Towards a Deeper Understanding of Consumption Experiences: the Underlying Dimensions

A Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University
ABSTRACT - This paper expands on a theory, using the concept of the consumption pattern, which can help consumer researchers understand some of the dimensions that determine the meanings of consumption for the consumer, and presents some of the findings from a qualitative research to test for the historical transformations along the dimensions of consumption patterns.
[ to cite ]:
A Fuat Firat (1987) ,"Towards a Deeper Understanding of Consumption Experiences: the Underlying Dimensions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 342-346.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 342-346


A Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University


This paper expands on a theory, using the concept of the consumption pattern, which can help consumer researchers understand some of the dimensions that determine the meanings of consumption for the consumer, and presents some of the findings from a qualitative research to test for the historical transformations along the dimensions of consumption patterns.


There is a growing concern among consumer scientists that studies in the field of consumer behavior have largely concentrated on a rather limited domain of consumer behavior. This domain is one of buyer behavior (Arndt 1976; Belk 1984a; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; Olson 1983). In his position paper, Belk (1984a) lists a number of critical differences between consumer and buyer behavior. Recently, criticisms of the traditionally received methodological and theoretical orientations in consumer behavior have also been heard (Anderson 1983; Belk 1984b; Dholakia and Firat 1980; Firat 1984; Holbrook 1984; Levy 1981; Zaltman and Bonoma 1984). There seems to be a general call for new theory development that expands the field of consumer behavior to include meaningful and interesting facets of such behavior even if there is not a direct link to buying activities of consumers or to practical goals of marketing organizations. These may be behaviors related to consumers' total being, life patterns, satisfaction, feelings and purpose in general, and to the meanings (symbolic or otherwise) attributed to consumption. Potentially, this is a movement within the discipline to become independent of its traditional audience and social role, and move towards gaining the status of an independent social science discipline.

There are several directions one could possibly take to advance towards the goal of this new movement. As in the examples of work by Holbrook and Hirschman (1982) on fantasies, feelings, and fun, and Hirschman (1983) on art and ideologies, one could purposefully concentrate on consumption behavior that does not necessarily require purchase transaction. Or, one could work on developing explanatory and descriptive studies of phenomena related to consumption of groups or communities in society rather than on individual purchases of products. A third direction is to study the underlying common meanings and similarities in consumption across social class, culture, reference groups, and individual households to understand consumer behavior in its entirety. Interest in purchase behavior at the individual level has necessarily emphasized brand choice (Belk 1984a; Firat and Dholakia 1982; Olshavsky and Granbois 1979). Furthermore, for historical reasons, the interest of the traditional audience of the consumer behavior discipline marketing organizations--has been primarily in brand choice. From a consumer behavior perspective, however, choices at more aggregate levels, and therefore, the similarities in consumption behavior are just as interesting and important as are brand choices and the differences. In a way, Levy's (1981) article on consumer mythology could be interpreted as one attempt at such understanding of the similarities in consumers' consumption experiences through the societal generalization of meanings that products represent.

This paper, by expanding on the possible directions Just mentioned, will present a discussion of consumption patterns, a concept that might help consumer researchers to grasp the totality of the consumption experiences, and construct new theories regarding these experiences.


Each product, as we well know from the marketing literature, represents, for the consumer, meanings beyond its physical and chemical dimensions and its core utility (Levy 1959 and 1981). Each product is a bundle of attributes. Many of these attributes relate to symbols and meanings only indirectly related to the actual object of the product. They represent status, aspirations, feelings of belonging, achievement, uniqueness, high-life, etc. (Ellul 1964; Touraine 1974; Veblen 1899) . While this is especially true with products and services that are major investments or durables, even consumption items in the categories of food and clothing can become such representatives if they possess certain characteristics that make them an integrated component of a distinct life pattern. As is well articulated in Levy's major article (1981), products take on meanings not independent of, but as a part of an overall life style. Eventually, these products become perceived by consumers as the necessary items to have in order to attain a certain life pattern; with time, this distinct life pattern may diffuse widely within society.

Consumption patterns (from here on, CPs) are highly related to life patterns. A CP constitutes that part of a life pattern which is generally considered as consumption activity. Products that are consumed fit into this pattern and acquire their meanings as a result of this fit. Once this social meaning is acquired, the product becomes the representative of a certain CP, however, its purchase and consumption, in turn, reinforces that particular CP. Thus, the historical acquisition of the meanings by representative products and, as will be discussed, development of patterns through the social and cultural process, complete a mutually supportive and enhancing cycle.

As can be surmised from the brief introduction above, a CP defines, and is, a set of relationships and experiences a consumer becomes involved in during the act of consumption. CPs evolve and transform with social, economic, political, and cultural histories of societies. Usually, CPs represent common experiences of a majority of consumers in society, due to the fact that their formation and transformation are closely linked with the socioeconomic history and structures of society (Firat and Dholakia 1982). As such, at a certain point in time, one CP can become dominant in a society, diffusing to more and more households and aspired to by many. This is especially true in our time in societies that have achieved a high level of industrial development enabling high levels of material production and mass markets. The high level of diffusion of many durables and other products, that are so much a part of a distinct life pattern. within the US society, for example, is a possible indication of this as will be discussed later. To understand the concept of CP and bring some insight to the formation and transformation of CPs, a brief discussion of the historical developments in consumption relationships and experiences is in order.

Historical Trends in Consumption

Some of the major transformations and trends in consumption apparent through the last few centuries could briefly be listed as:

1. Consumption activity has been largely separated from production activity. The times during the day (and the week, and the year,...) when we participate in "productive" endeavor and in "consumptive" activity are greatly demarcated. Earlier, work and play (recreation) were basically the same, or as some would put it, play did not exist, mostly due to the fact that everyone in the household had to participate in production, and rather constantly, for a decent livelihood in the hunter or agrarian societies (Cameron 1973). More and more, both the activities of work and play (similarly, production and consumption) and the times these activities are performed have become differentially defined (Applebaum 1984; Braudel 1977; Udy 1970).

2. Along with the above demarcation in time between production and consumption, a demarcation in place has also occurred. With the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution, a separation between the workplace and the home has also taken place; with the home being the domain for consumption and the factory, etc., the domain for production (Wallerstein 1974; Polanyi 1977). Thus, consumptive activity has been differentiated: Consumption proper at home or at other organized places of consumption, such as the restaurant, productive consumption at the workplace. The development of the organization of production in larger scales outside of the home has had important effects on the consumption experiences of consumers, and possibly on their perspectives of life and life patterns.

3. These separations of consumption and production in time and place have occurred rather abruptly for many consumers in society during the industrial revolution, but at the societal level, it has been an evolution that is still taking place (Fraser 1981). With time and the diffusion of the market system to many facets of life, productive consumption activities at home and within a household subsistence economy, such as, crafts and arts, garden and home agriculture, cooking from scratch (bread, etc.), knitting, weaving and tailoring, construction, washing and mending (Weber 1976), have given way, more and more, to substituting such activities at home with products bought in the market--ready cooked meals, washing machines, dishwashers, television sets, pre-fabricated homes, etc.

4. While these general trends were occurring,the immediate experiences for different social classes, groups and cultures have been somewhat different. At the beginning of industrialization there were "free" and "slaved" laborers, merchants, small crafts-people, the aristocracy, the landowners and their servant class, among others. Different classes had developed different consumption experiences and relationships, and different consumption values, as well as different consumption/production combinations. To give an example without turning this paper into one about history, the aristocracy had developed a totally consumptive experience, living lives of socializing and filling their residences with pieces of toys and gadgets basically for pleasure or as ornaments. On the other hand, some merchants and small craftspeople endeavoring to become industrialists, bankers, etc., had developed, what Weber called, the Protestant ethic; careful and prudent in their consumption. At the same time, the slaves, servants, peasants, etc., consumed only the bare necessities, their consumption largely controlled by their masters (Cameron 1973; Franklin 1969).

One of the major consequences of consumption based on market exchanges has been the socialization and communalization of the consumption experience. Today, no such clearcut, demarcated differences remain in what consumers consume. The mass market has made all consumption items available in society apparently, if not actually, accessible to all groups and classes. This, of course, is especially the case in the developed market economies. Consequently, we see major consumption items diffused to a majority of households in every socioeconomic stratum. Examples are automobiles, washing machines, television sets, sound systems, refrigerators, designer clothing, frozen foods, etc. While many differences still remain in the cultural characteristics, incomes, work experiences, social classes, and social images of consumers, the market system creates an apparent-equality within the domain of consumption.

It is, by now, well known how the changes in consumption briefly discussed above corresponded to changes in family or household structures. The extended family--which according to some was a misplaced conceptualization of large families that resulted from a need for labor for the household economy (Cherlin 1983)--has, with the advent of industrialization and other developments, diminished in size. Concurrently, relationships among family members have structurally changed. With these changes, and with greater dependence on standardized, mate-for-market products (tangible and nontangible) for household consumption, the consumption experiences of individual consumers (households) have surely changed. This is rather obvious. But, as in a "consumer society" life depends on and is constituted of the consumption process to greater and greater degrees, the changes in consumption have a much wider impact than on just consumption experiences. Relationships that consumers have with each other during consumption, the market itself, and the products procured in the market become paramount for the total life experiences of consumers. They influence the totality of meanings and values that life has for human beings, not just buying behaviors and attitudes. As such, it is important to observe and understand the consequences of the transformations in consumption in their entirety, as they impact upon and correspond to the life patterns and experiences, philosophies, ideologies and emotions of human beings in general. Studying such impacts within the limited frame of buying and consuming is a mechanical and narrow rather than a holistic approach, and is likely to result in a loss of sight of the total reality.

The rather mechanistic managerial approach to consumer behavior has concentrated heavily on the behaviors and attitudes consumers display as they purchase products. These are relatively easily measurable appearances, reflections, and expressions of deeper essences of the human experience. Such essence has not yet been studied in any substantial or systematic manner. To achieve such analytical understanding of the consumer being as a multidimensional human system, initially a deeper and analytical interpretation of the apparent and surface relationships, objects and behaviors--those that have been observed and measured, yet left at the concrete observation level--is necessary. In this vein, the efforts at interpreting consumer mythology (Levy 1981), underlying dimensions of products (Hirschman 1981), and nonbuying behaviors (Holbrook, et al. 1984; Venkatesh 1984) should be welcome.

Along these lines, it is possible to discern, in the widely uniform consumption experience that originated-and that is still developing--with the transformation to the capitalist market exchange system in the West, some underlying relationships and themes. These relationships and themes are reflected in the way products are consumed, similar to Hirschman's (1981) symbolism and technology dimensions, as underlying dimensions which render certain products representative of an increasingly dominating CP. These-dimensions of the CP will be briefly discussed and their implications for the life experiences and mentalities of the consumers will be considered.

The Social Relationship Dimension

One of the major transformations due to the trends earlier discussed has been in the social relationships in consumption. Following the trend from extended families to nuclear families which reduced the collectivity of consumption, the trend is towards individualization of consumption activity. The development of products, such as, automobiles, single family homes, television sets, and washing machines has aided in separating the consumers (households) from each other in their consumption activity, and has reinforced the reduction of interdependence among individual consumers and households that had already developed as a consequence of a labor market which had individualized work and earning for livelihood. The sharing, dependence upon each other for consumption, and therefore, collective consumption activity, has been diminished. Each consumer is now able to subsist and provide for consumption within its own nuclear household. The necessity for interaction and social relationships among consumers has been minimized by the structure of society and the CP.

The trend continues towards further individualization with a television set for every member of the nuclear family, frozen dinners and microwave ovens, more than one automobile families, etc. The relationship within households are, thus, becoming further individualized as well as among households.

The Domain of Availability Dimension

The individualization of consumption required that products which were part of the consumption process be available to individual consumers. The extension of this necessity and the success of the market economy further led to privatization of these products. Rather than individually use products that were available to all consumers (e.g., public telephones), the control of these products by each consumer was increased when the consumer owned the products privately; so that each consumer had the product to consume, and that single product (e.g., the telephone at home) was available to and under total control of that one consumer (household). Thus, the privatization of products, through direct and singular ownership, where each consumer could make a separate purchase in the market increased. Products so purchased became private rather than public products; their availability was private, and this helped the extension and expansion of the market system.

While privatization of availability of products facilitates individual consumption, private and individual consumption are not the same. Public products, such as, public transportation vehicles, movie theaters, museums and parks, while available for public use, are nevertheless consumed individually. That is, there is generally very little or no social interaction among the consumers during their consumption of these public products, and basically no collective decision-making, or planning of activities is present. In understanding these first two dimensions, it is important to recognize their difference.

The Level of Participation Dimension

A common observation in contemporary consumption is:

In American society, people often satisfy or believe they can satisfy their socially constituted needs and desires by buying mass produced, standardized, nationally advertised consumer products (Schudson 1984).

This recognition implies a transformation in society from a social dependence i.e., a direct dependence on other human beings--to economic dependence--i.e., dependence on products of human labor produced for and procured in the market. While these products may be differentiated in their features, styles, and other secondary attributes, as Schudson points out, they are highly standardized in their basic constitution. Consider, for example, all the different brands and style of automobiles or television sets. While there is much difference and choice at the brand level, at the product category level the norm is similarity. The basic uses of these products are also highly standard given the present structure of--e.g., North American society. Consequently, as more and more consumption activity becomes dependent on such products purchased in the market, the standardization and similarities in the consumption activities of consumers increase. This is due to the fact that the products with standardized characteristics and ways of use impose upon the consumers patterns in which they are to be consumed. That is, the "rules of the game" are given by the products in the market. Products for the market are necessarily standardized, since they have to fulfill the need attributes perceived by at least a homogeneous minority. The market is necessarily unable to provide total heterogeneity, and its success depends upon the fact that the cultural structure of society achieves homogeneity in major respects and minimizes deviance. Interactively, the market itself becomes part of that homogenizing process. As this process takes place, the singular participation by the individual consumer in what the rules of the game will be in consumption of the largely standardized products is diminished. Thus, there is an increase in similarities of life patterns as the proportion of products purchased in the market grows within the consumption packages of consumers. For example, the life patterns in less developed countries that have less developed markets exhibit greater variance in both quality and kind (Amin 1982; Baran 1957). The level of participation of individual consumers in the transformation of CPs is determined by the processes by which this transformation occurs. This process will either alienate large proportions of the consumers, or lead to synergistic participation. The pattern that develops, however, is likely to significantly influence the affective and cognitive states of consumers regarding many aspects of life.

The Human Activity Dimension

The increased dependence on products purchased in the market has a further effect on CPs: as human labor is substituted by these products, the level of human activity in consumption is decreased. The consumers become passive physically and mentally in the consumption process as consumption activity is mechanized and automatized increasingly by the standardized products purchased in the market. Many highly diffused household products, such as, television sets, microwave ovens, washing machines, dishwashers are perfect examples. These products enable a trend from active to passive consumption.

Lately, growth in interest in sportive activity, such as, jogging, etc., due to rising health consciousness, is a reaction to the trend towards passive consumption in North American society. However, this interest in active consumption has not diminished the dependence on products that represent passive consumption in other facets of life, rather it has developed along with it.

The developments in capitalism and industrialization, discussed earlier in this paper, are then accompanied by corresponding changes in the CP. This transformation, along with the increased importance of consumption in human life, has resulted in extremely interesting transformations in life patterns and the philosophical, attitudinal, and perceptual orientations in human society. Therefore, recognizing the transformation in CPs is important for understanding consumer behavior.


Human life, judging by all indications from the social sciences and the history of human experience, is multidimensional. Human beings have a social, psychological, political, economic, biological, ecological, etc., existence. As was indicated earlier, of these dimensions the economic dimension has received the greatest emphasis and interest in human society at least since the industrial revolution and the beginnings of the capitalist era. Some have argued that this emphasis on one dimension might have created the one-dimensional person (Marcuse 1964). Such emphasis on a single dimension of human experience is likely to cause imbalances and/or create substantial transformations in human life and how it is perceived.

The economic dimension defines the quality and extent of relations human beings have with the products of their labor; hence the growth in this dimension means greater dependence on these relationships. Since the growth of the market exchange system, industrialization, and capitalism, these relationships are increasingly mediated through the market. Therefore, the developments in the dimensions of CPs, greatly influenced by the structure and processes of the market, are not totally coincidental. The importance of this economic dimension and its contemporary mediator, the market, greatly influence the perceptions, beliefs, ideas, and culture of human beings. These influences, then, impact upon the remaining dimensions of human life, as human experience is not a fragmented but integrated multidimensional experience. This influence shows not only on how much development takes place along other dimensions, but also on how these dimensions are interpreted, perceived, and socially and/or subjectively constructed.

The transformations along the dimensions of CPs discussed are also affected by the growth and importance of the economic dimension in human society, and by the growth of the market exchange system. The market thrives on exchanges, and in a market economy continued livelihood of exchange requires voluntary participation-in exchanges rather than coercion. Voluntary participation, however, is determined by ideological and social interaction, and persuasive communication is a major element in such interaction.

Both exchange and persuasive communication are extremely personalized and individualized phenomena since in the last analysis, for exchange and persuasion to occur, personal decision and conviction are required. Furthermore, since exchange is predominantly based on monetary exchange in contemporary markets, it is greatly materialized. It is overt and very tangible. These characteristics of contemporary market exchange, along with the dominance of the economic dimension reflect upon other dimensions of human life, individualizing and materializing relationships along these dimensions as wall, and lead to the perception on the part of the individuals that these relationships are also largely dependent on an exchange process. In turn, this mentality influences and determines to a great extent the human approach to life, society, and values.

We are, as a result, living in a society where individualization, and to further this effect, privatization in consumption increase. It is likely that, given this trend, products that further individual and private consumption are going to be the most successfully marketed products for some time to come. Personal computers and television/ home shopping are more recent examples of this trend.

As the discussions on the dimensions of CPs and their interactions indicate, the CP presently dominant in advanced market economies is individual-private-alienated- passive. This CP is becoming further established in such economies and is diffusing to other market economies. Qualitative research carried out to test the presence of such a trend has provided strong support of its existence. The research and its results are briefly presented below.


The relationships along the dimensions which define CPs are represented in different consumption categories by products that enable reproduction of the relationships unique to the certain CP. The research reported here was conducted to find out if products highly diffused in contemporary North American society were positioned by consumers consistently towards the individual-private-alienated-passive ends of the dimensions of CPs in relation to products that were popular in this society in the past. Such consistency would indicate a trend towards an individual-private-alienated-passive CP.

Research Methodology

The first task of the qualitative research was to compile a list of products and consumption activities popular in society in the past and in the present. To remove any bias in the list, two hundred randomly selected respondents from a small but cosmopolitan town in Southeastern U.S. (population 28,000) were asked to list products and consumption activities they perceived to be widely used during three periods: (1) before the second half of the nineteenth century, (2) late nineteenth century and first half of twentieth century, and (3) last three decades and present. These lists were, then, evaluated by three independent judges to develop the combined list finally used in the research. The judges finalized the combined list by eliminating items mentioned very infrequently, and by deciding on common names for items which the respondents mentioned often, yet used different labels. This process produced twenty seven items to be used.

Following the identification of the items to be used in the research, a measurement instrument was developed using six figures. Each figure was a combination of two dimensions from the four dimensions of CPs discussed earlier. There were two major reasons for developing the figures in such a manner. First, a four dimensional instrument would have been impossible to handle by the respondents. Second, though unidimensional figures might have made it easier for the respondents to position the items along a single dimension, the care with which they were positioned by each respondent would have been difficult to evaluate. When the items were positioned within two dimensional figures, it was possible to check the consistency for each respondent since each dimension appeared three times in the six figures. To ensure that the respondents did not have time to go back to the figures they had already completed to check for this consistency themselves, they were given only two hours before the interviewer went back to collect the instrument. For a large majority of respondents, the interviewers had to wait for another hour for completion.

The respondents were male or female heads of two hundred and forty (240) randomly selected households from the same Southeastern U.S. town. Each respondent was given a packet that contained (a) descriptions of the four dimensions without reference to any single product, (b) an example of positioning the products within the figures using names A, B, and C, (c) the six figures to be filled in by the respondents, and (d) an alphabetically ordered list of the twenty seven items. The interviewers then asked the respondents to position the items within each figure following the instructions, and told them that they would be back to pick up the instrument in two hours. If the respondents required help or had problems when the interviewers returned to pick up the instruments, they were given further instructions, again without specific reference to products. If problems persisted in the completion of the measurement instrument, the respondent was replaced with another randomly selected respondent.

Five out of the twenty_seven items listed (main-frame computer, cordless telephone, Turkish bath/Finnish sauna, social-club meeting, prepared foods) were eliminated from the research because a sizeable proportion of the respondents (20%) did not have a clear item of what these products were. As a result, the research was completed with twenty two items (Table 1).



Once all the instruments were collected, the positionings by individual respondents for each product in each figure were measured along the two coordinates using a ruler and recorded. Then, for each figure, the mean positionings for each item were calculated. Figure 1 exhibits the rough mean positionings of the twenty two items in two of the six figures by the two hundred forty respondents to show the positionings along all four dimensions. Positioning along the four dimensions are completely consistent for the six figures.



Other figures and information on this research are available on request from the author.


The results indicate that products that are popular at present in society are consistently positioned towards the individual-private-alienated-passive ends of the dimensions. This consistency is found not only when the mean positions shown in Figure 1 are calculated, but also in the positionings by the individual respondents. When the relative positions of the products in individual responses were compared with the relative mean positions calculated, it was found that the relative positions from the two hundred and forty responses were almost never violated. The highest number of violations of relative positions in a single two-dimensional figure was 148. This is extremely low considering that there are 5,280 (240 respondents times 22 products) relative positions that can possibly be violated. This indicates an extremely high level of agreement in respondents' positionings of the products.

Clearly, the products used in this research are by no means exhaustive. However, given the manner in which they were generated, it can be claimed that they represent the products that most represent our life experiences as perceived by the consumers themselves.


Changes along the dimensions of CPs in the direction of individualization, privatization, alienation, and passivation will impact upon the human psychology, ideology and society. These changes transform the meanings consumers acquire and have in their consumptive activities, and affect the meanings they find in life. These impacts must still be studied from a consumer science perspective, however, the effects of the contemporary CP are already widely recognized in different literatures. Psychological problems which result from individualization and the resulting new interpersonal relationships, problems of identification through products owned and dependence on products, anomie and disinterest due to alienation and loss of control over one's life are some of the negative effects which have, at least partially, their root in the transformations along the dimensions of CPs that have dominated life in advanced market systems.

To understand the holistic consumption experience these and other possible underlying dimensions create, their evolutions and causes need to be studied. Such studies will enable us to understand, for example, the reasons behind increased expectations of efficiency in housework and the growing physical and psychological pressures upon women both at home and at the job despite the time-saving household appliances (Acker 1978; Ehrenreich and English 1979; Moore and Sawhill 1978; Vanek 1978). They will enable us to understand why such appliances are equally consumed by households that have one versus both spouses employed outside the home when income differences are accounted for (Firat and Levis 1985). Further, we can get insights into how worldviews and philosophies, and meanings of life have become so interwoven with not so much what people do but with what they consume.

The purpose of this paper has been to make an effort to begin to understand such essences of phenomena underlying consumption. To this end, several theoretical conceptualizations were presented and results from a qualitative research were briefly presented. Further discussion on these points, and arguments for and against extending the framework will hopefully improve our understanding of the human condition to an extent not yet achieved.


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