Methodological Issues in Cross-Cultural Research: Lessons Learned in a Study of Chinese and North American Consumers

ABSTRACT - This paper describes lessons learned while conducting a cross-cultural study of information search comparing Chinese and North American consumers. The paper looks at such issues as creating relevant samples in cultures where it is difficult to compare occupations, income levels, educational levels and spending parity. The paper also underscores the need for a full understanding of the differences in the marketing environment that may exist in different cultures and how those differences may affect study results. The paper concludes by suggesting ways to alleviate the methodological issues in the specific context of cross-cultural research.


Kathleen Brewer Doran (2001) ,"Methodological Issues in Cross-Cultural Research: Lessons Learned in a Study of Chinese and North American Consumers", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 239-242.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 239-242


Kathleen Brewer Doran, Babson College, U.S.A.


This paper describes lessons learned while conducting a cross-cultural study of information search comparing Chinese and North American consumers. The paper looks at such issues as creating relevant samples in cultures where it is difficult to compare occupations, income levels, educational levels and spending parity. The paper also underscores the need for a full understanding of the differences in the marketing environment that may exist in different cultures and how those differences may affect study results. The paper concludes by suggesting ways to alleviate the methodological issues in the specific context of cross-cultural research.


As the marketing world moves more toward globalization, and as new markets are opened up and develope, it becomes essential to understand how consumer behavior differs from one culture to another. In particular, it is important to understand how consumer decision making differs among members of distinctly dissimilar cultures. One critical area of consumer decision making in this regard is information search and use where members of different cultures are quite likely to vary (Doran, 1994; 1997b). To create meaningful cross-cultural research, it is necessary first to understand behaviors as they exist in the cultures being studied. Then, and only then, can the task of prediction be reasonably undertaken in the cross-cultural context.

This paper reviews lessons learned in a cross-cultural study of information search and use comparing Chinese and North American consumers. [In this study, "China" and "Chinese" refer to the People=s Republic of China mainland and not to Hong Kong and Taiwan. "North America" and "North Americans" refers to both the United States and Canada.] Some consideration was put into the selection of what are largely political classifications as "cultures," since other alternatives existed, but these groups were deemed sufficiently representative. North America represents the most researched culture in the world, as well as the sample basis for most consumer research theory. China, on the other hand, has been the subject of relatively little research, and is culturally very different from North America, yet represents one of the fastest-growing and largest developing economies in the world. Since little understanding exists of whether widely accepted models of consumer decision processes describe the decision processes of individuals from other cultures, it is important that initial research control for potential cultural differences.

The study was a longitudinal, multi-method investigation. The methodological focus of the study was the development of grounded theory in the area of cultural differences in information search and use. As such, the paper discusses the use of emergent design, sample issues, triangulation, and cross-cultural parallelism. In addition, the paper examines the use of multiple methods in a cross-cultural context, including focus groups, in-depth and follow-up interviews, observation, surveys and content analysis. Finally, the paper suggests ways to alleviate methodological concerns in the specific context of cross-cultural research as well as presenting some of the general findings of the overall study. These findings provide a platform for future research into Chinese consumer decision making as well as a framework for future cross-cultural research of this kind.


Because so little research had been done regarding Chinese consumers, the focus of this study was the development of grounded theory in the area of cultural differences in information search and use. Based on a preliminary study using in-depth interviews of Chinese nationals living in North America (see Doran, 1994), a judgement was made that not enough information was readily available to justify anything but exploratory research at this juncture. A number of studies have alluded to the difficulty and applicability of using scales and other analytical tools across cultures (see, for example, Albaum and Peterson, 1984; Durvasula, Andrews, Lysonski and Netemeyr, 1993; and Rosenweig, 1994). As noted by Adler, Campbell and Laurent (1989), even a survey using relatively sophisticated techniques such as back translation could have severe validity and reliability problems because the questions asked were not relevant to the Chinese consumer. Therefore, the research utilized a combination of naturalistic inquiry, as described by Glaser and Strauss (1967), Lincoln and Guba (1985), Miles and Huberman (1984) and Strauss (1987) as well as quantitative data where possible to provide for different types of data as well as triangulation (Eisenhardt, 1989; Jick, 1979; Yin, 1984). In addition, given the epistemological assumptions of the study, the research utilized a certain amount of emergent design (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry, 1989).

Most of the methodological concerns in conducting the study centered on two major element: developing appropriate product categories to focus on and finding ways to create reasonably comparable sample groups despite cultural differences. Considerable effort was made to achieve trustworthiness for this type of data. The study made use of the five criteria established by Lincoldn and Guba (1985) and extended by Wallendorf and Belk (1989). These criteria to be strived for in interpretive research are credibility, transferability, dependability, confirmability and integrity.


One of the most daunting concerns in the study was finding appropriate participants. Theoretical sampling (Eisenhardt, 1989) was used in gathering data. In this study, participants were chosen because they were representative of the average consumer. In China this meant that respondents had access to consumer markets, and a standard of living high enough to actually be "consumers." On the other hand, in North America the main concern was that respondents were representative of "mainstream" [Because culture was a critical variable investigated in this work, it was important not to confound results with influences of minority subcultures. Mainstream, in this instance, is defined as the dominant cultural subgroup within the area being studied (Penaloza, 1994). In fact, "middle America" has been the classic sample group used in most North American research.] North American culture. Participants were prescreened briefly to determine their suitability. Participants in China were required to have an education level that would allow for literate information search and an income level that would allow for real consumption. Pre-screening in North America was generally used to determine the extent to which a given respondent was mainstream. North American respondents were required to be native English-speakers who were born in North America and whose parents were born in North America. Interviews were conducted in Chinese and English, using translators as necessary. In addition, since focus groups and interviews were videotaped, additional translators were used to check translation at a later time.

It became clear early in the development of the research plan that it would be impossible to find samples matched across the appropriate factors in the two cultures studied. For example, overall income levels as well as disposable income levels are wildly different in the two cultures. In addition, the monetary value assigned to various professions was very different, creating another problem. This particular issue was well put by a senior professor at Renmin University in Beijing. He noted that his income was slightly less than that of his son, who had just been hired to mop floors at a Beijing McDonald’s. Furthermore, huge differences exist in the educational background required to qualify for certain professions in the two cultures. As a result of these and other differences, the research design was changed to consist of two parallel studies whose insights would be compared later.


Cross-Cultural Parallelism

In addition to finding comparable sample groups, achieving cross-cultural parallelism is an important objective for research that examines more than one culture. In particular, there is an established link between a product’s meaning to the consumer and his/her level of involvement with the product (see, for example, Laurent and Kapferer, 1985; Zaichowski, 1985). This concept is especially important for an information search study since higher levels of involvement tend to lead to increased levels of information search (Bloch, Sherrell and Ridgeway, 1986). When examining cultures with different religions and philosophical roots, attributed product meaning may differ strongly for the same product (McCracken 1986, 1988a, 1990). In the current study, focus groups were used to identify products with similar levels of involvement in each culture. The focus groups were also able to help the researcher understand the potential symbolic meanings of those products. The final product selection used products that matched onvarious involvement levels in addition to some products that were direct matches, but did not have the same involvement levels.

It was also important to control for differences in the marketing environment that would change information search characteristics, but were not culturally-related. Several methods were used to develop a deep understanding of how the two market environments differed structurally. These differences included advertising and store differences, along with significantly different living conditions.

Preliminary Study

As a result of both the lack of applicable cross-cultural studies and the general dearth of consumer research on Chinese subjects, a preliminary study was undertaken to help develop theory for the current research (see Doran, 1994). Twenty-five in-depth interviews were conducted with Chinese nationals attending graduate school in Montreal. The focus of the pilot study was in two areas. First, the study looked at the general stages or phases of the decision process to ascertain whether they paralleled those of the stages described in studies focusing on North American populations. Second, the study investigated in depth the search for and use of information within those phases. The study was designed to produce a descriptive examination of the search and choice characteristics of the Chinese expatriate living in Montreal buying consumer electronics.

In addition, the preliminary study proved extremely useful in developing the initial focus group and interview protocols to be used in both China and North America. Finally, the pilot study gave some insight into how consumer scripts changed when a move from China to North America was undertaken.

Focus Groups

Three focus groups of five or six members each were conducted in each culture studied. Focus groups served a particularly compelling purpose when linked with other forms of data collection. Morgan (1988, p. 11) notes that focus groups are valuable in this context for

$orienting oneself to a new field;

$generating hypotheses based on informants’ insights;

$developing interview schedules and questionnaires;

$getting participants’ interpretations of results from earlier studies.

The focus groups were especially productive in identifying appropriate product categories to be discussed in each culture, as well as in helping to define interview questions. Maximizing information search was a critical element in ensuring that there would be enough data from each culture to ensure a deep description of processes. Therefore, product categories were chosen that ranged from very high levels of involvement, to high involvement, to moderately high involvement. Based on focus group responses, television, clothing and cosmetics were chosen for the Chinese sample each representing a different level of consumer involvement. Automobiles, television and clothing were chosen for the North American sample. Comparisons were then possible in two ways: first, a direct product-to-product comparison was possible for televisions and clothing; and, second, a comparison of different products with similar involvement levels (e.g., North American cars with Chinese televisions) was also possible.


Interviews were chosen as the principal method for data collection, since interviews allow for the development of a bettercross-cultural understanding where long-term cultural immersion and participant observation are not possible. Interviews also provided an opportunity to identify cultural preconceptions that might not be possible with other methods, such as surveys (McCracken, 1988b). Interviews were of two types: initial in-depth interviews and follow-up interviews. The in-depth interviews served as the data foundation for the study. Primary data gathering in China occurred in late 1994 and in North America stretched over most of 1995. Twenty-five in-depth interviews were conducted in each culture. Follow-up interviews were conducted on seven subsequent trips to China and in North America over the following three years. First, follow-up interviews allowed clarification of unclear issues that had emerged during data analysis. Second, they allowed the researcher to investigate issues not originally included, but that became important during data analysis. Third, follow-up interviews allowed the researcher to determine if attitudes and behaviors were changing over time. There were between 50 and 60 follow-up interviews in each culture, ranging in duration from about one-half hour to one and one-half hours.

Other Data Gathering Methods

In addition to focus groups and interviews, content analysis, store and product analysis and consumer observation were also used. Content analysis of print marketing information helped determine structural and environmental differences between the Chinese and North American markets. Data concerning store and goods characteristics were informative in analyzing cultural and structural differences between China and North America. Finally, consumer observation was undertaken in various retail establishment as well as at consumers’ homes. The primary purpose of observation was to verify that behaviors described in the focus groups and interviews actually reflected what was happening in stores and homes.


As with most qualitative research, data gathering and data analysis took place concurrently (Strauss, 1987; Strauss and Corbin, 1990), although analysis continued beyond the data gathering stage. As data was gathered and analyzed, each type of data was coded to help with theme development and analysis. While the procedure generally involved open coding first, followed by axial and then selective coding (Strauss and Corbin, 1990), this order blurs as researcher understanding increases. Then the coding process is often reiterated to look for newly discovered elements in the previously coded data. This form of reiteration is helpful in refining the construct, category or phenomenon. It is also helpful in building evidence to support and measure the construct. Coded data was then sorted and built into a series of comparisons and themes.


The end result of the study was a rich, holistic description of information search and use in two cultures. One particularly unexpected and rich outcome of the flexible research program was information on the symbolic meaning of television in everyday Chinese life (Doran, 1997a). Themes developed from the comparative data included patterns of search and purchase, enjoyment derived from the search and purchase process, time issues, and product use issues. In addition, there were themes relating to the use and credibility of information sources, the relationship between quality brand and price, and the dynamics of product country-of-origin. Finally, as the longitudinal element of the study proceeded, it became clear that change was a major theme in investigating both the role of the marketing environment and the actions of individual consumers.

One of the most interesting contrasts uncovered by th research is the difference between Chinese and North Americans in their perception of thrift (Doran, 1997b). For the Chinese, buying a high quality product that will provide superior performance over a long product life is considered thrifty. Alternatively, most North Americans equated thriftiness with cheap, easily replaced items. Chinese respondents were willing to wait for high involvement products, whereas North Americans were far more likely to buy whatever they could afford immediately.

Budgeting also shaped the search processes of the two groups. For North Americans, budget decisions are made at the beginning of the search based on a combination of cash and credit available, and often become one of the heuristics commonly used to limit the search. The Chinese, on the other hand, followed a truncated search pattern where the product was chosen, a budget set, and then they saved for the product. When the money had been saved, a follow-up search was made since considerable time might have passed.


Research design in multiple cultures, particularly where little previous research exists, is a minefield of potential problems. In most cases, it makes sense to begin a comparative research stream with one or more interpretive studies intended as a foundation for later research.

The preliminary study for the larger project proved to be an invaluable help in the overall research program development. The insights provided by immigrants who are not yet fully acculturated can be highly instrumental in identifying areas of cultural divergence that might impact on research results.

Care must be taken in sample selection. In the case of China and North America it is virtually impossible to match samples. Therefore, precautions need to be taken to control for variations to the extent possible. Similarly, direct product comparisons, while interesting, do not always yield the intended results. In the study here, it was far more important that products were matched by extent of search and involvement than by product category. It was useful, however, to also have direct product-by-product comparisons.

Using multiple methods was also an important factor in building credibility, particularly as most methods used were qualitative. For example, supplementing long interviews with in-store observation helped validate the self-reports of the respondents. Further, a careful scrutiny of the consumption environment through content analysis, study of store layouts and product availability, and home visits helped eliminate competing hypotheses for potentially ambiguous data.

Finally, the follow-up interviews were invaluable in pursuing additional information on topics that only emerged in importance through the process of data analysis, as well as providing the basis for a more longitudinal comparison.


Cross-cultural research presents many challenges, particularly in situations where the cultures studied are very different. However, careful planning can greatly ameliorate the likelihood of confounding problems. In most cases, it is important to begin by developing an equal basis of knowledge in the cultures studied. For some studies, that knowledge may be developed from existing research. In other cases, such as this study, it was necessary to create the foundational knowledge.

The next step will be to use the insights gained from this interpretive study to develop appropriate surveys to confirm the findings. Another aspect of the current study was that the data pointed to some potential use of culture as a determinant of consumer decision making. Further studies of a similar nature need to be conducted in additional cultures in order to provide triangulation for such a hypothesis

Cross-cultural studies are potential source for extremely rich research streams. Unfortunately, many researchers have not understood the potential pitfalls of such investigations. When approached with care and sufficient forethought, cross-cultural research can achieve high levels of rigor and ground breaking results.


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Kathleen Brewer Doran, Babson College, U.S.A.


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

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