Market research still has a firm reliance on positivist methods and this union between the two stems from marketing’s early association with economic criteria such as profitability, cost minimisation and marginal returns (Szmigin and Foxall 2000: 188). According to Hunt (1991: 32), particularly within the 1980s, writers and researchers created a lively debate about the philosophical and methodological foundations for consumer research and they offered numerous alternative ways of knowing including, but not limited to, areas such as naturalistic inquiry (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989) and humanistic inquiry (Hirschman 1986) through to relativism/ constructionism (Peter and Olson 1983, 1989) and critical relativism (Anderson 1986, 1989).
As Laudan states (cited in Hunt, 1991: 39) “Virtually every major period in the history of science is characterised both by the co-existence of numerous competing paradigms with none exerting hegemony over the field, and by the persistent and continuous manner in which the foundational assumptions of every paradigm are debated within the scientific community”. Corresponding to Hunt’s (1991: 39) view that “These differences notwithstanding, there is nothing on either side of the current debate resembling a monolithic, dominant paradigm”, the market research literature suggests that the positivist paradigm has been prominent but not dominant within market research. The justification for this view is that the relatively ‘new’ interpretivist paradigm, even though historically it has not had the same degree of prominence or influence as the positivist paradigm, has illustrated through some clear and persuasive arguments (for example, Holbrook, 1987; Holbrook and Shaughnessy 1988; Hudson and Ozanne, 1989) and a continually growing body of consumer research, that no one paradigm can claim to ‘dominate’ and, ultimately, be at the extreme end of a paradigm dominance continuum.
The evidence suggests that the positivist paradigm has historically been and is still the most widely used paradigm for market research, although there is a clear distinction to be made between ‘most widely used’ and dominant. The interpretive paradigm has been adopted extensively and with increasing frequency particularly within the last 30 years, both within academic research and also industry practice, and, therefore, it is more accurate to describe the positivist paradigm as the most widely used and prominent but not dominant. From an academic research perspective, it is important to be clear and confident where market researchers feel their paradigm of choice is, particularly for their own beliefs and the research question(s) being considered. The disputation between the two main paradigms is useful to the extent that it helps clarify the researcher’s belief system and view of knowledge creation; however, endless debates about how knowledge can be created is the opportunity cost of actually undertaking the market research and creating knowledge. Guba and Lincoln (1994: 116) describe these paradigm wars as “more confrontational than necessary”.
If a consensual goal within the marketing profession is to develop robust theories and techniques to solve emerging issues, then to expedite the development of marketing concepts and theory, Kuhn’s (cited in Hunt, 1991: 39) assertion that, rather than spending endless amounts of time engaging in unproductive disputation on methodological or epistemological issues, researchers should spend their time problem-solving in order to develop whichever paradigm is their choice, has particular relevance. This would also help to ‘bridge the gap’ between academic research and industry practice, which a number of writers (Porter and McKibbin, 1988; Barley et al., 1988; McKenzie et al, 2002; Tapp, 2004, cited in Sobh and Perry 2006: 1197-1198) have asserted is wide.
Barley, J. N., Meyer, G. W. and Gash, D. C. (1988) Cultures of culture: academics practitioners and the pragmatics of normative control, Administrative Science Quarterly, 33: 1.
Guba, E. G. and Lincoln, Y. S. (1994) Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research. London: Sage Publications.
Holbrook, M. B. (1987) What is consumer research?, Journal of Consumer Research, 14: 128-32.
Holbrook, M. B. and O’Shaughnessy, J. (1988) On the scientific status of consumer research the need for an interpretive approach to studying consumption behaviour, Journal of Consumer Research, 15: 398-402.
Hudson, L. A. and Ozanne, J. L. (1989) Exploring diversity in consumer research, in Hirschman, E. C. (Ed.), Interpretive Consumer Research, Association for Consumer Research, Provo, UT. 1-9.
Hunt, S. D. (1991) Positivism and paradigm dominance in consumer research: Toward critical pluralism and rapprochement. Journal of Consumer Research, 18: 32 – 44.
Mckenzie, J., Wright, S., Ball, D. F. and Baron, P. J. (2002), The publications of marketing faculty – who are we really talking to?, European Journal of Marketing, 36: 1196-208.
Porter, W. M. and McKibbin, L.E. (1988) Management Education and Development: Drift or Thrust into the 21st Century?, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.
Sobh, R., and Perry, C. (2006) Research Design and Data Analysis in Realism Research. European Journal of Marketing, 40: 1194 – 1209.
Szmigin, I., and Foxall, G. (2000) Interpretive consumer research: How far have we come? Qualitative Market research: An International Journal, 3(4), 187-197.
Tapp, A. (2004) The changing face of marketing academia, European Journal of Marketing, 38: 492-499.