For several decades a small group of researchers has recognized that history can make important contributions to the understanding of marketing and consumer activities. Preeminent among this band has been Stanley Hollander. In the past 30 years Hollander produced numerous works that examine such diverse topics as the evolution of retail organizations, repression of traveling salesmen in the United States during the 19th century (1964), the history of consumerism and retailing, the historical dimensions of the service, and historians’ views of consumption (1986).
The reasons for the lack of enthusiasm shown to history have been outlined by Ronald Savitt (1980). While urging marketers to give greater consideration to the role of history in their discipline, he recognized that most marketers favor research based on the operationalization of constructs and on the testing of explicit hypotheses. As a consequence, he argued, they are naturally ill at ease with the majority of historians, who write within the framework of a narrative structure and construct their theses inductively rather than deductively.
Marketing and consumer researchers who have turned to history have readily accepted the importance of understanding the development over time of marketing institutions and consumer behaviors. Many of the papers offered at the Michigan State and ACR conferences have presented brief studies of marketers or marketing practices from earlier eras. Others have sought to acquaint researchers with unfamiliar data sources that might prove useful in reconstructing the histories of certain contemporary marketing practices. And following an investigation using traditional historical methodology, Fullerton (1988) has raised serious questions about the widely-accepted scheme of periodization that divides the business history of the last 100 years into the Production, Sales, and Marketing Eras.
Accepting contemporary theory structures as givens is a risky business for marketing and consumer researchers. By overlooking the evolution of those operating assumptions and the social conditions that have nurtured them, those scholars may base their analyses on what may prove to he unstable and transient foundations. They might be wise to examine more closely the larger issues behind the problems for which they are asked to provide understanding and strategies. In that endeavor, history can be a valuable ally.