A Positivist's Reactions to a Naturalistic Inquiry Experience

ABSTRACT - Positivists often express concern about naturalistic inquiry. These concerns include questions about the rigor of the methodology, accuracy of the information generated, and use of naturalistic inquiry to provide support for theory. This paper is a positivist's reactions to these questions based on limited exposure to the naturalistic method as conducted during the Consumer Behavior Odyssey.


Joseph A. Cote and Ellen R. Foxman (1987) ,"A Positivist's Reactions to a Naturalistic Inquiry Experience", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 362-364.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 362-364


Joseph A. Cote, Washington State University

Ellen R. Foxman, Washington State University

[This discussion is based on the personal experience of the first author.]


Positivists often express concern about naturalistic inquiry. These concerns include questions about the rigor of the methodology, accuracy of the information generated, and use of naturalistic inquiry to provide support for theory. This paper is a positivist's reactions to these questions based on limited exposure to the naturalistic method as conducted during the Consumer Behavior Odyssey.


Naturalistic Inquiry has been proposed as an alternative ideological and methodological approach to research for the social sciences (Hirschman 1986, Lincoln and Guba 1985). The purpose of this paper is not to argue if positivistic or naturalistic research is more appropriate for the study of consumer behavior. Rather, it is a discussion of the methods used in naturalistic inquiry as viewed by a Positivist. Given this orientation, the terminology used in the manuscript will be that of a positivist. This may not accurately reflect the naturalist's perspective on research, but will accurately describe a positivist's perspective of naturalistic inquiry. It should also be noted that this is my reaction to naturalistic inquiry as practiced by the Consumer Behavior Odyssey.


As a positivist, I had three major concerns about naturalistic inquiry: naturalistic inquiry is not rigorous, naturalistic inquiry is biased (data do not support conclusions), and that naturalistic inquiry can be used to generate ideas, but is inadequate for theory-testing. As my exposure to naturalistic inquiry increased, I realized these three related concerns were a function of a misunderstanding of the naturalistic position rather than true flaws or problems. Each of the concerns will be addressed below.

When I told peers about my summer activities, the common reaction was, "How did you get the dean to fund your vacation?" Somehow, conducting a naturalistic study was not viewed as rigorous. The lack of rigor seems to be a concern about the way information is collected. In positivistic research there are clear systematic guidelines to collecting data. Constructs and the relationship among the constructs are hypothesized. Measures of the constructs are developed and tested. The measures are administered to an appropriate sample of subjects in a way that reduces potential bias. Finally, well defined methods of analysis are applied to determined if the hypotheses are supported. Although naturalistic inquiry does not fit into this system of research, it does not mean it isn't rigorous or systematic; it's just different. Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Hirschman (1986) present the systematic approach used by naturalistic inquiry so it will not be repeated here. However, a careful examination of the naturalistic approach will show that there are systematic rules for the conduct of research.

The rigor of naturalistic inquiry was made salient to me after trying to document interviews I had conducted. It should first be recognized that interviews often ran one to two hours. Recording all the information is almost an impossible task. My reaction to the information overload was to simply record the "relevant" information. But this is not systematic documentation of the data. The determination of "relevance" is inappropriate at the time data is collected. Instead, relevance is determined in the analysis stage. Therefore, when documenting an interview, the researcher must record the conversation as close to verbatim as possible (It's surprising how much could be remembered once the researcher attempts verbatim recall). The rigor in the data collection is in the verbatim recording of an interview rather than the careful administration and coding of a questionnaire. It's not that naturalistic inquiry is not systematic, its just that the systematic nature of the research is different.

Related to the issue of rigor is the concern about bias. I felt that naturalistic research would be inherently more biased than positivistic research. Positivist attempt to control bias by carefully wording questions, using double blind research techniques, and using quantitative techniques to summarize the information contained in the data. Naturalists make the accurate observation that bias in research can not be completely controlled and surfaces in many ways in positivistic research. Their reaction is to claim that bias can never be controlled and therefore doesn't need to be addressed. However, I found this does not mean that naturalistic research is not concerned about the data accurately describing the research experience.

Naturalist use numerous techniques used to control the accuracy of the data. First, all descriptions are put in "objective" or verifiable terms. Vague or ambiguous terms are avoided. For example, I once wrote that one respondent's house "contained a lot of antique furniture." This is a good example of "biased" or "inaccurate" data. "A lot" has numerous interpretations. It would have been better form to say, "all (or half, etc.) of the furniture was antique", or "I didn't see any furniture that wasn't an antique". A second approach was to separate opinion and "fact". As noted above, when recording data, the researcher attempts to record things as they are. There is an attempt to interpret observations as little as possible. Any interpretation that does take place is recorded in a separate location so the reader (auditor) doesn't confuse opinion with "fact".

There are several techniques used to verify "facts" after they have been recorded. These would include triangulation of various sources of data (others field notes, video or audio tapes, artifacts, etc.) as well as verification by the informants. A good example of this occurred after we had interviewed a man concerning antiques. He expressed a rather unique perspective. To him, the value of antiques lie in the fact that they were hand made. A question arose about the value of the age of the antique. Two researchers had come to different interpretations about the man's view of the importance of age. Reinspection of the field notes indicated that the man had made the statement that, "new pieces of furniture that are comPletely hand made should have the same value as antique furniture." By examining other "facts", a more accurate interpretation of the data was made.

I began the Odyssey comfortable with the use of naturalistic inquiry to generate ideas, but I was less certain it could be used to support (validate) theory. In retrospect, I guess I defined "support" of theory too narrowly. The real concern when discussing support for a theory is whether the data are consistent with the theory. Support for theory has generally meant statistical support. For example, in causal modelling, the chi square statistic indicates the data fits a proposed theory (which it rarely does so we simply adapt our theory; Darden 1979). But theoretical support can also be non-statistical. Naturalist's support their position by showing a concept applies across a wide variety of settings, and that seemingly unrelated behavior reflect components of the concept. In other words, the concept surfaces repeatedly, or that a theory can explain behavior in all known expressions of that behavior. As with the positivist, a naturalist wants to make sure the data are consistent with the theory. This consistency is evaluated using auditor checks rather than statistical techniques. Therefore, naturalistic techniques can be used to support a theory by showing the data are consistent with the theory.


While it can be argued that naturalistic inquiry is an acceptable style of research, this does not mean it isn't without potential problem areas. Both positivistic and naturalistic research have minor methodological problems that researchers constantly attempt to correct or control. While I have been convinced that naturalistic inquiry has validity, there are four unanswered questions that still plague me, the concept of transference or how to make research useful (generalizability), how past knowledge is used, ethical questions, and the political problems of implementing naturalistic research.

The goal of scientific study is to produce a useable body of knowledge. In other words, a study must be relevant. To positivists this means a study should be generalizable. However, naturalists claim that generalizability is unattainable since there are no universal laws. They prefer to talk about transferability. This is fine, since it is an alternative way of saying useability or relevance. However, naturalist seem to argue that the demonstration of transference is not the task of the researcher.

Hence, the only way the transferability of a particular interpretation can be assessed is by comparing it with interpretations constructed in other context. The transferability of an interpretation to a second setting is thus knowable only on a post hoc basis; it can not be assessed prior to the construction of the comparative interpretation (Hirschman 1986, D. 245).

Certainly naturalists wouldn't claim that the results of their studies only apply to the isolated incident they examined. However, they need to provide a clear statement about the known or perceived boundaries of transferability as determined by the researcher. Transference shouldn't be left strictly up to the reader of the research. If the reader can not determine if previous research would be useful in a different setting, then the value of that research is greatly reduced since the user must reconduct the study before applying the theory. In addition, the researcher is in the best position to identify the characteristics that must exist (or many need to exist) for the study to be transferable. It should be remembered that an important criteria for good research is relevance. It may be that transferability can only be determined on a post hoc basis, but there should be some expected transferability before research can be deemed potentially useful (worth publishing).

A second problem faced by naturalistic inquiry is the use of past knowledge. Positivists rely on previous work to form hypotheses and identify important issues. There is an attempt to build upon knowledge, but naturalists approach research without preconceptions of any kind. Given the inability to identify transferability a priori, there is the constant possibility of reinventing the wheel. It is not clear that a coherent body of knowledge is generated or how a body of "idiographic knowledge" is used for develoPing future research.

Hirschman (1986) notes some of the difficult ethical questions that naturalistic inquiry raises. These questions are more important than may first be imagined. Two examples may highlight the problem.

One of the goals of naturalistic inquiry is documentation of conversations. The Consumer Behavior Odyssey determined that tape recording conversations without prior knowledge would be unethical. Instead, just after an interview we attempted to produce a verbatim transcript of the conversation. But does it really matter if the recording mechanism is human or machine. Would a person with a photographic memory who could record a conversation from recall, without error, be more ethical than a tape recording of a conversation. The ethical question is not how conversations are documented, but whether they should be documented at all without permission.

A second concern is when an interview causes discomfort to the interviewer. If certain sensitive topics (recent loss of possessions or loved ones) could cause discomfort to the informant, then should they be discussed. A researcher can rationalize that such discussions can be cathartic, but it isn't clear the discomfort is cathartic.

No easy answer to these questions exists. Anthropology and other disciplines that use naturalistic inquiry may provide some answers. But it is my guess that research will continue until a major problem becomes apparent much like Milgram's electric shock studies raised the ethical questions in experimental research.

Ideologically, the humanistic method may have great value, but discussions of the methodology often ignore political realities. Politics presents an especially thorny problem when establishing the auditor role and evaluations for tenure and promotion. While most people do research because they enjoy it, there is still the need to have research efforts recognized and rewarded. Naturalistic inquiry raises two concerns about the reward of research. First is the role of the auditor. The auditor plays an important role in the evaluation of naturalistic research. The time and effort required to do the task well is monumental. Therefore, an auditor should be well rewarded. However, this gives the auditor a vested interest in getting the research published. Therefore, if auditors are rewarded for their contribution, there would be a conflict of interest. It may be suggested that "blind" auditors could be used much like current reviewers. However, the amount of time required to conduct an audit makes this difficult to implement and it is contrary to the auditing process as specified by naturalists.

A second problem is the type and amount of research generated by naturalistic inquiry. It seems reasonable to say that naturalistic research would be better conveyed through the publication of books rather than journal articles. In addition, it takes more time to conduct naturalistic inquiry. Therefore, the volume and type of research generated will be different than that generated by positivists. The difficulty will be to have peers, deans, and others be willing to evaluate naturalistic researchers differently than positivists.


The key question in evaluating the positivistic and naturalistic approaches to science is whether either approach can provide insights about truth. The answer is they both can. Therefore, the selection of the appropriate style of scientific research should be left to the researcher. In a footnote, Hirschman (1986) argues that, researchers will always doubt the truths found by studies using alternative methodologies.

"It is unlikely that a humanistic scientist could or would place faith in the results he or she obtained from a classic double-blind experiment. Similarly, it is difficult to envision a positivistic scientist believing that the knowledge gained from a direct, personal conversation with a consumer could reveal general truths about the nature of reality. Each scientist has placed his or her faith in a given way of knowing and, though one might practice (or feign to practice) an alternative way of knowing, it is doubtful that he or she would really believe, in the answers it provides (Hirschman 1986, p. 239).

I would urge the positivistic researchers not to be so narrow minded. Consumer researchers seem willing to accept naturalistic inquiry when applied in disciplines like anthropology. Why then does the methodology suddenly become unacceptable when applied to consumer research? Properly conducted naturalistic inquiry can provide very useful information about consumer behavior and can provide test of and support for theories. While positivists may want to provide an alternative positivist test of a theory, naturalistic results should be equally valued.

As noted by Hirschman (1986) they provide a "parallel path" to knowledge.

If positivists are truly going to accept naturalistic inquiry, they should not attempt to force naturalists into positivists' ways of thinking by evaluating naturalistic inquiry using positivist criteria. If naturalists find that using "personally familiar" reviewers (as opposed to blind "objective" reviewers) does not affect the conclusions reached by a study, then positivist shouldn't demand "objective" reviews. Positivists can't take a mightier than thou attitude and assume they have the only path to truth, or the only criteria for evaluating truthfulness. Both groups are interested in the discovery of truth and will adapt their methodologies with this in mind. Positivists certainly shouldn't simply accept every humanistic study without question. Rather, humanistic methodology and the quality of a specific study should be evaluated with a humanistic perspective.

Not only should positivists accept naturalistic inquiry, they may find it is a more appropriate style of research in some settings. International consumer research provides a good example. The use of survey or experimental research are extremely difficult to implement in international settings. Often the researcher's perspective is so different from that of the respondents, that prespecified hypotheses are impossible to formulate. As a result, much of international consumer behavior has been descriptive. The humanistic orientation may help overcome the "descriptive" stigma that has characterized international research.

Finally, if positivists are going to accept naturalistic inquiry, there must be some way to combine the output of the two styles of research. To do this, the exact output of each style of research must be determined. It appears that both styles of research are interested in developing and testing theory. Positivists can use naturalistic research in basically the same way their own research is used. If a theory is proposed based on some study, the researcher would evaluate the usefulness of that theory and possibly conduct replications to provide added support for the theory (or further define the conditions under which the theory is useful (transferable). More importantly, a researcher could identify how theory should be adapted based on the results of a naturalistic study. In other words, naturalistic theory and support for theory can be used much like we currently use positivist theory and support for theory.


Darden, William R., S. M. Carlson, and R. D. Hampton (1984), "Issues in Fitting Theoretical and Measurement Models in Marketing," Journal of Business Research, 12, 273-243.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1986), "Humanistic Inquiry in Marketing Research: Philosophy, Method, and Criteria," Journal of Marketing Research, XXIII (August), 237-249.

Lincoln, Yvonna S. and Edward G. Guba (1985), Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.



Joseph A. Cote, Washington State University
Ellen R. Foxman, Washington State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14 | 1987

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