Consumer research

Many British academics I’ve been speaking to recently seem to be increasingly resigned to the idea that consumer research, as an academic discipline, is moribund.  I think part of the reason for this is that it has completely ignored a social studies of marketing approach.

Way back in 1987, in the leading journal in consumer research (and only “world class”, consumer research journal according to the UK’s ABS List Guide to Journal Quality), the JCR, Calder and Tybout provided an overview of the kinds of knowledge we can have about consumption through “consumer research”.  They titled their article “What consumer research is…”.  There is, they tell us, everyday knowledge – which is the kind of knowledge we have about our own consumption.  There is interpretative knowledge – which  systematizes everyday knowledge through interviews, ethnography and focus groups.  And there is scientific knowledge, which is made up of testable theories which can be falsified by scientific proof.

Of course, this division is loaded with methodological bias.  The “science” that Calder and Tybout discuss would not, I suspect, be familiar to most physicists, chemists or biologists.  Indeed, the methods they set out as capable of testing and proving scientific theories about consumption require us to ignore reproducibility, problems with using dummy variables, the assumption of normal distribution and statistical significance as proof (see Kahneman on the matter).  Oh, and as long as we ignore how easy it is for researchers to manipulate results to produce a statistically significant finding by cleaning their results (recently the JCR had to redact several papers by a leading “scientific” researcher who engaged in such practices for several years).

My real issue with this division, though, is that, from a social studies perspective it ignores another knowledge about consumers: professional knowledge.  That is to say knowledge that forms the basis of marketing practice.  Unlike everyday knowledge this knowledge is purposeful, informed by more than introspection and collectively shared.  It is tested and refined through practice not experiments.  Given that one of the aims of consumer research is to produce knowledge that is useful to practitioners, you might think this would be of interest.

I suspect one reason that this is overlooked is that the kinds of professional knowledge used by marketing practitioners look nothing like the “scientific knowledge” valorised by journals like the JCR.  Indeed, the methods used to test scientific knowledge in the JCR are completely inadequate to capture professional knowledge let alone test it.

At this point I should point out that, to date, I’ve submitted one paper for review at the JCR.  It was desk rejected within 24 hours.  I look forward to being ignored further.


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