Consumer Research: Some History, Trends, and Thoughts

ABSTRACT - This paper presents a discussion of the impact of environmental events on consumer research as well as general research transitions within the discipline. Proposed is a pattern of the developmental phases through which consumer research topics generally proceed. The foundation for this examination was the classification of 32 years of consumer research articles.


James G. Helgeson, John Mager, and E. Alan Kluge (1985) ,"Consumer Research: Some History, Trends, and Thoughts", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 155-159.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 155-159


James G. Helgeson, Gonzaga University

John Mager, Utah State University

E. Alan Kluge, Oregon State University


This paper presents a discussion of the impact of environmental events on consumer research as well as general research transitions within the discipline. Proposed is a pattern of the developmental phases through which consumer research topics generally proceed. The foundation for this examination was the classification of 32 years of consumer research articles.


Consumer research is obviously not exempt from the impact that the accelerated rate of information generation is having on mankind. The fact that the study of consumer behavior has grown from being a subpart of marketing, psychology, and other disciplines, to the point where it is becoming a discipline in its own right is an indication of the amount of information (body of knowledge) that has accumulated in the area.

At a time when the accumulation of information on consumer behavior was beginning to accelerate, Kollat, Blackwell, and Engel (1972) suggested that an information retrieval system and an annual literature review he initiated. They stated that if such measures were not taken, by 1980 it would be "impossible to have a comprehensive understanding of even small components of consumer behavior." The purpose of this paper is to partially fulfill the need for a review of selected consumer behavior literature covering the time period--1950 through 1981. The specific objectives are to examine the growth in the number of consumer research studies, examine shifts in consumer research topics studied, and to propose possible causes and implications of the changes that have occurred.

The purpose of this paper is not to evaluate the product of consumer research, but merely to categorize and evaluate trends in basic areas. It is not meant to be the final word on the history of consumer research, but rather an initial examination. This examination is clearly limited by the journals and conference proceedings which were selected as the data base. While the authors believe the selected publications are among the most important in the field, notable contributions to consumer research have come from other sources, particularly books, which were not examined.


The publications listed below are included in this analysis:

1. Journal of Consumer Research

2. Proceedings of the Association for Consumer Research

3. Journal of Marketing

4. Journal of Marketing Research

5. Proceedings of the American Marketing Association

6. Journal of Applied Psychology

7. Journal of Advertising Research

8. Journal of Advertising

9. Harvard Business Review

10. Journal of Business

These particular publications were selected based upon their inclusion in prior reviews (Jacoby 1976; Kassarjian 1982), and because they were considered good indicators of general trends in consumer research during the 32 years examined. Approximately 15,000 articles were included in the review.

Classification of Articles

The first step in the article classification process was to determine whether or not an article dealt with consumer research. To broadly identify the realm of consumer research, this analysis adopted the definition of consumer behavior forwarded by Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell (1973). They state that consumer behavior is "acts of individuals directly involved in obtaining and using economic goods and services, including the decision processes that precede and determine these acts."

Prior to reviewing specific articles, a literature search was conducted to identify the major topics in consumer research. Such analysis produced an initial list of over 80 topics, which was subsequently reduced to a list of 37 major topics through the combination of similar topics. These 37 major topics were grouped into the following four major areas:

1. Internal--relating to internal processes of the consumer

2. External--relating to external forces on the consumer

3. Purchase Process--topics related directly to purchasing activity

4. Miscellaneous--other general topics of consumer behavior

The Table presents the 37 major topics organized into the above four major areas. The numbers in parentheses represent the percentage of consumer research articles found on each topic in the years 1950 through 1981.

The reviewer classified each consumer research article on each of the following items:

1. Topics. Using the outline of 37 major topics listed in the Table each article was classified into the one topic of consumer research by which the content of the article could best be described. Multijudge opinions were used where classification was questioned.

2. Empirical Nature of Study. Articles were classified as being either empirical or non-empirical. An empirical study must have included the use of numerical data to support hypotheses, theories, or discussions being presented.

3. Methodology. Each article was classified as utilizing one of four major categories of research methodology: (1) survey, (2) experiment, (3) discussion, (4) other (i.e., use of secondary data, study replication, and so forth).

4. Statistical Technique. Each empirical article was also categorized according to the most complex level of statistical technique used (e.g., multivariate analysis being more complex than analysis of variance.)



A general discussion of the implications of the classification results follows next. For a more detailed presentation of the classification results, see Helgeson et. al. (1984).


Figure 1 displays the number of consumer research articles compared to the total number of articles examined for this study. The number of consumer research articles during the time period studied went from about ten per year in the 1950's to about 175 per year in the 1970's. The number of consumer research articles as a percentage of total articles grew steadily through the year 1970, and then began exhibiting an accelerated growth rate. In 1950, seven percent of the articles reviewed were consumer research articles. By 1981, 34 percent of the articles were consumer research articles.

A significant amount of this growth can be attributed to the introduction of The Journal of Consumer Research (in 1974) and Advances in Consumer Research (in 1971).Prior to 1970 and the introduction of these publications, about eight percent of the articles reviewed were consumer research articles; while from 1971 to 1981, about 30 percent of the articles reviewed were consumer research articles. Excluding Advances in Consumer Research and The Journal of Consumer Research from the analysis reveals that from 1971 to 1981 about 16 percent of the articles reviewed were consumer research articles.

Conjecture on Environmental Impact on Consumer Research

Figure 1 displays what have been labeled direct impact events, societal events, and technological events. These time line "events" represent a sampling of direct and environmental influences on consumer research during the time period covered by this study.

The fact that consumer research is occurring within an ever changing environment is an important consideration. Societal changes (such as value shifts), technological changes (such as the advent of computers), economic changes, public policy changes, and so forth, all have an effect on consumer research. Changes in these environmental factors can impact consumer research by affecting which, when, why, and how topics are studied.

The rapid technological growth after World War II and the ensueing emphasis on science had an effect on how consumer researchers conducted studies and analyzed results. An emphasis was placed on the scientific method and hypothesis testing via statistical methods at this time (i.e., the late 1950's through the early 1960's). The fact that scholars entering the field had better training in the social sciences may also have led to a more scientific approach to research working from a theory base. Special reports directed at business educators and researchers emphasized the importance of a scientific approach to business topics (e.g., the Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation--supported reports by Gordon and Howell 1959; Pierce 1959). Likewise, the advent of the computer allowed, for more sophisticated investigations and analysis of data. The current, common use of multivariate data analysis is obviously linked to advances in the ability to electronically manipulate data.

Societal value changes are reflected in consumer research in the selection of which topics are examined (and when these topics are examined). For example, consumerism was a major social force in the 1970's, being a part of a broader social "receiving-ender" movement. In this movement, those on the "receiving end" of programs and institutions (e.g., consumers, students, welfare recipients), wanted more control over these institutions. The field of consumer research reflected the consumerism concern in studies conducted and articles written (e.g., Day and Aaker 1970).

Changes in the economic environment also appear to affect which topics consumer researchers examine. The December, 1981, special issue of The Journal of Consumer Research dealing with energy use reflects this. Due to the general economic problems of the early 1970's, business showed concern with different aspects of consumers' behavior. This concern can be seen in articles which examined how consumers may have changed due to the realities of stagfiation, high energy costs, and shortages of products (e.g. Shama 1981).



It should be noted that consumer research has been directly affected by other disciplines. Over its history, consumer research has borrowed many concepts and theories from the behavioral sciences (e.g. , psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.) and has applied them to the study of consumer behavior. This borrowing has resulted in consumer research being affected by the changes in emphasis in these other disciplines.

Paradigm dominance in other disciplines is reflected in consumer research. For example, the consumer research emphasis on information processing in recent years was preceded by a shift in this direction in the psychology discipline.

Trends in Topics

Evidence of the accelerated rate of information generation in consumer research is reflected by the increase in the number of topics that have been explored over the 32 years analyzed. In the early 1950's only five different topics appeared in the literature (based on our classification scheme). This number increased steadily over the years, reaching a total of 37 topics by 1981. A phenomenon occurring in consumer research literature is that topics introduced in the 1950's or earlier are not dying off. Instead, these "old" topics continue to be researched while new areas of interest are explored. This results in an ever expanding array of variables that warrant study.

As a means of understanding the development of consumer research, articles were examined for longitudinal transitions of the major category headings: internal, external, purchase process, and miscellaneous. Figure 2 shows the breakdown of consumer research into these four categories as they occurred over time. The development of consumer behavior thought, as is revealed in the changing dominance of these four categories, coincides with the shifting influence of outside disciplines.



Initially, topics classified as belonging in the internal category dominated research efforts, reflecting the close relationship between consumer research and psychology. Throughout the 1950's internal related topics continued to grow in importance and then began to decline in the early 1960's, with purchase process related topics becoming more important as a result of the introduction of various buyer behavior models. The influence of sociology in the 1950's initiated research efforts toward external related topics. Around the mid 1960's, external related topics grew as a percentage of all consumer research articles. Since the early 1970's, the topic breakdown has remained more consistent than in earlier periods. The breakdown has averaged around 36 percent for internal topics, reflecting the strong tie to psychology; followed by external topics at 27 percent; purchase process topics, 19 percent; and miscellaneous topics, 18 percent.

Internal Category. Of the internal topics, motivation received much attention in the 1950's, along with perception and attitudes. As examination of the topic of motivation decreased in the 1960's, information processing and cognitive dissonance began to receive more attention. This shift in interest followed the shifts that had already occurred in psychology. In the 1970's, belief -expectancy, life style, and personality were explored, along with previous topics. The emergence of belief expectancy models as an important topic in consumer research can be traced to the work of psychologists in the late 1960's (e.g., Fishbein 1967; Rosenberg 1970).

External Category. Initial research in the external category was strongly focused on demographics, as marketers attempted to identify target markets. Then it appears that, as a means of enriching the understanding of consumers, the external category was expanded to include social stratification and culture. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, new topics were added that reflected the changing concerns in the environment surrounding consumer research. In the 1960's, group communication was considered important, and social psychologists began exploring group dynamics. Concomitantly, consumer research topics, such as innovators, opinion leaders, and group influence, began to appear. Another communication topic, persuasion, received attention at this time. Also in the 1970's, family decision making became an important area of research, as did consumer socialization in the late 1970's.

A fairly consistent pattern that appears with external topics is as follows: A broad topic is introduced, such as demographics or communications. Then, as study of the topic develops, more specific topics, which are spin-offs of the original topic, appear, such as social class and persuasion.

Purchase Process Category. Generally, topics under the heading of purchase process have appeared to some degree throughout the entire period of analysis. Brand awareness and choice appeared in the late 1950's. Research on the purchase decision process began to appear in the 1960's. Then in the late 1960's, topics such as evaluation and search for information were introduced. Post-purchase, a more recent topic appearing in the late 1970's, dealt with what consumers do with products after purchase and use. The interest in post-purchase also reflected a growing concern for man's physical environment.

Miscellaneous Category. The effects of the consumer movement could be seen in consumer research literature by the 1970's. Other miscellaneous topics that have had an impact on the growth of consumer research include: preference, which has been consistently explored since the 1950's, and store patronage, which emerged in the 1960's.

Patterns in Topic Development

When looking at the changes occurring in individual topics from their introduction through more recent times, a general, although not absolute pattern seems to emerge. This general pattern starts with a descriptive phase where the new concept is defined and measured. This phase is followed by an expansion phase where the relationships between the concept and other existing concepts are developed. The usefulness of the concept in describing and predicting consumer behavior is generally assessed at this time. The concept may also be broken into various subconcepts or components. Finally, in the incorporation phase, the general concept and/or the subconcepts developed are often included with other concepts in a larger framework.

These phases do not apply to all topics, and it is not an absolute pattern for those topics where the phases seem evident. Some concepts remain in the descriptive phase where they are continually reapplied to new situations. Examples of such concepts are segmentation and consumerism. Regarding segmentation, new segments have continually been developed, but the concept itself has not changed. The purpose of segmentation has changed, however, since more recent articles use segmentation to target markets; whereas earlier articles used segmentation to describe markets.

Examples of topics where the hypothesized pattern seems to hold are attitudes, cognitive dissonance, and the purchase decision process. When attitudes were first considered, the attitude as a whole toward a particular entity was discussed and measured (Ferber and Wales 1951). Later, attitude was separated into subcomponent parts, which were each measured (i.e., cognitive, affective, behavioral -Lavidge and Steiner 1961). The interrelationships between attitudes and other concepts were then discussed, and attitudes were frequently incorporated into a model of some aspect of consumer behavior (O'Brien 1971).

Cognitive dissonance was initially defined and measured as a concept which may be useful in consumer research (Engel 1963). The influence of cognitive dissonance on consumer behavior was then discussed, as were the various other factors determining cognitive dissonance (Holloway 1967). In some later articles, the interrelationships between cognitive dissonance and other concepts were examined (Hawkins 1972); while in other articles the predictive power of cognitive dissonance was evaluated (Oshikawa 1969).

When the concept of the purchase decision process was first introduced, the discussion involved the decision process of individuals (Lavidge and Steiner 1961). Later, the majority of articles on this topic dealt with interactions between individuals and group decision processes (Webster and Wind 1972). The components included within the purchase decision process also substantially increased over the time period examined (Johnston and Bonoma 1981).

These three topics, attitudes, cognitive dissonance, and the purchase decision process, then seem to follow the general pattern of: descriptive phase - expansion phase - incorporation phase. As previously indicated, though, not all articles on a particular topic, written at a point in time, dealt exclusively with the same phase.


The historical/evolutionary dimensions of consumer research should not be overlooked. The preceding pages presented a brief view of the environmental events that produced changes in consumer research, the research topic transitions that have occurred, and a general pattern of topic development that seems evident. This examination was based on the classification of 32 years of consumer research articles.

A case can be formed through the examples presented for the importance of the impact of environmental forces on consumer research. it would be worthwhile for consumer researchers to be aware of societal, intellectual, technological, economic, and political dynamics of the environment surrounding consumer research. This would aid in understanding past changes and growth in the discipline, as well as aid in predicting future areas in need of scholarly attention.

Leaders in the discipline and individual scholars can also benefit from realizing that topics generally proceed through growth phases (i.e., descriptive, expansion, and incorporation phases). If enough work seems to have accumulated on a topic in one of the earlier phases, it would be beneficial for editors to look for and publish studies dealing with the next successive phase. This would serve to encourage research in a new phase of the growth of a topic and thus advance knowledge on the topic. The sporadic nature of the study of topics in recent years should bring to light the need for a more systematic approach to consumer research.

The accelerated rate at which change is occurring in consumer research, coupled with the burgeoning of topics examined, can produce a lack of continuity and lack of direction in the discipline. Having an understanding of the foundations upon which consumer research was built and knowledge of the forces producing the changes that have occurred in the discipline will facilitate the determination of the direction in which the discipline should be headed in the future.


Day, G.S. & D.A. Aaker (1970), "A Guide tj Consumerism," Journal of Marketing, 17 (July), 12-19.

Engel, J.F. (1963), "Are Automobile Purchasers Dissonant Consumers," Journal of Marketing, 27 (April), 55-58.

Engel, J.F., D.T. Kollat, & R.D. Blackwell (1973), Consumer Behavior, Second Edition, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Ferber, R. & H.G. Wales (1951), "The Market for Prefabricated Housing," Journal of Marketing, 15 (July), 18-28.

Fishbein, M. (1967), "A Behavior Theory Approach to the Relations Between Beliefs About an Object and the Attitudes Towards the Object," in Readings in Attitude Theory and Measurement, ed. M. Fishbein, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 394-396.

Gordon, R.A. & J.E. Howell (1959), Higher Education for Business, New York: Columbia University Press.

Hawkins, D.I. (1972), "Reported Cognitive Dissonance and Anxiety: Some Additional Findings," Journal of Marketing, 36 (July), 63-66.

Helgeson, J ' G. , E.A. Kluge, J. Mager, & C. Taylor (1984) , " Trends in Consumer Behavior Literature: A Content Analysis," Journal of Consumer Research, 31 (January), 39-43.

Jacoby, J. (1976), "Consumer Psychology: An Octennium," in the Annual Review of Psychology, Annual Reviews, Inc., 27, 331-358.

Johnston, W.J. & T.V. Bonoma (1981), "The Buying Center: Structural and Interaction Patterns," Journal of Marketing, 45 (October), 43-156.

Kassarjian, H.H. (1982), "Consumer Psychology," in the Annual Review of Psychology, Annual Reviews, Inc., 33, 619-649.

Kollat, D.T., R.D. Blackwell, & J.F. Engel (1972), "The Current Status of Consumer Research: Developments During the 1968-1972 Period," Advances in Consumer Research, ed. M. Venkatesan, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Association for Consumer Research, 3, 576-585.

Lavidge, R.J. & G.A. Steiner (1961), "A Model for Predictive Measurements of Advertising Effectiveness," Journal of Marketing, 25 (October), 59-62.

O'Brien, T.V. (1971), "Tracking Consumer Decision Making," Jour nal of Marketing 25(l) 34-40.

Oshikawa, S. (1969), "Can Cognitive Dissonance Theory Explain Consumer Behavior," Journal of Marketing, 33 (October), 44-49.

Pierson, F.C. , et. al. (1959), The Education of American Businessmen, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

Rosenberg, M. (1970), "Inconsistency Arousal and Reduction in Attitude Change," in Research in Consumer Behavior, eds. D.T. Kollat, R.D. Blackwell, & J.F. Engel, New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.

Shama, A. (1981), "Coping With Stagflation: Voluntary Simplicity," Journal of Marketing, 450), 120-134.

Webster, F.E., Jr. & Y. Wind (1972), "A General Model for Understanding Organization Buying Behavior," Journal of Marketing, 36 (April) 12-19.



James G. Helgeson, Gonzaga University
John Mager, Utah State University
E. Alan Kluge, Oregon State University


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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