Generic Social Processes: Implications of a Processual Theory of Action For Research on Marketplace Exchanges

ABSTRACT - In contrast to many "social science" models which rely on the techniques of the natural sciences for gathering and analyzing data on human behavior, this paper outlines a theory of action which builds fundamentally on qualities distinctive to (human) group life. Following an introduction to the theoretical premises on which an interactionist theory of human behavior is founded, consideration is directed toward the basic ("generic") social processes around which action is developed. As abstracted "forms of association" (Simmel, 1950), these processes not only provide much stimulation for research on consumer behavior, but also enable researchers in the area of consumer behavior to actively contribute to an emerging theory of human behavior.


Robert Prus (1987) ,"Generic Social Processes: Implications of a Processual Theory of Action For Research on Marketplace Exchanges", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 66-70.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 66-70


Robert Prus, University of Waterloo

[I would like to thank Augie Fleras for his thoughtful reading of an earlier draft of this paper.]


In contrast to many "social science" models which rely on the techniques of the natural sciences for gathering and analyzing data on human behavior, this paper outlines a theory of action which builds fundamentally on qualities distinctive to (human) group life. Following an introduction to the theoretical premises on which an interactionist theory of human behavior is founded, consideration is directed toward the basic ("generic") social processes around which action is developed. As abstracted "forms of association" (Simmel, 1950), these processes not only provide much stimulation for research on consumer behavior, but also enable researchers in the area of consumer behavior to actively contribute to an emerging theory of human behavior.


Addressing notions such as recruitment and persuasion, resistance and negotiation, trust and commitment, identities and relationships, this paper locates the study of marketplace exchange within the context of a general theory of action. Rather than posit that we need a separate theory for consumer behavior, it is proposed that the study of consumer behavior not only tap into existing notions of human interaction, but that it be used to provide feedback and refinement to an emerging theory of action which is grounded in the day-to-day experiences of the people we study.

This theory of action is fundamentally based in "symbolic interaction." It has its roots in the works of the philosopher George Herbert Mead (1934) and has been most comprehensively and clearly expressed by the sociologist Herbert Blumer (1969). Those working within this tradition also recognize the conceptual affinity of this approach with "dramaturgical sociology" (Goffman, 1959; 1963), "labeling theory" (Becker, 1963; Lemert, 1967), "reality construction theory" (Berger and Luckmann, 1966), "ethno-methodology" (Garfinkel, 1967, and "phenomenological sociology" (Schutz, 1971). [As a tradition, symbolic interaction not only constitutes a background theme for many of these developments, but its practitioners have absorbed and incorporated a great many of the conceptual emphases or refinements each of these strands of "interpretative sociology" entails.]

Five premises form the core structure of this theory of action. Human behavior is seen as:

1. "Perspectival": objects take on the meanings people attribute to them.

2. "Reflective": people can think - define, interpret, anticipate, plan, assess.

3. "Negotiable": people influence one another; human behavior is not reducible to individual qualities.

4. "Relational": people develop bonds with one another; interaction assumes selective and temporal dimensions.

5. "Processual": behavior has an emergent, ongoing quality.

These premises have fundamental implications for a methodology for the study of human behavior. First and foremost, they draw our attention to the desirability of studying action as it is experienced and formulated by the participants. Instead of asking "why someone did this or that," or "what caused someone to do such and such," the emphasis is on the "ongoing construction or forging of action by the people involved." It is an approach which emphasizes the experiences people have in "doing behavior." It recognizes people's capacities for reflectivity or independent thought as well as the plurality of meanings people may attach to any object. Additionally, consideration is given to people's abilities to influence or negotiate with one another, and to the bonds or relationships people develop with one another and the implications of these bonds for people's actions. Thus, in contrast to many models in the social sciences which view human behavior as caused by internal or external forces acting upon individuals, the approach offered here envisions people as the reflective, interactive manufacturers of their experiences and outcomes.

This approach necessitates that we collect data sensitive to people's experiences as they go about their activities. In Herbert Blumer's terms, it requires that researchers achieve "intimate familiarity" with the worlds of those whom they study. Thus, rather than approach people with preconstructed questionnaires, research involves (a) first hand experiences in the setting (b) extensive, open-ended interviews, and (c) extended observations. The objective is to obtain as much depth as possible regarding people's definitions of situations, their dilemmas and other assessments, the ways in which they take themselves and others into account in formulating their actions, and the ways in which they co-ordinate their activities with others. These concerns are situated within a background of process. Ergo, attention is given to the sequencing or unfolding nature of activities.

Some may ask if this approach is "empirical," particularly when practitioners discourage newcomers from concentrating on quantification or from relying on observations void of participant meanings. Yes, it is empirical, assuming that by empirical one means studying some phenomenon in a manner that attempts to be true to its "essence." To elaborate. It is first important not to confuse quantification with empiricism. Quantification is a method of processing observations. It is a (symbolic) means of drawing inferences about some phenomenon. It assumes that the objects of study are amenable to measurement and the measurements taken are viable representations of the phenomenon under study. This is not to denigrate quantification as a technique. While ultimately dependent on the quality of the data collected, quantification may offer certain advantages when dealing with physical (nonthinking) entities. However, people present new demands.

Unless one is prepared to argue that there are no significant differences between humans and other physical objects, then it is not at all apparent that a methodology appropriate to other physical objects has validity when applied to human behavior. Insofar as we limit the study of humans to elements over which they exercise no thought, the methods we have devised for studying other nonthinking entities may be appropriate. We may treat them as billiard balls, robots, carcasses, and the life. But any human activity which entails interpretation on the part of humans threatens to invalidate the assumptions on which the physical (object) sciences are based. The matter becomes further complicated when interpretation is recognized not only as an individual capacity, but as a process both grounded in input from others (they provide us with perspectives, frames of reference, or orientational frames), and amenable to change as a result of people's ongoing interactions and their reflections on those exchanges. We need a "science of human behavior" which is sensitive to the perspectival,reflective, negotiable, relational, and processual nature of group life. Indeed, one may well ask if any approach to the study of human behavior which violates these basic features of group life ought to be called scientific?


Generic social processes refer to the forms or dynamic features of association that transcend the content or substantive features of group life. [These notions have their origins in the works of Simmel (1950); especially his distinction between"forms of association" and content, as well as in the tradition of the Chicago school of symbolic interaction (most centrally, Mead, 1934; Blumer, 1969) and in phenomenological sociology (especially, Berger and Luckmann, 1966; Garfinkel, 1967, and Schutz, 1971). More recently, the quest for generic social processes has been made explicit in the works of Glaser and Strauss (1967), Strauss (1970), Lofland (1970, 1976), Lester and Hadden (1980), Bigus, Hadden, and Glaser (1982), Couch (1984), and Prus (1985a).] Thus, one may envision "promotion" or "negotiation" as instances of generic processes, while the items being promoted or bargained for denote the content mediated through these social forms. Organizing the study of human behavior around these processes, the task is to develop a conceptual scheme applicable to any group, any time, anywhere. Consequently too, any and all realms of group life represent zones for developing, assessing, and refining the processes entailed herein.

The idea for the concerted study of generic or basic social processes developed somewhat gradually and unevenly. It reflects a series of loosely connected studies, each of which sought to achieve intimate familiarity with people involved in particular settings (e.g. juvenile delinquency [Shaw, 1931]; taxi-dance halls [Cressey, 1932]; theft [Sutherland, 1937]; mental patients [Goffman, 1961]; and marijuana users [Becker, 1963]). While concentrating primarily on explaining the life-world experiences of people involved in these settings, it was becoming increasingly apparent that people participating in rather diverse (content-wise) occupational and recreational settings were enRaged in strikingly parallel activities.

Individual processes might evidence themselves more or less prominently or sharply in some settings rather than others, but much could be gained by examining parallel processes across settings. As these studies accumulated, the issues subsequently became ones of (a) uncovering central processes in each context and (b) comparing these with those reported in other settings. However, the development of a generic processual theory of action has been much slower than might have been anticipated.

In part, the gathering of ethnographic data is a slow, demanding process. A concern with achieving careful, detailed, comprehensive analyses of particular settings prevents individual researchers from doing as many comparative studies as would be desired. Additionally, concerns with acquiring expertise in particular substantive realms tends to divert scholars from making more concerted cross-setting analyses. Finally, insofar as the processes around which comparisons may be made are themselves undergoing conceptual refinement, some unevenness among existing studies is inevitable. This, along with the variable attention researchers have given to particular processes in each research site makes direct comparisons more tentative as well as more challenging. Yet, only by drawing comparisons across contexts can we begin to isolate core processes, delineate their variations, and develop other refinements as are suggested by the data. It will be a slow, cumulative enterprise, but only in this way will we achieve a theory of action which builds firmly on actual human experience.

Substantive Specialties: Only Testing Grounds?

At first glance, this concern with generic social process may appear somewhat disconcerting to those with strong interests in particular content areas. Substantive areas such as consumer behavior and marketing appear to assume secondary significance in the quest for generic social processes. But substantive specialists would be greatly shortchanged were they to stop at this point. First, the quest for generic social processes does not exclude any substantive area. To the contrary, it encourages process oriented inquiries in both novel and established fields. Secondly, concerned with analyses which reflect intimate familiarity with the settings at hand, researchers working in this tradition particularly welcome research which displays the sort of fine-grained detail serious practitioners are more able to achieve. Third, and no less importantly for those with strong interests in particular fields are the gains available through conceptual cross-fertilization. A process-oriented approach provides researchers in any setting with concepts acquired (and lessons learned) from parallel research inquiries in other settings. Fourth, and in reflection of this latter notion, this approach directly fosters awareness of the findings and conceptual refinements emerging within any given setting (e.g. consumer behavior) among researchers in other substantive settings (e.g. deviance, religion, politics).

Each setting does represent a testing ground, at least in-so-far as the researcher involved wishes to make a contribution to the overall understanding of generic social processes. However, even for those with singular concentrations on particular specialties or subfields, one may ask, "Is there a better way of achieving a full understanding of a field of human behavior than by examining the ways in which people go about doing the activities that constitute that realm of enterprise?" As Goffman (1967:149-270) posits, the study of social process takes us "where the action is!"

Towards a Basic Set of Generic Processes

Given this relatively recent concern with generic processes, it should not be surprising to find that considerable ambiguity exists with regards to (a) the individual processes worthy of attention and (b) the levels of abstraction each of these processes represents. What follows is one attempt to come to terms with these problems and to suggest some lines for future research and conceptual development.

The material following very much represents an overview of mainstream interactionist/interpretative sociology. However, these notions have been cast more explicitly in process terms (the "doing of group life"). This listing toes not begin to deal with processes in the sort of detail we require for an adequate understanding of the concepts referenced within, but may have some value as an orientational statement.

The four processes following not only signify key elements of people's involvements in situations, but also define the essence of group life. These processes are interdependent and need to be viewed holistically if we are to develop a fuller appreciation of each. Nevertheless, each process encompasses several (sub)processes within, and on these levels each is amenable to empirical inquiry. Unfortunately, space precludes even cursory illustrations of the applicability of these concepts to the marketplace.

1. Acquiring Perspectives. Representing interpretative frameworks or viewpoints for making sense of the world, perspectives provide the substantive content for association. Definitions of "fads" and "fashions" are encompassed by the concept of perspective as are traditions, notions of rationality, and political and religious beliefs, as well as language and other symbols. Although the impact of any perspective (or elements thereof) is ultimately moderated by the actors involved (via acknowledgement, interpretation, formation of action), we can ask how consumers and others contend with the cultural content they encounter:

Receiving Definitions of Objects from Other People

Developing Images of objects (including images of other people and of oneself)

Learning (cultural) Patterns of Objects (e.g. fashion)

Encountering Inconsistencies Within and Across Perspectives

Applying Perspectives to the "cases at hand"

Resolving Dilemmas (sorting out paradigms)

Improvising on Existing Perspectives

Promoting (and defending) Perspectives to Others

2. Achieving Identity. "Identity work" is contingent on people's capacity for "self reflectivity;" it requires that one be an object unto oneself. Reflecting the perspectives one has on the world, identities are not only situated within those realities, but also are influenced by the ongoing shifts in perspectives that people normally undergo over time and across situations. However, in contrast to the more generalized quality of perspectives, identities have a more immediate and personalized ("you and I") focus. Additionally, to the extent people associate identities with the treatment they receive, they tend to be concerned about maintaining acceptable images (especially avoiding disrespectability).

As products of interaction, people's identities are also fundamentally linked to the identities of their associates. Consequently, identity work reflects ongoing assessments and negotiations as the parties involved jointly endeavor to work out self and other definitions. Like people in other settings, consumers (and vendors) tend to be concerned about the identities they acquire. The processes entailed here include:

Encountering Definitions of Self from Others

Attributing Qualities to Self (self definitions)

Comparing Incoming and Self-Assigned Definitions of Self

Resisting Unwanted Identity Imputations

Selectively Conveying Information About Self to Others

Gleaning Information About Others

Assigning Identities to Others

Promoting Specific Definitions of Others

Encountering Resistance from Others

Reassessing Identities Imputed to Others

3. Doing Activity. Although people's activities have important implications for their subsequent viewpoints and identities, activities acquire their meaning or purposiveness relative to both the perspectives from which they are envisioned and the identities of the people involved. Since the preceding discussions of perspectives and identities have already been cast in action ("doing") terms, our attention turns to four other realms of activity. These include (A) getting involved in activities, (B) performing activities, (C) pursuing cooperation from others, and (D) making commitments.

(A) "Getting Involved" refers to the sequencing of people's participation in settings. Emphasizing the "how" (vs. why) of involvements, consideration is given to the histories or ("careers") of people's participation in particular situations (see Prus, 1983b for more detail). Four processes are prominent here:

Getting Started (initial involvements)

Sustaining and Intensifying Involvements

Becoming Disinvolved

Becoming Reinvolved in Situations

(B) The "performance of activity" assumes the processes outlined in "getting involved," but highlights the "problematics of accomplishment." The processes of relevance to performance (e.g. "shopping as performance") include:

Making (preliminary) Plans

Setting Prepared

Managing Stage Fright (reservations, if any)

Developing Competence (knowledge, tactics, applications)

Dealing with Obstacles, Resistances, Distractions

Conveying Images of Competence (ability, composure)

Encountering Competition

Making Ongoing Assessments and Adjustments

(C) While the "pursuit of cooperation" may be subsumed by the concept of performance, it emphasizes "persuasion processes." Persuasion reflects attempts on the part of people to "gain the cooperation of others" in respect to both "one to one" and "group" situations. When dealing with groups of people, matters of complexity and ambiguity typically become more noteworthy, as do the greater likelihood of distractions, challenges, and lowered levels of personal accountability. This may involve some additional frustration and result in the creation of some unique group-directed tactics, but otherwise the same basic processes appear to hold for these instances as well. Regardless of whether we focus on buyers or vendors, we may consider how people go about:

Formulating (preliminary) Plans

Role-Taking (inferring/uncovering the perspectives of the other)

Promoting Interest in One's Objectives

Generating Trust

Proposing Specific Lines of Action

Encountering Resistance

Neutralizing Obstacles

Seeking and Making Concessions

Confirming Agreements

Assessing "Failures" and Recasting Plans

(D) "Commitments" assume a variety of forms and may include physical investments as well as claims made to oneself or others. Some commitments are clearly desired by the parties making them, but others may be exceedingly tentative or reflect earlier resistance. The processes of "putting your money down" or "buying into" particular situations have particular consequence for subsequent behavior. To the extent people acknowledge earlier made commitments, these can significantly effect their choices (i.e. closure). Subprocesses of relevance to consumers (and others) include:

Assessing Options

Dealing with (any) Earlier Commitments

Avoiding Commitments ("elusive targets")

Minimizing or Diversifying Investments ("hedging bets")

Organizing Routines around Particular Activities

Neglecting Other Options ("closure by default")

4. Experiencing Relationships. Like the elements preceding, relationships may be largely subsumed by the "doing of activities." However, the selectivity and continuity of association entailed by "bonding" signifies a vital element in social life. Relationships imply perspectives, identities, and commitments, and they can be powerful elements shaping the choices that consumers and others make. Like other activities, relationships reflect process (initial involvements, continuities, disinvolvements, reinvolvements), but matters of "intimacy and distancing" become especially prominent here as people try to achieve levels of selectivity and continuity with which they feel comfortable:

Getting Prepared for Generalized Encounters

Defining Self as Available for Association

Defining (specific) Others as Acceptable/Desirable Associates

Making Approaches/Receiving Openings from Others

Encountering (and indicating) Rejection/Acceptance

Assessing Self and Other for "goodness of fit"

Developing Interactional Styles (in each relationship)

Managing Openness and Secrecy

Developing Understandings, Preferences, Loyalty

Managing Distractions (and outside commitments)

Juggling (multiple) Relationships

Severing Relationships (disentanglement)

Renewing Relationships


While the theory of action proposed here has its roots m a variety of settings outside the marketplace, there seems little question of the applicability of generic processes to the study of consumer and vendor behavior. Representing a setting in which people are invoking perspectives, engaging in (buying and selling) activity, developing identities, making commitments, and experiencing relationships, the marketplace denotes a most viable setting in which to explore, assess and refine these very notions. Additionally, this paradigm offers the advantages of explicitly acknowledging long-term as well as short-run inter-linkages of buyer and seller roles. To date, however, we have seen few forays of an ethnographic nature into the marketplace. Despite its centrality for urban sociology, social scientists have largely ignored the marketplace. And, those in marketing have generally neglected the P's of "people and process" (Prus and Frisby, 1986).

Instances of ethnographic research which directly focus on consumer behavior are exceedingly limited. Hence, while Sanders (1985) specifically focuses on the purchasing of tattoos, the other materials closest to consumer involvements attend to people engaged in marijuana use (Becker, 1963) and drinking activity (Prus, 1983a). A general model for the study of people's involvement in the marketplace was also introduced to the literature by Prus (1983b). This model outlines the contingencies affecting people's (a) initial involvements, (b) continuities, (c) disinvolvements and (d) reinvolvements with regards to particular brands, products, and suppliers. It is apparent that we have much to learn about consumer involvements in the marketplace. For instance, we know very little about: how prospective buyers assess shopping advice from friends; how they approach or distance themselves from vendors; how they define price, quality and service; when they are more likely to trust vendors; or when they are more apt to become repeat customers. The emphasis should be on "shopping as activity." Attending to process, we need -to be mindful of the perspectives with which shoppers approach purchasing contexts, their definitions and assessments of shopping contexts, the negotiation practices in which they engage, and the sorts of bonds they develop with the salespeople they encounter. Since consumer involvements are more adequately understood with respect to the inputs of those with whom they do business, it is also important for those interested in consumer behavior to attend to vendor roles. While also much neglected, somewhat more ethnographic work has been done in this direction. Noteworthy in this regard is work on automobile sales (Miller, 1964; Brown, 1973); the entertainment industry (Cressey, 1932; Prus and Irini, 1980); party plans (Peven, 1968; Prus and Frisby, 1984); and vendor activities (Bigus, 1972; Wallendorf, 1978; Prus, 1984, 1985b, 1986, tba; Pinch and Clark, 1986).


The earlier list of generic processes can be of considerable value in alerting researchers to many of the activities operative with respect to both buyer and seller roles. However, this represents only a rudimentary starting point. It is not a simple matter of "filling in the blanks" with marketplace referents. In addition to a careful, thorough scrutinization of people's experiences with regards to each process, it is recommended that researchers be prepared to scan the literature in pursuit of materials (regardless of context) which address processes parallel to those being investigated. Not only will this provide much conceptual stimulation for research, but it will also establish an invaluable base for cross-context comparisons (ant the cumulative sharpening of a theory of action.

Although the issue of methodological technique is worthy of much attention in its own, those embarking on interactionist research should be prepared to encounter much variety, complexity, and ambiguity as they allow those they study to explain their experiences in detail. Rather than generating highly distillable findings, ethnographic research has an expansive quality and an openness that those attempting to reduce human behavior to "nice, neat little boxes" are apt to find disconcerting.

Some readers will be disappointed in that no "quick-fix" solutions are offered to the study of consumer behavior. The implications are quite the opposite. While researchers in any realm may gain greatly by tapping into generic social processes (ant the literature around which these processes have been developed), it is apparent that much work remains both within the field of marketplace behavior and with regards to the development and refinement of the theory of action introduced herein.


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Robert Prus, University of Waterloo


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14 | 1987

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