Marketing Science as Science Fiction

Marketing academics like to think that what they do is a science. They even name their journals with valorous names like “Marketing Science.” And why not? Traditionally, marketing research has been based on a perspective similar to that of the “hard sciences”, such as physics, chemistry, and biology.

It’s a view of reality, or in the terms of the trade an “ontological perspective” that assumes that the natural and social world are objectively real, “in the sense that its truth content must be intersubjectively certifiable” and “empirically testable” using scientific investigation of theories, laws and explanations.

Consistent with the philosophies of science of (you guessed it) philosopher of science Karl Popper, marketing science seeks to “confront theory with data,” in a derived theory. Marketing is founded on theories. To find out whether a theory conforms with (or is “isomorphic with”) reality, then we must assume that there is indeed an objective reality against which that theory may be tested.

It may be surprising to people outside of the field of marketing, who usually think that we are obsessed with finding new ways to describe and package toothpaste, to discover that this is an old marketing debate.

It is ongoing, and it has very real impacts on the field. On journal publications. On academic positions. On tenure decisions. On new hires. On the choices of Ph.D. students. When one view of what constitutes reality, and thus how Marketing should study it, prevails over another, it results in resources flowing to the people and positions that share that view. That is exactly what has happened.

The prevailing view has been termed “scientific realism” by Michigan State marketing scholar Shelby Hunt. This view includes as its primary tenet the classical realist view that “the world exists independently of its being perceived,” as Hunt wrote in a 1990 article on the topic, in the heart of the ontological wars of marketing academia. Judging from what I hear from Ph.D. students at conferences, quite little has changed in our field.

Most of the field, in fact, goes on quite happily, content in their economic and neuropsychological assumptions that they are closing in on a pre-existing and obviously real reality. They propose a set of universal and generalizable claims, hypothesize them, test them, publish them, and then move on to the next project. They dismiss very quickly any suggestion that there could be an alternative view.

However, there are alternatives to that view.

In fact, there was an intense series of debates at one time that opened the field to alternative views, methods, and forms of scholarship. A number of marketing academics challenge that view with the claim that social sciences are fundamentally different from natural sciences. My University of Wisconsin colleague and ex-department chair J. Paul Peter and his co-author Jerry Olson, in the opening salvos of this argument, argue that “science create many realities.” J. Paul Peter later called the belief that knowledge claims can somehow be evaluated without actually comparing them with some true and ultimate underlying reality the “fallacy of realism.”

Similarly, the critical relativistic view as described by Paul Anderson rejected the basic premise “that there is a single knowable reality waiting ‘out there’ to be discovered.” There are realities, but no Reality. He suggested that, although it’s fine and dandy to believe that there is a single social and natural reality existing out there, that in itself is still a belief, constructed out of the tools we have, out of language. And even more than this, how would we ever objectively known that we have revealed or converged on this “reality.”

It’s a sticky philosophical debate drawing often as not on such profound German thinkers as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein-The-Later. It’s sometime disparaged with the uncertain term “postmodern.” Apparently, it is irrelevant to the central concerns of any good working marketing practitioner, trying to sell that extra case of picture frames, dog food or designer jeans. Yes, it’s academic. Of necessity, it drills down into the level of what constitutes the nature of reality.

What is real? In order for marketing to be a science, it seems, marketing academics need to agree on the nature of what they are studying. Marketing science thus is subject to a very practical problem that can be ultimately reduced to a question of “ontology”: the nature of reality. Its answer will contain critically important methodological implications.

For insights into this question (and many others), I turn to science fiction. I’m certainly not the only social scientist to do so. Donna Haraway for instance is famous for her magnificent explorations of social topics that easily dip between science fictional references, scientific references, and high social theorizing (such as Modest Witness@Second Millenium. FemaleMan Meets OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience). There is an entire field not of “cyborg” anthropology that often works with futuristic images from science fictions (The Cyborg Handbook is a good starter volume). Fredric Jameson recently wrote a brilliant volume full of science fiction themes called Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.

I chose to explore the literary field of science fiction (or SF) for its parallels with the methodological crisis as expressed in the field of marketing science, partly for its emphasis and familiarity with the field of science and partly for the genre’s notable distinction of publishing Philip K. Dick’s works, which have deeply explored ontological themes.

Science fiction as a field has, in the last two or three decades, dichotomized in a manner which seem similar to that occurring at the edges of the marketing field. In his book teaching How To Writer Science fiction and Fantasy, acclaimed SF author Orson Scott Card draws the distinction even more precisely, in terms that may seem familiar to marketing scholars and indeed to many scientists:

[F]or a large group of readers and writers of science fiction, this is the only correct approach to the field. Their preference is for the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology. They consider zoology and botany to be rather suspect, and as for the “sciences” of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and archaeology, it is to laugh-to them, the social sciences are just subsets of history, an art more literary than evidentiary, speculative rather than measurable (page 58).

Probably no one in the field of SF represents the iconoclastic origins of “soft” science fiction better than Philip K. Dick (often referred to by his initials, PKD).

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) is an important American writer whose prolific output-over forty novels and two hundred short stories-constitute an impressive body of work. His works have been turned into films (Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly), operas, musical albums and plays. He is also a major literary figure in Great Britain and France, where there are usually more than forty of his books in print at one time, and also a major figure internationally in countries such as Germany, Brazil, and Japan. One of the reasons behind Philip Dick’s (mainly posthumous) international success is that he wrote science fiction that transcended the medium, which dared to grapple with important philosophical and theological questions of our day. And the questions that it struggled with were often those of ontology.

In a captivating essay titled “How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” Dick said:

The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again.

Next time, I’m going to start to explore what Philip Dick had to say that might help shed light on these ontological issues that have obfuscated the world of marketing “science” for over two decades.

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