Teaching the history of marketing thought: an approach

The demise of once ubiquitous PhD seminars in the history of marketing thought in universities across the USA raises at least two questions: first, what is the value added by knowing about the development of marketing concepts, constructs, theories, approaches and schools of thought? Second, if such knowledge does add value to the PhD program, why are courses in the history of marketing thought declining?

In answer to the first question, it seems ironic to have to justify to colleagues the value of a doctoral seminar on the history of marketing thought in a marketing PhD curriculum. Ideas (i.e. concepts) are the basic raw materials with which academics deal. Consequently, knowledge of the conceptual development of the discipline would appear to add immense value to budding marketing scholars preparatory to their beginning a lifelong career in developing testable theories constructed of concepts found scattered around the literature. (This, of course, argues for a marketing theory course and one in marketing thought; for that discussion, see six commentaries on the relationship of marketing thought to further theory development in Marketing Theory, Vol. 11 No. 4, December 2011).

It seems intuitively obvious that no matter how superbly one measures superficial or ambiguous concepts, such quantification will yield little of value to research. On the other hand, organizing a set of clearly defined and logically related concepts provides the building blocks for constructing testable theories, this being of potentially immeasurable research value. Research, the process of searching for answers to questions, starts with conceptual understanding, and the source of concepts and theories is found in the literature. That is, the search – in research – begins in the discipline’s collective body of knowledge, otherwise known as the history or development of thought. “[T]he history of thought is mined for the raw materials and component parts, i.e. the concepts and theories, required to produce new knowledge” (Shaw, 2009, p. 331). This is a notion enshrined in the history of scientific thought by Newton’s (1676/1959) familiar expression: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. The reference to “giants” is not an allusion to huge people; it is a metaphor for building on the great ideas found in the scholarly literature. If as Newton proposed, one views science as a self-improvement project involving the development of ideas from concepts into testable theories, then the building process (even in a social science such as marketing) begins with reading the relevant literature to learn about the significant concepts that exist. Thus, studying the history of any discipline’s thought, including marketing, is invaluable to developing and improving the ability both to explain and to predict phenomena.

Given that knowledge of the conceptual developments in a discipline clearly does add value to the PhD marketing curriculum, the second question is more perplexing: why has there been a decline in courses covering the history of marketing thought? There are undoubtedly several reasons. Perhaps the main reason is the sub-disciplinary silos brought about by the fragmentation of the marketing discipline (Bartels, 1974; Wilkie and Moore, 2003). Most contemporary scholars focus on a sub-discipline, such as marketing management or consumer/buyer behavior. It is far easier to teach the history of thought in a single specialty area in a course, than it is to cover the development of marketing ideas as a whole. One example of the discipline’s fragmentation into sub-disciplinary silos is found in the works of Bartels. From the early 1900s up until 1960, Bartels (1962) could list all the academic textbooks in seven specific areas (e.g. retail, wholesale and advertising) and one “general area” of marketing thought. However, by 1975, the proliferation of books became too great even for Bartels (1976) to manage, in his second edition, and his attempt at organizing conceptual developments to that point in time fell into utter disarray (Shaw and Tamilia, 2001, p. 160). By his third and last edition, the explosion of new book titles was so numerous that Bartels’ (1988) did not even attempt to extend the listings in his final book. The point is that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep-up with even a single specialized sub-discipline let alone keep an eye on developments across many sub-disciplines.

Unfortunately, ever greater specialization in ever narrower subject matter increases the difficulty – without standing on the shoulders of giants – of seeing how the sub-disciplinary pieces fit into a systematically unified whole. Specialization in sub-disciplines, in contrast to generalized knowledge of the discipline as a whole, produces a vicious cycle: as the number of history of marketing thought courses decline, the number of budding doctoral students capable of teaching such broad courses on the whole history of marketing thought will also decline, this still further reducing future courses and, as a consequence, future scholars capable of teaching them. While an overwhelming number of marketing doctoral students will specialize in a sub-discipline, it would be beneficial to the discipline as a whole if at least a few young scholars were encouraged to generalize about how the various sub-areas inter-relate to each other.

Another likely reason for the decline of historical/conceptual courses in doctoral programs is the rise of allegedly more rigorous quantitative techniques. As a PhD student in the 1970s, I took a course in multidimensional scaling (MDS), then the fashionable quantitative technique but now almost obsolete. Most contemporary doctoral curricula include a course in structural equation modeling (SEM), the currently reigning fashion in quantitative techniques. The main change in the technology appears to be the letters comprising the acronyms of the underlying algorithms. Although quantitative techniques are certainly valuable, to the extent they are more sophisticated than the concepts they purport to measure, the less likely they will exhibit construct validity, the more likely it is that garbage in will produce garbage out (Quinion, 2005). Rigor in theory development is at least as important as rigor in methodological techniques. Consequently, because of the necessity to develop clear and concise concepts to guide marketing research and practice, one must understand the evolutionary development of marketing terms to see how their conceptual meaning often becomes ambiguous and encrusted over time. To illustrate this problem, the first class assignment in my PhD course described below, involves discussing and categorizing more than one hundred definitions (conceptual meanings) of the term “marketing.”

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