Part One: What is Academic Consumer Interest Research?
Key CIR Concepts and Main CIR-Related Academic Sub-Disciplines
This Update focuses on academic consumer interest research (CIR) in Canada. CIR for the purposes of this document is the range of consumer-related academic research that is relevant to public policy-making. In preliminary work related to this Update, various terms were used to refer to the body of research concerned. McGregor 2012 provided a review of seminal work on delineating consumer disciplines, which suggested the use of a few key CIR concepts.
A very brief overview of McGregor's work is presented below, however, the reader is strongly encouraged to consult the original paper and its numerous CIR references. Research on the consumer interest, i.e. consumer interest research, concerns itself with both:
- the direct relationship between consumers and sellers, and
- the indirect, often latent, impact of this direct, reciprocal relationship on individuals, the economy and society more broadly (including major social issues, the impact of economic and fiscal policies, as well as corporate and marketing behavior).
CIR adopts a consumer perspective when it gives special weight to the interests of consumers relative to those of business, with the intent of shedding light on consumer imbalances. The term consumer-business imbalances refers to various forms of imbalances in the consumer-business relationship, which could in turn work against a consumer's interests during a market transaction.Footnote 3 Reacting to such consumer-business imbalances (notably product safety shortcomings), consumer advocates spearheaded a social movement in the 1960s that led to significant government policy activity, which came to be articulated as fundamental consumer rights and attendant responsibilities (discussed below, under Linkages to consumer policymaking). References to consumer rights and responsibilities—such as in the form of "consumers have the right to…"—are now common in consumer interest scholarship. When problems occur, the term consumer issues is used to describe the situation; traditional categories of issues include economic security, health and safety, competition, etc. Taken together, the various types of policy responses to consumer issues form the consumer protection frameworks that are designed to address areas of potential consumer harm.
Other sources of CIR
This Update focuses specifically on the CIR work of academic researchers, but other important sources of CIR also need to be acknowledged. A number of consumer organizations and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) produce CIR research that touches on a wide variety of issues.Footnote 1 Certain industry associations have research groups with experts that provide CIR-relevant information (e.g., banking, telecommunications). Think-tanks sometimes publish research that complements the CIR literature available on a topic. Beyond statistical agencies' obvious contributions to research, other government organizations' mandates involve the production of CIR-relevant research, as, on occasion do parliamentary and legislative committees and government regulatory bodies and commissions.Footnote 2
Description of Figure 1
Figure 1 illustrates the interrelations between these key CIR concepts, and also identifies the main academic disciplines of relevance in the CIR context. The reality is that there is no single commonly acknowledged academic field that captures the breadth of consumer-interest studies. McGregor 2012 produced a list of 15 CIR-related sub-disciplines, which covers long-standing disciplines explicitly focused on the consumer interest, as well as other well-established academic disciplines that, while not focused on consumer interest analysis, have also traditionally conducted research on some aspect of CIR. The enduring and well-established nature of academic attention to consumer matters is illustrated, for example, by the 2008 celebration of the centennial of the International Federation of Home Economists who were in many respects the pioneers at the university level of CIR. Recent years have also seen emerging work seeking to constitute a new field of CIR, transformative consumer research (see texbox).
Transformative Consumer Research
Transformative Consumer Research (TCR) is a movement within the Association for Consumer Research (ACR) that emphasizes the consumer perpsective: it "seeks to encourage, support, and publicize research that benefits consumer welfare and quality of life".Footnote 4 TCR is intended to respond to some long-standing issues debated among scholars with respect to marketing and consumer behaviour research (e.g. the view that there is "an unbalanced focus that favors a managerial perspective", which was expressed by "several scholars who called for a broader approach in consumer research that emphasized the importance of customer perspective" (Mari 2008). A recent TCR development is the publication of the first edited book on the subject, which noted the multidisciplinary challenges of conducting research in a complex, fragmented arena where researchers have "often used disparate research paradigms, theories, and methods" and where consumer research insights "tend to reside in disconnected silos of institutes, agencies, associations, and publication outlets" (Mick et al. 2011) Canadian researchers have been actively engaged in this work to expand the consumer research perspective. Nine Canadian-based academics contributed to the development of the TCR publication and another three participated as reviewers.
The breadth of academic disciplines that have the potential to contribute to CIR obviously provides great opportunities from a knowledge-building perspective. However, this breadth also leads to inherent challenges for research development, collaboration and diffusion.
Multidisciplinary Challenges of Consumer Scholarship
As illustrated in Figure 1, CIR involves research and expertise that is drawn from a number of social science disciplines, and uses vocabulary that is drawn from generic, everyday language. Compared to natural sciences, for example, this can be perceived as a complicating factor in the development of a common, consistent understanding of the scope of CIR, given that "Communication of social science research does not generally employ a vocabulary that is specific to a field of inquiry, making it substantially more difficult to distinguish the output that can be clearly attributable to these fields." (Archambault et al. 2008)Footnote 5
Researchers themselves have long recognized the communication and collaboration impacts resulting from the multidisciplinary nature of CIR, as illustrated by this comment in the editorial note in the Journal of Consumer Affairs' first edition:
In view of today's inundation with the printed word, a few comments might be in order about "Why another journal?" Individual articles in this and future issues of the Journal might have appeared in other journals (though, admittedly, some of the journals of the traditional disciplines seem not to reflect the ground swell of activity in the consumer field), but, except for those whose journal-reading scope covers an extremely wide range, many such articles would go unnoticed by consumer specialists in other disciplines.
In more recent years, the multi-dimensional nature of consumer scholarship appears to have expanded even within its existing publications. McGregor 2007 completed a decade review of papers published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies between 1997 and 2006 which highlighted that while papers in the first two-thirds of the decade focused on consumption in the conventional sense (food and nutrition, clothing and textiles, etc.), the latter part of the period had seen the addition of more complex cultural and political dimensions:
There was less focus on a particular good or service, and more attention to the larger context within which consumption and production are happening: biotechnological innovation, globalization, telecommunications and technological innovations (especially e-commerce), mono-cultures and localization. There was more balance between studying how consumers make choices and understanding how retailers prepare to engage with consumers. Authors also started to augment effective and rational consumer decision making with ethical and moral perspectives.
Beyond the above-identfied CIR-related subdisciplines, sector-based research fields provide a home for other important CIR scholarship. In sector-based fields such as retail studies, agricultural studies, health science, information technologies etc., some scholars are indeed investigating social and technological trends that have implications for the consumer interest. However, there is some evidence that academic experts involved in sector-specific work that is CIR-relevant might not spontaneously self-identify as CIR academics, which may have negative impacts on research collaboration, dissemination, and access.Footnote 6 This again underscores the knowledge-sharing challenges faced by research domains that are by nature multidisciplinary.
Linkages to consumer policy-making
2012 marked the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy's speech to the U.S. Congress on "Protecting the Consumer Interest" (Kennedy 1962). The core rights he outlined formed the basis for the 1982 charter of consumer rightsFootnote 7 issued by the NGO Consumers International, and the latter's successful lobbying for the adoption of the 1985 United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection.Footnote 8 The 1960s and 1970s saw strong consumer activism, where the importance of academic CIR for policy-making was acknowledged, including across borders. For example, in the mid 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Affairs Institute organized multi-stakeholder conferences related to consumer policy research.Footnote 9 Early in the same decade, the Consumer Research Council of Canada was created with a mandate that included a responsibility "to advise the Minister and the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs on consumer research activities which are being carried on in Canadian universities and elsewhere, and on the available sources of research on particular consumer problems" (CRCC 1973). In the 1980s, there were further calls for a greater role for academic consumer research in policy-making, notably from consumer advocates such as the Consumer Federation of America:
(…) there is great need to evaluate both those marketplace imperfections alleged to harm consumers and those public interventions intended to correct such imperfections. (…) Because of their training and disinterest, consumer researchers are well-suited to examine these critical public policy issues–particularly the consumer impact of both market imperfections and the public interventions designed to correct them.
Governments have regularly sought academic CIR input in the context of policy-making processes.Footnote 10 Through the creation of advisory groups, significant CIR-related research has been produced, notably on the topic of financial services.Footnote 11 Certain governmental organizations have also encouraged CIR-relevant research efforts through research funding programs that target or are inclusive of academia.Footnote 12 To address topic-specific needs, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada launched in 2004 an Agriculture Policy Research Network. The initiative led to the development of five networks, one of which addresses food consumer and market demand issues.Footnote 13
Another aspect of the role of consumer interest researchers in policy making is through their presence in the work of legislative bodies and government institutions:
The path of policy research often assumes that a division of labor exists, with researchers generating relevant results that are used by politicians or pro-consumer groups to influence laws and regulations. However, consumer researchers also can and do take a more active role by testifying before legislative bodies or working as government consultants.
(Mick et al. 2011)
Academic CIR's impact on policy-making: supporting the consumer interest voice
At a recent symposium on privacy technologies, the role of academic research for privacy protection policy was illustrated from the perspective of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC):
Direct references to academic research in documentation from the Commission is not the only way to identify impact. Oftentimes investigations are spurred by well documented complaints by organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The recent investigation and subsequent settlement between the FTC and Facebook followed a complaint by a coalition of consumer groups led by EPIC. The complaint cites a number of academic work, such as Arvind Narayan and Vitaly Schmatikov's work, De-anonymizing Social Networks" and writing by Ed Felten of Princeton University."
At the federal level, various House of Commons committees have included input received from CIR-related academic witnesses.Footnote 14 Similarly, in Quebec, CIR-related debates in parliamentary committees of the National Assembly have involved representatives from academia.Footnote 15 Academic experts also share their insights through submissions to department-led public consultations, at both the federal and provincial levels.Footnote 16
In 2010, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development published the Consumer Policy Toolkit, which relied on academic CIR for much of its content on the economics of consumer policy and consumer policy instruments (OECD 2010). In Canada, the Industry Canada 2010 Consumer Impact Assessment Guide acknowledged the role of academic work in policy-making. It identified regular liaison with academics as one of the ways for ensuring continuous improvement in government policy managers' ability to properly recognize the consumer interest (Industry Canada 2010).
- Footnote 1
The OCA's Contributions Program for Non-Profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations is one source of support for such projects. The OCA Consumer Policy Research Database, provides summaries for these OCA-funded research projects.
- Footnote 2
- Footnote 3
Conventional economic theory typically uses the concept of marketplace failure to describe such situations; McGregor 2012 expands the concept to include a broader set of potential imbalances.
- Footnote 4
See the TRC section on the ACR website.
- Footnote 5
After testing a number of keyword search queries, Archambault et al. 2008 concluded with a generic "consumer (consommateur)" search methodology.
- Footnote 6
Industry Canada received such comments through informal discussions held in 2011 with a group of Canadian academics from across the country whose work involved CIR-related research.
- Footnote 7
For a list of CI's eight consumer rights, see The Global Voice for Consumers.
- Footnote 8
Following a July 2012 ad hoc expert meeting on consumer protection held at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the UNCTAD Secretariat "was requested to prepare a draft report containing proposals for revised guidelines [UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection]".
- Footnote 9
"A recent NSF Project (Consumer Affairs Institute 1976) brought together an altogether remarkably [sic] assemblage of consumer advocates, consumer "bureaucrats", consumer affairs people from business, and consumer researchers to identify, through organized brainstorming sessions, important consumer research problems. A second NSF-sponsored Conference (Denney and Lund, 1978) included researchers, businessmen, consumer advocates and academics and ex post sought their reactions to the consumer policy research that was reported at the Conference." (Maynes 1979)
- Footnote 10
As noted in the textbox on page 2, other entities such as NGOs also contribute important CIR work and their representatives also regularly participate in governments' various policy-making processes.
- Footnote 11
See, for example, research completed for various governments' initiatives:
- Expert Panel on Securities Regulation;
- Task Force on Financial Literacy;
- Task Force on the Future of the Canadian Financial Services Sector (MacKay Task Force).
- Footnote 12
For example, the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy has a "For Academics" section on its website, which identifies research produced through its Insolvency Research Initiative. The latter was established "to increase the body of knowledge about the Canadian insolvency system and financial literacy and to stimulate interest among academics in multidisciplinary and comparative research on related fields". The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has also awarded funding to a number of academics through its Contributions Program .
- Footnote 13
The Consumer and Market Demand Agricultural Policy Research Network is hosted at the University of Alberta.
- Footnote 14
Examples from the House of Commons include:
- E-commerce in Canada: Pursuing the Promise, report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (41st Parliament);
- The Privacy Act: First Steps Towards Renewal, report of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (40th Parliament);
- The examination on the administration and operation of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (37th Parliament).
- Footnote 15
Examples from Quebec's National Assembly include:
- Consultations particulières et auditions publiques sur le projet de loi no 24, Loi visant principalement à lutter contre le surendettement des consommateurs et à moderniser les règles relatives au crédit à la consommation (39e législature);
- Consultations particulières sur le projet de loi no 60 –Loi modifiant la Loi sur la protection du consommateur et d'autres dispositions législatives (39e législature).
- Footnote 16
CIR-related examples from Industry Canada include the consultation paper on a Digital Economy Strategy for Canada and the Canadian copyright consultation.