Self Examination Preference Spaces, Interpretive Inferences, and Consumption Systems

Jerome B. Kernan, George Mason University
[ to cite ]:
Jerome B. Kernan (1992) ,"Self Examination Preference Spaces, Interpretive Inferences, and Consumption Systems", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 416.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Page 416


Jerome B. Kernan, George Mason University

On the face of it, the Hirschman, Holbrook, and Levy presentations don't have much in common; they address different topics and they engage various methodologies. Yet there is an underlying theme to them. (Discussants are expected to say something to that effect.) Each one shows us a way to "examine" the self--by asking people their preferences (Holbrook), by observing the systems in which they consume (Levy), and by interpreting depictions of people's consumption behaviors (Hirschman). In each case, though the nominal focus and investigative procedure is unique, we see self reflected in and driving consumer behavior. Ordinary consumer behavior. Indeed, as the Kleine, Schultz-Kleine and Kernan paper notes, mundane tasks (and the consumer behaviors necessary to enact them) are self-relevant.

We have suggested that such self-relevant mundane consumption is characterized by three themes: (1) the patterned use of product sets; (2) that are embedded in and enable activity streams; (3) which typically involve social interaction. And these papers reflect those themes in abundance. For example, the notion of a set of products--although inherent in the work of Alderson, Douglas and Isherwood, Holbrook, Kernan and Sommers, McCracken, and Solomon--is given a new emphasis by these papers. We are reminded that studying products out of their constellation context can be dangerous; that elements of a set can change over time; and that (similar to Belk's [1991] recent reflection) product sets can cohere for reasons quite beyond those posited by Cartesian rationality. Similarly, that products enable activities is so intuitively plausible as to be taken for granted; yet these papers illustrate how the enabling occurs as well as the great variety of use-motivations that typically are at play. Finally, the many forms of social interaction which affect and are affected by products are given a novel twist as we see their relationship to a variety of self-reflections, -presentations, and -perceptions. These papers establish for us (again, to cite Belk) that "...while the mysteries of possessions are ineluctable, they are not ineffable" (p. 42).

While it is likely that, except for certifiable materialists (for whom having is being), consumer behavior is not an overarching determinant of a person's wholistic Self or "character." Inasmuch as the things we have are inseparable from what we do, however, it is not injudicious to suppose that our day-to-day behaviors do affect who and what we are. The influence may be indirect and variegated, but it is real.

So long as we are willing to construe the self as an amalgam of specific facets--essentially the perspective of both Gergen (1991) and Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982)--the ordinary things that people do can be seen as perspectives--as partial portrayals--of themselves. This relationship is evident in Levy's paper (where the laundering system chosen affects the kind of homemaker presented/perceived), in Holbrook's (where product-set preference vectors reveal aspects of the personality), and in Hirschman's (where the feckless behaviors attendant to addiction depict the struggle to enshroud deviance with normalcy). In each case, a revealing facet of the self is adduced--by the preferences people state, the products they use, or the (duplicitous) behaviors they engage. Each of those facets is a partial clue to how these actors (and others) regard themselves. That the papers "differ" widely suggests that self-relevant consumption affords us both a variety of issues to address and a veritable cafeteria of methods to examine them. Consumer researchers are not often presented with such a delectable smorgasbord.


Belk, Russell W. (1991), "The Ineluctable Mysteries of Possessions," in To Have Possessions: A Handbook on Ownership and Property, ed. Floyd W. Rudmin, Corte Madera, CA: Select Press, 17-56.

Gergen, Kenneth J. (1991), The Saturated Self, New York: Basic Books.

Wicklund, Robert A. and Peter M. Gollwitzer (1982), Symbolic Self-Completion, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.