A Critique of the Orientations in Studies of Women's Consumption Culture

ABSTRACT - A critical review and assessment of the studies of women's consumption experiences reveals many orientations which are likely to produce biased and ideological results. This paper presents a critical evaluation of these orientations, discussing the possible outcomes of such studies from the perspective of women.


A. Fuat Firat and Linda Lewis (1985) ,"A Critique of the Orientations in Studies of Women's Consumption Culture", 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: 225-229.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 225-229


A. Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University

Linda Lewis, Appalachian State University


A critical review and assessment of the studies of women's consumption experiences reveals many orientations which are likely to produce biased and ideological results. This paper presents a critical evaluation of these orientations, discussing the possible outcomes of such studies from the perspective of women.


One of the major weaknesses in disciplinary research to trained experts learned in the principles and techniques of the disciplines, is the tendency such an approach creates towards defensive and limiting paradigms. Each discipline attempts to maintain its own integrity by carefully discriminating itself from other disciplines, and society in general, by the careful development of its own special language (jargon), exclusive media (journals) and professional associations. Once established, the discipline as a who-le defends its specific domain against encroachment by anyone who might wish to challenge its authority and consequently its respectability.

We often find the experts of such disciplines becoming respected technicians who hang onto the traditions and perspectives which they were trained in and achieved their respectability through. Frequently, the disciplines acquire the mentality and structure of guilds rewarding those who defend the privileges and perceived specialties of the discipline. Unfortunately, as our experts in the disciplines discriminate themselves from the rest of society, talking only to one another--since only they can understand the imagined high culture of their discipline--they begin creating their own social realities to study, limiting themselves within the conceptualizations they are trained to perceive the universe through. While other social realities at times threaten to shatter their concepts and rupture their paradigms, they are well equipped to build new cocoons with minor adjustments to their conceptualizations. Such attitudes within a discipline often lead to the exclusion of critical newcomers who are then relegated to their own little conclaves. These types of behaviors restrain the free flow of information necessary to enable unbiased knowledge generation. Certainly, then, a discipline will ultimately suffer when constructs are narrowly defined and then carefully guarded against contamination, but the real losers in all this are those elements of the human constituency that are generally unrepresented in the dominant culture. They are mostly, but not necessarily always, minorities, whose social problems and realities are not given priority for economic, social, cultural and political reasons. The disciplines, when and if they do study these elements, study them by superimposing their own ideologically biased conceptualizations and frameworks upon them, and they may or may not be relevant to the special needs of these minorities.

In this context, women remain a special case. Historically, women as a group have often been a numerical majority, but the conditions of their existence often place them within the definition of an oppressed minority. A special feature of women's social existence is the intimate relationship they maintain with males in a specific culture. In our society, women's culture has not been considered to be distinct from the culture of the men they are related to. While in the social sciences the distinct character of the cultures of different nationalities, ethnic groups, etc., have been recognized, even if imposed upon with the perspectives and realities of the dominant groups, women's culture, as opposed to male culture, has remained an isolated subject of study. A notable example is women's history. Women have struggled to come to grips with a written history that has largely excluded them. After many years of developing a history of women's oppression, and attempts to develop a revealing, but unsuccessful, compensatory history (i.e., searching for notable examples of women who contributed to history as it has been defined by male historians) there has been a movement towards developing new conceptual frameworks which challenge established methods of historical examination. One foundation shaking challenge is that of periodization. it has been recognized that women's history has not necessarily paralleled male history. The periodization of male history has been largely determined by political, military and technological developments from which women were excluded. Historian Gerda Lerner suggests that no "single methodology and conceptual framework can fit the complexities of the historical experience of women" (Lerner 1979). Mainstream historians remain largely disinterested in examining accepted practices as a quick perusal of the literature will testify. Feminist struggles and women's studies are changing this neglect to some extent by their efforts to rectify these omissions. Unfortunately, their efforts are often met with great resistance, because they often place the very foundations of their disciplines in jeopardy.

Consumer research studies cannot justify such a disinterested approach especially given its advocated purpose: understanding the behaviors of human beings in their efforts to satisfy their consumption needs, and perceptions of satisfaction based on their consumption experiences. However, the domination of marketing within the short history of the consumer behavior discipline has led to such shortcomings. These shortcomings increasingly are being recognized (Arndt 1976; Belk 1984; Firat 1984; Olson 1983). Much emphasis, it seems, has been put on buying behavior rather than consumption behavior, and studies of buying behavior have, in turn, emphasized methodologies which enable prediction but do little in terms of explanation and understanding. Another orientation that inhibits understanding and emphasizes prediction is the ahistorical approach consumer researchers have inherited from marketing: one where the contemporary apparent facts are taken at their face value rather than on the basis of understanding the history of their development. This is despite a widespread agreement on the part of the philosophers of science that understanding must begin from within the culture and its own history.

All of these orientations reflect unfavorably on the study of women as consumers. The purpose of this paper is to examine these biased orientations and their consequences for studies on women.


As just mentioned, the consumer behavior/research discipline, different from the marketing discipline, has a distinctly professed purpose of understanding consumers and explaining their behaviors, as well as the reasons for their perceptions and feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with their consumption experiences. This purpose is not expressly for facilitating marketing efforts or influencing consumer decision-making processes (such as for brand choice), but rather for improving knowledge in general. Such knowledge could be used by marketing practitioners, but consumer researchers would not overtly limit their audience to this group. More like social scientists, they are apt to argue that their knowledge generation efforts are for the use of society, that is, different social groups, and ultimately for the betterment of-the human condition.

Barely touched upon in the introduction, several related orientations in consumer behavior studies, especially in the case of women and minorities, have caused deviations from such pronounced purposes. From the women's studies points of view, some of the major biases are:

1. The approach to studying women, their consumption needs and experiences, is extremely stereotypical. Traditional stereotypes of women characterize them as homemakers, wives, mothers and ultimately consumers. These very limited characterizations ignore the multidimensionality of women's lives. Two reasons can be mentioned as to why such stereotyping will produce biased information: (i) a majority of women are no longer primarily in these roles (Bartos 1978; Stromberg and Harkess 1978), therefore, beginning with such stereotypical premises will confuse the findings, and (ii) stereotyping predetermines the measurements that are to be made. As a result, the studies that begin with such stereotypical prejudgements do not produce what is reality, but what a stereotypical perspective and interpretation of reality amounts to. Furthermore, marketing efforts based on such perspectives and interpretations reinforce the underprivileged status of women in society leading to double damage: (i) invalid and biased attitudes and beliefs about women, and (ii) perpetuation of the predicament of women economically as well as socially and politically.

2. Stereotyping is only one form of imposing categories and concepts upon the studies of women; categories and concepts which have been developed independent of the realities of women. Another form is the imposition of behavioral or attitudinal expectations upon women; expectations based on the male experience. Such expectations in turn determine attitude scales and other measurements used for women in consumption or buying choice situations. On the basis of these measurements, then, women are determined to be more emotional than rational, more acquiescent than assertive, etc., in their buying behaviors. However, all these evaluations are based on the male experience since concepts such as rationality, acquiescence, etc., are defined on the basis of the dominant male culture. That women may have historically acquired a different rationality or that their criteria for self assertion may be different are not recognized since they are not recognized as having a distinct culture. Apart from being oppressive and androcentric, such an approach only produces reinforcements for a sexist ideology.

3. To avoid such ideological interpretations of seemingly similar behaviors, or to make sure that one culture is not evaluated on the basis of the concepts of another, the study of each culture must begin from within and with its own history (Hollis and Lukes 1984). In this vein, women must not be studied just as appendages to the dominant male culture, but their experiences, given their historical position in the social, economic and political structure, must be studied with a genuine and unique approach particular to their own culture. Women's consumption culture especially requires such attention since their historical roles in consumption have particularly been different from that of males. This is likely to have created different consumption experiences and the meaning as well as the symbolism of consumption experiences, even when they seem similar to the male experience, is likely to be totally different for females in our societies. A true understanding, therefore will require an explanation of these meanings from the women's perspective. Only then can researchers understand the underlying processes in the merging of male and female experiences when and if they occur in history.

4. Furthermore, an extension of the above three biases in approaching women's consumption culture is the de-humanization of consumers (in this case male as well as female) through blocking out the multidimensionality of human beings and studying their consumption behaviors by isolating them from the rest of their being (Hirschman and Holbrook 1985). This is not unusual in the social science disciplines, in general, in the Twentieth Century. Each social science discipline concentrates on some portion of being human (for example, economic, social, psychological, etc.), limiting itself to certain variables and behaviors with the justification that this improves preciseness. However, whatever limited preciseness is gained by the imposition of such bound aries is at the expense of a real understanding that requires a holistic perspective. Not much insight can be gained by studying the behavior of a female single-parent in selecting a brand of bluejeans to buy for her child with the money she has put aside for this purpose. Such approaches transfer human beings that are complex and varied into simplified objects of study. While this might seem justified in the shortrun for purposes of prediction, it precludes explanation and understanding at the very outset of any study.

5. Consumer researchers trained in the contemporary environment of social science practice may not feel uneasy with the point just made, since the approach in the dominant social science school emphasizes prediction, and ultimately, control of behavior, not explanation and understanding. In the tradition of marketing, this tendency is even greater, since the primary interest of the main audience of marketing, marketing organizations, has been to influence buying behaviors of consumers in their favor., Emphasis on prediction hurts the cause of understanding the women's consumption culture for several reasons. Primarily, it subjects women to the control of marketing practices without concern for the social, psychological, economical, political, etc., consequences for women. Especially since women are stereotyped as the great consumers and shoppers in our societies, prediction lumps women into this category glossing over the differences and concentrating on averages. While differences and similarities pave the way to explanation, averages preclude it. However, our methodologies and statistical analysis techniques emphasize averages--a natural consequence of the interest in prediction. In this respect, causal methods enable prediction, not explanation, because explanation must identify why causation occurs. Such explanation requires more than a simple analysis based on average variations, it necessitates accounting for the exceptions and the contingencies.

6. Logical empiricism, which dominates the scientific method today, is at once conducive to prediction, but greatly inadequate for identifying the realities underlying the complex of appearances. Since logical empiricist methods, experiments as the ideal form, measure what is, and enable prediction of variations in one or more variables on the basis of the variations controlled in another or others, they are biased to wards the status quo. These methods enable us to compile fa s and relationships that are temporal and contextual but do not allow the in depth examination and interpretation of the underlying foundations that produce these facts and apparent truths. As such, the tendency to generalize on the basis of these temporal and contextual facts is strong, and an understanding of the underlying historical process is neglected. For women's studies, regarding their roles in society, and for our purposes, their roles as consumers, logical empiricist methods lead to ideological rather than scientific conclusions by the acceptance of temporal facts as universal truths. This orientation emphasizes the contemporary women's versus men's "natural characteristics" through ahistorical generalizations attempting to halt history and preserve the status quo, rather than enlarging the horizons of knowledge for the excitement of considering the alternatives for future emancipation from the negative conditions of human and gender existence. Because of the limiting consequences of the so called "scientific method," movements for emancipation initially acquire a political character to break the "scientific" deadlocks.

7. Emphasis on prediction, imposing of favored conceptualizations and purposes, the dominance of the logical empiricist method, and consideration of consumers not as complete human beings but only as purchasers of products, have not been of great concern to consumer researchers until recently since the overwhelming role of the discipline has been to investigate buyer behavior. In effect, the discipline, although named consumer behavior, has really been a discipline of buyer behavior. Considering that the major audience of the discipline has historically been the marketing organizations, this is not surprising. This audience historically has not had an interest in human beings unless they were buyers in the market--or at least had the potential. Consequently, in a market where behavioral manifestations are largely homogenized since exchange is the common occurrence and choice is limited by what is available in the market (this is especially true when choices at the consumption pattern level are concerned (see Firat and Dholakia 1982), the cultural foundations are greatly blurred. Women, therefore, who buy a certain product purchased also by men may appear to be manifesting the same behavior. And as long as the same concepts are imposed upon the measurements used for men and women, researchers may well be training women to offer such measurements.

8. Historical understanding of apparently similar manifestations, of temporal behaviors and facts, and of stereotypical, imposed conceptualizations cannot be achieved with micro theories and frame works which concentrate on manifest behaviors of individuals. These micro theories, hypotheses and studies must be linked to macro theories and frameworks which attempt historical and holistic explanations and/or descriptions of societal structures and processes as they influence individual actions and cognitions. Without such links, all of the above biases are likely to perpetuate, and the micro theories are likely to continue giving us piece-meal and often contradictory descriptions and predictions.

9. Finally, consumer researchers need to improve their familiarity with disciplines that might help in their developing new perspectives and methods in the quest for understanding consumption experiences. In this vein, sociology and anthropology might be two areas which enable the development of new ideas, both theoretical and methodological. The treatment of the contexts of discovery and justification in anthropology, especially, might present some refreshing alternatives to the falsificationist philosophy. One has to realize, how ever, that in every social science discipline there is that portion of journals and other publications which emphasize the micro-immediate effect/prediction perspectives. Compartmentalization into disciplines and over-indulgence with variables specific to disciplines are two major culprits in this emphasis, and as has been consistently argued in this paper, result in limited and limiting understanding. One escape from these self-imposed limitations is to approach social science as a whole rather than compartmentalize into disciplines. Studying phenomena by developing perspectives and using all necessary variables and methods to gain a total understanding, rather than by developing disciplines that have limited scopes and deal with specific variables to be studied, might represent one liberating alternative (Firat 1984).


This paper criticized some of the more important limitations in the orientations in studies of consumer behavior, in general, and of women's consumption, in particular. Primarily, as a reading of the literature on women consumers will indicate (see, for example, Alreck, Settle and Belch 1982; Ferber and Birnbaum 1980; Reilly 1982; Roberts and Wortzel 1979; Schaninger and Allen 1981; Sosaine and Szybillo 1978; Surlin 1978; Venkatesh 1980) the typical studies on women Consumers involve cross-sectional descriptions of their behavior, all dependent upon contemporary, simplified, and many times, stereotypical classifications of women's roles in society. While such descriptive studies are not useless per se, since they could lead to investigations of interesting questions, and thereby, explanation of descriptive facts, this is rarely the case. As a matter of fact, a brief review of the literature in consumer behavior and marketing journals, where few articles on women have appeared, will show that when some initial hypotheses proposing differences in buying behaviors of employed versus unemployed housewives were not supported, the interest in studying changes in the social roles of women died out, and the number of articles fell dramatically to almost none after 1982. This is symptomatic of a superficial interest in women as targets for marketing efforts.

The major reasons for the failure in finding support for the hypotheses which try to link women's contemporary social roles to differences in their consumption behaviors are those that we discussed earlier. Research finds, for example, that the employment status of married women is-not associated with differences in their ownership of timesaving durables or use of convenience foods (Reilly 1982; Strober and Weinberg 1977; Weinberg and Winer 1983) when income differences are accounted for. This might seem surprising, since logically one would expect a greater need for such items in households where both spouses are employed outside the home. The logic here, however, is one that doesn't take into account the historical transformation in consumption patterns in U.S. society, as well as the cultural.-social conditioning of women as consumers in society. If studies of such historical and cultural processes were made, one would be in a better position to understand the reasons underlying such surprising similarity in consumption behaviors despite employment status differences.

Whether employed outside the home or not, the women are culturally expected to perform certain roles in contemporary society. The advent of "time-saving durables," while presented in the public domain of ideas as emancipation of women from housework, in effect has expanded the social expectations of efficiency in housework and has increased the physical and psychological pressures upon women (Acker 1978; Ebrenreich and English 1979; Moore and Sawhill 1978; Vanek 1978). This, along with the transformation of consumption patterns towards reliance on smaller consumer units and products bought in the market (Firat and Dholakia 1982) further necessitates ownership of such products and emphasizes a social psychology of dependence on such appliances. Women, whether full-time housewives or employed come to perceive possession of such products as an ingredient of a standard of respectable and acceptable life, the only constraint in owning all being the lack of income.

It is interesting to note that women's work at home has culturally become to be perceived so insignificant and of such little value that in initial studies on women the categories were "working" women versus housewives. Women doing housework were implied not to be working by this categorization. Feminist struggles are beginning to change this perception. Historically, however, the reason for this perception lies in the separation of human activity in time and space into "consumption" and "production." Such conceptualization of consumption versus production corresponds to the advancement of capitalism and industrialization, since with this advance came the separation of home from the workplace. Women, who were eventually left with the activities at home were then considered to be the consumers while the men working for production of products for the market was then categorized as consumption proper and not valued. Consequently, women at home were consuming the earnings of men who worked and were productive. Illich (1983) demonstrates that classifications such as "housework" and "housewife" are particular to market economies. Furthermore, market economies, as well as labeling women as consumers, develop the values and norms for proper consumption.

It is not possible to truly understand women's consumption culture without careful investigations into such historical experiences of women in society. Not recognizing that our categories and concepts may be only temporal and contextual in nature, using these as if they are universal categories, glosses over women's consumption experiences and can only lead to biased interpretations. A better understanding of this history, and thereby, the psychology and meaning of consumption from the perspective of women's culture will not only help women's social condition--a true scientific and social contribution--but eventually also improve the performance of marketing organizations in terms of fulfilling their social responsibility.


Acker, Joan (1978), "Issues in the Sociological Study of Women's Work," in Women Working, A.H. Stromberg and S. Harkess, eds., Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Alreck, Pamela L., Robert B. Settle and Michael A. Belch (1982), "Who Responds to "Gendered" Ads, and How?" Journal of Advertising Research, 22 (April-May), 25-31.

Arndt, Johan (1976), "Reflections on Research in Consumer Behavior," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 3, B.B. Anderson, ed., Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Consumer Research, 213-221.

Bartos, Rena (1978), "What Every Marketer Should Know About Women," Harvard Business Review, 56 (May-June), 73-85

Belk, Russell W. ( 1984), "Manifesto for a Consumer Behavior of Consumer Behavior," in Scientific Method in Marketing, P.F. Anderson and M.J. Ryan, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 163-167.

Ehrenreich, Barbara and Deirdre English (1979), For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women, New York: Anchor.

Ferber, Marianne A. and Bonnie Birnbaum (1980), "One Job or Two Jobs: The Implications for Young Wives," Journal of Consumer Research, 7, (December), 263-271.

Firat, A. Fuat (1984), "A Critique of the Orientations in Theory Development in Consumer Behavior: Suggestions for the Future," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 12, E.C. Hirschman and M.B. Holbrook, eds., Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Consumer Research.

Firat, A. Fuat and Nikhilesh Dholakia (1982), "Consumption Choices at the Macro Level," Journal of Macromarketing, 2, (Fall), 6-15.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. and Morris B. Holbrook (1985), Paper presented at the Marketing Theory Workshop, American Marketing Association, May 1214, Blacksburg, VA.

Hollis, Martin and Steven Lukes, eds., (1984), Rationality and Relativism, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press (Second Printing).

Illich, Ivan (1983), Gender, London: Marion Boyars.

Lerner, Gerda (1979), The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History, New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Kristin A. and Isabel V. Sawhill (1978), "Implications of Women's Employment for Home and Family Life,'' In Women Working, A.H. Stromberg and S. Harkess, eds., Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Olson, Jerry C. (1983), "Presidential Address 1981: Toward a Science of Consumer Behavior," reprinted in Marketing Theory, S.D. Hunt, ed., Homewood, IL: Irwin, 395-405.

Reilly, Michael D. ( 1982), "Working Wives and Convenience Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 8, (March), 407-~18.

Roberts, Mary Lou and Lawrence H. Wortzel (1979), "New Life-Style Determinants of Women's Food Shopping Behavior," Journal of Marketing, 43 (Summer), 28-39.

Schaninger, Charles M. and Chris T. Allen (1981), "Life's occupational Status as a Consumer behavior Construct," Journal of Consumer Research, 8, September), 189-195.

Sosaine, Arlene K. and George J. Szybillo ( 1978), "Working Wives: Their General Television Viewing and Magazine Readership Behavior," Journal of Advertising, 7, (Spring), 5-13.

Strober, Myra H. and Charles B. Weinberg (1977), "Working Wives and Major Family Expenditures," Journal of Consumer Research. 4, (December), 141-

Stromberg, Ann H. and Shirley Harkess, eds., (1978), Women Working, Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Surlin, Stuart H. (1978), "Sex Differences in Socially Responsible Advertising Decisions," Journal of Advertising, 7, (Summer), 36-39.

Vanek, Joann (1978), "Housewives as Workers," in Women Working, A.B. Stromberg and S. Harkess, eds., Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Venkatesh, Alladi (1980), "Changing Roles of Women - A Life Style Analysis," Journal of Consumer Research, 7, (September), 189-197.

Weinberg, Charles B. and Russell S. Winer (1983), "Working Wives and Major Family Expenditures: Replication and Extension," Journal of Consumer Research, 10, (September), 259-263.



A. Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University
Linda Lewis, Appalachian State University


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

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


Stigma at Every Turn: Exploring Bi+ Consumer Experiences

Abigail Jean Nappier Cherup, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Andre F. Maciel, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Read More


Less Time, More Procrastination? The Impact of Time Pressure on Task Initiation

Jing Jiang, Renmin University of China
Alisa Yinghao Wu, Columbia University, USA

Read More


Feeling Bad by Wanting More or Wanting More by Feeling Bad: The Materialism - Well-Being Cycle

Esther Doriette Tamara Jaspers, Massey University
Rik Pieters, Tilburg University, The Netherlands

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.