Historicism: What It Is, and What It Means For Consumer Research

ABSTRACT - Historicism is a major German philosophy of social science. Based upon an intense and all-pervading awareness of change over time, it challenges the logical positivist underpinnings of most current work in consumer behavior. It encourages an expanded research agenda which can confront the complex flux of consumption behavior.


Ronald A. Fullerton (1987) ,"Historicism: What It Is, and What It Means For Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 431-434.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 431-434


Ronald A. Fullerton, Southeastern Massachusetts University


Historicism is a major German philosophy of social science. Based upon an intense and all-pervading awareness of change over time, it challenges the logical positivist underpinnings of most current work in consumer behavior. It encourages an expanded research agenda which can confront the complex flux of consumption behavior.


"Historicism is an intellectual force with which one must come to termsCwhether one wants to or not" (Mannheim 1924, p. 1).

Historicism is a major philosophy of social science developed by a long line of German thinkers. Classically defined as a mode of analysis in which "all of our thought about man, his culture, and his values is fundamentally historically-oriented" (Troeltsch 1922, p. 102), it is characterized by an intense and all-pervading awareness of change over time. Though discussed at length in several social science and humanities literatures, it has been neglected in the marketing and consumer behavior literatures.

It is time to remedy this neglect. Historicism challenges several of the most fundamental environmental and epistemological assumptions of Logical Positivist/EmpiricismC assumptions which underlie most of the work being done in our field. Such a challenge will stimulate re-evaluation of these assumptions and lead ultimately to stronger bases for investigation. Moreover, Historicism encourages as well as provides a strong theoretical rationale for, alternative forms of analysis. Some of these forms are already emerging, others have not been employed in consumer research. In particular, Historicism provides a sophisticated rationale for various forms of historical analysis. This paper will explicate this rationale by elucidating the core ideas of Historicism, contrasting and comparing them to the core ideas of Logical Positivism/Empiricism, and discussing their implications for consumer behavior research.


The ideas discussed here represent the summing up of over a century of German Historicism in the work of the sociologist Mannheim (1924, 1960 [1936]), the historian Meinecke (1972 [1936]), and the philosopher/theologian Troeltsch (1922, 1923). Iggers (1973) provides a lucid English-language introduction to these ideas. Historicism shares four basic characteristics with other German thought; these distinguish German from Anglo-American social science. First, it has a strong historical-dynamic orientationC Marx' "dialectical materialism" and Schumpeter's "creative destruction" are well-known examples of such an orientation. Second, it is strongly skeptical that empirical analysis can be the ultimate test of truth. Third, it emphasizes the innate structure of the mind, which structures empirical data according to its own dynamic, and which is thus far more important than the data in and of themselves. Fourth, it explicitly and emphatically rejects the belief that social science should emulate the methods and assumptions of the natural sciences.

The essential ideas of Historicism may be grouped in two sets, the first expressing the philosophy's basic assumptions and beliefs about the social environment (which includes culture, politics, and economic life), the second expressing the goals of Historicist social analysis. The two sets hang together closely.

Assumptions and Beliefs About the Social Environment

1.Change--complex flux--is the fundamental and all-pervading reality of social life. It suffuses thought as well as institutions and behavior. Social phenomena are viewed as being "always in flux, as phenomena (Potenzen) which are coming from somewhere in time and pressing on towards somewhere in time" (Mannheim 1924, p 2) Change is the dominant reality Social analysis must confront it. It cannot be ignored, or over-simplified, or assumed away as is typically done in Anglo-American social science (Fullerton forthcoming) The emphasis upon change is based upon considerable reflection about the undeniable changes which characterize social phenomena over historical time Since flux is the normal state of affairs, the analytical construct of "equilibrium" is rejected as bizarre and erroneous nonsense

2.While some social change is superficial and repetitive, a great deal of it is complex, unpredictable on the basis of past events, and fundamental As Troeltsch expressed it (1923 on 13-14, underlines supplied)

History is an immeasurable, incomparable profusion of always-new, unique, and hence individual tendencies, welling up from undiscovered depths, and coming to light in each case in unsuspected places and under different circumstances Thus the universal law of history consists precisely in this, that the Divine Reason, or the Divine Life, within history, constantly manifests itself in always-new and always-peculiar individualisations -and hence its tendency is not towards unity or universality at all

According to Historicism, therefore, even basic and longstanding behavior traits and institutions may change radically with time The process is neither simple nor predictable assumptions that change follows known and regular patterns are in error Since behavior, motives, and institutions are neither constant nor universal, the laws and generalities which elucidate them cannot pretend to either constancy or universality

3.Social phenomena should be seen as belonging to complex and time-bound systems to whose identities they simultaneously contribute and share The unifying element of such a system is "a single central value, which unites with itself in a more or less clear and energetic manner all the other values" (Troeltsch 1923, p 94) For example, the central value of the consumption system in advanced Western economies might be said to be "aggressive consumption" (McKendrick, Brewer, Plumb 1982, p 316)

4.Social systems are "Historical individuals" (historische Individuen See Troeltsch 1922, pp 119-120) The phrase "historical individual" means, first, that each system has its own unique identity - its individuality Second, it means that this identity is a dynamic, ever-evolving, one; it is "historical", in other words As a social system evolves through time it picks up and is somewhat changed by some of the specific values, attitudes, and conditions which characterize the time periods through which it passes The religious system of Christianity, for example, "presents no historical uniformity but displays a different character in each age" (Troeltsch 1923, p 13) Its sole constant has been the abstract idea of "Christianity"; the specific values, beliefs, and institutions which flesh out the abstraction have and continue to change over time and across place Economic systems--including consumption behavior -also reflect their times and change over time (Buecher 1967 [1901], p 83)

The uniqueness, the individuality, of a system is both temporal and spatial according to Historicist philosophy Consumption behavior in one nation at one time, for example, will very likely be different from that in another nation at the same time -or the same nation at an earlier or later time It is becoming very evident that, according to Historicism,

4.Social science must reject the search for timeless universals--in the subject matter which it treats no such things exist. "The essence of Historicist analysis," according to Meinecke (1972, p. 1v), "is the substitution of a process of individualizing observation for a generalizing view of human forces." Meinecke believes that Historicism has liberated Western social analysis from the simplistic--and chimericalCsearch for "natural (i.e, universal) laws" applicable to all times and places. Thus liberated, social analysis can concentrate on probing individual systems and times in all their richness and complexity.

5.Bounded relativism must characterize social analysis. If there are no universals about social processes, then any generalizations must perforce be relative. But the major Historicist thinkers explicitly reject a total, unbounded relativism, whose corrosive and nihilistic nature they recognize (Mannheim 1924; Troeltsch 1922, pp. 68, 108). They see very clearly that Historicism taken to extremes would deny the possibility of any theory or generalization: every phenomenon would be seen as unique at every moment. This extreme, however, is considered as bad as the belief in "natural laws".

Historicism's major advocates posit a bounded relativism. The most eloquent argument is Mannheim's (1924). He argues that absolutes do exist in social phenomenaCbut that they are absolute only for a finite time or a specific place. "The Absolute is itself in a process of becoming; it is itself spatially bound. . .There are no formulations (Forderungen) which are valid for all times, but rather the Absolute reconstitutes itself in a new, concrete, form in every age" (Mannheim 1924, pp. 56, 58). Thus the "individualizing observation" which is to be the goal of Historicist analysis does not preclude generalizations, even lawlike generalizations; it merely means that these are transient.

6.Social knowledge is ultimately non-cumulative. Obvious though unstated in the classical works of Historicism, this point has recently been made forcefully by the historical sociologist Bendix (1984, p. 9). Within an historical era and/or specific culture, research findings may very well cumulate. The inevitability of fundamental change, however, means that after some time -or contemporaneously in another culture--they will no longer apply. Hence they are ultimately non-cumulative. Research findings in the natural sciences, on the other hand. can be cumulative.

Goals of Historicist Analysis

The goals of Historicist analysis flow logically from the philosophy's assumptions and beliefs about the social environment. There are three major goals:

1.Social science should focus its attention upon concrete social phenomena rather than upon the search for universals. By concrete social phenomena is meant phenomena which are temporally and spatially specific. 19th-Century Historicism usually treated the nation as the basic spatial unit. But there is no reason why other spatial demarcations such as regions or cities could not be employed. The basic temporal unit could be any time period.

2.Social science should strive to elucidate the ethos of social systems their distinctive guiding principles and characteristics. In attempting such elucidation, the researcher has to keep in mind that systems are ever-evolving and that they are more than the sum of their component units. The whole and the parts of social systems exist in a dynamic relationship with one another; the distinctive overall ethos of each system is immanent in each of its components as well as the whole (Troeltsch 1922, pp. 6973).

If analysis is successful, it will penetrate to and succeed in explaining "the innermost structure of this perpetual flux" which characterizes every social system (Mannheim 1924, p. 4). Often the "innermost structure" of a system will consist of a major cultural or other motif--"aggressive consumption" for exampleCwhose process of development can be traced and under whose influence other components of the system can be shown to have developed. The process of discovering a system's inner structure encourages a creative yet disciplined and critical approach. Such European-originated analytical tools as hermeneutics and semiotics are ideally suited to the task because they permit one to infer a great deal of meaning from discrete phenomena. Our now-conventional approaches, on the other hand, favor extreme restraint in interpretation (See Troeltsch 1922, p. 84). They would have difficulty in detecting the uniqueness which Historicist philosophy believes to mark the inner structure of each social system. Similarly, Historicism prefers verbal to mathematical representations, since the latter tend to blur unique characteristics and to imply greater similarity among phenomena than actually exist. One regression equation looks too much like every other.

3.Social science should strive to explain the process(es) of development and change in social systems. Since change is the core reality of all social phenomena, they cannot be understood in any meaningful way until the process by which they have developedCchangedCover time is made clear. Analysis of a system at a single moment in time is by itself of slight value; analysis which ignores the development process is of even less value.

Much Historicist work envisions the development process as following one of three general models--the dialectical model, the organic model, or the teleological model. In the dialectical model a system is believed to evolve as opposed tendencies which emerge from an earlier system clash then form a near synthesis, which is the system. In time, however, the new synthesis will itself shatter into opposed tendencies. In the organic model, which was more popular in the 19th-Century than later, systems are envisioned as growing and eventually dying analogously to plants. In the teleological model change is seen as progress towards some fine and predestined end. Of these models the dialectical is by far the most powerful and useful. It has been and continues to be employed to good effect by European social scientists.


Both the philosophical underpinnings and the research goals of Historicism are radically different from those of Logical Positivism/Empiricism. Historicism challenges such core tenets of Logical Positivism/Empiricism as: the possibility of universal laws and law-like generalizations, cumulative social knowledge, intersubjective certifiability and researcher objectivity, and empirical testing as decisive. The major differences between Historicism and Logical Positivism/Empiricism are explained in Table 1.



For those trained in Positivistically-oriented disciplines Historicism can be extremely disturbing if its full implications are considered seriously. Actually, they are disturbing even to scholars grounded in non-Positivist fields. "No intellect, however hard working, however profound, can take it in an ultimate and definite form," writes one of Historicism's most able interpreters (Croce 1941, p. 78). Even some of those who developed the philosophy took refuge in an occasional universal (Croce 1941, pp. 78-79). But even if we cannot or will not accept Historicism's full implications, we should recognize that its emphasis upon confronting complex social change offers a valuable counterpoint to the inadequate job which our Positivist social sciences do with social change (See Fullerton forthcoming). Historicism shares some of the ideas of the contemporary philosophy of Relativism/Constructionism (Peter and Olson 1983), but offers both a stronger rationale for these ideas and richer analytical possibilities.


Historicism has significant implications for consumer research, both in its philosophical assumptions and its research agenda. Historicism provides a profound philosophical challenge to the received views of most present-day consumer researchers. It is beyond the scope of this paper to determine the ultimate correctness of each of Historicism's differences with Logical Positivism/Empiricism. Certainly the Historicist thrust is buttressed by a growing body of work in the history of consumption (e.g., Elias 1978; Fullerton 1979; McKendrick, Brewer, Plumb 1982). But our intent here is not to review this work; it is to stimulate serious reflection about Positivist assumptions--and the kinds of scholarship which they engender. Are consumer research results really cumulative, for example? Are they generalizable across time and cultures? Historicism encourages the questioning of prior work--both conceptual and empirical--before it is accepted as currently applicable. By "prior" is meant any earlier results, even those from a year or two previously.

Similarly, Historicism suggests that results from one culture have to be critically scrutinized before they are applied to other cultures. Historicism stresses the uniqueness of consumer behavior in each culture, even at the same point in time. It implies that many of the North American findings may only apply to consumers socialized in the advanced capitalist economies with their deeply-rooted but ultimately transient obsession with "aggressive consumption".

Historicism suggests a whole new vision of consumption. In this vision consumer behavior is clearly:

- a complex historical phenomenon, subject to intricate and often fundamental changes over time and across spatial and/or cultural units;

- a phenomenon best conceived of as consisting of diverse consumption systems, each held together by its own core values, and each with its own historical individuality;

- a phenomenon for the understanding of which many of the approaches developed by the natural sciences are irrelevant.

To probe this vision of consumer behavior we can utilize but also go beyond the now-conventional focus upon information processing and attitude formation. Techniques for studying attitude formation, for example, can be applied to the examination of how core values develop and change over time. Historicism calls for a research agenda which will eschew the search for timeless universals of consumption behavior and concentrate instead upon individual consumption systems. The Historicist agenda calls for research into the ethos of consumption systems. Such work could employ among other methods the advanced techniques of qualitative analysis which are now available and which are being used by some consumer researchers. Historicism calls for research which will probe deeply into the processes by which consumption systems evolve over time To realize the considerable potential of the Historicist vision consumer researchers should work towards substituting a keen and sophisticated awareness of time and change for the indifference towards and avoidance of these demonstrably crucial elements of social life which characterizes current scholarship

Historicism is a different way of thinking It can be disturbing On the other hand, it represents the highly developed intellectual tradition of classic German social thought Seriously neglected by Anglo-American social science for the past half century, this tradition has the potential to enrich our understanding of consumer behavior in our own time Thus whether we want to or not, we should come to terms with Historicism


Bendix, Reinhard (1984), Force, Fate, and Freedom, Berkeley University of California Press.

Buecher, Carl (1968-[1901]), Industrial Evolution, translated by S M Wickett, New York Augustus M Kelley.

Croce, Benedetto (1941), History as the StorY of Liberty, translated by S Sprigge, New York W W Norton.

Elias, Norbert (1978 |19391), The Civilizing Process, translated by E Jephcott, New York Urizen.

Fullerton, Ronald A (forthcoming), "The Poverty of Ahistorical Analysis Present Weakness and Future Cure in U S Marketing Thought," in R P Bagozzi, N Dholakia, and A F Firat, eds , Philosophical and Radical Thought in Marketing, Lexington: Lexington Books.

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Peter, J P , and J C Olson (1983), "Is Science Marketing?," Journal of Marketing, 47 (Fall), 111-125

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Ronald A. Fullerton, Southeastern Massachusetts University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14 | 1987

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