Theory Development in Perspective: Exposing the Cultural Bias

ABSTRACT - It is widely recognized that cross-cultural research must be based on an adequate understanding of cultural foundations (Lee 1966; Sommers and Kernan 1967) The terms "international" and "cross-cultural", however, are frequently used interchangeably and therefore incorrectly. The purpose of this paper is to expose the cultural bias that naturally exists in all theory and to propose an analytical approach designed to reduce its influence.


Richard J. Rexeisen (1984) ,"Theory Development in Perspective: Exposing the Cultural Bias", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 329-332.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 329-332


Richard J. Rexeisen, Georgia State University


It is widely recognized that cross-cultural research must be based on an adequate understanding of cultural foundations (Lee 1966; Sommers and Kernan 1967) The terms "international" and "cross-cultural", however, are frequently used interchangeably and therefore incorrectly. The purpose of this paper is to expose the cultural bias that naturally exists in all theory and to propose an analytical approach designed to reduce its influence.


The terms "perceptual blinders","self-reference criterion", and "restrictive perceptual paradigms" are frequently used in cross-cultural studies. The unconscious reference to one's own cultural values has long been identified as the root cause of most international business problems (Lee 1966). The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that theory development and testing are also subject to cultural influences; biases which are not easily eliminated by classical tests of significance or conventional applications of construct validity.

A recent review of the literature supports the proposition that cognitive structures can be influenced by the cultural milieu (Howell 1982). Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, beliefs, values, religion, customs, and mores acquired by a group of people and passed on from generation to generation. Culture becomes the foundation of the perceptual paradigm that shapes our basic way of perceiving, valuing, thinking, and acting - giving us a particular vision of reality.

A perceptual paradigm may be defined as an acquired set of highly organized constructs around which a person organizes their perceptions of their external environment. These constructs serve as anchors or reference points for our mental functioning and well being. As will be later developed, there is a logical link between culture, percepts, concepts, and derived theoretical constructs. Consequently, theory development and testing can be affected in one of three ways: 1) hypotheses falling outside some latitude of acceptance for z particular cultural paradigm may either fail to be recognized, or, 2) hypotheses could be rejected for failing to meet the test of a particular paradigm (a Type 1 error), or 3) there could be a predisposition towards generating and accepting self-fulfilling theoretical constructs. For lack of a descriptive term, this type of conceptual myopia will be called "theoretic ethnocentrism".

It is generally considered inconsistent in Western thought that a precept can be logical from one orientation and illogical from another. Nevertheless, what may seemingly appear reasonable, logical, and self-evident to an American may be unreasonable, illogical, and not self-evident to someone from an Oriental culture, and vice-a-versa. The acceptable Western conclusion would be that one orientation is true and the other is false, or that both are false and some other explanation exists. The assumption that a proposition can only be true or false characterizes the Western approach to the testing of theory.

Eastern thought, however, not only considers the possibility that a proposition can be true or false, but also that it might be neither true nor false, or both true and false. Context is the determinant condition in Eastern thought that imputes the quality of "rightness" or "wrongness" to a particular observation.

Stewart (1971) has observed that Americans view the world as being filled with facts and not ideas, and because of this they separate subjectivity from objectivity, giving greater weight to quantitative rather than qualitative assessments. This in turn has lead American scholars to de-emphasize context in their "rush to dichotomize relations." Contemporary consumer behavior models clearly reflect this predisposition. This orientation, however, can be contrasted with Eastern thought which holds that meaning cannot be derived outside of context.

The first step in demonstrating that culture can influence theory development is to establish the link between perceptions and prior learning. In this regard it may be useful to consider an example which illustrates how learning affects perceptual transformations. Although classic Gestalt experiments illustrate only the nature of perceptual transformations, and tell us nothing about the role of paradigms, they demonstrate the ability, even tendency of people to impose a familiar order or structure on their perceptions.

In the classic experiment a subject is fitted with a pair of goggles which contain inverting lenses. The subJect initially sees the entire world upside down. The subject's perceptual-apparatus functions as it had been conditioned to function in the absence of the goggles, and the result is extreme disorientation. However, after the subject has begun to adjust to the new perceptual orientation, his entire visual field flips over, usually after an intervening period in which vision is simply confused. Subsequently, objects are again seen as they had been before the goggles were put on. The assimilation of a previously anomalous visual field has reacted upon and changed the field itself (Carr 1935).

Kuhn (1973) argues in his critical essay on the structure of scientific revolutions that something like a paradigm may be a prerequisite to perception itself. Chomsky (1972) has also concluded "that the role of intrinsic organization is very great in perception and that a highly restrictive initial scheme determines what counts as 'linguistic experience' and what knowledge arises on the basis of this experience (p. 172)." Chomsky argues that the principles of general linguistics regarding the nature of rules, their organization, the principles by which they function, and the kinds of representations to which they apply all constitute part of the innate condition that "puts limits on admissible hypotheses." In general, this supports the proposition that hypotheses falling outside the latitude of acceptance for a particular paradigm may either fail to be recognized or be made susceptible to Type 1 errors.

Whorf (1956) has also claimed that one's language influences what one perceives and how it is interpreted. Efforts to test the Whorf hypotheses with rigorous empirical research have not entirely resolved the questions regarding the relations between language and perception of available stimuli. Sarbaugh (1979), however, concludes that it is reasonable to assume that there is some interdependence or interaction between language and what is in the environment to sense.

If it is the case that current perceptions can be modified by prior learning, it is reasonable to assume that theory, which is itself a hypothetical structure which attempts to explain or relate an observed set of facts, can be similarly biased or influenced by acquired predispositions (broadly defined here as the cultural or perceptual paradigm). For example, Western consumer theorists have been strongly influenced by the British "utilitarian individualism" tradition, (Homans 1958, 1961, 1974; Blau 1964, 1971). Consequently, consumer models (e.g. EKB, Fishbein, etc.) place individual desires and wants in the center of concern and subordinate matters of relative interpersonal relations. This may be contrasted by the collectivist tradition which adds to the former notion of generalized exchange (Levi-Strauss 1957, 1969) and interests itself in the ritualistic, or symbolic elements of exchange behavior, (e.g. Goffman 1956). In fact, one of the most striking polarizations in sociological thought is the polemical relationship between 'individualistic' and 'collectivistic' references (Parsons 1961).

Certainly culture is not the only process by which cognitive structures or perceptual paradigms are developed. With each learning experience there can be more or less subtle changes in our perceptual base. Culture, however, is important for two major reasons: 1) its very function is to facilitate adaptation and as such is both pervasive and enduring, and 2) cultural predispositions and assumptions are often unrecognized and consequently function as unchecked biases. The question becomes whether a learning experience will make our cognitive structures more or less elastic. Paradoxically, the structure that theory development provides theoretically can further restrict our perceptions of reality.

The purpose of this introduction was to illustrate that culture (or prior learning) can influence perceptions of external phenomena. In the next section the formal arguments necessary to conclude that cultural predispositions can bias theory develoPment and testing will be developed.


Several authors have suggested that our thought process can be culturally conditioned (Harris and Moran 1979; Rogers and Shoemaker 1971; Stewart 1971; and Sarbaugh 1979). Harris and Moran (1979) have noted that Eastern cultures analyze in ideograms or visualizations, whereas Western cultures tend to use concepts. A concept is an idea that combines the characteristics known about a subject into a framework for analyzing a particular topic or experience. Concepts have, therefore, assumed the role of becoming the basic building blocks in Western theory.

If it is the case that concepts are the basic building blocks of theory, and that conceptualizations are based on particular perceptions of the world which are themselves dependent upon a paradigm that is culturally conditioned, it is logical to conclude that culture can function as a determinant factor in theory development. Consequently, theory development can become caught in a vicious circle of reasoning.

While it should be relatively easy to understand how theory development can be influenced by cultural factors, the circularity of the confirmation or disconfirmation process is somewhat more subtle. Although the logic behind the inductive process used to confirm or disconfirm scientific hypotheses can be complex, its overall logical structure is simple enough to be briefly addressed.

The typical test of a scientific hypotheses is often considered valid if it meets the following deductive conditions:

If the hypothesis is true,

then the prediction is true.

The prediction is true.

.'. The hypothesis is true.

Unfortunately, we can draw no such deductive conclusion. The previous argument is an example of the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Although it is tempting to assume that this is a correct inductive argument, and may seem to add credibility to the proposition (or supportive evidence), it fails to prove conclusively that the hypothesis is true.

To be inductively correct, the hypothetico-deductive method (refer to Salmon 1973) must assume the following form:

The hypothesis has a non-negligible prior probability.

If the hypothesis is true, then the observational prediction is true.

The observational prediction is true.

No other hypothesis is strongly confirmed by the truth of the observational prediction; that is other hypothesis for which the same observational prediction is a confirming instance have lower prior probabilities.

.'. The hypothesis is true.

The Achille's heel of this otherwise inductively correct paradigm is that there is serious disagreement among experts concerning the exact nature of prior probabilities. The prior probability of a hypothesis is the probability, without regard for its confirmatory instances, that it is true. The prior probability is logically independent of the testing of the hypotheses by way of deduced consequences. In this context, the term prior probabilities has no temporal connotations.

Salmon (1973) notes that the "thinking up of plausible hypotheses to cover a particular set of observed facts is the most difficult part of the creative scientific process, and often requires genius. This is the problem of discovery, and logic has no royal inroads to solve such problems." While Salmon continues to say that most competing hypotheses are implausible - even preposterous - he argues persuasively for the development of competing hypotheses with appreciable prior probabilities to strengthen the inductive process.

The fallibility of the hypothetico-deductive method, however, is that the assignment of prior probabilities, which is essential to the confirmation-disconfirmation process, is based on an "a priori" conceptualization of the observed phenomena. Concepts, as previously argued, are predicated on some perception of the world which in turn is dependent upon an individual's underlying perceptual cultural paradigm. Ergo, theory testing is subject to the same circuitous reasoning that theory development is.


As is the case with other intractable problems, it may be tempting to try to show that the problems identified with theory development are somehow misconceived or the result of some conceptual confusion. The tend to ignore or block out that which is contrary to the cultural "truth" or conflicts with our beliefs. In the case of Western thought, the pragmatic scientific approach is considered all but infallible (at least in the long run).

It would, of course, be less than constructive to end this discussion by simply concluding that consumer theory is caught in a vicious circle of reasoning. Hopefully, there is some value to be derived from the recognition that cultural blinders may impair theory development and testing. The purpose of the following discussion is to suggest an analytical approach to overcome, or at least minimize the bias perceptual paradigms impose on theory development. Specifically, three steps might be employed: 1) define the research problem from multiple perspectives, ideally taking the form of interdisciplinary research, 2) study the problem using maximally different methodologies, and 3) isolate and reconcile, if possible, differences.

Multidisciplinary Research

It is very clear that the hypothetico-deductive paradigm is strengthened by the identification and testing of additional hypotheses that have non-negligible prior probabilities. This is the theoretical corollary of eliminating extraneous variables in experimental designs.

The problem, of course, as previously identified is that researchers are naturally predisposed towards generating and accepting a particular set of hypotheses depending upon their backgrounds. The synergistic approach to problem solving, however, provides one solution to the dilemma. It is, therefore, recommended that researchers make every effort to collaborate with individuals who have opposing or differing conceptual backgrounds. From a theoretical perspective, the optimal strategy is to maximize the difference between collaborative orientations. Many readers may recognize this recommendation as an amplification of the call for more "interdisciplinary" or "multidisciplinary" research in the field of consumer behavior. Kassarjian (1981) recently noted that "although the term interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary has often been applied to the field of consumer behavior, it is in fact not all that interdisciplinary, and perhaps a better term would be 'fragmented'." Unquestionably, a synergistic approach would strengthen the hypothetico-deductive scheme and consequently enrich theory.

In a related recommendation, several scholars have suggested that alternate or competing theories should be utilized whenever possible when evaluating, or attempting to explain relationships among observations (Olson 1981). Their position is that such a strategy would be both more efficient and Productive for knowledge advancement.

The difference between previous recommendations and the one currently proposed is that competing theories are often construed to be predicting different outcomes whereas the hypothetico-deductive paradigm is also emphasizing competing theories that predict the same observation. The test then. is devise methodological strategies which may disconfirm one or all of the competing theories.


Traditional consumer research has adopted the analytic/deductive methods of inquiry. This is understandable given the Western proclivity for quantification as opposed to qualification. Nevertheless, criticisms are continually emerging regarding established research methods and philosophy. Thomas and Tymon (1982) note six major areas of dissatisfaction: 1) the common sense nature of findings, 2) the descriptive rather than action taking orientation of the fields, 3) the emphasis on internal validity at the expense of external validity, 4) reductionism at the expense of comPlexity, 5) an overemphasis (and frequently misuse) of statistical techniques, and 6) the inappropriateness of epistemological and ontological assumptions.

As regards the cultural bias, it is strongly recommended that the use of non-traditional methodologies be encouraged in the study of consumer behavior. For example, there appears to be a new star on the horizon for organizational research (Sanders 1982). It is phenomenology. In contrast to the analytical methods that implicitly adopt a philosophical position and then precede to discern its implications in practice. Conversely, phenomenology begins with the "invariant", principles derived primarily from the sources of intuition and insight, which, may or may not, result in generalizations (Lauer 1965). This methodology may curiously appear particularly susceptible to the cultural bias that has been the topic of this paper. However, an essential aspect of phenomenology is 'epoche' which is the perceived need to temporarily suspend all existing personal biases, beliefs, preconceptions, or assumptions in order to get straight to the pure and unencumbered vision of what a thing "essentially is.

Phenomenology, like the analytic models, is not a research panacea. However, when viewed as an alternative approach to problem solving and theory development, it contributes towards our addressing the issues raised in this paper. For a more complete discussion of how to design a phenomenological research model or the contrasting of phenomenological with normative paradigms interested readers are referred to Sanders (1982).

Reconciliation of Differences

Seventeen years ago, Lee (1966) proposed an analytical framework for reducing the effects of the SRC - the unconscious reference to one's own cultural values - on international business. Although Lee's concern was primarily ,or managerial problems in international markets, his four step approach is relevant to exposing the sub-cultural biases in contemporary theory development. Restated in terms of theoretic ethnocentrism, Lee's four step procedure is: l) define the research problem in terms of the initial assumptions made regarding the object of study; 2) define the research problem from an alternative perspective, either rejecting initial assumptions or adopting different ones; 3) isolate the SRC influence in both steps one and two and examine them carefully to see how they influence your choice of methodology and relevant hypotheses; and 4) redefine the problem attempting to minimize the SRC influence or at least allowing you to measure or control for it.

The isolation and reconciliation of differences is viewed as occurring at all steps of the research process. Ideally, this procedure should occur before, during and after the study of interest. Adoption of a multidisciplinary approach to the study of consumer behavior begins with the recognition that differences will exist to the approach and conceptualization of consumer problems. These differences are, in fact, a desirable aspect of interdisciplinary research. These differences should, however, be made explicit in the research process (e.g. that logic rather than intuition is a better mode for decision making; that an optimum solution can/should be reached, that individualism is superior to collectivism, etc.).


The pragmatic scientific approach advocates the development of systematic schemes for the classification of the objects of its study. These schemes are conceptually rigorous systems that have as their goal the identification of variables which account for 'significant" variance in their observations. The underlying logic of the systems approach is that it will allow for more parsimonious theory development and testing - resulting in the efficient operationalization of the subject matter. It has, however, been argued that the pragmatic approach does not avoid circuitous reasoning at either the theory development or testing stages. What is of issue is the degree or magnitude of potential error that may be attributable to theoretic ethnocentrism.

Three steps or strategies were suggested to help minimize the bias perceptual paradigms impose on theory development. First, there is a continued call for more "interdisciplinary" or 'multidisciplinary" research in the field of consumer research. The synergistic approach may be viewed as a practical method for the initial penetration of current theoretical obtuseness. Second, there is a need to utilize a wider variety of research methodologies than are currently being employed in consumer research (e.g. analytical vs. phenomenological approaches). Finally, it is necessary to recognize the limitations imposed on theory development by Aristotelian logic. Sensitivity to this issue should facilitate the two former steps by liberalizing what constitutes admissible hypothesis.

In summary, the purpose of this paper was not to be critical of the pragmatic approach but rather to identify its weaknesses and to suggest ways in which it can be strengthened. It is hoped that the problems or issues identified in this paper will not be assigned exclusively to the domain of international research. The arguments developed in this paper concern the general circularity of reasoning inherent in the development and testing of all theory. If consumer researchers will reconsider the limitations of the scientific method, real epistemological advances might be made into the explication and understanding of consumer behavior.


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Richard J. Rexeisen, Georgia State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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