Problem-Oriented Rather Than Discipline-Oriented Research

George Katona, Survey Research Center, The University of Michigan
Richard T. Curtin, Survey Research Center, The University of Michigan
ABSTRACT - Interdisciplinary research is necessary because many important scientific issues fall into more than one of the traditional disciplines. Members of a team collaborating in such research commonly lose their orientation toward their original discipline. Extensive studies of the prediction of economic trends and of inflation illustrate the operation of problem-oriented research.
[ to cite ]:
George Katona and Richard T. Curtin (1980) ,"Problem-Oriented Rather Than Discipline-Oriented Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 44-45.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 44-45


George Katona, Survey Research Center, The University of Michigan

Richard T. Curtin, Survey Research Center, The University of Michigan


Interdisciplinary research is necessary because many important scientific issues fall into more than one of the traditional disciplines. Members of a team collaborating in such research commonly lose their orientation toward their original discipline. Extensive studies of the prediction of economic trends and of inflation illustrate the operation of problem-oriented research.


There is a simple answer to this question: Many of the most important scientific problems do not fall within the area of one discipline alone; their ramifications are widespread and the neat division of traditional disciplines does not do justice to the problems. In order to fully explore such problems, methods and hypotheses that originated in several disciplines must be applied.

Let us illustrate this statement by an example of crucial importance today. The problem of inflation is usually seen as an economic problem. The various economic theories of inflation are often summarized by the adage about "more money chasing fewer goods." Is that all? Isn't it true that money, an economic factor, does not do the chasing? It is human beings who use their money to chase the goods. Therefore, it is necessary to explore the motives, attitudes and expectations of businessmen and consumers which induce them to increase their spending. Without psychological studies, the analysis of the causes of and remedies for inflation would be incomplete.

We shall return to a discussion of research on inflation at the end of this paper. It may suffice to say at this point that an analysis of inflation restricted to psychological studies would be as incomplete as an analysis excluding such studies. People's motives and expectations do not arise capriciously; inflationary expectations are derived from a variety of economic-financial causes--government deficits, increases in money supply, excessive wage increases, etc.--and therefore a study of inflation that excludes economic analysis would be deficient. The economic factors interact with the psychological factors and the interaction between the two must be studied.

Interdisciplinary research, no matter how complimentary the disciplines, poses difficult issues of integration. The difficulties are overcome when the researcher is problem-oriented rather than discipline-oriented. It is the problem itself which compels us to cross the boundaries of the various disciplines.


Even for a single researcher who works alone, it is possible to adopt an interdisciplinary orientation. Each of our disciplines is so complex and varied today that no one can become a true expert in all segments of one discipline. Take economics as an example: We have micro and macro economic theory, money and banking, public finance, developmental economics, international trade, theories of the business firm, consumer economics, agricultural economics, etc. The researcher must specialize and become an expert in only a few segments of economics. Instead of doing so, he may specialize in one or two economic and one or two psychological or sociological subdisciplines.

Large-scale research projects are conducted by a team of several researchers, who may be recruited from two or more disciplines. Working together on a problem, these researchers may utilize lines of thought foreign to their original discipline and thereby form an interdisciplinary team. The problem orientation serves to broaden the scope of measurement. The data collected are not restricted to those responsive to narrow theoretical concerns of one discipline or another.

This short paper will be restricted to the discussion of a single form of interdisciplinary research represented by behavioral economics that has developed during the last thirty years. Behavioral economics studies economic processes--spending, saving, and investing--and their antecedents in one country at one time. Empirical research proceeds gradually from individual observations to generalizations, rather than starting with broad generalizations about human nature and relaxing the abstract models so as to reflect real conditions.

The methods used in behavioral economics may be case studies, laboratory experiments, or field experiments, but we shall concentrate on one widely used method, the sample interview survey (first developed by sociologists). In such surveys we collect three kinds of data: (a) economic-financial data on amounts spent or saved, on incomes, and so forth, (b) demographic data such as age, occupation, and education, and (c) psychological data on people's attitudes, expectations, and motives. Therefore, we are in a position to study the interrelation not only between expenditures on cars and income levels, but also between expenditures on cars and the age of the buyer, and expenditures on cars and income or price expectations. This can be done for individuals (micro analysis) as well as for all members of a sample representative of the American population and thus for the country as a whole (macro analysis).


We turn to examples of the operation of interdisciplinary research. We start by discussing briefly the problem of forecasting economic trends. Toward the end of World War II the following question arose: Since the usual forecasting methods rely on the extrapolation or projection of past trends, would the end of the war disrupt past trends and therefore require the use of different methods of forecasting? It was known at that time that some types of anticipatory data retained their value despite discontinuity from past trends. For instance, building permits issued have predictive value for future construction even in that case. One of the authors of this paper (Katona) raised the question of whether there existed psychological data with similar anticipatory value and in 1945 began asking representative samples questions about their buying intentions, attitudes, and expectations.

The following hypotheses were confirmed over the last thirty-odd years. 1) Changes in attitudes and expectations are measurable through survey research; 2) Attitudes toward and expectations of personal financial, general economic and price trends can be ordered according to the dimensions of optimism-pessimism, or confidence-uncertainty; 3) Trends toward greater optimism and confidence lead to larger discretionary expenditures, especially on homes, cars and other durables, while trends toward pessimism and uncertainty lead to smaller expenditures.

In 1953 the Index of Consumer Sentiment was constructed by the Survey Research Center. Its movements have served to predict the turning points in economic trends. Chart 1 below indicates that the Index has declined prior to every recession during the past twenty-five years. The very sharp drop in the Index leading to an early prediction of the deepest postwar recession, that of 1974-75, may be clearly seen from the chart. Prior to the onset of recoveries the Index likewise provided useful indications, but the lead time was shorter than prior to recessions. In periods without turning points the Index proved useful by indicating that no major changes were forthcoming.

The operations of this extensive research effort were carried out by an interdisciplinary team consisting of survey experts, economists and psychologists. Economists appeared to be required for the analysis of discretionary expenditures, income and price trends, while the study of the formation and spread of expectations seemed to be a function of psychologists. In fact, there was no such division. Both economists and psychologists participated in and contributed to all studies, which never could be called either economic or psychological. To be sure, not all economists or psychologists were suited to become members of the interdisciplinary team. But those who did join the team did not function solely as economists or psychologists, but were involved in the study of all problems.

Our second and last example is inflation. In the 1950s and 1960s accelerated price increases led many people to feel worse off and to become increasingly uncertain about future trends. These people were then inclined to save more rather than to spend more, and thus counteracted the inflationary forces. But the relation between the stimuli and the response proved to be neither stable nor unchanging. Having learned from experience, many people changed their behavior. From 1977 to 1979 very many people responded to price increases by stepping up their purchases, especially of one-family houses and automobiles. The expectation of further substantial price increases induced them to buy in advance and in excess of their immediate needs, and thus contribute to further inflation. The new form of response, the extent of which could be measured, was found to be strongly influenced by the absence of confidence in the government and its economic policies.

Thus research on an economic problem, inflation, called for psychological studies of expectations, attitudes, and motives. In this case again the economic and the psychological studies were not carried out separately by team members with either economic or psychological training. The research team was problem-oriented and open-minded with regard to the hypotheses and research methods utilized.

Problem orientation serves not only to focus research efforts, it also provides a means to assess the contributions made through interdisciplinary research. Criteria established by individual disciplines for the assessment of new research findings often defy integration. The common yardstick a problem-orientation provides enables the determination of the nature and extent of the contribution. In this way, problem orientation facilitates the appraisal and dissemination, as well as the conduct of interdisciplinary research.