Awhy Are We So Stupid@: an Historic Approach to Post-Socialist Consumer Research

Katherine C. Sredl, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
ABSTRACT - The transformation of state socialism in Europe is one of the most important historical developments of the last fifteen years. Yet cross-cultural consumer behavior research in this area has been confined by a lack of historical grounding. This risks overlooking nuanced changes in local consumer experiences and economic structures. Drawing on interpretive research in Croatia as an example, I describe symbolic consumption as a continuation of historical experiences, reinterpreted in the current, emerging socio-political structure. This paper contributes to an understanding of historical influences driving cross-cultural consumption research and transformation consumers.
[ to cite ]:
Katherine C. Sredl (2005) ,"Awhy Are We So Stupid@: an Historic Approach to Post-Socialist Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, eds. Geeta Menon and Akshay R. Rao, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 302-306.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, 2005     Pages 302-306


Katherine C. Sredl, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

[Research for, this article was supported in part by a grant from the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the United States Department of State, which administers the Title VIII Program, and the IREX Scholar Support Fund. None of these organizations is responsible for the views expressed.

The author gratefully thanks Dr. Zsuzsa Gille and Mr. Igor Lah for their valuable assistance with this research and Dr. Linda M. Scott and Dr. Maria Todorova for guidance in the development of this article. The thoughtful suggestions of three anonymous reviewers are most appreciated.]


The transformation of state socialism in Europe is one of the most important historical developments of the last fifteen years. Yet cross-cultural consumer behavior research in this area has been confined by a lack of historical grounding. This risks overlooking nuanced changes in local consumer experiences and economic structures. Drawing on interpretive research in Croatia as an example, I describe symbolic consumption as a continuation of historical experiences, reinterpreted in the current, emerging socio-political structure. This paper contributes to an understanding of historical influences driving cross-cultural consumption research and transformation consumers.


Scholars researching in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe have made inroads in the understanding of marketing principles-consumer decision making (Lofman 1993), product involvement and brand commitment (Coulter, Price, and Feick 2003)-as well as consumer behavior-demand (Kozminski 1992), desire (Ger, Belk, and Lascu 1993), conflict (Pecotich, Renko, and Shultz 1993), luxuries Belk 1999), and globalization (Ger and Belk 1996). Yet research in this area has been confined by a lack of historical grounding. This risks overlooking nuanced changes in local consumer experiences and economic structures. Recent interpretive, cross-cultural scholarship on post-socialist consumers calls for research with a broader historic focus, predating the socialist era (Coulter et al 2003).

To work historically means to understand the context and experiences from which consumers construct the meanings of their everyday world in relation to the past, present, and future (Rassuli and Hollander 1987). Theories about the current situation should have a resonance with past events (Smith and Lux 1993). In the case of Croatia, as in many other transformation countries in the region, the current economic and political structure is rooted in the pre-state socialist and state socialist economic and political structure.

Croatia was an agrarian economy and its population was mostly rural peasants until the state socialist modernization programs after World War II. The pre-war arrangement was paternalistic: the peasants provided food for the landowners and taxes and soldiers to the state. Larger and smaller landowners as well as the peasants implicitly assumed the "natural order of things" was for the nobility to care for the peasants, who were unprepared to participate in the political and economic system. Only landowners or intellectuals participated in parliament (Sabor) (Biondich 2000).

The post-war economic and political arrangement abolished class differences and restricted private property ownership to a small scale. Industrialization, modernization, and urbanization changed the demographic and economic structure of Croatia and Yugoslavia (Pecotich, Renko and Shultz 1994). Many migrants to urban areas from impoverished, Eastern regions elevated their social and economic status. One way was by rising to power in the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (Denich 1996a, 1996b; Simic 1974). Still, the state was paternalistic: it provided equally to all citizens as an idyllic father would to his children (Kligman 1998). Political participation and social status advancement were exclusive, no longer just for landowners, but for members of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (Verdery 1996).

In the current situation, former communist political and economic elites are now the economic and political elites. Their approach to governing and operating a business is that expanding their power has benefits for those around them, similar to the paternalism of agrarianism (Verdery 1996). Without a historical view, it might seem that the political changes since state socialism have brought Western democracy. Looking to the past to understand the present suggests that the institutions function more in the local traditions of paternalistic government.

Many locals see the post-socialist economic order as a return to the "natural order" of private property ownership and state socialism as an anomaly. The economy in Croatia is oriented towards corporate ownership that maximizes profit through monopoly control of a sector. Many people in Croatia tend to see post-socialism in a historical context: it is the current arrangement in a history in which elites have power.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the erosion of the political divide of democracy and state socialism also brought a chance to revisit a historic question in Croatia. The cultural and political idea of unity with the West or East has a long history related to Croatia’s international relations agenda. Prior to the formation of "the first Yugoslavia" (1918-1933), the main political issue facing Croatian political parties was advancing the position of Croatia within the Dual Monarchy, either through alliances to the East or to the West with Budapest or Vienna. Marshall Tito (Josip Broz 1892-1980), the president of SFRY, developed Yugoslavia’s international position as a non-aligned state, as unique in the state socialist context by its break with Stalin in 1948 and its socialism with a human face, but still a part of the Balkans. Franjo Tudjmn (1922-1999), the first president of the (post state socialist) Republic of Croatia emphasized Croatia’s western identity, promising to restore its "natural" place in Europe, confirmed when Germany pressured European Union recognition of its statehood in 1992.

The war (1991-1995) that followed succession seemed to "balkanize" Croatia rather than offer a chance to join Europe. The western media portrayed Yugoslavia’s break up with strong bias. "balkan" in the cultural and political sense has come to mean problematic, non-European, divisive, self-destructive and violent. These meanings might also apply to Western Europe’s history, but the "balkans" is Europe’s "other" (Todorova 1997). In the United States, the term "balkanization" has come to mean a suicidal war (Snajder 1996). In 1991, John Sherry, a prominent marketing scholar, known for approaching research with cultural sensitivity, described in fighting within the consumer behavior academy as its "balkanization".

Certainly, this misnomer reads back to the people of the Balkan geographic and cultural region as a serious misappropriation of their culture and of a name for a geo-political region (Todorova 1997). Yet Croatians orientalize regional groups to the East, even when these groups consider themselves Croatians (Bakic-Hayden and Hayden 1992). For example, Croatians from Zagreb (Zagrebcanin) view migrants from villages, especially from the East (Hercegovci) who come to Zagreb as less Western, meaning educated and cultured, than they are. Many view the Yugoslav experience as a process of the "balkanization" of Croatia because of large-scale urbanization and because of the change in the political power structure from educated elites to peasants.

For me, as a member of the Croatian Diaspora in the USA, and as an interpretive researcher, I feel that it is important to contribute to an understanding of the region. I distinguish between the terms Balkan in the geographic sense of a mountainous region in Southeastern Europe with the orientalist view by placing the orientalist term in quotations in lower case.

Symbolic consumption is a part of playing out the larger historic and socio-economic tensions in the current situation. Consumption is a central experience of modern daily life (Droge, Calatone, Agrawal & Mackoy 1993; Miller 1997; Rassuli & Hollander 1986). Consumers, through what they possess, gain a sense of their past and present, and often their future (Belk 1988). Moreover, it is key to the process of communicating group membership and status, to the self and others (Douglas and Isherwood 1979). Membership in a status group might be understood as an aspiration or as an achievement (Holt 1998; Solomon 1999). In times of social change, status groups are in flux and communicating membership becomes crucial.

To an observer without an understanding of local history, symbolic consumption in Zagreb might seem to be the same as in Munich or Dallas. After all, the same brands, for example Marlboro and Sony, are prevalent globally (Ger and Belk 1996). It might also seem to be a sharp contrast to the collectivist ideology of state socialism (Bar-Haim 1987). A historical understanding, however, sees current consumption in Zagreb in the context of state socialist consumption, which focused on Yugoslav westerness and exceptionalism through consumption (Drakulic 1992; Sredl 2004). Through an historical and interpretive approach, it is possible to understand symbolic consumption as a way of playing out local, historically embedded meanings.


I lived for 19 months in Croatia: the summers of 2000-1 and from June 2002 to August 2003 as part of a larger project of researching advertising in Croatia after state socialism. My understanding of symbolic consumption as it occurred in situ developed through observation of and participation in consumption and other daily activities in natural settings and multiple sites throughout Croatia, social interaction, and composing fieldnotesBobservations, thick descriptions, emerging analysis, and reflectionsBand visual ethnography. Using sources from local history (Allcock 2000; Biondich 2000; Jelavich 1983; Tanner 1997) and anthropology scholarship (Bakic-Hayden and Hayden 1992; Denich 1976a, 1976b; Simic 1974) and the anthropology of state socialism (Berdahl 1999; Kligman 1998; Verdery 1996) allowed me to make connections between the past and the present. Participation in consumption rituals throughout Croatia included co-shopping for women’s and men’s clothing and shoes, women’s cosmetics shopping, and food shopping in a grocery chain in towns, at hyper-markets in suburbs, and in neighborhood outdoor markets, as well as exchange in the second economy. I observed consumers at new malls, flea markets, and in city centers. Analysis and interpretation of data was compared constantly with topical literature. Emergent design, purposive sampling, depth interviews, (Lincoln and Guba 1985; McCracken 1988; Glaser and Strauss 1967; Wallendorf and Belk 1989) and focus groups explored and tested analysis. Member checks brought to light insights from observations and directed the research to important new areas of exploration (Belk, Wallendorf & Sherry 1989).

Depth interviews and focus groups with consumers centered on the socialist and post-socialist consumption experience, consumption aspirations, political influences, attitude to money, the new social structure and social values, lifestyles, and ethnicity. The use of projective techniques allowed active construction of subjective advertising experience by the informants, as well as a balance of power in the interview process. Specific advertisements served as prompts across the interviews (Branthwaite and Lunn 1985; Buhl 1991). A total of 52 informants participated. I accessed them through the snowball method, starting with my network of friends, relatives, and colleagues at the University of Zagreb, Dept. of Marketing. The duration of each interview was between one and two hours, and I interviewed many informants more than once. Interviews were conducted in Croatian (I speak Croatian) and English, tape-recorded, and transcribed. Informants also participated in member-checking. In the context of an Orientalist view of Croatia, I often felt that my position between Croatian and US cultures facilitated access to informants.


In this section, I will develop the historical tension discussed in the theoretical framework. Through informants’ voices, my observations, and historical approach, I will place this in the specific context of contemporary consumption. The end of state socialism has created new opportunities for symbolic consumption and negotiating political and social power. The meanings of status are imbedded in historical tensions of "balkanness" and Westerness. Former elites in Zagreb tend to claim their status through emphasizing their Western culture and judge easterners as less fit for the status they have achieved because they show it in symbolic consumption, which is inherently "balkan" and uncultured, unlike their Western moderation.

Local contests of power

The economic and political power groups are in flux after state socialism. The local meanings of symbolic consumption, however, are embedded in understandings of Balkan and Western in the context of Croatia’s borderland position between the West and East. Along with the different colonial experiences come regional differences. Zagrebcanin (people from Zagreb), describe their culture as Germanic: organized, cultured, efficient, and educated and the Hercegovci (people from the Hercegovina region) as "balkan" especially because this region was under Ottoman rule. Hercegovina is a region of, since its creation in 1995, the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, ad previously it was a part of the Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Most Hercegovci consider their identity as Croatian, largely because they are Catholic, not Muslim and Orthodox like their compatriots.

New Power Groups, Old Power Relations

Many people from Hercegovina moved to Zagreb after independence, largely because of the war in Bosnia. Hercegovci have displaced local power networks in Zagreb. One informant from Zagreb explained it to me in a joke, "There is a homeless man standing by the road with a sign, 'Please help me, I am from Zagreb and I don’t have a relative from Hercegovina’." The graffiti "Hercegovci go home" written on the toilet stall all at the Philosophy Faculty of the University of Zagreb, was quite typical throughout Zagreb.

I attended a play in Zagreb at a very popular comedy theatre which played on the tensions in Croatian cultural identity. The comedy played on Hercegovci and Zagrebcanin cultural differences and their outcomes in social relationships. The best part for me was the audience’s laughter (many people were laughing so hard they were crying) and enjoyment amid the real tensions. In April 2002, just before moving from the USA to Zagreb, I attended a lecture of Slavoji Zizek. Zizek described ethnic jokes in SFRY as a manner of describing familiarity rather than prejudice, as it is understood in the US. A few days after the play in Zagreb, I remembered this. The audience laughter can be interpreted as a similar type of ethnic joke at themselves and their status relationships.

Defending Status

Current practices of using goods to symbolize status are rooted in socialist experience (Drakulic 1992). Under Tito’s progressive socialism, Yugoslavia accepted loans from the West, provided its citizens passports and permitted travel, work, and temporary residence abroad, as well as possession of foreign currency, unlike the COMECON countries (1949-1991, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania) (Ugresic 1998).

Yugoslav, especially Croat and Slovene, standards of living were higher than the other socialist states, and Yugoslavs had easier access to Western commercial goods. Many Yugoslavs, for example, worked in Germany and brought home consumer goods and deutschmarks. For Croatians, consumption was a national sign of showing membership in the west, and distance from socialism, the east, and the Balkans.

During socialism, displaying consumer brands was a local means of showing position or access to power. For example, wearing fashionable clothes or displaying western brands was a way for factory managers or party officials to show their power, and for others to show membership in this network (Berdahl 1999). For most people in Croatia today, consumption is a means of showing status. One respondent commented: "If my neighbor has a satellite dish, I need to have it tomorrow I have to reach the same status as he does" (Hrvoje, 30, Zagreb).

It seemed to me that people in Croatia, especially Zagreb, understood Hercegovci as consuming more conspicuously than other groups. Women and men Hercegovci are associated with BMW cars and the mafia. An informant commented: "Young girls driving BMW at the university, things like that, that’s usually the mafia" (Jagoda, 35 Zagreb). While the BMW is usually a sign of status and stability in the US, in Croatia it is a sign of power related to corruption. My friends pointed to Hercegovci cafes, and commented on them as places that the mafia frequents. One friend from Zagreb calls them kotsku glavi, square heads, because, she says, that is how they look. Respondents describe Hercegovci as lacking taste, extremely patriotic, behaving as a mafia: a closed society, helping only its own, with ethically questionable business and political behavior. Consumption has come to symbolize the fragmentatio and changing control of power relationships. Without a historical perspective, it might look like mere imitation of Western lifestyles, but a historical understanding suggests the local meaning has more to do with the changing of power relationships and historic cultural tensions.

An important aspect of the stories of informants from Zagreb is that they react to the changing social structure by re-defining their status position on cultural grounds of westerness. One respondent from Zagreb, who’s parents are from Zagreb and Ljubljana (Slovenia) described the newcomers’ pursuit of status goods: "how do they earn their money as they think only about how much money they have it’s totally a cultural shock for let’s say us [people from Zagreb] who were not taught that way people who come now from that part of Croatia [Hercegovina] the values are totally, I mean, wrong and they did not stand on healthy feet so you can feel it on the street" (Marija 29 Zagreb).

This subjective process of making sense of changes and regaining power relates to Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power (1984). The groups that had status before socialism, Zagrebcanin, re-assert their historically based cultural capital through value and style judgments about the Hercegovci. Since these groups are outside of the current power relations, but still define cultural values, the only way for them to respond is through asserting their locally constructed notion of western habitus. They can displace the Hercegovci as the internal other, and keeping them there is a way to handle their status as the other to the west. They rise in their status compared to the west if they can view the Hercegovci as Balkan and lower status. Local status groups are understood in the context of Croatia’s borderland history.

At a national level, Croatia’s "balkanization" after the war, as I mentioned at the start of this section, was clearly a point for exploration. This also plays out on the individual level of understanding style and taste. One woman from Zagreb commented: "You would come to the west, and see this shop window with a nice design that’s the experience, wow, how can they do it and we can’t, why are we so stupid, why are we so stupid, that was the common question, even now, you still ask that question" (Gordana 30 Zagreb). To answer the question, many respondents turn to the Hercegovci: "the majority of problems that are happening right now have roots in the way of thinking of people who have arrived in Zagreb" (Ana 29 Zagreb).

The post-socialist period has brought Croatia a chance to define its identity in global systems of difference (Wilk 1995). This happens within the context of local struggles to reach consensus on Croatia’s identity. This is grounded in historical power relations and is played out in symbolic consumption. Still, processes outside the region predetermine the global meaning of Croatia’s identities. The informants with whom I spoke seemed aware of this tension between local and global processes of identity construction. In that way, Zagrebcanin and Hercegovci are not unalike, which I suspect probably further irritates Zagrebcanin in their efforts to hold on to their position.


This article presents Croatia’s post-socialist transformation in a historic context. It introduces the idea that the post-socialist transformation can look quite different when seek through a historic approach. The historic approach in interpretive research has the specific benefit of viewing the present in terms of the past, bringing the researcher and the final research narrative closer to the perspectives of transformation consumers in the region (Creed 1998). This paper develops theories about the current local structure and culture of markets and democracy. They are unique in the literature because they see the present in relation to past events. From there, the market structure and culture was described in local terms. It was not typically market capitalist or democratic, but a mix of this and local paternalistic political notions and private property ownership. The meanings of symbolic consumption were similarly grounded in historic question of Croatia’s, and individuals’ "balkaness" and westerness rather than imitation of Western lifestyles. Further research might develop theories about consumer behavior and markets in the region. Such theories could be useful for marketing decision makers operating in the region.


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