Confusions & Assumptions of Marketing Scholarship
Herbert Rotfeld
Department of Marketing & Transportation
Auburn University, Alabama

A scholar of economics is an economist. A scholar of history is an historian and students of human cultures are anthropologists. But what is a scholar of marketing theory and practices? A marketologist?

This is not just a problem of what we should be called. What are we?

Upon hearing that one of their marketing teachers had a job interview, some students asked if she was looking for another academic job or was looking "in the real world" ("reality," as such, implicitly defined as anything outside the academic community). The question was extremely logical to the students, but not so to the marketing scholar. "Do you ask your anthropology teachers if they want to be Zuni Indians," she asked, "or if a biology teacher wants to be a microbe?"

At a campus gathering, the science professor introduced herself as a microbiologist, but my friend said he was in the College of Business Accounting Department. He did not say he was an accountant. I say I am in a marketing department, though I frequently hear faculty say they are "marketers" or that they are "in marketing." And, in turn, all worth of what they call marketing scholarship is in terms of its pragmatic utility for business.

A department head pronounced to his conference dinner companions, "The only worthwhile research uses the scientific method and helps managers make decisions." Stated in the guidelines for many academic journals, research must have direct business applications, or so the manuscript must assert. In either case, the implication is that research wastes paper if practitioners don't like it or understand it.

This is not just an issue of whether practitioners read academic journals, or whether they care. Many marketing teachers lament their lack of respect, both from business practitioners and from colleagues in other departments on campus. But these educators have only themselves to blame, because many marketing teachers are marketers, or so they think.

Many marketing faculty fawn over practitioners, acting as supplicants. Begging industry groups for guidance or advice, the faculty are conveying a sense of inferiority. In turn, all research papers are expected possess pragmatic applications, and undergraduate programs are assessed in terms of their delivery of job training, despite the limitations of doing either.

As marketers, many faculty do not think of themselves as scholars who study marketing phenomena. Instead, they possess a self-image as marketing professionals who happen to work in a classroom instead of in a business.

They do not detach themselves; they empathize. If a business practice is criticized, they complain, "I'm not like that." Ethnocentrism becomes a virtue. The late adman Howard Luck Gossage said "We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't a fish."

The ineluctable impression is that marketing departments exist with the sole purpose of taking over the business' intern and training programs. The programs claim to "qualify" students for marketing jobs, though few employers consider a marketing course a necessary work prerequisite and even fewer marketers feel that valuable job experiences can be conveyed in a class. The result is an illusion of job training, disguised as education, while often failing to do either.

Preparing to teach the undergraduate consumer behavior course, the young faculty member announced, "I'll only teach them what they need to know for jobs." Aside from the obvious arrogance (especially since he never held a non-academic job), one wonders what consumer behavior theory any marketing practitioner MUST know for a job. Some research could have direct pragmatic utility, but it is impossible for students or faculty to know in advance what any practitioner of the future would "need to know."

Many common and current marketing practices can best be understood in terms of how they evolved, yet marketing courses often ignore the historical perspective. (Look at how most texts treats a business' history.) At any university, it is unusual for a teacher to require students to learn about the evolution of, say, national advertising or modern retailing. Few faculty ever present an analysis of a marketing practice's role in a modern economy. It is akin to the dialog on the TV program "Night Court." Judge Stone's clerk was going to college part time, complaining that he was "wasting time" on a required liberal arts course. "I don't know why they make me study this stuff?" the clerk whined. "I'll never have to know it again."

Scholars would not discuss the value of their education programs or course content solely in reference to their ability to train students for jobs. Scholarly research uses a variety of approaches to understand and explain the nature of marketing practice, not just to provide data for future decision makers.

This problem limits marketing education's academic respectability, and businesses leaders will never respect the teachers-as-supplicants. With purely vocational goals, both students and educators are losers.

Marketing has the potential to be a strong academic discipline which studies a pervasive aspect of American society. Much of American history and institutions are closely intertwined with the organizations of the business world. But the first step should be to stop assessing marketing scholarship in terms of business' needs. The research should be more than just business aids; the education should not be gauged solely by whether the student plans to seek employment in that field.

Required courses on the history of business organizations, ethical issues, or law should criticize common business practices, provide an understanding of the business, instead of just saying "this is what you need to know to be a better manager." Courses on marketing and society should look beyond case studies of management problems, providing analysis of marketing's functions and dysfunctions as a social force. And, most important, faculty searches should consider professional experience less important than a candidate's broad knowledge and insight into business activities.

This is not suggesting that relations with practitioners are irrelevant. An anthropologist can't study a culture without contact with the natives. But to the extent that the educators become preoccupied with serving marketing practice as the sole basis of assessing their work, they fail to qualify as scholars.

Maybe "marketologist" is not a bad idea. At least it says that a marketing scholar is not synonymous with "practitioner."