O Self, Are Thou One Or Many? An Empirical Study of How Consumers Construct and Perceive the Self

Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York
[ to cite ]:
Stephen J. Gould (2001) ,"O Self, Are Thou One Or Many? An Empirical Study of How Consumers Construct and Perceive the Self", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 233-234.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 233-234


Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York

Concern with the self is a major element of consumer behavior in terms of constructing one’s identity and embodying and/or signifying it through the use of goods. Moreover, it has been widely recognized in this regard and investigated by numerous consumer researchers (e.g., Belk 1988; Sirgy 1982). That said, major issues surrounding the self and such related concepts as identity and self-concept remain abundant and open. One major issue involves the very definition of that self and how the perspective taken on it informs consumer behavior. Much of the current controversy is driven by postmodern thought which suggests that even the #inner’ self and its conceptualization are under assault by the disintermediation and shattering of social structures. These disintermediating forces it is argued render the self as fragmented, transitory, or even as non-existent (Giddens 1991; Hall 1992). Yet, contradictory perspectives from other disciplines or conceptualizations, seem to indicate that there is something labeled "self" which can be viewed as central, cohesive and well recognized in its various aspects by everyday individuals (Hall 1992).

Surprisingly, there has been little empirical study in consumer research (or apparently anywhere else) to back up the various postmodern (perhaps superficial) theoretical claims made about the self (cf. Kellner 1995). Postmodern thought in that regard is often just that, thought, however informed it might be by the brilliance of the thinker and infused with the situating of his or her understanding. Indeed, a leading postmodern critic of the academic perspective on the everyday, Maffesoli (1996), suggests that there is an elitism among intellectuals that tends to either ignore or judgmentally disfigure the perspectives of ordinary people. This seems to create a potential gap between theoretical and empirically-driven accounts of the self that needs to be considered and which this paper will address.


To conduct this study, an open-ended protocol applying written responses was used to provide revelatory consumer narratives (Gould 1997; Helgeson 1994; Holbrook 1987; Hunter 1983; Rook 1987). There were 20 participants in the study, ranging in age from 20 to 34. They were drawn from an undergraduate marketing class at a large Northeastern U.S. university. Fourteen were female and 6 were male. They were asked to write their responses to three questions within a period of two weeks and were given classroom credit. The questions focus on (1) defining the self in the informants own words, (2) considering whether there is "one central self, many selves, no one self, or even any self at all," and (3) indicating whether the self stays the same or changes.


The foregoing questions served as a priori themes which are considered below. Additional emergent aspects were uncovered in the interpretive process.

Definitions of the Self

In summary and conclusion, the informants tended to define the self in commonly recognized terms, suggesting that longstanding or modernist accounts of the self are embedded in their collective consciousness.

One or Many Selves?

The main theoretical issue in this paper concerns how consumers perceive the self in terms of its various proposed characterizations as being unified, manifold or even non-existent. Most tended to focus on one self. Beyond these general polarized views, the self-narratives revealed on an emergent basis more information related to the central-multiple self issue than the simple dichotomy between the two can account for.

Mixed View: Distinctions Concerning Aspects of Self. Some informants managed to view the self as some sort of admixture of both one and multiple aspects.

Appearances. The self as an intangible must in the view of a number of informants be expressed, manifested or given certain types of appearances. However, such appearances may belie something else that is hidden, i.e., they are suggestive of the concepts of the private or inner self and the public self (Triandis 1989).

Self as Difference. There was also some evidence in the narratives supportive of the idea of a unique self. Such a self is perhaps a central idea in various domains of research, ranging from psychology with its focus on individual differences to various phenomenological and interpretive approaches that to various degrees privilege idiosyncrasies. For example, Hallowell (1955) suggested that people viewed the self as representing something different from the self of others. Given this history, this element would also seem to be a more longstanding one.

Does the Self Change or Stay the Same?

The informants in this study strongly recognize the force of the evolution of the self. Moreover, while their perspectives serve to reinforce the answers given to the other questions in this study, they also add an emergent element that is revealing about what we may call consumer self processes. These processes are conveyed as lay psychological theories about the self and its workings. In summarizing the opinions of the informants on the self and change, the self evidently changes. But what is it that changes? Is it a central self or many selves The answer would seem to be for most is that the central self changes and yet somehow endures.


This paper has not answered nor has it sought to fully consider the philosophical, metaphysical or spiritual issues surrounding the self, at least per se. Moreover, there are a number of inherent limitations in the study, including the sample, the particular questions asked, and the definitional-theoretical aspects of the self considered. Nonetheless, several conclusions stand out. First, while the self is stretched through all sorts of turgid gyrations in postmodern thought, it is seen in far more familiar, everyday, and perhaps more #coherent’ terms by everyday consumers. Second, there are many perspectives which provide insight into the construction of the self. The present study is suggestive of them but further theoretical development and empirical research is badly needed, especially in terms of the following two areas: (1) the discourse of the selfChowever, the self is described, it remains a central element of the lives and discourse of the informants in this study and (2) distinctions concerning the selfCthe self may or may not be multiple, but it also appears to be multidimensional in its construction as indicated by the informants in this study. They did not use that term but did speak of the "inner self" (as opposed to the outer or public self), "many sides," or "facets."

Third, the results of this study indicate some variance from etic theories of the postmodern. While the extent and nature of this variance are open to discussion, it does drive a major concern to consider when formulating theories and inscribing them in our consumer research narrative. It may indicate that we have an imposed etic theory which simply means that we have applied a misconstrued theory and taken it as supported (Yang and Bond 1990), i.e., a theory of the self rooted in sectors of academe which is at odds with one derived from everyday consumer culture. Therefore, we also need to consider the emic perspectives of consumers when investigating theorized postmodern phenomena. Fourth, the immediate implications for postmodern theory suggest that we consider the basis of the postmodern versus longstanding-modernist contesting of the metanarrative of the self (Gould and Lerman 1998; Thompson and Hirschman 1995) in terms of what Derrida (1988) calls undecidability. Thus, while most of the informants indicated they thought there was one central self, they still differed in emphasis from one another, and moreover, the narratives of those who suggested there were multiple selves or some mixed views even more strongly suggest this undecidability.


This study has identified some issues in the study and conception of the self that consumer researchers need to consider further. Most notably, they need to rethink how their etic metanarratives may not stand up under the deconstructive scrutiny of emic considerations, especially where postmodern thought is concerned. While there are probably as many discourses of the self as there are individuals, there does appear to something called the "self" that many, if not most consumers reify and hold as central.

(Note: references for the citations in this text as well as the full list of references are provided in the full paper which is available from the author)