Special Session Summary Rethinking Theories of &Quot;Consumer Culture&Quot; Through Postmodern Analyses of Consumption and the Production of Hybrid Cultural Forms

Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Siok Kuan Tambyah, University of Wisconsin-Madison
[ to cite ]:
Craig J. Thompson and Siok Kuan Tambyah (1998) ,"Special Session Summary Rethinking Theories of &Quot;Consumer Culture&Quot; Through Postmodern Analyses of Consumption and the Production of Hybrid Cultural Forms", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 58-59.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 58-59



Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Siok Kuan Tambyah, University of Wisconsin-Madison


The constructs of culture (and subculture) have become increasingly central to the consumer research literature (Celsi, Leigh, and Rose 1993; Holt 1997; McCracken 1986; Schouten and McAlexander 1993; Sirsi, Ward, and Reingen 1996; Solomon 1983; Thompson and Haytko 1997). In many of these works, culture has been treated as a self-contained, internally consistent and largely taken-for-granted constellation of meanings and practices. This conception follows from a view that portrays culture in terms analogous to a functional or organic system. This representation is not unique to consumer research. Rather, it has been the predominant model of culture within the modernist tradition of social science research (Hannerz 1992; Kahn 1995).

This session presented an alternative model of consumer culture grounded in a postmodern world-view. From this perspective, modernist theories are predisposed to interpret cultures as functionally integrated and internally consistent systems and conversely, to overlook their paradoxical and hybrid qualities (Hannerz 1992; Luke 1996). A postmodernist reading offers a critical rethinking of many now classic sociological analysis and assumptions about specific socio-cultural orders and, more broadly, the nature of modernism itself (Hannerz 1996). In so doing, postmodernist theory brings to the fore heterogenous aspects of cultural life that have been discounted by the Durkheimian and Weberian views of culture (Weinstein and Weinstein 1993). These revisionist accounts are aligned more closely with the once marginalized works of Simmel and BenjaminCwhich emphasize the detraditionalized, the discontinuous, and the carnivalesque.

Postmodernism offers a different theoretical grid by which to understand culture in terms that are denationalized and hence deterritorialized. As applied to consumer research, this orientation explicitly disavows the modernist assumption that culture refers to a shared way of life and system of meanings that are indigenous to a specific geographically bounded and nationalized way-of-life and which are uniquely adapted to a specific set of socio-economic conditions. Rather, consumer culture is conceptualized as a dynamic constellation of diverse practices and transnational flows (of meanings, styles, conventions, etc.) (Appadurai 1990; Hannerz 1996). In these theoretical undertakings, organic conceptions of culture are displaced by constructsCsuch as pastiche, melange, creolization, or hybridizationCthat portray a given cultural form as a localized confluence of spatially and temporally diffused transcultural elements:

"Hybridization unsettles the introverted conception of culture which underlies romantic nationalism and cultural essentialism.... Hybridization is a contribution to a sociology of the in-between, a sociology of the interstices. This involves merging endogenous/exogenous understandings of culture" (Pietrse 1995, p. 64-65).

The goal of this special session was to develop some theoretical and empirical implications following from this postmodern model of culture in relation to some key consumer research constructs. Each presentation showed how an established theoretical construct in consumer research could be reformulated in terms of this postmodern framework.

Thompson’s presentation developed a postmodern conceptualization of consumer identity. He drew from theoretical work challenging the view of self-identity as a stable, self-contained nexus of values, internalized social distinctions, and behavioral predispositions. He proposed that consumer self-identity is better conceptualized as a constellation of consumption practices that coalesce around an ethos of flexibility manifested through cosmopolitan tastes, adaptability to diversity, and the ability to enact a diverse array of identity positions. This conception of a flexible consumer identity was compared and contrasted to conventional models of self-identity and the much discussed postmodern construct of the fragmented self. The flexible self model was then used to draw out previously unexplored implications of consumer research on consumption-based subcultures and the phenomenology of consumption meanings. The presentation closed by highlighting several theoretical and pragmatic implications of this postmodern model for conventional marketing approaches to classifying consumers, such as lifestyle segments and PRIZM clusters.

Tambyah’s paper explored the multi-faceted nature of ethnic identity as it is constructed through a specific, ritualized consumption practice: a community festival. The Triangle Ethnic Fest is held every summer in an ethnically diverse neighborhood where 86% of the households are headed by adults born outside the United States. Tambyah’s analysis centered on how the various ethnic groups in the neighborhood attempted to authenticate, produce and present their cultures for consumption by visitors to the Fest. She also examined how these cultural productions influenced the negotiation of their ethnic identities. Data from various sources e.g. excerpts of interviews, photographs/slides etc were used to represent the consumption meanings central to ethnic identity and the production of ethnicity. Her analysis also highlighted the cultural subtexts to this negotiation of ethnic identity (e.g. commoditization of ethnicity, the presentation of ethnic harmony, and the hybridization of ethnic identity).

Holt’s presentation used the construct of hybridity as a means to develop an alternative to the humanist and anti-humanist strains of contemporary consumer theory. Holt argued that in consumer research, person-object relations have been largely construed in humanistic terms. Individuals are assumed to use commodities to construct and symbolize a coherent self narrative or identity. Levy’s ideas bout consumption symbolism, McCracken’s cultural transfer model of object meanings, Belk’s extended self, and Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry’s notion of sacralization processes are prominent examples of this logic. Outside of consumer research, however, an equally fervent anti-humanism is dominant. Drawing upon the tradition that runs from Nietzsche through Althusser and Foucault, theorists such as Stuart Ewen argue that the discourses of consumer culture-particularly as promulgated by marketing-act to interpollate people as "sovereign" consumers.

Holt developed his postmodern alternative through an analysis of a six-hour autobiographical video made by a key informant. He used excerpts from this video to show how a hybrid consumer identity is constructed in a culture dominated by the commodity form. His analysis argued for a theoretical position that exemplifies the postmodern condition of a commoditized but also creative style of identity construction using the resources of consumer culture. On this account, consumers are not automatically woven into the images and narratives that are available as commodity-spectacles. Rather these commodity-spectacles serve as a cultural tool kit that they use to locate and work on their identities. The experiences of this key informant further suggested that this suturing process-linking the individual to discursive subjectivities produced in mass culture-invokes problematic tensisons and conflicts that are resolved through an extensive effort at modifying and redefining this identity through an evolving consumption pastiche.

Tom O’Guinn served as the session synthesizer.


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