Reflections on Research in Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - This review of the published research in consumer behavior concludes that the area has been incompletely covered by the research effort. Most of the research attention has been given to prepurchase decision processes for brands. More fundamental consumer problems such as purchase of strategic products and budget allocation problems, as well as postpurchase phenomena in general, have been neglected. It is suggested that the bias in the research attention may be traced back to the dominance of a pragmatic marketing tradition in the area, encouraging emphasis on controllable aspects of the decision process.


Johan Arndt (1976) ,"Reflections on Research in Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 213-221.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 213-221


Johan Arndt, Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration


This review of the published research in consumer behavior concludes that the area has been incompletely covered by the research effort. Most of the research attention has been given to prepurchase decision processes for brands. More fundamental consumer problems such as purchase of strategic products and budget allocation problems, as well as postpurchase phenomena in general, have been neglected. It is suggested that the bias in the research attention may be traced back to the dominance of a pragmatic marketing tradition in the area, encouraging emphasis on controllable aspects of the decision process.


The purpose of this paper is to make some general comments on selected aspects of consumer behavior research. Specifically, an attempt to be made to argue for more emphasis on theory based research on what is called "fundamental consumer problems".

The paper which builds on the draft of Chapter One in a forthcoming book tentatively titled Toward a Theory of Household Consumer Behavior, is organized as follows:

- The area of consumer behavior.

- Parties interested in consumer research.

- Critical comments on the consumer behavior literature.

- The task ahead.


Before proceeding to the discussion of the subject matter, it is necessary to state as clearly as possible what is meant by consumer behavior. In wider sense, consumer behavior problems are the problems encountered by members of society in the acquisition and realization of their standard of living. More specifically, consumer behavior may be defined as (1) the mental 'and physical acts of (2) individuals or organized groups of individuals concerned with ultimate consumption, (3) that relate to acquiring, using, and, in some cases, disposing of (4) economic goods and services (5) both from the private and the public sector.

In order to delineate the area of consumer behavior further, the various activities constituting "consumer behavior'' may be cross-classified by (1) what may be called stage in the buy-use continuum and (2) by level of process.

Many writers, such as Nicosia (1966), Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell (1968, 1973), Howard and Sheth (1969), Robertson (1971), and Hansen (1972) have viewed consumer decision making as a multistage, problem-solving process. Building on Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell (1968, 1973), the following stages may be distinguished. [It should be noted that Engel, Kollat, and Black-well (1968, 1973) are mainly interested in the purchasing process. Hence, they do not include steps 4 and 5 in the model below. Instead, the purchasing stage is followed by postpurchase evaluation and cognitive dissonance following in the wake of the decision.]

(1) Problem-recognition.

(2) Search for information to evaluate alternatives.

(a) Internal search.

(b) External search.

(3) Implementation of the purchase.

(4) Physical consumption.

(5) Postconsumption activities.

At the problem-recognition stage, the consumer becomes aware of a difference between the desired state with regard to the fulfillment of some consumer goal and the actual state. It seems reasonable to assume that this difference has to reach a certain threshold value in order to warrant further action.

If the discrepancy between the desired and the actual state is of a sufficient magnitude, the consumer will move into the second stage where information is sought to locate purchase alternatives, to clarify buying goals (evaluation criteria), and to determine to what extent the alternatives measure up to the goals. In this phase, the consumer may start by determining whether there is sufficient stored information that may be generalized to the problem at hand. If not, and the problem is important enough, the consumer may start an external search process, for instance by inspecting products directly (significative information) and/or by acquiring symbolic information representing the product by means of commercial mass media, word-of-mouth communications from other consumers, or information from neutral sources such as Consumer Reports.

In the implementation stage, the transaction process by which the right of property is transferred, is completed.

The fourth stage, physical consumption, is concerned with the use of the product or service to satisfy the buying goals. For non-durable goods and services, the consumption may be completed in a short time. For durables, such as appliances and houses, the consumption may occur continuously over many time periods. In practice, the actual physical depreciation in a given period may be hard to determine.

Finally, during or after actual consumption, the consumer may compare the degree of goal-fulfillment with the original expectations. The degree of satisfaction felt is then believed to be stored in the consumer's mind as part of an "attitude". This phase also contains attempts to cope with postpurchase regrets or cognitive dissonance, as well as activities to remove remainders of the goods consumed from the household, for instance in the form of garbage or a used car traded in.

The five-stage process should not be conceived of as being necessarily unidirectional in a simple fashion. First, it is reasonable to believe that there are feedback relationships between "later" and "earlier" stages. For example, postconsumption activities may affect problem-recognition processes in the next cycle. Second, the actual sequence of stages may deviate from the regular pattern. For instance, stage 3 may technically occur before stage 2b if a product is bought on trial as a first part of a search process.

The second dimension in our scheme, level of decision process, relates to the notion that certain decisions depend on other decisions. Important key purchasing decisions are believed to create constraints or criteria for subsequent minor decisions. Hence, decisions may be placed in a hierarchy on basis of the extent to which the decisions depend on other decisions. The levels suggested below build to some extent on the work of the Danish economist Karen Gredal (1964, 1966):

A. Acquisition of strategic items.

B. Central budget allocation decisions.

C. Generic product or service decisions.

D. Variant selection. [Gredal (1964, 1966) does not include level A -Acquisition of strategic items. On the other hand she has added a final level termed "the technical purchasing action". In this scheme, however, this level seems to correspond to the implementation stage in the stage dimension.]

Certain buying decisions are strategic in the sense that they are concerned with long-term bindings of resources. Hereby, they affect the budget available for other goods and services. Examples are expensive durable goods such as houses, cars, etc. Second, a decision may be considered strategic since purchase of one item usually entails purchase of other items. For instance, a well-to-do family may have a choice between sending their son or daughter to a prestigious private college, acquiring a cottage in a mountain resort, or moving to a more attractive neighborhood. In this case, choice of alternative would have important repercussions for other items to be purchased. For instance, the cottage alternative may result in acquisition of hiking equipment, fishing tackle, etc.

The central budget allocation decisions correspond to what Gredal (1964, 1966) terms "the general purchasing decision". The purpose of decisions at this level is to establish more or less explicit policies about the allocation of the available money among alternative groups of products and services. It is possible that, at this level, appropriation is first made for fixed expenses such as interest and installments for debts, costs of utilities, cost of maintenance of house, etc.

Level C, which parallels Gredal's (1964, 1966) notion of "the concrete purchasing decision", is concerned, as the term suggests, with selection of generic product and service categories and not, for instance, with the individual brands.

Selection of alternatives within each product or service group occurs at the fourth level, which in Gredal's (1964, 1966) terms is called "the selection decision''.

The four-level hierarchy presented here should not be thought of as a procedure that all consumers necessarily follow. It is conceivable that certain levels may be skipped. For instance, the decision maker may move directly from level B to level D, without making any generic product or service decision. However, the normal rule is that decisions at the higher levels in the hierarchy occur before and occur less frequently than decisions at the lower levels. Hence, our typology parallels the distinction between strategic decisions and operational decisions in the business management literature.

Figure 1 presents a dummy matrix showing the various cells when stages and levels in our system of consumer behavior are cross-classified. While all cells should not be considered being of equal importance as regards research, it is suggested that the research effort so far has been very lopsided. As indicated in Figure 1, it seems as if most of the published consumer research material has focused on cells D-1, D-2, and D-3. An attempt will be made to give a systematic explanation of this bias.


It is almost axiomatic that the research activities in any academic area do not occur in what may be called an "influence vacuum". The direction of the consumer research is believed not only to be influenced by consumer researchers themselves, but also by the interests and influences of other groups and institutions in society, who are current or potential users of consumer behavior knowledge.

This section will point out some of these interest groups of relevance for consumer research and tentatively suggest the nature of their interest in the subject matter. In Figure 2 below, the main goals and objectives for the most important groups are suggested. Second, building on the thoughts of Sommers (1971), the kind of validity searched for in the research questions raised is also suggested.

As pointed out by Sommers (1971), and as indicated in Figure 2, marketing managers tend to be governed by a prescriptive tradition, that is, determining the firm's strategy for a given product or brand. As the manager is normally rewarded on the basis of the economic consequences of his manipulations of the variables in the marketing mix, he is normally not interested in the research available per se, but in the extent to which knowledge about consumer behavior may be converted into profit-making practice. Hence, he is oriented toward the pragmatic validity of the relationships uncovered.

Similarly, commercial marketing researchers are often atheoretical in the approach taken as they perceive their role as providing managers with information bearing directly on the decisions to be made. Though researchers in many ways share other practitioners' pragmatic interest, they usually attempt to widen the scope of managers by moving further to more detailed descriptions of market behavior of consumers. Hereby, as stated by Sommers (1971), commercial marketing researchers are concerned with concurrent validity - making estimates of the magnitude of present behavior -and content validity - determining the fairness and accuracy of the measurements of the behavior of interest.

As regards academic consumer behavior researchers, Sommers (1971) claims that this type is concerned with questions like, "What is it that is working and how?", and that this interest in explanation of aspects of consumer behavior is tantamount to a concern with construct validity. However, the pragmatic orientation of marketers seems also to pervade this party in the sense that, so far, there has been little emphasis on theory building. The research effort has been biased because of an overemphasis on prepurchase variables. Therefore, the consumer researchers have so far been too influenced by the marketing management thinking and have not really reached the construct validity level.

To date, academic behavioral researchers in areas other than marketing have not played a major part in the development of the field. This party is very heterogeneous, and it is difficult to make meaningful generalizations. However, there appear to be two main differing schools of thought. First, there are "the traditionalists'' interested in explaining, predicting and theorizing about behavior - in other words, in construct validity. There is also a so-called "radical" school which is more interested in action than in description. Specifically, this tradition may be said to be oriented toward the emancipation of consumers from being objects manipulated by profit-seeking producers. In this sense, this party is interested in pragmatic validity, but from a standpoint opposite to that of marketing managers.





The primary concern of the authorities in most countries is likewise with pragmatic action rather than with theory.

Consumer educators are in many ways similar to the "radical" academic behavioral scientists in the sense that their goal is to help consumers. However, in contrast to the latter group, this group is normally in immediate grass roots contact with consumers and work mainly within the present power structure.

Finally, there is the heterogeneous group of consumers who so far may have had little direct benefit from the research done. The research has been governed by consumer interests only to a small extent, and research reports have seldom been prepared for consumer audiences. In most cases, the target groups for research products have been other academicians or business firms. The object of this research has been neglected as a target group. One of the few marketing writers discussing how consumers might use consumer behavior knowledge is Nicosia (1969).


A perusal of the literature in consumer behavior leaves little doubt that marketing has been the dominant contributing field. Only in marketing there has been anything approaching a research tradition. The few interdisciplinary ventures launched in consumer behavior have to a great extent been initiated and dominated by marketing academicians. For instance, the Association for Consumer Research founded in 1970, as well as the Journal of Consumer Research introduced in 1974, seem to support the marketing perspective of consumer behavior by several criteria. [For example, the editor plus about one-half of the members of the editorial board of the Journal of Consumer Research may apparently be classified as marketing men. Moreover, at least 6 out of the 9 articles in the first issue of the journal seem to be contributions in the marketing tradition.]

Therefore, the following comments will pertain particularly to marketing publications in consumer behavior. The comments are deliberately biased in the sense that they accentuate the shortcomings of the literature rather than the advances made.

In spite of the quantitatively impressive literature tonnage, the marketing contributions to consumer behavior seem to be flawed by six serious shortcomings:

- Neglect of consumer behavior with regard to the public sector.

- Fragmentation of the subject matter.

- Inadequate attention to consumer behavior of groups.

- Bias toward decision processes.

- Insignificant problems.

- Irrelevance of findings.

Neglect of Consumer Behavior with Regard to the Public Sector

This review of the consumer behavior literature shows that the research effort, with a negligible number of exceptions, has focused on the encounter of the consumer with the offerings of private sector of the economy. This means that the consumer behavior discipline has "defined away" the consumer problems relating to the functioning of important public services such as transportation, education, and health.

A possible reason for this self-imposed limit on the subject matter may be the general neglect of the public sector in most Western countries, a point raised provocatively by Galbraith (1958). However, a more plausible reason may be the marketing dominance of the consumer behavior field earlier pointed out. Since the public sector normally is not regulated by market mechanisms, marketing researchers may not have recognized "supply-demand" relations for public services as marketing problems.

One noteworthy attempt to broaden the scope of marketing and consumer behavior is the contribution of Kotler and Zaltman (1971) in applying marketing techniques and concepts such as "product", "promotion", and "price" to nontraditional areas such as family planning, fund-raising for medical research, and political campaigns. However, at its present stage of development, this "broadening" is more related to new uses of existing marketing techniques and philosophies rather than to the development of further knowledge of consumer behavior.

Fragmentation of the Subject Matter

Judged by the volume of output, the area of consumer behavior is healthy indeed. However, productivity is not the same as real progress. The great majority of the studies may be classified as non-cumulative empirical-analytical research investigations at the micro level. Most research studies have used what Nicosia (1966, pp. 11-12) calls "reduced form" models or selected constructs isolated from consumer behavior as a whole. As pointed out by Kollat, Engel, and Blackwell (1970, p. 328), consumer research projects tend to be "the result of the availability of data, the convenience of research and mathematical techniques, and/or the appeal of certain behavioral constructs. In other words, most research has been data-technique-construct motivated and oriented and has typically been conducted independently with little apparent coordination."

Such opportunism and reductionism have subordinated conceptualization and theory-building to measurement and manipulation of data by high-powered statistical tools. This has resulted in a large number of isolated facts, which lack consistency and which are difficult to integrate into formal comprehensive theories. Therefore, it is not difficult to agree with Sheth (1967, p. 742), who concluding his review of the buyer behavior literature, used the analogy of the seven blind men touching different parts of the elephant to characterize the level of theoretical development in the area.

Only a few of the books of consumer behavior contains attempts to formulate comprehensive theories integrating the field, see Nicosia (1966), Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell (1968, 1973), Howard and Sheth (1969), and Hansen (1972). However, there are publications dealing with selected aspects of consumer behavior such as social class, see Carman (1965); communications behavior, see Nowak, Carlman, and WSrneryd (1966); brand image and attitudes, see Myers (1968); and new product diffusion, see Robertson (1971). There are also a few comprehensive reviews of the literature such as Howard (1963) and Burk (1968) and the deep-plowing readings books published by Ward and Robertson (1973) and Sheth (1974) of original papers in consumer behavior research.

If we disregard textbooks such as Myers and Reynolds (1967), Markin (1969, 1974), Sandell (1969), Bliss (1970, Robertson (1970), Walters and Paul (1970), Bennett and Kassarjian (1972), and Walters (1974), the rest of the books uncovered are readings books, presenting papers from general symposia of consumer behavior, see Clark (1955a, 1958), Newman (1966), Arndt (1968), Sommers and Kernan (1968), Gardner (1971), Venkatesan (1972), Ward and Wright (1974), and Schlinger (1975); symposia on various aspects of consumer behavior, see Clark (1955b), Foote (1961), Adler and Crespi (1966, 1968), King and Tigert (1970), and Haley (1972); or organized research programs, such as Cox (1967) and Farley, Howard, and Ring (1974). The remainder is simply more or less logically organized readings books of papers already published. Examples are Bliss (1963, 1967), Grossack (1964), McNeal (1965), Britt (1966, 1970a, 1970b), Kassarjian and Robertson (1968, 1973), Engel (1968), Kollat, Blackwell, and Engel (1970), Aaker and Day (1971), Day and Ness (1971), Holloway, Mittelstaedt, and Venkatesan (1971), Cohen (1972), Gr°nhaug (1972), and Howard and Ostlund (1973). While such proliferation of readings may have provided a temporary relief to authors threatened by the "publish or perish" syndrome, it has added little to the structuring of the field.

In conclusion, there is little doubt that the fragmentation of the subject matter is a symptom of the absence of adequate theoretical underpinnings in the area which could give direction and meaning to empirical research. Hence, in reiterating the need for comprehensive, integrative theory-building, the present writer joins reviewers such as Perloff (1968), Kollat, Engel, and Blackwell (1970), Kollat, Blackwell, and Engel (1968), Pollay (1972), and Robertson and Ward (1973a, 1973b), as well as apparently even the majority of the membership of the Association for Consumer Research, see Ford, Kuehl, and Dyer (1975).

Inadequate Attention to Consumer Behavior of Groups

The few existing attempts to formulate integrative models of consumer behavior - Nicosia (1966), Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell (1968, 1973), Howard and Sheth (1969), and Hansen (1972) - have approached consumer problems at the individual, rather than at the group level. With the exception of discussion in Hansen (1972, pp. 409-431), the problems of moving from behavior at the individual level to having groups of consumers as the unit of study have been more or less ignored. However, both from the studies in intra-familial decision-making, see Davis and Rigaux (1974), and the diffusion of innovation studies, see Rogers and Shoemaker (1971), it seems clear that it is theoretically incorrect to model group processes simply by adding individual behavior. While in the future the behavior of individuals is still expected to be of interest to the consumer behavior theorist, theories should also be constructed at the group level.

Bias toward Decision Processes

The area is also flawed by the shortcoming of overemphasis on decision processes and what may be called "short-term effects of marketing mix" studies. As was concluded above, this means neglect of what happens after purchase including the consequences of consumption, both for the decision unit itself and for the greater society. For instance, the possibility that obesity may activate diabetes, should not be considered a problem of medicine only. To the extent that this is a problem caused by certain patterns of consumption, it should also be of interest to consumer behaviorists. Similarly, a neglect of consequences occurs at the macro level. For instance, Feldman (1971, p. 55) charged the marketing discipline of failure to recognize that (the) "products, which are marketing outputs designed for individual satisfaction, are simultaneously inputs to a larger environmental system and as such may affect the well-being of society".

Insignificant Problems

Another bias in the research is the preoccupation with decisions that would appear to be of minor interest to the consumer, such as brand choice for convenience goods, and the corresponding neglect of more fundamental decision areas. While research attention has been given to issues like the proverbial 1-ply vs. 2-ply toilet tissue decision, more important areas such as the emergence of new value systems and their consequences, and problems relating to nutrition of disadvantaged consumer groups have to a great extent been ignored.

Irrelevance of Findings

This myopia and exaggerated pragmatism have led to what seems to be a sixth main shortcoming - irrelevance of the findings. The production of isolated facts and relationships by testing narrow hypotheses not derived by theoretical considerations seems to have resulted in a data base which not only is trivial, but also is irrelevant, and hence is not much applicable as basis for managerial action. [A good illustration of this aspect of the state of the art is found in Tigert's (1972) scathing critique of one of the winners of the American Marketing Association's 1969-70 Doctoral Dissertation Competition. While crediting the researcher for competence in statistics and knowledge of research methods, Tigert claims that neither he nor the author knows what to do with the results of the analysis - clusters of consumers extracted by cluster analysis. Tigert concludes in no uncertain terms, "That his talents have been wasted on a fruitless exercise is scandalous, a total disaster .... Gentlemen, the name of the game is relevance. How can we expect the business community to support doctoral research if we continue to work on trivial problems?'']

The Image of Man in Consumer Research

In conclusion, the image of man as a consumer emerging from the consumer behavior literature is in many ways reminiscent of Kover's (1967) model of man as defined by commercial marketing research:

Man is alone, an isolate.

Man is passive.

Man is mainly concerned with publicly acceptable needs and appearance.

Men's reactions can be explained or classified by their styles of life - by earnings, age, sex and education.

Products and services are important in meeting the needs of man.

People can adequately express their feelings about advertising and products.

Although the consumer can talk clearly and at length about products, he does not know what these beliefs mean and which beliefs affect him most.

Moreover, to this might be added:

Man is concerned with present rather than with future needs.

Man is mostly interested in minor decisions such as brand selection. More basic decisions are of minor importance.

It is tempting to conclude that this state of the art may to a large extent be due to the domination of the marketing perspective in the current thinking on consumer behavior. Little imagination is needed to see the similarity between the one-dimensional consumer depicted above and the docile super-consuming being believed to the ideal customer from the producers' viewpoint. Hence, normative and positive models of consumers may have converged.


By several criteria, the consumer behavior area gives the impression of having become a science in its own right. The area has a rapidly growing professional organization, at least one specialized journal, and an exponentially increasing body of literature, and enjoys the academic autonomy of being represented by specialized university courses. Several writers, among them Nicosia (1969), Kollat, Blackwell, and Engel (1972), and Sheth (1974), have noted the impressive gains in systematic knowledge in the area. In the words of Tucker (1968, p. 267), consumer behavior has broken away from pseudo-discipline. Sheth (1974) is even so optimistic as to suggest that within a decade, the area may begin to reverse the flow of borrowing by "exporting'' consumer behavior theory both to the more mature and to the less mature social sciences.

However, an evaluation of the state of the art of an area must deal primarily with its present status, and not with its humble beginnings or with its conceivable future potentials. And in this respect, it has been concluded that consumer behavior has yet to establish the theoretical cohesiveness and the unique research tradition indicative of a mature discipline. The very fact that the question of whether or not consumer behavior is a science or a unique discipline is constantly and self-consciously asked, signals lack of self-confidence and professional adolescence.

Commenting on the academic autonomy of the area of consumer behavior, writers such as Tucker (1968) and Kassarjian and Robertson (1968, p. 2) define consumer behavior as a part of the marketing decision-making system. Sheth (1974, p. 395), on the other hand, views consumer behavior as a unique area, which is a subsystem neither of marketing nor of any of the existing social sciences. In the opinion of the present writer, the claims of uniqueness for the consumer behavior area are hardly substantiated, in view of the apparent dependence on the marketing discipline for the perspectives and goals of the area, and the almost complete indebtedness to the behavior sciences for conceptual and methodological tools.

Therefore, as pointed out by Pollay (1972, p. 595), there is so far too much evidence of disciplinary immaturity in consumer behavior: proliferation of theories or partial theories, expressions of disagreement over the priority of problems, a faster growth in complexity than accuracy, and professional insecurity among researchers in the area. In the terms of Kuhn (1962), consumer behavior is still a field of study in a pre-paradigm state.

Symptomatic of the present situation is the identity crisis of many consumer behaviorists confronted with what Robertson and Ward (1973b, p. 60) call the pay-off dilemma - the fact that consumer researchers seek to engage in theoretical research and at the same time to meet the need for immediately actionable results of dominant user groups such as marketing practitioners. It follows from the criticism in this paper that few consumer behaviorists have handled this role conflict satisfactorily. Hence, it is no wonder that the nagging question of relevance keeps popping up: Are the results produced by current consumer research relevant to the problems faced by marketers as well as consumers, both at the micro and macro level?

To advance the state of the art, several suggestions have been made. Pollay (1972, p. 595) has suggested that a possible reason for the state of consumer research is the fact that the area may not have attracted the top caliber scholars. Though it is hard to quarrel with the contention that, with a few exceptions, the consumer behavior area gives the impression of being mainly occupied by "little thinkers", it is still somewhat fatalistic to wait passively for a Messiah to appear.

One possibility suggesting itself is to continue the production of research results in the present "anarchical'' fashion by gradually sharpening the tools of measurement and analysis and hoping that knowledge will develop in a cumulative fashion. However, in the development of sciences, development-by-revolution is often more important than development-by-accumulation, at least in the natural science areas, see Kuhn (1962). Therefore, research productivity should not be mistaken for genuine progress. There is little basis for any hope that the sheer persistence in the data gathering may eventually lead to conceptual breakthroughs. Nor is it realistic to expect that in the "market-place of research", the "good research" will eventually drive out the "bad research". So far in consumer research, Gresham's law has apparently easily neutralized the law of Darwin. However, not deviating much from the present research tradition, it is possible to advance consumer research by following the advice of Glock and Nicosia (1963, pp. 25-26) who advocated more attention to studies of strategic populations, that is observations of consumers as they are in the midst of making not one choice, but a wide variety of choices. Examples of this approach are studies of consumers who have just moved to a new area (Andreasen, 1966; and Bell, 1969), consumer socialization studies (Ward, 1974), and studies of total leisure time activities, see the papers in the 1974 Conference of the Association for Consumer Research (Schlinger, 1975).

Kollat, Engel, and Blackwell (1970), and Kollat, Black-well, and Engel (1972) propose establishing research priorities, that is identifying what aspects of consumer behavior that are of the greatest importance and what phenomena need to be investigated so that these key areas can be understood. Similarly, Pollay (1972) suggests organized research programs. Though it is hard to quarrel with the logic of this position, it is clear that this solution is less than complete as long as critical questions remain unanswered: Who are to determine the research priorities? What criteria should be used to evaluate the potential importance of an aspect of consumer behavior? And who should be the reference group when deciding on importance - marketers, consumers, consumerist advocates, or government? Another caveat against premature programming is that a uniformed effort may magnify consequences of mistakes made.

Several writers including Sheth (1967), Pollay (1972), and Zaltman, Pinson, and Angelmar (1973) have made a convincing case for more emphasis on metatheoretic aspects of theory building, that is for development of a rigorous thinking methodology to evaluate theories. Yet, while the present achievements and future potentials of metatheory are not to be denied, the main problems as of now in consumer behavior are problems of content and substance of theory rather than its form.

Past theories give the impression of having been constructed by merging empirical findings from narrow research studies with borrowed behavioral science findings and concepts. This build-up approach to theory construction together with the marketing frame of reference dominating the area, may partly be responsible for generating the instrumental, passive model of man depicted in the last section.

As soon as possible, a challenge should be made to the dominating positivistic research philosophy, with its main emphasis on data gathering and data analysis. What is above all needed is a new vision of consumer behavior - a specification of the domain of consumer behavior broadening the field of study and revising the current explicit and implicit research priorities. The "self-evident" orientation toward marketing practitioners as the key reference group could well be replaced by an endorsement of a true consumer frame of reference. To follow the advice of Perloff (Twedt, 1965, p. 266) for consumer psychologists, consumer researchers should seek directly and explicitly to serve the consumer's needs, to study the consumer as a consumer rather than as an individual whose attention and purchasing behavior are coveted to maximize profits. This means that research priorities should be governed by the relative importance of the unsolved problems for the consumer. Some clues to the relative importance may be found in the conceptual framework implicit in the level of decision process/stage in the buy-use continuum presented above in this paper. If the monetary and social importance of the decision to the consumer is to be the main criterion, this would mean more emphasis on what was called acquisition of strategic items and central budget allocation decisions. At the macro level, socially important issues such as the social and ecological consequences of consumption structures should also be defined as legitimate areas for study of the consumer behaviorists.

It may be that a chief cause of the paucity or absence of theoretical underpinnings in consumer behavior is its status as having mainly been a part of marketing. As long as consumer behavior remains an appendage of marketing, it will be under pressure to remain an applied field, concerned with the delivery of existing knowledge to solve marketing problems. Since an applied orientation almost by necessity must be in conflict with aspirations of building a solid theoretical base, perhaps consumer behavior may only become of discipline in its own right by cutting its umbilical cord to marketing. Such an emancipation may contribute to solve the pay-off dilemma of consumer behavior researchers by removing the pressure to produce managerially actionable results, and hence to allow an all-out effort on conceptualization. Analysis of buyers from marketing's viewpoint should remain within marketing and could be given the more appropriate term "customer analysis".

In the short run, the results of such a broadened, theory-based consumer behavior discipline may appear to fail the immediate action needs of marketers. In the long run, however, it is possible that the insights gained by more fundamental theories may well turn out to be even more actionable than the current narrower models.


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Johan Arndt, Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03 | 1976

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