Isolating the Effect of Non-Economic Factors on the Development of a Consumer Culture: a Comparison of Materialism in the Netherlands and the Unites States

Scott Dawson, Portland State University
Gary Bamossy, Vrije Universiteit
[ to cite ]:
Scott Dawson and Gary Bamossy (1990) ,"Isolating the Effect of Non-Economic Factors on the Development of a Consumer Culture: a Comparison of Materialism in the Netherlands and the Unites States", 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: 182-185.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 182-185


Scott Dawson, Portland State University

Gary Bamossy, Vrije Universiteit


Differences in consumption culture are quite transparent when comparing the United States to countries with significantly different economic and/or cultural systems (cf., Belk and Bryce 1986; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). However, cross-cultural comparisons between countries of similar economic development are necessary in order to tease out other macro societal characteristics which may influence the evolution of a consumption culture (Rassuli and Hollander 1986). As such, this study uses Belk's (1985) measures of materialism to compare the consumption cultures of the Netherlands and the United States. While these countries are relatively similar in terms of economic and physical characteristics, key differences in other macro variables, namely social, religious and political structures, are proposed to lead to higher levels of materialism in The Netherlands. A synopsis of the theoretical rationale, study procedures, and analysis are provided in this paper.

A wealth of literature may be consulted concerning the importance that individuals attach to worldly possessions (c, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1978; Douglas and Isherwood 1979), and the conception of the Belk (1984;1985) materialism scales. Briefly, Belk conceived of materialism as a complex trait which reflects the centrality of possessions in an individual's life. The measure consists of the subtraits of possessiveness ("the inclination and tendency to retain control or ownership of one's possessions"), nongenerosity ("an unwillingness to give possessions to or share possessions with others"), and envy (displeasure and ill will at the superiority of another person's happiness, success, reputation, or possession of anything desirable). The following section provides a condensed discussion of those macro differences between the Netherlands and USA which may give rise to patterns of materialism.


Economic differences between Holland and the USA on any standard indicator are negligible when compared to the advancement of either country over OECD (first world) countries such as Spain or Turkey, NIC countries such as South Korea or Brazil, or any of the third world developing economies. Both countries appear on the United Nations' list of the Ten Most Wealthy Countries, have highly industrialized economic bases, and are important players in the international trading of goods and services. When measured by 1985 GNP, Americans do have a higher per capita income than the Dutch ($16,685 vs. $11,404). However, ownership of consumer durables and luxury goods are far higher in each country when compared to consumers from less developed economies.

Physically, population density in the Netherlands is significantly greater than in the USA. One theoretical perspective suggests that such population density should promote emulation and imitation of upper classes by lower classes (McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb 1982), thereby heightening the importance of the status symbolizations associated with consumer goods. However, because the data for this study were collected in urban environments of similar population densities is both countries, this thesis is not thought to be relevant here.

The rationale for proposing that materialism will be higher in the Netherlands than in the USA is found in the political, religious and social structure of the Netherlands. Perhaps more than any other Western country, these three arenas of Dutch culture have traditionally been tightly interwoven. Until recently, Calvinist and Catholic religions permeated the political and social institutions of Dutch society. Beyond having separate political parties, these religions had their own mass media, schools, labor unions, and voluntary organizations (van Schendelen 1987). Prior to the 1970s, marriage and housing across church membership was highly unusual (Gadourek 1982). The symbolic value of material goods is heightened in such a society in order to mark these -important statuses.

Calvinism itself has a complex, historical relationship with aspects of consumption culture. A modern day interpretation of Calvinism is of "individualistic business activity, sanctioned by the view that worldly prosperity is evidence of the favor of God" (McNeill 1954, p. 437). Weber (1958) argued that the Calvinist virtues of thrifty industry, honesty, and hard work would sanction the accumulation of wealth, which would serve as a sign to God and society of success in achieving God's mandates. An early but heavy Calvinistic influence may be partly responsible for the observation that the Dutch appeared to lead the world in conspicuous consumption during the 17th century (see Schama 1987).

Dutch class structure also suggests that materialism will be higher in Holland. A number of studies indicate that class consciousness and deference in the Netherlands is significantly higher than in any of nine other countries, including the USA (see Bagley 1973). Gadourek (1982) notes the multifaceted bases of deference in Dutch culture, which further suggests a rigid social structure. This rigidity is evidenced by a mobility ratio in the mid1950s that was just half that of the USA (Tyree, Semyonov, and Hodge 1979). To sum, the more rigid social structure, the historical influence of Calvinism, and the prevalence of class consciousness in the Netherlands are hypothesized to increase the saliency of ownership of material goods, which should be reflected in greater levels of materialism than in the USA.




Two Dutch nationals administered surveys to 80 households selected at random within Amsterdam and The Hague. This sample is mostly middle to lower income, high school to college educated, and evenly represented according to gender. The American data were collected in the metropolitan area of Portland, Oregon using gender and age quotas. A drop-off technique was used to place the surveys. A total of 127 questionnaires were completed. The sample profile in terms of medians was 35 to 44 years of age, $30,000 to $39,999 in yearly household income, and 12 to 16 years of education. Demographic comparisons of the two samples suggests that the American sample may be somewhat more upscale than the Dutch sample. Steps were taken in the ensuing data analysis to account for this difference.

Items described by Belk (1985) were used to measure envy (6 items), nongenerosity (8 items), and possessiveness (8 items). Because of its association with materialism, life satisfaction was also measured (9-point Likert scale; Very Satisfied/Very Dissatisfied) using eleven items which reflected domains such as career, community, and savings. The U.S. version of the questionnaire was back translated by two Dutch nationals and pretested. Tests for homogeneity of variance verified sample comparability (Bartlett's F values all nonsignificant at p>.101.

Both Dutch and American envy scales achieved adequate internal consistency (alphas of .81 and .76, respectively). Perhaps due to the lack of direct translation of the word "share." the Dutch nongenerosity scale was lower in reliability (.46) than was the American scale (.63). Reliability of the Dutch possessiveness scale (.68) was higher than for the American sample (.53). Reliability of the summary Materialism scale is also somewhat low (.61 and .62 for Dutch and American). These reliabilities suggest that the results be approached cautiously. The life satisfaction measure achieved excellent reliability in the case of both Dutch (.84) and American (.80) samples.


Analysis of variance was performed on the three subscales and summary materialism scale in order to test for between country differences. The most significant difference in measures of materialism occurs for possessiveness (see Table) in which the Dutch sample has a higher mean than the American group (F=5.90, p<.01). However, members of the two cultures do not differ significantly in mean levels of envy, nongenerosity, or overall materialism, indicating a general lack of support for the proposed differences. Given the disparate direction of group differences in possessiveness and envy, the lack of significance of the summary materialism scale is not surprising. These differences in scale means perhaps challenge the unidimensionality of the summary materialism scale when conducting cross-cultural studies. The means for life satisfaction show that the Dutch are significantly more satisfied than are the Americans (F=25.03, pc.001).

Additional analyses were performed in order to determine if income, education, or age might be masking underlying cultural differences in materialism. No significant effects emerged involving education, while age did yield one significant relationship. As found elsewhere (Belk 1985), envy drops significantly with increasing age (F=6.93, pc.001), which may reflect success in acquiring mater;al culture and improving quality of life over the life span. The most interesting results involve the relationship between income and envy across the two countries. Because of the small sample of upper income respondents from the Netherlands, between country comparisons are possible only for low and middle income groups. Nevertheless, the data yield significant country (F=4.24, p<.05), income (F=6.85, p<.01), and interaction effects (F=S 96, p<.02). While lower income Americans have higher levels of envy than middle income Americans, the trend among the Dutch indicates higher levels of envy among the middle income group than the lower income group. These disparate trends can perhaps best be attributed to the greater relative level of social welfare spending in the Netherlands than in the U.S. About one-third of Dutch national income is spent on social welfare, and as far back as 1960 nearly 50% of new dwellings were built by the government (Bagley 1973). For individuals with lower incomes, such spending may improve the quality of life and lessen relative deficits in material culture. When compared to their Dutch counterparts, individuals with lower incomes in the USA may perceive greater differences in ownership of material items between themselves and others with higher levels of income.

Correlations between materialism and life satisfaction in the two cultures show that envy is the only materialism subtrait strongly and negatively related to life satisfaction. In accordance with theory, when individuals perceive a lack of ownership of material items when compared to others, the result is feelings of envy which are negatively related to evaluations of life satisfaction. Though the correlation for the Dutch sample is higher than for the American sample (-.42 versus .311, the difference is not statistically significant.


Based on measures of trait materialism, the results suggest that America shares an exuberancy of consumption culture with at least one other country in the Western world. The differences in social structures between the two countries may not be great enough to produce dramatic differences in materialistic values, or such values may not be strongly affected by these social structure characteristics. The results confirm Inglehart's (1981) thesis that Western cultures share relatively similar materialistic values.

Only in the case of possessiveness did significant differences occur between the Netherlands and USA, and here the means indicate greater possessiveness among the Dutch. Americans may be less possessive since they live in a culture in which lost possessions can often be replaced with new ones which are perceived as equally if not more satisfying. McCracken (1988) has suggested that patina, or the status inferred from material items which have passed through generations, has lost the value it once had in American culture. Status in America appears easily encoded through purchase and ownership of new material goods. In contrast, individuals in the Netherlands seem less likely to either sell or buy items in second hand markets. The phenomenon of a "garage sale" is totally absent from Dutch culture and second hand markets such as swap meets or flea markets are rare at best. Thus, while "new" more easily replaces "old" in the USA, possession seems to have a stronger, more durable meaning to the Dutch. Although possessiveness appears lower in the USA than in the Netherlands, this finding may not necessarily imply that the U.S. has a less advanced consumption culture. In fact, one could argue that the velocity of consumption is greater in the USA than in the Netherlands, and that in a world of topped-off land fills, "possessiveness" may not deserve the negative connotation often associated with "materialism".


Bagley, Christopher (1973), The Dutch Plural Society: A Comparative Study in Race Relations, London: Oxford University Press.

Belk, Russell W. (1984), 'Three Scales to Measure Constructs Related to Materialism: Reliability, Validity, and Relationships to Measures of Happiness," in Advances in Consumer- Research, Vol. 2, Thomas Kinnear (ed), Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 291-7.

Belk, Russell W. (*), "Materialism: Trait Aspects of Living in the Material World," Journal of Consumer Research, 12 (December), 265-79.

Belk, Russell W. and Wendy J. Bryce (1986), "Materialism and Individual Determinism in the U.S. and Japanese Print and Television Advertising," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 13, R.J. Lutz (ed), Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 568-72.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Eugene Rochberg-Halton (1978), The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols of the Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Douglas, Mary and Baron Isherwood (1979), The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption, New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Gadourek, I. (1982), Social Change as Redefinition of Roles: A Study of the Structural and Causal Relationships in The Netherlands of the 'Seventies'," The Netherlands: Van Gorcarn.

Inglehart, Ronald (1981), "Post-Materialism in an Environment of Insecurity," American Political Science Review, 75 (Dec), 880-900.

McCracken, Grant (1988), Culture and Consumption, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

McNeill, John T. (1954), The History and Character of Calvinism, New York: Oxford University Press.

Rassuli, Kathleen M. and Stanley C. Hollander (1986), "Desire-Induced, Innate, or Insatiable?" Journal of Macromarketing, Fall, 4-24.

Schama, Simon (1987), The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Tyree, Andrea, Moshe Semyonov, and Robert W. Hodge (1979), "Gaps and Glissandos: Inequality, Economic Development, and Social Mobility in 24 Countries," American Sociological Review, 44 (June), 410-24.

van Schendelen, M.P.C.M. (1987), "Politics and Political Science in the Netherlands," Political Science, Summer, 788-99.

Wallendorf, Melanie and Eric J. Arnould (1988), "'My Favorite Things': A Cross-Cultural Inquiry into Object Attachment, Possessiveness, and Social Linkage," Journal of Consumer Research, 14 (March), 53147.

Weber, Max (1958), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.