Special Session Summary Mysterious Sights: Consumption Creolization and Identity Construction in a Postmodern World

Ozlem Sandikci, Bilkent University
[ to cite ]:
Ozlem Sandikci (2001) ,"Special Session Summary Mysterious Sights: Consumption Creolization and Identity Construction in a Postmodern World", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 143-145.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 143-145



Ozlem Sandikci, Bilkent University

As a result of increasing flows of goods, money, people, technology and information across borders, cultures are encountering more of each other today, outcome of which is the creation of new globalized and hybridized forms of consumer cultures and consumption strategies and practices. In line with this development, the issue of identity construction through consumption in a globalizing world has started to receive an increasing research attention (e.g., Costa and Bamossy 1995; Ger and Belk 1996; Pe±aloza 1994). This session contributes to this field of inquiry by examining identity negotiation and consumption experiences of three different consumer subcultures in three different parts of the world.

The highlighting of the tensions between West/global/centre and East/local/peripheral, as they are experienced within the domain of consumption, underlie the integrative rationale of the session. The modernist accounts of culture view cultural forms as exhibiting a functionally integrated and internally consistent order (Luke 1996), and regards hybridization resulting from contacts with exogenous cultural images, meanings, and consumption practices as the cntamination of authentic cultural forms (Friedman 1995). In contrast, a postmodernist reading of culture challenges the dichotomic understanding of local versus global, East versus West, and traditional versus contemporary, and adapts a critical stance that emphasizes culture and consumption as a dynamic constellation of diverse practices and transnational flows of meanings, styles, conventions, etc. (Appadurai 1990; Firat and Venkatesh 1995). In this view the essentialist and modernist conceptions of culture are displaced by notions such as creolization and hybridization which enable exploration of how goods and meanings are appropriated and reconfigured, sometimes in paradoxical ways, to help people to negotiate their identities and consumption experiences.

The three papers offer perspectives from various consumption subcultures in Singapore, Turkey and the United States, and discuss how multiple tensions get played out in the consumption domain as consumers negotiate and craft identities in fluid contexts that are informed by the complex dynamics of the authentic/traditional/local and the new/contemporary/global. Tambyah and Subrahmanyan explore the experiences of American expatriate wives living in Singapore by analyzing their perceptions of their identities as expatriate wives and the consumption practices they engage in while managing conflicting emotions resulting from their foreign and privileged status. The results of in-depth interviews reveal a wide spectrum of consumption strategies at work, and suggest that an expatriate wife is a unique social construction that is infused with multiple tensions between the local and the global. Thompson and Troester explore the natural health consumer subculture in the United States and discuss two key forms of hybridization that they have identified as operating in consumers’ narratives. The first concerns the syncretic mixing of postmodern and countermodernist cultural outlooks; the second involves an attempt to synthesize Eastern thought and cosmologies with a more goal-directed and pragmatic Western outlook. The in-depth interviews reveal that consumers’ motivations and goals are uniquely constructed in specific hybridized contexts and exhibit distinct constellations of meanings, ideals, tensions and symbolic connections to specific consumption practices. Finally, Sandikci and Ger investigate the hybrid fashion style that has recently emerged among a sub-group of young, educated and urban religious women in Turkey, which mixes Islamic dressing codes with Western clothing patterns. They discuss the dynamics of the fusion of Western and Islamic fashion styles vis-a-vie the notions of identity, fashion and consumption politics through analyses of daily practices and the marketing context that institutionalizes and legitimizes these practices through retail outlets, fashion shows, catalogues and advertisements.

The session elaborates on the heterogenous and heterogenizing aspects of cultural life in a global world. Each manuscript relates to how a subculture experiences the wide reaching phenomenon of globalization. The diversity of the subcultures investigated offers opportunities for noticing any similarities and differences in the consumers’ experience of global and local forces/tensions. The papers motivate a discussion on the notions of culture, subculture and identity politics at the intersection of the local and the global, and offer insights into how consumer research theories can be adapted to better address the socio-cultural transformations precipitated by cultural and economic globalization.


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Costa, Janeen A. and Gary J. Bamossy, eds. (1995), Marketing in a Multicultural World: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cultural Identity, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995) "Liberatory Postmodernism and the

Reenchantment of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 22(3), 239-267.

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Consumptionscapes of the #Less Affluent World’," Journal of Consumer Policy, 19, 271-304.

Luke, Timothy (196), "Identity, Modernity, Globalization and Detraditionalization in Postmodern Time-Space Compression," in Detraditionalization, eds. P. Heelas, S. Lash, P. Morris, London: Blackwell, 109-133.

Pe±aloza, Lisa N. (1994), "Atravesando Fronteras/Border Crossings: A Critical Ethnographic Exploration of the Consumer Acculturation of Mexican Immigrants," Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (June), 35-54.



Siok Kuan Tambyah and Saroja Subrahmanyan, National University of Singapore

To date, most research on expatriates, especially in international human resource management, have focused on facilitating and managing cross-cultural adjustment (e.g., Black et al 1991). Studies have shown that the satisfaction of spouses (mainly wives) is one of the most crucial factors influencing the success of an expatriate assignment. However, the voices of these women have remained largely muted. In this paper, through in-depth interviews with 12 American expatriate wives, we highlight the lived experiences of these women as they partake of the opportunities available to them in a globalized world. Specifically, we examine their perceptions of their identities as expatriate wives, and how they manage possibly conflicting emotions with regard to their foreign and privileged status through consumption choices and practices. The paper extends Thompson and Tambyah’s (1999) work on the narratives of dwelling by exploring the more feminized aspects of transnational experiences in terms of how American expatriate wives embrace or reject specific consumption practices in crafting their identities.

The term "expatriate wife" embodies an array of gendered, classed and nationalistic ideologies. Expatriate wives in Singapore are often cast as rich, privileged, foreign women (primarily Caucasian) who accompany their husbands on their overseas assignments. They are perceived as spending their time and money shopping and having afternoon tea with women friends who are in similar situations, and also indulging in conspicuous consumption (e.g., Asian artifacts and travel to exotic destinations). These stereotypical images hark from a colonialist era where expatriates enjoyed handsome compensation packages in return for their expertise and willingness to work in "hardship" conditions. Although compensation packages are not as generous as in the past, expatriate families presently in Singapore can usually afford to live on the husband’s salary while the wife stays at home.

In consumer research, various consumption-related phenomena have been explored with regard to transnational movements of people. For example, there has been some interest in consumer learning or consumer acculturation across cultural divides (Pe±aloza 1994). Studies on the meanings of things have also yielded insights ino how possessions are significant containers and conduits of personal and cultural meanings for people on the move (Mehta and Belk 1991; Gilly 1995). In addition to finding out what possessions expatriates brought over, we also examined the meanings of possessions acquired here. This proved to be a fruitful venture as there are many retailers and also specific retail locations in Singapore that catered to expatriates. The participants’ narratives revealed a localized form of "expatriate consumption", especially in the consumption of furniture and furnishings. The women experimented with blending both American and Asian furniture and styles in their current homes in Singapore. They also exhibited a future orientation in deciding what to purchase, often planning how to incorporate Asian furniture into their homes when they eventually return to America.

Our participants’ narratives also revealed a wide spectrum of strategies in managing their transient status as expatriate wives. For some, there was an underlying tension between living the privileged expatriate lifestyle and what they were used to doing back home in suburban America. Although most of the expatriate wives we interviewed had maids, there were heroic attempts to re-enact their juggling lifestyles (Thompson 1996), that is, to continue to maintain their cultural ideal of the "suburban mum". This desire to take charge of their lives was fraught with difficulties in a different cultural and consumer context. Although most of the women interviewed had been in Singapore for at least a year, they still experienced frustration at not being able to do things the American way, that is, "get everything in one store" or "do everything in 15 minutes". This frustration was compounded by language barriers, logistical hurdles, unfulfilled expectations of customer service, etc. More extreme forms of resistance such as the refusal to employ a maid were also manifested in our participants’ narratives.

Alternatively, there were some women who saw their sojourn in Singapore as an opportunity to experience a more comfortable and cosmopolitan lifestyle that was not possible back home in the United States. They attempted to learn more about the Asian culture, and they enjoyed another form of "freedom"Cthe choice to stay at home and look after the children. Others relished their participation in what they viewed as exotic consumption behaviors such as purchasing Asian artifacts (e.g., carpets, teak furniture, and antiques) and shopping and recreational trips around the region. These consumption activities were viewed as "compensation" for the inconveniences they had to endure as part of their cross-cultural displacement. Their purchases were also used to authenticate their experiences in Asia and to serve as conversation pieces back home in America. However, this eager anticipation of sharing their experiences in Asia was somewhat dampened by the concern that some of their American friends might not be "cosmopolitan" enough to appreciate their stories.

Interestingly, there was also a distinction among American expatriate wives themselves. Some clearly did not associate themselves with those who left the household chores and care of the children to their maids while they engaged in their own hobbies, parties and travels. Some were careful to emphasize that their spending patterns were not as materialistic or conspicuous as the other expatriate wives who bought expensive carpets and teak furniture, and went to 5-star resorts at exotic vacation spots. They also did not want to be perceived as "tais-tais", the local equivalent of rich, female socialites.

Being an expatriate wife is an uneasy and potentially identity-threatening role for which no amount of cross-cultural training would be deemed sufficient. An expatriate wife is also a unique social construction that is infused with multiple tensions between the local and the foreign. For the women in our paper, it meant coming to terms with a largely distorted and transient reality that challenged their long-standing assumptions and treasured beliefs relating to gender, class and nationality.


Black, J. Stewart, Mark Mendenhall and Gary Oddou (1991), "Toward a Comprehensive Model of International Adjustment: An Integration of Multiple Theoretical Perspectives," Academy of Management Review, 16, 2, 291-317.

Gilly, Mary C. (1995), "The Consumer Acculturation of Expatriate Americans," Advances in Consumer Research, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Vol. 22, p.506-510.

Mehta, Raj and Russell W. Belk (1991), "Artifacts, Identity, and Transition: Favorite Possessions of Indians and Indian Immigrants to the United States," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March), 398-411.

Pe±aloza, Lisa N. (1994), "Atravesando Fronteras/Border Crossings: A Critical Ethnographic Exploration of the Consumer Acculturation of Mexican Immigrants," Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (June), 35-54.

Thompson, Craig J. (1996), "Caring Consumers: Gendered Consumption Meanings and the Juggling Lifestyle," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (March), 388-407.

Thompson, Craig J. and Siok Kuan Tambyah, (1999), "Trying to be Cosmopolitan," Journal of Consumer Research, 26 (December), 214-241.



Craig J. Thompson and Maura Troester, University of Wisconsin

Thompson and Troester present interpretivist results from depth interviews with thirty-three natural health consumers. Their paper focuses on two key forms of hybridization that operate within these consumer narratives. The first concerns the syncretic mixing of postmodern and countermodernist cultural outlooks. Drawing from the work of anthropologist Emily Martin (1994), they argue that natural health discourses and practices offer a prominent marketplace manifestation of a postmodern ethos emphasizing the cultural ideals of adaptability, complexity, and systemic interconnectedness. They show that these postmodern ideals function as an overarching microcultural frame-of-reference that incorporates and revitalizes a nexus of countermodernist discourses. This latter family of discourses have long opposed the modernist valorization of science and technology by proclaiming the inherent primacy of art, nature, and spiritual mystery in human experience (Lears 1994). This postmodern-countermodernist fusion provides a robust network of collective meanings from which natural health consumers can understand their health conditions, their power relations to the medical establishment, their identities, and their abilities to cope with the existential dilemmas posed by conditions of postmodern life (e.g., Giddens 1991).

The second form of hybridization involves an attempt to synthesize Eastern thought and cosmologies with a more goal-directed and pragmatic Western outlook. Unlike the postmodern-countermodern hybridization, this juxtaposition of Eastern and Western traditions encodes salient points of contradiction that consumers try to negotiate through four major emic themes or strategies, which Thompson and Troester discuss and illustrate.

They conclude by making the theoretical case that, in the age of postmodernity, consumer motivations can no longer be effectively conceptualized as general, pychological states. Rather, postmodern motivations and goals are uniquely constructed in specific hybridized, consumer micro-cultural contexts and exhibit distinct constellations of meanings, ideals, tensions, and symbolic connections to specific consumption practices. Accordingly, these pivotal consumer research constructs need to be theorized in culturally nuanced terms that address the dialogical interplays between consumers’ personal histories and the micro-cultures of consumption relevant to their identities.


Giddens, Anthony (1991), Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lears, T.J. Jackson (1994), No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 2nd Edition, Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, Emily (1994) Flexible Bodies: The Role of Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of Aids, Boston, MA: Beacon.