Methodological Limitations of the Hedonic Consumption Paradigm and a Possible Alternative: a Subjectivist Approach

ABSTRACT - The concept of hedonic consumption has not been as useful as could be or progressed as rapidly as possible. This paper seeks to examine the inconsistency of the hedonic consumption paradigm with the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the objectivist perspective. Because the paradigm is more consistent with the subjectivist perspective, suggestions are made regarding the type of research methods to utilize.


Laurel A. Hudson and Jeff B. Murray (1986) ,"Methodological Limitations of the Hedonic Consumption Paradigm and a Possible Alternative: a Subjectivist Approach", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 343-348.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 343-348


Laurel A. Hudson, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Jeff B. Murray, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


The concept of hedonic consumption has not been as useful as could be or progressed as rapidly as possible. This paper seeks to examine the inconsistency of the hedonic consumption paradigm with the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the objectivist perspective. Because the paradigm is more consistent with the subjectivist perspective, suggestions are made regarding the type of research methods to utilize.


There has been considerable frustration and dissatisfaction expressed with the research done in the area of hedonic consumption (Hirschman and Holbrook, 1982). The purpose of this paper is not to review the literature in the related fields of culture production systems (Becker 1973), motivation research (Dichter 1960), product symbolism (Levy 1959), and hedonic response in consumption (Hirschman and Holbrook 1981) but to suggest that the long-term contribution of these areas may be limited by researchers' choice of epistemological assumptions and research techniques. These perspectives all emphasize the subjective sensations that are evoked within the consumer by the product (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982, Hirschman 1983). Since these sensations vary a great deal across consumers, objective research methods designed to control extraneous variables across a population may not be appropriate. Certainly a novel, painting, or album remains constant in an objective sense, however, its interpretation by the consumer is probably unique. Each consumer will experience a different emotional and intellectual response to the art work (Hirschman 1983). The research questions that are being addressed must be a guide to the type of methodologies employed.

The purpose of this paper is first to compare for consistency the theoretical assumptions and questions of the hedonic response paradigm with the assumptions of the research methodologies used in this paradigm. A central theme of the paper is that there is an inconsistency. Based on the theoretical framework, the hedonic response in consumption can only be understood within the framework of reference of the participant, as opposed to the frame of reference of the observer of the action. Assuming that the variance of response is great, focusing on the central tendency will lose the richness, uniqueness and totality of the data. Therefore an objectivist approach is inappropriate and will limit the development of the research tradition. A subjectivist approach is more consistent in addressing the questions raised by the hedonic consumption paradigm. Lastly this paper will introduce subjective research approaches which are more consistent with the theoretical assumptions of this paradigm.


The hedonic consumption paradigm is concerned with those aspects of consumption that relate to the multisensory images, fantasy, and emotive aspects of product usage (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982). By multisensory, Hirschman and Holbrook (1982) mean the receipt of experience in "multisensory modalities including tastes, sounds, scents, tactile impressions and visual images." Multisensory images might involve subjectively recalling an actual event, or the imaginary construction of a unique sequence of events. Emotional arousal is proposed to be a significant motivation for the consumption of certain products. The perspective's content for analysis, therefore, is the subjective feelings and fantasies which arise from the consumption experience.

There is a growing body of empirical research suggesting that sensory-emotive stimulation seeking and cognitive information seeking are two independent dimensions (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982) and that emotional desires may override utilitarian motives at times (Ahtola 1984, Hirschman and Holbrook 1982). This means that traditional perspectives in consumer behavior do not take into account the full scope of buying behavior and product usage. If consumers imbue a product with subjective meaning and if emotional desires influence utilitarian motives, then traditional consumer research ignores important aspects of the consumption process. Hirschman and Holbrook (1982) argue that the hedonic viewpoint represents an important extension of traditional consumer research and offers a complementary perspective for conceptualizing, many otherwise neglected consumption phenomena. The hedonic approach, providing it can deal with methodological problems, may take us further toward comprehending the complexities of consumption. Let us now examine the objective versus subjective positions while reviewing the concerns of the hedonic consumption research stream.


Different ontologies and epistemologies are likely to incline the social scientist toward different methodological techniques. The range of choice is so large that what is regarded as "science" by the traditional "natural scientist" covers but a small range of options (Burrell and Morgan 1979). Different philosophical assumptions cluster together to form different approaches to social science. The objectivist and subjectivist approaches will be examined in this section.

What will lead us to the decision of which methodology to use? This depends on the questions being asked and how the method fits with the assumptions the researcher is making. It also involves a question of what your social group accepts. The latter is a question that cannot be ignored as evidenced by the adherence to the positivist (objective) perspective often in spite of deficits and inconsistencies with theories. Many of the problems with the positivist perspective have been delineated elsewhere (Peter and Olson 1983, Anderson 1983) so will not be delved into here. Anderson (1985) and others (Olson 1981) also point out that there seems to be more acceptance of questioning the adherence to positivism. However, here we will focus on the former aspect in looking at the ontology and epistemology of the subjective and objective perspectives.

One of the problems of dealing in this philosophical area is the plethora of definitions. In this paper, at the extreme, we will characterize objectivity as "aiming to establish law-like associations between brute data" (Rubenstein 1981) and the expression of positivism which includes an emphasis on precise operationalization and quantification with the objective of scientific knowledge being prediction. Subjectivity, on the other hand, does not view the discovery of causal laws (nomothetic) as its goal, but rather examines the meaning of human action with the goal of attaining understanding. Thus, behavior then cannot be reduced to brute data, but must be interpreted (Rubenstein 1981). This research process is largely descriptive and tends to be holistic in its approach. Parenthetically, it is important to point out that the authors feel that there is no dualism, but objectivism and subjectivism lie on a continuum. However, our behavioral research traditions have tended to portray a dualism with objectivism being more emphasized than the subjectivism end of the continuum.

In actuality, there is no completely objective research. Researchers are constantly faced with the need to interpret and make judgments which range from deciding which questions to include on a survey, to how they are worded, to which variable to place first in a regression equation. A continuum would seem to better characterize research techniques and processes.


In order to understand the alternative points of view, it is important that a researcher be aware of the assumptions underlying the perspectives. As mentioned, different assumptions are likely to incline that social scientist toward different methodological techniques and provide philosophic guidelines for further development of the conceptual area (Anderson 1982). Two sets of assumptions will be further examined in this section which outline the extremes of the subjectivist-objectivist continuum. The assumptions are presented below as two philosophical debates: the ontological and epistemological.

The Ontological Debate

Ontological assumptions are concerned with the very essence of human nature and the "reality" to be investigated. These assumptions define the entities which are encompassed within this theoretical perspective. The social scientist's view of the external world and of an individual's relationship with this world will have definite implications regarding the kind of research program the scientists accepts as valid. Four assumptions will be defined in the context of the subjectivist-objectivist continuum. These assumptions are as follows: realism, nominalism, determinism, and voluntarism.

In the extreme, the objectivist approach assumes a realist and deterministic orientation to the external world and man's relationship with it. A realist believes that the social world is made up of hard, tangible, and relatively immutable structures which exist independent of the mind of the individual and operate whether or not the individual is aware-of them (Pfuhl 1980). These elements have inherent meanings regardless of the individual. Concepts such as "mind," "self," and "social structure" may not exist in a concrete sense, but can be operationalized and measured empirically (Rubinstein 1981). Both cognitive (Fishbein and Ajzen 1975) and behavioral (Nord and Peter 1980) programs in consumer behavior accept the realist assumption. A "determinist" simply regards humans and their activities as being completely caused by the situation or elements in the environment in which they are located (Burrell and Morgan 1979). The behaviorist program for instance states that the individual experiences consequences which in turn determine future behavioral responses. If the external world is "real" in an empirical sense, and imposes itself on individual consciousness from without, then behavior, at least in part, is determined by the environment.

In the other extreme, the subjectivist approach assumes a "nominalist" and "voluntaristic" position to the external world and man's relationship with it. A "nominalist" orientation assumes that the individual uses names and labels to structure and make sense of the external world. Things do not have inherent meaning, but human concepts are imposed on objects (Pfuhl 1980) in order to structure reality. Words do not represent empirical entities, they are purely conceptual and exist only in the minds of the participant. It is therefore diametrically opposed to the realist position. From this perspective, the external world exists only in the subjective consciousness of the humans who have been socialized to that world. The external world, therefore, is names and words whose utility is based upon their convenience "as tools for describing, making sense of and negotiating the external world" (Burrell and Morgan 1979, p. 4). From this perspective, the words "mind," "self," and "social structure" are symbols which will have a variety of meanings depending on the person who is thinking about them.

A "voluntarist" assumption views an individual as an active agent who interacts with his environment rather than is controlled by it. Humans from this perspective are symbol-producing, meaning-seeking creatures who have a certain amount of control over their lives (Pfuhl 1980, Schroyer 1970). The cognitive program, for instance, accepts a voluntaristic concept of human nature, stating that humans develop beliefs, attitudes and intentions which cause behavior.

Insofar as consumer behavior is concerned with human activities, at a basic level, consumer behavior theorists must implicitly or explicitly adopt a stance along these points of view and be aware of these assumptions. The definitions of the different assumptions outlined above represent extremes, there are, of course, intermediate standpoints which allow for the influence of both situational and voluntary factors.

The Epistemological Debate

Epistemological assumptions are concerned with how we obtain our knowledge of the world. These assumptions entail ideas about what is to be regarded as true and what is to be regarded as false (Burrell and Morgan 1979). As stated in the introduction, a central theme of this paper is that hedonic response in consumption might be better understood within the frame of reference of the participant, as opposed to the observer of action. This is an epistemological issue since it relates to how knowledge about the external world and human's relationship with it is acquired. This debate also includes four basic assumptions which need to be defined in the context of the subjectivist-objectivist continuum. These assumptions are as follows: positivism, anti-positivism, nomothetic and idiographic.

In the extreme, the objectivist approach assumes that credible knowledge can only be generated by making positivist and nomothetic assumptions. A "positivist" orientation assumes the existence in nature of an inherent order that can be discovered by the rational capacities of the researchers (Schroyer 1970) . Once regularities and causal relationships of the "inherent order" are discovered, this knowledge can be used to explain and predict (Burrell and Morgan 1979). Positivism is based on the fundamental assumption that propositions are meaningful only if they can be empirically verified (Anderson 1983). Both the logical empiricists and the falsificationists would accept the notion that the growth of knowledge is essentially a cumulative process in which new insights are added to the existing stock of knowledge and false hypotheses eliminated (Anderson 1983. Burrell and Morgan 1979).

A "nomothetic" approach to social science emphasizes the importance of basing your research on systematic protocol and technique. A science which is "formal" in the sense of being a logical system would be nomothetic. The aim of this approach is to discover general laws (Rubinstein 1981). Examples of methodological techniques which would be consistent with both the positivistic and nomothetic assumptions are surveys, experimentation, standardized instruments and personality tests.

From the subjectivist perspective, credible knowledge can only be generated by making anti-positivist and idiographic assumptions. The "anti-positivist" would reject the notion that science can generate objective knowledge of any kind (Burrell and Morgan 1979). This assumption considers the social world to be essentially perceptual and can only be understood from the point of view of the individuals who are directly involved in the activities which are to be studied (Burrell and Morgan 1979). The world can only be understood by allowing the subject to unfold its nature and characteristics in order to obtain an understanding of his motives, meanings and other aspects of his subjective experience (Rubinstein 1981).

The "idiographic" assumption stresses the importance of particular decisive events rather than aiming to discover general laws (Rubinstein 1981). The idiographic mode of explanation will incorporate many different factors, including "accidental" or "exceptional" occurrences in order to increase the plausibility of the research (Smelser 1976). The nomothetic mode of explanation increases sample size until the central limit theorem makes it logical to exclude extraneous causes. This establishes the strength of the supposed causal relation. The ideographic mode of explanation will decrease sample size until the extraneous and unique become conspicuous and, therefore, significant. Examples of methodological techniques which would be consistent with both the antipositivistic and idiographic assumptions are content analysis, participant observations, ethnographies, case studies, and certain types of comparative-historical analysis.

The Model

The model in Figure 1 diagram, the subjective/objective continuum. The extremes begin with ontological and epistemological assumptions and end with methodological techniques which are consistent with the assumptions made. Adjacent to this model is a continuum of products representing products which tend to be subjectively experienced on the left and products which tend to be objectively experienced on the right. The continuum is a qualitative figure meant to give some indication of the kinds of assumptions and, therefore, methods which would tend to be appropriate for different kinds of products. Its purpose here is primarily for conceptual clarity since the two diagrams together illustrate the theme of the paper regarding the choice of methodology.


According to Hirschman and Holbrook (1982), one objective of hedonic consumption research is to monitor and, if possible, to predict emotional reactions and fantasy imagery during product usage. They suggest a combination of two approaches to accomplish this research objective, traditional scaling techniques and physiological indices of arousal.

In terms of the first, there are two primary sources from which to draw Zuckerman's (1979) "sensation seeking scale" and Hilgard (1970) and Swanson's (1978) "absorbing experiences scale."



Both the sensation seeking and absorbing experiences scales are readily administered in survey research designs and are, therefore, potentially usable in the large sample studies favored by marketing researchers (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982, p. 98).

The second suggested approach involves measures of physiological changes which are stimulated by emotional arousal. This approach will measure chemical fluctuations in blood serum and cortical areas of the brain (Kroeber-Riel 1979); and alterations in vital signs which might indicate arousal and excitement (Schachter and Singer 1962).

The hedonic consumption perspective to date has assumed that an objectivist approach should be used simply because this approach is favored by marketing researchers. However, Hirschman and Holbrook (1982) openly acknowledge the inadequacies of this approach, stating that it is static in nature and, therefore, poorly suited to trace the "dynamic changes in the consumer's general degree of hedonic effort and capacity," that there is not the capacity to measure emotional arousal and multisensory imagery, that the product varies across time thereby decreasing the reliability of measures. Assuming that the defining element of science is that of "societal consensus" (Anderson 1983), the appropriateness of a subjectivist method becomes secondary to the more important issue of: "what methodologies will convince the marketing community of the validity of a particular theory" (Anderson 1983). Since interest in alternative approaches seems to be increasing, the place to begin is with an examination of how the questions asked in the hedonic consumption perspective might be better addressed by the subjectivist approach. Again, by stating that one cluster of assumptions may prove more fruitful for hedonic consumption than another, a relativist stance is being taken. This is not meant to advocate that one set of assumptions is legitimate and the other isn't; it depends on the research questions the researcher is asking.


The subjectivist approach seems to be more consistent with the hedonic consumption perspective. The definitional aspects of hedonic consumption used by Hirschman and Holbrook (1982) are inconsistent with the objectivist approach: "esthetics, intangible and subjective aspects of consumption," "multisensory, fantasy and emotive aspects of one's experience with the product," "products are viewed not as objective entities, but rather as subjective symbols," 'the consumer's internal construction of reality may not be congruent with the external, objectively verifiable world," "then it is likely that such products may also be experienced at gestalts." (Emphasis added). Additionally, as Rubinstein (1981) points out, objectivists tend to either delete the concept of mind or operationalize the concept in the form of "brute data." But the concept of the mind is the very basis of the hedonic consumption conceptualization.

Two other concerns regarding the objectivist approach make the subjectivist approach more appealing. First is the riskiness of the choices the researcher has to make with regard to what variables are important and consequently what questions should be asked in the instrument or what specific behaviors observed. Although these are "objectivist" techniques, it is clear that these judgments (subjective) are risky in that they may be biased and also may miss important elements by not allowing the subject to unfold his or her experience. The second concern is the lack of a holistic approach. The tendency toward reductionism of variables in the objectivist approach deters the researcher from an understanding of the "whole picture," the gestalt, the context, which is fundamental to a subjective experience.


As mentioned, the positivistic approach has tented to be the most accepted in marketing and consumer research. This is reflected in the research that has been done in the hedonic consumption area and even in the framing of the questions to be addressed. Questions regarding the amount of emotional arousal and degree of tendency toward absorbing experiences are quantifiable, but certainly miss the rich foundation of the conceptualization.

There has not been a lot of research done in the hedonic consumption area, probably due, in part, to its lack of consistency with the accepted objectivist perspective. As mentioned this objectivist perspective has however still been applied to research in this area. For example, Holbrook, Chestnut, Olivia and Greenleaf (1984) examined the relationship between a personality variable, type of product, observable behavioral performance and emotion (as measured by a multi-item scale). The consumptive experience dealt with was play. Andreasen and Belk (1980) looked at predictors of attendance at the performing arts. They utilized surveys to obtain information about lifestyles, attitudes and behavior toward specific performing arts and socioeconomic characteristics. The questions were derived from other research studies, from introspection and from focus-group interviews. The focus-group interviews would be consistent with the subjectivist perspective. Hirschman (1982) examined ethnic variation in hedonic consumption. The variables examined with regard to ethnic variation were projective behavior, imagery, favorite physical activities, enthusiasm, and motives. All were measured by either multi-item scales or lits.

A study which was based on the subjectivist perspective was that of Levy (1981). He used depth interviews involving story telling to give him a holistic, symbolic understanding of food consumption.


Well aware of the risks of trying to reduce the concepts to a short introduction, the authors will nevertheless attempt to very briefly present three categories of subjective assumptions and several of the methodologies associated with them that could be utilized in the study of hedonic consumption.

Interpretive Methodological Techniques

We have emphasized that products such as art, novels, movies, or music seem to inherently inspire a high level of subjective response. These products need to be "interpreted," not merely consumed sensorially.

There is a great array of interpretive research methods that could be applied to the study of hedonic consumption. Basically these methods fall into three categories: interviews, observation, and examining residues. The first category might include in-depth interviewing, focus groups, or informant interviewing (c.f. Lofland and Lofland 1984). The second involves observing the phenomenon. This entails the participant-observer method which might range from complete participant to complete observer (c.f. McCall-Simmons 1969, Schatzman and Strauss 1973). The third category is that of examining residues. This includes document analysis, historical records, archives, photographs, official statistics, content analysis, erosion and accretion measures (c.f. Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, Sechrest, Grove 1981, and Van Maanen, Dobbs and Faulkner 1982). These methods are consistent with the interpretive approach and therefore can be applied very productively to the study of hedonic consumption.

The Interpretive Approach

The history of the interpretive approach has lead to the construction of a great many theoretical perspectives. Three general categories are phenomenology, ethnomethodology and hermeneutics.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) is widely regarded as the founder and leading proponent of phenomenology. For this perspective, the study of society becomes the study of individual mental states and experiences the consciousness of individual social actors. It emphasizes an interpretive understanding of common-sense thought, the taken for-granted (Rubinstein, 1981). According to Natanson (1966), the objective of phenomenology is for the researcher to transcend these "natural attitudes of daily life" in order to study them. Methodologically, phenomenology involves taking as little for granted as possible. Methods aim at suspending or "bracketing" investigators' presuppositions. There is a reliance on experience-oriented methodology. Thus, after they have tried to suspend all of their own common sense judgments, phenomenologists place themselves in everyday life situations and then examine their own experiences and meanings (Rogers, 1983). "A cardinal feature of interactionist research is the casting of the researcher's self into the position of those he is studying" (Douglas, 1970).

The participant-observer technique, positioned at the participant end is the most obvious method consistent with the approach. Research situations where the investigator actually becomes part of the situation ("experiences" the situation) and then records his/her stream of thought would exemplify the method. With regard to hedonic consumption, these situations might include the investigator experiencing the theater, an art exhibit, a concert, the interior design of a room, or perhaps even law school as a student.

The research question in ethnomethodology is HOW some outcome is routinely achieved in practice. It is assumed that in each situation, individuals will find meaning in social interaction in light of their own presuppositions and interests (Campbell, 1981). The social reality is constructed by the participants themselves, not reconstructed by the researcher. Emphasis is placed upon the researcher's unmediated interaction with the subjects of inquiry, and description of the behavioral systems in the subjects own terms (i.e. classification system, nature typologies, accounts). Again, an attempt is made to eliminate any distortion the researcher may make due to his or her own ethnocentric categories. At a minimum, a researcher's account is submitted to the native community for verification and for explanation. Further attempts are made to avoid researcher bias bs collecting as much information as possible in the terminology used by the subjects. This is important because the words and their meaning serve as a native principle to organize and categorize behavior within a community and culture. It is often easiest to tape record all interview material. Additionally, translation and summarization are to be avoided. Often summarization is used to produce public records but eliminates a large portion of the actual situation (Knorr-Cetina, 1983). An example might be a surgeon's written summarization of a surgical procedure versus a verbation account or a marketing textbook discussion of consumer decision making versus the verbation account of two consumers during their decision making. Appropriate techniques might include participant observation (more at the observer end), interviewing, document analysis, etc. Thus, during intermission, a researcher might locate themselves in a convenient place and record comments made regarding a theater performance or make a continuous record via photography of facial expressions and physical positioning of a row of people during a wrestling match. Ethnomethodology is meant to describe the "native way" of performing tasks of living.

In hermeneutics, the researcher is viewed as an interpreter. Individuals externalize internal processes through the creation of external artifacts such as works of art, language, laws, rituals, institutions, literature, etc. Understanding of these productions of the human mind which characterize the social and cultural world can be obtained through interpretation of these artefact symbols (Bauman, 1978). There is a message or meaning being communicated from the producer of the symbol to the interpreter. In recent years Gadamer has emphasized language as it is viewed as the mediator of experience, social order and social life (Giddens 1976).

Methodological techniques might include document analysis, content analysis, use of photography, analysis of historical records, analysis of creative works, etc. An investigator of hedonic consumption might make the technology of film-making accessible to individuals attending a football game and ask them to produce a film exemplifying the experience of attending a football game.


This paper assumes the position that an interpretive approach should be taken as we investigate more deeply the subjective responses consumers have to the products they encounter. Since subjective response can only be understood within the frame of reference of the participant, an objectivist approach is inconsistent with the goals of the paradigm. Inconsistency between the assumptions of the conceptual paradigm and the research methods used will hinder the discovery and growth process.


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Laurel A. Hudson, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Jeff B. Murray, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13 | 1986

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