Hogg and Maclaran (2008: 131) state that “Reviewing the changing balance of papers in Advances in Consumer Research and in JCR (Journal of Consumer Research) shows how approaches which use qualitative data for examining consumer behaviour have become increasingly mainstream.”
This article concentrates on three ways in which the interpretive paradigm challenges the dominance of the positivist paradigm within market research. These are, firstly, the benefits of identifying opportunities and challenges, secondly, reflecting the complex nature of consumers and marketing and, thirdly, interpreting cultural meanings.
#1 The benefits of identifying opportunities and challenges
The first challenge is also a key strength of the interpretive paradigm. It provides market researchers with more opportunities for identifying potential opportunities and challenges that they or the organisation which commissioned the research may not currently recognise or think of as important. This is made more possible due to the emergent theory approach of the interpretive paradigm in addition to, from an epistemological point of view, that the market researcher seeks to understand through ‘perceived’ knowledge and contextual understanding enabling the researcher to consider a greater number of variables, how they may change and their potential impact on the subject (Hudson and Ozanne 1988: 513).
Moreover, a feature of the interpretive approach from a methodological point of view is that market researchers are allowed to experience what they are studying and allow feelings, interpretation and reason to govern their actions through a less structured approach. One example, is where fashion consumer brands employ market researchers as ‘trend spotters’ or ‘cool hunters’, who firmly adopt an interpretive paradigm in order to immerse themselves within, for example, a particular sub-culture, in order to identify what might be the emerging urban fashion trends. These perceived trends provide strategic insight into potential opportunities and are then used by organisations such as Nike, Adidas, Top Man and Gap to inform their strategic planning (particularly production and buying) and marketing plans. The knowledge created and the subsequent benefits would be significantly more difficult to achieve by solely adopting a positivist paradigm due to the greater emphasis on a structured, controlled approach focusing more on theory testing within ‘artificial settings’ as this would not allow the researchers to interpret and use their experience to judge what trends might have potential to become more mainstream. This is reinforced by the view that “The positivism paradigm has been criticised for its exclusion of the discovery dimensions in inquiry and the under-determination of theory (Deshpande, 1983; Guba and Lincoln, 1994)”.
#2 Reflecting the complex nature of consumers and marketing
The second way in which the interpretive paradigm challenges the dominance of the positivist paradigm is through its ability to reflect the complex nature of consumers and markets more effectively. Johnson and Duberley (2000: 40-41) believe that positivism fails to reflect the complex nature of the circumstances that arise within everyday management due to its inherent focus on proving causal relationships and creating laws. Moreover, positivist research findings can be criticised for being too descriptive and lacking the insight into complex consumer issues.
Methods including, for example, quantitative surveys would offer limited insight into the challenges and also the opportunities that face the traditional print media industry currently. This ‘older’ industry is facing considerable and numerous consumer trend and technological transformations where the predictive nature of positivist methods lose their validity in such a dynamic, increasingly technologically driven and competitive market place where consumption habits are continuing to change every day and show no signs of abating. As Saperstein (2014: n.p.) states “In the upcoming decade, flexibility and a willingness to experiment with new methods will likely be the factors that determines whether a newspaper survives or falters”. The interpretive paradigm approach to market research, through its contextual view, ability to acknowledge pre-understanding, less formally structured processes and allowing researchers to experience what they are studying, would provide marketers within this market place with more insightful views of reasons for consumption changes and any potential new opportunities through the rich, deep data taken from media consumers.
#3 The interpretation of cultural meanings
The third way in which the interpretive paradigm challenges the dominance of the positivist paradigm is through its epistemological and methodological approach which can help market researchers to recognise, interpret and understand cultural narratives related to brands, for example, symbols, values, myths and images. Consumer culture theorists, such as Arnould and Thompson (2005), believe that consumer behaviour is influenced by the contextual external variables that they operate within, for example, space, noise, images and rewards as well as internal concepts such as motivation, norms, values, attitudes and self-concept. A positivist approach to market research within laboratory style settings, which may remove, reduce or alter some of the external variables and create a laboratory style environment, may cause consumers to become either suspicious, or to change their behaviour which reduces the reliability of findings when interpreting and attaching meaning to the data. Therefore, there are advantages to be gained by market researchers through understanding the environment and framework within which the consumer operates because this directly influences their thoughts, feelings and actions, and is important when trying to understand the meaning of events and behaviours.
Holt (2003: 43) argues that many well-known international brands are successful because they have become cultural icons. For example, Nike, Harley Davidson and many more powerful brands have not been successful solely because of their product benefits or technological advancements but also because of their connection with the culture of the consumers. In other words, the symbolism and what the brand stands for are important, not just how it performs. The brands provide powerful cultural narratives which, in turn, provide shared meaning to large groups of consumers using culturally shared values, norms and attitudes, ultimately influencing a shared self-concept and these brands continue to add value to customers through these means, for example, IBM promises us the need for “A Smarter Planet”, not smarter computers and Google gives its staff 20% of the week to develop their own ideas because they want to master the world’s information.
Holt (2003: 47-48) believes that financial success for organisations is increasingly dependent upon a marketer’s ability to interpret, understand and control the consumption-related meaning related to their products and services. Due to rich, deep data and contextual understanding, the interpretive paradigm within market research will help to make greater sense of the cultural influences on the relationships consumers have with brands, even though it will not provide statistically relevant findings which have generalised meanings to populations as is the aim of the positivist paradigm. The interpretive paradigm will, therefore, enable marketers to more effectively understand why and how consumers could be influenced, not just more of what is happening.
Arnould, E. J. and Thompson, C. J. (2005) Consumer Culture Theory (CCT): twenty years of research, Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (4): 868–62.
Deshpande, R. (1983) Paradigms lost’: on theory and method in research in marketing, Journal of Marketing, 47 (4): 101-110.
Guba, E. G. and Lincoln, Y. S. (1994) Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research. London: Sage Publications.
Hogg, M. K. and Maclaran, P. (2008) Rhetorical issues in writing interpretivist consumer research. Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 11 (2): 130–146.
Holt, D. B. (2003) What Becomes an Icon Most?, Harvard Business Review, 81: 43-49.
Hudson, L. A. and Ozanne, J. L. (1988) Alternative ways of seeking knowledge in consumer research. Journal of Consumer Research, 14 (4): 508-521.
Johnson, P. and Duberley, J. (2000) Understanding Management Research: An Introduction to Epistemology. London, UK: SAGE.
Saperstein, T. (2014) The Future of Print: Newspapers Struggle to Survive in the Age of Technology. Harvard Political Review. Available at: http://harvardpolitics.com/covers/future-print-newspapers-struggle-survive-age-technology/; accessed 13 April 2016.