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The modeling-empiricism gap: lessons from the qualitative-quantitative gap in consumer research.

Supply chain management is not the only area of business research experiencing divergent research methods. Nor is it the only discipline with methodologically aligned researchers who seem to be going their separate ways rather than interacting and learning from one another. Organizational behavior has gone through a similar paradigm battle. Communications has done the same. And over the past 25 years, my field of consumer research has experienced something quite similar. The contending paradigms in consumer research go by the names of Behavioral Decision Theory (BDT), Judgment and Decision Making (JDM) and Consumer Culture Theory (CCT). But often the first two are grouped together as "quantitative" or "positivistic" versus CCT, which is also labeled "qualitative," "postpositivist," or "interpretive." For simplicity, I will use the terms quantitative versus qualitative, although there are exceptions that occasionally defy these labels. Perhaps supply chain management scholars will see some familiar events in the history of qualitative versus quantitative tensions in consumer behavior research. In that hope, I will sketch the nature of these tensions and make some suggestions for how these camps might play nicely together if not actually learn from one another.


University business schools are now over 100 years old and academic marketing and advertising courses developed almost from the start. The American Marketing Association was founded in 1937, marking a formal split from the discipline of economics. Consumer research began to develop as a subdiscipline in the 1960s and in the early 1970s the Association for Consumer Research (ACR) and the Journal of Consumer Research (JCR) were founded. ACR was founded at a time when business schools had been rocked by Ford Foundation and Carnegie Foundation reports calling on business education to become more scientific. The result was a rush to the models of science embraced by the social sciences, and especially psychology. Computers, statistical analysis, probabilistic survey sampling, experimental design and analysis, and multivariate statistics became the order of the day and marketing Ph.Ds were rigorously trained in these methods. Although pioneers of qualitative marketing research like Sidney Levy had been researching and publishing papers using qualitative research since the 1950s, they were no longer taken very seriously by academic marketing departments anxious to cloak themselves in the mantle of science. So the initial consumer research consisted of lots of number crunching, using a variety of quantitative tools.


Models of consumer behavior at the time were highly deterministic with flow diagrams linking concepts with unidirectional arrows showing, for example, that consumer information search led to knowledge and attitudes, which then determined brand choice behavior. Over time survey research with its potential for correlating everything with everything was largely restricted to structural equation modeling and experimental methods became the dominant method for studying consumers. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s a more philosophical debate began to emerge between falsification-ism and interpretivism. In the mid-1980s a large-scale qualitative project called the Consumer Behavior Odyssey had been formulated. After a successful pretest and with partial funding from the Marketing Science Institute, the Odyssey was launched. In the summer of 1986 some two dozen academic researchers boarded a recreational vehicle in Los Angeles or at points along a route that led through the American Midwest to Boston. Along the way ethnographic methods, depth interviews, videography and still photography were used to study American consumption practices in small towns, big cities and various stopping points along the way. The result has been described in a series of chapters and articles (e.g., Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989; Belk 1991). With this breakaway event and its aftermath, interpretive consumer research began to legitimize itself in the eyes of the field, although it was a controversial and contentious period. Early published qualitative consumer research adopted pseudo-positivistic equivalents of reliability and validity in an effort to more easily justify itself to a largely positivistic field. This veneer of "science" has now largely disappeared and has been replaced by a range of acceptable ethnographic, netnographic and videographic techniques.


The 1990s were a time when JCR and ACR served as the major outlets and gathering points for qualitative consumer research as well as quantitative consumer research. Members of each camp began to close ranks a bit with the quantitative group continuing to have the largest numbers and the majority of positions in the more prestigious universities. Still the number of qualitative researchers has grown from < 10 percent of ACR's membership at the time of the Odyssey to perhaps 20 percent today. The qualitative group also occupies a number of positions of leadership in ACR and JCR and has had positions at such universities as Oxford and Harvard, even though it remains largely shut out of many other prominent consumer research groups. This is seen in one calculation that of the top 20 U.S. research universities, CCT researchers hold < 5 percent of the positions in marketing departments (Arnould and Thompson 2007). Although JCR remains the premier journal for qualitative consumer research, several more qualitatively oriented journals have emerged, both within the marketing discipline and in other related disciplines like sociology, anthropology and cultural studies. In 2002 the ACR Conference added an annual Film Festival showcasing videographic consumer research. The film festival has since spread to the European, Asia-Pacific and Latin American ACR Conferences as well.

The subdiscipline of CCT got its name when Eric Arnould and Craig Thompson (2005) published an influential article reviewing and categorizing 20 years of qualitative consumer research. The annual doctoral symposium held in conjunction with the North American ACR Conference began to recognize the three camps of CCT, BDT and JDM immediately thereafter and people began to call themselves CCT researchers. Although it has no formal organization behind it, an annual CCT Conference was begun in 2006 and draws more than 100 participants with a volume publishing a selection of papers from the conference each year.


Of the 19 Associate Editors of the JCR, three are now CCT researchers. The proportion of CCT papers in the journal is roughly comparable to this ratio or a little < 1 in 5. But although "losing" the battle with BDT and JDM research on quantitative grounds, there is some indication that the CCT group may be winning on qualitative grounds. The current editor of the journal has suggested that if anything from the journal is lasting and has a real impact on social science, it will likely come from the CCT group. Moreover, some CCT researchers may feel emboldened by the growth of their numbers, the emergence of several specialized CCT journals, the development of the CCT Conference and ACR Film Festivals, and some prominent clusters of CCT researchers at several universities in North America and Europe, it is possible that this mild euphoria, coupled with the frustrations and feelings of marginalization voiced by Arnould and Thompson (2007) could lead to the formation of a separate organization from ACR and a separate flagship CCT journal rather than JCR.

But 1 don't think that this is either likely or desirable. Twenty plus years of mutual co-existence of qualitative and quantitative consumer researchers in conferences and journals has a certain inertia behind it that is hard to break. JCR is one of three or four "A" journals in marketing and another is not likely to develop soon. The newer CCT-friendly journals are all "B" journals and many are in fields other than marketing. These are practical considerations for a group of academics concerned with tenure. But more importantly 1 believe that consumer researchers from different paradigms have something to learn from each other. I recently cochaired a consumer research doctoral symposium at the 2007 ACR Conference. For both the conference and the symposium, the theme was "building bridges." The idea was that each group needs to read research and talk to people from other camps. Still among the journal editors we assembled for the symposium, one of the "A" journal editors in marketing gave CCT an insulting backhanded compliment in saying that the journal could imagine including qualitative research in an article as an appetizer (or anecdote, if you will) to the quantitative main course of the article. Apparently some people would rather burn bridges than build them. When things like this happen, and they do happen from time to time, I begin to wonder if my vision for consolidating consumer research will ever take place.

But perhaps I am expecting too much. Positivistic and nonpositivistic researchers have vested interests in their paradigms and different incommensurate underlying philosophies of science. Perhaps it is too much to assume that they will ever truly communicate, a few exceptions aside. One difficulty is that while qualitative researchers are also commonly trained quantitatively the reverse is not true. And the proportion of university marketing departments with qualitative researchers is still in the minority. This need not mean that these multiple schools of knowledge will remain separate and segregated however. It may instead leave it to consumer behavior textbook writers or a few expansive visionaries to bridge these gaps and integrate the total corpus of consumer research.

Because qualitative research methods open up new and different research questions, their contextual focus has tended to be different from quantitative consumer research. Some of the research has been focused on "wild" natural contexts like mountain man rendezvous, Star Trek fans, Burning Man festivals, river rafting, sky diving and mountain climbing rather than more mainstream marketing contexts like stores, malls and homes. But this is beginning to change. Recent CCT research has begun to focus heavily on brands, advertising, retailing, service encounters, and other mainstream contexts and phenomena. The area of branding is one where we have actually begun to see a cross-fertilization of ideas with some collaborations also occurring between qualitative and quantitative researchers (e.g., Aaker, Fournier and Brasel 2004). Whether this is a glowing model for things to come or a final failed attempt at rapprochement remains to be seen. I am an optimist, however, and see this cooperation as a beginning rather than an ending.

Meanwhile, here are a few tactics that those of us seeking a more cooperative and synergistic relationship between the two methodological camps in consumer research are trying in order to help make this happen:

1. Cross-train our Ph.D. students. They need not become experts in all methods, but a healthy exposure to multiple perspectives can facilitate dialogue. Without it we are doomed to speak different languages that will bar communication.

2. Invite scholars from the other camp to become co-researchers on a project. This not only forces us to speak a common language, but also can be a great source of ideas. The strength of weak ties phenomenon (Granovetter 1973) suggests that we learn most from others who don't share the same assumptions, literature familiarity and approaches that we do.

3. Invite scholars from the other camp to be discussants on your session at a conference. This is a great way for all to learn and gain an appreciation of what another perspective can add. Invite them to your conference. Dare to go to theirs.

4. Where possible, build multimethod departments. Depending on the size of the group this may not always be possible and many people will feel isolated if they are the only ones with a particular orientation in a department. But if it can be done this day-to-day interaction is the best way to learn from each other.

5. Don't expect to always agree. But be patient enough to listen and discuss. Debate can be healthy.

There are more things like this that you can likely think of The first step is usually the hardest. Attending a conference session grounded in the other set of methods can be confusing at first. But without trying things like this, it will always remain so.


Aaker, J., S. Fournier and S.A. Brasel." When Good Brands Do Bad/' Journal of Consumer Research, (31), June 2004, pp. 1-16.

Arnould, E. and C. Thompson. "Consumer Culture Theory: Twenty Years of Research," journal of Consumer Research, (31), March 2005, pp. 868-882.

Arnould, E. and C. Thompson. "Consumer Culture Theory (and We Really Mean Theoretics): Dilemmas and Opportunities Posed by an Academic Branding Strategy." In R. Belk and J.F. Sherry Jr. (Eds.), Consumer Culture Theory, Elsevier, Oxford, 2007, pp. 3-22.

Belk, R.W. (Ed.). Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, Association for Consumer Research, Provo, UT, 1991.

Belk, R.W., J.F. Sherry Jr. and M. Wallendorf. "A Naturalistic Inquiry into Buyer and Seller Behavior at a Swap Meet," Journal of Consumer Research, (14:4), 1988, pp. 449-470.

Belk, R.W., M. Wallendorf and J.F. Sherry Jr. 'The Sacred and The Profane in Consumer Behavior: Theodicy on the Odyssey," journal ofCotisumer Research, (15), June 1989, pp. 1-38.

Granovetter, M. 'The Strength of Weak Ties," American Journal of Sociology, (78), May 1973, pp. 1360-1380.

Russell W. Belk (Ph.D., University of Minnesota) is the Kraft Foods Canada Chair of Marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, ON, Canada. Dr. Belk is past president of the Association for Consumer Research and the International Association of Marketing and Development, and is a fellow in the Association for Consumer Research, lie has received the Paul D. Converse Award, the Sheth Foundation/Journal/ of Consumer Research Award for Long-Term Contribution to Consumer Research, two Fulbright Fellowships and honorary professorships on four continents. He is the cofounder of the Association for Consumer Research Film Festival and has more than 400 publications. His research involves the meanings of possessions, collecting, gift-giving and materialism. His work is often cultural, visual, qualitative and interpretive.

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Author:Belk, Russell W.
Publication:Journal of Supply Chain Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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