Comparative History As a Research Tool in Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - People have been consuming, and thus manifesting various forms of consumer behavior, for a long time. Recently, consumer behavior researchers have urged an increase in the variety of research tools regularly deployed in their discipline. This paper highlights data sources and a technique of historical comparisons which could potentially enrich consumer behavior theories and concepts.


Kathleen H. Rassuli and Stanley C. Hollander (1987) ,"Comparative History As a Research Tool in Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 442-446.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 442-446


Kathleen H. Rassuli, Indiana-Purdue University at Fort Wayne

Stanley C. Hollander, Michigan State University


People have been consuming, and thus manifesting various forms of consumer behavior, for a long time. Recently, consumer behavior researchers have urged an increase in the variety of research tools regularly deployed in their discipline. This paper highlights data sources and a technique of historical comparisons which could potentially enrich consumer behavior theories and concepts.


Speculating in 1940, on the nature of a discipline of consumer behavior, Roland Vaile posed the question, "Is there a science or discipline of consumption?" His answer was that many such discipline must be a matter of synthesis, eclectic in the extreme." Further, the discipline would "include evidence from. . . physiology and genetics, physics and chemistry, psychology and neurology, economics and political and dietetics, painting and music, banking and advertising." (p. 50) More recently, however, scholars lament the eclectic borrowing of concepts and constructs (see Mittelstaedt 1971, Sheth 1979). Among other things, Sheth (1979) blames this type of borrowing for what he views as the present "shortages' in consumer behavior.

Leading consumer behaviorists have proposed various solutions to what is viewed as the narrow focus on the individual, on cognitions, on psychological constructs, econometric techniques and on choice models (Sheth 1979, and others). One approach has been to move into the arena of affect as opposed to cognitions (see ZaJonc and Marcus 1982, Gardner 1985, Rook 1985) and to focus on such topics as mood states (e.g. Gardner 1985), ritual behavior (e.g. Rook 1985). While this research has added a social dimension, it has tended to be primarily focused on the individual. Other consumer researchers have sought to achieve triangulation by adding historical-behavioral concepts to the normally cognitive-psychological approach. Hirschman ( 1985), Belk (1985) and Sheth (1979) all call for more macro theories of consumer behavior. A variety of authors have called for the infusion of more historical work (see Rassuli and Hollander forthcoming, Hirschman 1985, Kirkpatrick 1983, Savitt 1980). Finally, Arndt (1985) calls for more comparative studies in marketing.

The usefulness of comparative marketing studies, as a method, to build marketing theory (Arndt 1985, Boddewyn 1981, 1966, Buxton 1973, Cox 1965, Shapiro 1965), to refine marketing concepts (Wind and Douglas 1981) and to make distinctions between universal, related and unique concepts (Boddewyn 1966, Arndt 1981) has been well-documented. Although comparative marketing is generally confined to the realm of international marketing and development, the term can equally encompass historical comparison. Boddewyn (1981, Arndt 1981) for instance, define comparative marketing as "the systematic detection, identification, classification, measurement, and interpretation of similarities and differences among entire national systems or parts thereof.'' One could conceive of the national systems being separated in time and thus extend Comparative marketing to the realm of history.

Recently, historians of various backgrounds have taken an interest in the topic of consumption (see Rassuli and Hollander, forthcoming for a review). The historians' work provides an excellent foundation for a comparative study of consumer behavior. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the use of comparative history as a research tool in consumer behavior by focusing on the kinds of research problems comparative history can illuminate. We will do so, by drawing several examples from historical research. We hope to demonstrate that the technique of comparative history can be used to raise questions about our current conceptualizations and to provide insight into some unresolved questions in consumer behavior. Potentially, comparative history can be used to enrich theorizing in the field.


In 1960, the Library of Congress published a massive guide to the study of American life and affairs (Basler, Mugridge and McCrum). It listed almost 6500 "representative" books that reflected the entire American panorama. Only one title was indexed under any variant of the word "consume," Persia Campbell's excellent 1949 The Consumer Interest. Earlier, in 1934, Robert Lynd complained that a good 600,000 volume university library might contain no more than ten books on the ultimate consumer and that the bulk of those would have been written by marketers bent on exploitation. Even today, when an Association for Consumer Research can fill the salons of one of the largest and shiniest hotels in one of North America's most glamorous cities, the number of entries under "consume" in such standard scholarly finding guides as American History and Life and Historical Abstracts is minuscule compared to those for such historical staples as "railroads" or "industrialization."

So it would seem that the consumer historian simply must be a pioneer, blazing a heart-breakingly difficult trail through previously unexplored territory. But, the melodrama really isn't that grim. Sessions such as this and many others, the strong consumer history content of the marketing history conferences at Michigan State (advertisement), and particularly the growing amount of publication in the field testify to the market for consumer history. Moreover, the earlier literature is far richer than appears at first glance. The same Library of Congress guide that appears to slight "consumed offers five entries under "cost and standard of living," two under "fashion w " five under "house decoration," and nine under "housing.n mere are also sections of the guide devoted to such topics as social history, sports and recreation, and entertainment. Loth older and more recent histories of family organization and lire, manners and behavior, food habits and customs and many other areas shed light on past consumer behavior. Recent output includes a large volume of works that deal with the historical aspects or the "culture of consumption," efforts to induce, shape and restrain consumption, and consumer behavior itself. Thus, data sources are available, although perhaps partially disguised under alternative titles.

The core of consumption history focuses on consumed goods and services. the basic two questions are: (1) What is consumed? and (2) Why? The first goes beyond a list or stockkeeping units, and asks about relative quantities or market baskets, both in total and by market segments, prices, and places and terms of sale. The second question asks about both environmental and motivational factors. The first question concerns the history or tangible and intangible objects, and thus is the objective side of consumption history.

The point of this observation is that material culture studies are a very good starting base for consumption history data. Many of the material culturists serve in the museum rather than the academy and much of the field has an archeological or, particularly, art historical approach. This approach focusses on the object itself, its identification, authentication and provenance and on locating and evaluating it in various design or aesthetic traditions. But the study of objects inevitably leads to studies of their popularization, utilization and meaning, so the material culturists have been drawn into consumer history. An anthology such as Thomas Schlereth's (1982) Material Culture Studies will contain articles such as Ruth Schwartz Covan's "The Industrial Revolution in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the Twentieth Century." (Material history seems to have a special relationship to feminist history; see Delphy 1970). Although using contemporary standards and tastes to Judge older objects can be misleading, tangible and intangible artifacts do emit messages of formality and informality; work, leisure and status; desire for ostentation; concepts of privacy and utility. While we in marketing and consumer behavior need to get closer to the actual artifacts to appreciate changing and varying selection criteria, the material culture specialists have come closer to our type of work. Useful finding guides are Schlereth (1985) and pages 93-166 of Landrum (1982).

Closest to the objects themselves on a primary-secondary data scale (Savitt 1980) are the documentary materials that arose from their offering, purchase and use. Nineteenth and twentieth century history sakes good use of contemporary advertising (see sources cited by Pollay 1986). At a popular level, David Cohen's (1940) Good Old Days is based almost entirely on old Sears Roebuck catalogs. Many other such catalogs are available or have been reproduced and most universities received a microfilm collection of Sears' catalogs as a gift from the company some years ago. Other material close to the source includes store records, estate inventories, wealthy individuals' instructions to agents and stewards concerning items to be acquired, letters to friends, diaries, particularly those of ardent shoppers contemporary "manners books" or etiquette guides, travel books, and household advice books and articles.

For the service sector, many sorts of paper trails remain as a good data source, again especially for relatively recent periods. Some of this paper is in museum collections and dealer inventories. We refer to theater and athletic event programs, banquet and restaurant menus, stagecoach, railroad and steamship schedules, tickets, and miscellanea school curricula, dress codes, and Possibly even yearbooks.

For those who do not fancy grubbing about dusty, indecipherable bits of paper in dusty locations with poor light, selections of these artifacts have been reproduced in numerous volumes and interpreted in various histories. Obviously, with any collection, self-selected or selected by others, there is the question or "representativeness" in the statistical sense or the word. Probably many collections are "representative" in an old-fashioned elitest sense, "the most imposing representative of the period."

Finally, as noted earlier, particularly in recent years, social, economic, and marketing historians, area specialists, sass communications scholars and others have been writing on consumer history itself. One difficulty is that much of this historical work, at least the portion with which we are familiar, has been done in the North Atlantic, English-speaking countries. Braudel, a Frenchman who has recently had a new English translation (1981), has been and undoubtedly will become even more influential. Professor Fullerton undoubtedly can tell us or German sources. Fortunately, some of the English language books go beyond the Anglophone world. Rosalind Williams (1982) Dream Worlds (France) and Smith and Christian (1984) Bread and Salt (Russia) are two important examples. The recent ACR meeting in Singapore produced a number of Asian-oriented papers, mostly with relatively short retrospective time spans but hopefully leading to inquiry into earlier periods.


Historical material, Just discussed, provides a rich data source, upon which a variety of comparisons could be based. Comparative marketing studies tend to compare either marketing practices in two (or more) countries or in the environments or the countries, or both at a single point in time. The level of analytical complexity can be increased by adding a time variable. Concurrently, the time variable can aid in eliminating competing hypotheses (although some historians would disagree with this use of history). Figure 1 helps to illustrate the point. The main purpose of the figure is to facilitate visualization of the possible comparisons; it is not necessarily intended to provide another framework for comparative research, which Boddewyn (1981) concludes is not needed. The conceptualization in Figure 1 is reminiscent of Bartels' framework for studying comparative international marketing (see Bartels 1963).



Focusing only on the top portion of the figure, one finds the typical, static cross-sectional studies -- a comparison of some marketing phenomenon in Country A and Country | B. Here, when discussing a country, the label "phenomenon" could refer to any one of the following: a marketing practice, function, or channel; a consumer phenomenon, such as the "Consumer Society," or a prevailing so. c al attitude toward consumption; a commodity; or one or I the various relevant environmental factors. In addition, g the phenomenon of interest could be at the level or the country or at a more limited level, such as classes of ; people, economic levels, membership (or other) groups, or 2 some geographic subdivision of the country.

Or on the periphery, one could also compare competing historical explanations about the phenomenon in Country A g versus Country B. The historian's explanation at t1 should be thought of as a historical description of how, say phenomenon A, case to be as it appears at time t1. "Historian" could also represent a "school or historical thought." Moreover, the historians say differ with regard to either their choice or causes, effects and competing factors, (see Dray 1970) or their interpretation of what occurred may differ because of their differing perspective (e.g. anthropological historian versus a social historian). Consequently, in comparing historians' explanations one may rind conflicting or complementary explanations, or successively deeper explanations.

By including time as a variable, the potential for a number of longitudinal comparisons comes to the fore. Time can be measured as calendar time or as some relatively similar developmental or historical phase. The following are some of the comparisons which could be made. (Numbers correspond to arrows in Figure 1).

1. Static Historical: Country A at t1 with Country A at t2.

2. Dynamic Historical: Process (rate) that Country A moved from tl to t2.

3. Static Comparative History: Country A at t1 and t2 to B at t1 and t2

4. Dynamic Comparative History: Process (rate) that Country A moved from t1 to t2 with the process (rate) that Country B moved from t1 to t2.

5. Historical Comparative: Country B at t2 with Country A at t1. (Assuring similarity between Bt2 and At1).


It is possible to use an experimental design framework at a macro level, as a heuristic, for conceptualizing the benefits of historical comparisons. While not insurmountable, the usual experimental design problems (e.g. equivalence of markets and interference of extraneous factors) are certainly present and perhaps compounded in historical comparisons. Historical periods can be thought of as the baseline and/or control group comparison in an experiment. If one were to begin with a static comparative study of two countries at t1, it is difficult to sort out the effects of the phenomenon of interest from its environment. According to Buxton (1973, p. 57) in international comparative marketing studies, " be most intractable problem would seem to be in the area of attaching values or weights to the relative influences of the environmental elements on the developments of a local marketing system." Using some typical consumer behavior/ marketing issues as examples, a comparative historical remedy to this problem can be illustrated.

Consider, for example, the question "is desire (i.e.need/ want) induced r Great Britain and the U.S. are the "test markets." The experimental manipulation is the introduction of advertising. In both cases, spending on goods increases. But, without a base-line how can one Judge the magnitude of the experimental effect? Likewise, without a control group, how can one determine if the effect is the result of the treatment or a result of some other environmental factor? Using historical periods, a certain amount of control can be achieved. For instance, country A at t1 provides a pre-test for country A at t2. Prior to the introduction of advertising was there desire? Historical evidence would probably answer in the affirmative (e.g. sumpturay laws imply people desired the restricted goods, see Hollander 1984, Braudel 1981).

The study of fashion provides many examples. A recurring consumer behavior debate is that of relative influences on fashion. Numerous objects of dress and household furnishings, particularly those of the last few centuries, have survived as data sources, and are supplemented by many contemporaneous descriptions, fashion dolls (miniature samples), fashion magazines, personal correspondence and merchant records. Difficulties remain, of course, in determining the exact popularity of various styles, particularly among certain market segments and of isolating the forces behind the changes indicated by the evidence. But we think that limited and selected comparisons can support inexorable cycle theories of fashion change (e.g. Robinson 1975), while more general comparisons tend to invalidate them. Bell's (1976) illustrations support his view that male fashion became sober, and relatively unchanging when sober pursuits, such as business, became as honorific as military and athletic pursuits, and that the development of similar "dull" careers "of women may have the same impact on their attire. The idea is worth pursuing. A large number of cases support various versions the "trickle-down" model (Veblen 1899, McCracken 1985). Trickle down implies super- and sub-ordinate relationships among consumers. d comparison of historians' views, shows that the phenomenon may be more complex than it was previously believed. Historian's believe trickledown say also require a certain closeness (density and fluidity) of class relationships (McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb 1982). a at is, the actions of subordinates copying superordinates' behavior must appear reasonable rather than palpably ridiculous. That, in turn, suggests two further insights. One is that people may engage in more status-claiming behavior i.e. "passing themselves off" in large than in small communities because of a greater degree of individuality (Barth 1980). The other is Potter's (1954) more general point, that people only compete, either in consumption or in the attempt to acquire the means for consumption, when there is some possibility of success. or course, trickle-down explains the progression of fashions, but not the selection of particular fashions by superordinates.

Although "trickle down" describes much fashion behavior at many times and in many environments, it has difficulty encompassing some situations such as the "sack" dress of the 1960s, or the popularization of Jeans and T-shirts. Again, a look at other time periods for such "trickle up" behavior can be instructive. Some of those seemingly upward moving styles may be a sort of acting on the part of the supers, much like Marie Antoinette playing at being a milkmaid. Some may be evidence of elites outside the traditional Warnerian class pyramid. Comparative evidence, at least to date, still leaves in question the power of fashion manipulators (designers, publicists) but their varying fortunes suggest that the power of manipulators may be greater in the short than the long-run. And even though we reject immutable, almost astronomical cycles, some taste oscillation may well be a characteristic of life at a discretionary plane of living.

A somewhat analogous topic concerns the decline in dressmaking and tailoring and the substitution of ready-made for custom-made objects. The supply-side explanation is the shortage of skilled workers at economically necessary low rates of pay. "Made-to-measure" was a compromise solution to the supply problem which used standardized patterns applied to personally selected fabrics. The result was an individualized garment, not at true custom standards, which required less labor input. The decline in demand for custom-made objects may be ascribed to risk reduction, desire for instant gratification and a desire to save time. Interestingly, made-to-measure enjoyed considerable popularity in post-war Britain (Burton the Tailor), in the popular price ranges -- which suggests status seeking on the part of these consumers. Further studies of custom demand and supply, for other goods would be instructive.

Jessica Mitford voices some, probably not unreasonable criticisms of recent American funeral practices in The American Way of Death. Here a comparison such as 5, could put these practices into perspective. Her Victorian British predecessors made much more of a show of mourning (Adburgham 1979, pp. 120-23). Mourning attire, etiquette book instructions on when it was permissible to add touches of white to black costumes, funeral cards, undertakers' advertising and bills and contemporary newspaper accounts of funerals provide grist for the historical sill, and leave the consumer historian with the problem of accounting for differences in the intensity of outward manifestations at different times and places.

Another relevant consumer question concerns, what some authors see as an increase in self-centeredness (or egoism) on the part of Americans (e.g. Lears' Therapeutic Philosophy in Fox and Lears 1983). True perhaps, but without a baseline figure, one might question the significance or the magnitude of change. Historical studies of the home (Braudel 1981, Rybczynski 1986) can provide at least some tentative and speculative insight. "Innovations" in the home, over the centuries led to increasing independence for individual residents. Included here are separation of production from the home, tour poster beds with drapes when beds were still part of the common living space, and later individual bedrooms. The latter enabled members of the household to express their individuality. Therefore, one might posit that the egoism we are now witnessing is no greater in magnitude than in the past. of additionally, that the current manifestation is simply part of some long run trend.

The topic of services and service retailing is enjoying a rise in prominence. Hollander (1980) concludes that people do not buy services per say, rather they buy particular services, each of which have their own histories. A comparative study of this history of services and products reveals that retail services have often been absorbed into the home through the addition of equipment. For instance, centuries ago in England, the poor who had no stoves, could patronize "bake shops" where they took their meat pies to be baked. Eventually, stoves replaced this service. Laundry services and entertainment (e.g. VCR's) are contemporary examples. Alternatively, certain other aspects of services have been divorced from the home. Examples are education, production, medical services and religious instruction. A historical comparison of services absorbed versus those divorced from the home might be insightful.

Over time, there has also been a decline in the social functions which retailers perform. Further, store loyalty probably has been declining. Part of this decline may result from the increased share of the retail market by large scale retailers in all industrialized countries (gee Hollander and Sheffet, forthcoming). Additionally, one sight hypothesize that more affluent customers are more interested in using goods than in the acquisition process. The result of comparative research on this hypothesis could inspire research on the "roles of the buying process" (i.e. initiator, buyer, user, etc.). Moreover, there are also implications for studies of store loyalty and consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction.

The often-stated belief (in the form of the marketing concept) that marketers discovered the consumer in the 1950's when the market became a buyers' market, provides another instance where a historical perspective can be enlightening. First, one might ask if the 1950s was the first time a buyers' market occurred. Historical evidence does not contradict George Burton Hotchkiss' (1938) statement that buyers' markets constitute historical normalcy. Converse (1959, p. 5) notes that after the panic year of 1873, overproduction "was a chronic problem. Given this comparative historical fact, then one might surmise that a good deal of marketing must have occurred in times past. Again history tends to support fact. McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb (1982) treat Josiah Wedgwood as an example of a master fashion publicist. Hollander ( forthcoming) also provides numerous samples. Moreover, marketing research is also not a product of the last fifty or sixty years. 1 comparison of other countries and other time periods would establish the practice at a much earlier time. Converse (1959) discusses Gale's research at the University of Minnesota around the turn of the century. Further, he states that the market analyses of Edward Atkinson anticipated "by some forty years the development of marketing research." (p. 5) Boorstin (1983, p. 534) notes that in the century following the invention of the printing press, the publishing industry was characterized by the "need and the opportunity" to estimate the size of the market for each book. Through Boorstin does not elaborate on the research techniques of publishers, the possibility of their existence is an intriguing area for future study.

Briefly, two other examples of comparative history are potential questions for future research. A comparative study of the bread riots of earlier centuries in Europe and elsewhere, could help put the consumer boycotts of this century into perspective. Adelman and Morris'(1980) study of the historical factors that contributed to the persistence of poverty in underdeveloped countries could provide the foundation for a comparison with the increase of wealth in more developed countries.


Whether one uses the objects, the paper trails, collections, or the actual histories, data for comparison are available. Inferences can be drawn about what was purchased and also, with some care, why it was purchased (i.e. consumer motivations). We set out to show the potential usefulness of comparative historical research. To the extent that comparative studies show us that desire for goods and services was present in earlier periods (thus somewhat less of an induced phenomenon ) and that marketer performed "marketing" activities long before the formal inception of the marketing concept, these studies shed new light on old debates. For questions such as the "trickle down" phenomenon, comparative history helps strengthen our conceptualization by implying a combination of a number of socio environmental as well as psychological factors. On newer debates such as egoism, and the service encounter, comparative studies may provide insights into some relatively universal aspects of the respective discussions. Finally, with consumer boycotts and poverty, comparative histories can act as the inspiration for new theorizing and hypothesizing.

In conclusion, a comparative historical approach has the potential to infuse Consumer behavior studies with macro, behavioral and societal concepts (that consumer behaviorists seek) while at the same time adding the richness and depth (Vaile believed part of consumer behavior) which result from both international and historical work.


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Kathleen H. Rassuli, Indiana-Purdue University at Fort Wayne
Stanley C. Hollander, Michigan State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14 | 1987

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