Special Session Summary Interrogating Non-Western Consumer Cultures: Are We Really Talking About Postmodern Plurality, Multiple Modernities Or Pre-Modern Transformations?

Ozlem Sandikci, Bilkent University
Guliz Ger, Bilkent University
[ to cite ]:
Ozlem Sandikci and Guliz Ger (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Interrogating Non-Western Consumer Cultures: Are We Really Talking About Postmodern Plurality, Multiple Modernities Or Pre-Modern Transformations?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 463-464.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 463-464



Ozlem Sandikci, Bilkent University

Guliz Ger, Bilkent University

In recent years, the complex, dynamic and multifaceted relationship between consumption and culture received considerable research attention from consumer behavior scholars. These studies highlight the close link between identity construction and negotiation and consumption at both cultural and subcultural levels. Furthermore, because cultures encounter each other more and more due to globalization, consumption practices in non-Western contexts proliferate (Costa and Bamossy 1995; Ger and Belk 1996; Venkatesh 1995).

Examples such as the worldwide taste for Marlboro and Coca Cola, traditionally tea-drinking Chinese embracing Starbucks coffee, beer competing with vodka in Kazakstan, Turkish coffee almost disappearing from modern Turkish cafTs serving espresso and cappuccino, indicate, at first sight, and to an outsider, a "spread" of Western-style consumer culture. So do the prevalence of Saint Clause, Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse in children’s rooms, celebrations of St. Valentine’s Days and Christmas, desirable luxuries such as BMW and Rolex in non-Western societies from China to Turkey.

While these consumption patterns are often viewed as "hybridity" and with a postmodern undertone, the concept of hybridity raises many questions that have not been fully explored yet. For instance, does hybridity involve alternatives to the hegemonic Western/global modern or is it a hegemonic global/postmodern pastiche? Do all cultures create their own modernities? Is globalization as plural as modernization is? Or, is globalization the spread of postmodern plurality, still originating in the West? How does consumer culture relate to and embody both center-periphery relations (and other power relations) and modernization? Can hybridity be understood as postmodernity or as alternative modernities or as premodernity?

The papers in this session explore these questions by investigating consumption cultures of three different non-Western countries, Niger, Belize and Turkey. Arnould’s paper discusses the paradoxical absence of consumer culture in Niger. Outlining various macro-environmental factors that explain this absence, he argues that general models aimed at explaining the effects of globalization on consumption cultures remain too broad to account for the particularities of Third World consumer behavior. Similarly, Wilk proposes to move beyond static polarities such as traditional/modern, local/global, and investigate the plurality of local formulations of modernity and the flowering of alternative consumer cultures. Based on his work in Belize, Wilk agues that common structural similarities underlie the plurality and that postmodern fragmentation is only a partial description of a consumer society. Observing the Turkish consumptionscape, Sandikci and Ger outline four distinct consumption practicesBspectacularist, faithful, natonalist and historicalBthat entail different readings of local/global, east/west, modern/traditional, and different ways of identity construction and negotiation. Although the dynamics and the terms of each of these consumption practices differ, they all point at the multiplicity and problematize any reading of modernity as a predictable and fixed exeprience. Each manuscript introduces instability into binary ways of thinking about modernity and consumption, and draws attention to the cross-fertilizations, power relations, and transformations experienced as a result of cultural and economic globalization.


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

Ger, G. & R. Belk (1996), "I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke: Consumptionscapes in the Less Affluent World", Journal of Consumer Policy, 19, 271-304.

Society, 17(1), 129-137.

Venkatesh, Alladi (1995) "Ethnoconsumerism: A New Paradigm to Study Cultural and Cross-Cultural Consumer Behavior," in Janeen A. Costa and Gary Bamossy eds., Marketing in a Multicultural World: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Cultural Identity, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.



Eric J. Arnould, University of Nebraska

An earlier paper (Arnould 1989) identified three emic aspirational models of consumption in the Niger Republic. One was described as a local mode rooted in village traditions and built upon historical social and cultural patterns of conduct. A second demonstrated links to European standards of consumption behavior, especially those associated with the former colonial power, France. And a third model drew inspiration from behaviors ostensibly rooted in transnational Islamic norms, molded by the behaviors of regional commercial elites. However, these three modes were connected to a dynamic model of the diffusion of innovations and were intended as a cross-sectional analysis of what was argued to be an evolving circumstance. In contributing to a theoretically informed account of the globalization of consumer culture, this paper draws on 25 years of field research to update a model of the pradoxical presence and absence of consumer culture in a particular third world context.

The dynamic and paradoxical presence and absence of consumer culture in Niger is conditioned by a number of macro-environmental factors. First among them, is the slow but steady deterioration in the natural resource base in this arid environment. For example, groundnuts, gum Arabic, natron salt, livestock, thatching grass, medicinal plants, and baobob are a few of the raw materials that became increasingly scarce during the 20th century. By contrast, gold and onions, like uranium and groundnuts before them, have fueled local export booms. Unfortunately, most value accrues to multi-national channel members rather than local producers. Deterioration of the resource base deprives would-be consumers of objects whose value can be realized in global markets.

A second factor that contributes to the paradoxical presence and absence of consumer culture in Niger is the slow but steady de-development of indigenous value-added products, which concomitantly provide the consumer goods for local consumption regimes. Traditional value-added industries have been largely displaced as a consequence first of colonial policies and subsequently, the development of consumer products industries in neighboring Nigeria. Leather harness, iron armaments and hunting implements, silver jewelry, cloth, and other items have slowly disappeared from local markets. Modern value-added industries have struggled with erratic state policies, the IMF structural adjustment program, and weak local distribution systems. Thus, with fewer local manufactures, it becomes less possible to imagine a purely local model of consumption. The gap is filled with a hodge-podge of cheap consumer products produced in every corner of the globalized market, but particularly where production costs are low, and intellectual property controls on brands and advertising strategies weak. Thus, the market is filled with a kind of pastiche of products.

Third, a withdrawal of the Western powers from a direct role in Nigerien economics and politics means there are fewer expatriates and fewer direct and indirect transfer payments to the Nigerien state and to individual Nigeriens through educational grants for domestic and foreign university study, development project employment opportunities, and so on. The state sector too has shrunk as foreign aid has declined, and the state’s weakness is evident in persistent factional political in-fighting. European consumption models become less attractive, perhaps less acceptable, to Nigerien consumers. Tellingly, several recent international fashion shows organized in exotic Nigerien locales by a successful expatriate Nigerien designer have been met with violent demonstrations from Islamic elements. At the same time, however, a relatively free but embattled press asserts a liberal Western model of information freedom that seems to support Appadurai’s ideas about the earthscaping properties of global infoscapes. Local print and radio broadcast a mix of local, regional, and cosmopolitan ideas, musics, and news.

Fourth, a steady or perhaps increasing role for Libya and northern Nigeria in social and economic life of Niger strengthens Islamic models of economic and social behavior and values. This influence is reinforced by the small but steady flow of Nigerien pilgrims to Mecca. Islamic traditions of fatalism, faith, salvation, and charity are woven deeply into the fabric of everyday social relationships in Niger.

Contextually rich ethnographic accounts of the consequences of globalization have yielded an increasing number of accounts of the profusion of dynamic local consumption practices. In Niger, circumstances inhibit the development of a consumer culture recognizable in the models of most theorists of consumer culture. A number of theoretical accounts of the impacts of globalization on consumer culture in marketing have unfortunately tended to develop overly general categorical models that likewise strain to capture circumstances in Niger. My data suggest that terms like postmodern, nostalgic, Western, modern, Creole, and so on are either too closely grounded in the articular phenomenological contextual or paint too many practices with too broad a brush to provide a sound basis for more general theoretical development.

Circumstances seem too diverse in the Third World for a general typology of Third World consumer behavior to be useful. Some promising mid-range theoretical concepts such as heteroglossia borrowed from Bakhtin have proved useful in making sense of some local consumption dynamics. A very few general theoretical ideas have emerged to account for practices across cultures, such as Richard Wilk’s concept of global structures of common difference. This paper aims to help bridge the conceptual space between local ethnography, mid-range concepts, and general theoretical constructs.


Arnould, Eric (1989) "Toward a Broadened Theory of Preference Formation and the Diffusion of Innovations: Cases from Zinder Province, Niger Republic," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (September), 239-267.



Richard Wilk, Indiana University

A good deal of research and writing over the last few decades has challenged the power of grand narratives of modernity, and the polarity of traditional and modern. This contentious literature has hardly disrupted the continued stream of work and thought that uses these traditional polarities, along with newer ones like local vs global. The equation of consumer affluence with western modernity (or postmodernities), as the directional thrust of history, is pervasive in the popular imagination, and in the daily practice of administration and decision making.

In this paper I present an alternative narrative, which is equally encompassing. I am sympathetic to the idea that what we are seeing is a plurality of local formulations of modernity, and the flowering of alternative consumer cultures. But there are also consistent patterns and principles that constrain those developments and give them common structural similarities, despite the myriad differences due to local, historical, and cultural specificity. These common patterns are structured by the social role of consumption activities, a social role whereby consumption is an activity that simultaneously classifies objects, and then classifies the people who classify the objects (to paraphrase Bourdieu). In other words, marketing and consumption are a social process that helps divide people from one another, and helps them form new group identities.

This paper is based on long-term research in the country of Belize. Recently I have returned to this material to try to understand the role that gender has played in marketing and consumption in Belize over the last hundred years. In this history gender has always been an important principle by which people classify goods, and in turn use those goods to classify themselves. But it is equally clear that class and the idea of "race" were more important principles than gender in consumption practices and classfications. More goods were class specific and specific to socially constructed "races" than to gender, especially among non-Europeans.

Within this system, people classified different goods, and thereby certain groups as 'traditional’ and 'modern,’ linking some goods to the past and others to the future. But at any point the content of these categories could change, revealing them as what I have previously called "structures of common difference," a language that flattens many differences to a single common dimension.

In the second half of the 20th century in Belize, gender, age, and education become more important classifying principles than class or race. Furthermore, the flow of fashion within the society changes structure, from an orderly 'top-down’ hierarchy, to a more chaotic system with multiple entry points, and several directions. To a large extent, the growth in consumer culture has involved an increase in the number of categories signaled by goods and consumption practices; crucial moments include the emergence of teenagers as a distinct group, the gendering of food and drink, and the proliferation of consumption holidays and gift practices. Rather than being distinct and discrete 'lifestyle’ niches, each process of market segmentation acts both to group people into new categories (lumping) and dividing old ones (splitting). The consequence is that each person ends up with multiple sets of affiliations and distinctions, finding something in common with everybody, and everything in common with nobody. Postmodern fragmentation, from this perspective, is a partial description of a successful consumer society, in which goods play a much richer and more thorough role in "classifying the classifier." The actual content of the categories, and the variety of goods used to form them, can be expected to vary widely from culture to culture, and over time. The larger long term question though, is what kind of human being, and what kind of society, results when people have been thoroughly and continuously lumped and split through their entire lives.