Reframing Ikea: Commodity-Signs, Consumer Creativity and the Social/Self Dialectic

Mark Ritson, Lancaster University
Richard Elliott, University of Oxford
Sue Eccles, University of Oxford
[ to cite ]:
Mark Ritson, Richard Elliott, and Sue Eccles (1996) ,"Reframing Ikea: Commodity-Signs, Consumer Creativity and the Social/Self Dialectic", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 127-131.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 127-131


Mark Ritson, Lancaster University

Richard Elliott, University of Oxford

Sue Eccles, University of Oxford


The use of consumption-based meanings in the construction of both self and group constructs is examined using phenomenological interviews as the basis for existential phenomenological and hermeneutic analysis. The study concentrates on a particular subculture, a lesbian group in the UK, and their use of meanings associated with Ikea, the Scandinavian furnishings store. The results suggest that a double reframing of consumption meanings takes place. First, the subculture alters the symbolic meaning of Ikea to create group identity. Second, that altered symbol is again reframed by each individual member in creating the self-construct.

Symbolic Construction and Existential Consumption

'Consumer goods, in their anticipation, choice, purchase and possession, are an important source of meanings with which we construct our lives' (McCracken 1988). This essentially semiotic perspective (Mick 1986) maintains that consumer goods like all other elements in the culturally constituted world are signs, in this case 'commodity signs' (Baudrillard 1988), which are interpreted to produce signified meanings. These meanings, derived from consumption-based activity, form an important existential source of meaning in the individual's construction of their subjective view of reality (Lyddon and Alford 1993).

Several studies have shown how consumption meanings are used within the context of consumers' lives either as the 'raw material for one person's attempts to make sense of the world'(Buttle 1991), 'the means by which they negotiate their lives' (Mick and Buhl 1992) or a resource for 'existential consumption' (Elliott and Ritson 1995).

Consumption and the Construction of Self

The role possessions play in determining the self-concept has been conceptualised in the 'extended self' construct (Belk 1988), although the motivational factors that underpin this use of consumption-based activity vary widely (Dittmar 1992). One important consideration is the ability of individuals to 'twist' or 'divert' consumption-based meanings in order to achieve congruence with self image. Both Mick and Buhl (1992) and Elliott, Eccles and Hodgson (1993) show how consumers could re-negotiate intended meanings subjectively according to their own self-constructs. This behaviour is theorised by both McCracken (1986) and Tharp and Scott (1990) who claim: 'Individuals will embroider on the cultural canvas, using personal experiences, the opinions of local experts, the prejudices of friends and so on to form subjective meanings'. This 'new existentialism' (Laermans 1993) demonstrates the ability of consumers to re-signify commodity-signs in personalised, unintended directions (de Certau 1984).

Consumption and Constructing the Group Concept

Just as products act as signs interpreted by their owner in the process of self-construction, simultaneously that same product signifies a potentially different set of meanings externally to others. As Dittmar (1992) declares: 'It is through their symbolic meanings that material objects can communicate aspects of their owner's identity to self and to others', creating elaborate communicative systems of socially shared meanings(Douglas and Isherwood 1979). This social meaning derives from the commodity-sign (Baudrillard 1988) and the semiotic potential of goods as a key way of expressing and defining group membership and group values through shared consumption symbols.

In order for any object to function as a symbol, there must be a shared reality among consumers (Hirschman 1981) which leads to 'styles of consumption' and the creation of specific social identities for subcultural groups (Bauman 1988).

The creation and maintenance of subcultures is in part dependent on the ability of the group to differentiate themselves from the hegemonic ideology of the cultural whole and to maintain their subcultural identity (Hall 1977) through a shared use and interpretation of consumption-based symbols, often based on an overt 'relocation of symbolic meaning' (Hebdidge 1979).

This relocation occurs because subcultures can, just like consumers, engage in symbolic self-construction and re-negotiate the signified meanings of commodity-signs. Indeed the 'symbolic repossession of cultural meaning is the most potent form of maintaining subcultural identity' (Hebdidge 1979) with subcultures waging 'semiotic guerrilla warfare' (Eco 1972) against the dominant cultural ideology. This process occurs by taking the two constituent elements of hegemonic culture; the object and its meaning (the sign) and 'relocating' (Clarke 1976) or 'repossessing' (Hebdidge 1979) them in order to defy hegemonic forces, oppose the dominant semiotic system and maintain subcultural identity. Because these newly appropriated signs are common only to the subculture, their apparent 'secrecy' lends added identity to the subcultural group (Hebdidge 1979).

Thus group identity derives from both the creation and maintenance of these re-appropriated, re-signified sociological meanings.

The Social/Self Dialectic

Definitions of the social and the selfish dimensions of consumption-based meaning vary: 'self/social worlds' (Dittmar 1992), 'symbols/signs' (Solomon 1983), 'intra/inter-personal' semiotic discourse (Mick 1986), 'self-definition/ collective definition' (McCracken 1990) or 'psychological/ sociological' (Hirschman 1981), but the basic social/self dialectic remains constant. But what is the relationship between the creation of both self and social worlds from the same consumption-based meanings? Richins' (1994) study of 'public' and 'private' meanings gives several examples of how group-constructed, shared consumption meanings can 'shift' towards individuals' self-concepts over time.

This social/self dialectic, implicitly recognised by Richins (1994), has also been addressed from a hermeneutic perspective. A hermeneutic approach posits that 'a person's understanding of his/her life experiences always reflects broader cultural viewpoints' (Thompson, Polio and Locander 1994). Any expression of personal meaning (e.g. in creating the self-construct) represents only an adaptation of existing group-constructed, cultural meaning (Packer 1985). Thus the social/self dialectic is addressed through the concept of 'Wiskungsgeschichte' (Gadamer 1976) or continuing representations:

'The original...and the reproduction are representations and representations represent something only in so far as they are again represented' (Weinsheimer 1985). Thus any new, personalised self-meanings, no matter how idiosyncratic, derive from a representation of an existing group-constructed meaning. This dialectic is explored through the study of a group of lesbians in the UK who developed the identity of 'Dikea'.


The 'Dikea' group were featured briefly in a UK television report on the 'London Gay Pride Festival'. The group were approached and three of its members agreed to take part in individual phenomenological interviews (Thompson, Locander and Polio 1989) which were conducted by one of the authors in the informants' respective homes. All three informants lived in the London area, in rented or owned property. Two expressed a liking for Ikea furniture and furnishings and explained that it was quite usual for lesbians to visit, buy from or meet up at the local Ikea store. Although moderate incomes limited their purchasing power at Ikea, both had some Ikea items in their respective homes. The third informant had little knowledge about Ikea having visited her local store only once. The interviews themselves lasted two to four hours and all commenced with the informant being asked to explain her own involvement in, and perception of the Dikea group. From there, ensuing questions were based on each informant's own direction of dialogue, and further explored individual comments and experiences.

Phenomenological interviews were conducted because of their ability to record both personalised accounts of lived experience (Kvale 1983) and subcultural influences (Mick and Buhl 1992). Interpretive methodologies (particularly phenomenology) have been proposed as more appropriate for studying the rich multi-dimensionality of consumption meaning than conventional quantitative techniques (Richins 1994).

After the interviews had been completed, two forms of interpretation were conducted. First a hermeneutic methodology was adopted and 'symbolic metaphors' were interpreted from the interview transcripts. These symbolic metaphors offer a unique opportunity to study the social/self dialectic because of their ability to analyse both 'personal' and 'sociocultural meanings' and thus represent the individual's perception of self in respect to the social group (Thompson et al. 1994). Furthermore, because this method of interpretation highlights thematic differences rather then similarities in the data, symbolic metaphors representing each respondent presented a means of exploring each informant's self-construct differences in relation to each other.

However, in order to explore the relationship between each of the informant's differing self-constructs and the shared social-construction of the group, a second interpretive methodology was also needed. Existential-phenomenology (Valle and Halling 1989) was used to re-interpret the transcripts a second time. This methodology was chosen because it develops commonly shared experiential themes (O'Guinn and Faber 1989) and serves to 'unravel the structures, logic, and the phenomenon under inspection' (Valle and Halling 1989). Thus because existential-phenomenology identifies 'global themes' which 'seek to describe common patterns of experience' (Thompson et al. 1994), it was possible to use this method to isolate experiential markers of shared experience or 'common features that structure person-world interaction' (Valle and Halling 1989). It was then possible to perform a variant of triangulation (Wallendorf, Belk and Heisley 1988) between these 'common features' of group experience and the individual 'symbolic metaphors' of each differing self-construct, derived from hermeneutic analysis, thus exploring the social/self dialectic of symbolic consumption. This triangulation was possible only because both methodologies rely on the interpretation of the same raw data, the phenomenological interview. However, in moving from the self to the social level of meaning analogies and contrasting interpretations focusing in subjective difference with that focusing on shared themes, we are not claiming to triangulate on any underlying essential truth, but are presenting two perspectives on meaning and behaviour which, taken together, build a rich multi-dimensional picture which helps to reflect the ambiguities of the individual in a post-modern world.

Lesbian Subculture and the Dikea Group Identity

Although lesbians may be considered a group of women who merely share the same sexual preference, the more commonly accepted definition of contemporary lesbianism is one of identity and community, and not simply sexual acts (Gibbs 1994). The lesbian community offers a distinct example of the features that Hebdidge (1979) associates with subcultures and 'the expressive forms and rituals of these subordinate groups' through their adoption of dress codes (such as Doc Marten's boots), political beliefs and behaviours, and their orchestrated celebrations of identity such as 'lesbian weddings'. Whilst often rejecting heterosexual mores and norms, it has become apparent recently that lesbians have intruded into mainstream culture and have taken hegemonic images, identities and fashions and subverted them for their own lifestyle and culture (Hamer and Budge 1994). Despite this subversion of 'straight' culture, the lesbian subculture also maintains its identity through overtly gay events. The most notable examples of this form of 'subcultural ritual' (Hebdidge 1979) are the 'Gay Pride Festivals' which take place annually in many major cities throughout the world, including New York and London. They feature a march around the city limits with all the participants converging on a central city location. The Pride Festivals represent an opportunity for the gay community to demonstrate their subcultural identity to both themselves and the general public. Amanda (all names are fictional), one of the informants, comments:

'That was the whole idea of it being a day where you can be obvious and you can be 'out and proud', so it's a day of having an identity and being able to walk around in the street.'

The March represents a semiotic carnival of expression and symbolic meaning for the gay community but within that larger subculture, many small subcultural entities emerge, each displaying their identity with appropriate symbolic cues. Amanda notes this nebulous subcultural mass:

'The day itself is just people all in one place with the same orientation which is important, and then within that, it's like you have a group identity within the larger identity of the March.'

The 'group identity' which Amanda and 12 of her lesbian friends chose was that of 'Dikea'. The group dressed in identical uniforms of hard hats and overalls imprinted with a large logo of 'Dikea' on the back, in the style of Ikea, the Scandinavian furnishings store, thus connecting this image with that of a 'Dyke' (slang for lesbian). Several members of the group had come up with this idea together and all the informants showed a overt consciousness of this subcultural re-signification of the meanings of Ikea. Becky explains:

' was about picking something for Pride. Using a name and twisting it for our own means to get a response...Putting the D in front of the Ikea and making it our own I suppose.'

Amanda suggests that this kind of 'semiotic guerrilla warfare' (Eco 1972) in order to create group identity, is not only a conscious process but common in the subcultural world:

'I don't think straight people mock or lift slogans and logos like Dyke, with the Nike logo. I've seen that and Faagan Dyke [Haagen Dazs], but I've never seen any smaller groups lift things. I don't know if straight culture would pick up on it...what can they do with Ikea? Because the marketing is aimed at straight people, then they've got no need to manipulate it, and make it specifically have reference to them.'

Clearly the group are implicitly aware of the subcultural agenda which motivates this 'practical existentialism' (Willis 1990).

Self-Constructs and the Dikea Group Identity

This paper now concentrates on this subcultural identity in relation to the subjective experiences and interpretations that three members of the group (Amanda, Becky and Cathy) encounter. Each informant's 'symbolic metaphors' are identified and linked to each of their subjective interpretations of the group's activity. This is illustrated by relating each different 'symbolic metaphor' to three shared 'global themes' of group experience; the meaning of Dikea to the respondent, the interpretation of the reactions of the spectators to the group and finally the individual's own interpretation of their feelings on the day. The relationship between each respondent and Ikea is also explored. Due to space restrictions, only brief examples can be given of the phenomenological data used to form the interpretation presented here, which is itself only one of many possible interpretations.


Amanda was outgoing and relaxed throughout the interview and was constantly engaged in laughter. Her fellow informants had identified her as the most creative and humorous member of the group and she acknowledges both these elements in her descriptions of her involvement in group activities:

'I've written little pantomimes; I like dressing up; basically, if I can make a costume for it I will.'

'I mean, for me, a lot of it is getting everybody together to have fun. It's also quite funny that I can persuade people to do this. I think that's quite's about having fun really and getting everybody together.'

Amanda's 'symbolic metaphor' relates to her creativity and humour being combined into a search for fun. This metaphor is apparent in Amanda's interpretation of the Dikea concept:

'I wanted to keep it [the message] clear so that everybody looks the same, which I think is quite important for me, that they all look identical...I think the beauty of it is that the joke is on the back. Because I'm not in it for personal limelight, I think it's funny if I walk past someone and they get the joke...'

Amanda cements this personal interpretation of the group's identity by continually referring to the humorous nature of the day and the 'hook' of the Dikea image. She speculates on where that hook comes from:

'I think purely the joke, the play on words and because the logo is written in the same writing, it's using the same colours, the frame of the word is the same shape.'

Amanda extends this interpretation, still based on her symbolic metaphor of fun, to the reaction of the spectators:

'I thought it was funny to me, and funny to us doing it but I hadn't considered that other people would find it entertaining.'

'[a large] amount of people did talk to us, and I think they just wanted to tell us that they had got the joke, it was quite important for them to say, you know, "Oh I've got the joke"'

Similarly this symbolic metaphor also influences her recollection of her own feelings on the day of the March:

'Well the first time we did it, it was great because of the unexpected amusement from other people. The second time it was still great ... because we knew that people would be coming up to us, so we had one-liners...'

Finally Amanda describes how, for her, the symbolic meanings of Dikea emerged from its two elements combined:

'they [the spectators] had got the words, the reference to 'Dyke' and to the shop as well. I think probably they knew we were homosexual ... because they were at I think it was more about the shop.'

Amanda explains the link with the Ikea shop further:

'If you go round Ikea then it's stuffed with homosexuals buying things, so there's a lot of people just cruising around. I've got a mortgage and I've got a sofa from Ikea, so it makes you feel quite normal to know you are spending money on the same things as straight people.'

Furthermore this subcultural joke appears to now constitute one of Hebdidge's (1979) 'secret meanings':

'I mean, I'd choose Ikea over another shop; I think I'd do that anyway but now it's like secret, I can go to Ikea and I know about the Dikea's'


In contrast to Amanda and, to a lesser extent, the other members of the group Becky sees herself as very different:

'Well, I think they're more artistic than I am. Like Amanda for example likes to involve herself in dressing-up and having a laugh.'

'I don't find [creative] things like that particularly easy. It just doesn't come naturally to me. It's like an effort to do. I could never be as creative as Amanda. I'd say I was quite different. I'm more sort of... they're very outgoing, I'm outgoing in a different a practical way, in the way I communicate with other people and that sort of thing.'

This perceived practicality, particularly in relation to communication, leads Becky to see herself as very different from the others in the group and forms her symbolic metaphor of self. This practical communicative aspect of her self is reflected continually in her responses and is clear in each of the three global themes of experience. First she describes the meaning of Dikea:

'It was about er..., because you make stuff up yourself it's like a do-it-yourself kit so it's about taking control. Women taking control for themselves and, you know, dressing up...and presenting an image of strength and independence'

For Becky the meaning of Dikea was tied up in the communication of practical images of control, strength and independence. Furthermore she extends this interpretation by arguing:

'...a recognition of the name Dikea, you know, as I said before a lot of gay people use Ikea for furnishings and it would be recognised in that way by putting a D in front of it because [of] lesbians taking control'

Again, in re-appropriating the commodity sign for the purposes of the subculture, the practical message of control is conveyed. This symbolic metaphor of practicality again emerges in Becky's representations of the reactions of the spectators:

'I thought it was very positive. Erm... it was all "great", "good idea", "we like Ikea - we go there"'.

'People were cheering and saying things like "That's a good idea, that's really funny"'

Becky continually refers to the positive reaction of the crowd in appreciating the group's efforts because, again, this ties in with her symbolic metaphor: the practical message of Dikea has achieved what it was designed to do, it has been understood and appreciated. This interpretation also guides her own explanation of her positive experiences of the day:

'Well, we were being recognised for the efforts we put in, it was a success. We didn't just dress up and just march, we dressed up and got patted on the back so to speak...We felt quite proud actually. Quite pleased. We were proud.'

The pride that Becky feels and the 'pat on the back' from the crowd are important because they both relate to the fact that she has achieved something; something has been done and it has been a success. Her positive reaction relates to the success of her practical efforts. That practicality also influences her interpretation of Ikea as the source of the Dikea symbol based not on the experience of shopping there but on the practical quality of its products:

'I've always liked it, it's one of the better stores. It has a lot of wood, it's very ecologically sound and it's quite tasteful.'

'I don't feel any different towards it [Ikea since Dikea] at all. If we were going to get some new bookcases or stuff like that it would probably be a place of preference.'


When asked to compare herself to the group, Cathy's first response was indicative: 'Have you got all night?' In the course of the interviews she distinguished herself from the others on the basis of appearance, income, vocation, house, hairstyle, social circle and education. This example is typical:

'It's very difficult for me to talk about lesbian culture because I can't say what everybody else does, but there is a general picture of happily married, buy a house, get a cat, go to the garden centre at the weekends and sort of live nice. I don't live with a partner, I don't have a car so I can't drive to Ikea and if I bought something what would I do with it? I probably earn quite a lot more money than many other people in the group.'

Her symbolic metaphor relates to her incompatibility from the group-norm in almost every aspect except her sexuality. This lack of similarity means Cathy's symbolic metaphor is a need for shared subcultural identity. This need resonates clearly in this explanation of what Dikea means to her and the 'levels on which it existed':

'It exists because once you've put on a set of clothes the same as everyone else it's like a team sport. I play football sometimes - I just remember the extraordinary buzz again, because I hate football...[but] it was the most extraordinary thing winning a football match, and we had our uniforms on again, you know our strip. Very much like a team spirit and you only come together for that one event....'

That same 'extraordinary buzz' from the shared identity of the Dikea uniforms which is stimulated by her symbolic metaphor is also reflected in her interpretation of the crowd's reaction:

'[Dikea was] a gay joke. It would have been a joke anyway but not for straight people, you wouldn't have the same feeling of contact. There was a definite feeling of contact with other people... a sort of group identity, a gay identity.'

Similarly when questioned on the 'buzz' Cathy got from the March, her symbolic metaphor again becomes clear:

'Well, it was definitely to do with being in a collective....It was the fact there were so many of us and we stood out because of the white, blue and yellow...and even though we didn't know each other very well, this sort of group identity drew us together.'

Cathy's interpretation of Ikea's role in the Dikea symbol also differs from her co-informants in her total rejection of the store or its products:

'Well it's like...I'm saying I don't go to Ikea. I don't know what Ikea is like. I only went there once for the newspapers.'


Clearly the three informants, and the group they belong to, have utilised commodity-based meanings to construct a concept of self and social world (Dittmar 1992). The meanings derived from Ikea, subculturally shared by the group and subjectively interpreted by each respondent were a source of existential meaning (Elliott and Ritson 1995). The different sources of the Ikea meanings, derived from store (Amanda), product (Becky) and consumer (Cathy), suggest that meaning does indeed flow between the different elements of consumption (McCracken 1986) and that within any group, shared group symbolism can be derived from very different semiotic sources and that those differences of source may contribute to the differing personalised interpretations of that symbol.

By utilizing two analytic approaches to the same data, it has been possible to identify both similarities and differences in the subjective interpretations these women construct of the same subcultural behaviour. In particular, the post-structuralist attention to difference which is the focus of recent developments in discourse analysis (Elliott et al. 1995) has been captured through the concept of symbolic metaphor, which promises to be of increasing importance in interpretive research. For, as Thompson et al. (1994) point out, the conventional use of interpretive themes in qualitative analysis focuses in identifying similarities across individuals and thus runs the risk of missing key aspects of difference.

The social/self dialectic discussed here promises insight into the costs versus the benefits of consumption symbolism. Whilst it is clear that the adoption of shared consumption symbolism enables a subcultural group to construct and maintain their group identity and so to derive significant benefits, it is possible that at the same time, the individual is experiencing considerable emotional tension. By surrendering aspects of the self to the social group by the purchase and display of shared consumption imagery, the individual may experience painful threats to their self-identity which may be in conflict with their adopted symbols. Because consumption is a major cultural form in post-modernity (Firat and Venkatesh 1993), important existential questions as to the meaning of the social and the self can be explored through the study of symbolic consumption located in its cultural context.


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