Epilogue: Lessons Learned


Russell W. Belk (1991) ,"Epilogue: Lessons Learned", in SV - Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, eds. Russell Belk, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 234-238.

Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, 1991     Pages 234-238


Russell W. Belk

I have no regrets about having "done" the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, nor about recruiting others to come along. It was without doubt a more challenging and rewarding research experience than any I had undertaken previously. The experience was all-consuming and totally engrossing. I learned a great deal that would have been much more difficult to learn in other ways, and my teaching and research career has substantially and indelibly changed as a result. The Odyssey also forged or reshaped a number of friendships that I am confident will last a lifetime.

That said, if I knew then what I know now, it would not have been necessary to do the Odyssey. The Odyssey served its purposes well in shaking some colleagues and me out of our complacency, stimulating new substantive and theoretical insights, learning research methods that were new to most of us, and bringing the attention of the field to an alternative paradigm and research agenda. But, knowing what I know now, I would do things differently. This brief postscript outlines what I feel I have learned and how I would conduct the Odyssey in retrospect.


The initial intent was for the Odyssey to be an unfreezing experience. Whereas the standard anthropological task is to make the strange familiar, the task of the Odyssey was to make the familiar strange (Burgess 1984): to force us to see it with "new eyes." By taking the participants out of the environments with which we were most familiar and forcing us to encounter "alien" environments, it was hoped that we could learn to see things differently without the implicit taken - for- granted knowledge and blind spots that we all too soon adapt when we are comfortable with the situations in which we participate. We did learn to see with new eyes, to question what we previously accepted, and to open ourselves to more intense perception of the consumer behavior occurring around us. But, in retrospect, it was not necessary to encounter such a diverse array of otherness or to cover so much geographic territory in order to accomplish this unfreezing.

Some phenomena such as collecting and sacred and profane aspects of consumption, were undoubtedly explored much more thoroughly and completely by covering as much ground as we did. But other phenomena of a more concrete and site-specific nature were less thoroughly explored and less completely understood than they might have been. To really know the Amish, art shows, horse ownership, house decoration, automobile ownership, or any of a number of other specific consumption behaviors examined, requires more intense study than the Odyssey was able to devote to any one of these phenomena. Thus, were I restructuring a summer-long project to awaken complacent researchers to new methods and new ways of seeing, I would choose a single consumption phenomenon and, if appropriate to this focus, a single research site. Ideally, the site(s) would be far enough away to constitute a field station, since much of the unfreezing experience would quite likely be lost by 9:00 to 5:00 research in which we all return to the familiarity and comfort of our home environments each evening (or each daytime or weekday in other instances). Locale, however, depends on the research focus, as does concentration on a single intact group and research site.

In concentrating the study more, longer term informant relationships become feasible and the researchers also have a greater opportunity to track dynamic behaviors over time. It is also more feasible to understand longitudinal processes and to detect misimpressions with a more extended period of time. It is not necessary to adopt the standard anthropological model of a year in the field in a foreign culture (although a Utah marketing Ph.D. student is now contemplating such a study and Arnould's 1989 study of Niger is based on repeated extended visits), but time should be allowed to reach closure at a site or with a phenomenon before moving on to the next engagement. In fairness to the Odyssey research, numerous projects stimulated by the Odyssey were continued after the initial project and some of these are still underway with further data collection and analysis planned. But for training new researchers, a more focused research project now seems preferable to the movable feast of the Odyssey. Only if the nature of the phenomenon studied requires it (e.g., changing residence, driving, vacation touring) would a moving research platform be preferred.

In fact, this lesson learned is reflected in my own subsequent research and that of a number of other Odyssey participants as well (some of which is presented in this volume). John Sherry has continued with research at a single swap meet. He and Mary Ann McGrath have continued a multiple-year project at two gift stores. Mary Ann and Deborah Heisley continued farmer's market work started prior to the Odyssey. Jeff Durgee, Melanie Wallendorf, and Morris Holbrook revisited the homes of several women interviewed on the Odyssey, and Tom O'Guinn, Melanie Wallendorf, and I have revisited several men interviewed on the Odyssey about their cars. I have made a number of repeat visits to a man who accumulated three garages hill of treasures, and was joined by Melanie Wallendorf during a term she spent in Utah on sabbatical. Melanie and I have also revisited informants cultivated at swap meets on the Odyssey and during the pilot study. Tom O'Guinn continued his work on "touching greatness" after the Odyssey, and together we have revisited Mann's Chinese Theatre and continued to interview visitors to various mansions. Tom and I also extended this work to a project at Heritage Village, U.S.A. following the Odyssey. Several of us have continued work on pets and collections. And four of the Odyssey participants (Deborah Heisley, Mary Ann McGrath, Scott Roberts, and John Schouten) have now completed qualitative doctoral dissertations with more prescribed foci. In addition, the majority of the Odyssey participants have taken up new qualitative research projects since the Odyssey, all of which are focused on narrower topics than the total Odyssey agenda. My own on-going or completed qualitative projects since the Odyssey also include studies of dating and gift-giving, Halloween consumption, automobile restoration, museum presentation and consumption, the meanings of possessions in India and among Indian immigrants to the U.S., possessions of early Mormon pioneers moving to Utah, sports fans, nouveaux riches consumption, in-home music listenership, and modem mountain men reenacting fur trade rendezvous. Many of these projects have been conducted jointly with others, including Joyce Arntz, Greg Coon, Janeen Costa, Raj Mehta, Tom O'Guinn, John Schouten, Sherri Stevens, Melanie Wallendorf, and Melissa Young.

Taken together, these research topics may not indicate less promiscuous research agendas by Odyssey participants, but they do reflect much more thorough and continuous data collection efforts than were possible during the Odyssey per se. One thing that has not changed since the Odyssey in selecting these topics is the continued focus on areas of consumption that are important to informants. It is not impossible to do good qualitative work on low involvement consumption (e.g., Tom O'Guinn has done a project on mayonnaise and I have done a project on footwear), but emotionally involving consumption is a far more neglected part of the consumer research agenda because nonnaturalistic research such as survey and laboratory studies are inherently unsuitable for such work.

Despite these lessons learned, if someone reading this should want to do a variant of the Odyssey across multiple venues and multiple topics, please dol For besides choosing topics that are important and of interest to informants, it is imperative for good research that the topics be of all-consuming interest to the researcher as well. I have seen some videotapes of an excellent European Odyssey organized by Peter Gerlitz near Dusseldorf, in cooperation with Grey Advertising. Subsequently Peter did interviews with East Berliners coming to buy things in West Berlin just after the wall came down. This sort of adventurous and opportunistic spirit in research is precisely the spirit likely to lead researchers to quality research projects and to sustain them in the inevitably long hours of intensive work required by qualitative data collection and analysis. If piling into a recreational vehicle and heading cross-country is what gets you excited enough to muster this concentrated effort, by all means do so.


Other Odyssey participants will confirm that we learned a great deal about how to conduct qualitative research during the Odyssey. These lessons range from types of equipment to use and fine points on interviewing techniques to broad philosophical positions on how to design and evaluate such research. The following enumeration begins with some of the finer points and builds toward broader considerations.

1. Bring two or more of each essential piece of equipment.

This means two video cameras and numerous tapes, multiple batteries, multiple audio recorders and tapes, multiple computers and lots of disks, duplicate still cameras, film, and lenses, spare clothes, and alternate transportation, as well as multiple human instruments. The human instruments are interviewers, camera persons, bulk film loaders, film editors, "donkeys" (who schlepp equipment), gofers (who go for things), cooks, drivers, map-readers, leaders, and gender representatives (for bi-gender research teams are a distinct advantage, as discussed in 2). Murphy's law applies here, and waiting for repairs or, worse, losing key records of events, is a distinctly frustrating experience. One way to build-in extra human instruments is to have everyone cross-trained in as many research roles as possible (I admit that learning another gender may prove difficult). Equipment back-up is more expensive, but well worth the investment. There are few more anguishing experiences than watching an absolutely brilliant videotaped interview that has inexplicably lost all sound. All of this extra equipping should be done with an eye to minimizing weight and bulk without compromising quality.

2. Use a research team.

While it is not absolutely necessary for qualitative research to involve multiple researchers working together, there are substantial advantages to be gained through such a team. Because the researcher is the instrument in qualitative research, no two researchers are likely to elicit the same responses from informants or observe and interpret in precisely the same way. By building diversity into a research team, maximal triangulation of perspectives is possible. Specialization potential and adaptivity to research situations are also increased. If there is an informant who appears to respond better to a male or female or old or young researcher, the diverse team is able to call upon the best suited member. If technical expertise is needed for an interview or for operating a piece of equipment, a well-staffed and well-trained team is better able to provide it. If multiple informants (e-g., a family) are encountered, various research team members can work with the individual family members. And where multiple team members are present for an interview, not only is triangulation possible, but one researcher can concentrate in taking notes or running a video camera or tape recorder while another concentrates more on conducting the interview.

There is a further advantage in terms of the moral support offered by working in a group context. It remains a test of courage to initially approach a stranger to gain entry to a research situation or secure an interview, and having a coworker along does much to evoke and sustain the courage that is needed. Given the overwhelmingly cooperative nature of people I have interviewed, it is easy to dismiss this need for moral support in retrospect. But on the Odyssey and a number of research projects since, I have been grateful to have someone at my side during many research experiences.

At the same time, there is generally a subtle competition between research team members to get the best "stuff' -- insightful interviews with probing questions and revealing answers, rapport with informants, detail in fieldnotes, and sensitivity and insight in journals and analysis. It is here that much of the pride in research skills that may not directly show in a research report, nevertheless is expressed in the daily procedures visible to team colleagues. This brings up the interesting question of whether doctoral dissertations can utilize team research. The concept is not entirely unprecedented and has been employed in sociology. A less radical alternative is cooperative exchange of researchers helping on one another's projects. Tom O'Guinn and I have successfully worked with each other in this way.

There are two changes I am beginning to make from the ways in which research teams were used in the Odyssey. One is that the research team should remain as intact as possible. in working with the same people you get to know one another's strengths and skills and also develop a comfortable, and usually humor-laden, style of working together. This knowledge and working relationship is disrupted by changes in the research team as was common on the Odyssey. It also disrupts the developing synergy of the research team and the ability to be able take advantage of the right person for a given research task. The other change in the use of teams I would recommend is, as much as possible, to assure beforehand that the research team members have compatible work styles and either similar objectives or agreement that the different researchers have differing objectives which should be jointly pursued by all. Different work styles relate not so much to relatively minor things like waking hours and neatness as to such broad considerations as need for closure and adaptability to different conditions. I tend to have a high tolerance for ambiguity and do not feel I benefit from attempts to analyze data too early in the research process. When I am asked to do so prematurely (to my mind), I feel the research quality is compromised and the mode of reasoning has inappropriately shifted from intuition to the assembly of facts. However, such differences are less likely to be a problem in a long-standing research team in which members have gotten to know one another's research strategies and patterns more fully and to work out ways respect these differences and work together most effectively.

3. Plan to take longer.

Qualitative research requires more time and effort than quantitative research. Data collection takes longer, data management is more complex, and data analysis is lengthier and far more challenging than with quantitative research. 'nine in the field may well be 24 hours a day when research is underway. For every hour of data collection, two or three may be spent in doing fieldnotes and journals. Transcriptions take longer. There are often photos, videotapes, audiotapes, and artifacts to index and organize. Producing a 40-minute videotape report of the Odyssey took months, including some all-night efforts with Deborah Heisley, Tom O'Guinn, and Melanie Wallendorf, with later assistance from Scott Roberts. Data analysis is aided by specialized text retrieval programs such as ZyIndex and WordCruncher and by coding programs such the Ethnograph, TAP, and HyperQual, but these programs do not analyze in the sense that quantitative statistics packages do (Tesch 1990). The result is that such research involves longer and more challenging time periods than survey and experimental work. There is also less certainty as to when the project will be complete since emerging design means that the focus may evolve and saturation of conceptual categories cannot be scheduled in advance. Ideally time should be allowed for co-researchers to be together during data analysis as well as during data collection. The payoff that justifies such time and effort is not entirely dependent upon project completion however. Work with informants and colleagues can be rewarding and gratifying in itself in ways that seldom occur in quantitative research.

4. Use more participant observation.

While participant observation was employed on the Odyssey (e.g., by selling and assisting sellers at swap meets), there was not adequate time spent at any one site to do sufficient participant observation. Subsequent research has taught me that additional perspective and emotional involvement is gained through extended participation in a research site or phenomenon. Having spent the past summer making and wearing buckskins needed to participate in rendezvous and other modern mountain man activities, I can attest that in this case interviewing is not an adequate substitute for doing. The Odyssey did employ in-situ observation of phenomena of interest, but seldom as full participants. We stopped short of the "blitzkrieg ethnography" Ray Rist warned against (1980) and we came to understand well a number of phenomena that cut across research sites and groups of informants. But the summer-long cross-country Odyssey did not allow the luxury of intimate knowledge of any single site visited.

5. Make fewer compromises with positivism.

Naturalistic inquiry, as presented by Lincoln and Guba (1985) and as largely adopted by the Odyssey, contains a number of compromises with positivism, including the counterparts of reliability and validity for qualitative research. A paper by Wallendorf and Belk (1989) explains how these methods were adapted by the Odyssey and offers a mild critique of such procedures as audits and member checks. I now feel that even these adapted procedures make the mistake of attempting to present research in a way that will be more acceptable to positivists who assume that there is a singular underlying objective reality which can be confirmed by triangulation, audits, member checks, peer debriefings, and other such methods. The mistake is not in these methods per se, which may do relatively little harm to the research enterprise, but in the homage these methods may pay to a set of philosophical assumptions that are antithetical to the ethnographic enterprise. As Smith and Heshusius (1986) argue, to attempt to bring the qualitative and quantitative research traditions together in this way does great violence to the premises of relativism that underlie virtually all qualitative research traditions. It is more imperative to recognize that reality is socially constructed, that the qualitative researcher is related to the research and to informants in an impassioned and emotional way (Denzin 1989), and that truth is neither a matter of validity or of simply applying the proper research methods. Although reflexivity is a significant postmodernist issue in ethnography at the present time (e.g., Clifford 1988, Clifford and Marcus 1986, Jackson 1989), implicitly or explicitly adopting the philosophy of positivism is certain to lead to the same sterility that quantitative positivism has produced in consumer research.


It is too easy to leave this assessment of Odyssey implications at the workbench level of tips for conducting qualitative and naturalistic research. But the Odyssey methods also have broader implications for the potential course of consumer research. For more than just adding to the methodological tool kit of consumer researchers, qualitative methods enable research into issues and problems that have proven difficult or impossible to assess with survey and experimental research. The topics made accessible by such methods include macro issues in consumption (e.g., the development of consumer culture around the world, the phenomenology of holiday consumption), interpersonal aspects of consumption (e.g., gift-giving in dating, social networks involved in modern mountain man rendezvous), and considerations of what happens after advertising and purchase (e.g., the meanings of possessions, the emotions involved in disposition). In part, the new array of topics opened to investigation by qualitative research presents itself because these methods are more sensitive and can probe for deeper and "squishier" feelings than are likely to be tapped by quantitative measures. In addition, a new set of topics emerges with qualitative methods because these methods are more emergent and informant-focused and are less apt to impose an inappropriate a priori agenda of concepts, perspectives, and topics. Very often this results in informant discussions of products rather than brands, product use rather than purchase, and personally and socially constructed consumption meanings rather than marketer-constructed message processing.

Visual artists often speak of finding ways to solve problems in representing their visions. It is in this sense that qualitative methods have been especially useful to me. I struggled for more than ten years trying to find meaningful ways to investigate collecting and pet ownership before my eyes were opened to qualitative methods. Qualitative methods proved the solution to many problems I was having in trying to understand gift-giving phenomena (cf. Belk 1976, 1979 versus Belk and Coon 199 1). Qualitative research is not appropriate for all consumer research problems, but I find that it is the key to many of those problems I find interesting.

It is also potentially significant that qualitative methods have gained popularity in consumer research at just the time that consumption topics are becoming legitimate in a variety of other disciplines that more fully embrace qualitative methods: sociology, anthropology, communications, history, popular culture studies, American culture studies, semiotics, literary studies, phenomenological psychology, and others. It is becoming increasingly apparent that consumer research does not occur solely within the membership of the Association for Consumer Research or the pages of the Journal of Consumer Research. Both in order  to be conversant with the new genres of consumer research and consumer researchers and in order to avoid having ACR and JCR come to be narrowly perceived as interested only in micro consumer behavior issues and quantitative research methods, it seems  opportune that qualitative studies have begun to permeate the ACR/JCR nexus of consumption research.

Thus, the more subtle impact of the Odyssey may be more substantive than methodological. There is a broad unexplored world of consumption waiting to be investigated and I hope that the Odyssey has in a small way helped us to be better prepared for this greater journey.


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Belk, Russell (1976), "It's The Thought That Counts: A Signed Digraph Analysis of Gift Giving," Journal of Consumer Research, 3 (December), 155-162.

Belk, Russell W. (1979), "Gift-Giving Behavior," Research in Marketing, Vol. 2, ed. Jagdish N. Sheth, Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 95-126.

Belk, Russell W. and Gregory S. Coon (1991), "Can't Buy Me Love: Dating, Money, and Gifts," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, Rebbecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, eds., Provo: Association for Consumer Research, 521-527.

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Lincoln, Yvonna S. and Egon G. Guba (1985), Naturalistic Inquiry, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

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Smith, John I, and Lous Heshusius (1986), "Closing Down the Conversation: The End of the Quantitative-Qualitative Debate Among Educational Inquirers," Educational Researcher, 15 (January), 4-12.

Tesch, Renata (1990), Qualitative Research: Analysis Types and Software Tools, New York: Falmer Press.

Wallendorf, Melanie and Russell W. Belk (1989), "Assessing Trustworthiness in Naturalistic Consumer Research," Interpretive Consumer Research, Elizabeth Hirschman, ed., Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 64-84.



Russell W. Belk


SV - Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey | 1991

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