Discussion Paper: Sociological Perspectives

Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh
[ to cite ]:
Gerald Zaltman (1979) ,"Discussion Paper: Sociological Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 398-399.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 398-399


Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh


This is an intriguing paper. Smith, Olshavsky and Smith take several concepts commonly used to understand the process whereby innovations spread, and ask whether these concepts might also be used to prevent that process from occurring. Their answer is a tentative "yes." Their approach is a definite must, but with a major qualification. Before addressing this qualification and a few other concerns, let me identify some especially strong features of this paper.

- Although the authors nowhere formally state a sociological perspective on life-style, it is implicit in many of their ideas. Among other things, this perspective describes life-style as a group phenomenon, representing shared values, linking diverse activities in people's lives, and involving a continued process of adoption, emulation, and change. Life-style is an important concept in the health field, but health education largely ignored the important dimension of a sociological perspective. Smith, Olshavsky and Smith demonstrate very nicely the practical implications of adopting this perspective.

- The idea of gradually engineering norms so that smoking is perceived as deviant social behavior is a potentially powerful notion. Nearly all health education efforts focus on the harmful physiological effects of smoking. It does not address or correct the initial causes of smoking. The authors raise a significant point in suggesting that the social causes of smoking be addressed by anti-smoking campaigns as well as the harmful physiological consequences.

- The authors also distinguish between encouraging people to cease smoking and not starting at all. This important distinction could have been treated more systematically, but it is still present and is an important contribution. Through the tactics they suggest, the authors recognize that it is one task to get people to stop something they've already started, and quite another task to get people to not start in the first place. Many anti-smoking campaigns I've examined have failed to make this important distinction.

My major reservations about the application of diffusion theory to anti-diffusion efforts is that, while the basic concepts may be relevant, the way in which they traditionally function may not be relevant. Diffusing resistance to change is not necessarily the same as diffusing acceptance of change, just as learning and forgetting are not the same. For example, the authors discuss how the conventionally noted attributes of innovations may be considered in designing an anti-smoking campaign. Actually, these ideas have been used rather widely in this context and in other health-related contexts. They have also been largely ineffective. This does not mean that the concept of innovation attributes as the authors use it is not relevant. Perhaps attributes relevant to the acceptance of an idea or practice are not those which are most relevant for the rejection of an idea or practice.

There are, of course, a number of specific points in this paper that one could take issue with. These would range from the quite erroneous suggestion that no real decision process is involved in the decision to take up smoking to the erroneous authorship attribution of the major elements of the diffusion process (Katz, et al., not Rogers) to an apparent lack of awareness of recent work related to anti-smoking. However, overall the paper is provocative and very worthwhile reading for its practical ideas for reducing the prevalence of smoking.


The major contribution of this paper is the focusing of attention on product disposal decisions. This important type of decisions has received very little attention and DeBell and Dardis are to be lauded for venturing forth in this area. Their data confirm their commonsense assumption that differences in disposal behavior exist between products having mechanical/performance obsolescence and those having fashion/technological obsolescence. As they point out in their discussion, the confirmation of this assumption has implications for the allocation of efforts to improve product durability. They also raise the interesting issue as to whether durability improvement efforts should be expended at all in areas where disposal decisions are largely influenced by fashion/technological obsolescence.

The paper is admittedly a pilot study. As such it adequately establishes the case that disposal decisions may not be the same as acquisition decisions, and that disposal decisions may vary according to type of product. In themselves these are not exciting ideas but are necessary to establish empirically prior to pursuing their more interesting implications. I would urge the authors and others to direct subsequent efforts to a deeper understanding of such issues as the following:

1. Why fashion/technological obsolescence is more salient for some products and not for others? Perhaps more importantly, are there differences for a given product in the kind of individuals and families who do and do not replace that product for fashion/technological reasons?

2. Are there sociological and psychological differences among individuals and/or families in their disposal decisions? Family decision-making processes with regard to disposal decisions would be an exciting avenue of research.

3. Much more research comparing acquisition and disposal decisions is needed. One could speculate endlessly about exciting relevant points of comparison such as who the relative influentials (in, say, the family) are in each process?

4. Additionally, how (if at all) are acquisition and disposal decisions interrelated? If disposal also involves replacement, the two types of decisions are unlikely to be independent of one another. This becomes especially intriguing if each spouse is differentially influential in the two types of decisions.

5. Carrying the issue of interrelatedness between acquisition and disposal decisions further, we might want to question or examine more closely the assumption that these are two separate decision processes. For some product or service categories the interdependence may be very great. Incidentally, the Smith, et al. paper discussing smoking and anti-smoking is clearly an example where the "acquisition" decision and "disposal" decision may be quite independent.


The purpose of this paper was to predict and explain overall elderly satisfaction with life. This is an important issue and a very interesting paper for persons concerned with this issue. However, the audience for this paper is primarily concerned with consumer behavior and, indeed, one of the explanatory variables involves consumer satisfaction. My comments will be divided into two parts. The first part concerns consumer satisfaction as an explanatory variable. The second part concerns issues raised by the methodology of the paper.

It is refreshing to see the authors treat consumer satisfaction as an independent variable and overall life satisfaction as a dependent variable. From a policy standpoint, one of the major reasons for studying consumer satisfaction is precisely because it should be an important contributing factor to life satisfaction in general. This paper challenges this widespread notion. The direct effect is neither statistically nor substantively significant. (The zero order correlation is not substantively significant.) Moreover, the indirect effect of other variables through consumer satisfaction is one of the weaker total effects. Unfortunately, the authors do not pay attention to this very important challenge to existing assumptions. Their failure to address this important matter is the principal weakness of the paper.

The model the authors test is robust. They appear a bit apologetic for explaining only thirty percent of the variance in the dependent variable. This apologetic posture would be warranted if the nature of the phenomena under study were such that there lurked a seventh or eighth independent variable which, if added to the model, would account for a large additional percentage of the unexplained variance. My own sense is that the dependent variable is sufficiently complex and multifaceted -- as most interesting independent variables are -- that a large number of additional explanatory variables would be needed to explain substantially more variance. Moreover, none of these additional variables alone would have an explanatory contribution greater than those used by the authors. Thus I feel the authors have developed and tested a good model which they admit is only a part of the total reality. The approach they follow is one I recommend strongly to others.