89-95.

Zaltman, Gerald (1991), "One Mega and Seven Basic Principles for Consumer Research," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 8-10.

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