The Modeling-Empiricism Gap: Lessons from the Qualitative-Quantitative Gap in Consumer Research

Article excerpt

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. …