The Construction of Consumer Typologies: Scientific and Ethnomethods

ABSTRACT - This paper summarizes the philosophy of knowledge literature on the distinguishing characteristics of scientific and commonsense knowledge systems. It compares the procedures whereby market researchers employing scientific methods construct consumer typologies with those of service workers employing commonsense or ethnomethods to typologize customers. We point to similarities and differences in procedures, resulting typologies, and their functions. we finally suggest the importance of understanding the role that service workers' typologizing schemes play in shaping the service product.


Susan Spiggle and Clinton R. Sanders (1984) ,"The Construction of Consumer Typologies: Scientific and Ethnomethods", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 337-342.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 337-342


Susan Spiggle, The University of Connecticut

Clinton R. Sanders, The University of Connecticut


This paper summarizes the philosophy of knowledge literature on the distinguishing characteristics of scientific and commonsense knowledge systems. It compares the procedures whereby market researchers employing scientific methods construct consumer typologies with those of service workers employing commonsense or ethnomethods to typologize customers. We point to similarities and differences in procedures, resulting typologies, and their functions. we finally suggest the importance of understanding the role that service workers' typologizing schemes play in shaping the service product.

Scientific investigators, as well as laymen, find it useful to impose order on empirical reality through the principle of classification. The procedures through which scientific classification systems are developed differ significantly from chose whereby lay classification systems are produced. At the same time, there are striking similarities in these cognitive activities. The following discussion compares the face-to-face, pragmatic, everyday sense making activities (ethnomethods) of service workers involved in direct interactions with clients/customers to the more remote, but related, activities of scientifically oriented market researchers.


Commonsense and scientific knowledge are cultural systems which contain taken for granted assumptions, linguistic symbols, and "analytical devices within which an observer's inquiry proceeds" (Holzner and Marx 1979: 21,99). While science and commonsense differ in the degree of integration of knowledge components, each rests on its adherents' conviction of its value and validity (Geertz 1975). As shared belief systems, socially constructed and socially maintained, each exhibits a specific social distribution whose boundaries are more or less clearlY delineated.

Scientific and commonsense belief systems differ in systematic ways. Bittner (1963) argues that a hallmark of commonsense understanding is its toleration of ambiguity and its lack of internal consistency. In contrast, scientific knowledge seeks systematic clarity, freedom from internal contradiction, and a rationally consistent interpretation of reality.

As opposed to science, commonsense embraces a taken-for-granted view of reality and is characterized by a simple acceptance of the world as it appears to our immediate experience of it. This uncritical commonsense outlook is dominated by the pragmatic motive. Science, on the other hand, is an autonomous domain within which organized skepticism prevails. As a cultural system, it institutionalizes deliberate doubt and suspends the pragmatic motive for that of disinterested observation, systematic empirical inquiry, and theory construction (see Holzner and Marx 1979, Gurwitsch 1962, and Schutz 1953).

Geertz 11975) argues that a distinguishing feature of commonsense is its accessibleness--the assumption that anyone can formulate and grasp its conclusions. Science, in contrast, is a domain of acknowledged experts who pursue empirical inquiry through formalized and codified procedures. Scientific knowledge is gained through systematic and explicit training, whereas commonsense knowledge is acquired informally as a matter of social inclusion. in summary, scientific and commonsense knowledge, as cultural systems which guide empirical inquiry, differ along the following dimensions--degree of toleration of internal consistence and ambiguity of interpretation. skepticism, pragmatism, and accessibility.


Philosophers of science generally agree that classification is the foundation of all human knowledge, both lay and scientific. Through acts of classification humans create conceptual constructs which enable them to organize their perceptions and make sense of the heterogeneous complexity of the real world. As Schutz (1953), Gurwitsch (1963), McKinney (1969), and Calder (1977) have noted, constructs--lay and scientific--involve abstraction, generalization. formalization, simplification, and idealization of the real world which they represent. All stimulus objects are unique in their occurrence in time and space. However, humans do no: experience them as individual and singular res. but as belonging to some type or kind. In order to comprehend reality, laymen and scientists introduce order into their perceptual experiences by treating objects as if they were "identical, recurrent, and general" (McKinney 1969:3). By ignoring the individual and unique, humans experience objects in light of a certain typicality. The process of typification is a general feature of perceptual experience and involves perceiving the world and structuring it by means of categorical types.

The construction of typologies by scientists and laymen serves the function of allowing the encoding, processing, storage, and retrieval of large amounts of data. As such. typologies provide a "chunking function' (cf. Miller 1956). The information processing perspective suggests that the encoding and consequent information processing and storage operations are importantly driven by existing cognitive structures (cf. Olson 1980, Mitchell 1981) that guide the incoming information of unique stimulus impressions into preexisting categories. These categories represent prototypical abstractions" induced from pas: experience with specific instances of the phenomenon and provide the basis for identification of features through which the phenomenon is categorized (Thorndike and Hayes-Roth 1979:83-84). Typologies are, then, the result of cognitive processes and. in turn. shape subsequent cognitive processes.

The construction of typologies by laymen and scientists (in this case market researchers) performs similar cognitive functions, as well as strategy defining functions, although the procedures differ. The market researcher uses formalized procedures to typologize potential customers into types which will respond to marketing stimuli in a similar fashion. The service worker uses informal procedures to categorize clients in order to facilitate control over the interactional situation which can result in making work easier and, in some instances, stimulating purchase or increasing rewards.

In both cases the general purpose of typology construction is to facilitate prediction and control of the client's or potential customer's behavior. The ability to predict and control the behavior of others is dependent upon ascertaining their perspectives, motives, perceptions, and meanings. Both market researchers and service workers attempt to make sense of the actions and expressions of their customers, clients, and respondents. Typology construction is both the result of and the vehicle for sense making activity.

Finally, for both market researchers and service workers the typologies are constructed within the constraints of an occupational culture which defines the appropriate procedures and/or the appropriate categories to be used. Thus, the resulting typologies are socially derived and approved.

In spice of variations in the procedures used and in the typologies constructed by market researchers, there are Systematic similarities between hem which differentiate them from those of service workers. In order to simplify the following discussion, we compare lay and scientific consumer typology construction along the following dimensions: interrogative activities, constructive activities and resulting typologies. Interrogative activities refer broadly to the procedures through which information is gathered about the individuals whom one is attempting to typologize. This includes the systematic data gathering activities of market researchers, as well as the less systematic cue searching activities service workers use to differentiate among individuals. Constructive activities refer to the analytic and cognitive procedures through which the individuals are sorted into types and those types distinguished.


Interrogative Activities

As opposed to that of ethnomethods, the scientific procedures through which the investigator gathers information involves an "interaction" with a respondent which is artificial and obtrusive. The collection of data for the purpose of categorizing consumers is generally based on prestructured instruments administered by mail, telephone, or personal interview. This contact with the respondent to be categorized is an "artificial interaction" in that under the normal, taken-for-granted assumptions of interaction, one does not intensive] y quiz others and make note of their answers. The respondent must understand that the investigator has a special motive to ask questions and must "bracket" the normal, taken-for-granted assumptions which regulate interaction (Garfinkle 1967). Thus, the interrogative activities of the market researcher are obtrusive. For the interaction to proceed and for the data to be meaningful, the respondent must share the definition of the situation as an interrogation.

The prestructured nature of the data collection results in a lack of flexibility in the interrogative activities. The data gathering is generally not interaction which flows between the researcher and respondent, but a more unilateral directive based on the data collection instrument. The interrogator has limited opportunity to adjust the line of questioning to clarify meaning which may be ambiguous. While the focus group interview is a notable exception to this, Calder (1977) notes the problems inherent in generating systematic theory from data by this technique. In addition. the artificial and obtrusive nature of the interrogative activity of market research leads to the possibility of "demand effects," as well as other sources of error resulting from the respondent's definition of the situation. The prestructured, inflexible, and obtrusive nature of the interrogative activities renders the ability of the researcher to make accurate sense of the respondent's answers somewhat problematic.

Constructive Activities

As Wind (1978) has stated, the analytical technique for developing consumer typologies (segments) and classifying consumers into categories (segments) is generally a two stage procedure. In the firs: stage individuals are classified into types or segments through a priori or post hoc approaches. In the a priori approach the basis for segmentation is defined prior to the categorization of individuals who are typologized into segments or types generally through cross tabulation and sorting procedures. In the post hoc approach the researcher uses a proximity measure to assess similarities and differences between individuals and then employs one of a number of clustering algorithms to group individuals into clusters on the basis of measured similarities (Wind 1978, Frank and Green 1968).

In the second stage the clusters or segments which have been formed and into which individuals have been placed are profiled. The profile differentiates or discriminates the clusters/segments/types from one another by providing a description of the central tendencies of the clusters (Frank and Green 1968, Punj and Stewart 1983). The logic of these procedures involves maximizing the within clusters homogeneity and the between cluster heterogeneity. The procedure used assumes that the relevant criteria which differentiate the categorized individuals in reality have been accurately identified and measured.

The interrogative and constructive activities of the market researcher employing scientific methods to typologize consumers are characterized by a combination of judgmental acts and employment of preprogrammed, codified procedures. In spite of all of the areas in which the researcher makes choices and judgments from general issues--definition of problem, research design and interpretation of results--to specific issues--selection of variables, operational definitions, and choice of algorithms (see Wind 1978; Punj and Stewart 1983), there are a number of important areas in which the procedures are standardized. Particularly in the area of constructive activities--data reduction and generalizing techniques--the techniques are predefined and codified as computer programs. Thus the cognitive and analytic procedures through which individuals are sorted and identified as members of particular types (segments) and chose types described are precise, routinized, and widely understood in the scientific community of market researchers (cf. Wells 1975).

Market researchers can, then, communicate explicitly with one another about the formal procedures through which they typologize a sample of respondents into specific clusters. They are able to share these procedures with one another, and much of the professional literature is given to precisely such methodological discussion. Standardization of technique and method and its communication to others makes possible and encourages the critical perspective characteristic of science. The emphasis upon reliability and validity in methodological discussion is central to the critical stance of science but is less apparent in common sense inquiry.

Additionally formalization and standardization of the encoding, information processing, and storage operations, as well as the resolving cognitive categories or typologies of market researchers render them easily identified and scrutinized. Unlike commonsense operations and resulting categories, these procedures and results are in written form and are unobtrusively accessible to the community of scientists and researchers trained in them

Resulting typologies

The resulting typologies of market research are typically multi-dimensional profiles of customer types defined along a variety of factors--typically demographic, socio-economic, psychographic. personality, benefits sought, motivational, attitudinal, or some combination of the above. Market researchers develop consumer typologies for the purpose of segmenting markets with the aim of directing specific configurations of the marketing mix to specific segments.

The theoretic purpose of developing consumer typologies or segments is the construction of a cognitive map whose categories bear semblance to the underlying, naturally occurring clusters of individuals in the population of interest. Market research generally, however, has a practical orientation. The typology developed becomes an important element in all of the marketing mix decisions. The use of segmentation schemes is predicated upon the implicit assumption that the marketer can predict and control the behavior of clusters of potential customers, where it makes no sense to do so for individual potential customers.

The construction of consumer typologies allows the market researcher to reduce massive amounts of data in a multi-dimensional space to manageable, comprehensible clusters that are actionable and activatable. The extent to which the marketing manager's actions based on the typologies result in activating consumers in the desired direction is dependent upon the validity of the typology and whether the dimensions of the typology are indicative of consumer motivation, purpose. and meaning.


Service workers involved in face-to-face interaction with clients/customers/patrons encounter a wide variety of individuals in the course of their occupational activities. The heterogeneity of the customers makes the service worker's occupational life extremely complex. In order to routinize interactions, select appropriate strategies, and predict possible areas of conflict, service workers develop relatively discrete categories of customers (Mennerick 1974).

Interrogative activities

To a major degree, service workers employ a priori categories to differentiate among routinely encountered types of clients. In the course of informal conversations workers share experiences, take note of commonalities and devise names for client types. The typological scheme is a key element of occupational lore to which the novice worker is introduced in the course of occupational socialization. Workers are instructed in the types of customers they can expect to encounter, what "data" to look for in making differentiations among customers, the kinds of problems they can reasonably anticipate in their interactions with the various types, and the tactics which have proven to be most effective in controlling the situation.

Service deliverers attend to a variety of features of the customer. Unlike the market researcher who employs an explicit, codified procedure for gathering specific information on respondents, the service worker relies on cues which are taken as implicit indicators of client type. In general, client appearance and demeanor are of central importance as cues. Material objects owned or controlled by customers (used to give clues as to lifestyle and socioeconomic status), reputational data gained from fellow workers or other customers, and characteristics of customers' associates are also employed as sources of typologically useful information.

For example, used car salesmen routinely differentiate among potential customers on the basis of "saleability" and the anticipated problems presented by the sales interaction. The salesman uses such information as the customer's current car, his or her appearance, personal objects in the car and information gained through informal conversation to categorize the customer. Considerable effort is directed at establishing intimacy with those who give the appearance of being saleable ("shoppers or "hot prospects"), while little attention is devoted to the casual "looker" or the "tire-kicker" (see Browne. 1976 and Miller 1974).

Evaluations of customer "trustworthiness" are of particular importance in those service delivery settings in which the deliverer exercises little control over the selection of customers and where the customer represents the potential of physical harm, or may not provide the expected exchange for services rendered. -Cab drivers, for example, note the potential passenger's appearance and behavior in order to assess trustworthiness. Additional data--the passenger's destination, his or her "sitting behavior" in the cab, interaction with the driver and so on--are used to confirm or disconfirm initial evaluations. This ability to typify passengers is important to the driver's ability to avoid robbers and "bucket loads" (passengers who leave he cab without paying the fare) (Henslin 1968, David 1959).

Service worker's interrogative activities, unlike those of market researchers, are unobtrusive and occur as part of the "natural interaction" taking place as they carry out their work. The customer is not aware that the service worker is engaged in an interrogative activity. The interaction is defined by the customer as one in which he or she as an individual is receiving a service. Thus, there is not a requirement that the customer "bracket" the normal taken-for-granted assumptions which he or she understands pertain to the situation. The service workers is, therefore, not likely to create "demand effects" but, unlike the market researcher, is not able explicitly to interrogate customers in order to gain the information needed to categorize them.

Constructive activities

The cognitive and analytic procedures through which service workers create typologies and sort individuals into them are not well understood because they are not codified and communicated in written form. Apart from the other characteristics previously discussed which differentiate commonsense and scientific knowledge systems, the codification and written form of scientific knowledge is one of its distinguishing traits. Thus, the critical stance and rationalization apparent in the constructive activities of market researchers is lacking in that of service workers. Explicit attention is not given to the issues of the reliability and validity of the typologizing scheme. Its utility in allowing service workers to proceed effectively in their work and its socially derived existence are sufficient for its perpetuation.

The typologies utilized are explicitly and implicitly communicated to the novice worker by experienced colleagues; their validity and utility are taken-for-granted, and, thus, are rarely subject to question. Workers use the a priori scheme to "label" customers and shape their own behavior vis-a-vis customers on the basis of these labels. In turn, this typologically premised interaction rends to elicit expected behaviors from clients. This behavior is then used by workers to confirm the correctness of the specific customer definition and to legitimate the typological system.

Resulting typologies

The typification of service workers inform and shape the service delivery interaction. In crowded settings such as mental health clinics or hospital emergency rooms in which over-burdened professionals provide clients with treatment services, typification or typologies are used to determine the form and priority of treatment (Roth 1972, Peyrot 1982, Kahne and Schwartz 1978).

In retail settings in which economic reward is the service worker's primary concern and the customer exercises considerable control, typification are used to determine the form of interaction whereby the seller maintains control over the sales "game" (Browne 1976, Miller 1974) or the "cultivating techniques' by which the salesperson maximizes the quantity and/or value of the goods sold (Bigus 1972, Butler and Snizek 1976). Further, typologizing clients aids service workers in anticipating interactional conflict and Point to standardized techniques by which situational norms can be enforced and conflictual encounters defused (Faulkner 1983. Roebuck and Frese 1976. Gold 1952).

Customer typification have organizational as well as interactional utility. Especially in bureaucratically organized service delivery settings--for example, criminal courts (Sudnow 1965), mental health clinics (Peyrot 1982) and debt collection agencies (Rock 1973, Bass 1983)--efficient and reliable typification of clients helps to ease and speed organizational production. For example, public defenders use information gained from interrogations of defendants and lata contained in case records to determine whether the accused's offense displays the characteristics of a "normal crime." The "diagnostic stereotypes" are subsequently employed to determine an appropriate reduction of charge and, thereby, to facilitate plea bargaining--the primary mechanism used to facilitate work in the overcrowded court bureaucracy (Blumberg 1967, cf. Scheff 1966).



In summary, service workers routinely employ ethnomethodological or "folk" typification to simplify and routinize their work. They learn the categories and the cues for placing customers into those categories, as well as strategies for dealing with typified customers from fellow workers. This knowledge allows them to shape their behavior in order to manipulate the situation and thereby create a desired outcome. In this way service workers exercise control, maximize their chances of acquiring an expected reward, increase the predictability of their work, and facilitate or hinder the production activities of the organizations in which they work. The service product which the client or customer received is consequently shaped by the workers' typification. Table 1 summarizes data about the typification process in service relationships.


Service workers and market researchers devise typological schemes to categorize customers o-r potential consumers, thereby allowing them to group customers/consumers into units or clusters to which they can direct particular actions. For the market researcher or marketing manager employing the scheme, these actions involve shaping different configurations of the marketing mix. For the service worker they represent devising different interactional strategies. In both cases there is an attempt to elicit desired behaviors from the customer or potential consumer. In order to bring about these desired behaviors, one must understand the meanings, motives, and purposes of the customers/consumers.

The consumer typology serves an important cognitive function for the investigator, lay or scientific. It allows him or her to represent a massive number of disparate pieces of concrete information in fewer, more manageable, more abstract symbols (cf. Kanwar, Olson, and Sims 1981). The limited information processing capacity of human cognition makes dealing with a massive volume of information in an effective manner prohibitive. The abstraction of higher order constructs from concrete information is common to both procedures through which typologies are constructed, even though the process of abstraction is more formalized and routined in the case of market researchers.

The two types of typology construction share certain features. Both have a corpus of knowledge and rules for the interrogative and constructive activities. While the knowledge and the rules have very different degrees of precision, codification, and internal consistency, both forms are derived from and approved by occupationally based social groups. Thus, the typologies and the procedures for constructing and using them are not idiosyncratic mental representations, but collective cognitions which further the different purposes of market researchers and service workers.

Additionally, both produce multi-dimensional typologies whose categories represent profiles of customer types. Thus, in addition to the cognitive functions, consumer typologies perform strategy defining functions. Customer profiles indicate the types of behavior which the marketer or service worker can expect from customers or potential consumers. By knowing what to expect, the marketer and the service worker increase the probability of bringing about a desire outcome.

It would be foolish and disruptive for the service worker to employ scientific procedures to categorize customers. Likewise. it would be ineffective for the market researcher to use commonsense procedures to develop market segments. Each sec of procedures contains different sources of threats to validity, but the utility of each is dependent upon the extent to which the cognitive categories are isomorphic with the real world of individuals which they typologize.

Commonsense knowledge, procedure, and constructs should nor be seen as inferior to those of science. They are merely different. If scientific standards were adopted in the commonsense world of everyday life, social interaction and organizational functioning would be disrupted. Our purposes in comparing commonsense, or ethnomethodological, procedures for creating consumer typologies with scientific procedures has been to emphasize some of the similarities in spite of obvious differences. There is also a practical reason for describing these differences and similarities.

As service industries, both public and private, become more marketing oriented--utilizing a marketing perspective to design products and make other marketing mix decisions--the managers of chose establishments should be aware of the extent to which the product, a delivery of a service, is shaped by the typologies which the service worker employs. It would be useful for the manager of a restaurant, health care clinic, bank, police precinct, or income tax preparation service to be cognizant of the type of categories which the workers who deliver the service employ in typologizing customers and how they treat these customers accordingly. At the same rime, it is important to keep in mind the cognitive and strategy formulating functions which the typologies perform. Should the manager attempt to alter the manner in which the workers interact with customers or clients, he or she should be aware that the typologies employed are rooted in the occupational culture of the establishment and, consequently, are socially constructed and maintained. They are likely to be tenaciously held by those who believe in their validity.


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Susan Spiggle, The University of Connecticut
Clinton R. Sanders, The University of Connecticut


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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