What Should ACR Want to Be When It Grows Up?

ABSTRACT - It is argued that ACR is facing an adolescent identity crisis and that its search for a meaningful identity would be aided by a rich vision of a future in which it emerges as an independent social- science. It is further argued that to do so requires first broadening ACR's aspirations and perspectives rather than narrowing them.


Russell W. Belk (1986) ,"What Should ACR Want to Be When It Grows Up?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 423-424.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 423-424


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


It is argued that ACR is facing an adolescent identity crisis and that its search for a meaningful identity would be aided by a rich vision of a future in which it emerges as an independent social- science. It is further argued that to do so requires first broadening ACR's aspirations and perspectives rather than narrowing them.


Once upon a time a fledgling discipline was born and given the name Consumer Research--the bastard child of Marketing and an unknown father variously alleged to be Economics, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Home Economics, or occasionally others as well. Despite these humble and ignoble beginnings, the infant developed precociously and was admired, housed, and nurtured by Mother Marketing. It found it had occasionally kind uncles named Business and Government, but the former did not always appreciate the child's talents and the latter tented to favor more legitimate nephews and nieces with names like Art, Science, and Medicine. Society tried to withhold judgment about the child, but mate no secret of its prejudices toward the mother and was critical of the uncles as well (the supposed fathers seemed above reproach).

The child grew and learned. It tried to be a good child and did many things to please its mother. But in moments of pensive reflection it felt there was something more to life. It knew that society expected more from it, but knew too that Mother Marketing was likely to disapprove of activities that withdrew the interests of Consumer Research from her. Thinking that it might have more to learn from its alleged and distant fathers than from its mother, Consumer Research turned to them often and assimilated much of their world views,-and Psychology's world view in particular. Still there was a part of the child that yearned to be free to think and do as it pleased and to make its own mark on and contribution to the world. This part felt that it was too much its mother's child and increasingly found even the venerable Psychology's world view to be unfulfilling.

The child was suffering what one of Psychology's legitimate children, Erik Erikson, called an identity crisis. In addition to not having a sense of identity, the child was searching for life and career goals that might lead it to a more promising future. It appreciated that Mother Marketing had thus far provided nurturance and paid the bills and it felt pulled to be loyal to that up-bringing and be a true Marketing person. But, it had also learned from its real or surrogate fathers that there was a whole big exciting world out there if it could stop doing everything just to please its mother. Each of these surrogates provided a different career model, although it sensed that mother liked Psychology best since it had a more practical bent than the others who often seemed to be either impractical altruists or philosophers. A third type of option was to strike out on its own and forge a career without the benefit of a role model or mentor. This seemed to be a difficult and risky course, and it was possible that mother would not foot the bill for such venture indefinitely.


At this point the child is confused, torn, and frightened. Its more conservative friends urge filial loyalty and remind that it has a good thing going and that Uncle Business will likely help to make a marketing career path a lucrative one. Its more rebellious friends urge revolution and suggest that anything that would be admired by Mother Marketing or Uncles Business and Government is to be deplored as hopelessly wrong-minted. A third peer group recently encountered consists of some of the acknowledged children of Anthropology and Sociology as well as some other bastard children of Mother Marketing. This group urges a path of individual freedom and creativity; follow your own muses and don't be too concerned about pleasing or displeasing anyone but yourself. If there is a reference group for this latter perspective it is society at large and the societal benefits of the career path are an important criterion for evaluation of its worth. Uncle Business might not be as pleased with such a career, but Uncle Government might ultimately be convinced of its merit. And the child Consumer Research might with such a career even hope to gain the status of its more mature father figures some day.

Appealing as the latter alternative seems, it is not the obvious solution to all concerned. Consumer Research feels both internal and external conflict in evaluating the choice. None of these solutions will jointly please it, its friends, its mother, its uncles, and its surrogate fathers. As the advocacy groups become more polarized they tend to blame any real or imagined weakness of Consumer Research on what they see as its inclination toward any position other than its own. Clearly the time is ripe for a choice. What should Consumer Research want to be when it grows up?


Inasmuch as ACR is the preeminent organization concerned with consumer behavior, it is essentially true that as ACR goes, so goes consumer behavior. While I believe that ACR should continue to represent a broad and diverse membership, and should in fact seek to further broaden, diversify, and balance its membership. I also believe that the status of the field of consumer behavior depends upon the richness of its visions of that which it aspires to be.

My own vision is one of consumer behavior as a discipline unto itself, with a variety of constituent groups, but with no overriding loyalty to any existing discipline or interest group. That is, consumer behavior should not be a subdiscipline of marketing, advertising, psychology, sociology, or anthropology, nor the handmaiden of business, government, or consumers. It should instead be a viable field of study, just as these other disciplines are, with some potential relevance to each of these constituent groups.

In order to achieve this mature and independent status, in the short-run consumer behavior should seek to divorce itself from the parochial interests of any single constituent group. Given the dominant allegiance to marketing in the past, a counter effort of clearly non-marketing-inspired theory and research efforts seems needed. This should also encourage a needed macro orientation within the field and lend credibility to the sincerity of the field's aspirations to be more than an engineering discipline serving a narrow scope of interests. It also seems necessary that meaningful and neglected macro issues be addressed such as the effects of various types of consumption on consumer and societal well-being, the political economy of consumption, tradeoffs between experiential and material consumption, historical, biological, and motivational bases for acquisition, possession, and collection, and consumption's interaction with self-definition. These foci should help to establish consumer behavior as a behavioral and social science of relevance to understanding an important domain of human behavior.

It is significant that occasionally, and especially recently, some prominent scholars from other behavioral and social sciences have begun to turn their attention to consumer behavior phenomena. They include for instance anthropologists Mary Douglas and Marshall Sahlins, sociologists Michael Schudson and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, historians Neil McKendrick and T. J. Jackson Lears, literary critics Lewis Hyde and Marc Shell, psychologists Lita Furby and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, communication theorists William Leiss and Stephen Kline, and economists Richard Easterlin and Albert Hirschman. It is also significant that none of these except Lita Furby has ever participated in ACR. The forces that tend to keep these consumer behavior scholars within their original disciplines may well be the same forces that cause Rich Lutz to urge that we keep our focus within marketing as a parent discipline. This is unfortunate since it fractionates and dissipates the efforts of what could otherwise be a cohesive and meaningful discipline of consumer behavior. There is much that we might say to one another, and ACR is the most logical organization to bring about such a dialogue.

It is for this reason that the 1985 ACR Conference Call for Papers' plea for a back-to-the-basics-of-marketing focus was so upsetting. Although it seems to have had little impact on the excellent program at this year's conference, such a call for narrowing the scope of ACR is the opposite of what I feel is needed. We should be seeking ways to broaden our membership rather than send cues to those trained in disciplines other than marketing, or interested in consumer behavior phenomena of interest to someone other than marketers, that they are unwelcome.

I do not mean to send the counter message that I do not welcome those trained in and interested in marketing-related consumer behavior phenomena in ACR--I do welcome them. As Rich Lutz correctly points out, they are largely responsible for making ACR the strong and viable organization that it is today. I come from such a background. But I think we need to welcome other types of consumer researchers even more warmly, both because we need the non-marketing perspectives they can bring to the discipline and because it is they who are currently most likely to feel that they are entering an alien world in coming to an ACR conference. We need to seek them out, cultivate their involvement in ACR, and talk and listen to them when they arrive. We all have much to learn and share.

In the long-run I believe that the academic discipline of consumer behavior should seek a status outside of current departmental boundaries as a social science department on a par with other social sciences. In order for this to happen we first need to establish a critical mass of serious scholarship. ACR can play a pivotal role in developing such scholarship by seeking to redress imbalances in membership across existing disciplines and constituencies, encouraging a broader agenda of research and research methods, and fostering a common member identity of mutual, if diverse, interest in pursuing consumer behavior for the sake of learning more about an important, neglected, and fascinating aspect of our existence.

If we instead turn inward, set up boundaries, and follow what De Tocqueville called "the tyranny of the majority," we will be condemning the child of Marketing to never know of or contribute to the world outside its backyard--the ground that it has walked over for all of its infancy and childhood with few if any original pathways to show for it. This may win mother's praise, but it is unlikely to make much of a contribution to the human condition. And while it may be temporarily difficult and frightening to first cross the street, as Consumer Research matures I believe it will be much the better and more satisfied for having done so.



Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13 | 1986

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