Distinguishing Culture of Origin From Culture of Residence

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona
Michael D. Reilly, University of Arizona
ABSTRACT - This paper describes some problems involved in assessing the impacts of culture on consumption behavior. Key problems identified include: the need for a guiding theory, the need to use nonreactive, nonintrusive measures and, particularly when investigating embedded subcultures, the need to control for structural constraints, income, education and minority status.
[ to cite ]:
Melanie Wallendorf and Michael D. Reilly (1983) ,"Distinguishing Culture of Origin From Culture of Residence", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 699-701.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 699-701


Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona

Michael D. Reilly, University of Arizona


This paper describes some problems involved in assessing the impacts of culture on consumption behavior. Key problems identified include: the need for a guiding theory, the need to use nonreactive, nonintrusive measures and, particularly when investigating embedded subcultures, the need to control for structural constraints, income, education and minority status.


The concept of culture is important in both international marketing (Terpstra, 1982) and in studying the sociology of consumption (Nicosia and Mayer, 1976; Zaltman and Wallendorf, 1977). Yet our knowledge of the special theoretical and empirical considerations required in the study of other cultures or subcultures is not extensive. The purpose here is to explicate some of these considerations and detail ways in which they can be addressed in cross-cultural and subcultural research on consumption. In particular, focus is directed toward those considerations most important to the study of consumption patterns in embedded subcultures. These are the behavior patterns of a group which is embedded in a larger culture distinct from themselves (e.g., Japanese-Americans, Mexican-Americans). But before subcultures can be discussed, the concept of culture must be explored.

Culture is often defined conceptually as a set of socially acquired behavior patterns transmitted symbolically through language to the members of a particular society (Fairchild, 1970). Thus culture refers primarily to behavior yet is causally rooted in value systems. It is collectively shared, and thus is not just the reflection of individual choices and preferences. It includes language, traditions, customs, dress, food, religious practices, shared meanings and institutions. Culture, then, is reflected in behavior patterns which are expressions of collective values and beliefs.

Culture is not stationary; it evolves and adapts to environmental conditions (e.g. diminishing water supply, increasing levels of air pollution), some of its culturally prescribed practices have changed.

In the sections which follow, the special theoretical and empirical considerations required in studying cultures, and particularly embedded subcultures, are discussed.


For a number of reasons, research on cultural or subcultural differences cannot be done by gathering data on consumer behaviors in each of the groups and then attributing any differences to cultural differences. Such an approach erroneously attributes to culture those differences which are really merely a reflection of average differences in individual tastes. This makes the mistake of generalizing an individual trait to a collectivity (Lazarsfeld, 1972).

As with all research, there is a need for a guiding theory (Zaltman, LeMasters and Heffring, 1982). Yet the need is especially critical when examining cultural or subcultural differences. One must first explain how and why the cultural groups are expected to differ. These predictions must be based on an understanding of the normative beliefs and value patterns characteristic of each group. The behavior patterns studied must be ones which are normatively prescribed or value expressive for them to be reflective of culture.

Another reason why a preexisting theory is critically needed has to do with the cross-cultural applicability of concepts. Just as people use different personality dimensions to describe different individuals (e.g., "achievement-oriented and autonomous" for one individual and "nurturing and playful" for another individual), so must one use different concepts related to cultures or subcultures in order to account for the true nature of the differences among them. In other words, a broader set of concepts than one uses to describe one's own culture or subculture is needed in order to explain another culture. This broader set of concepts can only be derived from general theories of cultural differences, just as the total set of personality dimensions are derived from comprehensive theories of personality.

Herein lies the key fallacy of a simple cross cultural approach to understanding cultures and subcultures. Pairwise comparisons are valuable for understanding differences between cultures. Perhaps if enough pairwise comparisons are done, the list of variables on which cultures differ could be enumerated. However, little would be gained. If a new culture were discovered or (more likely) evolved, it could only be understood by comparing the new culture to all other known cultures; that is, by completely enumerating the differences. Each subsequent culture requires (n-l) comparisons; where" is the number of cultures already understood.

What is needed is a theory of culture. Such a theory would describe the dimensions on which cultures vary and the dependencies among those dimensions. For example, if it were established that the labor intensiveness of food production (one dimension of culture) was positively related to household size (another dimension), then it would be-possible to speculate intelligently on how mechanization of food production might influence living patterns. Thus a theory of culture would not only help us understand new cultures, but also predict changes in our own.


There are a number of empirical considerations which are crucially relevant to research concerning cultural and subcultural differences. These pertain to sampling, data collection, and data analysis.

Structural Constraints

Before comparing the behavior patterns of two cultures or subcultures, one must remove the effects of structural constraints. Structural constraints include lack of availability, lack of appropriate technology, or legal restrictions. The finding that two groups differ in their consumption of certain objects which are subject to structural constraints for one group, is not a finding of cultural difference. Culture is an internalized set of behavior patterns stemming from the shared values of a group. The failure to purchase items which are structurally constrained is a finding concerning the structure of society, not the characteristics of a culture.

For example, the finding that Mexicans living in rural areas of Mexico do not purchase frozen vegetables while Americans living in rural areas do, is not a finding which indicates a cultural difference. Thus, the effects of structural constraints must be removed before the comparisons can be made.

Survey Method

Surveys of consumers are linguistically based. Yet language is a part of culture. Thus it seems particularly difficult to assess cultural differences using survey techniques.

Even if successful back translation is used in constructing a questionnaire, the concepts of interest in a survey (as opposed to the words in the survey) may have different connotations in different cultures. And it is exactly these differences in connotation which are of interest in cross-cultural or comparative subcultural research. Successful back translation only insures the researcher that the concepts which have proven useful in one culture (usually the researcher's own) can be successfully imposed on another culture. With reference to the personality theory example given earlier, this is analogous to being able to measure the nurturing, playful person on scales which measure achievement-orientation and autonomy. The measures are accurate but they answer the wrong question.

Since the linguistic basis of survey methods poses problems, other methods may be needed for examining culture. Anthropologists have for centuries relied on observational methods and ethnographic descriptions derived from extensive field experience and interactions (see Geertz, 1976 for a description of the construction of interactive ethnographics). The study of cultural and subcultural differences in consumer behavior may also require innovative approaches to data collection such as systematic investigations of material culture.

One such approach has been developed under the guidance of William Rathje, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona. Le Project du Garbage has been involved in the collection and analysis of behavior by reference to physical remains since 1973 (see Rathje and Hughes, 1975; Rathje et al., 1978; Rathje and Thompson, 1981; McGuire, Hughes and Rathje, 1982). Typically collections of garbage are sampled from the regular pick-ups left by residences. Each item in the collection is coded as to weight or volume, brand name, cost, material composition and waste rate. This data base provides consumer researchers with the opportunity to assess subcultural differences in consumption without the associated problems of survey linguistic accuracy, response errors, and difficulties in establishing standardized codes for free response questions.

Embedded Subcultures

In studying the cultural patterns of embedded subcultures, a number of controls must be placed on the empirical analysis. It is important to keep in mind that an embedded subculture is a set of cultural elements, not just a demographically defined set of people (Fine and Kleinman, 1979). That is, there must be a separate cultural pattern of behavior exhibited by the members of the group for the research to be based on the concept of culture rather than demographics.

In order to determine whether an embedded subculture does, in fact, possess a unique culture, the researcher must determine the extent of assimilation or the group. Full assimilation has occurred when the demographic group no longer exhibits a separate cultural pattern, but rather has taken on the cultural pattern of the dominant culture (the culture of residence).

Assimilation includes several components (Gordon, 1964; Montero, 1981; Schoen and Cohen, 1980). These include structural assimilation into the occupational categories and primary groups of the members of the culture of residence and marital assimilation into families which are then comprised of members of the embedded subculture and members of the culture of residence. However, most important for the study of consumer behavior is cultural assimilation, or acculturation. This is the extent to which an embedded subculture has adopted the behavior patterns (e.g., language, dress, and food) of the culture of residence. Determining the extent to which cultural assimilation has occurred is often the focus of research.

Yet in order to empirically address this question, the effects of several elements must be removed. Most importantly, the effects of income and education on the consumer behavior pattern of interest must be removed. Often immigrants to a culture are characterized by lower than average levels of education and income (Chaney, 1980). Thus, the appropriate comparison group within the dominant culture are those with comparable levels of education and income. This partially removes from the analysis the effects of minority status on the members of the embedded subculture.


Studying cultural differences, either across cultural boundaries or between subcultures, requires a perspective that builds upon the cross-cultural survey approach that has been typical of consumer behavior studies. Unfortunately, some of the research techniques that have worked well for understanding other aspects of consumer behavior might require extensive modification for use on subcultures, because of interactions between instrumentation effect and the variable under study (subculture). At a minimum, researchers should distinguish between cultural effects and structural constraints. Before a given pattern can be ascribed as a subcultural difference, educational and economic differences need to be removed. Additionally, the subculture's patterns need to be shown to differ from that of the culture of residence and that of the culture of origin. In fact, in some cases it may well be that emigrating subcultures behave in ways that are different from both the culture from which they came and the culture in which they now find themselves


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