Qualitative Research in Textbooks: a Review

ABSTRACT - Fifteen currently available marketing research textbooks were reviewed for their depiction of qualitative research, especially in the context of the marketing concept. Although most of the texts mention the marketing concept as a rationale for marketing research, they fail to present, through theoretical discussions and/or by presentation of examples, the role of qualitative research as a means of investigating the state of want-satisfaction in prospective markets. In this respect, textbooks fail to communicate to students the role that qualitative research plays in implementing the marketing concept.


Joel Saegert and Geraldine Fennell (1991) ,"Qualitative Research in Textbooks: a Review", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 262-270.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 262-270


Joel Saegert, University of Texas at San Antonio

Geraldine Fennell, Consultant


Fifteen currently available marketing research textbooks were reviewed for their depiction of qualitative research, especially in the context of the marketing concept. Although most of the texts mention the marketing concept as a rationale for marketing research, they fail to present, through theoretical discussions and/or by presentation of examples, the role of qualitative research as a means of investigating the state of want-satisfaction in prospective markets. In this respect, textbooks fail to communicate to students the role that qualitative research plays in implementing the marketing concept.

Marketing research can be said to be the primary means by which the marketing concept is implemented. That is, marketing research is a set of procedures by which the state of want satisfaction, the sine qua non of marketing practice, is revealed to producers. Fennell (1987) has discussed the marketing concept as required by the nature of the marketer's task, namely to provide the interface between customers and the firm's productive capability. In implementing the marketing concept's dictum, "Don't sell what you happen to make; make what the customer wants to buy," marketers turn to research to describe the state of want satisfaction. Moreover, qualitative research has provided researchers with a method of studying customer wants as found, starting with unstructured interviews. For example, in attempting to describe customer circumstances to facilitate choosing attributes with which to imbue brand offerings, "qualitative research, in particular the focus group interview, is the well-trodden ground by which marketing research generates its attribute set" (Fennell 1980a).

This paper is concerned with how qualitative research is presented to students in marketing research textbooks, chiefly those that are used by instructors of introductory marketing research courses in business education. Of particular interest is the presentation of qualitative research as a method of identifying wants and assessing the state of want satisfaction. Because of space limitations, the scope of this review focuses on how marketing research textbook authors Present:

- the theoretical/philosophical basis for the practice of marketing research

- the role of qualitative research in the practice of marketing research

- the methods of qualitative research, as they follow from the theoretical/philosophical basis

The data base for this investigation consists of 15 marketing research textbooks made available by publishers to instructors in marketing research courses. Only texts published in the past five years were included. While this selection may not be exhaustive, these books are likely those most popularly adopted by research faculty at US business colleges and departments, thus reflecting the collective portrayal of qualitative research to marketing students. Since our concern is the overall presentation of research concepts to business students in general, we have chosen not to attribute specific quotations to their authors. The texts reviewed are listed at the end of the paper.


The marketing concept, as a philosophy of business enterprise, is almost universally included in the introductory chapters of textbooks in marketing. Similarly, in their introductory chapters, authors of textbooks in customer behavior and marketing research typically invoke the marketing concept as the justification for studying their respective subject matters. As illustrated in Fig. 1, in all of the marketing research textbooks reviewed for this paper, explicitly or implicitly authors have referred to the marketing concept when stating a rationale for marketing research.

Given its apparently central place as a statement of the discipline's philosophy, it is reasonable to expect that the marketing concept has profound implications for business strategy, namely, in advising organizations that their success lies in responding to wants as found. Surprisingly, however, authors have not made systematic use of the marketing concept in discussing the role of marketing research in business decision-making processes, nor in presenting the many examples used to instruct students in research practice. In fact, following its initial presentation, it is difficult to discern that the marketing concept's implications are considered at all. Specifically, authors do not make a connection between marketing's fundamental philosophy and the techniques required to relate human wants to business opportunity.

In various writings over the past 15 years, Fennell, (e.g. 1978, 1979, 1980b, 1985a, 1989) is one of the few authors to have been interested in developing the implications of the marketing concept as a philosophy of business, and as a theory of marketing and human behavior (readers may welcome being reminded of early statements of the marketing concept such as those of Borch 1957, Mortimer 1959, and Keith 1960; see also Fennell, 1991). Figure 2 presents some implications of the marketing concept for marketing research, as discussed in Fennell's work.





Perhaps the aspect of the marketing concept that has the most far-reaching implications for marketing research is the notion that customer wants take precedence over goods/services (See Fig. 2A for the opening paragraph, and a later statement, of Fennell 1978). Responding to wants as found implies:

1. Marketers cannot be satisfied merely to investigate customer reactions to arbitrarily-given existing or candidate goods/services or attributes (Fig. 2B);

2. Marketers must distinguish and investigate both (a) the conditions that lead to customer wants and (b) what the customer knows and believes about brands (Fig. 2C);

3. At any one time, marketers are interested in only a fraction of the total population and of the scope of human action (Fig. 2D);

4. Since wants are heterogeneous within a focal universe as defined and since product attributes and benefits are motivationally ambiguous, it is necessary to characterize respondents in terms that predict their kind of desired outcome (Fig. 2E);

5. Since the producer's job is to offer goods/services that help users to do what they are already trying to do, the marketer's task includes modeling and then describing the (heterogeneous) context in which individuals try to act (Fig. 2F). In fact Fennell (1980) has developed such a general model of action, and later (e.g. 1982a, 1985a) has shown how the classic tasks of marketing practice (e.g. the 4 P's) as well as the major kinds of marketing research in common business use, may be coordinated to the terms of that model


As noted, most of the texts reviewed mention the marketing concept to students in their introduction of the rationale underlying marketing research. Following this, they give numerous examples to show the many ways in which research is used--those in Fig. 3 are typical of the hundreds of examples included in the texts' introductory chapters.

These examples, all of which appear in the initial chapters of the reviewed texts, say surprisingly little about the marketing concept's mandate to respond to wants as found. In fact, only two (i.e., Fig. 3E and I) refer to obtaining information about possible wants. Wants may have been investigated in two others (Fig. 3H and J), but since the marketing concept implies developing the offering from information obtained initially about the customer's circumstances, both H and J seem to fly in the face of sound marketing practice. Further, none of the examples of Fig. 3 illustrates marketing t research undertaken for the express purpose of i describing wants as found, e.g., the conditions that affect people in their daily lives, that lead them to want to use some good/service. Moreover, even when the chosen examples quite legitimately illustrate projects whose primary objectives are other than identifying wants, no reference is made to the fact that investigations of, e.g., price, marketing communications and other considerations, were conducted in the context of respondents' wants.

In sum, when the examples of Fig. 3 are presented--without-critical commentary--to illustrate the use of marketing research, they convey to students a misinterpretation of one of the most > important implications of the marketing concept, namely, production efforts proceed from finding outwhat customers want and tailoring the offering accordingly. Strictly speaking, the kind of examples used to introduce marketing research illustrate what Principles of Marketing texts label the "selling concept," i.e., considering ways to make a brand acceptable only after the brand is in existence. The point is an important one, fundamental to understanding the marketer's task and research's contribution to marketing: the role of marketing is to respond to wants as found. Such examples, and the accompanying discussion, fail to teach the marketing concept. At the very least, this constitutes a missed opportunity in the marketing research textbooks in that they provide no model or technique for pro-actively discovering customer wants across heterogeneous prospects and contexts for action.




Rationale for Doing Qualitative Research

As Fennell has pointed out (e.g., 1980a, 1985c), qualitative research is a primary and widely-used approach to implementing the marketing concept in business practice. The attitude toward qualitative research in marketing research texts, however, is overwhelmingly one of reservation. Across this group of texts, the authors assign qualitative research to a secondary role, one that is to be considered guardedly (see Fig. 4).

Sometimes, qualitative research is discussed for situations where cost or time are the researcher's primary concern (Fig. 4A, D), thereby furthering the notion that qualitative research is somehow a substitute for, although less respectable than, quantitative research, a deficit for which its low price ticket relative to quantitative research seems to compensate. In specific references cited here, it is left unclear how "acting as a group" and "dynamic communication" (Fig. 4F) as reasons for conducting qualitative research flow from or, even, are consistent with marketing's task of responding to wants as found. While caution is certainly to be recommended with qualitative research, as it is with any technique, and while quantification of discoveries made by qualitative research is typically appropriate, the degree to which authors dwell on the shortcomings and limitations of qualitative research probably reflects their failure to appreciate a systematic role for such an approach in applied settings (see Fennell 1991).

Examples of Qualitative Projects

Some examples provided in the textbooks to illustrate the use of qualitative research are shown in Fig. 5.

Searching these examples for footprints of the marketing concept, one comes away disappointed. Three obvious problems are that in most cases (1) the particular qualitative project seems to have been conducted only after an offering has already been conceived; (2) there is no clear indication (e.g., in the promising case of Fig. 5G) that customer wants in the focal domain of activity had been investigated earlier--before the firm embarked upon brand or new product development; (3) there is no indication that information on the conditions that formed the context of use was obtained from respondents so that such reactions as they provided to the presented stimuli/concepts could be understood in light of the individual's perspective. Again, when presented without critical discussion, these examples communicate the role of qualitative research as merely that of obtaining reactions: (1) to offerings or candidate offerings that have originated "elsewhere," whose origin is, from a marketing perspective, unsystematic; (2) from individuals details of whose relevant personal and environmental circumstances are not available to elucidate the information they provide.





Interesting questions arise. Do the examples that authors selected fairly represent actual qualitative research projects? Did authors express personal biases by excluding some examples available to them, perhaps because they deemed the research "nonmanagerial". In this connection, Fig. 5B is provocative. What could a "nonmanagerial" background on the product class mean? Perchance could it mean that respondents were asked to speak about aspects of their lives outside the marketplace, i.e., the everyday context in which marketplace offerings may be used? If so, why should such information be regarded as nonmanagerial?

From the perspective of implementing the marketing concept, it is troubling that the authors failed to reflect on and discuss the plain disparity between such examples and the marketing concept's emphasis on responding to wants as found with which marketing research had been introduced in early chapters.


Since marketing research textbooks are unashamedly methodological handbooks, their treatment of qualitative research includes a great deal of attention to method. Some of the methodological discussion provides insights into the view of qualitative research held by the textbook authors and illustrates the attitudes that they may impart to students. Topics discussed include the selection of the participants of group studies and the composition of groups regarding homogeneity or heterogeneity of participants.


One critical aspect of qualitative research concerns screening of participants. If qualitative research is to investigate the "focal behavioral domain," researchers must insure that subjects in qualitative studies have tendencies to engage in the focal activities. Fennell has discussed this critical aspect of qualitative research as follows:

"Even when selecting people to study for strategic development, marketers typically do not proceed by recruiting people at random from the population at large. They first identify for study potential buyers, broadly defined. What marketers want at this point is to be able to talk with people...who have action tendencies that are favorable to their proposed offering category.

"Typically, qualifiers are stated in terms of (1) actual or planned product use or ownership...or (2) activities or conditions that do or may involve the use of a marketplace offering...

"In addition to the fact that questions about product use/ownership are usually well understood by survey respondents, they serve as surrogates for the focal behavioral domain." (Fennell 1985a)

Screening of participants is discussed in fewer than half of the texts (see Fig. 6), but sometimes the treatment focuses on demographic characteristics of participants, and whether or not they have participated in qualitative studies (focus groups) before (to avoid "professional" respondents). Overall, in only about a third of the texts, readers are exhorted to screen for "use of certain products, and frequency of product use" (Fig. 6B through H) a practice that is standard procedure among practitioners of qualitative research; however, none of the 15 texts reviewed discusses the screening of participants in terms of prior focal activities.

Heterogeneity/homogeneity of participants.

There is much discussion in the texts of whether qualitative group research should be conducted with homogeneous or heterogeneous groups. The resolution suggested is usually that homogeneity is required, since heterogeneity is thought to open the door to distractions to the purpose at hand. Thus, researchers are advised "to maintain as much homogeneity or commonality among group members as possible." Here again, authors typically refer to homogeneity in terms of the demographic characteristics of the participants, rather than in terms of their prior interest in the activity that is focal for the producer/researcher. This discussion seems to miss an important point of qualitative research, that customers are naturally heterogeneous regarding their motivations to participate in the focal activity.

"A universal finding (in qualitative research) is heterogeneity, a diversity of orientations to the focal activity, not only among individuals but, within individuals, over occasions for the activity. Accordingly, in regard to any proposed intervention, the nature of demand, as a producer finds it, is heterogeneous--the conditions that form the context for doing the laundry are varied. The market for laundry detergent--or toothpaste, dog food, Mexican food, denture cleanser/adhesive, razors--comprises various segments of demand" (Fennell and Saegert 1988).

Thus, if the primary purpose of conducting qualitative research is to gain insight into the private worlds of customers regarding a particular focal activity, a universal expectation of researchers is that customers will be heterogeneous as to their motivations for performing the activity. In fact, this heterogeneity is the basis for competitive advantage in marketing: heterogeneous motivations among a firm's prospects provide opportunity for brand differentiation that is responsive to the characteristics of demand as found. Failing to discuss expected heterogeneity within groups denies the fundamental purpose of qualitative research, namely to uncover heterogeneous bases for customer demand (Fennell 1985c).




This paper is but a first, brief excursion into the enterprise of reviewing the extent to which textbooks relate the principles of marketing research to the marketing concept. Space limitations prevent us from more than skimming the surface of possible topics that might have been addressed in this regard. An extension of the present review, for example, would include a look at new product and/or attitude measurement chapters to see what the texts say about how attributes for goods/services are to be generated.

At this stage, we can conclude as follows:

1) The textbooks reviewed acknowledge the marketing concept as providing the philosophical rationale for marketing research.

2) Many discussions of business examples that the texts have used to illustrate research in marketing practice do not point out that, as follows from the marketing concept, the state of want satisfaction must have been investigated prior to the development of brands of goods/services.

3) When speaking of qualitative research, the texts largely imply that its role is relatively unimportant and secondary, compared to that of quantitative research.

4) The texts often portray the role of qualitative research as obtaining reactions to existing goods/services rather than exploring the state of want satisfaction in advance of brand formulation.

5) Authors' treatments of the methodological aspects of qualitative research often fail to alert readers to the necessity for screening participants in qualitative studies for predispositions favorable to the product category of interest. In addition, many authors overlook the fact that exploring heterogeneous motivations is a primary objective of qualitative research.

In conclusion, after initial affirmation, marketing research texts fail to give expression to the marketing concept's dictum, "Make what the customer wants to buy," as they develop the theory and practice of marketing research. Moreover, they do not discuss qualitative research as a means of investigating the circumstances that give rise to human wants, which marketers use as a basis for generating attributes. Those who would teach marketing research serve the discipline well by reminding students that the marketer's task is not simply to dispose of brands whose attributes were conceived "elsewhere," but rather to determine the attributes that will be attractive to customers whose wants marketers have researched.


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Churchill, Gilbert A., Jr. (1987), Marketing Research: Methodological Foundations, Fourth Edition, Chicago: The Dryden Press.

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Joel Saegert, University of Texas at San Antonio
Geraldine Fennell, Consultant


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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