On the hierarchical nature of means-end relationships in laddering data
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Means–end analysis appeals to managers, and laddering is applicable for a large diversity of products and services. The cognitive model underlying conventional means–end analysis is hierarchical. Means serve certain ends, which, in turn, serve as means to higher-ordered ends. These ladders stretch from concrete attributes to abstract values. However, the question needs to be considered of whether or not means–end relations are really hierarchical. This article reviews the doubts with respect to this issue in the literature, and analyzes means–end datasets for two empirical studies. Here, the means–end relations turn out to be symmetrical rather than asymmetrical, that is, if respondents say that A is a means to B, they are also likely to say that B is a means to A. This contradicts the hierarchy assumption, and the conclusion is that means–end relations are not necessarily hierarchical. When means–end relations are symmetrical, rather than asymmetrical, a network representation is more adequate than a hierarchical value map (HVM). In that case the centrality of a concept in the network is the key to the prominence of a concept, rather than its level in the HVM. The implication of these findings is that in empirical applications, the hierarchy assumption underlying laddering needs testing. Failure of such tests to confirm the hierarchy assumption has consequences for the interpretation of the results and for the policy recommendations, based on the research.