Promoting Interdisciplinary Consumer Research: Institutional and Discipline-Based Criteria and the Faculty Reward Problem

ABSTRACT - Given its interdisciplinary goals and policies, it seems appropriate for the Association for Consumer Research to concern itself with issues affecting the nature, amount and quality of interdisciplinary research in consumer behavior. Its companion journal, The Journal of Consumer Research, announces itself as "An Interdisciplinary Quarterly," and its policy and editorial boards are consistent with this goal. This paper looks at the issue of institutional evaluation of interdisciplinary research and in doing so attempts to further delineate aspects of this research concept which impact on the evaluation process.


Joel B. Cohen (1980) ,"Promoting Interdisciplinary Consumer Research: Institutional and Discipline-Based Criteria and the Faculty Reward Problem", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 46-48.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 46-48


Joel B. Cohen, University of Florida


Given its interdisciplinary goals and policies, it seems appropriate for the Association for Consumer Research to concern itself with issues affecting the nature, amount and quality of interdisciplinary research in consumer behavior. Its companion journal, The Journal of Consumer Research, announces itself as "An Interdisciplinary Quarterly," and its policy and editorial boards are consistent with this goal. This paper looks at the issue of institutional evaluation of interdisciplinary research and in doing so attempts to further delineate aspects of this research concept which impact on the evaluation process.

It is tempting to adopt a position of unqualified support for something that sounds as good as "interdisciplinary research," and then proceed to mash our teeth in frustration over anything less than enthusiastic recognition of it in university settings. Those who hold back from providing ringing endorsement of such work could certainly be viewed as stodgy, narrow and shortsighted. While such an attitude may be justified, at least in some cases, perhaps it would be well to look at interdisciplinary research from a more detached perspective. What is it about interdisciplinary research that distinguishes it in the minds of those whose responsibility it is to evaluate research? What additional considerations are invoked in the evaluation process?


When one thinks of interdisciplinary research, one may focus on either the researchers and their backgrounds or the issues or problems under study. Looking at both together allows us to distinguish among very different kinds of interdisciplinary research. To illustrate this, let's look at the following matrix.


Cell 1 refers to research being carried out by researchers identified with a single discipline who are studying an issue that is predominately identified with one discipline. Normally, of course, the researchers and the issue are from the same discipline, and I think we'd pretty much agree that this is not interdisciplinary research. When they are not, the research may be termed interdisciplinary since the concepts, approaches and orientations of one discipline are applied to an issue thought to be in a different domain. This is distinct from cell 3 in which the research topic or issue itself crosses disciplines, though the context and related issues will usually vary across disciplines. Thus, in cell 1, a biologist applying concepts from cell biology to a social science discipline, or (assuming for the moment that consumer behavior is a discipline) an economist applying utility theory to consumer information seeking are undertaking interdisciplinary research.

Interdisciplinary research of this type is not without its hazards to the extent that the assumptions and concepts of the discipline of orientation fail to take into account important aspects of the issue under study. On the other hand, new perspectives and approaches sometimes generate important insights. A key issue here may be the motivation of the researcher. He may, on one hand, be interested in primarily "spreading the gospel" or even in generating a lengthy resume (if you'll pardon the analogy) by walking his dog up as many avenues as possible. In the latter case, there is often no mistaking the nature of the product left behind. More optimistically, such interdisciplinary research may be carried out because of a true conviction that what is known from research in one discipline will contribute to knowledge in the other.

Research in cell 2 qualifies as interdisciplinary research because of the nature of the orientations brought to bear. A theoretical mathematician and a physicist working to solve a particularly difficult theoretical problem in physics would be one example, and a cognitive psychologist and consumer behavior researcher working together on consumer information presentation issues would be another. In such cases it is not infrequent that one discipline views the research issue as more basic and the other as more applied. This may impact on evaluation and recognition of the individuals involved in the project. It is possible, of course, for none of the members of a research team to be identified with the discipline whose issue or topic is the object of the research. This tends to be much more likely as we move to applied problems (cells 5 and 6) and will be discussed in that context.

As we turn to issues of acknowledged relevance to two or more disciplines (cells 3 and 4) we encounter questions regarding multiple dissemination of research findings. For example, methodological research, say in the area of scaling, is obviously relevant to more than one discipline, and the operational meaning of interdisciplinary research here is often inextricably linked to both the value and practice of dissemination in multiple disciplines,

Here is perhaps the appropriate place to make a few comments about the unique problems of a "hybrid discipline" if that is what consumer behavior is. The fact that consumer behavior tends to rely on other disciplines for theoretical and methodological guidance suggests that consumer behavior's uniqueness is phenomenologically based. Thus, research in consumer behavior that is theoretically driven as opposed to descriptive or normative, almost certainly will involve issues of direct relevance to some other disciplines, typically economics, psychology or sociology. This tends to account for the frequent incidence of articles -- often based on the same empirical study -- by consumer behavior researchers which appear in both marketing/consumer behavior and, for example, psychology journals. Though resume padding cannot entirely be eliminated as a motive, a case can frequently be made that the issues are truly relevant to both fields. Again, a crucial difference between 1 and cell 3 (and one that is clearly relevant to recognition and evaluation) is whether or not the researcher is attempting to truly contribute to knowledge in a separate discipline. If he is, at a minimum one would think he should respect the particular context and research stream of each discipline in presenting and integrating his research. This involves something more than dressing the study up in new outer garments.

With respect to administrative recognition, I suspect this is much more of a problem for those in more basic disciplines than it typically is for those in marketing and consumer behavior. The same behavior might well be regarded as "applications oriented" and of lesser value in the former instance as compared to "basic research" of high quality in the latter.

Cell 4 represents, ideally, an attack upon a research issue which is important in several disciplines by researchers with strengths in the appropriate disciplines. In concept, therefore, this is interdisciplinary research at its highest level (at least in terms of advancing and integrating science).

Much of the impetus for interdisciplinary research stems from the nature of applied problems and the opportunities afforded to researchers to work on these. We will not attempt a precise delineation of the boundary between discipline-oriented and applied research here. For our purposes let us say that the goals are different and the problem to be solved determines the concepts and approaches to be taken in the latter case. Research in cell 5 involves the application of a single discipline's research orientation to an applied problem which is typically broader in scope than the particular discipline from which the researcher comes. Consumer behavior researchers have, in recent years, applied the orientations and techniques of consumer research to projects involving dissemination of information and product and service adoption in areas as diverse as health, transportation and energy. While it is not clear that such applied projects automatically deserve the label "interdisciplinary research," the eclecticism of many consumer researchers who work in such settings often gives this work an interdisciplinary character. This relates back to the nature of the "discipline" of consumer behavior itself and the willingness the field has shown to borrow appropriate concepts and approaches from the other social and behavioral sciences. Hence, this eclecticism is often encouraged by graduate training in the field, In addition, publication outlets for such research extend well beyond consumer behavior into a range of substantive and program evaluation types of journals.

Research in cell 6 is often quite similar except that perspectives, concepts and methods from more than one discipline are quite consciously brought together to attack the applied problem. This, of course, is truly interdisciplinary research in every sense of the word though for purposes of recognition and evaluation it is likely to also be treated as applied research.


The preceding section has attempted to differentiate research that might fall under the rubric of "interdisciplinary research." Such a scheme may be helpful in developing an understanding of the problems and obstacles associated with evaluation and recognition of this work. It suggests, for example, that one may look quite differently at the interdisciplinary publications of a faculty member depending upon whether or not they reflect a genuine effort to frame the research issues from the perspective of the other discipline or whether we're simply dealing with a form of resume padding. If the research has been carried out with the goal of making a genuine contribution to another discipline, the research orientations brought together to attack the topic ought to make good sense and not merely reflect convenient working relationships.

The above considerations help us to judge the nature of the faculty member's research goals and the adequacy of his approach in the interdisciplinary arena. This is only part of the picture, however. To better understand how interdisciplinary research will be reviewed and evaluated within the faculty member's institution we need to consider both departmental and institutional goals as well as evaluation criteria for faculty.

Departmental and Institutional Goals

For this purpose the following aspects of department goals may be particularly relevant: (1) department orientation, (2) visibility objectives and (3) funding needs and opportunities.

The orientation of the department may play a decisive role in its evaluation of interdisciplinary research. Department orientations express themselves in terms of what disciplines are regarded as being "important." These are obviously value judgments, and they differ from department to department though there is sometimes a good deal of consistency within a discipline. The limiting case is, of course, a department that may be described as heavily inward looking and which, therefore, does not evaluate interdisciplinary research very favorably. This may reflect a fundamental belief that the major research goal of the department should be to develop basic knowledge in that particular discipline. Interdisciplinary research, therefore, is seen as irrelevant or even as detracting from the overall objective.

Marketing departments probably are not as extreme on an "inward looking" dimension because there is less of a strong, self contained disciplinary base. There are, however, some pronounced differences in orientation. These reflect value judgments concerning the "purpose" of research in marketing, the significance of particular topics and the degree to which cross-fertilization with particular disciplines is likely to contribute to knowledge of relevance to the field. It should be noted that there are marketing departments toward the other end of the spectrum that specifically encourage the broadest dissemination of marketing concepts and approaches, particularly in helping to solve a wide range of applied problems.

Faculty members with strong interests in other disciplines or in working on a broad set of applied problems are in a somewhat analogous position to that of the prospective graduate student seeking the "right" program. There is a lot to be said for having strong orientations represented in different programs within a discipline. The discipline as a whole will be far better off if it can remain open to new ideas from a wide variety of areas, but this does not imply that every department should encourage its faculty to play this "gatekeeper" role for a broad set of disciplines. Appropriate development of ideas and approaches first suggested by another discipline requires a command of that material. Within consumer behavior we have seen a great deal of eager but somewhat loose borrowing of concepts. Interdisciplinary research varies in quality and depth as well as in scope.

One example of a department with a very pronounced interdisciplinary orientation is the Florida program. There is an overriding behavioral orientation which leads naturally into interdisciplinary collaboration with faculty in other units of the university, particularly psychology. In our case this has gone so far as the joint development of a Ph.D. program in Consumer Psychology (housed in psychology) which is offered as a cooperative venture by members of the marketing and psychology faculties. While such a department orientation is highly conducive to interdisciplinary research within this particular domain, it also makes it more likely that qualitative distinctions such as those discussed in the first part of the paper will be made. More "casual" interdisciplinary applications or publications would not be regarded very favorably.

Department goals concerning visibility can be expected to impact on the recognition of interdisciplinary research. It is typically the case that interdisciplinary publications do not generate as much visibility and national recognition for a department within its own discipline. This may be important to a department both internally (i.e., in terms of its evaluation within the larger institutional setting) and externally (e.g., in helping to attract outstanding graduate students). These needs and objectives may change over time and with the mix of recent research in the department.

Funding needs and opportunities may also be quite relevant to the recognition of interdisciplinary research. To the extent a department is dependent on outside support for such things as summer salaries, graduate assistantships and research funds and to the extent that discipline-oriented funds are in short supply, more applied interdisciplinary projects tend to be favorably evaluated. In evaluating such projects, however, distinctions may and probably should be drawn on the basis of such criteria as: the extent of the contribution, whether the research is merely an "off the shelf" application of tried and true concepts and approaches to another setting, and the relevance of the topic to the discipline. Under some conditions, such research is perhaps better carried out outside of academic departments, either in special university institutes or centers or even by organizations specifically set up for this purpose.

Some indication of a university's orientation toward interdisciplinary research of various kinds can be seen in the importance and character of its centers and institutes and the relationship of these to various academic departments. As indicated above, some types of interdisciplinary work are best carried out in such units, although the recognition of this research by particular departments (assuming the faculty member has a "home base" in a department) can be expected to vary as indicated above.

Evaluative Criteria for Faculty

While evaluative criteria for faculty should obviously relate to the departmental and institutional goals previously discussed, there are some further considerations which seem worthy of attention. Stage in a career development path may be a major factor in evaluating a faculty member's pursuit of interdisciplinary research. Once again, the previous discussion of the different types of interdisciplinary research is relevant here. If the research makes an important contribution to knowledge in two or more disciplines and is well regarded in both, there is obviously little problem. In fact, such research is often presumed to be even more fundamental and significant. Interdisciplinary research which makes a contribution largely outside of one's discipline (particularly applied interdisciplinary research), does little to enhance the faculty member's standing within a discipline. Younger faculty members may wish to think twice before making a major commitment of time to such research activities. The department may have standards which require the faculty member to achieve some level of national recognition within the discipline and/or to demonstrate the ability to carry out an integrated series of research projects in pursuit of significant depth of knowledge within an important area of the discipline.

There are, in addition, some procedural problems involved in carrying out the evaluation of interdisciplinary research. The greater the extent to which a research project makes its contribution outside the prevailing departmental discipline, the more difficult it typically is to evaluate that research. While reviews from those more familiar with the area in which the contribution is made can be solicited, there is usually less certainty about how much reliance to place on these. In addition, reviews by colleagues within the discipline at other universities tend to reflect the faculty member's standing and contributions within the discipline. Interdisciplinary research projects might not receive as much attention in this phase of an evaluation. One needs to be careful, then, of a "snowball effect," particularly if the overall record leans heavily on interdisciplinary research: initial uncertainty is not completely satisfied by "rather favorable" comments received from reviewers in other disciplines, and discipline-based reviewers shy away from overly positive statements to the extent they're unfamiliar with or do not believe they can properly evaluate such work.


This paper has avoided making any general evaluative statements regarding interdisciplinary research. Rather, the point of view adopted is that the term "interdisciplinary research" covers a very broad spectrum of activities. Interdisciplinary research, per se, may or may not represent a contribution in one or more disciplines or help in the solution of an applied problem.

A strong argument can be made that consumer behavior is itself an interdisciplinary field. Hence the concept of carrying out interdisciplinary research associated with consumer behavior is not one that most people in consumer behavior would find controversial. Evaluations of interdisciplinary research will necessarily reflect some judgment as to the extent of the contribution and the perceived significance of the domain in which the contribution is made to the goals and policies of a particular academic department. In general, university evaluation procedures and reward systems seem to give some preference to recognized contributions to the discipline as opposed to most forms of interdisciplinary research.



Joel B. Cohen, University of Florida


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07 | 1980

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