Personal Rites of Passage and the Reconstruction of Self

John W. Schouten, Iowa State University
[ to cite ]:
John W. Schouten (1991) ,"Personal Rites of Passage and the Reconstruction of Self", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 49-51.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 49-51


John W. Schouten, Iowa State University

[This report is abstracted from the forthcoming paper "Selves in Transition: Symbolic Consumption in Personal Rites of Passage and Identity Reconstruction" (Schouten 1991).]


Recent research has established the importance of consumption activities to the construction and maintenance of self and identity (cf. Belk 1988, Solomon 1983). However, much work is still needed if we are to understand the complex relationships between consumer behaviors and the psychosocial needs of changing, growing human beings. To the extent that the self-concept is created and comprehended through symbolic acts of consumption, the changes in self-concept that accompany human development may be wrought at least partially through the disposition and acquisition of consumer goods.

Solomon (1983), recognizing the importance of consumer goods in the learning and performance of social roles, articulated the need for further research on role transitions. Andreasen (1984) subsequently presented evidence that life status changes are linked to changes in lifestyle and the willingness to try new brands or products. Despite these intriguing beginnings, the consumer behavior literature has yet to come to grips with life transitions and self-concept change as holistic phenomena influencing and influenced by acts of disposition and acquisition.

In an in-depth, qualitative study of the consumption of cosmetic surgery (Schouten 1991) it is observed that through the surgical disposition of one physical attribute and the acquisition of another a person may symbolically shed one identity in favor of another. The process whereby this occurs is explained via van Gennep's (1960) conceptualization of rites of passage with special attention is given to the "identity play" of liminal consumers.


Van Gennep (1960) observed that important role transitions generally consist of three phases: 1) separation, in which a person disengages from a social role or status, 2) transition, in which the person adapts and changes to fit new roles, and 3) incorporation, in which the person integrates the new role or status into the self. Victor Turner (1969) described the transitional or liminal phase as a limbo between a past state and a coming one, a period of personal ambiguity, of non-status, and of unanchored identity. In primal societies, culturally prescribed rituals (rites of passage) provided individuals an experience of "communitas" or shared psychological support throughout major status passages. In the modern, secular world, however, people often experience liminoid states (cf. Turner 1974) devoid of such supportive rites. Left to their own devices to cope with difficult transitions and ambiguous self-concepts people appear to create personal rites of passage through symbolic acts of disposition and acquisition, and, in so doing, to construct new concepts of self.


Much of the time people's self-concepts are relatively equilibrated -- they know who they are and they feel fairly stable and comfortable in their various social roles (Levinson 1978). There are times, however, when the relative stability of such states is upset by changes in the environment or from within an individual (cf. Adams, Hayes and Hopson 1976; Levinson 1978). The reconstruction of identity begins with separation from some role, relationship, or other key component of the extended self (cf. Belk 1988). Separation often occurs literally in time and space, triggered by some external force or event (e.g. the loss of a job or the death of a family member) that causes a shift in one's major roles. Separation may also be a subjective experience triggered by an internal force or psychological need (e.g. a fear of aging or a yearning for intimacy) that leads to the rejection of a particular aspect of the self. The loss or rejection of an important component of the self-concept is often finalized symbolically by the disposition of possessions that act as reminders of the former self. Such dispositional acts may serve a cleansing or stabilizing function (cf. Young 1990), thereby creating "fresh start" opportunities. However, acts of separation in and of themselves do not constitute a completed transitions. Instead they usher in the period of flux and self-concept plasticity known as a liminoid state.


Liminal people face the task of reconstructing congruous, integrated self-concepts. If they have experienced unbidden separation from key roles, they must create new roles or emphasize existing roles to fill the gaps. If they have emotionally rejected traits or aspects of self with which they are dissatisfied, they may seek some way of excising them and replacing them with more desirable traits. In either case they begin to formulate possible selves (cf. Markus and Nurius 1986), i.e., they envision themselves as they might possibly become. An important characteristic of liminoid states is the tendency to play and experiment with new categories of meaning (Turner 1974). Liminal people appear to be more prone than others to engage in "identity play," that is, to formulate, elaborate, and evaluate possible selves with an eye to self-change or self-completion (cf. Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982).

Possible selves may begin as loosely articulated mental constructs or vague images. Some may be dismissed as flights of fancy, but ultimately others will be "fleshed out" through mental elaboration and then evaluated as to their desirability and the feasibility of their actualization. Identity play often involves the experimental consumption of goods and services, especially those offering symbolic or hedonic benefits. The various self-schemas that an individual "tries on" will tend to reflect personal goals, values and/or fantasies, and they may also incorporate themes and styles from popular culture, myth, and the media. Identity play, at least that which is publicly enacted, tends to be limited by one's perceptions of social constraints and shaped by social interaction (cf. Mead 1934).

The amount of time and energy a person invests in elaborating a possible self appears to vary according to such factors as the magnitude of the contemplated self-change, the level of perceived risk it entails, and the individual's imaginative tendencies.- Extensive elaboration appears to give a possible self greater motivating power. The investment of psychic energy required by the elaboration process may lead to cathexis of the possible self, or the contemplated self-schema may simply become more believable as it is made more specific and detailed.

The perceived attainability of a possible self also affects its motivating power. If the likelihood of attaining a possible-self is perceived as too low, motivation to actualize it is diminished. The attainability of a particular self-state depends on such factors as one's personal resources and one's orientation to such social constraints as may exist. Perceived attainability may, therefore, change significantly during a role transition as social and financial conditions change. Failure to actualize a desired and otherwise attainable self may owe to a lack of self-efficacy (cf. Bandura 1977; Nuttin 1984), i.e., an inability to convert will to action. A possible self that is sufficiently desirable and attainable will likely become actualized.


People can respond to their possible selves in one of three ways: 1) with inaction, 2) with active rejection, or 3) with actualization and the incorporation of the possible self into a revised self-concept. Inaction results when possible selves are insufficiently desirable, undesirable, or plausible to motivate action, or when approach-avoidance conflicts result (cf. Levin 1935). The short term consequence of inaction is continued liminality. Rejection occurs when a possible self is deemed unattainable, undesirable, or incongruent with other aspects of the self-concept. The rejection of a possible self leads to continued liminality and the probable formulation of yet another possible self. Failure to make a successful passage results in prolonged liminality. Painfully prolonged liminoid states have been observed in conjunction with psychological impediments to normal development (Shorter 1987), permanently debilitating or stigmatizing handicaps (Murphy 1987), and the inability to let go of past roles or statuses (Levinson 1978; Roberts 1988).

Ultimately, the more desirable and plausible a possible self seems to the individual, the more motivating power it wields and the more likely it is to be actualized (Markus and Nurius 1986). Actualization may occur via the consumption of instrumental goods and services as the individual goes about accumulating the appropriate symbols of the new self (cf. Solomon 1983). Incorporation occurs as the symbols are cathected (Belk 1988) or cultivated (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981) as part of the new identity. Successful incorporation leads a person out of the liminoid state with a revised self-concept and an increased sense of self-congruity.


Consumption activities, including disposition and acquisition, play vital roles in the restoration of harmony to an ambiguous, incongruous, or dissatisfying self-concept. Personal rites of passage fashioned with consumer goods and services aid in the symbolic disposition of lost or rejected identities, in constructive identity play, and in the incorporation of new components of the extended self. Major role transitions are crucial times in determining the direction and quality of consumers' lives, but little is yet known about the consumption behaviors of liminal people or the importance of consumer behaviors to human growth and change. This report and the study from which it derives attempt, through a synthesis of anthropological and psychological perspectives, to move in that direction.


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