The Critical School and Consumer Research

ABSTRACT - The empirical and critical schools of social science research represent two quite different approaches. The former is typified by quantitative empiricism, functionalism, and positivism, while the critical school is characterized by a more philosophical emphasis, greater attention to context, an early Marxist orientation, and a concern with who controls a system. Here we trace the historical rise of the critical school, and its contemporary differences in viewing consumer behavior. The critical school tends to be concentrated in Europe, while the empirical school is strongest in the United States. Prospects for greater understanding of the critical school by members of its counterpart are discussed, along with implications of such understanding for consumer researchers.


Everett M. Rogers (1987) ,"The Critical School and Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 7-11.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 7-11


Everett M. Rogers, University of Southern California

[Walter H. Annenberg Professor and Associate Dean for Doctoral Studies, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Southern California. The author wishes to acknowledge Byron Reeves (Institute for Communication Research, Stanford University) for originally suggesting the present topic of this paper, and Alladi Venkatesh (School of Management, University of California at Irvine), Melanie R. Wallendorf (Department of Marketing, University of Arizona), and Paul F. Anderson (Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University) for their comments on a previous draft. I have also benefitted from Steffy and Grimes' (1986) call for the application of critical theory to organizational research. The present paper continues, and draws directly upon, my previous writing about the empirical and critical schools of communication research (Rogers 1981, 1982, and 1985).]


The empirical and critical schools of social science research represent two quite different approaches. The former is typified by quantitative empiricism, functionalism, and positivism, while the critical school is characterized by a more philosophical emphasis, greater attention to context, an early Marxist orientation, and a concern with who controls a system. Here we trace the historical rise of the critical school, and its contemporary differences in viewing consumer behavior. The critical school tends to be concentrated in Europe, while the empirical school is strongest in the United States. Prospects for greater understanding of the critical school by members of its counterpart are discussed, along with implications of such understanding for consumer researchers.


The purposes of this paper are (1) to outline the important intellectual differences between the empirical and the critical schools of social science, and (2) to bring the viewpoint of the critical school to bear on the scholarly concerns of consumer research. Most consumer researchers that I know are empirical scholars, perhaps only dimly aware that an alternative approach to their scholarly work even exists. Consumer research is highly multidisciplinary in nature, but past scholarship has been conducted within a highly empirical and quantitative paradigm. Here we discuss a quite different theoretical viewpoint that has useful implications for the conduct of consumer research.

The present paper is an attempt to point one specific direction for the small but growing concern with epistemological considerations in consumer research. During the 1980s, a diminutive debate has begun between defenders of logical empiricism (an approach in which most of us have been trained) and the challenges of relativism (Anderson 1986; Peter and Olson 1983), [Relativism is a philosophy of science that asserts there is no single scientific method; instead, scientific knowledge claims depend on the particular beliefs, methods, and ways of thinking of scientists (Anderson 1986).] semiotics (Mick 1986), [Semiotics is the analysis of signs as meaning-producing messages.] humanistic approaches (Hirschman, 1986), and various other alternatives. In 1986, an important conference on marketing and semiotics was held at Northwestern University, and starting in 1987, a quarterly newsletter, Marketing Signs, covering the intersection of marketing, semiotics, and consumer research, will be published by Indiana University.

Constructive critics of marketing and consumer behavior like Deshpande (1983) and Peter and Olson (1983) point out that we are expanding rapidly in our technical ability to test quantitative hypotheses, but lag in "the development of new, rich explanatory theories." The Association for Consumer Research, after several years of general complacency with its direction of intellectual progress, this year has selected questioning and challenging individuals as president and conference co chairs. One of these individuals, Russell W. Belk (in press) noted that "Consumer behavior research has not studied consumer behavior." Buying, but not consuming, is investigated. The general mood of many consumer scholars seems to be that of growing dissatisfaction with more-of-the-same research. But in the search for paradigmatic alternatives to logical empiricism, no scholar of consumer research has yet looked to the critical school.


The world of social science scholarship can be divided for certain purposes into two main schools, based on the nature of their ideology, assumptions, and methods of approaching research. These are commonly referred to as the "empirical school" and the "critical school," although this terminology is of an oversimplification.

While not everyone agrees on exactly what is meant by these terms, nor on who belongs to which school, I believe they offer a useful polar typology. The empirical school is commonly characterized by quantitative empiricism functionalism, and positivism. In the past it has generally emphasized study of individual behavior change, while paying less attention to the broader context in which such behavior change is embedded. In contrast, the essence of the critical school is its more philosophical emphasis, its focus on the broader social structural context of behavior change, its early Marxist orientation (although by no means are all critical scholars Marxists today), and a central concern with the issue of who controls a system.

We prefer to utilize the terminology of "empirical school" and "critical school." Paul F.- Lazarsfeld (1941) first referred to these two scholarly viewpoints as "administrative research" and "critical research." His article appeared in a journal called Studies in Philosophy and Social Research, organized by Lazarsfeld to include Theodor W. Adorno and other representatives of the critical school, as well as such empirical scholars as Harold D. Lasswell. The terminology for the two schools utilized by Lazarsfeld (1941) in his article seems to have been acceptable to both schools at that time (Lang 1979). Adorno's colleague, and the director of the Frankfurt School (to be described shortly), Max Horkheimer (1937, pp. 188-243), preferred "critical school" as a more appropriate label than "Marxist school," which the institute had originally considered as its name in the 1920s (Jay 1973, p. 8).

Certain critical scholars resent the nomenclature of an empirical and a critical school because they claim, quite correctly, that they sometimes use empirical data in their critical analysis. Nevertheless, most critical scholars would agree that a critical viewpoint is the dominant, shared viewpoint of their school. Most empirical scholars would agree that the use of empirical data is a dominant, shared characteristic of their school.

Most critical scholars identify themselves as such. In contrast, most empirical scholars do not think of themselves as associated with any particular "school" of thought, other than with consumer research in general. In part this lack of identification with the empirical school is because many empirical scholars (especially those in the United States) do not know of the existence of the critical school. In any event, when an American researcher is called a "positivist" by a European or a Latin American, the U.S. scholar is likely to be surprised; he/she had a self-image as just a consumer researcher, or as a psychologist, a marketing scholar, or as a communication researcher. The puzzled empirical scholar may not even be sure exactly what a positivist is.


The roots of the critical school trace to Frankfurt, Germany in the 1920s. The Institute for Social Research (Institut fur Sozial- forschung) was founded in 1923 as a research center dedicated to a critical and Marxist approach. [An authoritative account of the Frankfurt School is provided by the historian Martin Jay (1973), and its theories are reviewed by Arato and Gebhardt (1978). A carefully reasoned critique of the critical school is provided by Fejes (1985, pp. 517-530).] The Institute was loosely associated with the University of Frankfurt and its director was appointed as a professor at the university, but the Institute maintained its financial independence through an endowment provided by a successful German grain merchant.

Most of the key figures in the Frankfurt Institute came from backgrounds in prosperous Jewish families, but were committed to a Marxist approach to understanding society. The first Director, Carl Grunberg, stated that Marxism would be the ruling principle of the Institute. However, the Institute staff soon began to question orthodox Marxism, and eventually (in the late 1950s) moved even further away, dropping class conflict as "the motor of history" and replacing it with domination (Jay 1973, p. 256). In 1931, Max Horkheimer became Director of the Institute, and it began to attract an outstanding set of German and Austrian scholars: Theodor W. Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and others.

Critical scholars have long had a central interest in social class structure as one of their main concepts, along with the associated concepts of conflict, domination, and dialectic. [Social class struggle was an important concept for early critical scholars in understanding society, although this concept (1) has undergone substantial revision by Habermas (1976, pp. 130-177) in recent years, and (2) always was much more important for orthodox Marxist scholars than for critical scholars.] Such an orientation headed many critical scholars toward studying dominance and inequality, and a liberating ideology still pervades the critical school

With the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933, Frankfurt became an inhospitable site for Marxist scholars with Jewish backgrounds, and in 1934 the Institute for Social Research moved, after one year in Geneva, to New York, where it was affiliated with Columbia University until it returned to Frankfurt in 1949. During its U.S. sojourn, Adorno and others' (1950) The Authoritarian Personality was completed by the Institute staff, with funding from the American Jewish Committee, a book that was to become a social science classic. This investigation utilized empirical data about prejudice, but generally followed a critical approach.

While the Frankfurt Institute was in the United States, American social-science methodology and philosophy of science were integrated into the critical school, and this American empiricism was then introduced to Germany in 1949 when the Institute for Social Research returned to Frankfurt. Empirical methodology gradually caught on in Europe, in part through the teachings of the Frankfurt School, but mainly as a result of other types of Euro-American contact. Today most European social scientists utilize a combination of the empirical and critical approaches, with greater emphasis on critical methods than in the U S. (Blumler 1980).

Although such key figures in the Frankfurt Institute as Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor W. Adorno are now deceased (in 1973, 1980, and 1969, respectively), and others like Leo Lowenthal are retired, the intellectual influence of the original Frankfurt School continues, especially in Europe. The New Left and the radical movements of the 1960s led to a rekindling of interest in critical theory in both the U.S. and Europe (Held 1980), especially in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, who gained a cult-like following. Jurgen Habermas is the modern-day intellectual leader in recasting and remodeling critical theory. He is a former assistant in the Frankfurt Institute in the 1950s, and presently a professor at the University of Frankfurt. Although highly critical of positivism and preferring dialectical methodology over empirical approaches (Jay 1973, p. 251), Habermas has reformulated critical theory to develop a theory of society oriented to the self-emancipation of people from domination (Held 1980, p. 250).


A concern with the ownership and control of social institutions dominates the critical school. The central questions for critical scholars are "Why?" or "Why not?" while the central research questions for the empirical school are "How?" and "How much?" The empirical school seeks to explain, predict, and control human behavior (the conventional goals of science), while the critical school ,seeks to liberate. So critical scholars want to know who controls a system? Why? To whose benefit?

The Frankfurt School, originally influenced by Marxist theory, questioned capitalistic society, and looked to the wide scope of social structure to explain social problems and to indicate ameliorative policies. Today, critical scholars emphasize the social-political-economic context of human behavior, rather than looking within the individual for explanations of the individual's actions. Critical scholars argue that to ignore the holistic context is to seriously distort the reality of behavior, preventing an insightful understanding of it. Because such quantitative research designs as the survey and experiment are generally individualistic and microanalytical, and hence not able to tell us much about social context, critical scholars often prefer less-structured methods that yield more qualitative data.

For example, during the Black Plague in London, it was eventually discovered that every individual who drank water from London's main water pump contracted cholera and died. Anyone who did not drink water from the main pump lived. Here is a case of a single causal variable with clear-cut effects. The tricky research task for scholars of that day was to identify the single cause out of a host of other variables. Had they understood a theory of waterborne disease, identifying the cause would have been easier, but this theory had not yet been developed. So scholars in LoUdon had to investigate the context of cholera-transmission be open-ended searching for the causal variable. Thus when theory is insufficient and when there is incomplete understanding about some phenomena, investigation of the context is the appropriate research strategy. Critical scholars would emphasize this research strategy for contemporary consumer researchers.


One research method utilized by both the empirical and critical schools is content analysis, although they use this method in quite different ways. Empirical communication scholars utilize content analysis methods to categorize mass media content into the form of quantitative data, which they then analyze to test certain hypotheses. Content analyses of mass media messages by critical scholars are usually less quantitative (they may be entirely qualitative), and more semiological in nature; the intent is often to uncover the presumed motives of the message-maker. There is less concern with objectivity, measured by whether another researcher would content-analyze the same messages into the same categories.

Perhaps the most well-known example of critical research today is Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart's (1971) Para Leer al Pato Donald? (translated and published in English in 1975 as How to Read Donald Duck). These critical scholars content-analyzed Walt Disney's Donald Duck comic strip (as published in Latin American newspapers) to identify themes of US. imperialism toward Third World nations. These researchers implied that such content themes in the comic strip influenced its readers. In contrast, empirical scholars are usually very cautious about implying the assumption of an effect, as they believe that most mass media messages do not have strong effects (and hence that media contents do not equal effects). Critical scholars often carry out content analysis, not in order to determine audience effects, but to make inferences about the message-makers. For example, Dorfman and Mattelart (1971) conducted their content analysis of the Donald Duck comics in order to provide evidence about the imperialistic motivations of Disney Studios.

Here we see an illustration of the contrasting orientations of empirical versus critical scholars: (1) empirical researchers emphasize understanding mass communication effects on an audience, and they conduct content analysis in order to aid understanding of such effects, while (2) critical scholars emphasize understanding the control of a communication system, so they conduct content analysis in order to make inferences about the mass media institutions that create the messages. Here is an example of where empirical and critical scholars might combine their types of research to mutual advantage, such as study of a mass media institution, combined with a content analysis of the messages that it produces, and with an audience survey of these messages' effects. [Just such a research design is utilized in the many investigations of the agenda-setting process through which the mass media establish the priority with which an audience perceives various news topics.] Dorfman and Mattelart's (1971) study might have been broadened by gathering data (1) from Disney Studios about why the cartoon strip's makers utilized the imperialistic themes that the content analysis displayed, [Given the attitude of Disney Studios toward Para Leer al Pato Donald? including legal action to prevent its publication in English in the U.S., it is doubtful that they would have provided much information about their motivations for message-making, at least to Dorfman and Mattelart.] and (2) from readers of these comics in audience surveys to determine what effects, if any, the imperialistic messages caused. Such a multi-pronged research approach is usually superior to using any single research method, but there are few such multi-method researches in social science. It is extremely rare to follow a triangulation research strategy in data-gathering methodologies, data-analysis techniques, and/or in theoretical approaches (such as utilizing both a critical and an empirical approach).

Over the past several years, I have assigned selections from Dorfman and Mattelart's (1975) How To Read Donald Duck to both undergraduate and graduate students at Stanford University and at the University of Southern California. The typical student reaction is incredulity, puzzlement, and humor. Most students simply cannot believe that Dorfman and Mattelart's analysis is for real. A few of my students become convinced that Disney comics are imperialistic. Most students read comics with a more questioning attitude after their exposure to How to Read Donald Duck. Their comics consciousness has been raised, which I suppose is exactly what the critical scholars intended.


Are the differences between the critical and empirical schools due simply to US./European contrasts? There is a tendency for critical scholars to be European rather than American, and for empirical scholarship to flourish more strongly in North America than in Europe.

It is an over-simplification, however, to say that US. social scientists dominate the empirical school, while Europeans are critical scholars. For example, one of the noted critical scholars is Herbert Schiller, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, and there are many other U S. critical scholars. The empirical school is well-represented in Europe, and today there are as many empirical scholars as critical scholars in Europe. Further, there are probably more critical scholars in the United States than in Europe, although an exact count is not available. [In recent years, the vitality of the critical school in the United States is evidenced by the launching of a new journal, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, by the Speech Communication Association in 1984; and by the founding of the Union for Democratic Communication in 1981, with about two hundred members and seven local chapters, and an annual convention.]

However, the intellectual leaders of the contemporary critical school are mainly Europeans: Armand Mattelart teaches at the University of Paris; Kaarle Nordenstreng is a professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Tampere, Finland; and Cees Hamelink is at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands. Previously we mentioned that Jurgen Habermas, a German, is the key figure today in the second generation Frankfurt School; he is a sociologist and philosopher who gives major attention to human communication

Similarly, there is a strong tendency for members of the empirical school to be North Americans. Nationalism obviously effects how social scientists view the world. For example, the socio-economic conditions of North America facilitated the implicit assumption of many empirical scholars that society only needs a little tune-up (this from empirical research), rather than a complete overhaul. Most U.S. members of the empirical school are turned off by the critical scholars' attacks on the U.S. for its disproportionate ownership and control of such mass media institutions as advertising agencies, magazines, and news agencies throughout the world, and for its multinational corporations that dominate the conduct of business. Nationalism is a major barrier, both psychologically and spatially, to any efforts to bring the empirical and the critical schools together.

Neither the empirical nor the critical school is dominant in latin America today, and a kind of hybrid school may eventually develop, in which Latin American scholars draw upon the elements from both schools. The social-cultural-political conditions of many Latin American nations encourage scholars toward the critical approach. These are generally not very "happy" societies: Health and nutrition are poor, especially in rural areas and in urban slums; poverty is a very serious social problem; and the mass media are heavily oriented to urban, educated elites. Foreign-owned multinational corporations (especially U.S.) have heavily penetrated Latin nations. Under these conditions, a critical stance seems natural to many Latin American scholars as they look at their society. But many Latin American scholars also realize that they are seldom able to convince government officials or politicians to change a public policy unless they can present empirical evidence for the suggested policy change. If a synthesis of the empirical and critical approaches is to be forged, it may occur in Latin America, particularly in Brazil.


Scholars in each school are convinced that their viewpoint is superior. For instance, some empirical scholars feel that critical scholars do not really do research, or at least rigorous research, and that critical scholars are not objective scientists because of their ideological position. Many critical scholars feel that empirical scholars are too busy gathering data to have time to think about its meaning and its context, that their work lacks theoretical depth, and that many empirical scholars are extremely naive about the uses to which their researches are put.

Neither empirical nor critical scholars have a very accurate perception of each other, in the opinion of scholars who have fairly extensive contact with both schools. [For example, Lang (1979) points out that the critical school is incorrect in viewing the empirical communication research school as "the product of commercially-supported media research cultivated and exported from the U S.A." Lang reviewed the history of the empirical school to show (1) that the empirical tradition is as much a German as an American phenomenon, and (2) that the empirical school developed as much as a response to broad intellectual, social, and political interests as to the demands of media organizations operated for profit.] The main reason for misperceptions of the other is a lack of close contact. The geography of the two schools is one cause of this avoidance pattern; further, the spatial separation means that many critical scholars and empirical scholars do not share a common language. They are unlikely to publish in the same journals, or to be colleagues in the same university department or research institute. Nor are they very likely to belong to the same professional association. The superior attitude of each school toward the other, especially critical scholars who direct their criticisms against empirical scholars, tends to drive the two schools apart. Intellectual antagonism and avoidance encourage a lack of understanding.

The empirical school is at present considerably larger than the critical school, whether measured in terms of the number of scholars, or of the amount of research resources. Empirical scholars have certain other important advantages over critical scholars: Almost all share the common language of English, as well as a scientific paradigm that guides much of their work. Further, the critical stance of the critical scholars means they are less likely to receive research funds or other types of institutional support from such establishment institutions as national governments, foundations, or from private firms. [As Halloran (1981, p. 29) noted: "Critical research, or at least much of it in many countries, has to survive in what is inevitable a hostile atmosphere."] The critical school also suffers from a lack of journals and other publication outlets.

What could the two schools of research do if they wanted to understand each other better? A first step would be for each school to treat the other with more respect. The past rancor between the two schools should be replaced by a realization that each may have much to learn from the other. Pluralism (the position that all points of view deserve to be heard and considered) must prevail in national and international associations for consumer re#arch, in their conferences, and in the journals and other publications that these associations control. Unfortunately in the past, associations, conferences, and- publications have played a segmenting, rather than an integrating role.

Someday we may have critical-empirical scholars and empirical-critical scholars.


The present discussion of the critical school suggests several lessons for empirical scholars of consumer behavior to consider.

1. Consumer scholars should focus on the ownership and control of systems affecting individual consumer behavior. For instance, researchers focusing on advertising effects cannot afford to ignore the nature of the mass communication system that is producing and delivering the advertisements. Who owns and controls this system, and the purposes for which it is operated, are important parts of the context, and directly aid the investigation of advertising effects. Consumer research should give greater recognition, critical scholars tell us, to the context in which consumption occurs. Contextual research ultimately means placing less reliance upon statistical analysis of quantitative data, where critical scholars feel that "rigor" is often mistaken for insight.

An illustration of the greater need for system attention, rather than an almost sole concentration on individuals as units of analysis, is research on children and television. More than three thousand publications have appeared on this topic over the past 25 years. Frequently, these studies dealt with whether violent television programs cause aggressive behavior on the part of child viewers. Other investigations have looked at the impacts on children of television advertisements for toys, candies, and sweet drinks. Generally, children were the respondents in these researches, with a few content analyses of television programs or advertisements. Almost no attention has been paid to the advertisers, ad agencies, or television systems that produce and broadcast children's television programs and advertisements. Critical scholars would urge us to investigate why such messages are produced, for whose benefit, and what alternative patterns of ownership and control might be possible. If social problems regarding children and television do exist, and if they can be identified, possible solutions must involve the television networks and the advertisers of children's products. So critical scholars are puzzled that we do not study such institutions.

2. Consumer research should be cast in a wider scope, both in recognizing (1) that research of global significance should be emphasized over culture-bound inquiries of national systems, and (2) that to understand consumer behavior is to understand society as critical scholars have realized since the beginnings of the Frankfurt School. Much of our present consumer research bears a strong made-in-the-U.S. stamp. Further, this past research conveys as assumption that consumer behavior is a specialized entity or sector within society, somehow standing separate from the rest of society.

Does U.S.-style advertising create important social problems in the Third World nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia? The consequences of mass media advertising may include the creation of an inappropriate consumerism that is frustrating for the mass of individuals who do not possess adequate resources to fulfill their media-created aspirations. Further, advertising in the Third World may lead to increased dependence upon industrial nations like the United States for the importing of consumer products and the technologies on which they are based. Perhaps the rise of consumerism in Third World contexts has dysfunctional, as well as functional, consequences. These are policy issues of great importance to government leaders and to private business officials. Consumer scholars should not ignore them. Note that the policy debate here concerns a very broad, abstract variable, consumerism, rather than the specific types of consumer behavior that we usually investigate.

Critical scholars urge empirical scholars to adopt a more critical stance toward our field: To continually question the motives of the powerful for dealing with the weak, to stop assuming that consumer research is for the benefit of the consumer, and to realize that communication and exchange can be conceptualized as leading to a conflict situation, as well as one leading to harmony.

American and European social scientists look at social class in quite different ways. In the U S., sociologists and many other scholars focus on socio-economic status as a very important variable (or set of variables) in their empirical studies of human behavior. American scholars have delineated and described social classes in community studies, investigated the nature of occupational prestige, and, more generally, studied the consequences of socio-economic status, such as its capacity to explain the purchase and public display of consumer products. No astute consumer researcher would fail to include social status variables in an inquiry of such consumer behavior as clothing fashion, automobile purchasing, and/or expenditures for entertainment.

On the Continent, many social scientists, especially those of a critical persuasion, also focus on socio-economic status. But they approach social class in entirely different ways. Across the Atlantic, class analysis stems from Marx, and is approached in an intellectual and conceptual way without much emphasis upon empirical data-gathering. European social scientists write extensively about class and class conflict, focussing upon inequality and exploitation. Many of these critical, theoretical writings in Europe are very interesting reading, containing useful ideas and research leads for American empirical scholars. But I can find few examples of a U.S. empirical study that has been fruitfully based upon the European critical theory of social class. One example is Eric Wright's (1981), Class and Economic Inequality. But the scholarly potential of the European, critical work on social class has not yet been realized by U S. scholars.

3. The critical school suggests to empirical scholars of consumer behavior that they should broaden the range of methodological tools they employ in their investigations. Venkatesh (1985, p. 647 concludes his review of the epistemology of marketing with a suggestion that applies equally to consumer research: "The quest for scientific knowledge using the logical positivistic framework may have to be modified to knowledge based on understanding, or what Max Weber has called Verstehen. What is needed is a balance between explanatory-analytical modes of research and interpretive-constructive approaches to research."

I agree. Previously, we discussed the advantages of triangulating research methods. For most consumer researchers, this strategy means bringing in qualitative methods to compliment the quantitative methods in which they have been trained. Consumer research will be of greater value if our methods are broadened.

4. Ethical aspects of the consumer behavior they investigate should not be ignored by empirical scholars, even if these aspects cannot be studied with their usual research methods. Who is expected to benefit from consumer research? Consumers? The firm marketing a product? Society? Why do we not give greater attention to investigating the consumption of products like cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, that are clearly harmful to the consumer?

The public perceives consumer research, and the broader process of marketing research to which it is related, as manipulative of consumer behavior, such as by encouraging individuals to purchase products that they may not really want. This negative stereotype may not be entirely incorrect. For example, a recent consumer research study in Southern California found that while bank customers (who were personally interviewed as they exited banks) perceived their waiting time in the bank as double what it actually was. Customers of banks with "silent radio" (a news and captioning display service) estimated their waiting time at half what it really was. These research results influenced a large bank to install silent ratio in all of its branches.

Who benefitted from this piece of consumer research? Critical scholars would immediately ask this question. They want to know whose side consumer researchers are on, particularly when one side of the transaction gains and one side loses. Critical scholars would urge consumer researchers to always attend to the ethical issues raised by their research, and, more generally, to act as a conscience of society.

Jagdish Sheth (1979) has asked the question: Why have consumer scholars focused more on the implications of their research for the marketer, than for consumers or for society? One answer may be that the field of consumer research is dominated by marketing scholars, with perhaps 80 percent of the members of the Association for Consumer Research affiliated with the marketing discipline. Tucker (1974) claims that marketing scholars tend to study consumers as fisherman study fish, rather than as marine biologists study them. Marketing organizations are more likely to fund consumer research than are consumer associations. Hence our marketing orientation in consumer research. Perhaps when (and if) consumer research becomes more interdisciplinary, and if it evolves into a discipline of consumer behavior, greater attention to benefiting the consumer and society will result. Closer contact with critical scholars will have a consciousness-raising effect in such a reorientation of consumer research.

Finally, the directing of consumer research toward consumer welfare will raise the value with which society perceives consumer research. "Society tends to reserve full scientific legitimacy for those inquiry systems which are perceived to be operating in the higher interests of knowledge and general societal welfare" (Anderson, 1983). This proposition is a guideline which the critical school would urge consumer scholars to consider, and act accordingly.


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Everett M. Rogers, University of Southern California


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14 | 1987

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Nostalgiacising: A Performative Theory of Nostalgic Consumption

Ela Veresiu, York University, Canada
Ana Babic Rosario, University of Denver
Thomas Derek Robinson, City University of London, UK

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