The Discipline of Consumer Research: Permanent Adolescence Or Maturity?

James F. Engel, Wheaton Graduate School
ABSTRACT - It goes without saying that it is a high honor to be named as one of the first two Fellows of the Association for Consumer Research. It is gratifying to hear that voice of colleagues saying, "we think you're OK," and all I can do is to express a heartfelt thank you. This makes all of those years of digging in the trenches worthwhile.
[ to cite ]:
James F. Engel (1981) ,"The Discipline of Consumer Research: Permanent Adolescence Or Maturity?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 12-14.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 12-14


James F. Engel, Wheaton Graduate School


It goes without saying that it is a high honor to be named as one of the first two Fellows of the Association for Consumer Research. It is gratifying to hear that voice of colleagues saying, "we think you're OK," and all I can do is to express a heartfelt thank you. This makes all of those years of digging in the trenches worthwhile.

I am grateful also for the opportunity to reflect on the state of the art in this polyglot discipline. This will not be the somewhat tedious methodological and conceptual critique of the type previously voiced by Jacoby, Kassarjian, Cohen, my colleagues and me, and others. While these have their role, it is my intent first of all to look backward focusing on some signs of progress along the way. Indeed, it is fair to say that our field has grown from crawling infancy to a fairly healthy state of adolescence in a short period of time. My fear, however, is that we are destined to permanent adolescence unless we do some serious stocktaking. Therefore, the primary purpose of this paper is to stimulate careful analytical assessment in the hopes that we can finally emerge as a discipline showing some much-needed signs of maturity.


I have always dated the birth of consumer research as a serious discipline in and of itself back to the late 1950's. Obviously the roots go back much further than that, but this period marked the appearance of a handful of "marketing types" who possessed at least some training in the behavioral sciences. These names are well known to most, and I happened to be one of them pretty largely by luck and by accident.

Our early work, by and large, consisted of the "theory of the month club," to borrow one of Jack Jacoby's apt phrases. We worked independently at first and frankly were on a fishing expedition throughout the behavioral sciences. This soon began to change a bit, however, and the American Marketing Association was the catalyst for the beginnings of some focused inquiry. Conceptual and empirical thrusts then began to appear under such rubrics as risk and diffusion of innovations. The early models of consumer behavior were published, and the field began to receive the shape and direction which continues to this day.

The most meaningful change along the way has been the gradual shift from wholesale borrowing from related behavioral sciences to something much broader. Consumer research has emerged as a legitimate discipline. In the 1960's, few in the parent fields would dirty their hands in our arena. Those active here were all too often typed as the great contaminators of pristine truths as we began to see whether or not the stuff published in lofty journals proved out in real life. But that was to change pretty quickly. My Ohio State colleagues and I noted this most graphically when one of our noted psychologists did a real about face. Rather than the frequent volleys across campus and occasional harassment of courageous graduate students, he began to ask us to cut him in on the action, especially the consulting. I cannot condemn his earlier reactions; to some extent they were entirely deserved. The later response simply underscored a growing recognition that consumer research was approaching legitimacy. Now it is a valid area of human life for scholarly study, and research from here has percolated its way back into these parent fields in a notable way.

Yes, we have moved beyond infancy. Let me point out some things that I feel are real signs of progress.

A Decline in the "Theory of the Month Club"

This club referred to above received some of its early impetus from me as I dabbled around with the theory of cognitive dissonance. Quite rightly I reasoned that this was a sure way to break into print, and off my career went. Those early publications will not go down in history as permanent landmarks by any means; nor will a majority of the other stuff which followed. Yet, looking back, this was more a sign of an infant discipline than anything else. After all, we had to start somewhere.

Embracing the theory of the month club today, however, is a sad vestigial remain of a bygone era. It is declining, because most of us don't rise up and uncritically salute the latest thing anymore. I am glad, for example, to see the advocates of attribution theory challenged to show what, if anything, it has contributed to existing knowledge.

Gains in Methodological Sophistication

In sharp contrast to earlier times, a large percentage of those who publish today evidence signs of good methodological grounding. While I feel this has led to undue preoccupation with "number crunching," it is a definite sign of maturation. The same can be said of the growing focus on validity.

A Tradition of Replication

Quite a few who read this paper will recoil at the very mention of multi-attribute models. To be sure, some have ridden this horse into the wall. Nevertheless, our preoccupation with this model has reflected a very good thing--the development of a tradition of replication. Because of the evidence that has accumulated over the past decade, we now are able to reflect meaningfully on the contribution this model makes. Frankly, progress can occur in no other way as I have long argued, because nothing firm can be concluded from the results of an isolated study here and there on a given issue. We are now seeing significant replication in such areas as information processing and choice heuristics, and I applaud it.

Some Consensus on Research Priorities

The first meetings of ACR were little more then everyone doing our own thing to get on the program and have our way paid. This also was reflected in the broader literature of the field, We are not far beyond that point today, but there is at least the beginning of some consensus on those areas which most need investigation. This too is an encouraging sign. While this is not the place to state my own priorities (that will appear in the fourth edition of Consumer Behavior), some welcome developments are the recent focuses on the dynamics of information processing, theories of involvement, satisfaction, and non-product consumer behavior, just to mention a few examples.


Progress is being made, and let's be grateful for it. It certainly makes the revision of Consumer Behavior a less traumatic experience. The upheaval in the literature between the first couple of editions forced us into some really tough reconceptualization. While the volume of research has not abated recently, the field has settled a good bit into a more definitive pattern. This allows us to focus in the fourth edition on new insights into the old questions and the implications which emerge. This is a liberating experience.

I cannot escape the conclusion, however, that this discipline still is far from maturity. It still is possible to write something roughly categorized as "behavioral" and get it published with precious little inquiry into its methodological validity or substantive contribution. In a sense we are now at a crossroads if we want to maintain progress. It is time to take stock of what we are doing and where we are going. Here are some of the major issues to be faced.

The Criterion of Relevance

In the first years of ACR some of us used to debate the issue of basic versus applied research with some acrimony. Nothing has changed my opinion that this issue is a straw man based on a misconception of the very nature of our field.

Two decades ago, Ithiel de sola Pool described marketing as an engineering discipline drawing heavily upon related sciences and fields of inquiry to bring insight into the solution of practical problems. While consumer research reaches far beyond the boundaries of marketing, in what sense is it anything other than an engineering discipline as well? Is not the ultimate concern to shed light on the dynamics of consumer behavior so that those involved in the practical arena can do a better job? Contrast it with my parent field of social psychology which is not engineering and is a distinct field unto itself. If its professional contributors want to confine their research to such issues as prisoner dilemma games and other concerns pretty far removed from practice, it is perfectly fair game. We do not have that same right, however.

Some will disagree, but I do not think our discipline will go far beyond adolescence until relevance becomes a more central criterion. What I mean is that research priorities must be based on substantive issues reflecting the needs of decision makers. If research does not ultimately have some practical impact, no matter how small, how can we justify it? In this sense, we have a mighty long way to go. To paraphrase a little doggerel attributed I think to Kenneth Bolding:

Research is like a blunderbuss.

For all our muss and fuss,

We fire a monstrous charge of shot,

And sometimes hit but mostly not.

Frankly, there was a time in my own professional career where the sole concern was publication by any means and building a reputation among my academic peers. Then, I began to ask this disturbing question: "Of all the things I have written, what impact has it had on business practice?" My conclusion was that the impact was pretty nearly zero. Should I have cared? After all, most of you active at that time were using my books and giving the usual professional accolades. But I could not escape de sola Pool's insights, and the whole focus of my life changed.

Increasingly I found myself trying to sort out the issues being faced by practitioners and the ways behavioral research could contribute. Obviously it became clear that this would at times require basic research which, at that point in time, would be pretty far removed from the firing line so to speak. But that focus has remained, and I make a plea that it be the ultimate criterion underlying all we do. I am tired of reading that obligatory section in professional papers entitled "practical implications." The straining we do approaches absurdity. Pragmatic issues should be upfront at the very outset rather than a forced and frequently trivial conclusion. When this criterion is applied rigorously, a large part of our published erudition quickly dissolves info obscurity.

Let me now put the same question to all of us. What concepts and methods have diffused from our research into the various fields of practice? Some will quickly identify psychographics and MDS/conjoint analysis as prime examples. But where did these contributions originate and have their greatest development? I think you will find that the diffusion process was just the reverse--from practice into the academe. So who is leading whom? At times it seems as if the practitioner and the academician live in different worlds.

Perhaps it will help if I describe briefly how the diffusion process has occurred in one area of non-product marketing. This is the field of Christian communication in which I have been actively engaged since coming to Wheaton. Our focus from the outset has been on the needs of decision makers in the local church, publishers, broadcasters, mission boards, and so on. They continue to ask for serious help, and many of the answers can be found in research. The Wheaton group alone has completed over 200 research studies on such bread and butter issues as readership, listenership, felt needs, and so on. By and large, these are methodologically unsophisticated, but they have found their way into practice. In the process we have derived a simple hierarchy of effects type model of spiritual decision making which now is the basis of evangelistic strategy around the world. This diffusion has occurred over a mighty short time period. We have no choice but to be relevant, and the outcome is an absence of dichotomy between academic and practical. Even more revealing is that an academic field of inquiry has arisen in the process. This is how it should be in my opinion.

Isn't it time for us to quit playing games? How many practitioners are at this conference? There are some, but ACR has always had a thin mix inspite of the contrary vision we had at the outset. Whose fault is it that an advertising researcher and I finally gave up on the sessions at a recent ACR meeting and decided we would benefit much more by informal conversion with those we could find who were doing some relevant things.

This perhaps is a lengthy and wordy way of saying something very simple. It is time to go beyond mere number crunching and insist that researchers have a firm and clear answer to the question, "so what?" If this is not our central focus, we are destined to permanent adolescence.

Moving Beyond Ethnocentrism

This issue will require fewer words, but it is a serious challenge for all of us. I am appalled at the western domination in the consumer literature. Here and there it is possible to find a cross-cultural application, but these almost invariably reflect a profound western bias. Must we cast the rest of the world into our mold? Naive application of western models and methods can lead to decidedly erroneous conclusions and set back the hopes and dreams of non-western leaders seeking solutions in their unique environment.

Serious cross cultural consumer research is a must in a world characterized by rising materialistic aspirations and imbalanced distribution of resources. Such research must be grounded in cultural anthropology, however, if we are to take account of profound behavioral variation. I have learned this lesson the hard way through working in research and training in more than 50 countries since 1972. Here is a vast frontier where we can join hands meaningfully with properly trained research partners throughout the world. In this context, the training of researchers in non-western countries is an absolute necessity. I see this need unmet wherever I go, and I often wonder why so many of you who first came to the United States as students remain here when there are such desperate needs at home. You above all have an obligation to meet these international responsibilities.

A Recognition of Moral Issues

I cannot imagine a discipline which is more amoral than ours. Only rarely do we address the social implications of what we are doing. What are the long run implications, for example, of our continued focus on a high and rising standard of living in a era of diminishing natural resources? Is our growing knowledge of the mechanics of information processing gradually giving us the means of persuasion against a person's will? These are just two examples of issues which must come to the forefront rather than being relegated to the sidelines.


I have presented a mixed picture so far--encouragement on the one hand and serious concerns on the other. Hopefully, the concerns expressed have struck a responsive note with some, and it is these colleagues to which these closing comments are addressed.

The starting point in the move from adolescence to maturity is for all serious contributors in this field to rethink their own conception of professional success. As I mentioned earlier, much of my own career was based on success as defined by publication in a "refereed" journal and recognition by peers. Relevance of what I had to say was secondary. Success, in short, is to be found in the length and nature of a publication list.

I have only given part of the picture on the changes which occurred in my life years ago, and I would be remiss by not filling in the remainder. I also had to face the deeper question of whether or not recognition and achievement really is a sufficient foundation for life itself, because it became increasingly non-satisfying. Fortunately my wife and I began a great adventure 15 years ago as we began for the first time to take our Christian faith seriously and place this eternal dimension at the center of our lives. That adventure continues to this day. It has led to a profound change in personal motivation as I have been freed to focus on basic issues from a perspective of some well-formed and functioning values which have their roots beyond myself.

While my own story is unique to me in many ways, I have found that many in this field are walking to the same drummer I have described here. The tragedy is that the reward system within our institutions and within this field itself only encourages it. I would again plead for the establishment of practical relevance as the guiding focus in all that we do. This would mean, of course, that our reward system must take account of the extent to which our research makes a genuine contribution in the context of a substantive issue that ultimately will have some influence on practice.

Since this type of criterion is not likely to replace the narrowly focused publish or perish criterion used in our academic institutions, ACR will have to take the lead. We must become a true forum of researchers and decision makers, of academicians and practitioners. We have reached the point of sufficient maturity that we can begin to come to some real closure on research priorities. These priorities, in turn, must be enforced rigorously by those who serve as research reviewers and referees.

These priorities also must be based in serious reflection on the moral and social dilemmas which confront us. Yes, this is an area which goes beyond numbers into values, but we must not lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings and not just rats in laboratories.

Can we rise to these challenges? Only time will tell, but I will do my best to be a part of the solution. While I am not so visible in "mainline" circles as I once was, this is only because of the arena in which I work. I hope to remain as a functioning and responsible contributor to this field for years to come.