Special Session Summary Communities and Consumption: Research on Consumer Strategies For Constructing Communal Relationships in a Postmodern World

Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin
Douglas B. Holt, Penn State University
[ to cite ]:
Craig J. Thompson and Douglas B. Holt (1996) ,"Special Session Summary Communities and Consumption: Research on Consumer Strategies For Constructing Communal Relationships in a Postmodern World", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 204-205.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 204-205



Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin

Douglas B. Holt, Penn State University




Douglas B. Holt, Penn St University



Siok Tambyah & Craig J. Thompson, University of

Wisconsin - Madison



Lisa Penaloza, University of Colorado

Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University

In fields ranging from moral philosophy (Etzioni 1988) to social psychology (Gergen 1991) to women's studies (Gilligan et al 1990; Radway 1984), the Cartesian focus on individual level experiences is being broadened to address the communal nature of human existence and meaning. One prominent manifestation of this trend is the increasing theoretical attention now being directed to the influences that the desire for communal ties and feelings of interpersonal connectedness exerts upon consumption behaviors (Fischer and Arnould 1990; Fischer and Gainer 1995; Holt 1995a,b; Mehta and Belk 1991; Schouten and McAlexander 1995; Penaloza 1994; Thompson 1996). The papers in this session provide a more focused consideration of the relationships between communal desires and consumption oriented behaviors and meanings. This focus has implication for a broader stream of consumer research that explores the dialectical relationship between individual level consumer decisions/actions and the shared meanings embedded in patterns of social interaction and cultural belief systems.

Social scientists have longed viewed consumption activities as potent, symbolically charged practices that play a central role in the development and maintenance of community. For example, rituals of eating (Douglas 1971), immersion in the spectacle of "sport" (Elias and Dunning 1986), collecting (Belk et al 1991), celebrity fan clubs (O'Guinn 1991) are but a few of the consumption activities that create affiliative bonds and a sense of shared purpose among people. As Western consumer cultures enter the postmodern age, it is likely that the interplay between community and consumption will become more significant to the fabric of everyday life. Specifically, key characteristics of the "postmodern condition" are that 1) social relations and self-identity are centered on consumption rather than production; and 2) consumption increasingly provides a locus of community relationships (Baudrillard 1988; Firat and Venkatesh 1993).

In the consumer research literature, community has typically been conceptualized in the traditional Durkheimian form, that emphasizes sustained social interaction and the experience of "communitas." For example, Arnould and Price (1993) describe how a diverse group of individuals foster a sense of community over the course of a river rafting trip. Holt (1995a) explains communal processes in relation to the sense of affiliation that emerges from the shared (and ritualized) experience of attending and watching professional baseball games. Schouten and McAlexander (1995) discuss the communal bonds formed through joint participation in a subculture of consumption (e.g. Harley-Davidson bike riders).

A limitation of these Durkheimian formulations, however, is that they are not well-attuned to the cultural transformations characteristic of postmodern (or late capitalist) society and the consequent challenges posed to more traditional forms of community affiliation (see Jameson 1989). The postmodern social trajectory is toward increasingly privatized consumer lifestyles C with the phenomenon of "cocooning" being widely noted manifestation C that are marked by fragmented social identities and increasingly transitory populations. Many of these changes can be traced to the unabated expansion of the urban landscape and, second, to the globalization of the world economy which necessitates geographic mobility among both professionals and laboring classes. A number of other postmodern transformations C including the proliferation of consumer lifestyle "options," the increasingly narrowed focus of niche marketing, and the ethos of expressing individuality via consumption symbols C have been posited to undermine the formation of enduring communal ties (Firat 1995). In this fragmented, privatized, and nomadic cultural milieu, the quest for community is rendered more as an ideal than a practical reality (Gergen 1991) and attaining some semblance of this ideal demands ever more creative solutions.

The three presentations in this session speak to these postmodern conditions by exploring how community is constructed through consumption. To better highlight these postmodern issues each paper addresses a social context in which community formation is particularly problematic for the research informants. These respective analyses provide a more nuanced understanding of strategies for forming a sense of community through consumption and, in so doing, develops important implications for understanding the symbolic dimensions of consumer behavior.

Holt provides a sociological analysis of how two lower class men use consumption to construct an alternative form of community in a college town. The experiences of these informants provide rich insights into the process of inclusion and exclusion that underlie communal experiences. Tambyah and Thompson offer a phenomenological account of the consumer experiences of transnational professionals; a class of global sojourners whose nomadic lifestyles exemplifies the state of postmodern transience. Hill and Penaloza present an ethnography of the consumer experiences of Mexican immigrants who have relocated to the United States to escape harsh economic circumstances. Their research places particular emphasis on the question of how Mexican immigrants balance between their ties to previous communities and the need to form a new community (and to some extent social identity) in the United States. This analysis extends previous studies on immigrant consumers by exploring how these perceptions of community affiliation shape their informants' consumption preferences, conceptions of the "good life," and the meanings of their consumer experiences and special possessions. The session discussant David Mick provides a semiotic perspective on the symbolic processes that consumers may use to construct a sense of community from ostensibly privatized consumer activities.


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