Measuring and Comparing Materialism Cross-Culturally

Guliz Ger, Bilkent University
[ to cite ]:
Guliz Ger (1990) ,"Measuring and Comparing Materialism Cross-Culturally", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 186-192.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 186-192


Guliz Ger, Bilkent University

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

The materialism scales developed by Belk (1985) are modified to increase appropriateness to cultures other than the US. The scales are tested by the data gathered in the United States, Turkey and France. The problems of developing and testing cross-culturally applicable scales are discussed and preliminary results of these tests and cross-cultural comparisons are presented. The Turkish sample is found to be the most materialistic, yet also the most generous. The results are discussed in terms of relative affluence levels and cultural factors.

Materialism has been defined as "the importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions. At the highest levels of materialism, such possessions assume a central place in a person's life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction" (Belk 1985). Materialism, or consumption-based orientation to happiness seeking, has generally been seen as a Western trait which achieved an elevated place in industrial and post-industrial life. However, consumption for the sake of pleasure existed in many different cultures and throughout the history (Belk 1988). "While high level consumer culture has existed in isolated pockets since ancient civilizations, it has become available and embraced by entire populations only over the past century" (Belk 1988, see Mason 1981).

A scale measuring materialism has been developed by Belk (1985) and three dimensions have been identified: possessiveness, envy and nongenerosity. Possessiveness is "the inclination and tendency to retain control or ownership of one's possessions" (Belk 1985). This may concern goods, experience or people. Envy is the "displeasure and ill will at the superiority of [another person] in happiness, success, reputation or the possession of anything desirable" (Schoeck 1966, in Belk 1985). This may also concern other's goods, experiences or people. Nongenerosity is "an unwillingness to give possessions to or share possessions with others" (Belk 1985).

Research by Wallendorf and Arnould (1988) and Rudmin (1988) suggests that the materialism scales developed by Belk (1985) are more appropriate to the United States than to other cultures, especially those of the Third World. The present research sought to remedy this problem by testing modified versions of these scales. Some of the original items were modified and some additional items, developed for the purposes of cross-cultural appropriateness, were included. Once the scale structure was established, levels of materialism in several countries were compared.



A convenience sample of 405 respondents was taken from among the university students in Utah, USA, Fontainebleau France and several cities in Turkey. In France, the questionnaire was administered at INSEAD, an international institution where the student body is mostly European, the majority being French, English and German. Use of students kept some individual difference variables such as age and educational differences constant.


An english version of the questionnaire was administered in USA and France (students at INSEAD are fluent in English and most courses are conducted in English), and in Turkish in Turkey. Backtranslation procedure was employed in preparing the Turkish version. The first part of the questionnaire consisted of 34 five-point Likert scale items. These are aimed at measuring materialism. They included Belk's original items, some of which were modified as well as some new items. The second part consisted of open ended questions which are not analyzed in this paper. The last part of the questionnaire listed 20 products/services (or experiences like university education, vacation, retirement) and asked the respondents to indicate whether they think the items are luxuries or necessities. The number judged to be necessities was used for validation purposes.


Dimensions of materialism, reliability and validity

Four dimensions emerged from factor analyses with varimax rotations. While solutions were not identical across all samples, the solution chosen was the most robust and is consistent with a factor analysis of the entire data set. The items which load on the four factors are Shown in Tables 1A, B, C and D. In addition to the three dimensions, namely, possessiveness, envy and nongenerosity, identified in USA previously (Belk 1985), a fourth, named tangibility also emerged. Tangibility can be defined to be the conversion of experience into material form. Taking pictures during a Vacation, keeping souvenirs, and taking slides of places visit and showing them to friends are examples. The increasing tendency towards this phenomenon has been suggested by Sherry (1987). Cronbach's alpha is used to assess reliability. In the total sample, as well as within each of the three Cultures satisfactory levels of alphas were found (Table 2). Validity is evaluated using the correlations between the number of items seen as necessities and the materialism scores as well as the subscale scores although the correlations are not very high, all are significant (Table 3).













It is clear that despite the attempt to construct a cross-culturally reliable materialism scale, the resulting scale is more reliable in the United States and Europe than in Turkey. Within Turkey, reliabilities were higher in the more cosmopolitan environment of Istanbul and lower elsewhere. These findings are consistent with the view that the present conception and measures of materialism derive more from highly developed countries in Europe and North America. But this finding does not necessarily negate the application of the scales elsewhere. A primary reason is the theory that materialistic consumer culture arose in this developed world but is being emulated in the Third World at an increasing rate (Belk 1988). The pattern of the West in first developing wealth and then a consumption ethic is being superseded, in this view, by a reversed pattern in the Third World. By virtue of mass media, tourism, and multinational marketing, consumer culture is beginning to create yearning for consumer goods even before households of the Third World have adequate nutrition. Further, limited calories are sometimes sacrificed in order to afford such consumer luxuries. If so, the spread of materialism is perhaps a quintessentially developed world concept that is best measured with scales derived primarily in the same developed context. This view is strengthened by the consistent patterns of materialism scores found, as discussed in the following section.

Cross-cultural comparisons

The Turkish sample is the most materialistic of all with respect to both the scores on the materialism scale (Table 4) and the mean number of items seen as necessities (Table 5), followed by USA and then Europe (INSEAD). Among the three INSEAD subsamples Germany is the least materialistic. The scores on the subscales indicate that the Turkish sample is the most possessive, envious and tangibilizing, but at the same time, the most generous. The USA maintains its second place on envy and, along with England and France, on tangibility. It is the most nongenerous and only is behind Europe (with the exception of France) on possessiveness. Among the Europeans, Germany is the lowest on materialism, tangibility, envy and nongenerosity (although on envy and nongenerosity the differences do not reach statistical significance).


In cross-cultural research it appears crucial that questions are decided upon by joint efforts of researchers from the cultures involved. Subtle cultural factors play in and a rigorous translation procedure is not enough to guarantee cross-cultural standardization. It is very questionable whether such a complete standardization is possible at all. The Cronbach's alphas are not very high here. The reason may be that different items are more powerful or relevant in different cultures. To have a standard instrument and overall reliability and validity, the researchers may have to sacrifice high local reliability and validity. One way to develop better instruments would be to undertake exploratory research in every culture involved and use the overlapping items. However, not only will this procedure be very difficult and possible only with huge projects, but also some of the local power may still be lost in the attempt to keep the instrument common. If local reliability and validity are emphasized, comparability across cultures may well be lost.





The results are inconsistent with a view generally held that materialism is a Western phenomenon observed in developed countries. The sample from the only nonwestern and the least developed country was the most materialistic and also highest on all subscales with the exception of nongenerosity on which they were the most generous. Furthermore, the Turkish sample was the most materialistic and the least nongenerous at the same time, although for other samples patterns of materialism were consistent for all four factors.

While it may be surprising, even shocking, to find that the Turks sampled are more materialistic than Europeans and Americans, this result is prefigured by findings measuring the Protestant Work Ethic cross-culturally (e.g., Furnham and Muhiudeen 1984, Tallman, Marotz-Baden, and Pindas 1983). These studies find that the Protestant Ethic is now strongest in Third World countries (regardless of dominant religion) and weakest in highly developed post-industrial nations. Various authors suggest that once wealth is achieved by devotion to the Protestant Ethic, the logical imperative to use excess wealth on consumption and leisure creates the seeds for destruction of the same ethic (e.g., Albee 1977, Campbell 1987, Davis 1944, Duncan 1962, Fox, Lears, and Jackson 1983, Horowitz 1980, King 1983). Scitovsky (1976) and Hirschman (1982) carry the argument a necessary step farther and suggest that high level materialism also contains the seeds of its own destruction because such consumption is ultimately unfulfilling. That materialism is highest in the developing world is a provocative finding deserving of further research.

Why would Turks be generous and willing to share and be materialistic at the same time? One reason may be that the more traditional societies may be more collectivistic or communal- give more importance to the society and societal purposes than the individual and his/her goals. Although generally developed societies are thought to be more individualistic (independent and autonomous members) and industrialization is seen to be linked to individualism, there are arguments that individualism versus collectivism (and interdependence) are not dependent on industrialization, but are cultural orientations. Japan provides an example of an industrialized and collectivist society (Kagitcibasi 1988). If Turks are more collectivistic, they would be expected to share. There is some evidence that Turkish university students have values that are less individualistic than the western university students (Basaran 1989).

However, it has been suggested that individualism/independence and materialism are associated such that a more individualistic person would be more materialistic: to achieve economic independence the person wants to be rich and values material goods (Furham 1984). However, the country which is probably less individualistic or independence oriented turned out to be the most materialistic. One plausible explanation may be that Turks think of the autonomous unit to be wider, the family for example, and material goods are desired for the family; what are important are the wealth status and the possessions of the family rather than those of the individual. It has been suggested that especially female Turks may think along these lines (personal communication with Ayse Oncu). So, maybe materialism does not have to be individual oriented. If materialism is linked to enhancing the material well-being of, and consumption for a unit, that unit may be a single individual in some cultures, several individuals (close friends and family members) in other cultures. Then, in cultures where the unit includes more than one person, high levels of materialism can co-occur with generosity, even if materialism is influenced by the desire for economic independence.

Why would the least affluent society in the sample be the most materialistic? Materialism has been associated with economic affluence and Western culture. The rising materialism observed in Japan has also been linked to increasing levels of affluence and Western influence (Belk 1985). Recently, it has been suggested that materialism is on the rise in underdeveloped and developing countries as well, and the present results support that suggestion. Although this may follow some sort of economic development, it may occur without accompanying or preceding widespread affluence, again as seen in the current study. The fact that materialism existed in ancient civilizations, although within isolated pockets, and that it exists in LDCs today suggests that being Western or affluent are not essential prerequisites.

Then, what factors account for materialism? A brief look at the cultural and historical factors in Turkey may provide some clues. The Ottoman empire, which survived for about 600 years, collapsed after a period of decline for about 200 years, and lost to the West during the first world war. The Turkish republic which was then formed has been trying to rebuild. A sociological account of the Turkish mentality and lifestyle of the Turkish person of the decline period (Ulgener 1981a and b), suggests that this person has been familiar to the pleasures or desire for an affluent lifestyle with high levels of consumption but is not in a hurry to get there nor will go to great efforts to get there, and maintains his ties to tradition in setting his goals and means. Lots of and showy consumption (huge and well decorated offices, chauffeurs) is ahead of more simple and less showy service and production capacity. This person relates to material things as a means of pleasure, prestige and showing off. So, the pleasure ethic has always been there. Also, he feels close to "things", in a feeling son of a way, rather than a good of investment or exchange value, the latter being the way an industrialized man relates to goods. Ulgener argues that religious and secular ethics reinforced consumption for pleasure, not only for the elite but also gave opportunities for similar behavior to the lower classes. Mobility existed. Lower classes as well as the elite were after the "riches", showing off and had a desire for gold and silver. Although there was public rhetoric of modesty in means, in intimate communication and advice, elders wished for a lot for their offspring.

Some of the religious influences arise from the Islamic rules that seem to have implications for materialism and generosity. For example, pilgrimage is only for the rich-- once one has enough to provide for the family and give to the poor; Muslims are required to give to the poor periodically; and when sheep are sacrificed during the holiday (to commemorate God sending sheep when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son), the meat is shared with the poor. Furthermore, there is a strong interpenetration of the religious and the commercial in Turkey, consistent with O'Guinn and Belk's (1989) findings. Artifacts which are both religious and secular include: 1. blue eye (also called "masallah" which is what is said to ward off the evil eye, although "masallah" is an Islam term whereas the evil eye is a pagan belief) hung on door or worn as jewelry, 2. prayer rug versus kilims which are linked to the nomadic tradition, 3. religious elements in many arts and crafts, such as religious writings on copper, silver and ceramic wares, and calligraphy, one of the art forms which evolved to substitute the forbidden representation of human figure in art/paintings.

Recent developments in Turkey point to possible nonreligious influences on materialism. Economic influences may include the 60-80% inflation rate of the past couple of years, and the major liberalization of the economy and encouragement of international business since 1980. The advertising industry also bloomed with foreign partnerships. For the past 20 or so years, Turkish workers in Germany have been coming back to Turkey every summer, bringing modem western goods like cars, TVs, appliances, and impressing people in their neighborhoods or villages. There has been an increase in tourism over the years with exposure to tourists and their belongings, an increase in American TV programs and films, and direct exposure, through business relations, to the lavish consumption in Saudi Arabia. There is a new class of "new rich" who like to publicize their belongings. The newspapers have pictures of the prime minister's wife in her designer clothes and of the parties of the wealthy who serve outrageously expensive delicacies. People are crazy about Rolex watches and other brand name goods. Traveling to Europe mostly for shopping purposes created an expression: "suitcase tourism". Although these behaviors are not necessarily adopted, afforded or approved of by everyone, they still offer a sign of success. A mental picture of what the rich and famous do, and thus, is desirable, gives prominence to consumption.

Desirability of consumption can, in some cases, lead to "wrong" choices, supporting Belk's argument (1988). In a rural home, plastic plates may be hung on the wall. It is modern, it is what the city people use, and thus good. In the olden days it used to be a copper or ceramic plate. Similarly, in urban areas wall-to-wall carpeting is very "in", and some sort of plastic material covers the rural floors which previously had hand made rugs and kilims. The "doorman" and the cleaning lady purchase the latest appliances including TV and VCR (yet cutting down on food and health related expenses), the poor and the rich buy a faddish item such as stone washed jeans, and follow the latest fashions.

A lot of what is described can be thought of as "Western influence". Why is a country that has been trying to imitate the West more materialistic than the West itself? What is seen first and adopted the easiest is the tangible. Things easiest to diffuse have been the artifactual. Secondly, the "have not" feels the lack of many things, and to compensate, adopts something that is the easiest to adopt. For example, many stores and restaurants in Turkey have foreign or foreign sounding names. "We consume like they do, we have what they have, so, we now are Westerners. Why, we even have McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Benetton." Anything "Western" is equated with "good and desirable". This feeling is widespread now, and has been since the decline of the Ottoman Empire. This may be because of the defeat of the Ottomans by the west leading to a loss of esteem/dignity accompanied by the belief that the West must know what they are doing. An analogous reasoning may account for the greater materialism in the US than Europe. Being later to industrialize than Europe, plus lacking cultural heritage may have lead to lower esteem or dignity. Americans may still look up to the old land in many ways and are impressed very much by its history and culture, but not vice versa. And of course Turkey is very impressed by both USA and Europe.

With that historical and religious background, how can we interpret materialistic tendencies in Turkey now? Possessions are socially accepted and valued. People purchase things to belong. An acquaintance, who was new in a social circle, once told the first author "I realized that unless I show them that I also understand art and own it, they are going to exclude me". The value of a person increases as s/he dresses a particular way, owns certain things, and goes abroad for vacations. Young people want brand name products in order to get dates. Possessiveness and envy go along with valuing possessions. Tangibilizing may occur because concrete things are easier to show to others and communicate something about oneself. And all may be related to a sense of lack of dignity/ esteem, maybe due to the history-- being grandchildren of a fallen empire, feeling excluded from the world, and wanting to belong. How about generosity? People still give to the poor, but not necessarily to fulfill religious rules. A lick of second hand business may also enhance such giving. They give to the poor around them quite possibly to reduce envy: people they know, like the maid and the doorman, people whom they see and are seen by. The rich and the poor are more exposed to each other, and are not as physically separated as in the USA, which may enhance envy. The blue- eye is a tangible indicator of the importance of envy.

In summary, some bare minimum of economic means and communication as to available goods and how other people (in the same society or in different societies) live and consume, and a sense of affordability (I can also buy this) seem to be necessary conditions for materialism. But having the means and- knowing that other people have things do not necessarily have to lead to the desire for these things or materialism. Why does that desire come about? Due to an impersonal society? Due to a desire to belong? Implicit in the above preconditions lies the notion that comparison of one's own means and possessions with those of others above oneself will push one towards materialism. The notion of comparative or relative situation seems to be an important one. This comparison may involve other aspects of life (such as constraints, lack of control and satisfaction, see Daun 1983) versus material aspects, current and historical affluence (economic and/or cultural) of others (within a country and/or across countries) versus of oneself. Both of these comparisons may be related to a latent sense of relative deprivation, esteem/dignity (related to or in self, country, society, history), and the desire to self-actualize and assert power. The sudden relative changes in means by Turkish guest workers may be a strong precipitating factors due to the relative disparities it brings about and the exposure to Western lifestyles it creates. More generally, increasing inequality in income distribution may also lead to such disparities. Finally, the relationship between materialism and affluence may be curvilinear rather than linear. In a less affluent society, people may value things they don't have, however, once these things are acquired their value may decrease. Furthermore, affluence may need to be conceptualized as a relative concept and broader in terms of its elements and time frame. That is, 1. history/recency of affluence, 2. recent comparative trends in affluence, and 3. noneconomic affluence (for example, cultural heritage) in addition to current levels of affluence, may need to be considered as the independent variables to be investigated in the future.

To undertake cross-cultural studies of interest, we have to think about causality. In order to address that issue, the nature of the phenomenon and its dimensions must be identifled. So, here we have tried to develop a measure which can assess the phenomenon in several cultures. Now, studies aimed at finding the causal relationships can be undertaken. Historical analyses and descriptive findings may provide initial ideas about causes, which then would need to be tested. Some such ideas have been suggested above.


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