Consumer Behavior From a Contemporary Philosophy of Science Perspective: an Organizational Framework

ABSTRACT - This paper extends an earlier argument that the field of consumer behavior should be organized along philosophic dimensions that highlight differences in approaches to research. In drawing upon philosophies of science that are more contemporary t an logical empiricism, an organizational framework employing three dimensions is Presented.


Julia M. Bristor (1985) ,"Consumer Behavior From a Contemporary Philosophy of Science Perspective: an Organizational Framework", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 300-304.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 300-304


Julia M. Bristor, The University of Michigan


This paper extends an earlier argument that the field of consumer behavior should be organized along philosophic dimensions that highlight differences in approaches to research. In drawing upon philosophies of science that are more contemporary t an logical empiricism, an organizational framework employing three dimensions is Presented.


While logical empiricist philosophy has had a dominating influence on consumer behavior research, more contemporary philosophies of science have an important role to play, yet their impacts and contributions are only beginning to be explicitly recognized. In a departure from the logical empiricist's insistence on the single scientific method (Hunt 1983) it has been clearly shown that theories which have evolved from different philosophies and research traditions embody different ontological and axiomatic assumptions, and epistemological criteria (Anderson 1982, 1984; Morgan 1980; Morgan and Smircich 1980; and Pfeffer 1982). Due in part to its multidisciplinary heritage, the field of consumer behavior supports allegiances to a variety of different, and as will be shown, often incompatible, research traditions and philosophies. As a result, consumer behavior has proven very difficult to organize, or synthesize, into a general theory. Past efforts have attempted to organize the field by contributing discipline (Zielinski and Robertson 1981) and by topic (Helgeson et al 1984); general theories of consumer behavior (e.g., Howard 1977; Engel and Blackwell 1982) have been very useful as pedagogical tools but have been largely unoperationalizable. Lack of success at both endeavors is due to the failure to explicitly consider fundamental philosophic issues. Organizational schemes which fail to account for underlying philosophic assumptions, and general theories which attempt to combine philosophically incompatible mid-range theories cannot be particularly productive.

This paper, and its predecessor (Bristor 1984) depart from orthodox thought to argue strongly that a general theory of consumer behavior is neither desirable nor appropriate at this time. Instead, efforts should be directed toward building an organizational framework by drawing upon philosophy of science so as to delineate and highlight differences in assumptions and approaches to consumer behavior research along dimensions that explain why these differences exist. The purpose of the present paper is to present the three dimensions that are seen to best organize the field in such a way that assumes, identifies, and then highlights a variety of fundamental philosophic assumptions 2nd methods that have been brought to bear on consumer behavior research. To better understand theory-method linkages, it is imperative to specifically identify the fundamental philosophic assumptions and implications inherent in consumer behavior theories.

Three dimensions, perspective on consumer behavior, level of analysis, and empirical problem context will provide the foundation for building the desired framework. These three dimensions are all subsumed under a general consumer behavior paradigm which serves as an umbrella over the dimensions by specifying the phenomena and problems of interest, and delineating rough boundaries for the field (Bristor 1984). Before detailing the dimensions and their research implications, it is necessary to consider in general terms the role of philosophy of science in consumer behavior research and the contributions that a philosophy of science based framework can make.


Considering its fundamental impact on the research process, philosophy of science has been a seriously neglected issue in consumer behavior research. Failure to consider the implications of philosophy of science and to identify the philosophic underpinnings of a theory has often confused and exacerbated research disagreements. For example, the recent circular dialogue between Calder, Phillips and Tybout (1981, 1982, 1983), Lynch (1982, 1983) and McGrath and Brinberg (1983) is a case where the underlying philosophic and methodological issues were never identified and addressed and thus the result was confusion, not resolution. Much of the dispute centers around the role of external and construct validity in consumer behavior research and their relationship to one another. It is not until the fourth paper of the series that Lynch (1983) points out, almost as an afterthought in a footnote, that the two parties employ the term construct validity differently. Unfortunately Calder et al's (1983) reply fails to pick up on this critical distinction. Instead, they return to a rehash of their earlier arguments in which they claim to be adhering to Popper's-notions of falsificationism. Without passing judgment on falsification as a philosophy of science, it must be noted that Calder et al appear to selectively extract bits of the philosophy that advance their position but do not fully understand or interpret it. The dialogue is capped by the introduction of a new validity framework (McGrath and Brinberg 1983) that attempts to smooth over past differences. Despite its merits, there still remains the fundamental problem that until terminology is clarified and philosophic positions better understood, each party's arguments will be largely misinterpreted, misunderstood or ignored by the others.

Two important philosophic concepts, paradigms and metaphors, were introduced earlier (Bristor 1984) to show how and why different research approaches were inherent in consumer behavior. To summarize, paradigms refer to the Weltanschauung, worldviews or frames of reference through which researchers approach their scientific tasks. In the context of this framework, each dimension constitutes a paradigm; the general consumer behavior paradigm represents a unifying or shared Weltanschauung while the other three paradigms serve to highlight different approaches to consumer behavior research.

Metaphors are representations of phenomena; broader than just a simple literary illusion, they provide a means for creating, representing and communicating scientific knowledge (Morgan and Smircich 1980). Both theories and models can be thought of as metaphors. For the purposes of this organizational framework, the focus will be on theories as metaphors. This is intended to emphasize that they present only partial or one-sided views of reality (Morgan 1980). Because of this, a variety of metaphors can and should be employed to gain a fuller understanding of consumer behavior phenomena. Thus, the proposed framework can both organize the field in a manner that makes the philosophic assumptions upon which metaphors or theories are grounded explicit, as well as making consumer behavior researchers more aware of the range of approaches available.


In addition to framework benefits suggested earlier (Bristor 1984), the framework makes three other major contributions. First, the framework can be used to delineate a set of conceptual problems found in consumer behavior research. Traditionally, philosophies of science have focused on a variety of empirical problems, which usually exist within the context of a theory, while virtually ignoring broader, more important conceptual problems. These can occur when two theories are in conflict with one another, when a theory conflicts with a methodology or when a theory is incompatible with "extra-scientific beliefs" in areas such as metaphysics, theology, logic or ethics (Laudan 1977). As Laudan notes, scientists who view scientific problems and progress strictly in empirical terms fail to recognize a major source of a discipline's problems. This framework does not provide solutions to such conceptual problems, but, by explicating important philosophic assumptions, it provides a methodology for identifying the source of conceptual problems.

Secondly, the framework extends well beyond dominant logical empiricist thought by rejecting the prevailing notion of the necessity and existence of the single scientific method. It explicitly acknowledges that there are and should be multiple scientific methods and that there exist no universal or objective criteria by which to evaluate the knowledge that each produces. This position is consistent with a relativistic view of science which holds that different research groups will utilize different standards to judge the scientific adequacy of knowledge claims (Anderson 1983 and Peter and Olson 1983).

Finally, the framework provides a means for critically evaluating the usage of theories that were developed in the context of another discipline or research tradition and transferred into consumer behavior. Transfers have always posed problems in the social sciences. For example, Anderson (1984) illustrates several problems resulting from marketing's uncritical adoption of the concept of shareholder wealth maximization from financial theory. The family life cycle (FLC) is an excellent example of a concept that was taken from another field and altered substantially. Originating in rural sociology, the FLC was developed as a processual model to explain and describe family growth development over time. Unfortunately, this has been all but lost on consumer behaviorists and marketers who have generally used the concept as a classificatory scheme (c.f. Wells and Gubar 1966 and Murphy and Staples 1979). More recently, Wagner and Hanna (1983) compared the FLC to family composition variables with respect to their ability to predict clothing expenditures. While these researchers all ask well founded questions, they do not appropriately reflect the original and theoretical underpinnings as developed in rural sociology. While alterations may in fact be necessary in the cross-discipline or research tradition transfer of theory, (see Bristor and Qualls, forthcoming, for suggestions how this might be done with the FLC) it is imperative that researchers understand precisely what they are altering and the implications, philosophically and theoretically, of doing so. The main point is that a better understanding of the goals, axioms and assumptions of theories would help prevent misapplications as well as specious distinctions and comparisons between theories, and would better facilitate knowledge development in consumer behavior. The following three dimensions of the framework will contribute toward achieving this understanding.


A critical philosophic dimension that guides consumer behavior inquiry relates to the perspective adopted by a researcher with respect to the causes or determinants of consumer behavior. The importance of a theory's perspective on consumer behavior is that basic assumptions about the antecedents of behavior have strong implications for the choice of variables and appropriate research methodologies. Furthermore, these assumptions may lead to one theory being incompatible with another in the sense that they cannot be combined without altering or violating the basic ontological and axiomatic assumptions about behavior upon which they are grounded. This argument may be used to explain why gene a l models or theories of consumer behavior that have attempted to integrate several mid-range theories have never been satisfactorily operationalized. For example, operationalizing reference group theory and learning theory together in the Engel and Blackwell model (1982) has not been achieved, not for lack of "good" research but because of the vastly different philosophic orientations of the two theories.

As adapted from Pfeffer's (1982) 'perspectives on action' in organizational theory, three general perspectives can be identified: 1) consumer behavior seen as purposive, boundedly or intentionally rational and prospective or goal directed; 2) consumer behavior seen as externally constrained or situationally determined; and 3) consumer behavior seen as random and dependent on an emergent, unfolding process. The first two perspectives are based on the stimulus-response paradigm which assumes that behavioral consequents are predictable from antecedent stimuli. The third perspective rejects such a notion and maintains that, to the extent that prediction is possible, it is from knowledge of the unfolding process rather than a priori conditions (Pfeffer 1982). While the three perspectives are not philosophically compatible, they are all necessary for the development of consumer behavior knowledge. There is a danger in employing only one perspective because researchers often fail to challenge the appropriateness or consider explicitly the implications stemming from the assumptions inherent in each perspective.

Consumer as Purposive, Boundedly or Intentionally Rational and Prospective or Goal Directed

This first perspective has clearly dominated consumer behavior theory; its origins are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the philosophical underpinnings of American life and culture for which free will and conscious choice are venerated and idealized (Pfeffer 1982). The essence of the perspective is that behavior is internally and goal directed, and that choice occurs according to a consistent set of preferences which maximize value and is thus prospectively rationally economic and psychological theories of consumer behavior adopt this perspective.

Examples of the purposive perspective are numerous. Perhaps the most pervasive theory, which has itself been identified as one of the five paradigms in marketing (Arndt 1983), is information processing. Other examples include utility maximization theory, expectancy value theory, the Fishbein model of behavioral intentions and other multiattribute attitude models, and Cognitive learning theories.

The implications of this perspective are far reaching. First, consumer behavior phenomena is seen to be a function of individual-specific processes; thus the source of explanatory variables lies largely within individuals. Secondly, this perspective also implies that since consumer behavior is caused by certain variables, knowledge of the independent variable allows inferences to be made about the dependent variables.

Each perspective has its own set of problems, caveats and limitations. In this case, their importance relates in part to how deeply and implicitly rooted this paradigm is in both scientific and extra-scientific beliefs. This can result in a failure to consider or challenge the appropriateness of the assumptions inherent in this perspective when transferring a theory from one discipline to another or applying it within a particular consumer behavior research context. In addition, if theories are viewed as metaphors, it is clear that, despite providing valuable insight and knowledge, it is only one view or explanation of the consumer behavior phenomenon of interest. With this in mind, it is not surprising that researchers are typically only able to explain a small amount of variance in their dependent variables. In the case of the first perspective, a focus on individual-specific factors will not account for variance due to situational or external factors.

Consumer Behavior as Externally Constrained or Situationally Determined

In direct contrast to the first perspective, the second focuses upon external stimuli and constraints, rather than upon internal individual-specific variables, to explain consumer behavior. Thus, behavior is attributed to situational variables and other external contingencies and demands over which an individual may have little cognizance or control (Pfeffer 1982). Prediction of behavior is possible through knowledge of independent variables, and given certain- behaviors or other dependent variables, it is possible to reconstruct or make inferences about explanatory variables. To the extent that cognitions are considered, they are after-the-fact, and rationality is retrospective. Examples of the externally constrained perspective include behavioral theories of learning, the family life cycle, role theories, reference group theory.

Implications of this perspective parallel the first in that it specifically suggest where to look for explanatory variables. However, in this case, they are external to individuals. Thus, this perspective is often associated with sociological theories. As far as researcher's abilities to explain variance, the earlier comments regarding the systematic exclusion of a large group of variables also apply.

CB as Random and Dependent on an Emergent, Unfolding Process

Finally, the third perspective denies that consumer behavior can be predicted from either knowledge of individual or external variables. Too many individual variables impact behavior, and knowledge of external variables is insufficient because they too are numerous and may be very uncertain or ambiguous. While more difficult to characterize and less homogeneous than are the other two, this perspective tends to absorb those theories that are inconsistent with the first two. General characteristics include a rejection of either an internally directed or externally determined rationality of behavior. Rationality, goals and preferences emerge from, rather than guide, behavior. Therefore, the focus of such a perspective is upon the processual, sequential or unfolding nature of behavior, rather than upon static variables. (Pfeffer 1982).

Within this perspective, two very different types of approaches are readily identifiable. Neither group would be described as containing well developed, explanatory theories such as those found in the first two perspectives. The first group might be termed mathematical models and the second, qualitative or processual approaches. In general, mathematical models, such as a stochastic brand switching model based upon past purchase behaviors, have prediction as their goal. As such, the underlying assumption is that the best way to predict future behavior is through knowledge of past behaviors. That is, future behavior probablistically emerges from past behaviors.

The goals of the second group, the qualitative or processual approaches, are to identify and study behavioral antecedents while recognizing that the behavior of interest cannot be explicitly modelled, a priori, because of its emergent nature. As a result, these approaches have often not been granted theoretical status under logical empiricist criteria but have more frequently been classified as qualitative methodologies Under logical empiricist dogma, qualitative methodologies do not produce bona-fide knowledge and are permissible in the context of discovery, but not justification (Hunt 1983). However, this separation of discovery and justification has been shown to be a sophistic distinction (Suppe 1977). More contemporary philosophies recognize that both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies can achieve a variety of cognitive ends (Anderson 1984). Some recent trends in the consumer behavior literature would suggest that many researchers are finding that traditional logical empiricist methodological prescriptions can only develop our knowledge base so far and only in certain directions. Indeed, there is a great deal of consumer behavior phenomena that cannot be captured by s ta tic models and measures, but must be studied by dynamic, processual approaches. The potential knowledge gains from the study of symbolism (Levy 1959 and Solomon 1983), consumer mythology (Levy 1981), or the experiential aspects of consumption (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982) cannot be summarily ignored or dismissed because they fail to fit into the logical empiricist philosophy of science. Appropriate qualitative approaches include ethnomethodologies, hermeneutics, case studies, network analyses and phenomenology. However, there is no a priori reason why these qualitative methods cannot be used in conjunction with qualitative methods, within a particular research tradition, if that would help achieve its cognitive goals. Furthermore, there is also no a priori reason to think that the aforementioned topics cannot ultimately be studied via quantitative methods. One major stumbling block here though is that we have been trained to see the world as containing linear, non-interactive relationships which do not capture emergent, processual behaviors. As a result we tend to ignore the non-linear, interactive relationships or to force them into the mold with which we are comfortable. In summary, the lack of theoretical knowledge from this emergent perspective should be accepted as a challenge to consumer behavior researchers, not as a judgment that it is a useless avenue for knowledge production.


A second philosophically derived dimension of the framework that impacts consumer behavior research is the level of analysis chosen to explain phenomena. Three levels that are utilized by consumer behavior theories are individual, group and aggregate. Inherent in this dimension are fundamental beliefs about the nature of human interaction and social structure (Pfeffer 1982). At issue are the questions of whether or not groups and aggregations are merely sums of their individuals or more than the sums, and whether they should be reduced to the study of individual behaviors or analyzed at higher levels.

All three levels are vital in consumer behavior inquiry because each provides different perspectives on, and solutions to, problems. The choice of a theory which employs theoretical concepts and mechanisms at a particular level has important philosophic and methodological implications. In addition to reflecting beliefs about the nature of human interaction and social structure, a particular level reflects a philosophic preference as to the best way to explain consumer behavior. It also implies what the appropriate unit for data collection might be, as well as how to analyze it.

The issue of the appropriate level of analysis is related to the general problem of data aggregation. Since few group and aggregate concepts exist in consumer behavior that have achieved a desirable degree of validity, researchers must often resort to aggregating individual level measures in their attempts to explain higher level phenomena. (See Borgatta and Jackson, (1980) for a comprehensive treatment of data aggregation.) Thus it is critical for the development of consumer behavior knowledge that the implications stemming from the choice of a level of analysis and data aggregation techniques be made explicit.

Individual Level

Those who support the individual level would argue that all consumer behavior is fundamentally an individual phenomenon. Thus to most productively study consumer behavior, the focus must be on the individual even when studying group phenomena. Use of the individual level of analysis is dominant in consumer behavior theory; examples include attribution theory, attitude theories, and theories of perception, motivation and learning. In part, this dominance is due to the fact that analytically, the individual level has achieved the most sophistication. It is relatively easier to take measurements at the individual level than to capture social and behavioral phenomena at the group and aggregate level.

Group Level

Those who opt for the group level maintain that it is not possible to reduce phenomena to the individual level because there are theoretical mechanisms operating at the group level that do not exist at the individual level. Furthers they argue that individual level analyses can become hopelessly reductionistic down to biological mechanisms.

Although Alderson (1956) argued forcefully that the household was the appropriate unit of analysis and Davis (1976) advocated that the family is the critical decision making and consumptive unit, consumer behavior researchers have been slow to develop theories at the group, including the household, level. The cause of the problem is due in part to the lack of truly group level concepts, and the methodological difficulties involved in developing them. Future efforts should be devoted to correcting this deficit. Nonetheless, role theories, reference group theory, theories of household decision making and diffusion of innovations all have important contributions to make to consumer behavior knowledge.

Aggregate Level

Economic theories have contributed heavily to aggregate level analyses. Rather than a focus upon individuals or groups, it is upon aggregate phenomena such as demand curves or consumer sentiments as well as social class and culture. Although aggregate level theories are rare in consumer behavior research, they too represent an important and unique perspective on consumer behavior phenomena.

Comments regarding the methodological problems of aggregating data or developing higher level concepts are also relevant here. In addition, use of aggregate level data may fall prey to the ecological fallacy (Robinson 1950) whereby inferences about individuals are incorrectly made based upon aggregate measures. An example of such could occur if a researcher wanted to make a statement about an individual's income based upon a knowledge of a correlation between race and income.


Finally, the third framework dimension relates to the context of the empirical problem. An empirical problem is a substantive question about the phenomena which are a part of a particular science's domain (Laudan 1977). In this framework, four problem contexts are relevant: managerial problems, public policy/consumer welfare problems, consumer problems and theory qua theory problems. In contrast to the forementioned conceptual problems that may occur within or between theories, empirical problems always occur within the scope of a particular frame of reference or theory. Therefore, problems are defined in part by the context of inquiry. Despite this contextual nature, logical empiricists have often treated empirical problems as though they were present in the world as objective pieces of unambiguous data or as if they had a life of their own. Instead it is well established in more contemporary philosophies of science that researchers always approach problems through the lens of some conceptual network (Laudan 1977). A problem in one context may be construed very differently in another. For example, several researchers might see a grocery shopper comparing brands of canned tomatoes and define their research problem very differently. One might be concerned with the positioning of a particular brand; another might be interested in how consumers actually make comparisons. In the second case, using canned beans or peaches as a stimulus would be just as effective. A third researcher might be studying the consumer information environment and the use of unit pricing labels, while a fourth researcher might be trying to develop a normative theory for maximally effective shopping behaviors under time constraints. In other instances, what may be viewed as a problem in one context may not be in another. For example, the long standing topic of brand loyalty illustrates this. Consumer behavior researchers with a social psychology orientation have a tempted to explain brand loyal ar in terms of factors such attitudes, personality or lifestyle. Among social psychologists, there has been much controversy over the definition of brand loyalty and its antecedents However, this group as a whole stands in stark contrast to mathematic modelers who use stochastic models based upon past purchase behaviors to predict brand loyalty. Because their goals relate to brand loyalty prediction, as opposed to explanation, defining and measuring constructs such as attitudes are not even considered to be a part of the problem. A second example of this is the casual relationship between cognitions and affect. It is generally considered axiomatic, not problematic, but to Zajonc and Markus (1982), whether or not, or when, this relationship occurs is a major research problem.

Inclusion of this philosophic dimension in the framework is important for several reasons. First, this dimension extends beyond logical empiricist philosophies by demonstrating the contextual, rather than universal nature of empirical problems. This is not to say that researchers working from different frameworks cannot communicate or have no shared experiences. By virtue of socialization, culture and education, researchers to hold a multitude of shared experiences in common. Secondly, the framework can show that a particular theory is useful in more than one problem context, but that the goals, assumptions and methodologies may differ by context. For example, information processing may be studied in the theory qua theory context to better understand and develop a theory of short term memory processing of written stimuli. Experimentation using advertisements as stimuli might be part of the methodology. On the other hand, a public policy researcher might operationalize, and apply the theory as given, to set guidelines for regulating the length of time written nutritional information, should appear on television advertisements. His methodology might involve showing advertisement to subjects under simulated viewing conditions. Third, an examination of the forementioned philosophic assumptions and implications within the problem solving context can help researchers to judge the appropriateness of their approach. Lastly, the dimension continues to adopt a contemporary view of science by explicitly recognizing subjective aspects of science.

Managerial Problems

The managerial problem solving context has been a major area for consumer behavior inquiry. This generally involved approaching the research problem from a fisherman's perspective- catching consumers (Tucker 1974). Such goals have strong implications for what theories, variables, measures and methodologies are available for managerial control and thus will be appropriate for problem solving. Relevant issues and theories from this perspective include forming and changing consumer perceptions, attitudes and beliefs using multiattribute attitude models, inducing desired consumer action by moving them up the hierarchy of effects, or designing an effective promotional message by utilizing family role theory.

Public Policy/Consumer Welfare Problems

Empirical problem in the context of public policy/ consumer's welfare are increasingly important in consumer behavior research. Although a theory may be used both in this and the managerial context, a problem is likely to be seen somewhat differently and the goals of the research, as well as the methods will be very different. In conducting research to set public policy, assumptions regarding the nature of consumer behavior and the appropriate level of analysis are of critical importance. Examples of public policy/consumer welfare problems include consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction, information environments and overload and the effects of advertising on children.

Consumer Problems

The context of consumer problems has been sorely neglected in consumer behavior research. Such an approach to consumer behavior involves asking questions from the consumer's point of view, such as how to be the most effective and efficient consumer possible. It also involves the study of consumption behaviors rather than buying behaviors. Relevant topics are only beginning to be considered in the domain of consumer behavior research. They include: consumption and disposition (Jacoby 1978); having" behaviors (Belk 1982); experiences such as consumer fantasies, feelings and fun (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982); and consumption as a human behavioral phenomenon (Belk 1984).

Theory Qua Theory Problems

This problem context classifies a type of empirical inquiry whose goal is to study and understand basic human processes without regard for ultimate applications. When a particular application is used in this context, its role is to provide a setting or stimuli, but it is of secondary importance. For example, a researcher may study the information processing of pictorial versus audio presentations and use advertisements as stimuli, but the focus is on theory examination rather than advertising applications. Later research, or another researcher, may employ the theory for certain managerial applications. The importance of this theory qua theory context relates to the need to consider research occurring at the consumer behavior knowledge frontier instead of at the base of core knowledge. Furthermore, since this context is where substantial advances in theoretical knowledge occur, and since theories evolving from this type of research are often transferred to other problem solving contexts for decision making or evaluative purposes, it is particularly important that the philosophic assumptions upon which a theory is grounded are clearly specified.


This paper continued earlier arguments that a gene al theory of consumer behavior is neither feasible nor appropriate. Instead, the field should be organized into a framework using philosophic dimensions that can highlight differences and show why theories and research approaches are often fundamentally incompatible. Such an approach rejects logical empiricism in favor of a more contemporary philosophy of science perspective. Three dimensions, perspective on consumer behavior, level of analysis, and empirical problem context, were developed for use in the framework. This represents the second major step in an ongoing research project. The final step will be to actually employ the framework to organize the field.


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Julia M. Bristor, The University of Michigan


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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