Consumer Behavior Theory: Excesses and Limitations

ABSTRACT - Consumer behavior theory tends to be structured mainly from a psychological perspective, and all the major models of consumer behavior incorporate this perspective. This paper will adopt a sociological approach to consumer behavior, and will develop a typology of consumers' behaviors incorporating the concepts of norms, values, and social organizations.


Joan Zielinski and Thomas S. Robertson (1982) ,"Consumer Behavior Theory: Excesses and Limitations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 8-12.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 8-12


Joan Zielinski, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Thomas S. Robertson, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania


Consumer behavior theory tends to be structured mainly from a psychological perspective, and all the major models of consumer behavior incorporate this perspective. This paper will adopt a sociological approach to consumer behavior, and will develop a typology of consumers' behaviors incorporating the concepts of norms, values, and social organizations.


Despite the well recognized need for sociological approaches in explaining consumer behavior (Ferber, 1976; Nicosia and Mayer, 1976), there has been only limited application of sociological theories. It might be useful to position sociological research within the field of consumer behavior research in general. A perusal of the Journal of Consumer Research,for example, indicates that certain topics are fairly well developed, whereas others are largely neglected. To determine more precisely the major directions which the consumer behavior literature has followed, a content analysis of all previous JCR issues was conducted. Our intention was to develop a compact yet descriptive typology of researched topics.

Table 1 shows the data-based typology of major JCR research topics. By far the most prevalent category of articles is psychological theory (39.9%). And, dominant within the psychological perspective is cognitive theory--information search and processing. Attitude theory and research are also an important component, followed by research on children and advertising (which is mainly from a cognitive development perspective), then personality and psychographics, and attribution theory. Much of the psychologically-oriented research applies a particular psychological theory, which is never pursued in other research - single articles on such topics as learning, obesity, fear appeals, situational approaches, self-perception theory, and cognitive consistency theory

The second most popular category of research revealed by the content analysis is methodology (21.3% of articles). Dominant within this is the stream of work on conjoint analysis. Also included are articles exploring modeling, and measurement and analysis issues. As in the psychological theory category, there are a number of articles exploring particular analytic applications (latent class, decision nets, etc.) which are never Pursued in further research.

Sociological theory constitutes the third largest content area (12.8% of articles).Here,in declining order representation, are articles on the family, diffusion theory,socialization,social influence, cross-cultural theory, and social class. Surprisingly, only two articles take a cross-cultural focus and only one adopts a societal (social class) focus. Research on consumer behavior is largely conducted from an ethnocentric perspective; and as academics, we areas unaware as the U.S. business community of "foreign competition." We ignore the interesting work now underway by scholars in Europe and Japan.

Other categories of research are indicated in Table 1. The consumEr behavior field still has a reasonably firm base in economics (7.4% of articles); consumerism and social policy have emerged as a significant research area (6.9%); and demography (4.3%) is also part of the literature. Of concern is that only 2.0% of the articles published in JCR have a focus on general theory or models of consumer behavior. Some 5 . 3% of the articles may be classified as special topics and generally involve consumer behavior analyses for such diverse applications as energy, drugs, health care, etc.



A number of conclusions about the structure of consumer behavior research emerge from the content analysis.

1. The prevalent conceptual and methodological base of consumer behavior research is psychological rather than sociological; cognitive/information processing theory dominates.

2. There is only limited attention to comprehensive theory or modeling and much of the research deals with limit hypothetical constructs.

3. Many topics which are central to the field of consumer behavior are not actively researched. These include motivation, learning, self-perception, social class, and cross-cultural effects.

4. There is a growing research stream on the application of behavioral concepts to social policy issues, such ; deceptive advertising and product safety.

5. The literature is replete with concepts which are new pursued in subsequent work and research which is never replicated.

6. Despite general agreement that the study of purchasing should adopt a decision-process approach, the dominant stream of research involves the analysis of brand choice alone.

7. Despite general agreement that analysis of purchasing behavior--whether in the organization or in the household--should involve the buying center and the multiple roles played by participants, almost all research is limited to a single individual as the unit of analysis.

Thus, while there is commendable diversity in the field while publications extend across a host of topics, there are also some major biases and limitations. The bias of most immediate concern to us is the relative lack of a sociological focus and all which that implies. Some behavior, such as a new fashion, is primarily social, and psychological theories- whether of information processing, attribution or whatever--are unable to explain the phenomenon in question. Much behavior has a social component and involves multiple decision-makers, necessitating again that the re search explicitly consider sociological conceptions. The logical question is why sociological variables have had such limited impact on consumer behavior research. The most compelling reason may be the difficulty of conducting rigorous empirical research within a group setting or at the social category level. Also, the greatest methodological advances have been in the analysis of individual level responses, and nonparametric statistical analysis for research within small groups is rather inadequate. Further reasons relate to the psychologically-based training of consumer behavior researchers and the reputedly greater level of paradigm development within psychology versus sociology.

Given the psychological bias of consumer research, this p; per will attempt to define the sociological perspective al its relevance to particular classes of consumer behavior and to develop a sociologically based typology of consumers' behaviors.


The most essential means of defining the sociological perspective is in terms of the unit of analysis. Research focuses on the social context, rather than the individual The units of analysis are the group as well as broader social structure components, such as social classes, institutions, and subcultures. The center of concern is how the social environment and its institutional structure affect the behavior of individuals.

Sociology examines various levels of aggregation, from interpersonal relations to group behavior to social aggregates. Research on interpersonal relations frequently overlaps with social psychology, and research on social aggregates, especially at the societal or cross-societal level, intersects with the field of cultural anthropology. We intend to show the relevance and value of these multiple theoretical perspectives within sociology rather than to focus on any single perspective. Conversely, Nicosia and Mayer (1976), in their call for a sociological focus, are almost exclusively interested in the societal level. They utilize the concepts of cultural values and norms created by social institutions in order to-develop a sociology of consumption which focuses on the buying, using, and disposing of goods at the societal level.

It is our thesis that to ignore sociological variables limits our ability to explain consumer behavior. A considerable proportion of consumption is social in nature or has a high component of social utility--from fashion to auto mobiles to soft drinks. Psychological theories--whether information-processing, attribution, or learning- are unable to account fully for the behavior under analysis. Similarly, much consumer decision-making involves a social component in the form of multiple decision-makers (whether family or purchasing organization), or in the form of the use of other people as information source to the extent that objective non-social information sources are not available (Festinger, 1954). This suggests the necessity of sociological conceptions in order to build our understanding of consumer actions in the marketplace.


The opportunities to utilize sociological theories in consumer behavior research can be identified and categorized based on Talcott Parsons' (1951) depiction of the "Human Action System"--a general conceptual rationale to be used in investigating society. The Human Action System is composed of four primary subsystems, each of which has a specific goal. The major concepts of the Human Action System are indicated below.



At one extreme is the behavioral organism, which refers to the physical, genetically-determined human being. It is the biological component of the individual which is comparable across all people. Its function is adaptation to the physical, non-social environment. Adaptation is a learned process. Regarding consumer behavior, it is the behavioral organism which recognizes consumption needs, which expends energy to procure information, and which is the motivating factor behind need fulfillment.

At the other extreme of human action is the cultural system. Culture is symbolic, and is organized into patterns which have evolved over many generations. As individuals grow in the society, they are socialized into the system and learn to believe in and abide by the constant and largely static cultural patterns. The function of the cultural system, then, is to maintain the general patterns of cultural order: this is termed pattern maintenance or latency. Through the cultural system, each consumer learns shared, culturally-approved ways of relating to the physical environment. Whereas the behavioral organism acts in the physical environment, the cultural system operates in the conceptual province. The cultural system exerts pressure to conform on the other sub-systems of the Human Action System. The role of the cultural system has not been widely investigated in consumer research.

Between the two extremes of the genetically-determined behavioral organism and the cultural system, consumers have the opportunity to develop their own distinctive behavioral systems. Each consumer's physical, social, and cultural environments are unique in some ways, and his or her manner of responding to these environments is known as the personality system. The function of the personality system is to fulfill the needs recognized by the behavioral organism. For example, while the behavioral organism recognizes information needs and is exposed to information in the physical environment, the personality system engages in the processes of brand choice, information processing, and insuring cognitive consistencY.

Finally, Parsons' fourth system, the social system, refers to the process of social interaction among individuals. Its function is to integrate consumers' relationships in an ordered fashion. This is accomplished in large measure based on the institutional structure of the society family, religion, industry, unions, etc. Consumer research on reference group influence (Stafford and Cocanougher, 1977) focuses on the influence of the social system and some research explicitly examines social integration as a variable affecting consumer behavior (Robertson, 1971). Market segmentation studies attempt to identify ordered subsystems, although the more prevalent focus is on demographic and psychographic, rather than sociographic variables - institutions, ethnic groups, and subcultures.

From our sociological Parsonian analysis, we conclude that the social system (integration) and the cultural system (pattern maintenance) are largely neglected areas of consumer research. According to Parsons, "action consists of the structures and processes by which human beings form meaningful intentions and, more or less successfully,implement them in concrete situations" (1951, p. 5). Although consumer researchers have studied the "structures and processes" of consumer choice, we have virtually ignored the social and symbolic ways in which "meaning" is assigned to the various choices.


Based on an understanding of the interrelationship between the individual (personality system) and society, we intend to develop a sociological typology of consumer behavior.

To this end, we first distinguish between cultural values and societal norms--a distinction which is critical to sociological analysis. Values are cultural goals; they are salient symbolic concepts representing the "good," the "moral," and the "worthwhile." For example, an important value of American society is the achievement ethic.

Norms, on the other hand, are societal rules or guidelines which define acceptable conduct for achieving values. Norms flow from the values they support, and simultaneously serve to reinforce these values by lending credence to them. Norms are created and administered by social institutions. In the Parsonian analysis, values are located in the cultural system and norms within the social system. Continuing with the example of the achievement value, a specific norm is the legal requirement that children attend school until the age of 16.

Robert Merton (1938, 1957) uses the concepts of values and norms, and their interrelation in society, to propose a typology of human behavior. Merton suggests that an individual may either accept (+) or reject (-) the cultural goals of a society. Similarly, the institutional means (norms) for attaining those goals may be accepted and obeyed (+) or rejected and flaunted (-). Merton points out that there are four possible "adaptation modes" for the individual.

Conformity, the most common mode of adjustment, entails the individual's acceptance of both cultural goals and the institutionalized means to attain those goals. The implication here is that the individual achieves personal satisfaction from compliance. The least common mode of adjustment is retreatism. These individuals, says Merton, are "aliens in society." They are the drug addicts, chronic alcoholics, and outcasts who have rejected both societal values and norms. Retreatism occurs when individuals who originally internalized societal goals and institutionalized means find that they are unable to achieve these ends. Additionally they are unwilling to go against the system by adopting illegitimate means to achieve goals. Defeated, they reject both goals and means, thereby effectively "dropping out" of the system.

Innovation occurs when the individual has been inadequately socialized. Although the success or achievement value, for instance, is still sought, the individual adopts illegitimate means to attain the goal. Embezzlement and other forms of white collar crime are examples of "innovation." On the other hand, Merton's concept of ritualism occurs when the institutionalized means have been highly assimilated by the individual, but the goal is considered unreachable. The popular depiction of staunch adherence to the mores of Catholicism by members of organized crime syndicates typifies ritualism.

As his final step, Merton interrelates the societal orientation with the individual's mode of adaptation by suggesting that the existing social structure can influence individuals to adopt one adaptation mode in preference to others. As an example. Merton states that while American society posits wealth as an important value, as a goal to be sought by all citizens, it simultaneously limits certain ethnic and racial subgroups the access to legitimate means for wealth attainment. The society, then,stresses goals over means, and some individuals consequently adopt "innovative" (i.e. illegal) means to attain wealth.

We are now in a position to propose a sociological typology of consumer behavior from this institutional/structural perspective. We first borrow from Merton the concept that individuals may adopt various adaptation modes. Specifically, a consumer may exhibit conformity (Goals +, Means +) when s/he engages in consumption activities. This is the realm of traditional consumer behavior. Alternatively, the consumer may exhibit retreatism (Goals -, Means -) in consumption activities. Here, we have deviant consumer behavior (e.g., use of hard drugs, prostitution). But a consumer's behavior may also involve "innovation" (Goals +, Means -). For example, while in general accepting the cultural goal of modesty, a consumer may choose to adopt new fashions which violate traditional norms for modesty. The changing trends in women's fashion fall into such a category. Finally, a consumer may engage in ritualism (Goals -, Means +), as would be the case of, say, a public official who, while publicly denouncing drug usage, privately smokes marijuana.

For the purposes of consumer behavior, we will retain, intact, Merton's "conformity" and "retreatism" modes. But for ease of interpretations we will label them traditional and deviant consumption. But, Merton's categories of "innovation" and "ritualism" will be combined into what we term potentially dynamic consumption activities (Table 2). This combination is carried outs because the distinction between (Goals +, Means -) and (Goals -, Means +) is not particularly relevant to consumer behavior. What is critical, however, is that change in consumption activities occurs at the potentially dynamic level, as will be discussed below.

Table 2 lists the three relevant categories of consumers' adaptation modes along the vertical axis. The horizontal axis of the cable draws from Parsons' analysis of the Human Action System, incorporating the personality, social, and cultural systems. This three-fold breakdown recognizes that consumers may act either as discrete individuals, or as members of a social institution (e.g. family or church) or as members of a crowd, where crowd consumption occurs among members of a cultural system who gather together, in a time-space relationship, for the sole purpose of sharing in the purchase or use of a consumer good or service not available on an individual basis. Parson's first subsystem the behavioral organism, is not included in this typology, because it operates at the pre-information processing stage of consumer activity. As such, it is not explicitly relevant to this examination of consumers' actual behaviors. Table 2 also shows that cultural information flows downward through the social system, to the individual's personality system. The effects of an individual's behavior, however, flow upward: they are absorbed largely by the social system, which fosters the long term stability (latency) of the cultural system.

Most consumer research has focused exclusively on traditio al, individual choice. So although our working knowledge of the upper left hand cell of Table 2 is quite extensive, our understanding of the consumption activities in the other eight cells is limited. Nonetheless, we suggest that the information processing and individual choice models abundant in the consumer behavior literature are applicable to the Potentially Dynamic and Deviant Individual (Personality System) dells. Differences in the purchase decision processes would probably be found in the nature of the search processes, more surreptitious information sources, and alternative methods of evaluation.



Crowd consumption (column 3) refers to the situation where a large number of consumers simultaneously utilize a product, e.g., attendance at sporting or entertainment events. An interesting feature of crowd consumption is that benefits are endemic to the crowd itself. The crowd at a football game is responsible for the provision of enthusiasm, comradery, and an excited emotional state for the individual spectators. Furthermore, crowd consumption depends upon the crowd for its continuation. If a movie is under-attended, its distribution is withdrawn; if a football team repeatedly fails to draw a sufficient number of spectators, the franchise is moved.

We suggest that the purchase decision process (PDP) for consumers involved in crowd consumption is, once again, basically similar to the PDP involved in individual consumer choice. The individual consumer decides to engage in a crowd consumption. But, it is the post-purchase evaluation stage which differs for crowd activities. Evaluation of the "product" depends not only on product performance, but also on the behavior of other consumers for the product is mutually shared.

Finally, the middle column of the matrix represents subgroup consumption, typically conducted under the auspices of a social institution. We suggest that the dominant factor affecting subgroup consumption is the necessity of achieving group consensus. Subgroup consumption is dependent upon agreement. A fruitful research stream would be the study of the various negotiation techniques utilized by the subgroup to achieve consensus. [One social institution which has been well researched is the family. In his thorough review of family studies, Davis (1976) discusses various hypotheses explaining family decision making. Such hypotheses (e.g., relative contribution) might be applied to other social institutions as well.] In summary, we suggest that, the PDP varies across columns, but is basically similar for the cells within each column. The division of the matrix into three rows also serves a research oriented purpose. The top row represents traditional consumption, and the bottom row deviant consumption. We suggest that it is the middle row--potentially dynamic consumption--which is the key-to social change, and hence changes in consumer behavior.

The occurrence of social change requires "mixed" social opinion. Social change can begin at either the crowd (information flow) or the individual (behavior) level; but regardless, subgroups of support for change must emerge. At the subgroup level also emerges roles and role relationships. As membership and momentum increase, the impetus for change becomes embodied in a social institution. Once the activity has been institutionalized, it can move either up to the traditional level (having gained high social consensus) or down to the deviant level (having created social animosity).


Consumer behavior is said to be an interdisciplinary field of study. Nevertheless, the dominant research orientation is psychological.

Underrepresentation of the sociological perspective is associated with incomplete conceptualizations of consumer behavior. Sociological variables may contribute incremental explanatory power when behavior is primarily at the individual consumer level. Sociological variables may be quite fundamental, however, when the behavior is primarily a group phenomenon, as in some family decision areas or organizational decision areas, or when the behavior is highly social in nature, as in the consumption of socially-visible products.

This paper has proposed a typology of consumer behavior which accounts for subgroup and crowd consumption as well as potentially dynamic and deviant consumption. As such, it suggests a mechanism whereby social change is initiated. Additionally the typology portrays the limited scope of our current understanding of consumer behavior. A psychological orientation defines and emphasizes only one of the many types of behaviors identified by a sociological approach.

Integration of these sociological perspectives holds the promise of further advancing the field of consumer behavior. The interdisciplinary nature of the field will be enhanced to the extent that it is characterized both by substantive contribution from various disciplines and the integration of these perspectives into a more general multitheoretical model of consumer behavior.


Davis, Harry L. (1976), "Decision Making Within the Household," Journal of Consumer Research, 2, pp. 241-260.

Ferber, Robert (1976), "Statement of Objectives And Future Goals of JCR," Journal of Consumer Research, 3, p. vi.

Festinger, Leon (1954), "A Theory of Social Comparison Processes," Human Relations, 7, pp. 117-140.

Merton, Robert (1938), "Anomie and Social Structure." American Sociological Review, 3, pp. 672-680.

Merton, Robert (1957), Social Theory and Social Structure, (New York: Free Press).

Nicosia, Francesco M., and Mayer, Robert N. (1976), "Toward 8 Sociology of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 3, pp. 65-75.

Parsons, Talcott (1951), The Social System, (New York: The Free Press).

Robertson, Thomas S. (1971), Innovative Behavior and Communication, (New York: Rinehart and Winston).

Stafford, James E., end Cocanougher, Benton A. (1977), "Reference Group Theory," (ed.) Robert Ferber, in Selected Aspects of Consumer Behavior, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office).



Joan Zielinski, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Thomas S. Robertson, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09 | 1982

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