Current Theory and Research on Cross-Cultural Factors in Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - This paper is a discussion of issues raised in a session on cross-cultural factors in consumer behavior. The current discussion focusses on the two papers in the session that attempted to discover the level of cross-cultural generalizability that particular constructs in consumer behavior have. While these papers have enormous merit in pointing out the need to recognize that our current work may be culturally bound, the present author proposes that an alternative path for future work will be to develop general, pancultural models of consumer behavior.


John A. McCarty (1989) ,"Current Theory and Research on Cross-Cultural Factors in Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 127-129.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 127-129


John A. McCarty, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


This paper is a discussion of issues raised in a session on cross-cultural factors in consumer behavior. The current discussion focusses on the two papers in the session that attempted to discover the level of cross-cultural generalizability that particular constructs in consumer behavior have. While these papers have enormous merit in pointing out the need to recognize that our current work may be culturally bound, the present author proposes that an alternative path for future work will be to develop general, pancultural models of consumer behavior.


The papers in this session have all dealt with some aspect of the relationship between culture and consumer behavior. Two of these consider the extent to which certain theoretical constructs are applicable cross-culturally while the third paper proposes a model of acculturation. The current discussion will focus on issues related to the two papers that attempt to determine the cross-cultural applicability of constructs and to general issues about the nature and purpose of cross-cultural investigations raised by these two papers. This does not in any way imply that these papers have more or less merit than the paper on acculturation, rather, these two raise similar issues and the nature of these papers is considerably distinct from the third.

The paper in this session by Alden, Hoyer, and Wecgasara was an effort to determine the extent to which the involvement construct in consumer behavior is appropriate across cultures. The authors discovered that across three different cultures, the involvement construct appeared to be appropriate and that higher levels of involvement lead to a greater use of affective and cognitive decision making strategies. The three cultures investigated were West Germany, Thailand, and the United States.

The Cote and Tanshhaj paper attempted to determine the extent to which behavioral intention models are culturally bound. These authors argued that behavioral intention models may be culturally bound since three constructs that intention relies upon, time orientation, locus of control, and the ability to think probablistically, differ across cultures. Therefore, questioning an individual about future intentions may not make as much sense in some cultures as in others, and the relationship between intentions and behavior may vary considerably across cultures. They tested this in three cultures, Jordan, Thailand, and the United States, and discovered that discrepancies between intention and behavior for academic related behaviors were related differences in time orientation, locus of control, and probabilistic thinking across the cultures. The study found little support for their hypotheses in the case of food and soft drinks, however.

While the findings of these two papers were quite different, one discovered that a construct fit across cultures while the second questioned the applicability of a construct across cultures, they took a similar approach. That is, both papers suggested the-need to test our theoretical constructs cross-culturally and each did so with a particular construct.

The approach of these papers raises several important questions about the completeness of current theories in consumer behavior in terms of their generalizability to different cultural settings. The approach of these papers also raises questions about the purposes of cross-cultural research. The next section will address the purposes of cross-cultural research.


The two empirical papers in this session suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that one purpose of cross-cultural research is to test the cultural bounds of constructs that are a part of current consumer behavior theory. That is, as was stated verbally during the paper session, all theories in consumer behavior will ultimately need to be tested cross-culturally. Whether or not past theories must meet the cross-culture test would seem to be open for debate since many theories adequately explain the phenomena under the conditions they were designed.

It would be useful to consider what others have viewed as the purposes of cross-cultural research. Strodbeck (1964) proposed several reasons for cross-cultural research which were further discussed by Triandis and his associates (1972). These purposes are not mutually exclusive and any given study may relate to more than one purpose. One reason for using different cultures would be when there is not enough variation in one culture to adequately test the importance of a construct. Since cultures can vary tremendously, using several cultures can provide the needed variation to understand the phenomena of interest. Testing a phenomena in different and varied ecological environments is a second purpose of cross-cultural research. That is, different cultures provide different environments and, therefore, a phenomena can be tested under these different conditions. The third reason for using cross-cultural research relates to the interest in the cultures per se. Cross-cultural studies can be conducted to determine how various cultural groups differ in their "cutting the pie of experience." In this case it is the differences or similarities of cultures that is of interest to the researcher, while the first two reasons discussed simply use culture as a way of gaining a greater understanding of a phenomena of interest. A fourth purpose of cross-cultural research is to test general laws of behavior. This would be particularly important, for example, if one desires to how whether some phenomena is innate or learned.

The reasons for cross-cultural research as discussed by Strodbeck and Triandis refer primarily to theoretical research. An additional applied reason for this kind of research is apparent from the tremendous increase in the international marketing of products. To market products effectively in different cultures, we need to understand those cultures and differences in various cultures.

Given these reasons for cross-cultural research, at first glance, it seems entirely reasonable that models and theories of consumer behavior should be tested under different ecological environments and cross-cultural work would aid in our understanding the generalizability of our theories of consumption. It should be noted, however, that most of the past work in consumer behavior was designed to understand consumption in the United States; most theories of consumption were not proposed as general laws of behavior in that it is generally assumed that consumption is a learned phenomena and therefore most likely culturally bound. It is unlikely that most theories of consumer behavior will stand up to an exhaustive cross-cultural testing. If a particular theory of consumption is found to indeed be culturally bound, this does not invalidate the theory in terms of its original purpose, to understand and/or predict some consumption phenomena within this culture. While the two empirical papers in this session are quite useful in reminding us that our past work in consumer behavior has been culturally bound, it would seem that the most productive path for future consumer behavior lies somewhere else than showing that our previous theories are inadequate for understanding consumption in many cultures. An approach that attempts to develop pancultural models of consumer behavior is a more fruitful path for future work.


Perhaps the most constructive path for future work in consumer behavior is to develop general pancultural models, rather than testing previously developed theories. This building of general models is an approach to cross-cultural research suggested by Triandis and his associates (1972). Given the vast differences in cultures, it might first appear very difficult to find constructs that are applicable in every culture. Triandis suggests, however, that while the components of a cross-cultural model should be general enough to apply to all cultures, the individual components can be operationalized within separate cultures. This approach goes far in solving the eticemic problem in the study of culture. The emic approach, as most often exemplified by anthropological ethnographies, is the study of a single culture using constructs appropriate in that culture. Cross-cultural comparisons are difficult under these conditions. The etic approach is a search for general laws and, therefore, needs variables that can apply to all cultures. Too often, however, the constructs have developed in one culture and assumed to fit in other cultures, leading to an approach that Triandis calls the pseudoetic approach. If, however, the components of general etic models are tailored to individual cultures, then these general laws can take advantage of the important aspects of both the etic and emic approaches to culture.

If we should in the future develop general laws of consumer behavior that will be applicable across cultures, where is a proper starting point? It would seem that behavior or action on the part of individuals would indeed be a primary focus of cross-cultural investigations, as it has been in the social sciences and consumer behavior for a long time. Social scientists from anthropology, psychology, and sociology agreed that action was a construct that could bring together the work in their respective disciplines (Parsons and Shils, 1954). Furthermore, Triandis and his associates (1972) have stated that action and the antecedents and consequences of action represent universal constructs. Of course, specific actions and the antecedents of action may differ tremendously across culture.

Therefore, future work in cross-cultural consumer behavior should focus on developing models that relate pancultural constructs to consumption action or behavior. Compared to previous work in consumer behavior that has dealt primarily with consumption in the culture of the United States, these future models will differ in two significant ways.

First, they will necessarily be general in their purest form; more specific statements of relationships can be gained through operationalization within cultures. For example, Triandis (1977) has proposed a model of behavior that includes a behavior antecedent component that incorporates social factors. Social factors probably play some role in behavior in all cultures. The specifics that comprise the social factor will differ across cultures. In some cultures norms may be an important aspect, in other cultures the self-concept may be important. Furthermore, the specific norms, etc. may differ across cultures. The important point is that the specifics are incorporated within the framework of a general theory.

A second way in which future models will likely differ is that they will contain constructs that we have largely ignored in our work in consumer behavior within this culture. Theories we have developed thus far have emphasized the extreme individualism and internal locus of control inherent in this culture (as pointed out in the Cote and Tanshhaj paper). They have also tended to focus on the cognitive behavior of individuals involved in consumption. Other variables will need to be considered. For example, in the model of behavior developed by Triandis, a habit component is included as an antecedent of behavior as well as intention. Habit is a construct that has been largely ignored in consumer behavior, however, in other cultures consumption may be a consequence of habit. as well as related variables such as tradition, etc. Future cross-cultural models will need to cast a much wider net in the development of the antecedents of consumer behavior.


Parsons, Talcott and Edward Shils (1954), Toward a General Theory of Action, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Strodbeck, Fred (1964), "Considerations of Metamethod in Cross-Cultural Studies," American Anthropologist, 66, 223-229.

Triandis, Harry (1977), Interpersonal Behavior, Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Triandis, Harry, Vasso Vassiliou, George Vassiliou, Yasumasa Tanaka, and A. Shanmugam (1972), The Analysis of Subjective Culture, New York, John Wiley.



John A. McCarty, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16 | 1989

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