A Critique of the Orientations in Theory Development in Consumer Behavior: Suggestions For the Future

ABSTRACT - This paper presents a theoretical/philosophical critique of the state of research and theory development in consumer behavior. This critical evaluation is based on four points: (i) certain variables are taken as givens, (ii) a managerial-technological orientation dominates, (iii) the discipline develops only micro theories, and (iv) not consumer but buyer behavior is studied . The negative consequences of these orientations from the philosophy of science perspective is discussed, a brief review of the historical background for these orientations is presented, and some points for future theoretical studies are suggested.


A. Fuat Firat (1985) ,"A Critique of the Orientations in Theory Development in Consumer Behavior: Suggestions For the Future", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 3-6.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 3-6


A. Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University


This paper presents a theoretical/philosophical critique of the state of research and theory development in consumer behavior. This critical evaluation is based on four points: (i) certain variables are taken as givens, (ii) a managerial-technological orientation dominates, (iii) the discipline develops only micro theories, and (iv) not consumer but buyer behavior is studied . The negative consequences of these orientations from the philosophy of science perspective is discussed, a brief review of the historical background for these orientations is presented, and some points for future theoretical studies are suggested.


Consumer Behavior (or Consumer Research) is one of the fastest growing and most potent disciplines today. However, this growth, and theory deveLopments which are an important part of this growth, have not yet been Subject to a serious methodological and theoretical/philosophical criticism from within the discipline. Especially a fast growing discipline needs such a self-criticism to be able to direct its development into a more consistent and scientific track. Otherwise, it is possible for the scholars in the discipline to take-off on day to day practical problems, forgetting the theoretical and scientific prerequisites for becoming a discipline that is a consistent conceptual whole. Furthermore, a self-criticism process will both contribute to the discipline's growth and will help in understanding the growth phenomenon by studying the underlying reasons. The greatest beneficiary of such self-criticism will be the discipline itself, and this paper has the purpose of contributing to this criticism.


Consumer Behavior research and literature grow in many directions. Among these are, attitude research, buying decision processes, post-purchase attitudes and other cognitive processes, research on psychometric scaling, etc. Within each of these topics many small scale theories are also developed. Attribution theory, cognitive dissonance theory, diffusion of innovations theories are some of these. However, the most important developments in the consumer behavior discipline are the models (or theories) of consumer (or buyer) behavior which combine and comprise the above and other research. Best known among these models are Nicosia (1966), Howard and Sheth (1969), Engel, Kollat, Blackwell (1973), Andreason (1965), Hansen (1972), and Markin (1974) models. These models will be reviewed here for the purpose of criticizing the dominant orientations in theory development in consumer behavior not one by one, but from the point of view of some approaches and assumptions common to all these models.

Models of Consumer Behavior have been criticized and evaluated before. However, earlier criticisms have generally been technical (i.e., methodological), directed at the validity, measurability and testability of the concepts and variables in these models (Jacoby 1978). It is necessary now to direct self-criticism efforts at the substance and conceptual wholeness of these models and/or theories. [As the terms "model" and "theory" are used simultaneously in the Consumer Behavior literature, we shall use both terms. The real effort in the field is to come up with theories of consumption decision processes. Models will be the first step in this direction.] A newly developing discipline especially needs this type of criticism.

Criticisms of the models of Consumer Behavior will be made on four major points:

- Relationships, concepts and variables that need to be studied and researched for an understanding of social realities in consumption are assumed as givens,

- Not a scientific, but a technological-managerial orientation is dominant in Consumer Research,

- The discipline develops only micro theories, and

- Not "consumer," but "buyer" behavior is studied.

All these points are, in the last analysis, closely related, and stem from the historical association of the discipline with marketing and the dominant philosophy in "behavioral sciences."

Relationship, Concepts, And Variables That Need To Be Researched Are Assumed As Givens

A close scrutiny of the models of consumer behavior will show that certain basic variables that influence buying decisions and behaviors of consumers directly, or that even form the basis of some consumption choices are assumed as givens, and not made subject to research or study. The most prominent example of this is the fact that the need or need perceptions of consumers for consumption patterns [Consumption patterns define consumption choices in a different sphere than product and brand choice, and combine consumptions that represent similar relationships in consumption behavior, such as, for example, a private-individual transportation pattern (or mode). The most prominent representative of this consumption pattern is the automobile. However, other commodities may also represent this pattern (such as, trucks, minibuses, etc.). One of these products will be selected after, or simultaneously, with a choice for the individual-private pattern. For a more detailed treatment and explanations of consumption patterns, see Firat and Dholakia (1577 and 1982).] and categories (or as in some instances called, generic commodities) are assumed as given. While in some cases these needs are acknowledged to be social-cultural variables, this issue is not made a subject of study. Social-cultural processes are considered only as far as reference groups are involved in choices of information sources, or in choices of attributes or criteria in evaluation of alternatives to satisfy the "given" need. Such an orientation leads to two major results. A premise that "human nature is given" is accepted by default, and models of consumer behavior become restricted to choices at certain levels - particularly to brand choice. With the dominating philosophy in the behavioral sciences today clearly biased Coward the practical and immediate-action oriented predictive studies and knowledge systems it is not surprising that studies are limited to certain levels of choice. Understanding ant/or explaining choices at consumption patterns level, or explaining need perceptions, social choices that favor certain needs and consumption alternatives require questioning of economic, political, social systemic structures and processes. Such inquiries may be perceived outside the limits of the consumer behavior discipline and belonging to sociology or some other social science. Furthermore, such inquiries necessitate an understanding and explanation of social change, whereas consumer behavior studies have historically limited themselves to predicting behavior within the given social formation.

It is clear that such an orientation has important negative effects on the scientificity of the discipline. Investigating phenomena not in their entirety but only in small parts, or leaving certain parts and stages outside the limits of research creates an important weakness: When the phenomenon is not explained or understood in its entirety, facts or "realities" found at a certain stage of the historical process can easily be assumed or interpreted as "true" or "valid" for all history. This scientific weakness which can occur in terms of historical context, can also occur in terms of differences or changes in the environmental (i.e., political, economic, social structures and processes) contexts.

This orientation, that is, assuming important variables as givens or inputs, in the consumer behavior discipline, is really inherited from classical and neo-classical economic philosophy and its reign among the social sciences today. Homo-economicus philosophy accepts the premise that needs of man [The author is apologetic about the use of a term strongly related to one sex for both sexes, but the English language does not present a pertinent substitute.] are creations of innate processes within man, and that they are independent of others' needs. In such a premise, the homo-economicus makes rational decisions as the source of needs under environmental constraints. This orientation has been criticized by several scholars, but with no significant impact in economics (Baran 1957; Duessenberry 1949; Galbraith 1971).

We confront the same philosophy in the marketing and consumer behavior literature and motels. For example, it is assumed that the consumer of this society needs a television set. Once this is given, the problem attacked is: How does the consumer go about (decision making) finding the best alternative (in terms of brands and differentiated product attributes), considering his own attributions related to this need (self-image, status, personality, etc.). This problematic, then, leads, along with the demand of the major "consumers" of the discipline, businesses, to a study of ways and mechanisms of influencing decisions, finding the most influencible stages in the decision process, etc. A quick look at the developed models will be sufficient to observe that it is this process which is elaborated and detailed in those models. Thus, there is no significant difference in terms of philosophy from classical economics, except that the more economic rationale of the homo-economicus has been replaced ant/or enriched with other rationales (especially psychological).

There Is A Dominant Technological-Managerial Orientation

When, as mentioned above, the basic subject of the consumer behavior discipline becomes one of buyer decision processes, the variables that influence this process become important, and thus, the historical perspective of marketing, one of being a business function, is inherited (Sweeney 1972; Spratlen 1972). As a functional business discipline, consumer behavior endeavors to predict behaviors of the buyers in order to help business best exploit and gain from tendencies in these behaviors . Thus, prediction gains precedent over understanding and explanation. This is the major indication of a technological-managerial orientation. Techniques and methods that work, within the given context, as good predictors become important, whether or not they are theoretically sound ant/or constitute good explanatory frameworks. The growth of attitude-behavior theories, and the importance of this relationship in the models, plus emphasis on attitude change are examples of this tendency. As long as a certain predictive framework is obtained, which is methodologically easy to administer, and within this framework creating influence and change is possible, then the methods which enable this are developed and stressed. If this framework gives results in the short-term, and within the dominant context in a certain time span. it is used and developed without much concern about understanding why it produces results. This is not something negative per se. However, if a discipline puts the emphasis on the development of such techniques and methods, it fast deviates from being scientific. This is a "management science" syndrome. It grows from putting too much emphasis on influencing, controlling, that is, managing certain phenomena. It combines technology (i.e., an application of facts discovered) with management (i.e., control and judicious use of means to accomplish an end; socio-political technology). The consequence of this dominant orientation is an application of "scientific" facts discovered and concepts developed in all kinds of social science disciplines in the arena of market exchange. This application is at a level that is socially and politically manageable, that is, most specifically, brand choice. Consumption choices at other levels (more aggregate, for example, consumption pattern) necessitate studying and understanding, and at times changing, societal phenomena, fall outside "manageable" limits, and therefore, are assumed as givens. This is the reason why marketing, in general, and consumer behavior, in particular, have not been able to find easily operational areas in public decisions and in other social programs, unless change could be brought about with conventional techniques.

Only Micro-Theories Are Developed

Consumer behavior is a micro discipline, because interest in consumers are only as individual buyers, or as households, We could say that this is similar to the micro analysis of the firm in economics. There seems to be a lack of interest in macro processes such as those that tent to equate or disequate demand and supply in society, thus investigating the effects of societal structures and processes on actions of consumer units, and in turn, the effects of the actions of consumer units on societal institutions. Lacking this aspect, the discipline grows in the direction of a behavioral "science" rather than a social science. [We have used the term science in behavioral science within inverted commas because the term behavioral science carries contradictions within itself, although it has a status in the literature today. Science is a wholistic process. Therefore, it is not scientific to separate behavior from thoughts (cognitive structures), thoughts from social experiences within which they find roots, and thus, to create a "scientific" branch such as behavioral science apart from social science. This means that behavior is treated as if it is not a social phenomenon -- a mistake many behavioral "scientists" do make.]

Established social science disciplines, such as, economics, sociology, anthropology, etc., all have macro as well as micro theories and orientation. Macro theories that are presenting a system perspective for the phenomenon in its entirety will provide a basis for micro theories to be built upon, thus eliminating inconsistencies and contradictions in the micro theories when evaluated at a comparative level. This does not mean that variability is sacrificed, or that a third party is watching over developments, for there may be alternative macro frameworks. However, without some linkage to a macro framework, micro theories will not be able to deal with many questions regarding constraints, assumptions and input variables, having to accept them as givens without an explanation and/or understanding of their state.

Buyer, Not Consumer, Behavior is Studied

There is a strong tendency in the consumer behavior discipline, as in marketing, to direct efforts at easy application in practice. It is a widely used statement that being too theoretical limits applicability and use in the real world. Many marketing scholars also adhere to this view (Luck 1969). However, too much emphasis on and tendency toward application in practice can lead to a loss of a sense and understanding of reality. [As this is not a scientific treatise it should suffice to say that reality is not always, and many times not, equal to what is apparent in day to day facts. Therefore, scientific inquiry necessitates an understanding of the relationships in the historical process, rather than a compilation of contemporary facts.] Unfortunately, both disciplines of consumer behavior and marketing have tented to investigate buying behaviors, rather than consumption behaviors, because they enable easily applicable and comprehensible measurements and scales (Jacoby 1978). This is realized by some of the authors of consumer behavior models (Engel, Kollat, Blackwell 1973; Nicosia 1966). The Howard and Sheth model is named "The Theory of Buyer Behavior." A distinction between buyer and consumer behavior can contribute to knowledge in several ways.

i) Consumption, and thus, satisfaction of a need, may have to be achieved through means other than buying (i.e., market exchange). Similarly, not being able to satisfy a need, frustrated consumption, is also a consumption behavior.

ii) Consumer behavior may act as an independent variable in buyer behavior.

iii) Study of consumer behavior may help in the development of suggestions for better satisfaction of consumer needs, while buyer behavior is more conducive to a "marketing" approach.

iv) As public policy and public services and goods enter into the field of the discipline, study of consumer behavior may gain importance, because purchase of public goods and services (i.e., through market exchange) may not be important or even pertinent, whereas, their consumption is meaningful and importance for social life patterns.

Four major points of departure were used to present a critical evaluation of the orientations in the consumer behavior discipline. While these points help in describing critically the present state of the discipline, an evaluation would not be complete without understanding the historical background of the orientations that dominate the discipline.


As the consumer behavior discipline developed as an area of marketing, and as we referred to certain characteristics of marketing in discussions above, it will be useful and necessary to look at the historical development of marketing itself. It is a usual practice in marketing literature to refer to stages in this development (Bartels 1962). 'though the commodity, functional, and institutional approach stages constituted the beginning of the discipline, marketing has become established and recognized as a discipline at a time when demand shortages were the basic problem in advanced capitalist economies. This corresponds to the years just before and after World War II and the time when marketing entered the management approach stage. These occurrences are not coincidental. This was a time when Keynesian policies were widely implemented, especially in the U.S., to raise demand and consumption to levels of supply and production. Marketing, as a discipline with potential for management and regulation of demand to meet supply capabilities, developed fast into a managerial discipline with a technological-managerial orientation with the task to develop management techniques for regulating certain variables to orient social demand. This still is the reason for the strong orientation toward regulating demand rather than supply in marketing (Kotler 1975). As a result of the War economy implemented during WWII both the supply capability and buying power had accumulated, and then set free after the War. This enhanced the development of the technological-managerial orientation, as well as the development of the discipline itself.

In spite of all claims about the discipline's being a "science" of need satisfaction through exchange (Kotler 1972, Bagozzi 1975), its characteristics criticized above, especially the technological-managerial orientation, has limited marketing and consumer behavior disciplines to serve producers and distributors, i.e., supplying and marketing organizations, in prompting demand for their products, services, and brands. Broadening the concept of marketing (Kotler and Levy 1969), has been limited to broadening the operational domain of marketing and consumer research techniques and methods, not broadening the philosophical domain of the disciplines (Spratlen 1972). The disciplines have been displaying the greatest ingenuity and success in (i) orchestrating the image and positioning of brands and products, their main attributes dictated by the technological developments and growth necessities of industries, to match the perceived self-images, cultural and symbolic status differences and aspirations, and buying powers of consumers, (ii) preparing relevant promotional campaigns, and (iii) in learning the decision processes that lead to brand choice, once the need is felt. Being technologically oriented, and having businesses as their major customers or audience, the disciplines have placed the emphasis on studying the mechanisms by which these decision processes can be influenced.


These characteristics are primarily attributable to marketing, and have developed as a result of societal necessities created by capitalist growth and developments. They are reflected directly on consumer research which has grown first as a branch of marketing. Thus, all the above characteristics are inherited by the consumer behavior discipline. There are important negative consequences of this inheritance. The models and theories are applicable only within the context, time, and social formation within which they have been developed, which means that application, to other contexts creates difficulties and forcing onto these contexts relationships and methods developed in another context, many times causing imbalances. A c : example to this is the situation where not a demand but a supply shortage is present. The only recommendation for relieving this problem by marketers is demarketing (Kotler and Levy 1971; Kotler 1975). This limitation is closely related to limitations in the development of consumer behavior models. The models can explain only the decision processes which cake place once the demand (or need) for a commodity is given. Thus, <when that commodity is in shortage, the processes of change in demand, and therefore, a reallocation of resources cannot be explained or predicted. As a result, in the situation termed as the seller's market, the understanding that whatever is produced will be sold, or that there is no need for marketing (except demarketing) continues to reign.

Another consequence of the developments criticized is the tendency to assume the relationships, facts and relevant techniques and methods discovered in one society or context at a certain time in history, as universal and eternal. Such treatment of scientific facts is the major step toward an ideological break with science, because although a scientific investigation may show probability and possibility for change and development, assuming and arguing a stationary state for certain facts and relations will form conceptual frameworks against change and development which may possibly benefit social groups, the environment, etc.


How can a scientific orientation in the consumer behavior, as well as marketing, discipline(s) be developed? First thing to do is to accept all possible variables as variables, not givens and/or constants. Especially, in the case of consumer behavior, needs or need perceptions (because in reality needs are not constants or givens, but they change) must be made subject to study. Making only brand and/or product choice subJect to study hurts scientificly in two ways. First is the probability of not being able to explain different relations in brand and product choice processes, were needs, and also consumption patterns dominant in society, to change. Second is one that has heavy ideological undertones. Unless the processes whereby consumer units participate (or cannot participate) in the formation of available alternatives for consumption (from brands to consumption patterns) in society are not understood, and thus, as long as consumer units are perceived as decision makers that make choices only from among what is available, means of wider participation will also be indirectly limited by the discipline. This means that the discipline, with its technological-managerial orientation will support the perpetuation of the power relationship found in the capitalist economies today. Such a result, consciously or unconsciously supported, will, contrary to scientific goals, perpetuate the predicaments of the powerless consumer units (especially those lacking buying power), and therefore, create an ideological barrier to scientific endeavor. Studying the macro societal structures and processes that tend to equate or disequate demand and supply, or needs and their satisfaction, while at the same time molding and changing both variables will bring the steps toward scientific marketing and consumer behavior disciplines.


Andreasen, Alan R., "Attitudes and Consumer Behavior: A Decision Model," in L. Preston, ed., New Research in Marketing, Berkeley: Institute of Business and Economic Research, University of California.

Bagozzi, Richard P., (1975), "Marketing as Exchange," Journal of Marketing, 39 (October), 32-39.

Baran, Paul A., (1957), The Political Economy of Growth, New York: Modern Reader.

Bartels, Robert, (1962), The Development of Marketing Thought, Homewood, Illinois. Irwin.

Duessenberry, J.S., (1949), Income, Saving and the Theory of Consumer Behavior, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Engel, James F., Davit T. Kollat and Roger D. Blackwell, (1973), Consumer Behavior, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Firat, A. Fuat and Nikhilesh Dholakia, (1977), "Consumption Patterns and Macromarketing: A Radical Perspective," European Journal of Marketing, 11 (September), 291-298.

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

Galbraith, J. Kenneth, (1971), The New Industrial State, New York: Mentor.

Hansen, Flemming, (1972), Consumer Choice Behavior: A Cognitive Theory, New York: Free Press.

Howard, John A. and Jagdish N. Sheth, (1969), The Theory of Buyer Behavior, New York: Wiley.

Jacoby, Jacob, (1978), "Consumer Research: A State of the Art Review," Journal of Marketing, 42 (April), 87-96.

Kotler, Philip (1972), "A Generic Concept of Marketing," Journal of Marketing, 36 (April), 46-54.

Kotler, Philip, (1973), "The Major Tasks of Marketing Management," Journal of Marketing , 37 (April), 42-49.

Kotler, Philip and Sidney J. Levy, (1969), "Broadening the Concept of Marketing," Journal of Marketing, 33 (January), 10-15.

Kotler, Philip and Sidney J. Levy, (1971), "Demarketing, Yes, Demarketing," Harvard Business Review, 49 (November-December). 74-80.

Luck, D.J., (1969), "Social Marketing: Confusion Compounded," Journal of Marketing, 33 (July), 54-55.

Markin, Rom J., (1974), Consumer Behavior: A Cognitive Orientation. New York: Macmillan.

Nicosia, Francesco M., (1966), Consumer Decision Process: Marketing and Advertising Implications, Englewood Cliffs, NJ- Prentice Hall.

Spratlen, Thaddeus H., (1972), "The Challenge of a Humanistic Value Orientation in Marketing," in N. Kangun, ed., Society and Marketing, New York: Harper and Row.

Sweeney, D.J., (1972), "Marketing: Management Technology or Social Process?" Journal of Marketing, 36 (October), 3-10.



A. Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


I11. Self-Presentation in the Mating Market: The Influence of Gender and Sexual Orientation on Profiles on Tinder and Grindr

Chaim Kuhnreich, Concordia University, Canada
Lilian Carvalho, FGV/EAESP
Gad Saad, Concordia University, Canada

Read More


D12. Future Decisions and Temporal Contiguity Cues: When Absence of Temporal Contiguity Cues Increases Online Reviews’ Persuasiveness.

Francesco Zanibellato, Ca' Foscari University, Venice, Italy

Read More


Love is Blind: How Sensory Liking Impacts Perceptions of Unbranded Products

Jennifer L Stoner, University of North Dakota
Maria A Rodas, University of Minnesota, USA

Read More

Engage with Us

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