Finding Consumers For Consumer Research: a Participatory Perspective on Moving Towards 'Marketing Science’

ABSTRACT - Recent philosophy of science thought suggests that: 1) the usefulness of an academic discipline’s theories is one of the key criteria for the attainment of honorific scientific status, and 2) theoretical usefulness is to be judged by the consumers of disciplinary knowledge. This paper contends that if consumer research is to attain long-sought scientific status it must better identify and cater to the needs of its diverse customer constituencies. Most importantly, it develops both theoretical and methodological perspectives by which these objectives may be achieved. Specifically, we first describe a behavioral-based scholarly market segmentation strategy and then advocate the application of participatory research as one method for furthering the scientific aims of consumer research.


Terrance G. Gabel and Mark Ritson (1997) ,"Finding Consumers For Consumer Research: a Participatory Perspective on Moving Towards 'Marketing Science’", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 253-258.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 253-258


Terrance G. Gabel, University of Memphis

Mark Ritson, Lancaster University


Recent philosophy of science thought suggests that: 1) the usefulness of an academic discipline’s theories is one of the key criteria for the attainment of honorific scientific status, and 2) theoretical usefulness is to be judged by the consumers of disciplinary knowledge. This paper contends that if consumer research is to attain long-sought scientific status it must better identify and cater to the needs of its diverse customer constituencies. Most importantly, it develops both theoretical and methodological perspectives by which these objectives may be achieved. Specifically, we first describe a behavioral-based scholarly market segmentation strategy and then advocate the application of participatory research as one method for furthering the scientific aims of consumer research.

One of the lesser explored implications of the postmodern moment (Brown 1995) for marketing in general and consumer research in particular [This paper adopts Anderson's (1986, p. 155) point that the discussion of marketing science can be seen to relate to consumer research generally. As a result, although marketing in general forms the basis for many of the points made in this paper, where possible, consumer research is referred to directly.] has been a reassessment of the role that universities assume in society. Consumer research has suffered from the postmodern trend of the "decentring of knowledge" and "the loss of intellectual mastery" which have been posited a major influences on contemporary academe (Hebdidge 1988). The resulting "mid-life crisis" (Brady and Davis 1993) which has afflicted marketing has manifested itself explicitly in consumer research in the form of the recent debates on the scientific nature of the disciline. Although some contend that science has been achieved, others, viewing science as socially constructed, hold that a disciplinary bias which favors certain users of consumer research at the expense of other societal groups suggests that this honorific status has yet to be realized.

This paper supports the latter view and contends that attainment of scientific status in marketing and consumer research is predicated on better segmentation of the total scholarly market served. It develops a behavioral-based perspective on how the market for marketing and consumer research knowledge may be segmented. Taking a methodological perspective, it then introduces participatory research into consumer research as one means by which the highly differential needs of disciplinary customers may be more effectively met.


A decade ago the traditional conception of marketing was challenged by a new definition of scientific knowledge and the steps marketing had to take in order to achieve that status. That debate, which continues to reverberate around the discipline, centered on the rejection of the theoretical monism derived from the neo-positivistic orientation of marketing. The traditional conception of science based on a positive "point of demarcation" (Anderson 1989, p. 10) stressed that scientific knowledge was "empirically testable" (Hunt 1983, p. 368-372) and thus separable from the common-sense non-scientific knowledge of the everyday. Inspired by a combined corpus of revisionary philosophers of science (notably Kuhn, Laudan and Feyerabend) a concerted effort was made by a number of marketing and consumer research scholars to reposition the traditional model of marketing science in relation to the edifying role of extant philosophies of science (Sherry 1991). Their most fundamental contribution to the discipline was to posit that science was not a singular (neo-positivistic) field but rather consisted of a number of differing approaches conceptualized in consumer research as "macro-structures" (Anderson 1986, p. 159). Each macro-structure possesses its own internally consistent approach to ontology, epistemology and associated methods and, crucially, each macro-structure has differing criteria for evaluating the value of knowledge claims (Peter 1991, p. 541). Just as neo-positivistic consumer research utilized measures validity, reliability and objectivity (Calder, Phillips and Tybout 1983) other approaches such as interpretive consumer research will apply alternative assessment techniques such as trustworthiness (Wallendorf and Belk 1989) or anti-foundational gestalts (Thompson 1990).

Thus the scientific panorama of consumer research has changed from a uniform to polyform perspective with many different macro-structures applying many different criteria to scientific knowledge. The resulting paradigmatic pluralism in consumer research (Sherry 1991) has complicated the establishment of a general criteria of scientific consumer research. Rather than applying the criterion from one macro-structure (i.e. the "truth value" of knowledge statements [Hunt 1990, p. 12]), the criterion for scientific consumer research became context dependent (Peter and Olson 1983).

In order to answer the question "what is scientific consumer research?", academicians began to look at knowledge from an external rather than internal perspective. Thus, in a move highly consistent with their own discipline, consumer researchers began to view the value of knowledge claims from a market-oriented rather than production-oriented perspective in which the scientific content of knowledge is determined by societal consensus (Anderson 1983; Peter and Olson 1983; Zinkhan and Hirschheim 1992). The paradigmal lesson was clear: If consumer research wanted to be recognized as a science it must first produce knowledge judged "useful" by those using it. This concern for the needs of its customers resulted in an irnic paradigmal twist: The discipline of marketing, which had originally attempted to evolve from its practical, problem solving origins in order to reach the abstraction of science (Arndt 1983 p. 20), had returned to exploring how its theories were used by society in order to attain honorific scientific status.

At this point, having isolated the holy grail of scientific status to be dependent on a societally oriented quest to produce useful knowledge, consumer research encounters a second set of problems. Society is not a singular, homogenized group of individuals with identical uses for consumer research knowledge. Rather it is a complex mass of highly differential individuals with often conflicting conceptions of what constitutes useful consumer research. In order to orient consumer research towards these differing uses and needs it is clearly necessary to identify and distinguish between customer segments within the total market for consumer research knowledge.


Marketing and consumer research scholars have for decades at least implicitly addressed the differentiated nature of the discipline’s customer base. Although a more detailed explication is beyond the scope of this paper, several studies have attempted to identify and describe the various customer segments served by the discipline (e.g., AMA Task Force 1988; Fine 1994; Kotler 1972; Priddle 1994). As depicted in Figure 1 below, review of this work suggests the existence of four general customer segments.

The conflicting interests and needs of the four segments, indicated in Figure 1 by a series of transecting arrows, essentially represent dialectical tensions based on the inherent power relationships that exist between each group. In effect, one man’s (sic) empirical meat is another man’s disciplinary poison as "useful" consumer research knowledge for one segment serves to undermine the discipline in another.

In a display of disciplinary hypocrisy consumer researchers continue to espouse the segmentation of markets in their theoretical corpus whilst simultaneously failing to apply this approach in practice. At best, the net result of this undifferentiated approach favoring the interests of industry is confusion. At worst, this persistent practice both legitimates and perpetuates the notion that consumer research is exclusively the a tool of profit-minded industry. Thus, the vast majority of those associated with consumer research (i.e., practitioners, teachers, and researchers) are collectively viewed by the public as marketer-oriented individuals (Anderson 1983 p. 27) or "corporate libertarians" (Korten 1995) who staunchly defend the corporate will with little or no regard for the often detrimental impact of industrial "progress." Further, due to the socially constructed nature of science and its relative indifference to the needs of civil society, marketing and consumer research can by no means claim to be "scientific."

In summary, if marketing and consumer research is to be viewed as anything more than a manipulative means of public-to-elite wealth transfer it must first better deploy one of its most basic principles: market segmentation. Although this task can be fruitfully approached from a variety of perspectives, one holding particular promise is behavioral segmentation in which customers "are divided into groups on the basis of their knowledge, attitude, use or response to a product" (Kotler 1984, p. 259).

Behavioral Market Segmentation

Each of the four segments of the total market for consumer research knowledge depicted in Figure 1 utilizes this knowledge in a different way and consequently possesses a different attitude toward the discipline. The critical, developmental ues of the student segment, for example, differ and often conflict with the competitive, eclectic utilization of knowledge by marketing academe (Anderson 1992 p. 9). Similarly the profit oriented, aquisitory focus of industry means that their consequent uses for consumer research often conflict with the educational, non-profit uses which civil society typically applies to consumer research (Andreasen 1991, p. 460).

Consumer researchers have largely chosen to accept the myth that what is good for marketing academe can only be good for its customers (Brown 1995, p. 50). The results of ignoring the differences in the behavioral segments in the market for consumer research are identical to the results of any attempt at undifferentiated positioning in a highly differentiated market: A bias towards the largest segment of the market, the undersatisfaction of smaller segments, and poor marketing results (Kotler 1984, p. 269). As the following segment-by-segment discussion illustrates, consumer research, as a result of its current undifferentiated positioning, has failed to maximize its usefulness in any of the four segments it serves.



From the perspective of disciplinary researchers consumer research is viewed as something they do and inform others about as part of what is perceived as a competitive race for tenure and disciplinary acclaim. While this perception is perhaps well founded given the realities of disciplinary reward systems, it detracts greatly from the production of innovative, meaningful disciplinary knowledge. Such a mindset not only invokes an overemphasis on "hot topics" in order to get published, but also leads to a concern for expediency at the cost of relevance (i.e., short duration, "one-shot," research projects). This situation is particularly disturbing in the context of doctoral education in that such practice and thought is often both reinforced and perpetuated (AMA Task Force 1988).

The positioning of consumer research to ourselves as relevant is not, in itself, problematic. The problem occurs with the implicit assumption that what we as academicians do is automatically relevant to other customer segments. A paradoxical consequence of the "publish or perish" reward structure and the mentality that it fosters arises: While individual scholars prosper, the discipline as a whole loses prestige and credibility in the eyes of its external customers.


Students, not only as a distinct customer segment but also as members of civil society and future members of industry, are arguably the most important customers for consumer research. Students need marketing knowledge to help them become productive members of both the business community and civil society. They also need information which will help them become efficient and responsible consumers. Within this multifaceted context part of the educational process involves the setting of reasonable and realistic expectations. It is on these grounds that our knowledge product is at least implicitly positioned.

Unfortunately, viewing and treating students as customers in the sense of their needs being the primary drivers of knowledge creation and dissemination is rare (Stafford 1994). When students are considered as customers to be served they are often viewed almost exclusively from a selling orientation as the targets of promotional recruitment efforts (Conant, Brown, and Mokwa 1985). Further, consistent with Priddle’s (1994) discussion of business education as more a form of corporate indoctrination than education, when student needs are addressed what is taught is a narrow, industry-dominated "hyperreality" which fails to sample an adequate range of marketing phenomena of potential importance. Finall, students rarely reap significant benefit when they are used as data-gatherers or as subjects in experimental research (Wells 1993).

Although efforts on the part of the discipline to correct the neglect of students as customers are evident (see: Cannon and Sheth 1994; Ramrocki 1994) these individuals are valued far too extensively on the basis of the financial or empirical contributions they make to marketing departments. From a long-term perspective it benefits all parties involved (i.e. students, marketing scholars, industry, and civil society) when students are prepared not only to serve industry but also to critically evaluate its structure and practices from a systemic level. Unfortunately, prevailing reward systems reinforcing the "publish or perish" mindset among educators often render them unwilling and ill-advised to take the risks necessary to facilitate creation of such knowledge.




Knowledge produced for customers in the industrial segment takes at least two basic forms. First, scholars conduct research activities and report results with a view towards application in strategic planning and implementation efforts. In less direct fashion marketing scholars provide human resources (i.e., graduated, well-educated students) to organizations. Marketing knowledge is thus often aggressively positioned to practitioners as: 1) explanatory of relevant marketplace phenomenon or 2) as central to the preparation of productive organizational employees.

Although marketing persists in its differential focus on meeting the needs of industry, evidence suggests that the discipline may not be serving segment members nearly as well as is commonly perceived (Priddle 1994, p. 50). Indeed, a common criticism of marketing’s contribution to industrial efforts is its lack of "real significance" (Anderson 1983, p. 28). This lack of significance relates to the fact that for many consumer researchers the "real world" is no such thing. In fact, it is "alien and unrecognizable to many of the executives who actually have to manage marketing for real" (Piercy 1992, p. 15). According to Zinkhan and Hirschheim (1992), reasons for the inability of academe to relate consumer research to the world of industry can be attributed to both a lack of communication and the disciplinary practice of referring to human phenomena in non-human terms (i.e., reification [Berger and Luckman 1967]). In accord with Wells’ (1993) contention that a common error on the part of consumer researchers remains the assumption that statistical significance confers real world significance the discipline has relied so heavily on reified conceptualizations (e.g., statistical measures of human behavior and motivations) that these abstract forms have obscured their relative lack of importance for our industrial customers (Arndt 1985).

Civil Society

Civil society has generally been recognized as the most important focus for "useful" consumer research (Peter 1991, p. 543). Despite this focus, disciplinary theories have been so heavily weighted in favor of the industry perspective that many societal market segment members have become alienated and disillusioned with the marketing concept (Kotler 1972). When societal factors are taken into account the narrow emphasis on purchase orientation at the expense of macro-factors continues (Andreasen 1991).

From a segmentation and positioning perspective, civil society has rarely been targeted with knowledge-creation efforts and little effort is put into improving the discipline’s position as servient to the will of industry. Positioning, in the minds of civil society at least, is clear but highly negative. To reposition the discipline in a more favorable light marketing knowledge could and should better serve this vital customer segment by creating consumption-related information of greater societal relevance which is more effectively and widely disseminated.


A common denominator in extant disciplinary calls for the creation of more relevant knowledge (e.g., Churchill 1979; Fine 1994; Jacoby 1978; Priddle 1994; Wells 1993) is a focus on better including customer input at an early stage of the knowledge creation process. Despite this consensus, there has been at best limited discussion as to exactly how this is to be achieved. The alternative epistemological and methodological perspective of participatory research is adopted here as one possible solution in that it offers a means by which scholarly activity in consumer research may be made both more relevant and, given the socially constructed context of science, more scientific.

Participatory Research

Based on the independent work of Swantz, Freire, and Hall in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Hall 1992; Park 1992), participatory research (PR) entails a partnership between academic researchers and non-researcher partners (i.e., knowledge customers) in which the latter play an active role at all stages of the research process (i.e., agenda-setting and the collection and analysis of data). Freire, for example, holds that "Authentic education is not carried on by 'A’ for 'B’ or by 'A’ about 'B,’ but rather by 'A’ with 'B" (1970, p. 82). Furthering this perspective, Stoecker and Bonacich (1992) view PR as an educational process in which all parties involved learn together how best to effect positive social change. In this capacity, PR serves not only as a means of data collection and analysis, but also as a form of teaching non-academic participants in the knowledge creation process the meaning, purpose, and importance of academic research (Lynd 1992).

In common with other interpretive approaches (e.g., ethnography, hermeneutics and existential phenomenology) PR shares an epistemological focus on the naturalistic collection and interpretation of the informant’s lived experience. PR extends this focus, however, into the disciplinary structure of a particular approach. Specifically, PR enables a closer link at all stages of the research process between the academic researcher and the external customer thus improving "customer relations" and offering a direct method for the increased production of useful knowledge.

The dynamic implications of PR suggest it to be an excellent method for re-evaluating paradigm-centric research agendas and refocusing the production of knowledge back into the realm of society, the final arbiter and consumer of scientific knowledge. The application of PR to consumer research would facilitate several such changes in the disciplinary structure of consumer research. In particular it offers consumer research a chance to reappraise the role it plays in the lives of the different customers it serves. Through its support of disenfranchised, underrepresented minorities, it may serve to level the playing field and remove traditional biases in the orientations of consumer research knowledge. The following four sections detail possible implications of applying PR to the consumer research "marketplace."


The impact of PR on academe would first limit the degree to which consumer research is produced with no thought to its long-term impact on the discipline. A great deal of emphasis could be removed from personal publication goals and the competitive nature of publication in favor of a more holistic approach to knowledge formation. PR-based consumer research both within the discipline and involving researchers from other disciplines necessitates a long-term, integrative approach much in accord with the founding principles of the Association for Consumer Research. R in this context implies a continual awareness not only of where the individual researcher stands in the disciplinary hierarchy but, as a result of joint researcher efforts aimed at the creation of meaningful disciplinary-level knowledge, also where the disciplinary hierarchy itself is and where it is headed. As such, consumer researchers are, with the influence of PR, encouraged to reject a production-oriented perspective in favor of a market-oriented approach (i.e., "What can I work on which will develop the field of consumer research?" rather than "What can I do with the work I am doing?"). As with other segments but more particularly the case with internal academic customers our suggestions for the integration of PR into consumer research thought and action share one recurrent theme with the AMA Task Force’s (1988) guidelines: A need for the restructuring of disciplinary reward systems to better encourage the taking of risks inherent in the creation of more widely relevant and useful knowledge.


Consumer research using students as respondents is exemplary of research done onCrather than for or withCstudent customers. The common practice of using students as simple data gatherers is similarly far removed from the ideal of PR. Both practices use students rather than treating them as customers who have much to gain from more extensive involvement in research activities. Although not applicable to every research context, by more actively involving students in every stage of the research program, rather than simply in data collection, they would benefit from a far more critical, in-depth view of the research process (e.g., it’s objectives, capabilities, and overall value). Furthermore, research as an activity, whether aiming for industrial or social relevance, would be perceived from a new and perhaps revealing perspective. This approach to education could also be applied more generally to teaching regardless of the students’ role in current research projects. Rather than simply resorting to traditional texts which specify the mainstream marketing corpus teaching could become enlivened and interactive through references to on-going work in the field. In this way students could develop a more contemporary, realistic, and critical perspective of marketing phenomena.


Although marketing and consumer researchers frequently produce knowledge directly for industry-based clients most discussions of what is commonly referred to as "collaborative research" have been of technology-oriented (i.e., R&D) alliances between two or more business organizations (see: Branscomb 1992; Hakanson 1993; Peterson 1993; Werner 1991). Relatively little attention has been given to the joint efforts of industry and academicians and, when it has, it has often taken the perspective of the practitioner, focusing on how to best locate and work with university-based research partners (see: Bloedon and Stokes 1994; Quintas, Wield, and Massey 1992). Relative to PR, such research efforts, as well as the vast majority of consulting projects, exhibit far lower levels of joint knowledge creation: Marketing practitioners typically describe their problems to academic researchers, who, being experts in research methodology and statistical analysis, collect and analyze data on their own. Such research is most commonly conducted either on or for rather than with industry customers. PR affords consumer researchers a unique opportunity to create knowledge both for and with industry-segment customers.


While undeniably good-intentioned, insightful, and often actionable, much "societally relevant" consumer research is done for, rather than for and with, members of civil society. Far more problematic is research done on society which uses disadvantaged and vulnerable individuals as informants andis not guided by real-life problems experienced by these persons but rather by disciplinary interpretation of what these real-life problems must surely be. Joint researcher-societal customer PR offers the potential to move beyond traditional "societally relevant" marketing and consumer research. At the research design stage, such efforts are likely to provide new insight into the consumption-related problems experienced by disadvantaged members of society which all parties, regardless of segment or perspective, should want addressed in greater detail. At the stage of data collection, societal customers come to gain a better understanding of the research process while researchers benefit from constant interaction with the consumers of the knowledge being created. This interaction not only assures production of more insightful knowledge but also turns the traditional human experience of consumer research (i.e., questionnaires) into a catharsis or therapeutic exercise for the informant (McCracken 1988). A positive experience of the research process can be seen as a direct method for altering the public’s predominantly negative interpretation of consumer research. Finally, in the result-based stage of the research, joint interpretation and reporting entails dissemination of consumer research knowledge via new outlets more accessible and palatable to civil society customers. Obviously, for this to occur, disciplinary reward systems must be modified to reflect the fact that jointly produced, societally relevant knowledge is at least asCif not moreCimportant to the lived experience of most humans as it is to the hierarchy of academic publications. The PR perspective reminds us that we should never compromise ourselves by forgetting that we can serve as mediators of meaningful social change.


Central to this discussion is the assumption that consumer research can attain scientific status only to the extent that disciplinary knowledge is judged as relevant and useful by those persons using it (i.e., disciplinary customers). PR acts as a catalyst for the production of useful knowledge through the elevation of the subject to the role of participant. From this elevated position the consumer is not simply a passive responder to the a priori agendas of consumer researchers but rather an active force ensuring that the future progress of the discipline follows the needs of the market. PR, even if adopted in only a limited sense by a limited number of consumer researchers, forces disciplinary scholars to realize that they do not hold a monopoly on good research ideas. Although a portion of control over the research process is necessarily relinquished, PR creatively applied allows the researcher the unique opportunity to intimately involve in the knowledge creation process those persons possessing the highest level of knowledge of the focal phenomenon. Moreover, it encourages the discipline to differentiate between the various segments its knowledge is created to serve. Perhaps most persuasively of all, PR ensures that consumers for consumer research are given what they want: A relevant corpus of useful knowledge. In the quest which we all share to ensure consumer research’s attainment of scientific status such a contribution may well be invaluable.


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Terrance G. Gabel, University of Memphis
Mark Ritson, Lancaster University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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