Developing Theory in Hospitality to Explain and Predict
Our hospitality literature has clearly matured over the past 40+ years. The research questions asked and the manner in which they were explored has become much more nuanced and sophisticated. A look at the body of research of the 1980s, however, reveals something can still be seen in more recent publications. The focus continues to be on the ‘what’ rather than a deeper push to learn the ‘why’ of a phenomenon. Managerial implications are omnipresent, which is useful. But our role as scholars isn’t just to describe our world with applied research. It is also to seek to understand our world with conceptual research that can lead to theory development. I wrote about this in the last special issue dedicated for research. I would like to repeat that message here to emphasize my purpose of encouraging more collective efforts of our community to develop theory to explain our world of hospitality.
A theory is a model, law, or an understanding of how something works. Theories are useful as they help us to both understand the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of something that we observed. Once developed, theories become useful in helping us predict the future. For example, Pavlov’s experiments with dogs resulted in his Theory of Classical Conditioning, which helps us to understand why we react to certain repeated stimuli in an unconscious manner. That theory has become a useful tool of marketers, who evoke thoughts or memories within the mind through targeted, often repeated, messages. Those thoughts then stimulate certain desires or needs, and that often leads to specific purchases.
A macro level review of our literature reveals a strong focus on the operational side of hospitality. We investigate firm behavior, from product offerings to operational procedures, in order to understand the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of their business and economic activity (strategy, operations management, human resource management, financing, real estate, services management, revenue management, etc.). There is certainly research on the marketing side of the equation (consumer behavior, franchising, branding, services marketing, etc.). Thus, the customer of hospitality firms and the employees of hospitality firms are studied.
What appears lacking is a sufficient focus on the sociological and psychological perspectives. There is published research where scholars examine the role of culture, diversity, etc., but overwhelmingly, the perspective is from the view of the firm; that is, how hospitality firms can adapt to, or even take advantage of, these sociological influences that show up within customers. Typically, those scholars appear to accept the human behavior as a given and explore the impact upon the firm. The research effort rarely appears to delve deeply into the underlying motivations of the human behavior.
Is hospitality a scientific domain that is distinctive from other fields? That question hasn’t fully been answered yet. Many argue that hospitality is an applied field that is a complex industry, significant in size in terms of resources and people, and uses the existing theories of other fields to explain its activities. But there is a basis for asking the question: it is observable that humans shift behaviors when in a hospitality service environment. Whether it is as a patron of a restaurant or as a lodging guest, the human being typically engages in behaviors that are noticeably different from when they are in their own home environment, even while doing the same things (eating, sleeping, bathing, etc.). That observable behavioral difference appears to offer scholars an opportunity. As a generality, the field of tourism has focused upon the traveler when functioning outside of his or her natural environment to explain and predict tourist behavior. Such a perspective could become the basis for a fresh approach to developing hospitality theories. I invite scholars to consider this perspective and use it to generate conceptual research that could lead to novel and exciting hospitality theories.