Relating Ethnic Attitudes and Consumption Values in an Asian Context

Chin Tiong Tan, National University of Singapore
James McCullough, Washington State University
ABSTRACT - Subjects in a Chinese society were divided into high and low orientations toward Chinese values. Subjects' consumption values were studied across products and it was found that the high group relied more on price and quality dimensions while the low group showed preference for image.
[ to cite ]:
Chin Tiong Tan and James McCullough (1985) ,"Relating Ethnic Attitudes and Consumption Values in an Asian Context", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 122-125.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 122-125


Chin Tiong Tan, National University of Singapore

James McCullough, Washington State University

[We acknowledge the assistance of Miss Jeannie Teoh of the National University of Singapore in computer analysis.]


Subjects in a Chinese society were divided into high and low orientations toward Chinese values. Subjects' consumption values were studied across products and it was found that the high group relied more on price and quality dimensions while the low group showed preference for image.


Consumer researchers are increasingly interested in relationship between ethnicity and consumer behavior. Unfortunately, research thus far has been atheoretical in nature. Most researchers have failed to deal with the topic systematically or in depth. In fact, researchers have been criticized of focusing on a limited number of differences rather than on the many similar characteristics between ethnic groups (Sturdivant, 1981).

Thus far, most studies in the US have focused on the Black and Hispanic populations, and relatively little is known about the other ethnic groups. Studies that -are cross-cultural in nature often pre-select the ethnic groups and simply assign subjects into them. The common assumption is that subjects of an ethnic group are alike in cultural values and orientation, and they are different from subjects of another ethnic category. Such an assumption is easily challenged. As pointed out by a well known anthropologist Ralph Linton (1973).

.... it would be impossible to find any element of culture which has been shared by all members of a society ... Culture change and grow, discarding certain elements and acquiring new ones in the course of their history ... (Linton 1973, p. 31)

Such is the case, it is likely that members of an ethnic group would differ on stages of change and transition. It is not uncommon to find people of a same ethnic group to exhibit quite different values, attitudes and beliefs. As a result of cross cultural influences, many ethnic groups are changing their cultural heritage. Hence, it would be valuable for researchers interested in ethnicity to first study the within group differences then the between groups differences.

A fundamental research issue is whether the Hispanic that exhibit more Hispanic traits, or the Chinese that show more chineseness differ in consumption from the ethnic norms. In this study, such an issue will be addressed. Specifically, the objective here is to investigate differences of members of an ethnic group with different levels of ethnic attitudes. A general research question is whether members of strong ethnic attitudes (in this case Chinese orientation) rely on consumption values that are different from those of lesser ethnic attitudes.


Central to any ethnic group is a set of cultural values, attitudes and norms.Culture is social heritage and the distinctive life style of a society. According to Linton (1973), it is "the configuration of learned behavior and results of behavior whose component elements are shared and transmitted by the members of a particular society."

Culture includes both abstract and material elements. Abstract elements include values, norms, attitudes and ideas that are learned, and the material elements include buildings, drawings, products and other artifacts of a society.

Central to our understanding of culture is human values - the underlying drives of behavior. Terpstra (1983) states that "values help determine what we think is right or appropriate, what is important ? and what is desirable." Every society has a system of values. It is a set of interrelated ideas and concepts that an individual attaches strong sentiments to. In brief, values are things that are important to people of a society, either in a positive or negative way. It is through these values that people behave and societies function.

Values system of an individual can be viewed as a complex network of beliefs, attitudes and ideas, all of which are centrally linked with a core system. Such values often reflect ethnic affiliation, orientation towards ethnic heritage and other desired traditions of the group. Values that affect a person's behavior in his attainment of society's desirable goals are often central in the system. Those that direct his buying and consumption related activities are usually less important. These latter values are nevertheless part of the larger system, and they do manifest characteristics of the person's core values.

Ethnic Attitudes

In recent years, the phenomenal growth of Asian economies such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan has attracted much attention among business scholars. Many have in fact attributed the success to similarity in cultural values and ethnic attitudes of these countries.

In Asia, societies such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and South Korea all have one thing in common. They are influenced to some extent by values and norms of Confucian philosophy. Today, Confucianism still remains a vital part of these Oriental cultures. Confucian influence is strong in peoples' attitude towards ethnicity.

In the teaching of Confucianism, benevolence, propriety, wisdom and obedience are norms of human beings (Nivison and Wright, 1966). The concern of Confucianism is with the correct observance of human relationships within a hierarchical society. According to Confucianists, a proper state of mind and correct conduct are necessary for a proper social order.

The central institution in Confucianism is family. It is the ground for moral training and bridge between individual and society. In the Confucian view, benevolence begin with love for one's family and parents. As expressions of love for parents, children must serve, support and obey them. Confucianism also advocates a double standard for men and women. In the functioning of a household, it is clear that husband's responsibility is outside and that of a wife inside.

In tile Oriental society such as a Chinese society, relationships of family members, husband-wife, and relatives etc. still show strong evidence of Confucian influence. More surprisingly, among many, values of men's role in society and women's role at home, beliefs in the rights and wrongs, attitudes toward human behavior in general, are still strongly rooted in the traditional Oriental culture.

Most Asian countries are however no longer strictly "Oriental" anymore. Lately, due to the influence of Western cultures, many are becoming Westernized. For instance, on the streets of Tokyo, or Hong Kong, one readily witness the co-existence of East and West.

Singapore Culture

Each of the Oriental societies in Asia is slightly different in its own way. Owing to differences in historical events, and extent of influence of other cultures, each has developed into an unique "branch" of Oriental culture. Since this study focuses on Singapore, this section will discuss the unusual blend of culture and values in Singapore.

Although Singapore is predominantly a Chinese society (75% of its population is Chinese), it is realistically a multi-ethnic society. Moreover, since the country is small, it has a colonial history, and its strategic location in Asia, its people have been influenced by various cultures.

Basically, the city is urban and its people are urban in orientation. In each Singaporean, there probably is a combination of Chinese, Malay, and Indian in ideologies. As Ban (1982) nicely puts it, "A Singaporean is introverted, his dependance is inward -towards family, class and race instead of nation.... Emotions tend to be internalized rather than expressed outwards." As a result, there is a great need to play the role of ensuring obedience and harmony. It also gives rise to a unique cultural value - intense friendship and trust of a person towards family.

With the British colonial influence still strongly felt in many parts of Singapore and the ease of a small nation to receive external influences, Singaporeans are well accustomed to the process of acculturalization (learning other cultures). The end result is a culture that has a strong Oriental focus as well as having traces of Western values.

Singapore is an example of an Asian society in transition to westernization. Its people can be characterized by different degree of Westernization. On :he one hand, there are chose who adhere closely to the traditional values, on the other hand, you find those who show strong Western beliefs and lifestyles. Hence it would be interesting to study people of different ethnic orientations and how they differ on consumption values.

By observation, it is interesting to note that consumers in Singapore can be divided into the more traditionally Chinese shoppers versus those that are more Westernized. It can be proposed that the "more Chinese" consumers are thrifty, quality minded, spend less on conspicuous items and shop more at stores that carry Chinese goods. On the other hand, the "more Westernized" Chinese consumers tend to be sophisticated, brand name conscious and have shopping habits more like their Western counterparts.


The research was conducted in Singapore. A questionnaire survey was used and a sample of 132 subjects were studied. In the selection of subjects, households in different parts of Singapore were contacted. Care was taken to include a cross-section of Singapore residents in the sample.

Ethnic Attitudes

An inventory of questions to measure attitudes toward a wide variety of issues and topics was included in the questionnaire. The inventory parallels the AIO inventory; a research measure commonly used in life style research (Wells, 1975). Several questions to measure one's attitudes toward tradition and Confucian norms were included. Some of the issues covered include:

1. Women's place is in the home

2. When making important decisions consideration of family comes first

3. Caring for one's aged parents is duty of everyone

4. I often do the right things so as not to lose face

5. Every family should have a son

6. My relationship with my parents is formalized

7. I feel strongly about returning favors to others

8. I interact closely with relatives

9. Showing affections openly is acceptable (negative)

10. One should not go to extremes in one's behavior

The items were carefully selected to reflect teachings of Confucianism. They were pre-tested with various ethnic groups and panel of experts and showed good validity. They were deliberately made simple for our subjects.

Value Importance in Buying

In marketing, values are characterized by importance of product attributes in buying. It has been documented that consumers derive different values from consuming the same product. Hence, in buying, different attribute importance are usually used. The expectancy-value model as popularized by Rosenberg (1956) has been adopted in this study. Briefly, product attributes were determined and 7-point scales used to measure importance of attributes.


A total of 12 products were included in the study, they were cars, watches, jeans, toothpaste, fast food, shampoos, department stores, sports shoes, ballpoint pens, beer, color TV, and pocket calculators. Four generalized product attributes were decided and they were used for all products. The attributes were price importance, quality importance, importance of brand image and availability of brand (convenience).


Subjects' ethnic attitudes were collapsed, and the high and low values groups were formed based on the upper and lower thirds of the distribution. Since this research was exploratory in nature and the objective was to focus on the extremes, the smaller sample sizes as a result of using only the extremes appeared reasonable. The sample sizes in the analyses were 47 and 40 for the low and the high groups respectively.

Differences of Value Importance

Value importance of product attributes for the 12 products were used in the multi-variate analysis of variance study (MANOVA). Each analysis included a set of 12 value importance of the same attribute. The purpose was to identify an overall difference for the two groups on price, quality, image and availability across the products.

Of the four attributes, only price importance and image importance exhibit significant overall differences. Hotellings T values from MANOVA for both are statistically significant.

Relationship of Ethnic Attitude And Value Importance

To study relationship of ethnic attitudes with the four value importance of product attributes in each product class, regression analyses were performed. The objective here was to determine which value importance was more salient for each product and whether the two groups differ on saliency.

In the analyses, value importance that accounted for most variation in the ethnic attitude scores was taken as the most salient attribute. As the stepwise regression was used, the first entered variable would be the one. Comparisons for the high and low groups were presented in Table 1.



Table 1 presents the value importance that has the highest correlation with ethnic attitudes. It can be seen that the low and the high groups differ in attribute saliency for most products. In general, the low group relies more on image importance and importance of brand availability (8 out of 12 product classes), and the high group emphasizes more on price and quality importance (10 out of 12 products).

Demographic Profile

With the high and low groups exhibiting differences on purchase related values, it would be of interest to study their demographic profiles. Demographic variables used were age, sex, education level, education stream (English versus Chinese education), and religion. Chi-square analyses were performed and results reported in Table 2.



As can seen, age, sex, and education stream were not significant. The results were however rather interesting. On sex, the low attitude group has more males (59%)- than females (47%) and the reverse is true for the high attitude group (47% males versus 53% females). In the case of education stream, the English educated subjects are lower in ethnic attitude (59%) and the Chinese educated has more in the high group (58%).

Education level shows strong difference between the two groups. The higher educated group (those who have completed pre-university and higher) has more subjects with low ethnic attitude (69%), and the less educated ones tend to show higher attitude (64%). Religion is also a significant factor. Results indicate that Christians and the others group have lower ethnic attitude (62% and 59% respectively in the low group). Buddhists have more in the high attitude group than the low group (68% versus 32%).


Consumers of different ethnic attitude were studied in this research. Of interest here is the traditional attitude of an Oriental society. Differences in ethnic attitude were found to bring about differences in consumption related values.

Relationships of ethnic attitude with importance of product attributes vary for the two groups of subjects. The low group appears to rely more on image and availability in buying. As shown by the demographic results, this group is more educated and more English educated, it is therefore not surprising that they would be more image conscious when buying certain goods. Being more educated, they are likely to be professionals and have better careers. As a result, time would be a major factor to them. Hence, many in the low group rely on importance of availability in buying. The high group shows more reliance on price and quality importance. This group tends to be less educated and more Chinese educated. Their concern in buying still is primarily good quality at the right price.

Differences between consumers of high versus low ethnic attitude in their buying related value system could have strong marketing implications. For segmentation, it is likely that consumers in the Asian cultures can be grouped according to their ethnic orientation. Their differences in buying value importance indicate possibility or marketers working on different product attributes for effective positioning.

When interpreting findings or this study, one must bear in mind the exploratory nature of the work. With the sample size so small, any concluding remarks must be made with extreme caution. The next logicaL step would be to investigate any differences in actual consumption patterns, within the ethnic group. With the results of this study exhibiting differences in consumption values, one can predict within group differences in buying.


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