The Hierarchy of Consumer Participation: Knowledge and Proficiency in Telecommunications Decision Making

Article excerpt

The Hierarchy of Consumer Participation: Knowledge and Proficiency in Telecommunications Decision Making

Consumer research reveals a differential receptiveness on the part of consumers to the understanding and use of consumer information and education. Receptiveness to consumer education may vary according to (1) cognition, (2) social background characteristics, (3) occupational grouping, (4) participation in community affairs, (5) level of perception of consumer problems, (6) propensity to complain, and (7) information seeking methods (Bourgeois and Barnes 1976; Wackman and Ward 1976; Wilkie 1976; Hempel and McEwen 1976; Bloom 1976; Thorelli and Engledow 1980; Alder and Pittle 1984; Hyman 1986; Maynes 1988). Similar patterns have been identified for complaint behavior and participation (Hill 1982; Warland, Herrmann and Moore 1984; Hyman 1986, 1987; Miewald and Comer 1986; Kroll and Stampfl 1986; Price, Feick, and Higie 1987; Andreasen 1988).

Participation in American society also is not evenly distributed throughout the population. Those who participate in social, economic, and political affairs tend to reflect higher levels of income, education, and age (Verba and Nie 1972). Different patterns of participation have also been identified. Some citizens choose to remain outside, or on the periphery, of decision making. Others become intensely involved. A "hierarchy of political participation" has been identified (Milbrath 1965; Milbrath and Goel 1982). (1)

Previous research has tended to be discipline-based and to address specific aspects of either consumer behavior or political participation. This article takes a step toward synthesis by using the logic of the political participation model, and it examines several aspects of consumer decision making and consumer education in a single study. Four different sets of variables--knowledge about a decision area, independence of decision making, use of information, and propensity to influence others--are used to establish a "hierarchy of participation in consumer decision making," and the relationship to social background characteristics and the propensity to be aware of and take action on related consumer problems are examined. Data from an empirical study of mandated consumer decision making in the wake of the deregulation of telecommunications are used as the basis for a model that posits the existence of conceptually and empirically distinct subgroups based on a combination of variables related to proficiency in consumer decision making.


Attendant to the deregulation of the telecommunications system in the United States, all consumers were required to make decisions in several areas in the year prior to this study. There was extensive coverage in the media and by consumer groups, regulators, and the telecommunications industry. Informational mailings and decision requests from the utility company went to each household. Thus, it is assumed that consumers had similar opportunities to know about the decision areas (although all consumers would not be expected to avail themselves equally of the opportunities). To the extent possible in a field situation, the time element, information availability, and opportunity to know are held constant. The situation provides a unique opportunity to examine consumer behavior in a quasi-experimental situation where one can make the assumption that everyone had an equivalent opportunity to know and to act, and everyone made a decision in a similar time frame.

Data for the analysis are from a 1985 representative statewide sample of residential telephone customers in Pennsylvania, the state with the fourth largest urban and the largest rural population. A telephone "penetration rate" of 97 percent in Pennsylvania means that for present purposes the full range of consumers had an opportunity to be included in the sample. The sample was selected by random digit dialing procedures using the operating ranges of numbers for each local exchange. …