On Appropriation and Singuralisation: Two Consumption Processes

Per Ostergaard, Odense University
James A. Fitchett, University of Stirling
Christian Jantzen, Aalborg University
[ to cite ]:
Per Ostergaard, James A. Fitchett, and Christian Jantzen (1999) ,"On Appropriation and Singuralisation: Two Consumption Processes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 405-409.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 405-409

ON APPROPRIATION AND SINGURALISATION: TWO CONSUMPTION PROCESSES

Per Ostergaard, Odense University

James A. Fitchett, University of Stirling

Christian Jantzen, Aalborg University

INTRODUCTION

The modern individual lives in an environment of goods which are almost exclusively mass produced and mass consumed. Anonymous markets with often only indirect and abstract relationships between seller and buyer connect the spheres of production and consumption. On these markets goods appear as commodities, i.e. as anonymous products alienated not only from actual producers but also from the specific requirements of individual consumers. But the paradox of the society of mass production and consumption is that this enormous supply of goods, gadgets and things is used by the individual to shape a personal conception of what life is all about. In moving commodities from marketsBfrom shops, department stores or displaysBto their homes goods become de-commodified and individualised. In this process anonymous mass products are transformed into unique objects out of which the consumer’s personal world of memory, fantasy and associations is created. Though mass consumed, on the level of everyday experience these objects are thus personally gratifying for the consumer, and as such open to a host of individual meanings and emotions. This transformation of mass products into personal belongings is seminal to the understanding of te consumer’s productivity and of consumption as another process of production.

This aspect of consumption is often perhaps the most important one from the consumer’s point of view. It explains why consumers long for certain goods, what uses they make of products, and why consumption for them is evaluated as anBor even theBimportant way of creating meaning in society. But it has been overlooked by the bulk of marketing theory and consumer research, which instead have privileged the market relationships between the seller/producer and buyer/consumer, i.e. the exchanges that might (or might not) lead to acquisition, which in itself is viewed as the end of market exchanges. It is also the blind spot of classical sociology and critical theory (e.g. Marxism). In these traditions mass production is viewed as a result of the rationalisation of society, which leads to the 'dis-enchantment’ of life (Weber 1976). And mass consumption is judged to destroy the unique, almost sacred character of goods, resulting in their 'loss of aura’ (Benjamin 1968). But these contributions, however important they are as general descriptions of (post)modern society, neglect the meanings of consumption from the quotidian perspective of consuming agents. Even though individual consumers buy mass produced goods and consume them 'en masse’, their longings and interests are not directed towards mass commodities but towards having, using and interacting with distinct goods which they may call 'their own’. Thus, meaningful consumption to a great extent presupposes de-commodification, i.e. the moving of goods from markets to a sphere of personal meanings, from anonymity to specificity. And this de-commodification implies both 're-enchantment’ and 're-auratizing’ of initially mass marketed goods (Shields 1992).

CONSUMER RESEARCH BEYOND A PRODUCTION BASED DICHOTOMY

Marx has never really been the marketers’ favourite with regard to social theory and economics and his work has become distinctly 'antique’ with the arrival of postmodern and poststructuralist theory. It is therefore surprising that beyond the obvious differences, consumer research continues to embrace an essentially Marxist production oriented paradigm. For Baudrillard (1975) the limitation of Marxist economic theory is its preoccupation, its romanticism, for this concept.

Theory regarding the 'Decision Making Process’ for instance does not prioritise an understanding of the individual’s reasons for engaging in consumption activities, but rather concentrates on describing the consumers’ response to stimuli produced through marketing efforts. Though many who conducting consumer research would be eager to distance themselves from classical psychological behaviourism and determinism (perhaps preferring cognitive rationalism), perceptions of the consumer remain as a relatively passive subject who can be 'encouraged’ to participate in specified behaviours as long as the correct stimulation can be identified and capitalised upon.

The most important part of the decision making process differs for the producer and the consumer. From a production-oriented perspective, the elements of the decision making process nearest to the point of acquisition or purchase are the most important and those most distanced from it are less so. In fact the entire decision making process from the organisation’s point of view revolves around the point of acquisition which is represented as the centre of the process (hence the terms pre-purchase decisions and post-purchase evaluations and reflections). For the consumer, though, the point of acquisition might be a relatively minor event in their relationship with the acquired object. The post-purchase phase, typically represented as the end of the process, is likely to be the starting point for the consumer. Once consumer goods are taken away from the environment of market exchange, they are gradualy de-commodified and incorporated into the lifestyle context required of them by individual consumers (McCracken, 1986).

It thus becomes problematic to consider consumption as the end of a process that started with some nominal consideration of various alternatives that culminates in a consumption decision and finishes with a post-evaluation of satisfaction. Our discussion is therefore concerned with the transformation that takes place once the consumer leaves the place of direct exchange and begins his or her own consumptive production (Gregory, 1982). Two approaches are presented here. The first considers consumption as an appropriation process and the second relates the discussion to theories of commodification where consumption is represented as a singularisation process. The differences and similarities regarding these approaches will be discussed in the end of the paper.

FROM ACQUISITION TO APPROPRIATION

The consumption of the product has been described from different perspectives by researchers who subscribe to the postmodern condition of society as outlined by, e.g. Brown (1995). Firat, Dholakia, and Venkatesh (1995) discuss the consumer as producer, and Wikstr÷m (1996) discusses the same phenomenon in a more traditional way as the customer as co-producer. From these perspectives the consumer is an active subject who transforms consumer goods so that the product fits into the single consumer’s life-world. The analysis and discussion of this topic has, with a few exceptions (e.g. Cova and Svanfeldt 1993), been at a highly abstract level. The most applicable work on this problem is McCracken’s (1986) model for the movement of meaning from the culturally constituted world into consumer goods via advertising and the fashion system, and from consumer goods into the life of the single consumer via possession rituals, grooming rituals, and exchange rituals. McCracken’s systemic approach, however, does not leave room for an in-depth analysis of the single consumer. Instead we have Belk’s (1988) work on the extended self where it is shown how the consumer constructs a sense of self in the consumption process. Still, we do not have a clear picture of how these interesting and groundbreaking ideas can be applied and how it deviates from the traditional view of consumer research. In Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989) it is shown how profane products can be transformed by a sacralisation process into a sacred object with its own meaning and place in the consumer’s life. The processes described by McCracken (1986), Belk (1988), and Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989) can be compared to what Chaney (1994) calls appropriation, which he defines in opposition to acquisition.

THE APPROPRIATION PROCESS

Since the appropriation process is not a well-described concept in consumer behaviour, it is necessary to develop an explorative description. McCracken’s (1986) model for the movement of meaning will serve as the basis for an understanding of this process. To get beyond the limitations in McCracken’s systemic approach, the model will be combined with insights from the works by Belk (1988) and Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989). Due to his systemic approach, McCracken develops a linear model. The point of origin is the culturally constituted world from which any produced product will derive a meaning since a product must be produced as a result of an intention. The meaning of the product can be purely functional or it can be very imaginary.

Any product gets meanings from the market it enters. Of course there are great differences in the amount of meaning different types of products get. In any case the product will acquire meaning from the design process and advertising. These meaning producing processs are situated in a certain cultural context which determines what kinds of meaning a product can acquire. Traditionally, consumer research operates at this level of analysis. However, this perspective cannot explain how certain products can be produced in thousands of similar copies, but when these types of products are bought and consumed by the consumer, the product is transformed into the belonging of the single consumer. Those of us who use blue jeans know the feeling of wearing a special pair. They simply look right, feel right, this is my pair of Levis 501.

To understand and explain this situation, which includes many different product categories, we should look at what happens to a product after it has been bought by the consumer. When a consumer has acquired a product, the appropriation process can begin. The appropriation process incorporates everything done to the product from the time of acquisition until it is no longer a possession owned by the consumer. The appropriation process can be described by possession rituals, exchange rituals, grooming rituals. The term ritual implies that the appropriation process is not just fortuitous. There is a logic behind what is going on. The cultural logic determines a system of categorisation. This is elaborated in the following examples.

In this article, the focus will be limited to possession rituals, but the other aspects will need a brief presentation. Exchange rituals are the processes in which a product is acquired as a gift. It can be a gift for another person (Sherry 1983) or a self-gift (Mick and Demoss 1990). In both cases, the product gives meaning because of the intention behind the gift. The appropriation process will be influenced by the meaning of the gift-giving process. Grooming rituals take place when a product is used for personal care. In this process, the particular product is given a meaning through its position in a aggregation of many different products. This unique combination of products gives the consumer a certain feeling of being transformed by the grooming ritual to the type of self that fits into e.g. a party. A product acquired for grooming rituals will be appropriated due to its position among the products which are the ingredients of the ritual.

Possession rituals are the processes which acquired products have to go through before they can be regarded as the single consumer’s belonging. This process varies in intensity and time due to different product categories and cultural contexts. To illustrate this theoretical position examples of clothing and wine will be used.

Clothing as Example

When a piece of clothing is bought, the appropriation process depends on what kind of clothing it is. A consumer buying a new suit for example, would be unlikely to have the garment dry cleaned before wearing it but might consider washing a newly bought shirt and underwear before use. Different principles determine what to do before a new bought piece of clothes can be used. Other types of clothing have different appropriation processes.

A different aspect of the appropriation process is uncovered when we consider the acquisition of secondhand clothes. Whereas, the acquisition of certain types of second-hand clothing might be considered acceptable (jeans, suits etc.), other types of clothing (underwear or socks for instance) are not. In a physical sense there is no difference after the clothes have been washed (of course except that they are used clothes which is a positive attribute here), but in a metaphysical sense the second-hand clothing has a different meaning, implying that the appropriation process is different. For underwear and socks the objects are so filled with the former owners’ "spirit" that even a very elaborate appropriation process cannot transform this piece into usable clothing. In the case of jeans or suits it is different. Here washing or dry-cleaning can remove the "spirit" of the former owner.

Wine as Example

Taking wine as an example, let us imagine the exact same bottle of wine in two different situations: a 1985 Chfiteau L6ovilleLas-Cases. In one instance it is bought in 1987 just after the release and put into the cellar. In the other instance it is bought last week for the purpose of a pleasant dinner. It is the exact same bottle in a physical sense, but in a metaphysical sense they are two different bottles. The newly-bought is just a very good bottle of wine, showing that you have money, knowledge of wine, and seek status etc. The bottle from the cellar is filled with other forms of meaning. You realised in 1987 that the 1985 harvest would be a good one and bought twelve bottles of this particular chateau, you have been drinking five bottle so far, and you still have the memory of the difference in taste over the years. The newly bought wine could be served for a formal dinner, but would you serve the cellar wine for such an occasion? Or would you prefer to serve the cellar wine for a few very good friends with a knowledge of wine. The two similar bottles of wine are filled with two different kinds of meaning. In the case with the newly-acquired wine, the bottle serves its purpose which is to give the guests a very good wine for a fine meal and show that the host knows something about wine and has money. In the other case with the cellar wine, the bottle has been through an appropriation process during the years in the wine cellar. Together with all the other things in the owner's life, the wine has developed its own meaning and the consumption of such a bottle creates a very special event. The very meaningful wine needs to be served in a context which can reflect and absorb all the meaning so it is not to be wasted for no reason.

Whereas this example describes a limited account of the appropriation process both in terms of product categories and principles for the process, it illustrates how consumer goods today are wrapped into a metaphysical context produced by the consumer upon acquisition of the product. Advertising and marketing supplies the consumer with symbolic tools for the meaning production, but part of the appropriation process goes far beyond what is intended and dreamt about by the producer. The appropriation process shows that when we are working with the symbolic aspects of a consumer good the production process is not finished when the product leaves the factory, or the shop, or when the consumer takes ithome. The symbolic production continues year after year. Solomon (1986) tells the beautiful stories about informants who can trace the stories of a single pair of Levis 501 decades back. These examples show how a mass-produced product can be transformed into a sacred object and how the physical aspects of the jeans (they have very often been stored in the wardrobe for years) are totally overtaken by metaphysical ones.

CONSUMPTION AS PRODUCTION

Consumption, insofar as it is a meaningful concept, most accurately refers to a set of behaviours, responses and activities that we use when we respond to commodities. Whether that commodity be a physical production, a tourist experience, a political agenda, a lifestyle, or any other of the infinite examples of contemporary commodities; it is the fact that these 'things' are culturally defined as commodities that requires individuals to interact with them as consumers. There are no limitations to the jurisdiction of the commodity because it is, first and foremost, a discourse, or a way of talking about the world around us. In late capitalism we are witnessing the gradual 'commodification of daily life'(Baudrillard 1996, 1998) and as a consequence more of our daily activities and actions have become defined by the collective term 'consumption'.

The potential diversity of activities that constitute some kind of consumption-related behaviour is so extensive, that it would seem reasonable to abandon any attempt to produce a complete typology of consumption, or establish any worthwhile distinction between consumption, and non-consumption behaviours (Appadurai, 1986). Terms such as acquiring, eating, purchasing, using, gazing, experiencing and playing (Holt, 1995) represent but a few examples of the potential activities that can be categorised as consumption; although there are also instances when these behaviours are defined through alternative classifications and involve no aspect of consumption whatsoever.

Social, anthropological and cultural theories offer alternatives to activity based definitions of consumption. In proposing that commodity relations are, for every intent and purpose, specific to the modem industrial society, Marx (1970) establishes a fundamental principle-that exchange, and the significance of material culture in daily life, is contextually specific to certain social conditions. Mauss' (1966) account of 'gift exchange' provides an almost perfect antithesis to modem commodity culture, showing that whereas the modem exchange protocol and the process of consumption may appear universal economic principles, alternative exchange relations exist which are totally different to those prevalent in modem capitalism. In this respect, consumption can be seen both as a contained and a generic concept. If we accept that capitalism (and the commodity exchange relations it engenders) are culturally specific, then consumption must also be confined to this period. However, within the confines of late capitalism, consumption is becoming a monopolistic concept that can be applied to almost any action or behaviour. Appadurai (1986) departs from a relativist understanding of commodity relations, rejecting Marxist assertions regarding the social specificity of capitalism. He argues that within any given social context many forms of exchange relations can govern the significance of objects at different times and in different contexts of exchange.

Maintaining that any given thing be considered a commodity on the basis of its economic function or as the result of specific cultural or social infrastructures that are in place thus no longer provides a plausible thesis. Objects become commodities in certain exchange contexts and can either remain in that state or revert to some other discourse of significance governed by alternative exchange relations. Defining the commodity as a stage in the social life of an object implies that there must be examples of objects that are not yet commodities but are destined to become so (we can call these 'pre-commodity’ objects), as well as objects that were once commodities but are no longer valued as such (let us call these 'post-commodity’ objects). The social life of an object can be represented as a cycle involving the pre-commodification, commodification and de-commodification of goods.

This understanding also provides the necessary justification to reject a definition of consumption based upon notions of end use and destruction. Consumption and production are simultaneous processes that characterise the transition of an object from one guise and its subsequent representation in another. Falk (1994), for instance, does not identify the creation of commodities with production, or their eventual destruction with consumption. Consumption is taken to be a highly productive function (and production a consumptive one) which involves the continual re-cycling of resources by one group and then by another. Production processes (manufacture, assembly, service provision etc.) consume resources to produce an end product for exchange in the market (a commodity) and consumers acquire products which they subsequently exploit, use and absorb to produce or reproduce aspects of their own lives.

A distinction between the terms production and consumption can become meaningless if they continue to be defined conventionally. The terms consumptive production and productive consumption (Gregory, 1982) capture the proposed conceptual framework mre accurately. Consumptive production describes a process in which resources are consumed in a productive process with the intention of being commoditised for market exchange. Productive consumption involves that process whereby commodities are de-commoditised and applied in a productive way by individuals.

CONSUMPTION AS SINGULARISATION

In those cultures where capitalism is a primary determinant of social exchange relations, individuals apply their labour to produce products which are not for their own use but for circulation and exchange in the market, and seek to acquire from the market things which individuals other than themselves have produced. The only connections among individual producers are brought about by comparing the relative value of goods and exchanging them. Rubin (1972) explains that on the market, commodity producers do not appear as personalities with a determined place in the production process, but as proprietors and owners of exchangeable thingsBof commodities.

Marx, like Simmel (1990) who followed him, argues that as exchange value becomes the sole feature governing the value of any given thing, the power of money grows too; that is, the exchange relationship establishes itself as a force externally opposed to producers, and independent of them. The primacy of exchange value furnishes the commodity with an independence from the conditions of its production (labour) thus enabling it to take on an objective character, detached and separate from the subjective conditions of its production.

If the commodity is understood as something that exists as a discreet unit, appearing divorced from the social relations of its production and exchange, then consumption can be described as a process by which these discreet things are re-socialised or singularised back into relations between people. Put simply, if production alienates the producer of the object, thus defining it as a commodity, then consumption involves the de-alienation of the individual and the singularisation of the commodity: conceptualising consumption as a process of commodity singularisation provides a theoretical explanation for many expressions of consuming behaviour. Consumers will singularise commodities in accordance with their own needs and requirements, and so different consumer groups are likely to singularise the same commodity in many different ways. In the previous section we referred to this process as 'appropriation’.

DISCUSSION: CONSUMPTION AS EXCHANGE

In order to understand why consumers are in the market place at all, why they are willing and often eager to invest money in goods and spend time consuming them, which kind of experiences and social gratifications they expect from goods, and why consumption seems intrinsically meaningful to them, this process of de-commodification has to be grasped. It is therefore necessary to transcend the rather limited notion of exchange prevalent in the bulk of marketing theory and consumer research. From a consumer perspective there is more to exchange than economic or market relations, and acquisition is neither the end of exchange nor consumption the counterpart of production. Production and exchange continue outside the realm of markets, beyond the control of commodity producers and after acquisition.

For the sake of clarity, we want to spell out two additional levels of exchange, transcending that of economic relations between sellers and buyers in space as well as time. The first level is that of exchanges between groups of individuals in society (or social space), where consumption is part of a communal activity, serving purposes of social integration and differentiation. By using specific kinds of oodsBe.g. product types or brandsBindividuals express their affiliation to certain groups and their distance to other groups (Douglas 1996, Maffesoli 1996). Consumption is here inseparable from a production of meaning, because the use of goods communicates a specific notion of social significance: my consumption pattern tells others who I am and what I want to be. The second level of additional exchange is the much more secluded and private one between the individual and his artifacts, where consumption is a personal activity, contributing to the construction, maintenance or adjustment of a coherent biography. In continuous interactions in the course of time with goods of his own the individual confirms or deepens his understanding of what the meaning of existence could be. Here consumption might also be said to be productive, because the use of goods contributes to the formation of personal experiences and enhances the opportunities for unique emotions. My way of using consumer objectsBe.g. my talking about them, my private appreciation of them or secret yearning for themBis part of an unfinished and interminable narrative that tells me where I come from, where I long to go, and what I am doing in the meantime. In this discourse, objects become containers of memory, resorts of fantasy and material witnesses of past events.

Beyond the level of economic exchange there are levels of social and of affective exchange, each implying their form of meaning production. Social exchange transcends the market place by moving the commodity from the limited space of bargaining to the broader one of social interaction, whereas affective exchange expands consumption way beyond the punctuality of the moment of acquisition into the often long lasting relationship of lived experience with the object. In this relationship the good is de-commodified. By being used, it is molded in order to fit the exact psychological or physical measures and requirements of its owner. It is worn and perhaps eventually worn out or on the contrary bea(u)tified by patina. In the process, it becomes something of its own, which sets it apart from the ordinary universe of mass produced commodities. By being extraordinary in its own right, the good also becomes crucial to its owner as a symbol (or model) of his unique personality. Its status as property is a reflection of his individual properties, of his character, of inherent qualities and of decisive occurrences, that have shaped him into what he isBand, perhaps more tragically, what he would like to have been.

The two processes outlined in this paper are thus supplementing and enhancing one another as the two sides of de-commodification in an affective exchange between consumer and good. Singularisation is the singling out of a piece of mass production as something quite unique and therefore outstanding, as something of its own. By being singularised, the product is made to fit the consumer. Thereby it becomes the container of personal meanings: a materialisation of emotions and longingsBpast, present or future. Appropriation is in this respect the process of turning an anonymous object into a property, i.e. into a distinctive and often affective object for its owner. By being appropriated, the product is transformed into a proper reflection of its owner, thereby specifying and guiding the inner properties of the consumer. Because appropriation contributes to the consumer’s self-identity, and singularisation to the identification of the good as something specific, the two processes together specify the consumer as owner as well as the good as something of its own. Whereas the first process makes it appropriate for the consumer to own the good, the second one makes the good fit into the consumer’s everyday life as something singular, something not anonymous, something beyond the market. They thus mark out the dual relationship between consumer and good in affective exchange, where the consumer’s singularisation contributes to the meaning of the good, and the appropriation process specifies the meaning of the consumer.

Processes like appropriation and singularisation therefore direct the consumer researcher’s attention towards consuming practices beyond the point of purchase. Practices, which might very well hold more important meanings for the consumer than those brought out by psychological behaviourism and cognitive rationalism. But to grasp these meanings not only requires a rethinking of the linear conception of production and consumption, but also a more comprehensive understanding of the concept of 'exchange’ than the dominant economic one, derived from a traditional producer perspective.

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