Symbolism, Obligation, and Fiber Choice: the Macro to Micro Continuum of Understanding Gift Giving

Scott D. Roberts, Old Dominion University
[ to cite ]:
Scott D. Roberts (1990) ,"Symbolism, Obligation, and Fiber Choice: the Macro to Micro Continuum of Understanding Gift Giving", 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: 707-709.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 707-709


Scott D. Roberts, Old Dominion University


The papers in this session stand out as examples of how distinct micro and macro perspectives on consumer behavior research really are. The two anchor points or extremes of that continuum are represented by Wagner, Ettenson and Verrier (1989) and Wolfinbarger (1989), respectively, along with a description of gift giving which falls somewhere in between, provided by Goodwin, Smith and Spiggle (1989). The purposes of this paper are threefold, namely: 1) To offer a constructive critique for each of the presenters, 2) To draw out similarities and distinctions among the presentations, and, 3) to integrate (if possible) the knowledge gained here, or at least offer some sense of where we might go from here.


Wolfinbarger (1989) does a fairly thorough job in reviewing prior work in the area of gift giving. She chooses as her approach to focus on symbolic interactionism within the gift giving process, an approach derived in the field of social psychology. This is fine, but I do not agree, and I think others would perhaps wince at her statement that this is "the most promising approach..." one might use when seeking to understand gift giving. In fact, in Wolfinbarger's conclusions we find vague comparisons with primitive cultures on exchange as "a system of meanings involved in the shaping of both personal and cultural meaning," suggesting that anthropology remains important for understanding gift giving. This serves as a reminder that it is often very difficult to unravel where the insights from one disciplinary perspective end and the insights offered by others begin. And while most consumer researchers have allegiances to one or perhaps a few disciplinary viewpoints, it seems that gift giving is a phenomenon which cannot be fully understood without treating it in a multidisciplinary way. Firat (1988) suggests, in fact, that scholars could fruitfully approach all their work in a multiphilosophical way. Thankfully, ACR operates with just that in mind.

Part of the method of the exploratory part of this study involves eliciting stories from married informants about favorite gifts they have received and given to their spouse. This open-ended, projective technique can produce data which are difficult to interpret, but when done well, the rich and full-bodied nature of the findings are well worth the struggle. Wolfinbarger's stories about a unique ring or a "Queen of the Nile" brooch, for example, really begin to give us some meaningful "meat" to hang on our skeletal understanding of what gift giving means and is.


In Goodwin, Smith and Spiggle (1989), the question of how felt obligation affects the giving of gifts is explored. Using open-ended responses to several questions about a recent gift giving experience, Goodwin, et al. have discussed some important distinctions between gift givers who perceive their giving as either voluntary or obligatory. Within the construct of obligation, the authors identify two specific forms, reciprocity and ritual. What they are really describing is roughly one-half of Marshall Sahlins' tripartite reciprocity continuum (1972). Any-discussion of gift giving is at least partly incomplete without mention of generalized and balanced reciprocity and the accompanying notions of kinship distances and social/other obligations involved in these exchange relationships. This is especially true when dealing with a study in which level of obligation is a key independent variable. The authors may or may not feel that Sahlins' work is relevant to their own, but they are certainly obligated to give Sahlins credit for conceptualizing a continuum of obligation nearly two decades ago.

On a more technical note, the abstract of Goodwin, et al. suggests a "naturalistic data collection technique" was employed. The description in the method section runs counter to that promise, however. Ninety students filled out "questionnaires [which*] were completed in classroom or office settings..." What sets apart studies claiming to be naturalistic is related to the setting within which the research data are gathered (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988) and the degree to which "a priori units" are imposed on the outcome by the researcher (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Willems and Raush 1969). -What Goodwin, et al. have done is gather qualitative data, but according to these definitional criteria at least, they have not conducted naturalistic research. One final note on the method - the authors are almost apologetic for their use of students in consumer research. In some instances student samples are not appropriate for measuring consumption, but it seems to me that anyone who has given a gift (this would exclude few people) is a likely informant to this type of study. It almost seems comical when the authors refer to their subjects as "genuine consumers." Is there any other kind?


The paper by Wagner, Ettenson and Verrier (1989) stands apart from the other papers in this session in several ways. It asks consumers to make hypothetical choices about what gifts they might choose when presented with several combinations (forty) of eight attributes which are apparently salient to givers of clothing gifts. The task is a measured by conjoint analysis, with the dependent variable, slashes on a 100 mm continuum with "very likely" and "not very likely" to buy, as anchor points. As alluded to earlier, this study qualifies as a very micro approach. I do not wish to argue with their chosen tack, except to say that they should recognize that gift giving is very difficult to reduce to a few, clean independent and dependent variables. All sorts of context has been ignored by Wagner, et al..

The part of this paper that I find especially troubling is the main finding of the study related to fiber choice, which they translate into information that somehow "lend[s] support to the Sherry [(1983)] model by demonstrating that level of involvement affects the gift purchase decision." The fact that fiber choice emerges in their statistical analysis as the driving consideration when buying baby shower clothing ought to raise big, red flags to anyone evaluating this paper. A careful reading of the method and results can perhaps provide the reader with clues as to how this clothing attribute came to displace seven others, including price, quality, and brand name. The choices given to measure fiber preferences were 100% cotton versus 100% polyester. Only one of the 77 PTA mothers surveyed chose the polyester jumpsuits with any consistency. This finding obviously has nothing to do with whether the subject was in the "new neighbor" or "best friend" condition. A more likely interpretation would be that the highly educated and somewhat older sample are simply reacting to the major stigma attached to the word "polyester." I'm not saying that this fiber isn't wonderful and versatile, but no one can deny (especially textiles scholars, such as the authors) that ugly images of lime -green, double -knit- with-contrast-stitching ladies sportswear in the mid-to-late 1970s continue to plague and challenge polyester makers everywhere in getting consumers to take their product seriously.

The conjoint task is only as good as the choices given (Cattin and Weinberger 1980). The concern of researchers who use this method, then, should be to use the utmost care in choosing levels or alternatives within each treatment or attribute (Hair, Anderson and Tatham 1987) since otherwise the results will reflect a very strong "garbage in-garbage out" flavor. The levels chosen by Wagner, et al. on the treatments of fiber (all cotton/all polyester) and size (newborn/6 months) are subject to criticism, with the fiber issue already discussed. Being the father of two (three by the time these proceedings finally get mailed), it strikes me that no one really considers newborn sizes unless the baby is very small at birth. This is simply a utilitarian concern on the part of buyers, since children grow so rapidly. In fact, the authors report that very few subjects consistently chose the smaller size. Having said these things, and perhaps weakening the arguments made for fiber and size as the number one and two main reasons for choosing a garment to be given as a gift, the third major dimension seems to offer some true relevance to the questions at hand. This is no surprise since the treatment of "price" was pretested with a focus group before the conjoint part of the study was carried out. Careful consideration beforehand yielded a meaningful (if already apparent) finding, that the amount spent on a gift will vary according to how well you know the receiver and how you feel they will interpret the perceived gift price. The real finding of this study is that hypothetical givers will be more concerned with the new neighbor's interpretation than that of a close friend, which is hardly a surprising piece of information.


These studies are all geared toward the communication that takes place within the gift giving process. Whether this communication process is studied from a macro or a micro level analysis is really not as important as recognizing that, separated from the context, gift giving loses the bulk of its meaning. While much literature, both from the social sciences generally and from within the field of consumer research is currently available, there is much still to be done if we are to truly understand gift giving.

Given the sheer amount of extant knowledge, perhaps it is time to begin the process of true integration. This is, I believe, what Wolfinbarger is trying to do with her work, although as mentioned, she seems to prefer a strongly unidisciplinary mindset. When I say true integration, I mean a model which requires multidisciplinary vision. A caveat about embarking on such a model is that it should not be approached as a giant boxology - a la Howard and Sheth. The process could surely be modeled in such a way, but not without diminishing the gestalt of the gift exchange phenomenon. It would also be difficult to include in such a model the constant role of communications in gift exchange, which has been conceptually so important in these papers.

Another relatively untapped area for scholarly exploration is the receiver's view of the process. This begs for a remedy if we want the full picture of the gift giving/gift exchange process. The Wolfinbarger study begins to scratch the surface by asking people about gifts they have received. Certainly such a perspective is imperative to a complete understanding of the phenomenon in question.


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