Journal of retailing and consumer services

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Introduction

Every research aims to answer one or more research questions. In doing so, the researcher has to think about the methodologies and methods that will enable him/her to answer these questions. In addition, he/she has to think about how the outcome of his/her research should be viewed and interpreted by other scholars in the field. Is it objective outcome or interpretive outcome? The answer for all the previously mentioned questions is related to the epistemological position of the researcher.

So, What is epistemology? Why do we need to study it? What are the different epistemological views? How does our epistemological position affect our choice of methodologies and methods? The present paper is going to answer these questions, then shed light on the researcher epistemological position as well as his theoretical perspective, methodology and methods that are consistent with his epistemological position.

What is epistemology?

Actually, when we are talking about epistemology, we can't ignore ontological issues. Since both of them tend to emerge together as indicated by Crotty (2007). Furthermore, Walliman (2006) defines ontology as "a theory of social entities and is concerned with what there exists to be investigated." On the other hand, epistemology is "a way of understanding and explaining how we know what we know" (Crotty, 2007). In the same vein, Bryman (2004) states that "epistemological issue concerns the questions of what is (or should be) regarded as acceptable knowledge in a discipline." Also, Pollock & Cruz (1999) define epistemology as "an attempt to make sense of the possibility, nature, and limits of human intellectual achievement by illuminating the difference between knowledge and opinion in an understanding of what it really to know or really to believe reasonable."

Why do we need to study epistemology?

The epistemology and ontology issues are considered highly relevant to any research as claimed by Walliman (2006) because they form the theoretical basis of:

  1. How the world is experienced
  2. What constitute knowledge
  3. What can be done with that knowledge.

Therefore, the audience of the research can recognise the assumptions of a given research and this will properly affect the way of interpreting and understanding the research findings.

What are the different epistemological views?

Deshpande (1983) indicates that different epistemological positions or schools were initated in an attempt to answer the fundamental question of "How do we know what we know?" Answering this question was not that easy and thereby, philosophers have been divided into different schools of thought according to their perception of how the above mentioned question should be answered.

According to Crotty (2007), there are three different epistemological positions, namely: Objectivism, Constructionism and Subjectivism. This section will shed light on each position based on the course discussion and some other readings about the topic as follow:

Objectivism

Objectivisim is defined by Crotty (2007) as "the epistemological view that things exist as meaningful entities independently of conscious and experience, that they have truth and meaning residing in them as objects." In addition, those who are interested in this approach aim at providing essential rational explanations by using methods and models of natural sciences to human affairs (Burrell and Morgan, 1979).

So, it seems to me that the researchers, who follow this approach or view the world or truth by this lens, are interested in discovering the meaning of objects independent of how human mind interpret them. So, as long as it does exist, it is real and need to be researched and investigated. For example, the chair exists whether or not we recognise its existence. Within the objectivism view, there are two theoretical perspectives as indicated by Crotty (2007):

Positivism

Positivism is defined by Bryman (2004) as "an epistemological position that advocates the application of methods of the natural sciences to the study of social reality and beyond." By using these methods, the social scientists aim at replicating the success of the natural scientists in manipulating and controlling the natural world (Seale, 1999).

Furthermore, Positivism is the absolute objectivity because it considers scientific knowledge to be accurate and certain. Also, it holds great faith in the knowledge ability to verify things. Equally, it contrasts with opinions, beliefs, feelings and assumptions that are gained by non scientific ways. Therefore, it views the world to be a well-organised world with regularities and absolute principles (Crotty, 2007).

Accordingly, the researchers who follow this approach attempt to use methods of natural sciences in studying social science in a way that makes things predictable. In addition, the knowledge is achieved by gathering facts that provide basis for laws. Also, they tend to explain the human behaviours in terms of cause and effect (Bryman, 2004). As a result, the positivist needs to keep in mind the difference between what is empirically verifiable knowledge and subjective unverifiable knowledge (Crotty, 2007)..

Post -Positivism

Post-positivism has emerged in response to the criticisms against positivism (Robson, 2005). In addition, Post-Postivism is about probability rather than certainty (Crotty, 2007). So, it rejects the principle of absolute objectivity. Instead, it claims that there is a certain level of objectivity. In the same line, Robson (2005) argues that Post-Positivism like Positivism in which they believe that reality does exist, but they consider that it can be known only imperfectly and probabilistically because of the researcher's limitations. As a result, we have approximated truth rather than total truth (Crotty, 2007).

Here, the researchers consider every scientific statement to be tentative statement and therefore, they are in continuous effort to research and solve problems that hold no final answers in themselves. However, the answers are expected to cause steady advance toward infinite end. This may even cause paradigm shift and change the way by which the scientists are viewing the reality (Crotty, 2007)..

Constructionism

Constructionism is defined by Crotty (2007) as "all knowledge, and therefore all meaningful reality as such, is contingent upon human practices, being constructed in and out of interaction between human beings and their world, and developed and transmitted within an essential social context." In the same line, Constructionism is defined by Walliman (2006) as "the belief that social phenomena are in constant state of change because they are totally reliant on social interactions as they take place. Even the account of researchers is subject to these interactions; therefore social knowledge can only be interdeterminate." Therefore, they reject the logic of objectivism that objects exist independent of any conscious (Crotty, 2007). Also, they believe that there are multiple realities and the research participants are assisting the researcher to construct the reality (Robson, 2005). Thus, the research questions cannot be fully established in advance. More interesting, some researchers even claim that objectivity is impossible in the social research science because:

  • Theories are underderimined by facts (Khun, 1962)
  • Paradigms that researchers hold are incommonensurable. (Khun, 1962).
  • Different cultures may have diverse understanding of the same phenomena (Crotty, 2007).

So, they believe that objects in our world hold only potential meanings. In other words, the actual meaning emerges only when consciousness recognise and interpret it. For example, the chair was named so and associated with some characteristics that are known for us because we have constructed it in this way. Similarly, it has this meaning because our minds recognise it in this way. But before this it has no meaning because no meaning without a mind (Crotty, 2007).Within the constructionism view, there are some theoretical perspectives as indicated by Crotty (2007) such as interprevitism.

Interprevitism:

This theoretical perspective was developed in response to the recognition that that natural world sciences and social science are two different worlds (Crotty, 2007). So, it respects the differences between humans. Also, it requires social scientist to infer the subjective meaning of social action (Bryman, 2004). Interprevitism is considered the opposite of positivism as indicated by Walliman (2006) who summarised the main differences between them as reported in table (1).

However, Crotty (2007) disagrees with Walliman (2006) that there are certain methods that are associated with positivist such as quantitative methods, whereas qualitative methods are associated with interprevitism. He argues that it's not the quantitative methods that make your research to be positivist but the "attribution of objectivity, validity and generalisability to quantitative findings" that give your research the essence of objectivity.

Crotty (2007) indicate that there are three historical stances in interprevitism approach which includes the following:

  • Symbolic Interactionism: the researchers study the society by the lenses of the study subjects. Furthermore, they depend on meanings (language and other symbolic tools) used by the study subjects to describe a social phenomena. Based on these meanings, the researchers can develop their systematic interpretations.
  • Phenomoloy: the researchers are interested in studying people's subjective and every day experiences that lead them to better cultural understanding.
  • Hermeneutics: is defined as "gaining an understanding of the text that is deeper or goes further than the author's own understanding" (Crotty, 2007). So, the researchers do their best to uncover meanings and intentions that are hidden in the text. More interesting, the researcher may gain deep understanding of the meanings and assumptions that authors failed to articulate.
Subjectivism

Subjectivism view is not like constructionism where the meaning is "derived from the interplay between object and subject" (Crotty, 2007) but here, the meaning is derived from somewhere else. For example, from dreams, religion believes, "primordial archetypes that are located within our collective conscious...etc". (Crotty, 2007)

The research problem and purpose:

The Internet has been identified as an important driving force in the development of consumer empowerment because they have easy, cheap access to accurate, up-to date, relevant, complete, unbaised and timely information, as well as unlimited choices of service providers and goods. So, it has been assumed that all these conditions will properly lead to better informed choices by consumers (see Loewe and Boncheck, 1999, Pitt et al., 2002, Rha, et al., 2002, Wallis, 2003, and Kucuk and Krishnamurthy, 2007).

Although, the literature provides some empirical support for the role of Internet in offering good conditions for empowerment (see Kholi et al., 2004 and Burrutia and Echebarria, 2005), UK financial consumers are making poor financial decisions especially in managing their pension funds (Hodgson, 2002). Also, Wang et al. (2005) refers to reports of Office of Fair Trading (2000) regarding consumers' loss from uninformed and misinformed choices in UK. The loss was estimated to be around £180 every year for every adult living in UK.

Further, the consumer empowerment literature indicates that the justification for above mentioned problem rests on two main reasons::

  1. Individual differences among consumers have led to different potentials for empowerment. These differences include the level of prior experience (Newholm et al., 2006), confidence (Laing, et al., 2005), inner perception of power (McGegor, 2005), experience of using the Internet (Nelson, 2002), cultural capital (expectations of empowerment) (Newholm et al., 2006), consumer knowledge and skills to interpret information (Wallis, 2003; Lindley, 2007), consumer ability to assess and compare available offers on hand (Pires et al., 2006).
  2. The situational conditions for empowerment assume that consumer will find all information complete, accurate and timely on the Internet. This is not always true as it was found in a recent study by Harrison et al. (2006) that not all insurance companies' web sites offer all the information needed by their consumers. Accordingly, they didn't feel fully empowered. Also, information may be complex that is not easily understandable by every consumer. In addition, sometimes service providers offer too much information on their web sites that overload consumers. According to Herbig and Kramer (1994) information overload will properly make consumer unable to find the relevant data among the vast volumes of data and may overlook the critical information among the relevant data.

In response to the above mentioned reasons, many companies have started to make use of every opportunity to educate their consumers and raise their skills (i.e. investment skills) by providing them with client seminars, printed materials and websites (Bell and Eisingerich, 2007). More interesting, Vanguard Group (the second largest mutual fund seller in the world) has employed its web site to solely and continually educate and inform both current and potential consumers about such things as tax laws and financial planning. As a result, the retention rates in this company are over 90% (Anderson and Srininvasan, 2003).

So, my study aim is to investigate how web sites can improve consumers' incompetences and help them to make better informed decisions. This will be achieved by examining the effect of consumer education on consumer empowerment. Also, my study investigates the mediating effects of consumer knowledge on the relationship between consumer education and consumer empowerment. This is suggested because knowledgeable consumers may not perceive information or education efforts as empowerment because they may view this knowledge to be the norm and then, it passes unremarkable. However, the less knowledgeable consumers may appreciate the education efforts in much more sense.

Moreover, consumer knowledge has been considered by many studies to consist of self assessed knowledge (what people think that they know) and objective knowledge (what people actually know). These variables have shown different effects on information sources used by consumer as indicated by Mattila and Wirtz (2002). In particular, consumers with relatively higher levels of self assessed knowledge have more confidence in their skills and tend to depend more on personal information sources such as their own memory along with word of mouth information sources. In addition, consumers with relatively higher levels of objective knowledge (what people actually know) are more dependent on impersonal sources such as books and newspapers.

However, it is not clear which component of consumer knowledge contributes more to consumer empowerment and which type of information source contribute more to consumer empowerment.

So, the present study attempts to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the relative contribution of subjective consumer knowledge and objective consumer knowledge to consumer empowerment?
  2. What type and level of contribution of personal information sources as compared to impersonal information sources to consumer empowerment?
  3. What is the effect of consumer education on consumer empowerment?
  4. Does consumer knowledge mediate the relationship between consumer education and consumer empowerment?

My epistemological position is objectivism because my approach is to differentiate between scientifically objective meanings (what people really knows) and scientifically subjective meanings (what people think that they know). Furthermore, this approach is considered by Crotty (2007) to be "consistently objectivist."

Theoretical perspective

According to Crotty (2007), the theoretical perspective is "the philosophical stance informing the methodology and thus providing a context for the process and grounding its logic and criteria."

My theoretical perspective is post-positivism due to the following reasons:

  1. The assumptions of the positivist regarding the certainty and faith of scientific knowledge are not true because all scientific statements are tentative and re-testable in their nature. Also, in many cases we have paradigm shifts occurring in many disciplines. As a result, scientists and researchers start to view things differently.
  2. My research is oriented toward objectivity, validity and generalisability of my research findings.
Methodology

Methodology is defined by Crotty (2007) as "the strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods and linking the choice and use of methods to the desired outcomes." Also, methodology or research design is viewed by Bryman (2004) as "a structure that guides the execution of a research method and the analysis of the subsequent data." There are two broad methodologies in the social research i.e. Quantitative and Qualitative (Deshpande, 1983). Furthermore, Bryman (2004) differentiated between these methodologies as shown in table 2.

The researcher is going to depend on survey research that is defined by Bryman (2004) as it "comprises a cross-sectional design in relation to which data are collected predominantly by questionnaire or by structured interview on more than one case (usually quite a lot more than one) and at a single point in time in order to collect a body of quantitative or quantifiable data in connection with two or more variables (usually many more than two), which are then examined to detect patterns of association." The use of this research design will enable the researcher to:

  1. Identify variations among consumers of online banking in UK as it has systematic and standardized method for getting variation.
  2. Provide quantifiable data that allow researcher to identify patterns of association between variables such as between consumer empowerment and consumer education.
The Research Methods

The Research Methods are defined by Crotty (2007) as "the techniques or procedures used to gather and analyse data related to some research question or hypothesis."

In light of the methodology, the methods that will be used for the data collection and statistical analysis are planned as follow:

Data collection method

The present study is going to use online questionnaire as a data collection method. Also, some procedures will be taken to improve validity and reliability of the questionnaire such as:

  1. Involving two online banking experts along with two academic marketing professors to review the questionnaire in order to improve its face validity.
  2. Conducting two pre-tests for the developed questionnaire.
Measurement

The measurement of research variables will be based on the literature review that properly will incorporate five-point Likert scale.

The Research Population

It includes all online retail consumers of online banks in UK.

The literature review indicates that most of previous studies were concerned with credence services in the study of consumer empowerment as follow:

  1. Health care services (Laing, et al., 2005; Ouschan et al., 2006, Newholm et al., 2006)
  2. Financial services (Harrison et al., 2006; Dash, 2006; Newholm et al., 2006)
  3. Legal services (Newholm et al., 2006)

This may be justified by the following reasons:

  1. Consumers in high involvement services such as financial services, healthcare and civil legal advice, will have active role in the service encounter (Newholm et al., 2006).
  2. Credence services are the most difficult product category to evaluate when making a purchase decision because its quality is unknown even after purchase. Therefore, it represents the most difficult buying situation for the rsearcher. Whereas, search goods (i.e. books), consumers can use available information to evaluate its quality prior to purchase. For experience goods (i.e. clothes), consumers can evaluate quality of goods based on usage experience (after purchase) (Kulviwat et al., 2004).

Therefore, it seems more beneficial to study consumer empowerment for a credence service such as retail banking. This will be done in the online context since Ouschan et al, (2006) and Denegri-Knott et al. (2006) call for studying consumer empowerment in the online context. In addition, the Internet provides many tools and resources for empowerment.

Sampling

The researcher is going to depend on simple random sample of 500 sampling units who will be users of online banking services in UK. The sample will be drawn from a big panel owned by an independent marketing research firm. This technique supports the generalisability of the study findings and thereby its objectivity.

Statistical analysis Techniques

The researcher plans to use SEM (Structural Equation Modelling) for analysing the relationships for the proposed model of consumer empowerment as well as descriptive statistics.

Conclusion

In light of what has been mentioned and understood from the course discussions, it seems to me that my epistemological positions is not determined by the subject of my study nor the method (qualitative vs quantitative research methods) I plan to use. However, it depends on what assumptions I will use in my research and how I want others (other scholars) to understand and interpret the findings of my study (objective outcome vs interpretive outcome).

Furthermore, I conclude that my study need to consistent. So, whatever approach I take (objectivism, constructionism and subjectivism), it needs to be consistently objective or consistently subjective all over the study but it cannot be both at the same time.

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