Feminist Theory and Marketing Thought: Toward a New Approach For Consumer Research

ABSTRACT - This paper looks at the effect of feminist theory on the conceptualization of marketing thought. Specifically, it examines the effect of feminist theory on the formulation of research in marketing generally and consumer behavior in particular. Finally, it discusses implications of feminist theory for the marketing paradigm.


Mary Ellen Zuckerman and Mary Carsky (1992) ,"Feminist Theory and Marketing Thought: Toward a New Approach For Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 464-471.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 464-471


Mary Ellen Zuckerman, SUNY Geneseo

Mary Carsky, Barney School of Business

[Authorship of this paper is equal. A longer, more general version of this paper was presented at the 1991 Conference on Gender and Consumer Behavior.]


This paper looks at the effect of feminist theory on the conceptualization of marketing thought. Specifically, it examines the effect of feminist theory on the formulation of research in marketing generally and consumer behavior in particular. Finally, it discusses implications of feminist theory for the marketing paradigm.


Over the past fifteen years, feminist scholarship has had a significant impact on a number of disciplines, including anthropology, literature, psychology, sociology and history (see Langland and Gove 1981; DuBois et al. 1987). This scholarship argues that hidden assumptions about men and women have influenced standard academic subjects. Such assumptions are embedded in the theoretical frameworks, the formulation of research questions, the methodology and data collection, the interpretation of results, and the conclusions drawn.

Feminist theory may influence the fields of marketing and consumer behavior differently from the way it has affected disciplines such as history and literature or even social sciences such as psychology and anthropology. In these latter fields, feminist theory provided a totally new perspective. Because marketing theoreticians and practitioners have always focused on "women as consumers," the feminist perspective may not initially appear to offer something new and unique. We argue, however, that by incorporating the tenets of the feminist perspective, consumer behavior theory can be significantly enriched.

This paper first describes the foundations of the feminist perspective as they are applied to research. It then poses questions such an approach raises concerning the conceptualization of consumer behavior theory and research. Finally, it develops implications for reshaping the consumer behavior, and, more generally, the marketing, paradigm.

Questions to be considered include:

1) How does feminist theory affect research?

2) How does gender affect the formulation of consumer behavior research?

3) How do researchers in consumer behavior and marketing view their subjects? How does the researcher/subject relationship affect research and its outcomes?

4) What is the effect of gender on our research methodologies?

5) What is the interdisciplinary dimension of research in consumer behavior and marketing?

These questions stem from a feminist approach to research. Such an approach extends beyond consideration of women's issues into a fundamental investigation of gender differences and their impact on a discipline's body of knowledge. Several of these issues have received attention in the marketing literature, without being seen in a specifically feminist context. Exploration of all these areas should lead to new insights which can ultimately operate to influence the paradigm.


A feminist perspective is one that challenges and questions underlying assumptions in the discipline that have to do with gender (see Gergen 1988; Childers and Grunig 1989). This process allows scholars to see how these assumptions have affected research approaches and the development of thought in a field. Langland and Gove have articulated this usefully, writing that "A feminist perspective...seeks to correct the bias present in our academic disciplines by uncovering and questioning the hidden assumptions about men and women that have shaped and informed standard academic subjects" (1981:3).

A feminist approach however, does not only focus on women and gender, although that is its fundamental perspective. However, it also takes a holistic view of research, recognizing the interrelationships that exist between constructs within a domain. The perspective advocates a nonhierarchical methodology, wherein subjects are treated as equal partners with an investigator. It maintains that research cannot be value-free, because both the values of the researcher and the traditions of the discipline guide inquiry. A feminist approach fundamentally questions the status quo, forcing researchers to explore the assumptions they hold. As applied to consumer research this perspective would allow us to re-examine consumer behavior theory, consumer research agendas, and more generally, the academic marketing discipline overall.

The marketing discipline as a whole is ripe for such re-examination; as Shelby Hunt has pointed out, according to the definitions set by Thomas Kuhn (1970), marketing is actually "pre-paradigmatic," still in that first stage of debate over what constitutes the scope and content of the discipline, what the important questions are. It is not yet firmly shaped and solidified (see Hunt 1991: 332; see also Firat, et al 1987: xii-xiii). In this sense the feminist point of view can simply join all the other points of view competing for inclusion, as marketing sets an agenda in terms of its content, methodology and epistemology. It is crucial that the feminist perspective be considered now, and, where relevant, incorporated, since the discipline's paradigm sets the rules for research formulation and administration. As one scholar has noted:

A paradigm (1) serves as guide to the professionals in a discipline for it indicates what are the important problems and issues confronting the discipline; (2) goes about developing an explanatory scheme (i.e. models and theories) which can place these issues and problems in a framework which will allow practitioners to try to solve them; (3) establishes the criteria for the appropriate 'tools' (i.e., methodologies, instruments, and types and forms of data collection) to use in solving these disciplinary puzzles; and (4) provides an epistemology in which the preceding tasks can be viewed as organizing principles for carrying out the 'normal work' of the discipline. Paradigms not only allow a discipline to 'make sense' of different kinds of phenomena but provide a framework in which these phenomena can be identified as existing in the first place (William J. Filstead, quoted in Deshpande 1986: 113).

However, despite its early stage of development, the marketing discipline already operates from some basic assumptions, values and methodologies which often go unchallenged and which affect research in consumer behavior. Marketers do not necessarily recognize that they are influenced by these beliefs in choosing what they consider to be salient research problems, appropriate research design and methodology, and proper analysis. Using a feminist approach forces us to uncover and reexamine those beliefs, particularly as they relate to gender.


Feminist Theory and Research

The feminist approach to research builds in part on the work of those who have examined gender differences in personality, cognitive development and socialization, work which holds strong implications for scholars in consumer behavior (see, for example, Carlson 1971; Miller 1976; Gilligan 1982). This body of research has found differences between males and females in processing skills and cognitive structuring. These lead to different world views, which in turn result in the preference for alternative approaches to seeking knowledge and to conducting research. Such gendered cognitive and social differences between males and females affect both female scholars in the marketing profession generally, and perceptions and research about female consumers. (Such gender differences are learned behavior, thus are culture bound. This paper reviews studies pertaining predominantly to men and women in the United States).

Women, feminist scholars conclude, frequently interpret experiences in relatively interpersonal, subjective, and contextual ways. Men, on the other hand, frequently interpret experiences of self, others, space, and time in individualistic, objective and distant ways. For example Carlson (1971), in studying personality and gender, used conceptions of agency and communion to differentiate the aggregate of males from the aggregate of females. As she defines it,

Agency is seen in differentiating of self from the field, in intellectual functions involving separating and ordering and in interpersonal styles involving objectivity, competition exclusion and distance. Communion is seen in merging of self with the field, in intellectual functions involving communication, in interpersonal styles involving subjectivity, cooperation, acceptance and closeness (Carlson 1971:271).

Carlson found that men were more selective in the information cues they use in interpreting and acting upon the world; women were found to be more comprehensive in cue perception and more likely to consider problems within a context or frame of reference.

Gilligan (1982) and Belenky, et al. (1986) reached similar conclusions about gender differences. Like Carlson, they reported that women exhibit greater complexity of constitutional-psychological processes, and that they are more concerned with interpersonal relationships than men. Gilligan (1982) attributed differences in personality and cognitive structures to fundamental developmental differences that had not previously been recognized. She and Belenky et al. (1986) studied the developmental and socialization processes of females and found them to differ significantly from those of males. Through examining developmental differences these authors have identified men's knowledge as "separatist." Men (and women adopting this pattern) use impersonal procedures for arriving at the truth. This can be contrasted with women's "interconnectedness," in which truth emerges through empathy and understanding (Belenky et al. 1986: 102). Where men, as separate knowers, prefer to separate out or extrapolate a singular factual error or logical contribution as a basis for analysis, women have a tendency toward a more holistic view. Belenky et al. (1986) defines this interconnectedness as "constructed knowing." Women, according to these researchers, integrate knowledge of self (that which is personally important) with knowledge gained from others. Such "constructivist" thinkers understand that the answers to all questions vary depending on the context and the frame of reference.

Meyers-Levy (1989) has reviewed much of the research on gender differences and proposes a theory called the "selectivity hypothesis." She argues that men and women select different cues from the environment, and interpret them in dissimilar ways. This affects their modes of inquiry. For example, Meyers-Levy notes, females engage in comprehensive information processing and attempt to assimilate all available cues; males used heuristic devices to select singular cues and tend to be driven by reliance on those that are highly available and particularly salient in the focal context. Males' processing is characterized by efficiency-striving heuristics whereas females' is characterized by pronounced attempts toward maximizing the comprehensiveness of processing of available cues.

Belenky et al. (1986) concluded that "women tend not to rely as readily on hypothetico-deductive inquiry, which posits an answer (the hypothesis) prior to data collection as they do on examining basic assumptions and the conditions in which a problem is cast" (p.139). Hence, the positivist approach, the scientific method, seems more appropriate to male information processing and research than to that of females. In addition, recent studies have pointed to the differential nature of the graduate school learning experience for women and men (see e.g., Aisenberg and Harrington 1985; and Belenky, et al. 1986). This could result in female scholars perceiving and choosing research issues in new areas, and framing research questions differently than males.

Women now represent approximately 20% of the AMA educators, and since 1986, nearly 50% of the doctoral degrees in marketing have been granted to women (National Center for Educational Statistics 1988). The marketing profession generally is recognizing the growing number of females coming into the field, with special sessions at the last three AMA education conference, as well as at ACR and AMS meetings within the past year. These sessions addressed issues such as problems encountered by females being trained predominantly by men, and the difficulty of developing research agendas on topics of interest to women and/or those using a feminist perspective. Historically, however, students of the marketing profession have been trained in a male-dominated environment.

While few studies in marketing have attempted to determine how gender affects the conceptualization and administration of research, a study has been conducted recently on female marketing academics (Carsky, Kennedy and Zuckerman 1989; Carsky, Kennedy and Zuckerman 1990b). The results show that research interests of female educators center on consumer behavior and promotion, while those of male educators are divided evenly among subfields including management, strategy, channels, sales, pricing, promotion and consumer behavior (Kennedy, Carsky and Zuckerman 1990).

Gender and the Framing of Research Questions

In framing research questions, we are of necessity guided by the paradigm of the discipline. We frequently frame our questions in light of prior research. We critically review the literature, looking for important issues left unsolved by previous research. We formulate the problem and design the study based on this. But to what extent do we look beyond the scholarly body of literature to inquire about the validity of prior research? How often, for example, do we question the accuracy of prior research in reflecting the issues, concerns, attitudes, and behaviors of consumers interacting in the marketplace? Feminist theory would suggest that when conducting an inquiry on marketplace behaviors, the research begin by asking potential subjects about their conception of reality. It is essential to consider a broad frame of reference, to view situations and issues within a context as opposed to using a "separatist" perspective (see Gilligan 1982; and Belenky et al. 1986). Often this calls for unstructured information gathering on a large scale preceding the use of structured questions, to increase the likelihood that the information to be quantified reflects the circumstances of the respondents' lives.

More specifically, we need to consider whether or not we are we asking the right question, focusing on relevant gender differences in behavior. Have we, for example, acknowledged male and female differences in processing and conceptualization which can impact our research findings? To what extent have we, in consumer behavior, relied primarily on men to provide us with information about women? To what extent has the literature previously developed accurately recorded women's experiences, providing a reliable foundation and context for studying issues salient to female consumers?

For example, the supermarket has provided researchers with a rich environment in which to study consumer purchase decisions, particularly with respect to information processing and the selection of informational cues. Although studies report that up to 40% of food shoppers are men, women are still primarily responsible for food shopping and food purchasing decisions within the household (Food Marketing Insitute 1989): 63). In recent years a number of studies have examined the use of nutritional information in the store. For the most part, these investigations relied on sales data as the dependent measure. In five separate studies, no change in the sales of the "most nutritious brand" was found (Carsky 1988). In none of these studies were food shoppers asked about 1) their perception of nutritional differences between brands, 2) the importance of nutrition for selected products, 3) whether nutrition decisions were made at the brand level, and/or 4) whether the format of the information display was comprehensible or important enough to warrant notice. No consideration was given to these issues, or to the context in which food shoppers made decisions. The design of each of these studies relied upon the previous literature. McGrath et al. (1982) has suggested that the worst method to choose for taking a step forward on a research problem is any method that has been heavily used in the past. Yet, because of traditions in the discipline, that is often precisely what is done.

We might also ask whether the experiences of men are represented as the norm, those of females as different, as other. An historical example illustrates how such a construction can occur over time. When the Curtis Publishing Company put out a promotional brochure about consumer behavior called Selling Forces, it contained a section called "Selling to Men," and another called "Selling to Women" (Curtis Publishing Company 1913). In 1952, Curtis issued a new book by the same title. This updated and revised version again contained a section called "Selling to Women," but none on selling to men; it was assumed that men, the norm, formed the target of all other advice in the book (Hobart and Wood 1952). Similarly, some marketing and consumer behavior texts have discussed women, a numerical majority in this country, as a sub group (see, for example Shiffman and Kanuk 1987: 520-535).

The association of women with the private and men with the public sphere, documented by feminist scholars (Rothman 1978; Evans 1989), may also affect research formulation. Research in the social sciences (from which much consumer research theory and methodology has derived) has often operated under assumptions and techniques developed to examine the public sphere. These techniques frequently fail to provide sufficient information about the private sphere. For example, Graham offers a critique of survey methodology, a technique frequently used in consumer research. She notes four assumptions made about units of analysis: 1) units are single and complete; 2) units are equivalent; 3) units and their products have an object-form external to the individual; and 4) units and their outputs are measurable (Graham, cited in Driscoll and McFarland 1989). These assumptions remove the individual from his/her social context. This masks the structure of social relationships and treats patterns of action and attitude as personal characteristics rather than dimensions of social structure. Graham points out that the assumptions behind survey measurement presumes a precise definition of social phenomena, which in and of itself is inherently ambiguous. Finally, she argues that measurement is "closely tied to the marketplace, where activities are quantified and regulated through the medium of money," thus tied to the public sphere (Graham, cited in Driscoll and McFarland 1989: 189). This analysis is particularly salient to the marketing discipline generally which initially developed to solve the problems of the distribution of goods, and hence, was concerned primarily with the public sphere. Marketing only came to recognize the importance of measuring consumer behavior (played out at least in part in the private sphere) in the 1960s. Marketing's long tradition of focusing on the public sphere has undoubtedly spilled over into the way it assesses the private. The effect of this spillover needs to be examined.

Researcher-Subject Relationship

A feminist approach calls for a non-hierarchical methodology. Feminist scholars believe that researchers, subjects and the knowledge that emerges from the research process are interconnected, rather than independent (Gergen 1988: 94). This means recognizing what the scholars Childers and Grunnig describe as "the interconnectedness between scientists' gender and their relationship to subjects and facts" (Childers and Grunig 1989).

Interconnectedness between researcher and subject is not the norm in research about consumers, even when the research seems on the surface to deal with feminist or woman -oriented issues. For example, when the women's liberation movement reached a peak in the late 1970s, a number of marketers focused their research on women and gender effects, most notably in the field of advertising. A flurry of studies were conducted (Sexton and Haberman 1974; Poe 1975; Venkatesan and Losco 1975; Venkatesh and Tankersley 1979; Venkatesh 1980; and Skelley and Lundstrom 1981), which looked at stereotyping of women in advertisements, effectiveness of various portrayals of women, comparison of portrayal of men and women, and media readership and viewing by sex. Yet none of these studies fundamentally questioned the nature of the researcher-subject relationship in doing this work; none of the researchers (male and female) questioned their own formulations or views (and stereotypes) about their subjects.

No studies in consumer research have been uncovered which examine the effect of gender on research. In psychology, however, a meta-analysis performed on a series of research topics revealed significant effects for sex of researcher on the outcome (Eagly and Carli 1981; and Eagly and Crowley 1986). The investigators found that authors are more likely to report behaviors that are socially desirable for members of their own sex. Other studies have found interactions between sex and the task characteristics in experimental designs. Results have indicated that some tasks are not gender-neutral, and that either males or females are more likely to excel (see Deaux 1971; Deaux and Taylor 1973; Major and Deaux 1982; Deaux 1984).

The feminist analysis of the researcher-subject relationship is clearly in line with the interpretivist stance which Hudson and Ozanne describe, writing that:

Interpretivists hold that researcher and people under investigation interact with each other creating cooperative inquiry. If the social reality is based on individuals' or groups' perceptions, then in order to be able to understand those perceptions, these individuals must be involved in creating research process. Thus, the individual who is studied becomes a participant in the experiment, guiding the research as well as supplying information. Interpretivists believe that in the social sciences the scientist is a member of social reality; no privileged Archimedian vantage point exists. This view results in emerging research designs that require ongoing adaptability on the part of the researcher. From the interpretivist's point of view, the merging designs are better able to take into account the subject's knowledge (Hudson and Ozanne 1988:512).

Similar statements on the importance of mutual interaction between the researcher and the subject (informant) can be found in Hirschman 1986; Levy 1981; Thompson et al. 1989, and others who have contributed to a growing body of "crisis literature" (Hunt 1990).

Whether or not one cares to conduct inquiry using the interpretivist or phenomenological path to knowledge, one should at least attempt to understand the "reality" of the individuals under study. Where we have sound evidence, through the accumulation of studies on gender, that males and females conceptualize differently, we should, at a minimum, keep this in mind when investigating phenomena where such distinctions are important.

Research Methodology

Empirical knowledge is always contingent on the methods, populations, situations, and underlying assumptions involved in the process by which that knowledge was captured. As Driscoll and McFarland note, "Feminist research methodology is oriented toward contextualizing the research process, the researcher, and the subject of the research based on a nondualistic world view" (1989). While calling for a holistic approach, a feminist perspective does not negate the validity or usefulness of the scientific method, with its attendant experimental design and statistical analyses. It does, however, posit that knowledge requires a convergence of substantive findings derived from a diversity of methods of inquiry. It advocates the multi-method approach advanced by Campbell and Fiske (1959), which suggests knowledge acquisition through a convergence of findings, involving observations, humanistic inquiry, and experimental studies. For statistical analyses, the feminist approach would imply greater use of causal modeling techniques and multivariate statistics, as it maintains that multiple influences exist for any behavior.

In consumer research, the experimental design is perceived to be the "purest" form of research. The true experiment allows us to isolate a construct, to measure it with precision and accuracy, thus forwarding the advancement of knowledge and building of theory. For example, we often examine the "behavior" of college students when given an artificial task, in a contrived setting, and then generalize this into consumer behavior in the marketplace. The experiment is seen to be value-free, as it seeks to eliminate the threats to internal and external validity. The feminist perspective would question how well an isolated task performed in a contrived setting actually represents consumer interaction in the marketplace. It also would argue that this is not value-free research. The conceptualization and framing of the experimental questions, along with their method, are steeped in the traditions of the discipline, with current research often mirroring past research.

Interdisciplinary Dimensions of Research

Just as they believe in interconnectedness of knowledge, so feminist scholars stress the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to research (see e.g. Keller 1987). In order to understand and comprehend the complexities of any phenomenon it must be examined from several perspectives. The salience of an interdisciplinary approach to understanding human behavior is self-evident.

In this area the consumer behavior discipline appears very strong. By incorporating psychologists, anthropologists, home economists and economists, it draws on a variety of disciplines; the Association for Consumer Research specifically notes that it is an interdisciplinary body. Consumer research has often been at the vanguard of interdisciplinary and innovative perspectives (e.g. Firat, et al. 1987). It has been within this domain of marketing that logical empiricism or logical positivism as the only legitimate mode of seeking knowledge has received the most attention. The work of scholars from divergent backgrounds with different philosophical methodologies and ontological frameworks are provided with a forum for presenting alternative world views of the consumer environment. While Anderson (1983) suggests that paradigmatic conflicts cannot be resolved as they require too great a "conceptual leap," the emergence of new paradigms arising from the interdisciplinary nature of ACR and its journal may occur as a result of exposure through this association that acknowledges the legitimacy of different philosophies and methodologies.


Marketing has moved from a study of products and services, to a study of social interactions (human behavior). When considering the design of a product, for example, we are interested not in the product itself, but rather in the benefits that will accrue to the user of the product. Marketers' inquiry then must turn to understanding the attitudes, motivations and desires of the actors involved in the exchange transaction. Yet as suggested more than twenty-five years ago (Halbert 1964), there is no simple route to understanding human behavior: "...our scientific research must be turned inward as well as outward. We must study marketing operators and marketing scientists... and we must study ourselves. Only after we know what we do and how we do it can we begin to do it better" (1964: 32).

The feminist approach offers a conceptualization and suggests methodologies for studying such social phenomena, and behavior by consumers. It emphasizes the context or mileau in which individuals operate in the exchange relationship, with each acting in his or her own self interest to maximize the perceived benefits and minimize the costs of the transaction. If a general theory of marketing is to be developed, we must study actors in the transactions within the natural environment, something a feminist perspective facilitates. Through the tenets of interconnectedness, a holistic view, anti-elitism, and a non-hierarchical research methodology, a better understanding of marketing phenomena will be realized.

In defining marketing as the behavioral science that seeks to explain relationships, Hunt (1983) delineated four sets of marketing explananda, which apply to consumer behavior as well, including: 1) the behavior of buyers directed at consummating exchanges; 2) the behavior of sellers directed at consummating exchanges; 3) the institutional framework directed at facilitating exchanges; and 4) the consequences on society of the behaviors of these parties. The feminist approach can broaden marketers' perspective in each of these areas.

Women have long been the primary target for the marketing efforts of producers and distributors of many consumer goods. Feminist theory offers an understanding of women's ways of knowing--of the female mode of conceptualization and processing of information that will lead to better comprehension of the manner in which women engage in the selection, consumption and disposition of goods, and how it may differ from that of men. The theory specifies that most women view things in a context. To separate out one minute aspect of the purchase process for study is inappropriate for understanding their buyer behavior.

Knowledge about the behavior of sellers can also be furthered by using a feminist perspective. To understand why sellers produce, price, promote and distribute as they do requires anti-elitism and a non-hierarchical research approach. We must, as feminist theory suggests, seek to empathize with the position of the seller, to utilize interactive modes of inquiry in which both the research and researched learn from the process. We must use inductive and qualitative methodology. As women now fill the ranks of the industrial salesforce, we should also examine the differences in the ways men and women operate within the occupation. In light of the feminist scholarship on cognitive differences between the sexes, we might find that male and female salespeople respond to customer service needs differently. Successful salespeople of the two genders may differ both in their routes to success and in their reasons for success.

In examining marketing's institutional framework, we must employ an historical methodology, one which looks at the societal environment in which institutions have evolved over time. In viewing this history we need to consider the societal conditions involving not only the public sphere of marketplace transactions populated principally by men, but also the private sphere, typically the domain of women. We need to examine the interactions between these two arenas, and how this interaction might have influenced the development of institutions important to marketing. For example, changes in the nature of women's work in the home influenced the development of department stores in the nineteenth century. In more recent years, the changing role of women, the dual earner family, and smaller household size have forced changes in the retailing community.

To look at changing institutions without considering the last of the four explananda, the effects on society, would be to examine one aspect of the environment out of its context. From the end of the last century women have been instrumental in spearheading movements to improve working conditions, the safety of products, and the inequities of the marketplace. They have been leaders in the environmental movement and the consumer protection movement. We must study what particular factors motivate women to take up and/or support a cause, and investigate how and why they are frequently earlier than men in spotting inequities and spillover effects of production. By understanding the world view of women, we can better learn to identify potential problems with our marketing efforts and correct them as they are about to occur.

In summary, the feminist approach calls for a rethinking of consumer behavior. In so doing, it will enrich the field. As Belenky et al. note, to see "knowledge as a construction and truth a matter of the context in which it is embedded greatly expand(s)... the possibilities of how to think about anything, even those things we consider to be the most elementary and obvious" (1986: 138). Conversely, consumer research tools and analysis can be used to explore more deeply and understand more completely gender construction in our society. The areas outlined here point to new areas of inquiry for consumer researchers, feminists, and feminists within the consumer behavior discipline.


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Mary Ellen Zuckerman, SUNY Geneseo
Mary Carsky, Barney School of Business


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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