Special Session Summary Consumption, Identity and Coping Strategies in Times of Crisis

Stephanie O’Donohoe, The University of Edinburgh
Darach Turley, Dublin City University
[ to cite ]:
Stephanie O’Donohoe and Darach Turley (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Consumption, Identity and Coping Strategies in Times of Crisis", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 421-423.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 421-423



Stephanie O’Donohoe, The University of Edinburgh

Darach Turley, Dublin City University

Our lives, identities and relationships are always works-in-progress, and there is growing recognition of the role of consumption activities and experiences in such processes. Events such as divorce, death, unemployment, and political or economic upheaval often involve significant personal loss and place us in liminal states, "betwixt and between" life stages and social roles. In such times of crisis, taken-for-granted aspects of life may be reassessed, appreciated, and perhaps articulated more clearly than before. Thus, research among consumers in crisis may offer insights into the range of meanings associated with consumption in our society, and enhance our understanding of how consumer goods, services and experiences may exacerbate or improve the situation of those in distress.

This session explores consumption practices and meanings among consumers at times of crisis, and how these practices may be used to cope with material and symbolic upheaval in their lives. Drawing on diverse bodies of literature and research methods, the three papers consider consumption roblems and strategies among consumers experiencing a range of crises: Bulgarian consumers experiencing economic hardship in the wake of marketization, long-term unemployed people in Britain, and older widows in Ireland.




Elena Milanova, University of Oxford

Since the marketization of the Bulgarian economy began, the fall in the standard of living has been dramatic: in 1996 real income represented 34% of its 1990 level. Following the sharp devaluation of the Bulgarian currency in February 1997, the average monthly wage in the public sector reached as low as USD 24, to recover again in the subsequent months to USD 82. In such extreme conditions additional sources of income are sought and consumption patterns change, but the desire for symbolic branded goods may in fact be enhanced.

The cultivation of a private household plot of land is emerging as a major coping strategy and is meeting the basic food needs of a significant part of the population. What are the motivating forces that drive nearly half of the mature population in Bulgaria to engage in such a laborious and time-consuming activity? Home-grown and home-preserved food is an effective means for surviving in the adverse conditions of falling incomes and rising unemployment, and apart from the existing cultural tradition of growing and preserving food amongst households from both ends of the income distribution, an accumulated stock of preserved food provides psychological comfort and security for its owners. Further, preserving in jars is used as an effective defence against inflationary price rises, and for avoiding the speculative prices set by fraudulent merchants.

Apart from developing alternative income sources, households are making several concessions and economies of goods and services. This is most noticeably manifested in the drop of consumption of clothing and footwear, alcohol beverages, culture and leisure, and household furniture and maintenance. Individuals are relying less on paid services and conducting repair and other maintenance works by themselves. Substantial economies are realized through reduction of consumption of energy and central heating. The rising share of foodstuffs in the total households’ expenditures (more than 48% in 1996) mirrors the unfavorable economic trends unfolding with the transition of the Bulgarian economy to a free market system.

The changes in the macro-marketing environment add further bewilderment and confusion amongst consumers. The influx of a variety of Western goods, the number and types of retail outlets, the significant price deviations and continuous changes in prices necessitates significant adjustments in the cognitive structures and learned patterns of buying behavior characteristic of pre-reform Bulgaria. Additionally, the fraudulent merchants’ practices of charging significant mark-ups, creation of artificial stock shortages and thus inducing further price surges, and selling fake products from Turkish, Greek and Asian origins bearing the labels of international brands are wide spread phenomena encountered in the Bulgarian marketplace.

This paper considers previous studies on consumer behavior in Eastern Europe (e.g., Feick et al 1995; Shama 1992; Lofman 1993; Ger et al 1993, Shultz II et al 1994). It presents up-to-date secondary data on consumer behavior and some preliminary finding of in-depth interviews and a major quantitative survey into how Bulgarians cope with a marked flooded by fake brands, deceptive advertising, and incompetent and misleading advice from sales personnel. The study describes how consumer skepticism grows and how consumers use cues to guide choice in an environment of significant distortions where country-of-origin, brand reputation, price levels, and store location are not necessarily signals of quality. Th extent to which Bulgarians are economizing on necessities in order to afford symbolic branded goods is explored in relation to Dubois and Duquesne’s (1993) finding that the consumption of symbolic goods depends more on attitudes to cultural change than on income level.


Dubois, B. and Duquesne, P. (1993) "The market for luxury goods: income versus culture", European Journal of Marketing, 27:1, 35-44

Ger, G., Belk, R.W. and Lascu, D.-N. (1993) "The development of consumer desire in marketizing and developing economies: the cases of Romania and Turkey", Advances in Consumer Research, vol 20, 102-107

Lofman, B. (1993), "Consumers in rapid transition: the Polish experience", Advances in Consumer Research, vol 20, 18-22

Feick, L., Coulter, R.H. and Price, L.L. (1995) "Consumers in the transition to a market economy: Hungary, 1989-1992", International Marketing Review, 12:5, 18-34

Kelley, E.J. and Scheewe, L.R. (1975), "Buyer behavior in a stagflation/shortages economy", Journal of Marketing, 39, April, 44-50

Shama, A. (1992) "Transforming the consumer in Russia and Eastern Europe", International Marketing Review, 9:5, 43-59

Shultz II, C.J., Belk, R.W. and Ger, G. (eds) (1994) Consumption in marketizing economies, Research in Consumer Behavior Series, vol 7, London: JAI Press



Richard Elliott, University of Exeter

The growth of structural unemployment in developed economies is giving rise to a new #underclass’ who are denied a share in the material aspects of a consumer society, as their income falls further behind that of the majority of society. The unemployed become marginalized in society and alienated from it and through their relative poverty their alienation may be deepened by their exclusion from the consumption culture which surrounds them and which it "is difficult, if not, impossible to avoid" (Bocock, 1993). Although it has been suggested that through the process of alienation the unemployed may lose the desire and capacity even to dream of consumption, responses to unemployment may involve a temporary increase in consumption behavior as individuals attempt to restore their damaged self identity through symbolic consumption (Wicklund and Gollwitzer, 1982).

Consumption plays a central role in the construction and maintenance of self-identity, as the very concept of the self has become #commodified’, where the development of the self is translated into the pursuit of desired possessions or of a #packaged lifestyle’ (Giddens, 1991). Bauman (1989) suggests that it is inevitable failure in this self-defeating pursuit of possessions which drives the market which "feeds on the unhappiness it generates: the fears, anxieties and the sufferings of personal inadequacy it induces release the consumer behavior indispensable to its continuation." We may have reached the point "where consumption has grasped the whole of life; where all activities .....have become mixed, massaged, climate controlled, and domesticated into the simple activity of perpetual shopping" (Baudrillard, 1988).

However, when faced with threats to their self-esteem and ense of identity, individuals are motivated by a #conservation impulse’, which is a drive to preserve conceptual structures of interpretation and ensure continuity of meaning with past experience. This process of maintaining continuity is crucial to successful adaptation to change and loss:

#the impulses of conservatismBto ignore or avoid events which do not match our understanding, to control deviation from expected behavior, to isolate innovation and sustain the segregation of different aspects of lifeBare all means to defend our ability to make sense of life’ (Marris, 1974, p.11).

The unemployed may be expected to deny aspects of their situation and to construct meaning frameworks which are resilient to environmental threats to their identity and self-esteem. Threats to the self can create anxiety and depression and individuals may seek to escape from this anxiety through the process of #cognitive deconstruction’, which involves the attempted rejection of meaningful, integrative thought. This study explores (through focus group discussions with attendees at a social center for the unemployed) how people unemployed for three years or more are able to maintain a coherent self-identity and a connection with society with little use of the symbolic meanings of consumption posited as all-pervasive by cultural theory.


Baudrillard, J. (1988), "Consumer Society," in M. Poster (Ed.), Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bauman, Z. (1989), Legislators and Interpreters, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bocock, R. (1993), Consumption. London: Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1991), Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Marris, P. (1974), Loss and Change. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wicklund, R. and Gollwitzer, P. (1982), Symbolic Self Completion. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.



Darach Turley, Dublin City University

Stephanie O’Donohoe, The University of Edinburgh

Death is nothing at all...I am I, and you are you.

Whatever we were to each other, that we still are.

Henry Scott Holland, 1847-1918

However reassuring this sentiment seems on first hearing, the words belie a great difficulty experienced by the bereaved. Our identities and relationships are essentially works in progress, but death, as Heidegger reminds us, extinguishes, totalizes and completes the identity-shaping process (Turley 1997). Thus, adding to the burden of grief, those left behind have the responsibility of constructing a serviceable account of the dead person, their relationship to him or her, and how the loss has changed their own lives and identities.

Curasi et al (1997) have examined how those facing death may begin to transfer consumption meanings through the disposition of their possessions. This paper considers consumption meanings among those who are bereaved. It reviews the literature ongrief, mourning and bereavement, and addresses the question posed by Derrida (1988) on the death of Roland Barthes:

Living, Roland Barthes cannot be reduced to that which each or all of us can think, believe, know and already recall of him. But once dead, might he be so reduced? No, but the chances of the illusion will be greater and lesser, different in any case

(Derrida 1988, p 273)

While previous work (Belk 1988; Gentry et al 1995) has addressed goods and places associated with the dead as "sacred", "shrines" or "taboo", we build on the notion of consumption as text (Hirschman and Holbrook 1992), and discourse theory (Fairclough 1995) to explore how certain consumption experiences among bereaved people may constitute not only representations of the dead, but also constructions of their identities and relationships. We consider Harvey’s (1996) argument that storytelling (to ourselves and others) has a vital role to play in coming to terms with the death of those we love. Extending this perspective, we use a framework drawn from the rhetorical discourse literature to examine a sample of In Memoriam newspaper notices placed by older Irish widows. We present a number of themes from our analysis, arguing that these notices are consolatory rhetorical texts, which serve to negotiate ongoing relationships with those who have died.


Belk, Russell (1988) "Possessions and the extended self", Journal of Consumer Research, 15, September, 139-168

Curasi, Carolyn F., Price, Linda L., and Arnould, Eric J. (1997) "A meaning transfer model of the disposition decisions of older consumers", Association for Consumer Research European Conference, Stockholm, June.

Derrida, Jacques (1988), "The deaths of Roland Barthes", trans Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Nass, in Hugh Silverman (ed), Continental philosophy 1: philosophy and non-philosophy since Merleau-Ponty, Routledge: New York, 259-297

Fairclough, Norman (1995) Media discourse, London: Edward Arnold

Harvey, John H.(1996) Embracing their memory: loss and the social psychology of storytelling, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. and Holbrook, Morris B. (1992) Postmodern consumer research: the study of consumption as text, Newbury Park: Sage

Gentry, James W., Kennedy, Patricia F., Paul, Catherine, and Hill, Ronald Paul (1995) "Family transitions during grief: discontinuities in household consumption patterns", Journal of Business Research, 34, 67-79

Turley, Darach (1997) "A postcard from the very edge: mortality and marketing", in Stephen Brown and Darach Turley (eds), Consumer research: postcards from the edge, London: Routledge, 350-377