The Future of Race and Consumer Research

December 11, 2023 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

The Future of Race and Consumer Research

When the Journal of Consumer Research wanted to celebrate their 50th anniversary, their editors asked the community to submit works that would lay the foundation for the next 50 years of their journal. To meet this call, Tonya Williams Bradford, The Merage School, UCI, and Sonya A. Grier, American University of Washington, developed the idea for an article on issues of racial dynamics in the marketplace. 

Bradford, Grier, and fellow authors—David Crockett, UIC; Guillaume D. Johnson, Dauphine Recherches en Management; and Kevin D. Thomas, UC Santa Cruz—had their article accepted for that 50th anniversary issue of the Journal of Consumer Research to be published in 2024.


Getting Started

As undergraduates, Sonya Grier and Tonya Williams Bradford lived in the same dorm on the same floor at Northwestern University. “Now we’re both professors, and we’re coauthors,” says Bradford. “One of the things Sonya noticed early on in her academic career was there was little representation of race or ethnicity in any of the top marketing  journals, and she wondered why this was the case. So she started doing research in this vein and realized very quickly that the top business journals weren’t focused on publishing papers around matters of race.”


Huge Opportunity

The Journal of Consumer Research is one of the top journals in the field that influences scholarship and practice, so the opportunity to submit an article for consideration for their 50th anniversary issue was something about which Bradford and Grier were both excited. “That’s when Sonya and I came together with some other scholars to assess what had been published and create a research agenda that focuses on studying the nature of race in the marketplace,” Bradford says, “and that sets up other scholars to study and publish on this topic in top journals for the next 50 years and beyond.”


Surprise Discovery

For their article, Bradford, Grier, and their team looked at all of the articles on race that were published in the Journal of Consumer Research during the last 50 years. What they found astonished them all. “Sadly, over the 50-year history of the journal, we found they had published fewer than a dozen articles on race,” Bradford says. “Based on this, we started to wonder, ‘What’s going on?’ and we decided to categorize the reasons why we thought race hadn’t been studied and what we thought should change. So, because there weren’t many articles from JCR, we pulled articles from other fields.”


Defining Terms

The first thing Bradford and Grier did was talk about race as a political or social construct. “It’s not biological,” says Bradford. “Race is typically about enforcing some artificial hierarchy in society.”

The team looked at literature in the social sciences. “We started thinking about why the issue of race is so important,” she says, “because when people think about race, they often think about color: black and white. We don’t tend to think about race as something that influences social experiences globally, not just in the United States, so we also discuss race outside of the United States and talk about how race plays a role in consumer behavior and marketplace experiences globally.”


Context Matters

As they wrote their article, Bradford wondered why it was that people didn’t seem to consider race as something that matters in the marketplace. “Psychologists who study cognition say a brain is a brain,” Bradford says, “but they forget context influences how our brains operate. Context makes some things possible and not others, for example. The irony here is, when we think about gender, we’re keen to say we recognize gender differences, but we don’t examine differences in terms of race.”  

“I’m an anthropologist, and one of the things that makes anthropology interesting is how we take what may be viewed as foreign and make it accessible. Something that’s happening on some remote island might seem strange, for example, but an anthropologist can compare that activity to something we can relate to like washing dishes or making dinner. That translation makes foreign experiences more accessible. Researchers need to invest time to understand the context around behaviors. It is necessary and important to be sensitive and respectful of those who share their personal experiences–particularly around race where experiences may cause pain.”


Creating Blueprints

In the article, Bradford, Grier, and their fellow researchers created a roadmap for studying race in consumer research. “We synthesized the three main dimensions where race has been studied,” Bradford says. “We identified how race structures consumption, how consumers navigate racialized markets, and we talked about consumer resistance to notions of race. At the same time, we recognized these aren’t separate and distinct dimensions, but there is some overlap between all of them. This allowed us to codify what’s in the literature, and to begin thinking about what should be done moving forward.”


Wide Influence

When Bradford thinks about the impact of this work, she’s very optimistic about the possibilities. “People are mixing and mingling much more than they were 50 years ago when we first started publishing consumer research,” she says. “All of this influences how people consume and their experiences in markets. I think it’s important for scholarship to provide understanding to our practitioner colleagues so they are able to make data-informed decisions about how to attract various types of consumers who might have different experiences due to race.”

“People often think about race scholarship as something that only racialized consumers care about. But I think it’s important for all of us to be aware this really impacts everybody. It’s not some niche phenomenon. This has implications for markets in significant ways that haven’t yet been contemplated.”


Future Hopes

The main impact Bradford and her co-authors want is for how increased understanding of race can produce richer research. “One thing I’m very hopeful about is that our article helps us reduce the amount of ignorance—not understanding or knowing—and encourages people to have a desire to do research that creates better experiences for all consumers.”


Final Thoughts

“One of the things we do in this paper is provide people with a framework to do research on race in markets and consumer behavior in a way that is meaningful and impactful,” Bradford says. “We want to provide guidance that allows an opportunity for a broader set of stories to be told about race, consumption, and marketplace experiences.”


Race in Consumer Research: Past, Present, and Future, Sonya A Grier, American University, WA; David Crockett, UIC; Guillaume D. Johnson, Dauphine Recherches en Management; Kevin D. Thomas, UC Santa Cruz; and Tonya Williams Bradford, The Merage School, UCI.