Marketing Professor Michel Laroche received Canada's highest academic honour when he was named to the Royal Society of Canada last year. His formal induction, along with that of two other inductees, took place October 14 in the downtown Faculty and Staff Lounge.
In his speech, Laroche described the rapid growth in his specialty, the study of consumer behaviour, and the contribution it has made to the social sciences.
Marketing, of which the study of consumer behaviour is a branch, originated in economics. However, as Laroche pointed out humorously in his speech, "economists defined homo economicus as an extraordinary creature who has perfect knowledge of his needs, can measure the utility or satisfaction that are furnished him by each act of consumption, and is so rational that he can perfectly apportion his budget so as to maximize his utility or his satisfaction. Who recognizes himself in that definition?"
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when consumption was at a low ebb, psychology and anthropology were advocated in an effort to boost the sale of goods.
In the boom that followed the Second World War, overproduction was the new worry. Consumer sovereignty appeared for the first time in 1952 in the annual report of General Electric, an idea attributed to manager Ralph Cordiner.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the Ford Foundation invested $35 million over 10 years to encourage research on consumer behaviour in U.S. business schools, and by 1965, the first university course was in place.
Laroche said that the field embraces aspects of cultural anthropology, communication, demography, economics, linguistics, psychographics, cognitive psychology, social psychology, psychophysiology, semiotics, and sociology, and even, for one researcher, literary criticism. The tools of the trade come from mathematics, statistics and operational research.
Laroche's own contributions to the field include a mathematical model he developed in 1973 that became known as "the vulnerability model." He has won prizes for it, and is constantly reworking it. He will present it in a speech later this month in Atlanta, where he will be given the SMA Advances in Marketing Award.
Over the past 15 years, Laroche has also become an expert in the role of culture in consumer behaviour. When he started reading related works in anthropology and cross-cultural psychology, he discovered "a great confusion in terminology. American researchers failed to distinguish clearly among assimilation, acculturation, identification, ethnicity, adaptation, integration, and so on."
Laroche and his collaborators began to examine closely the degree of acculturation and ethnic identity of major groups in Canada -- native speakers of English, French, Italian, Greek and Chinese. They are still involved in this task, although papers have already been published in the Journal of Social Psychology and the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, among others.
He developed a graph to show the relationship between acculturation and identity, and called the result "the attraction-resistance model" to illustrate the two forces that influence ethnic change, namely the power of attraction to the new culture, and the resistance to change due to the culture of origin.
In the course of his work, Laroche said, he has learned lessons that should apply to all researchers: maintain objectivity, keep an open mind, be ready to make detours if needed, be open to ideas and theories from other fields of study, and give free rein to your imagination.
Laroche grew up in France and earned degrees in the U.S. from Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities. At Columbia, he fell under the influence of renowned psychologist John A. Howard, and changed his field from production management to marketing, writing his doctoral thesis on consumer psychology. Last year, he was named a Fellow of the American Psychological Association for his contributions to consumer psychology.
The Royal Society of Canada was established in 1882 to encourage learning and research in the arts and science, and every year a handful of scholars are invited to become fellows.
Concordia now has eight scholars with the right to affix FRSC (for Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada) after their names: sociologist Hubert Guindon (1978), biologist Rose Sheinin (1981), philosopher Kai Nielsen (1988), computer scientist Ching Y. Suen (1995), psychologist Jane Stewart (1996), psychologist Roy Wise (1997), religious scholar Michel Despland (1998) and Laroche.
Also inducted at the October 14 ceremony at Concordia were economist Claude Montmarquette and philosopher Jean Grondin, both from the Universitˇ de Montrˇal.
- Barbara Black
Photo: Marketing Professor Michel Laroche was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada at a reception here last week.