Monday, November 1, 2010

Perspectives in Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Approach

Perspectives in Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Approach

Review by Michael P. Lillis, Ph.D., Medaille College, Buffalo, NY

The primary objective of Demirdjian, Senguder, and Tian’s book is to enlighten and excite readers about a growing trend towards the use of an anthropological approach in consumer behavior research and in the pedagogy of higher education. The authors illustrate how bringing contextual (i.e. social) aspects into consumer science requires an advanced methodological apparatus for collecting in-depth data on relational patters rooted in deeper structures of social behavior. The book offers a number of case studies that are used to illuminate the practical value of anthropological methods, as they suggest unique insights into the “how and why” of individual consumer behavior.

The authors suggest that current research on consumer behavior tends to offer very limited views, and therefore is of little practical value. The end result of such fragmented research is that it often times leaves major “soft” behavioral issues unaddressed or unaccounted for. With a reliance on methodological inputs from the anthropology field, the book draws attention to the value of an approach that builds upon studying organizations as a whole, with strong relationships between sets of variables at different organizational levels and to different contextual settings. As such, the authors describe consumer behavior as a social construct, replete with multiple, conflicting interpretations that can only be deciphered in the context of human interaction.

Part I begins with a discussion on the evolution of anthropology in organizational research and business education, drawing attention to associated gains in our understanding of consumer behavior. Part I contains two chapters. In the first chapter, Demirdjian and Senguder portray anthropology as the primary driver for advancements in our current understanding of consumer behavior. They effectively argue that anthropology is responsible for ushering in a new era for consumer research, giving rise to a new approach for studying and teaching consumer behavior. In the following chapter, Tian lays out a detailed blue print for applying the anthropological approach in contemporary business education. He includes a set of specific recommendations, targeted to those business faculty who wish to adopt anthropological methodologies in their educational practice.

In Part II, Tian provides a detailed description of how he teaches consumer behavior using an anthropological approach. In addition to providing key insights into his classroom lesson plan, he reports on the effectiveness of his anthropologically oriented lectures and projects. Then, following a detailed review of specific analytical techniques from social anthropology, Tian highlights the significance of a cross-cultural approach to consumer behavior. In this chapter, he articulates two sets of guidelines; one for practitioners, aimed at maximizing the effectiveness of international marketing operations, and one for scholars, representing areas for future theoretic development. Subsequently, as an illustration of the cross-cultural perspective, Sengurder reports on a detailed study of customer satisfaction comparing two consumer groups, one living in Turkey and the other living in the United States. Findings from this research reveals how Hofstede’s values of Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance directly relate to the kinds of benefits consumers look for in products.

Part III provides two chapters by Demirdjian that demonstrate how subcultures differ from mainstream consumers in terms of their preferences for goods and services, drawing attention to the viability and responsiveness pressures of potentially unforeseen markets. The first chapter sheds some light on the characteristics of the Irish ethnic group. In this chapter Demirdjian suggests that consumption preferences of Irish Americans reveal a tendency to retain the cultural characteristics of their heritage, thereby having implications for the ability of conventional marketing efforts to cater to this subculture. Likewise, the second chapter reveals the viability and purchasing power of the Jewish subculture and provides some very compelling reasons why consumer behavior characteristics of American Jews should not be disregarded. Collectively, both chapters make a persuasive case for a cross-cultural anthropological approach.

Finally, in Part IV, Tian and his co-authors present a variety of case studies in food service, each representing a view of food consumption that describes individual choice in the context of a complex array of social elements. In this section, Tian succeeds in presenting work that represents the diversity of research in food consumption, revealing a range of consumption habits and patterns that reflect an infinite variability in cultural norms. The first four chapters are case studies of consumer behavior from three different cultural contexts: Chinese, Mexican, and Indian cultures. Each case reveals a clear ethnic orientation to choice behavior, suggesting a pervasive, culturally-driven consumption pattern. The three remaining chapters demonstrate further application of the anthropological method, representing data-rich investigations on the influences of gender and ethics on food consumption. In sum, all seven cases provide considerable testimony as to the irrefutable value of the anthropological approach.

The subject of business anthropology is one that has been receiving considerable attention in both academic and organizational domains. The volume, Perspectives in Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Approach (published by the Fellows Press of America, Fort Worth, TX, 2007), exposes the reader to a comprehensive and strategically relevant topic, which is fast emerging as a subject of considerable scholarly discourse. Taken together, Demirdjian, Senguder, and Tian’s work inspire an intense level of appreciation for methodologies that help capture the richness of social behavior. As such, this book represents a useful “how to” guide for both the business practitioner and the educational professional on how to put into practice an anthropological approach. Moreover, it represents a useful resource for anyone looking to understand the significance of the social environment in individual choice behavior.

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