Interpretivist and Positivist Insights Into Museum Consumption: an Empirical Enquiry Into Paradigm Compatibility

ABSTRACT - This paper examines the potential of cross paradigmatic and multi-method research in terms of research practice. It draws on two independent empirical studies which examine the common question of museum consumption from alternative paradigmatic perspectives, i.e., from the positivist and interpretivist traditions. The commonality, contrasts and contradictions uncovered when comparing the two studies from different paradigmatic roots shows the charge of incommensurability to be extreme. The structural dichotomy of research paradigms, and the use and construction of appropriate research discourses, have the potential to limit creativity in consumer research and obscure a common underlying paradigmatic heritage.


Andrea Davies and James A. Fitchett (2001) ,"Interpretivist and Positivist Insights Into Museum Consumption: an Empirical Enquiry Into Paradigm Compatibility", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 234-239.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 234-239


Andrea Davies, University of Exeter, United Kingdom

James A. Fitchett, University of Exeter, United Kingdom


This paper examines the potential of cross paradigmatic and multi-method research in terms of research practice. It draws on two independent empirical studies which examine the common question of museum consumption from alternative paradigmatic perspectives, i.e., from the positivist and interpretivist traditions. The commonality, contrasts and contradictions uncovered when comparing the two studies from different paradigmatic roots shows the charge of incommensurability to be extreme. The structural dichotomy of research paradigms, and the use and construction of appropriate research discourses, have the potential to limit creativity in consumer research and obscure a common underlying paradigmatic heritage.


Since the organisation of consumer research into a more or less coherent discipline or sub discipline, there has been a general commitment to interdisciplinary achievements (Kernan 1995), with paradigm diversity being broadly welcomed as constructive and progressive (Kavanagh 1994). It remains unclear as to whether paradigm diversity locates consumer research as pre-paradigmatic (Canella and Paetzold 1994), experiencing a paradigmatic 'shift’ (Kuhn 1970), or one that in some way has matured or been liberated (Anderson 1986, Firat and Venkateash 1995). On-going and unresolved debates concerning paradigmatic orientation clearly illustrate that many academics involved with consumption related enquiry have come to recognise that assumptions regarding material or mental determinism of social reality drive the research questions and the methods considered appropriate to apply (Hirschman 1992).

The identification of structural dichotomies to help contextualise and simplify paradigmatic issues and the subsequent demarcation of 'positivism’ and 'interpretivism’ as representing unified yet opposite and competing ways of generating knowledge (Calder and Tybout 1989; Hudson and Ozanne 1988), is a lasting legacy of early attempts to draw attention to the epistemological premises underlying consumer research enquiry. The permanence of the interpretivist/ positivist classification together with the subsequent demarcation of qualitative/ quantitative methodologies can perhaps be more clearly understood as an expression and consequence of structuralist thinking which had a particularly salient influence in American consumer research throughout the 1980’s, a time when methodological plurality was also topical. The outcome of these methodological enquiries, which retain credibility in mainstream consumer research texts today (Solomon et al, 1999), seem to ratify the belief that the aims, methods and research communities associated with 'positivist’ or 'interpretive’ research cannot be combined and integrated. Different philosophical assumptions have made it seem impossible to agree on the appropriate use of qualitative and quantitative methods, or to find a common set of criteria to evaluate the quality of research for all paradigms (e.g. Hunt 1991, Thompson 1990). Differences in researchers’ personalities (Brown 1999; Hirschman 1985; Leong et al 1994), socialisation and cultural environments (Anderson 1986; Hirschman 1992; Trocchia and Berkowitz 1999) suggest that there is little, or perhaps no choice in the paradigmatic orientation researchers adopt as their own. That research paradigms can be conceived of as human or social constructions (Anderson 1986; Kuhn 1970) and that researcher choice is partly predetermined by social factors may foster a degree of resignation to claims of paradigm incommensurablility. Such a development would be unfortunate and can only serve to fragment the field rather than encouraging the discipline to develop and build on current paradigm liberalism such as that advocated by Glen-Mick (1999) who, among others, continues to call for consumer researchers to explore the possibilities of multi-method, cross-paradigmatic and transdisciplinary research.

Some authors in both 'positivist’ and 'interpretivist’ camps have focused on the value added to research designed with some form of triangulation and mixed methods. Although the conceptualisation and use of triangulation differs in positivist and interpretivist perspectives, most studies have failed to recognise that the mixing of methods cannot be seen as synonymous with combining 'positivist’ and 'interpretivist’ world views, or the pursuit of cross-paradigmatic research (Silverman 1997). Positivist research integrates qualitative methods into quantitative research as a form of variable identification (Blumer 1967). Similarly, while an interpretivist may have used a numerical based analysis, this analysis is seen as a descriptive narrative constructed by the researcher (Charmaz 1995) which can be given no greater credibility than other discourses of explanation. Whilst there are examples of studies using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods (e.g. Nancarrow et al 1996; McQuarrie and Mick 1992), and others where attention has been given to the benefits of triangulation (Arnould and Price 1993), these studies and their use of mixed methods are typically based on one set of philosophical and ontological beliefs. A problem common to a liberal integrationist stance is that qualitative and quantitative methods are not given equal authority in the findings and conclusions drawn from empirical work (Hirschman 1985).

Phenomena-lead methodological choice, i.e. matching research paradigm and methods with the philosophical assumptions of the phenomena studie (Atkinson and Hamersley 1995; Lutz 1989) implies subject-specific limits to the application of cross-paradigmatic work. Phenomena-lead methodological choice holds that researchers could, or should, change their paradigmatic assumptions as they move from one subject of study to another, limited only by researchers aptitudes in more than one methodological area and willingness to venture beyond the comforts of tried and tested research methods (Lutz 1989). Some support for the viability of phenomena-lead paradigmatic choice can be found in the reported difficulties experienced by consumer researchers practising research within strict paradigmatic boundaries. Charges of the 'muddling of method’ (Baker et al 1992), the 'stand between’ metaphor (Charmaz, 1995) as a description of research practice, and Heath’s (1992) boundary blurring description of consumer researchers as 'liberal naturalists’ or 'conservative humanists’ suggests that strict theoretical justification for paradigmatic choice at least in terms of practice might be problematic. There would therefore appear to be a certain incongruency in the conceptualised paradigmatic divide between 'positivism’ and 'interpretivism’ and the lived experience of conducting consumer research. The debate and defence surrounding the commensurability of research paradigms is sustained largely at a conceptual level and by the social institutions and alliances that form the identity and agenda of consumer research sub-communities (Hoffman and Holbrook 1993).

Calls for transdisciplinary and cross paradigmatic research implies that some in the discipline are questioning the utility of epistemological fundamentalism as desirable hypothesis for single research projects or papers. The challenge to these endeavours remains an examination of paradigm incommensurability at an empirical as well as a theoretical level, with attention being given to the practice or exposition of appropriate ways of generating cross-disciplinary knowledge. One starting point, and perhaps the strongest test of commensurability, and the issues involved with cross-paradigmatic research, is to join, cross or mix two paradigms from across the meta-paradigmatic divide.


Here we aim to detail the diversity and complexity of mixed paradigm consumer research not in terms of design, but rather in terms of practice, interpretation and use. The lack of broadly comparable case studies undertaken in similar research contexts has also hindered the exploration of paradigm commersurability as practised as opposed to conceptualised. We employ what can be broadly understood as a textual analytical perspective. That is, taking each of the two studies as texts we can consider the discursive framing, historical contexts and settings in which they were prepared and conducted. The aim of the analysis is to deconstruct the qualitative or descriptive contrasts evident in the two studies, to compare their respective assumptions and justifications, identify agreement and disagreement in the main findings, and to highlight the paradigmatic contradictions held within each study.

Two independent empirical studies which focused on museum consumption and the explanation of the museum visiting experience as a consumption experience are examined. The two studies were conducted in Scotland, UK between 1995 and 1997. Study A (Davies 1999) was undertaken in accordance with what would be identified as a positivist paradgm whereas Study B (Fitchett 1998, Fitchett & Saren 1998) was undertaken in the interpretivist tradition. The independence of the two studies in terms of design, field work and analysis offers a rare opportunity from which to explore the value-added, convergence, contradictions and problems of mixed paradigm research. Our present examination explores the limits of the incommesnuarbility thesis uncontaminated by the compromises that can be incurred from an integrationist or pluralist stance. The present examination is grounded first and foremost in the empirical insights the two studies profess to offer so that the areas of compatibility and contradiction can be explored in terms of data rather conceptual premise.


Study A takes the traditional psychological/ behaviourist paradigm in consumer research as its basis, applying the Theory of Planned Behaviour to compare several predictive models of museum visiting behaviour, based on a stratified spatial random sample of 400 individuals, and using a two-stage structural equation modelling analysis technique. The intangible experiences outcomes shared by museum visitors, and disliked, or undervalued by museum non-visitors, is offered as the basis for enlarging the explanation of museum visiting and non-visiting behaviour by improved descriptive depth and predictive validity.

Study B draws heavily on Marxist and Post Marxist critical theory to examine whether the museum experience is organised in terms of a commodity code, and visiting a museum as an act of consumption. Study B offers a cultural/macro explanation of museum visiting, identifying the cultural processes which have enabled 'aspects’ history and culture (museum exhibitions) to become represented and consumed as commodities. Based on a naturalistic methodology where 40 qualitative interviews are supplemented with photographs to ensure sensitivity to the natural setting, the design of the study aims to maximise thickness and depth and stresses the authority of the author in developing/presenting the description and interpretation the museum experience.

Both studies clearly justify their chosen research philosophies and conduct, analyse and report the research process in accordance with the principles ascribed to their respective methodologies. Study A presents data by drawing on conventions of quantitative modelling. Study B relies upon textual data and description. Study A maintains a focus on individual cognitive processes to explain museum visiting whereas Study B focuses exclusively on the explication of socio-structural codes to describe and understand the experience. Quantitative citation analysis (Davies & Fitchett 2000) further confirms Study A as subsumed within a 'positivist’ mode of inquiry and the identity of Study B as within the 'interpretivist’ tradition. Study B, consistent with the 'newer’ or 'radical’ element of consumer research and committed to a macro-analysis draws more heavily than Study A on disciplines out with mainstream consumer research, including sociology, anthropology and cultural studies. In contrast Study A, consistent with the characteristics of a maturing subject area (attitude-theory) draws less heavily on proximal parent disciplines, relying to a greater extent on self-references to both attitude theory and research design developed within the field of consumer behaviour.


When analysed as a socially and historically located phenomenon marketing science can be shown to have common traits or dominant themes. For instance, broadly speaking one can identify periods when the discipline has been almost totally pre-occupied with psychological and economic theory to explain the behaviour of individual consumers, and other periods when social psychology and group processes theory was more widely used. The decision as to exactly what should become a major influence in the generation of consumer research knowledge is of course emergent and organic rather than explicitly planned by any one group or institution. It is dependent on the concerns and interests pervasive in broader society, the academic backgrounds of new consumer research scholars entering the field, as well as audiences out with academia who have an interest in consumer research. This 'spirit of the times’ or 'zeitgeist’ can perhaps be understood as providing a general backdrop or motivation which underlies the direction of the field.

The rationale for each study to consider a more or less identical subject (museum consumption experiences) is not co-incidental but demonstrates the importance of location or environment, both in terms of disciplinary socialisation and broader social and cultural contexts. Both studies were conducted in the mid 1990’s when ideas relating to postmodernism, consumer culture, and consumption symbolism were becoming common aspects of marketing thought. The questioning of traditional disciplinary boundaries which located consumer research in commercial product based contexts, as well the opportunity to further empirically examine increasingly popular conceptual ideas concerning the consumption experience, tourism and leisure activities as marketing related processes, provides a nominal explanation for the common research basis. The following extracts from the early chapters of both studies highlights the common research objectives resulting from the zeitgeist of ideas in marketing at the conception of the studies. These include: 1) defining the consumption experience, 2) extending the study of consumption to non-commercial settings, and 3) an interest in what has been called post-modern consumer behaviours.

Study A: "In an over-supplied heritage attractions market and against a background of increasingly demanding and discerning consumers bent on avid 'experience’ seeking of the past, present and future it has now become a matter of urgency for museum professionals to understand the determinants of museum visiting intentions, customer satisfaction and the potentials for market development. Studies from diverse literatures beyond heritage research have been relatively more substantial in their concern with consumption experiences An examination of studies from [consumer research] offer[s] potential classifications of experience useful to understand the possible 'nature’ of the museum experience, and to forward the conceptual development of a research agenda focused on consumer and non-consumer experiences of heritage consumptionThe overall aim of the thesis is to contribute to the understanding andknowledge of museum consumption behaviour framed within an experiential management approach."

Study B: "The museum profession, like many other 'culture industries’, has had to respond to a changing environment. The structure of public funding together with the limitations placed on national and regional government expenditure has meant that many museums have been forced to reconsider their priorities and strategies for continued survival... As a consequence, the role of the visitor has undergone somewhat of a metamorphosis. As museums become organised like businesses, visitors become increasingly redefined as consumers. The problem however, which is central to this investigation, is what exactly constitutes the museum commodity? If museum visitors are consumers, then what do they consume? The museum, as a site of consumption, presents several problems in terms of existing theories of consumer behaviour, namely the lack of any economic exchange, material acquisition or functional utility relating to 'needs’. The primary objective of this empirical investigation is to examine whether a semiotic, cultural theory of consumption can be applied to understand museum consumption."

The social, historical and disciplinary basis of the two studies clearly identifies significant areas of similarity, and in some key respects the premise for both studies is common. Despite clear paradigmatic differences both studies can be seen to share these common underlying themes and motivations. Whilst these commonalties in terms of what we refer to as the 'marketing zeitgeist’ do not necessarily undermine or marginalise methodological differences, it does place methodological questions in an appropriate context and further problematises dogmatic representations of methodological commensurability associated with a phenomena-led logic to making methodological choices. To some extent consumer research conducted under different paradigmatic assumptions yet at common times, places, and with similar pre-occupations, concerns and common world views would be expected to have considerable interchangability.


Both studies confirm their respective schematic premises, namely Study A confirms the explanation of the museum experience using the Theory of Planned Behaviour and Study B finds support for the macro/ cultural commodification thesis. The two sets of findings in terms of their central premise neither compliment nor contradict one another. Study A reports its findings with little concern for the cultural, historical or social conditions of consumer behaviour in the context of the museum and Study B offers little behavioural explanation for respondents actions. Of course it would be erroneous to assume that th fact that both studies confine the use of their results within their own selected theoretical frameworks as an indication of paradigmatic difference. The coherence and rigour demanded of all research, whether interpretivist or positivist, by necessity leads to specialised modes of enquiry.

As a result of textual analysis the findings evident in both studies, whilst leading to somewhat disparate ends, do share some common traits which are of interest to our current paradigmatic exploration. These common findings might support a positivist view that triangulation offers a useful methodological procedure to uncover aspects of the consumption reality using more than one method of analysis. An interpretive perspective on the other hand would argue that common research findings from seemingly oppositional methodological schools indicates more fundamental areas of agreement within the discipline as a whole. The main areas of commonality were identified with:

1. Visitors’ perceptions of authenticity

2. The issue of active participation and construction of the museum experience

3. Visitors’ desire to maintain a degree of personal control and to take responsibility for the museum experience.


Both studies identify consumer research as having traditionally viewed consumption as a passive activity, with the main focus being on the object of consumption and the manner in which it is provided or supplied. The two studies use empirical evidence to argue that consumption in a museum context is a mutually constructive process involving active interpretation and personalisation/singularisation, furthering contemporary ideas of consumer as producer (or co-producer) of the consumption experience:

STUDY B: When visitors come into contact with museum artefacts, they use this experience to make stories about the past. In some cases this narrative construction was highly personal, relating to aspects of the visitors own past. This was particularly evident in the Museum of Transport with visitors who could remember the exhibits when they functioned as vehicles of public transport. In producing these stories about the past, visitors used the artefacts to structure their narratives, as if by being close to objects, the memories and stories about the past were more visual and more real and therefore more useful or visitors when constructing their own narratives. Museum artefacts have a unique use value for visitors in the sense that no other form of presentation can provide this insight into the past or provide the components for this type of narrative construction. Visitors did not only construct stories around objects they had personal experience of but also with objects from periods beyond their own life time or from other cultural spaces.

STUDY A: Imagineering’ or the professional dreaming-up of three dimensional fantasies which are planned and reconstructed for the total experience has become common place in our developing urban landscape (are) characteristic of postmodern society as hyperreality (Eco 1986, Postman 1985, Firat 1997, van Raaij 1993). In terms of perceived positive reactions to the museum exhibitions, the idea and object based museums were found to significantly diverge in terms of hedonic cognitions and wakeful daydreaming, ..personal and non-personal imagery (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982). In particular, strong differences were noted for 'feeling the past is brought to life’ (p<.000, Cramer’s V =. 38) and 'creating images in your mind of how and who used the objects’ (p<.000, Cramer’s V = .36). For instance, 80.0% of idea-based museum respondents said it was extremely or quite likely that the 'past would be brought to life’ (p<.000, Cramer’s V =. 38), compared to only 46.5% of object-based museum respondents. Similarly, more respondents in the idea-based museum thought it was extremely or quite likely (77.0%) that would 'creates images in their minds of how and who used the objects’, compared to 46.0% respondents in the object-based museum sample (p<.000, Cramer’s V = .36).These findings confirm that the idea-based museum is far more effective at facilitating respondents’ imaginations. 'Imagineering’, has been shown as a positive and enabling change agent (Lumley 1994, 1988) rather than an inability to come to terms with the past with its associated experiences of nostalgia and escapism (Hewison 1987, Lowenthal 1985)..(and) the fourth dimension extracted from principal component analysis (to describe the structure of museum experience) represents the experiential cognitions described by Hirschman (1985). Variables which loaded significantly on this dimension included 'feeling a connection with the past’, 'imagining what your life would have been like living in the past’, 'imagining who used and how the objects were used’ and 'feeling admiration for the skill and craftsmanship of people in the past’.

This area of common findings presents both studies with the opportunity to develop and progress their respective theoretical starting points although for very different reasons. Study A uses the finding to suggest that behavioural assumptions need to accommodate a greater level of individual action which it has tended to lack. Study B uses a similar finding to propose that commodity theory (which represents the consumer as being alienated from the productive sphere) needs to be modified to incorporate an active or interpretive component.

Paradigmatic debates makes single authoritative interpretations difficult. A broadly realist or objectivist perspective might suggest that the both studies are reporting on the same phenomenon but using alternative frames of reference or discourses to explain it. The phenomenon can be taken as an empirical reality viewed through alternative paradigmatic lenses. Such reasoning might add weight to the view of triangulation as a method of empirical verification and validation and would also underplay claims of paradigm incommersurability. Taking a slightly more social constructivist stance, one might consider the general trend in consumer research towards giving greater expression to consumer action (Firat and Venkatesh 1995), and a general validation of consumption as legitimate personal expression as sufficient cause for the commonality in findings.


Behavioural theory suggests that individual action, including consumption actions are determined by external antecedents and that value is to a certain extent imposed (Study A). Commodity theory concurs with this assumption in that individual action is considered to be regulated and formulated by the social relations of the commodity form (Study B). Both studies argue for a greater recognition of individual facticity in value creation than is generally permitted by either behaviourist or cultural (structural) theories. Consumption experiences in which the consumer is permitted to take a significant degree of control are perceived as being of greater value and significance than those where control is restricted or maintained by some other group, such as producers of the museum experience:

STUDY B: The reality principle is a compromise. On one level a video presentation offers greater potential in terms of an accurate depiction of history because it can show far more than the objects alone. It can depict the artefact in use, it can show how the object was integrated into everyday social life and thus represent history more authentically. However, the level of abstraction such a presentation imposes is considered by visitors to be limiting and verging on simulation. It adds a further barrier between the visitor and the already vague and disappearing past. Since close proximity to objects is of principle concern to museum visitors, the video, film or picture media loses its authenticity because of the distance it imposes between artefact and the object desiring visitor. The object display, as seen in the museum, allows this disadvantage to be overcome - but at a price. The visitors’ choice is unanimous. The object discourse is given principle value and the visitor is prepared to ignore and even fail to recognise, the obvious disadvantages.

STUDY A: The largest differences in perceptions of the two museums were related to the interpretative environment, and in particular, the ability of visitors to engage with the objects displayed and to interact with interpretive media. 'Being able to touch objects’ (p<.000, Cramer’s V = .49), 'using computers’ (p<.000, Cramer’s V = .43) and 'using models’ (p<.000, Cramer’s V = .41) were all more strongly observed in the idea-based museum. For example, 43.0% of respondents rated 'being able to touch objects’ as extremely likely in the idea-based museum compared to only 8.5% of respondents who found this to be the case for the object-based museum"

The influence of post-modern thought, questions over authentic representation, hyper-reality, and the primacy of the image over referents are evidenced in both studies. The debate in the museum profession over the importance of the 'authentic’ and criticisms about the 'disneyfication’ of museum interpretation emerge as common traits. Both studies focus on issues of authenticity as a vehicle to contribute to this debate, namely, that rather than being an externally verifiable construct authenticity is in fact a subjectively constructed condition, i.e. something that is created by the consumer/ visitor rather than being established by an authoritative body. Even when museum exhibits were clearly not 'real’ in the sense that they were not original or actual examples of the object being represented, consumers were able to find authenticity in the 'fake’ on account of the significance of their own experience. Reality emerges from the experience of being in the position to experience and is not located in the object.


The present focus on commonalties in terms of findings illustrates the obvious problems associated with arguments regarding paradigm incommersurability when considered solely on a theoretical or conceptual basis. The two studies are both highly conformist to their respective paradigmatic schools, yet report common findings and use similar explanations to justify and elaborate their discussions. The degree of commonality would seem to indicate that although one study could accurately be described as positivist and the other interpretivist, this difference is in practice mainly a methodological, or surface level feature. There would seem to be a shared underlying cause to both studies which is defined by some basic paradigmatic/disciplinary assumptions present in consumer research. A pragmatic option may well be to reject theoretical incomersurabilty in favour of methodological integration, where results from both interpretivist and positivist schools are accepted as providing insight. However, an integrationist approach requires that one research position is retained as central and consequently data from other research traditions are unlikely to match a required standard o criteria. A positivist study does, for instance, have to be selective about the kinds of insights integrated from an interpretive study due to the absence of valid and reliable measures. The lack of descriptive depth in positivist studies may hinder any potential contribution to an interpretive piece, although if positivist methodology is accepted as one possible narrative or discourse of explanation it is at least plausible to develop an integrationist approach from a interpretivist perspective.

The main area of contrast would appear to be between the need to adhere to the principles of research practice and the experience of research conduct, rather than whether the studies are interpretivist or positivist in design. This implies that the prevailing role of philosophy of science issues, especially dichotomous categorisations, fails to adequately represent the phenomenological basis of consumer research. The discourses that are used in consumer research to report and 'construct’ an accepted knowledge base clearly share a common basis and this common paradigmatic heritage needs greater representation to avoid other differences from being exaggerated.


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Andrea Davies, University of Exeter, United Kingdom
James A. Fitchett, University of Exeter, United Kingdom


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001

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