A Hermeneutic Interpretation of &Quot;Ella&Quot;

Craig Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison
[ to cite ]:
Craig Thompson (1998) ,"A Hermeneutic Interpretation of &Quot;Ella&Quot;", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 105-108.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 105-108


Craig Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The opening passages of the first interview with Ella express two major experiential issues (addressing the question of "what kind of person am I?") and a corresponding series of identity paradoxes that emerge in other consumer-oriented descriptions. In this interpretation, I will first work through the system of meanings conveyed in these opening passages and then discuss their manifestations in Ella’s other reflections on her consumer experiences. [This interpretation has been formulated through a part-to-whole- iterative process and highlights the existential meanings related to the explicit and implicit construction of personal identity through the meanings ascribed to consumption activities.]


In describing her shopping orientation and her preference for the Carol Little brand of clothing, Ella is constructing a narrative of identity through which she forges a tenuous balance between two primary existential issues. The first existential issue is articulated through the related thematic contrasts of rational/emotional and control (order)/loss of control(disorder). These related themes are embedded in her self-conception of being a bargain shopper. Her opening reflection is replete with emotionally charged descriptions of bargain shopping, e.g., her comments on the thrill of saving 60% off regular price and her love of outlet malls. Her bargain hunting orientation is indulged through her self-described fetish for drinking glasses and dishware. In the next passage, it becomes clear that clothing is another equally "fetishized good" that she cannot resist buying when it appears as a good deal.

Underlying these descriptions of bargain shopping is the classic cultural distinction between emotionality and rationality. In the context of the interviews, these contrasting orientations form a dynamic relation in which the rational criterion of saving money is used to justify Ella’s indulgence in bargain shopping. However, this same dynamic also encodes a tension between having control and losing control. Much of the interview can be read as an effort to create a symbolic alignment between the pleasures of emotionally charged consumption (and hence the impulsive, spontaneous and expressive side of her identity) and her predispositions toward rationality and leading a well-ordered life.

One expression of this dynamic is Ella’s emphasis on the aesthetic pleasure of shopping for fetishized items and the experiential/emotional quality of finding a bargain. Thus, Ella states that "I will buy glasses that I don’t really need. And I only drink out of two glasses a week. And if it’s something pretty, I’ll just get it, but....." The "but" marks the point at which the rational aspect is interjected into her narrative. Here, she invokes a reasoned form of control in which the item must be on sale and, ideally, must have its value affirmed through comparison shopping. Ella’s closing statement that "most things I do get would be valuable and would be of value" expresses a tenuous interpretive balance in which those items she finds valuable (i.e. aesthetically and emotionally pleasing) can be rationally justified by appeal to their "value" (i.e. "quality" and price).

Ella’s conception of bargain shopping bears a thematic resemblance to previous experiential analyses of impulse buying and the emotionally engaging quality of bargain shopping (Rook 1987; Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1990). Specifically, Ella’s emotional/rational tension maps onto an existential theme of being in-control/out-of-control. For example, she states "and I’ll never forget one time I went into the Carol Little outlet in California and when I went into the store, my eyes just lit up. And I said `I’m going to buy everything in here.’.....I almost did, everything I could wear. So I did a lot of damage then." The immediate prelude to this passage is Ella’s reflection that she "can’t wear clothes from any store" and that she goes into "a lot of stores" and doesn’t "buy anything." This clear sense of what she can wear provides one source of control over the buying impulse that she latter describes as often overwhelming her better judgment:

E: I might buy some things that I don’t need because it’s on sale. And I read once if you get something that’s on sale and you don’t need it, you’re wasting money.... And I find myself doing that, because like I have gone places and seen something on sale ... and maybe, again, it’s some clothes that’s too small for me, and I’ll buy it. And I say, "I’ll give it to somebody else, then," just to get the sale. And I just can’t walk away from it.

While not a perfect means of self-control, knowing what she can wear (in terms of style, color, and material) does insulate Ela from the threat of getting a sale on items which do not "fit" in her wardrobe or collection of fetishized objects. At issue here is the desire to impose a rational order and coherence on the emotional feeling of being captivated by a sales situation. Conversely, this same knowledge also provides the license for indulgence, with full abandon, the thrill of buying bargain items that can be appropriately incorporated into her existing collections.

Even within these rationally bounded situations, Ella grapples with the sense that these emotionally-charged experiences undermine her rational control and the order she seeks to impose on her life:

E: You know, I might see a blouse that I like, and then I will forget I’ve had this blouse. And so I have about three blouses just alike.... So it just might be a problem.... I don’t know if that is a problem or not.

I: Do ... some clothes just stay in the closet and you just forget about them altogether?

E: I think I do. I ... really do think that I sometimes ... do forget that I have them. And then, when I am going through my closet I say, "Oh I have this." But also, in the closet, I also try to be a little organized. And I have all my clothes color coordinated. And then sometimes ... when I am shopping, I’ve done this... I might do this one day. I might see a good sale on a blouse, and I’ve done this, and then I go somewhere else and see a good sale on a blouse. And I end up buying the same blouse in the same day.

In this passage, the tension between order and disorder is posed by Ella’s tendency to buy blouses. The emotional pull of the sale disrupts her rational assessment of what she already possesses or what she has already bought on the same day. Furthermore, clothingCwhich is one major class of consumer goods that she allows herself to buy in this hedonic and indulgent fashionCrepresents a potential source of disorder due to its captivating qualities. By rigorously organizing her clothes in a rational color coordinated scheme she is, in effect, attempting to impose a form of control upon an ever-present source of disorder and loss of control. [The structure of Ella's narrative mirrors this tension between control (and order) and loss of control (and disorder). The excerpt has a disjointed quality that is punctuated with a series of clarifying statements (I've done this, I might do this) that attempt to impose a sense of historical order upon her reflection.]

Near the beginning of the first interview, the interviewer asks Ella whether she defines "value" in terms of the brand being bought or the quality of the item. In her response, Ella aligns herself with a rational discourse by proclaiming the importance of quality rather than any irrational commitment to a specific brand name. Nonetheless, she does have a strong sense of which brand is right for herCCarol Little: a perception that reveals the other key existential issue that arose in the interviews, an issue expressed via the theme of conservative/not conservative (wild, expressive, colorful).

The symbolic significance of the Carol Little brand is grounded by Ella’s contrast between "being conservative" (which she describes in detailed terms) and a more nebulous sense of not being conservative: an orientation that is most concretely represented by garments having brighter colors and wilder patterns and styles. For Ella, the conservative side of this contrast is associated with succeeding in her role as an academic dean whereas "the wilder" side is associated with expressing one’s personality.

Ella clearly views Carol Little as being more wild than conservative. At this early stage in the interview, it appears that this tension between being conservative and not being conservative corresponds in fairly direct terms to the rational/emotional dynamic discussed previously. Thus, reason impells Ella to dress conservatively because she sees it as a means to facilitate her career but emotion pulls her toward the wilder Carol Little styles that express part of her personality but that could potentially undermine her professional effectiveness and ultimately her career adancement. However, a closer reading of Ella’s transcripts reveals that the relationship between these two existential issues is paradoxical rather than internally consistent.

Ella’s characterization of the Carol Little style as being "part of her personality" is actually quite informative. Although Ella would like to see herself as a wilder more expressive person, her interview conveys a distinct sense that she is a person with conservative tastes (e.g., her dream furniture is Queen Anne style done in solid Cherry), who tends to be reserved and rather guarded, as demonstrated in the following exchange:

I: You said something about the core, about people’s core. What do you think is at the core of your personality?

E: I will never tell you that.....I have to protect the core of me.

Nonetheless, Ella’s interview does offer a fairly revealing portrayal of how she defines her core: she is a conservative personality who would like to be less so:

E: I like things with color... But I’m kind of opposite, too, because I also like the conservative look, like solid colors. But then I see myself, when I’m going out, I might wear something that is a little bright. And although I know...I would like to project another image, but there is still something about me, because I believe that people have cores. And then in their core, the personality is there whether ... I put it aside for my job or whatever.... And so going back to what you asked me about what’s pretty for me..... I like long skirts. And I guess ... when I was in college we had the mini-skirt. I used to wear those, too. But then I can’t ever imagine wearing a miniskirt now or any skirt that is really short. So pretty to me would be a long skirt. And I feel comfortable in a jacket and long sleeves. Believe it or not, even in July, you’ll find me with the long sleeves. So most of the blouses I wear are long sleeves with good color coordination, with shoes to match, most of the time.

Here, the conservative/wild tension maps onto the emotional/rational tension in a rather paradoxical way. Ella’s emotional connection (what she feels comfortable in and what seems to be something essential to her personality) is with the conservative look. This fashion orientation is, of course, congruent with the rational goal of career advancement (i.e., the dress for success model), but it transcends these pragmatic motivations. Her conservative personality (as embodied in her fashion orientation) is seen as a fundamental aspect of her identity.

But rather than accept the compatibility between her core identity and the "symbolic capital" required to succeed in her profession, Ella remains ambivalent about the extent to which these conservative (establishment) values are part of her "core." Her attraction to the idea of conveying a wilder, more colorful image reflects a desire to cultivate a sense of "self" that is not steeped in these values and that does not closely accord with the public identity demanded by her job.

The interview text does not speak to the experiential conditions that underlie Ella’s ambivalence toward her "core identity" and her desire for a more dramatic distinction between who she really is and the public image required of a Dean, who is the embodiment of the institution and institutional authority. But her existential dilemma is rather unusual. The more common setting for an existential dilemma is a situation where people perceive an incompatibility between their public identities and their conceptions of who they really are (van den Berg 1970). In Ella’s case, however, her existential crisis arises from the absence of a disunction between her "core" and public selves. As such, she has a "problem" with the conservative tastes that come naturally to her.

My inference is that this paradoxical existential dilemma is related to Ella’s position as an African-American women who has built a career in a profession that is dominated by conservative values and steeped in the cultural legacy of patriarchy and the exclusion (or at least marginalization) of people of color (hooks 1989; West 1994). Since Ella’s life history is not reported in the interview, the textual grounds for challenging, supporting and/or developing this interpretation are not available. However, the historical record supports the likelihood of such a conflict of values. The pressure upon women of Ella’s generation to conform and embrace patriarchal values in order to succeed in male dominated professions has been well-documented. Also well documented are the psychological dilemmas posed by these alienating circumstances (e.g., Gerson 1985). As bell hooks and other African-American women scholars have pointed out, the conditions faced by African-American women seeking success in male dominated professions are further complicated by issues of ethnicity, racism, and the ceaseless battle against being placed in a marginalized position of "otherness."

I see Ella wrestling with an identity crisis posed by the seeming interpenetration of her "core" sense of self and the establishment values encoded in her position as a DeanCvalues which stand in an historical antagonism to her position as an African-American woman. Some insight into the symbolic relations between clothing, establishment values (and success within the establishment), and the cultivation of a conservative identity is offered by the following passage:

E: The blue is a form of being conservative. And I’ll never forget when I first got my doctorate and I was in Administration for women, we were told to wear a navy blue suit. And so I had been poor all the while I was in grad school, and then once I graduated, I went and bought four navy suits, and I didn’t know which one to wear which day.... And so now I think I have about eight or more navy suits. And it’s like, those are things that I like. I mean, I like navy blue. And I think it somewhat makes a statement, too, 'cause if you go somewhere and you see someone sitting at a table with red on ... and then you see somebody with a navy blue suit, automatically you’ll ... ask the person with the blue suit on for directions or whatever. And you can also say that’s why policemen wear the navy uniforms.

Not only is the blue suit the quintessential uniform of institutional credibility, its image is also one that resonates with Ella’s conservative, aesthetic tastes. Furthermore, the navy blue suit offers a semiotic contrast to the "wilder" Carol Little brand that Ella "keeps going back to" despite its being less conservative in terms color and pattern than she would prefer. The Carol Little brandCrather than being the expression of Ella’s "core self" as her interview initially suggestsCis instead emblematic of an identity that stands in opposition to conservative tastes and values. Ella’s inclinations toward rationality, organization, and conservatism reflect the institutional values that are required for career success. The facets of her "core self" that have more difficulty in finding expressionCemotionality, impulsiveness, expressivenessCmay well reflect an identity that Ella feels has been compromised and perhaps negated through her immersion in the establishment values of academe. Although she would like to recover this "emotional-expressive" side of her personality (and its potential to resist and challenge establishment values), it no longer feels like "her."

Ella’s rationally justified indulgences in bargain shopping, her awareness of buying things that she doesn’t really nee (or already owns), and her personal debate over matters of fashion style are consumption-oriented manifestations of these existential tensions. These consumption experiences are also the means by which these existential tensions are realized in the context of her everyday life and brought into a manageable, if tenuous, relationship.

Ella lives out her emotional and hedonic desires by engaging in rationally justifiable bargain shopping. These irresistible bargains also enable her to ascribe a positive emotional charge to the "wilder" styles of clothing that are characteristic of her "tastes" but that symbolize an idealized anti-establishment identity. This desired identity emerges most often as a source of disorder, as when she gets a bargain on a clothing item that she already owns. The moments of disorder precipitated by these indulgences in "her wilder side" symbolize a more significant issue of order and disorder that could arise from Ella’s identity crisis. That is, the full expression of her latent anti-establishment identity would threaten the order and stability of her life and career that has been forged by the cultivation of her conservative self. By working these issues out in the context of consumption, however, her problems of identity can be expressed and negotiated in a domain that seems relatively insulated from these more consequential implications.

Relations to Other Consumption Experiences

My reading of the other descriptions of consumption experiences given in the interview is fairly consistent with the patterns previously noted. For example, Ella’s dream furniture and home decor express the conservative ethos that has been appropriated into her sense of self-identity.

I found the passage concerning her shift from collecting African masks to collecting elephants to be particularly interesting. I wish the interview had provided more information about Ella’s perceptions of these two collections and the relationships among them. The text that is available seems consistent with the broader gestalt formed by the exisential themes and subthemes.

My interpretation of these collections begins with the fairly obvious point that they enable Ella to represent and value those aspects of her identity (her African culture heritage) that do not readily "fit" within the career mold that she has pursued over the years. I think the relationship between the mask, the elephants, and her interpretation of the house fire (in which she lost everything) are sublimated expressions of the perceived threat to the order and stability of her life that is posed by her non-conservative identity. In the interview, she implicated the African mask in the fire (although she also notes that this thesis is more superstitious than rational). In contrast, the elephant (with the trunk up) is a symbol of good luck that she could collect without fear or anxiety (whereas the masks "always did something to her" when she looked at them).

The logically indefensible attribution of responsibility for the fire can be read as a latent fear that being too explicit about her African heritage and deviating too far from the conservative identity endorsed by the establishment could disrupt her life in a fundamental way and, in essence, destroy everything that she has worked to build. In contrast, the elephants statues are a less threatening and less radical symbol of African-ness that can be readily incorporated into a unique, but still conservative, personal identity. The acceptance and support of her elephant collecting among those in her social circle (as indicated by her receiving many elephants as gifts) signify that this expression of her non-conservative (i.e., African) identity is not threatening or destabilizing.

The meanings that underlie Ella’s reflections on liking to travel to exotic places and her other collections (lamps, plates, candleholders, mirrors) are not explicated in this interview. However, travel and the types of items she collects are characteristic forms of thesymbolic and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984; Featherstone 1991) possessed by college educated professionals such as Ella. These more cosmopolitan consumer activities fit easily within her conservative professional identity and are easily aligned with her more radical self-conceptions. As such, they are less likely to evoke the type of existential conflicts manifest in her perceptions of the Carol Little brand and, perhaps, her former collection of African masks.


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