The Relevance of Historical Method For Marketing Research


Marilyn Lavin and Thomas J. Archdeacon (1989) ,"The Relevance of Historical Method For Marketing Research", in SV - Interpretive Consumer Research, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 60-68.

Interpretive Consumer Research, 1989     Pages 60-68


Marilyn Lavin, Northeastern University

Thomas J. Archdeacon, University of Wisconsin-Madison


For several decades a small group of researchers has recognized that history can make important contributions to the understanding of marketing and consumer activities. Preeminent among this band has been Stanley Hollander. In the past 30 years Hollander produced numerous works that examine such diverse topics as the evolution of retail organizations (1960; 1966; 1977; 1980), repression of traveling salesmen in the United States during the 19th century (1964), the history of consumerism and retailing (1973), the historical dimensions of the service encounter (1985), and historians' views of consumption (1986). Hollander's work has been well-received, but until recently it inspired few other marketing and consumer behavior academicians to incorporate an historical perspective in their studies.

The reasons for the lack of enthusiasm shown to history have been outlined by Ronald Savitt (1980). While urging marketers to give greater consideration to the role of history in their discipline, he recognized that most marketers favor research based on the operationalization of constructs and on the testing of explicit hypotheses. As a consequence, he argued, they are naturally ill at ease with the majority of historians, who write within the framework of a narrative structure and construct their theses inductively rather than deductively.

In recent years some academicians in marketing and consumer behavior have begun to question their disciplines' absolute reliance on positivist/empiricist methodology and have become interested in humanistic/interpretive approaches. This intellectual shift has been contemporaneous with and has perhaps facilitated the consideration of the possible contributions of history. Several conferences held at Michigan State University have brought researchers together to consider the relevance of history for marketing (Hollander and Savitt, 1983; Hollander and Nevett, 1985). Other scholars have participated in sessions devoted to the topic at the annual conferences of the Association of Consumer Research (Firat, 1985; 1987).

Marketing and consumer researchers who have turned to history have readily accepted the importance of understanding the development over time of marketing institutions and consumer behaviors. Many of the papers offered at the Michigan State and ACR conferences have presented brief studies of marketers or marketing practices from earlier eras. Others have sought to acquaint researchers with unfamiliar data sources that might prove useful in reconstructing the histories of certain contemporary marketing practices. And following an investigation using traditional historical methodology, Fullerton (1988) has raised serious questions about the widely-accepted scheme of periodization that divides the business history of the last 100 years into the Production, Sales, and Marketing Eras.

The recent outpouring of historically -oriented research has enriched the literature of marketing and consumer behavior. At the same time, however, those works have often at least implicitly misrepresented the methods of historical research. More important, they seem sometimes to have reduced the "historical method" to a willingness to gather enough information to reach a definitive understanding of the past, which, in turn, can he used to illuminate the present.

Historical method involves more than a consideration of temporal context and More than a reliance on non-quantitative analytical techniques. Modem historical research operates from the assumption that the concerns of the present will inevitably color the scholar's insights into the past. Historians do not necessarily believe that truth is relative, but they do recognize that the search for it inescapably uses current values in understanding the "facts." Historical research on any topic involves not only an accumulation of knowledge but also a dialectical assessment of how particular personal or Cultural biases have influenced previous historians' interpretations. For those reasons, the historical method demands a special consciousness of the role of interpretative paradigms. Insensitivity to that aspect of any historical argumentation can be very dangerous.

In pursuing its points, this paper first considers how historians align themselves in the positivist-interpretive debate and discusses changes within the discipline of history that are bringing its practical techniques for analyzing data closer to those of the other social sciences. It next calls attention to the continuing importance for history of internal critical methods born of the dialectical nature of the discipline and necessary to the role it plays in shaping social discourse. Finally, the paper attempts to give substance to its abstract arguments by examining the Course of historical argumentation on a specific issue with serious implications for contemporary marketing and consumer behavior researchers.


a. Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches

Marketers and other researchers interested in consumer activities who have acknowledged the importance of history have insisted on the significance of historical context, that is the placing of an event within its broader temporal framework. Although such an appreciation of temporal background initially appears benign, closer examination reveals that the advocacy of "context" has in many cases been equated with historicism, a philosophically dubious viewpoint that emphasizes the uniqueness of all temporal phenomena (Fullerton, 1987; 1988; Kumcu, 1987).

More important, such a limited construal of "context" may unnecessarily confound the acceptance of historical method with a debate, which is currently being carried on in both marketing and consumer behavior, on the utility of empiricist/positivist methodologies versus interpretive/humanistic approaches (Hirschman, 1986; Hudson and Ozanne, 1988).

The majority of historians view reality as socially constructed, recognize individual freedom, and acknowledge multiple causation. Their intellectual inclinations appear consistent with humanistic/interpretive paradigms. A substantial minority of historians, however, would argue that the "interpretive" paradigm slights the importance of theory in research and, because of its inductive approach, cannot be considered scientific.

Those historians who criticize the interpretive paradigm do not form a united front. Some are primarily students of the philosophy of history, interested in definitions of cause and effect and in concepts of progress and change. Others have sought to develop grand theories of history. Perhaps the most notable of those are Marxists, whose ideas about economic determinism and class struggle afford them a critical framework for analyzing much of the modem age. Although both of the preceding groups incorporate elements of the positivist approach, a final group Of historians is much more directly indebted to it. Those scholars may lack a grand theory of history, and many will deny that creating one is even a reasonable goal. They make the more limited argument that theories -usually of the mid-range kind -- inevitably shape the formulation of research; that historians must strive to make explicit those theories they implicitly use; and that a properly stated theory is one that, in keeping with the canons of modem science, permits the development of testable hypotheses.

For the most part, interpretive and scientific historians have largely ignored one another and peacefully coexisted within the discipline. Their divergent approaches, however, have become enmeshed with an on-going controversy among historians over the utility of quantitative research techniques. The debate should be of interest to marketing and consumer researchers. For more than a decade numbers of political, economic, and social historians have argued that at least a subdivision of their discipline must operate as a quantitative social science. Marketers who skim through journals like Historical Methods Newsletter, the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, or Social Science History will find themselves in friendly territory of research models and statistical analyses.

In some sense, the work of quantitative historians may be seen as an effort to move their discipline toward the positivist-empiricist tradition. nose scholars seek to place their work within carefully defined theoretical frameworks. Moreover, they argue strongly for the operational i zation of constructs, and they utilize sophisticated statistical techniques to test their hypotheses.

Quantitative social scientists are a minority among historians, but they have made progress against resistance to their approach. They have convinced a number of their "mathematically anxious" colleagues that quantitative evidence is sometimes useful and that some historians should be able to work with it. They have argued against fears that an increased .. technicalism" will cut historians off from their potential mass audience. Noting that professional historians have only rarely been popular historians, they argue that academics tend to write for each other and to trust that what is lasting in their work will eventually reach the general public.

Supporters of the scientific approach have more trouble with the arguments of such renowned scholars like Carl Bridenbaugh (1963) and Jacques Barzun (1974) that quantification cannot answer the really important questions. The social scientists can reasonably claim that, in the past two decades, historians who rely on quantitative evidence have reshaped the profession's understanding of voter behavior, the institution of slavery, patterns of economic and social mobility, and other vital topics. Nevertheless, they admit that the critics are not simply cranks, and are sensitive to allegations that the quantitative approach can exalt the trivial. They know that the sharp focusing of questions prized in their approach can yield insights with broad implications. But they are also aware that a set of good data - good in the sense of available and manageable -can tempt some to undertake research that is long on technical virtuosity and short on substance.

Whatever their orientation, most historians agree that the significance of the questions asked is more important than the access to data that can answer them. The issues of interest to the vast majority of historians involve eternal conflicts in human values. Moreover, historians are sensitive to individual peculiarities and to special circumstances, and wary of supposed "rules" of human behavior. And while social scientist historians think that their discipline must seek higher levels of generalization than many of their peers believe possible, the difference between the two camps is one of degree rather than one of kind. Even as they espouse their version of the scientific approach, quantitative historians also recognize that they can never totally escape their own temporal context or their own personal value systems.

The obstacles to the acceptance of quantitative methods among historians should be of interest to marketers and consumer researchers, who have enthusiastically accepted this methodology and have eagerly sought new statistical techniques. Overall, marketers' openness has led to impressive advances in research, but the direct ties of their techniques to the logical positivist tradition and to theory verification may also have narrowed the scope of their studies. Some marketers, including Jagdish Shah (1981) and Rohit Deshpande (1983), have argued that qualitative methods may be more appropriate for the early, exploratory stages of research. Their suggestions that nonquantitative methods can play a role in discovery is important, but even that recognition may radically underestimate the significance of qualitative approaches.

Marketing exchanges and other consumer activities occur in dynamic environments, often involve large groups rather than individual buyers or sellers, and may be influenced by diverse cultural, social, and political forces. Although quantitative methods easily gained ascendancy in the discipline, few studies have examined the impact of such broad factors on marketing. Indeed, the constraints and assumptions of the dominant methodology may be partly responsible for the major research gaps. Have the kinds of data necessary to apply quantitative techniques to essentially qualitative macro questions been too costly to obtain, or, in some cases, even impossible to generate, given the current level of knowledge about identifying and measuring the pertinent phenomena? More to the point, has a commitment to measuring of regularities in human behavior caused marketers to underestimate the impact of unique circumstances or of temporal discontinuities? If the answer to either or both of those questions is .. yes," marketers must ask themselves whether methodological convenience or the imperatives of immediate problems determine the course and content of marketing and consumer behavior investigations.

Elizabeth Hirschman (1986) has recently pointed out the relevance of the participant-observer method for marketing studies. Her insightful argument, however, does not exhaust the potential contributions of humanist inquiry to the broadening of marketing method. Historians have benefitted from partly subjective interpretations of such diverse sources as archival records, artifacts, diaries, and government documents. Their methods of critical, albeit nonquantitative, analysis of those data have led to better understanding of major phenomena, including the development of democratic institutions, the effects of industrialization, and changes in family structure.

b. Historiographic Method

The second point of the paper touches on the social purpose of the historian's endeavor and the nature of the critical methods associated with it. The historian's role is to make the past intelligible in terms that will allow people of the present to understand better what has shaped their world and their lives. For example, as concerns about issues of gender have gained increasing attention in recent years, historians have reexamined the history of women and reconsidered their importance in shaping the social order. It is this interaction between the present and the past that prevents the content of history from becoming stagnant.

At the same time, however, historians are conscious that bringing the concerns of the present to the study of the past can put at risk two of their central imperatives: that they respect the integrity of the past and that they call attention to what was unique about it. Most of them, therefore, will be appalled when a researcher reduces such a Puritan religious dissident as Anne Hutchinson to a prototype of modem feminism (Koehler, 1974). They recognize, however, that such interpretative excesses inevitably crop up in research that is informed by contemporary relevance, and they are confident that the discipline's internal defenses will quickly weed out clear distortions.

History is a dynamic, not a definitive discipline. An important part of the historical method is its continuing internal dialectic. Historical understanding grows by a process in which historians subject to criticism the ways in which the present-mindedness of their predecessors caused them to distort the past. Historians not only correct outmoded concepts through this endeavor; they also maintain an awareness of their own susceptibility to time-bound biases. Historiography, the analysis of the writing of history is, therefore, integral to the discipline. The introspection it provides is an essential element of the historical method and is a source of strength as well as an admission of imperfection.

No discipline is immune from the kinds of timebound intellectual biases against which historians openly struggle. Not even those disciplines that pride themselves on being scientific and on demanding numerical verification of evidence are as objective as they like to believe. The best quantitative analyses are no stronger than the hypotheses that they test. As Thomas Kuhn's (1962) dissection of the cultural clashes in scientific revolutions and Stephen Jay Gould's (1981) critical history of the rise of psychometric testing have demonstrated, the fundamental theories in any era may be based as much on its subjective assumptions as on available objective evidence.

Marketing and consumer behavior research may presently have special needs for introspection. During the past several decades, marketing theorists have given considerable attention to demarcating the scope of their field and to asserting its status as a science (Kotler, 1972; Hunt, 1976). Over the same period consumer research has undergone parallel development (Sheth and Gross, 1988). Together they have produced a body of literature capable of supporting an intellectual history that would explain why different topics came to the fore or received special emphasis at various times.

Several scholars have attempted to describe chronologically the evolution of marketing thought and to connect it with broader intellectual and academic trends. Bartels (1965) sketched an account of marketing's formative periods, and Shah and Gardner (1982) briefly considered the development of the six dominant schools in contemporary marketing. But, if marketers are to use historical studies to help define an identity for their discipline, as recommended by Savitt (1980), they must move beyond general descriptive approaches to more fundamental questions. They might consider, for example, the extent to which the immediate needs of practitioners have or have not shaped marketing and consumer studies. They might also ask whether the distinct schools within marketing simply reflect different facets of common theory or whether they signify a more unifying intellectual structure has not yet emerged.

Researchers in the history of marketing and consumer behavior might also survey the fields from which their colleagues heavily borrow their theories and techniques to discover whether they have been adopted for substantive or idiosyncratic reasons. For example, using a typology of scientific styles proposed by Mitroff and Kilman, Hirschman (1985) has demonstrated how World views, academic training, intellectual interests, and methodological commitments influenced the approaches of four central researchers in consumer behavior. Rajiv Dant (1985) has examined the influence that several theoretical frameworks borrowed from social psychology have had on the character of marketers' research on channel behavior. Additional work of this kind, especially of a more inclusive scope, might explain why some marketing topics have received considerable, if not excessive attention, while others have remained largely neglected. It might also raise issues about the appropriateness of taking theoretical paradigms from other disciplines.


The importance of understanding both history and historical method is apparent by examining, from an historian's perspective, a problem of growing concern to marketing and consumer behavior researchers. It involves the description and explanation of the marketplace activities of the several million residents of the United States who are aliens or the offspring of immigrants and who spend their lives within ethnic - and particularly Hispanic or Asian-subcommunities. The argument presented is that marketing and consumer researchers, because they have not been historically sensitive, have not sufficiently considered the policy aspects of this problem. Instead, in their present attempts to understand and reach these sets of consumers they have adopted a theoretical framework in danger of becoming outmoded; they have slighted potentially important distinctions between the groups being targeted; and they have perhaps even risked creating a backlash against their efforts.

a. The Problem

When marketers contemplate strategies aimed at appealing to the cultural affinities of ethnic and linguistic minorities, they step into a long-standing political and social controversy in our society. Tensions between the successive waves of immigrant nationalities coming to the New World and those peoples who preceded them have been constant. During the 17th and 18th centuries, English settlers established cultural dominance in the 13 North American colonies, but by the mid-19th century Irish Catholic and non-English speaking Germans represented a sizable proportion of the United States population and challenged extant Anglo-Protestant norms. In the late 19th and in the 20th centuries, the cultural unity of the nation endured further shocks: at the turn of this century, sources of migration shifted to southern and eastern Europe and large numbers of Italians and Russian Jews came to American shores. In more recent decades, adverse political and economic conditions in their homelands have brought a new influx of culturally different peoples, in the form of Hispanic and Asian immigration to this country. Across the centuries newcomers have tried to preserve and to pass on their cultures, and natives have expected them to adapt to the mores of the majority. What has varied, however, have been the society's confidence in its ability to absorb and acculturate alien peoples and the intensity of its effort to force immigrants and their offspring to conform.

Each encounter between aliens and Americans has led to a re-examination of the processes of immigration and assimilation. But theories about that process, such as the "melting pot," the "triple melting pot," and "cultural pluralism" have been essentially historical generalizations intended mainly to explain past events. They have not been designed for predictive purposes, and they lack the level of specification about the actions and interactions of variables that one would expect from true models. Moreover, the theories that have been proposed often seem to support "social myths" used to restore communal stability and to rationalize the accommodations that have been reached with each succeeding wave of newcomers. As such, those theories are time-bound. Like the interpretative paradigms of the historian, they fuse insights into the past with present concerns.

Marketing and consumer researchers do not seem especially aware of the historical contexts that have shaped immigration and assimilation in America and the society's understanding of those phenomena. Practitioners and academics, therefore, have based their applications and their research on current assumptions about those processes, without critically examining the reasons for those notions. As a result, they may misjudge the limits of the theories that they implicitly apply, and they may miss future shifts in social attitudes.

Modem ethnic marketing campaigns probably took off during the racial crisis of the 1960s, when black Americans complained about the discriminatory message implicit in commercials that treated them as invisible. Once it became socially responsible for firms to acknowledge one minority, they had to include others to avoid alienating them. Eventually, marketing went beyond this passive policy of inclusiveness to an active identification of minority and ethnic groups as potential market segments. Marketers conducted research to uncover distinctive consumer behaviors in non-English speaking markets, and they developed extensive advertising campaigns based on direct appeals to specific ethnic groups.

Despite the proliferation of ethnic marketing, it has not generated much academic interest. An examination of the leading journals over the past five years reveals no articles on the topic in the Journal of Marketing Research, two each in the Journal of Marketing (Schaninger et al., 1985; Wilkes and Valencia, 1985) and the Journal of Advertising Research (O'Guinn and Meyer, 1984; Valencia, 1983-184), and four in the Journal of Consumer Research (Wallendorf and Reilly, 1983; Saegert et al., 1985; Deshpande et al., 1986; Reilly and Wallendorf, 1987). More important, publications on ethnic marketing are concerned mostly with documenting the existence in various groups of cultural traits related to consumer behavior.

An historian is struck by the dearth of scholarship on the social policy issues involved in ethnic marketing, because, at least within the context of American history, such a strategy is potentially controversial. The lack of adequate work implies that marketing and consumer academicians either exclude such analytical dimensions or lack expertise in disciplines that would naturally pursue questions involving history and policy. Whatever the reason, it is doubtful that either marketing practice or the understanding of consumption activities is well served by this intellectual blind spot.

b. The Model of Cultural Pluralism

In documenting the existence and persistence of separate identities and cultural differences among ethnic groups, marketers are contributing to a research stream fed also by historians, political scientists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and psychologists. Over the past quarter century, a consensus has developed among them that, contrary to previous expectations, ethnic identities have proved surprisingly resilient. Holding together much of their work, however, has been the assumption that ethnic differences are non-threatening and that cultural diversity may even be beneficial to the society. Working within this context, neither marketing nor consumer researchers have needed to ask whether individual groups or the whole society pays a price when ethnic differences are exploited for the purpose of selling goods.

The interpretative theme of benign "cultural pluralism," however, is of recent vintage. In particular, its emergence has been tied to the study, by their descendants in the 1960s and 1970s, of the southern and eastern European ethnic groups that made their first sizable appearances in the United States between 1890 and 1920 (Archdeacon, 1985). That research is an example of a phenomenon described a half century ago by the historian Marcus Lee Hansen (1937). He argued that by the time an ethnic group was in the United States three generations, its members would have achieved enough social and economic security to be able to express feelings of pride in their heritage that the immigrants had been unable to articulate and that their children often rejected.

The theory of "third-generation interest" may apply to all ethnic groups, but the interpretations vary from generation to generation. Thus, works done on those "Old Immigrant" groups from northern and western Europe whose members arrived in large numbers during the mid-nineteenth century analyzed the immigrants' adaptation to America in ways very different from studies on the "New Immigrant" groups arriving at the turn of the twentieth century. In particular, the former de-emphasized the extent to which the immigrants and their children retained old values and ways. They stressed, instead, the Americanization of those peoples.

Several factors underlay the change in the interpretation of assimilation from the "melting pot" model applied to the "Old Immigrant" nationalities to the "cultural pluralist" one applied to the "New Immigrant" arrivals of the early twentieth century. Within the discipline of history, a shift of scholarly concerns from chronicling the activities of the affluent, educated, and powerful to studying the everyday lives of ordinary people drew attention to elements of the society less likely to have achieved complete integration. In addition, the groups of the New Immigration were more distant from the Anglo-American culture that was the norm of the host society than were those of the Old Immigration. It was logical, therefore, that investigators would find signs of cultural differences persisting longer among the former than among the latter.

Societal forces also played a role in the rise of cultural pluralism. The constructive reinterpretation of an ethnic group's history in America is one of the later elements in the process of its assimilation, and the research has tended to present the people being studied in a light that will advance their acceptability in the body politic. The coming of age of the New Immigrant nationalities coincided with the emergence of the civil rights movement, which emphasized the separate status of American Blacks and the presence of seemingly permanent cultural divisions in the United States. The nation's rejection of racism and its acceptance of the reassertion of Black pride legitimated the existence of cultural pluralism and led to policy decisions that distributed social benefits not to the completely assimilated but to those whose minority status was documented. Unlike the super-patriotism of the post World War I era, which demanded that the Old Immigrants p rove how completely they had been assimilated, the developments of the 1960s encouraged, and perhaps made necessary, emphasis on the retention of ethnic differences in the New Immigrant experience (Archdeacon, 1983).

Acceptance of an interpretative framework that accepts the existence of ethnic differences as desirable and of indefinite duration, however, may have passed its apex. Indeed, it experienced problems from the beginning. As early as the mid-1960s Milton M. Gordon, whose Assimilation in American Life (1964) was one of the seminal works on the importance of ethnoreligious differences, warned that cultural pluralism does not exist in the United States. He argued that American society has instead experienced ,.structural pluralism," in which different groups operate within separate economic and social networks while conforming to general expectations that they share in the nation's version of Anglo-Saxon culture, including use of the English language.

During the 1980s, in a natural and even predictable example of the historiographic revision of an interpretative scheme in vogue for nearly a quarter century, scholars of immigration and ethnicity have begun a re-evaluation of the cultural pluralist interpretation. In an important essay, John Higharn (1982), who is perhaps the dean of American historians working in the field and who once protested the tendency of Americans to "homogenize" their history (1959), has criticized the cultural pluralist paradigm for underestimating the power of the forces working to integrate those who have come to the United States into a single people. Stanley Lieberson (1985), another longtime student of the subject, has called attention to the fact that the fastest growing group in surveys of ethnic identifications are those Americans who feel no European ties at all. Likewise, after extensive research on Italian Americans, supposedly one of the most culturally retentive nationalities, Richard D. Alba (1985) has presented the thesis that the ethnicity of the descendants of the European immigrants is now in its twilight" phase.

The preceding summary of the waxing and possible waning of the cultural pluralist outlook should make marketing and consumer behavior academicians more sensitive to concerns that are prominent in historical studies. It should warn them of the on-going need to attempt to separate the understanding of fundamental historical processes - such as the assimilation of immigrants and their descendants - from the time-bound normative interpretations made about them. And it should make marketing and consumer researchers appreciative of the importance of particular circumstances on general processes. The discussion presented, for example, would appear to lead to the conclusion that the strength and the content of ethnic identity as well as the willingness to express or tolerate it depends not only on a underlying tension between new and old -experiences and mores. It also reflects personal factors in the possessor's life, including generational status and specific ethnic background, and societal circumstances, most notably the contemporary political climate of the host society.

c. Applications to Hispanic and Asian Markets

In regard to the issue of marketing to ethnics, the preceding discussion suggests some immediate considerations for understanding consumption behaviors and developing marketing strategies. Of course, as presented here, those ideas are tentative and often lacking the quantitative support that most marketing and consumer researchers would like to see. The suggestions, however, could easily be re-expressed as hypotheses suited to a marketing/consumer behavior context and evaluated with data collected specifically for the purposes of testing them.

The preceding discussion indicates that researchers studying the relationship between ethnicity and market/consumption behavior must consider the number of generations that have passed since the era of an ethnic group's main period of immigration to the United States. For example, one recent article examined ethnic origin as a possible explanation for differing patterns of food consumption detected among Poles, Blacks, and Hispanics (Reilly and Wallendorf, 1987). The researchers found the ethnic variable had a very weak effect. They did not, however, take into account the facts that Poles have been in this country for several generations; that Blacks are a racially distinct group; and that many Hispanics are first generation immigrants.

Researchers should not assume ethnic identification to be equivalent across various groups. The revival of interest in ethnic origin shown by European groups, and especially by those from the southeastern quadrant of the continent, in the third generation after their arrival was a key to the rise of the cultural pluralist theory. Archdeacon (forthcoming), however, has warned against confusing the third generation's increased interest in heritage with a serious "return to ethnicity" that some cultural pluralists believe occurs.

Current research treats the ethnicity of peoples long established in the United States as a "symbolic" rather than a primordial phenomenon. As Gans (1979) has noted, for such people ethnicity involves "less of an ascriptive than a voluntary role" that they can express "in ways that do not conflict with other ways of life" (pp. 7-8). The evidence suggests that, with the passage of time, ethnic feelings become less a nostalgia for remembered peasant folkways and more an identification with abstract or refined elements of the ancestral culture with which the immigrant forebears had little contact. Tricarico (1984) has indicated that Italian-Americans seeking to express pride in their roots are likely to link quality with fashionable items produced in the old country. In a similar vein, Shannon has noted that large numbers of socially mobile Irish-Americans are unconcerned about Northern Ireland but "like to give their child a very Irish name and drink Bailey's Irish Cream and buy Waterford crystal" (New York Times, August 1, 1986).

Appeals of the kind that may sell the accouterments of continental sophistication to affluent Americans of remote European ancestries may prove premature when directed at ethnic groups composed heavily of recent arrivals. Despite the fact that some Hispanics and Asians have been in North America for generations, the most rapidly growing portion of those markets is composed of recent arrivals; moreover, almost all the Hispanics and many of the Asians are of low socioeconomic status. A conflict between the merchandise offered and the socioeconomic status of the targeted consumers may at least partly underlie the economic difficulties that the New York Times recounted as plaguing Houston's El Mercado del Sol mall, which had been touted as "a showplace of Hispanic culture and commerce." More appropriate may be marketing efforts that cater to the immediate needs of such newcomers and help them function within the larger society. The Wall Street Journal has pointed, for example, to the growing number of banks operated by Hispanics that are providing the same service for Spanish-speaking residents as the Bank of America offered an earlier generation of immigrants in its days as the Bank of Italy (November 24, 1986).

Designing a marketing strategy to reach the American offspring of the immigrants who have been entering this country legally or illegally in increasing numbers since the mid-1960s is more problematic. The objective evidence, from all historical periods, is that members of the second generation are caught between the culture of their families and that of the nation. Historians, however, have imposed conflicting subjective values on that generalization. Cultural pluralists have chided the host society for demanding conformity; as marketers, they might see efforts to reach second-generation Americans in terms of their ethnic heritage not only as potentially effective but also as humane. Another, older interpretation, however, has argued that the second-generation wants to be "American" and, as part of a reasonable commitment to the future, consciously resents the overtones of foreignness that it cannot escape. As marketers, those "assimilationists" might argue that appeals to second-generation ethnics as anything but complete Americans can backfire.

History, therefore, may not give a clear answer to the problem of understanding the consumer behaviors and formulating appropriate marketing strategies for the second generation. It does, however, indicate what issues researchers should consider. They must first determine the feelings that their potential target markets have regarding their position as ethnic minorities. In that regard, they must second recognize that the responses of different groups - for example, of Hispanics and Asians - may not be the same. And, finally, they must take into account the prevailing attitude among most members of the host population toward the presence of visible cultural divisions in their society, because that outlook will determine the political climate in which ethnic groups must operate.

Compared with immigrants of previous generations, those coming in recent years may be more desirous of preserving their heritages and better able to accomplish that goal. On the one hand, some Asian newcomers to the United States have levels of education high enough to make them good carriers and transmitters of culture. On the other, while Hispanics have tended to be poor and unschooled like past immigrants, they have not moved far and are able to maintain close and constant ties with their native cultures.

Nevertheless, it would be imprudent to assume, without empirically verifiable evidence, that Asians and Hispanics will not suffer the sharp decline of native culture that other ethnic groups have voluntarily or involuntarily experienced in the second generation. Like other immigrant peoples before them, Asians may hold tight to their religions in America and seek to marry within their specific ethnic groups. But, as educated and aspiring men and women, whose families have already made one fundamental decision to opt for the West, they are likely also to see a road to acceptance and accomplishment in rapid Americanization. Likewise, assimilative pressures seem to be at work among the Hispanic population. Deshpande, Hoyer, and Donthu (1986), for example, have found that Mexican-Americans display varying degrees of ethnic affiliation that, in turn, are associated with differing patterns of consumption behavior. It would be interesting to know what else the authors might have discovered had they included a generational variable in their study.

Of all the issues involved with devising an ethnic marketing strategy, those relating to general public opinion are the most ethically and practically troublesome. Marketers should be deeply bothered that current academic criticism of cultural pluralism may be a signal of even more volatile shifts in popular attitudes. The scholars mentioned and others making similar arguments are uniformly people of generous spirit who deeply identify with newcomers to these shores and believe in America's destiny as a "nation of immigrants." But the rhythms of historiographic change suggest that their findings may now indicate that Americans, in general, may be moving toward an era of declining sympathy with diversity. Such a development would not be unprecedented; indeed, it would be more typical than the liberalism of recent years in regard to traditional American attitudes.

Cultural pluralism was the intellectual product of a society that had learned to manage the ethnic divisions left over from an earlier age of immigration. As a philosophy of survivors, its credibility depended in part on the assumption that American culture would endure no further challenges from newcomers. Now, however, immigration is once again a major phenomenon, seen by many to be out of control and to be at the root of all the nation's ills. Popular willingness to tolerate alien Cultures may be withering. When "Sixty Minutes" (October 5, 1986) telecast a segment on the economic revival created in Miami by Cubans and other Hispanics, irate native Floridians wrote to the show to express their anger at living in an increasingly bilingual society. Likewise, Justice Department officials have identified violence against Asians as the fastest growing form of discrimination in the United States (Wall Street Journal, November 28, 1986).

Ominous portents of the future may be emerging in California, which has anticipated the nation in so many other social trends. In November, 1986, 73 percent of those who went to the polls in California voted in favor of Proposition 63, which gives any resident Or person doing business there the right to sue if the legislature or state officials act in ways that "diminish or ignore the role of English as the state's common language" (Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1986). Likewise, Californians who support the movement to make English the sole official language of the United States, have been vigorously protesting advertisements present in various Asian languages (New York Times, July 21, 1986).

As a final consideration, therefore, marketers must realize that ethnic appeals may lead to a backlash in even larger markets. They must not be afraid to exercise their right to free speech, and they should also be willing to stand up against prejudice and bigotry. But marketers must also recognize that the difference between offering legitimate services to minorities and unnecessarily inflaming among the members of the broader community fears of an impending ethnic Balkanization of their society.


Accepting contemporary theory structures as givens is a risky business for marketing and consumer researchers. By overlooking the evolution of those operating assumptions and the social conditions that have nurtured them, those scholars may base their analyses on what may prove to he unstable and transient foundations. They might be wise to examine more closely the larger issues behind the problems for which they are asked to provide understanding and strategies. In that endeavor, history can be a valuable ally.


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Marilyn Lavin, Northeastern University
Thomas J. Archdeacon, University of Wisconsin-Madison


SV - Interpretive Consumer Research | 1989

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