A Review of Formal Theories of Consumer Socialization

Deborah L. Roedder, (student), Northwestern University (student), Northwestern University
Nicholas M. Didow, Northwestern University
Bobby J. Calder,
ABSTRACT - Consumer socialization research presently overrelies on Piaget's work as a source of theory. There is a need to bring other formal theories to bear. However, in using other theories researchers must be aware that socialization theories vary along a number of dimensions. This paper provides a framework for comparing formal theories. Three classes of theories are described in terms of this framework.
[ to cite ]:
Deborah L. Roedder, Nicholas M. Didow, and Bobby J. Calder (1978) ,"A Review of Formal Theories of Consumer Socialization", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 528-534.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 528-534


Deborah L. Roedder (student), Northwestern University

Nicholas M. Didow (student), Northwestern University

Bobby J. Calder, Northwestern University


Consumer socialization research presently overrelies on Piaget's work as a source of theory. There is a need to bring other formal theories to bear. However, in using other theories researchers must be aware that socialization theories vary along a number of dimensions. This paper provides a framework for comparing formal theories. Three classes of theories are described in terms of this framework.


As an area for empirical investigation, consumer socialization has largely developed in response to public policy issues surrounding children. Under the rubric of consumer socialization, research has mostly focused on age-related differences in children's attention perception, and evaluation of television commercials (e.g. Wartella and Etna, 1974; Ward, 1972; Ward, Levinson and Wackman, 1972; Blatt, Spencer, and Ward, 1972). Some attention has also been directed toward the interaction between parents and children in purchasing situations and the influence of the family in contributing to the development of the child's consumer skills (e.g. Ward and Wackman; Ward, Wackman and Wartella, 1977).

Since the focal point of research has been similarly public policy questions, the theoretical development of consumer socialization has proceeded in a rather ad hoc manner. Most investigators have adopted Piaget's theory of cognitive development as an explanatory framework. There has been little questioning of the suitability of Piagetian theory to the explanation of advertising effects, let alone its usefulness as the sole approach to investigating the wide range of phenomena which should be included under consumer socialization.

While there has been occasional criticism of the reliance on Piagetian theory (e.g. Calder, Robertson, and Rossiter, 1976), there has been almost no work exploring alternative theoretical sources. To date only Robertson and Feldman (1976) have addressed this critical issue.

As a starting point toward a more complete theoretical approach, Robertson and Feldman (1976) suggest that the area of consumer socialization should be divided into component problem areas which can then be matched with various theoretical approaches. They argue that available theories, such as learning theory and psychoanalytic theory, should be analyzed according to their problem orientation and utilized for the particular research problem under investigation.

As a blueprint for theoretical development, however, Robertson and Feldman's proposal offers a rather limited, unidimensional analytical framework Although the proposal documents the overreliance on Piagetian notions and correctly identifies the need for incorporating alternative theories into consumer socialization research, the basis for analyzing these alternative approaches is limited to problem orientation. However, since the classical approaches to socialization were developed and extended by researchers in different disciplines, the resulting theories differ on a multidimensional basis. The theoretical formulations vary not only in problem orientation, but in their basic orientation regarding socialization as a phenomenon.

The following discussion provides a multi-dimensional framework for analyzing alternative formal theories. The analytical framework developed is then used to compare these classes of formal theory. The objective is to go beyond problem orientation to specify more precisely the relevance of formal theory to consumer socialization research.


The selection of a particular formal theory directs, and thus limits, the questions which a researcher can pose and seek to answer. This selection should be made with full appreciation of the dimensions upon which formal theories of socialization vary.

These dimensions are identified and organized here in a framework consisting of the following major categories: (1) the "process" orientation; (2) the "content" orientation; and (3) the "goal" orientation. These three categories and their specific dimensions are summarized in Figure 1 and explained in the discussion which follows.



Process Orientation. Socialization theories differ in how they depict the basic process of socialization. After a review of the socialization literature, Zigler and Child (1969) suggest that one of the most fundamental differences with regard to current theory is the view of the individual as a passive or active participant in the socialization process. One can view socialization as a process whereby social forces are applied to an individual or as a collaboration between society and the individual. A related issue concerns the control over the progression of socialization. That is, whether external conditions exert control over socialization or whether internal processes largely determine the progress made in socialization.

Content Orientation. Although the majority of socialization literature focuses on children and adolescents, some attempt has been made to study socialization at later stages in the life cycle (cf. Brim, 1966). In terms of our analysis, formal theories vary in their ability to encompass socialization processes at different stages in the temporal life cycle.

Another distinction can be drawn between perspectives that approach socialization as either cumulative or transitional in nature. Cumulative approaches assume that socialization follows some definitive path, that is, what has been learned in the past is a pre-condition or contributes heavily to future socialization. In contrast, transitional approaches view the socialization process as a less progressive movement from a beginning to an identifiable end.

A final content difference in formal theories is their emphasis upon individual differences versus group homogeneity in the socialization process. Although this dichotomy is most apparent in psychological approaches as opposed to sociological/anthropological approaches, some distinction is still possible in the viewpoints analyzed here.

Goal Orientation. The most visible difference between theories in terms of goal orientation is the focus of the conceptualization in terms of an explanatory versus descriptive approach. The descriptive approach tends to identify changes in the individual as a result of socialization, whereas the explanatory approach concerns itself with the actual process of change.

A less definitive distinction can be drawn between theories that offer a complete approach to socialization as opposed to those that offer only a fragmentary perspective. In this analysis, a complete approach is described as one capable of explaining the socialization process across a wide variety of situations. Fragmentary approaches are theories which provide a description or explanation of the process in limited contexts.

The final dimension is decision orientation. That is, whether or not the process of socialization involves the conceptualization of the individual as a decision maker.

The dimensions within each of the three major categories of the framework are more fundamental than any orientation toward specific kinds of problems. We will attempt to show that these dimensions have important implications for consumer socialization research. Three important classes of formal theory are analyzed in turn using the dimensions. These classes of theories are selected by the authors because, in the case of cognitive development theory, prominence in extant investigations of consumer socialization or, with regard to the latter two classes, because of their promise for future research. Other, more marginal theories (e.g. social anthropology, psychoanalysis, psychoanalytically oriented social anthropology, normative-maturational, genetic and constitutional) are described in Zigler and Child (1969).


The orthodox position of cognitive development theory is best represented by the work of Jean Piaget (cf. Piaget, 1950; Piaget, 1968; Piaget and Inhelder, 1969). Piaget's theory of cognitive development is based in his paradigm of the intellectually mature human. To Piaget the fully developed person represents a paradigm of universal order and equilibrium between the interactive parts and the individual as a whole (Maier). Thus, development is a function of the drive for equilibrium and equilibrium depends on activity and experience. The active view of the person continuously interacting with the environment in search of equilibrium is the basic Piagetian model. This interaction, which is controlled primarily by the individual, identifies previously unknown contradictions and absences in the cognitive structures of the person (Zigler and Child, 1969). The person seeks a balance with the environment, yet such a balance can only be obtained by a new equilibrium through the processes of assimilation and accommodation.

In this view, the environment of the neonate is initially undifferentiated. How the social and ideational environment becomes differentiated for an individual in cognitive development is a result of the socialization of the person (Maier, 1969) or the manifestation of phylogenetic drives as experienced during the formative cognitive years of early life. The person seeks to adopt, or to find equilibrium in the environment, by assimilation of events into the cognitive structure, while simultaneously accommodating the cognitive structure to the requirements of the events (Calder et al., 1976). The interpretation of the events as one would conceive them (assimilation) and the modification of the cognitive structure by the actual event (accommodation) are complementary cognitive processes. The interaction of these two processes over the stages of cognitive development is the source of the summary description of Piaget's theory of the person as "ever changing, ever the same."

The content of cognitive development theory hypothesizes a cumulative view of changing cognitive structure and behaviors, as opposed to any transition content. Piaget's concern for cognitive development spans the chronological range from birth to cognitive maturity, which usually occurs in late adolescence. The emphasis is upon the typical individual, rather than individual differences, groups, institutions, or cultures.

Cognitive development theory hypothesizes "unity in continuity'' (Maier, 1969, p.4) in both quantitative and qualitative behaviors. Existing cognitive structures and behaviors are highly dependent on previous ones. The developmental schedule of Piaget represents a cumulative series of sequential phases in which each later phase is related to previous acquisitions. The qualitative differences in the person's cognitive processes are differentiated into Piaget's multiple stages (cf. Piaget and Inhelder, 1969). These stages of different cognitive processes do not vary in sequence. One's progress through the stages may be accelerated or retarded only somewhat by various environmental factors of socialization (Kohlberg, 1971). Another perspective of this cumulative process is that it represents a continuous unfolding of generalization and discrimination, with each cognitive structure representing to some degree a repetition of the structures of previous stages in a slightly different form (Maier, 1969). This unfolding continues until the point of developmental maturity. Cognitive developmental maturity is achieved in most cases in the mid-to-late adolescent years (Piaget and Inhelder, 1969).

Piaget focuses on the development of cognitive thought, or the intellectual aspect of personality development, as opposed to affective or behavioral development. In this respect Piaget's theory of cognitive development is not intended to be a complete explanation of the concepts one would include in the nominalogical network of socialization.

The theory of Piaget is a description of marked developmental changes in cognitive processing over a fixed succession of stages (Zigler and Child, 1969). These changes include both qualitative reorganization of cognitive processes over the stages and the emergence of new cognitive structures in each stage. Developmental changes are different from maturational changes. The former reflect sociopsychological changes, while the latter represent only biological changes and organic growth. The successive stages of cognitive development are identifiable by developmental phases of readiness and acquisition, not by maturational phases or chronological time intervals (Maier, 1969). From the chronological perspective, however, the age at which a child achieves a particular stage is a function of previous cognitive ability and subsequent experiences (Reese and Lipsett, 1970).

The focus of Piaget's theory of cognitive development is not necessarily that of decision-making. Rather, Piaget is concerned with the individual's competencies and limitations with regard to comprehension of a situation. Cognitive development theory does not directly focus on normative choice situations which are one of the concerns of traditional consumer socialization research. On the contrary, the emphasis of Piaget is on those constructs of cognitive processes which are related to general, hypothetical levels of intellectual development.

The boundaries of cognitive development theory identified by the analytical framework in Figure 2 are cause for concern in many respects. The most severe limitation of Piaget's theory is its restricted emphasis upon childhood and early adolescence. By strict adherence to this perspective, we deny many areas of potential interest throughout an individual's life, such as consumer socialization issues connected with stages of family formation and dissipation, the development of family consumer "decision-making styles," and the "retirement community." If notable changes in consumer behavior occur within the individual's lifetime, a theory of consumer socialization should be capable of encompassing such phenomena.



A related problem concerns the viewpoint of consumer socialization as cumulative in nature. This of course stems from Piaget's perspective of cognitive development as occurring in stages towards the final goal of the individual's equilibrium with the physical world. For the purposes of an adequate formation of consumer socialization, it seems appropriate to include transitional learning in the theoretical perspective. Certainly we cannot ignore the identity transformations that individuals undergo during their lifetime, which have implications for changing consumer perspectives. An example is the transformation from a teenager to a bachelor to a husband to a retiree. Because Piaget is interested in the physical environment, it also becomes problematic to deal with the symbolic content marketing phenomena, such as product images.

The adaptation of Piaget's cognitive development theory in consumer socialization research focuses investigation upon the child's limitation in sensation and cognitive perceptual ability. Cognitive development theory addresses long-term sociopsychological changes. It is of marginal help in explaining the specifics of cognitive responses (Calder et al, 1976), short-term fluctuations (Robertson and Feldman, 1976), or the affective aspects of intelligence and behavior (Robertson and Feldman, 1976).

Finally, Piaget's theory does not address the question of discriminative interpretation of the environment and does not explicitly view the individual as a "decision-maker''. The child is viewed as searching to understand the environment. Perceptual boundness is included in the analysis, yet the individual's selective processing of information is characterized as a cognitive deficiency rather than a decision process that is so important in an information processing perspective. Only if one recognizes the limitations of process, content, and goal, can Piaget's theory of cognitive development be of benefit in consumer socialization research.


Almost all definitions of socialization share at least one common element. This general element is variously expressed in verb form as "acquires," "develops," or transmits". What the element means is that socialization results in a relatively permanent change in the behavior of an individual. The generic term for the relatively permanent change is "learning". Where the unanimity of "learning" is lost, though, is with regard to the differences in process, content, and goal of the various formal theories of learning.

This section reviews the general characteristics of formal connectionist learning theories and formal cognitive learning theories. Each theory individually and in combination makes a substantial contribution to understanding the general area of socialization. Because of the breadth and all-inclusive nature of the construct of learning, some authors suggest that socialization is synonymous with a social learning process. This perspective combines psychology, sociology, and anthropology into the traditional research of socialization (Goslin, 1971).

Hill (1971) argues that the field of learning theory may be initially divided into connectionist theories and cognitive theories. Learning theories in the connectionist tradition are represented by the stimulus-response contiguity theories of Watson and Guthrie and by the reinforcement theories of Thorndike, Skinner, and Miller. The theories of Lewin and Tolman represent the traditional cognitive positions. More contemporary connectionist shifts toward the cognitive positions are represented in theories by Spence and Mowrer. Cognitive social learning theories are formal attempts at synthesis of the two historic divisions.

Hill (1971) identifies the boundaries of the division of connectionist and cognitive when one theory is taken independently of the other to explain learning in humans. On the one hand, when dealing with humans it is probably myopic to refer to all learning in the connectionist mode of the increased or decreased probability that certain responses will occur. Human responses can only be understood in the context of beliefs, attitudes and goals. Likewise, the pure cognitive mode, such as Lewin's life space, omits any interactive mapping between the environment and the life space of the individual. It is the lack of holism of the first perspective and the inoperable nature of the second perspective which are addressed by a third group of synthesis theories such as cognitive social learning (cf. Mischel, 1973; Mischel, 1976; Bandura, 1971).

Process for connectionist learning theory is the behavior change which results from classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Learning by classical conditioning happens first. It occurs before the child has the capabilities of language and classification. After language development begins, learning by operant conditioning involving problem solving, decision-making, and other cognitive contingency skills, is feasible in addition to continued involuntary classical conditioning (Reese and Lipsett, 1970).

Connectionist learning theories differ from cognitive learning theories along the several process dimensions. In general, connectionist theories view the process as one which is externally controlled and which occurs as effectively if the person is active as it does if the person is passive. Cognitive learning theories conversely view the person as an active participant in the process. For them, internal cognitions and beliefs have a significant personal impact on the process.

Within the connectionist perspective classical conditioning stimulus-response theories address learning situations in which the outcomes are dependent on externally imposed reward contingency schedules. In this perspective an external agent has complete control over the process. Instrumental conditioning theories focus on learning which occurs due to rewards and punishments which result from active behavior of the person (Reese and Lipsett, 1970). In both instances the control process of reward or nonreward is external to the person involved in the learning situation.

The cognitive perspective hypothesizes cognitive representations and active manipulations involving contingencies which may be quite complicated. In the traditional cognitive learning theories the representations and contingencies are subject to influence from external sources, but the learning process is itself dominated by the person.

Generally, learning theory has no temporal limitations. Relatively enduring changes in behavior which may occur at any age are the focus of the content. The one modification to this statement reflects the cognitive developmental stage theories (cf. Kohlberg, 1971), which are incorporated within some of the more contemporary cognitive-developmental learning theories. These theories are thus focused more on learning in the pre-adolescent years, the years during which the cognitive processes of the person proceed through the fixed hierarchical sequence. Social learning theories are also broad enough to accommodate variations at different developmental levels (Zigler and Child, 1969).

Learning theories vary with respect to whether the content is cumulative or transitory. Connectionist learning theories may be imposed at any point in any phenomenon. The more cognitive learning theories, and especially those which also include developmental aspects of cognition, are more cumulative in content. Cognitive social learning theories, Mischel's for example, require a cumulative idiographic content understanding in order to make any reliable predictions of behavior.

Connectionist learning theories focus exclusively on group commonalties of learning. Contiguity theorists and reinforcement theorists are concerned with the general conditions under which the response will become more or less probably. Early cognitive theorists likewise address commonalties of cognitive representations and contingency development. Contemporary cognitive social learning theory is idiographic rather than nomothetic. The researcher is thus able to investigate and seek to understand individual differences in learning which are contained within the theoretical perspective of the phenomenon. Bandura and Walters (cf. Zigler and Child, 1969), for example, recognize that different cognitive contingencies and available social models within a single age stratum result in considerable interindividual variations.

The final area in which characteristics of learning theory are considered is that of the goal of the theory. Formal learning theories are attempts at complete theories of explanation which are not limited solely to decision-making phenomena.

In the perspective of learning theory all behavior, purposeful or not, is synonymous with learning. In this view, all socialization is synonymous with social learning in a general sense (Goslin, 1971). The difficulty with this idea is that each of the two major areas of traditional learning theory, connectionist and cognitive, are found to in fact be incomplete theories when taken independently. The synthesis positions of cognitive social learning theories are thus intuitively appealing. The controversy, though, centers upon the lack of existing assessment techniques to provide consistent, meaningful measures of the theoretical constructs when they are applied to substantive areas like consumer socialization. In this sense even the synthesis positions currently fall short of their goal.

Mischel (1973) argues that a complete formal theory of behavior processes must be inclusive of aspects of the person, the situation, and the interaction of the person and the situation. His cognitive social learning theory involving person variables of cognitive competencies, ancoding strategies and perceptual constructs, symbolic exchange expectancies, differential personal values, and self-regulatory internal and external goals and plans is an encompassing attempt at a complete theory of explanation and prediction. Operationalizing the constructs of Mischel in substantive socialization areas presents quite a challenge, however.

Learning theories, even with their inherent boundaries as identified in the analytical framework of Figure 3 should be very useful in many substantive areas of socialization research (see Zigler and Child, 1969, 465-468). Hopefully, our discussion renders the range of these theories clearer.


A great deal of theorizing and empirical work in sociology and social psychology could be subsumed under the general heading of "interaction" theory. For the purposes of this analysis, the discussion of interaction theory will center around symbolic interaction and role theory. It is indeed difficult to make distinctions between these two perspectives, since many role theorists reflect a symbolic interactionist viewpoint in some form or another. However, most role theory departs somewhat from symbolic interaction. It reflects a partially deterministic viewpoint different from symbolic interaction.



Symbolic interaction theory attempts to explain how an individual acts or thinks in relation to an environment which is symbolic as well as physical in nature. Man is characterized as actively seeking and learning meaning, values, and behaviors through interaction with others. The individual learns about himself through encounters with other people and learns to "predict" the behavior of others by taking the role of another individual (individual other) or taking the role of a number of persons acting together in some group or society (generalized others).

Role theory has adopted the notion of Mead's role-taking in the symbolic interaction process as its point of departure and major focus of elaboration. The general proposition of most role theorists is that overt behavioral and attitudinal phenomena can be codified into meaningful categories called roles. From this starting point, role theorists have developed quite divergent conceptualizations - the idea of role has been used to denote prescription to norms and demands, enactment and involvement in role performance, overt and covert processes, and behavior which the individual initiates versus that which is directed toward the person (Biddle and Thomas, 1966). The more social psychologically oriented theorists have described social interaction by the mutual sharing of role expectations whereas many sociologically oriented theorists have tended to use role concepts in describing an individual's integration into society.

On the basis of this brief description, it should be clear that most interaction theory stresses an active view of the individual in social processes. Symbolic interaction theorists have been consistent in their view that the individual constructs the "world as taken for granted", the symbolic environment, through interaction with other people. Role theorists have been somewhat less consistent in viewing the individual as an active participant. Some observers (e.g. Linton, 1947) present the view that roles are externally constructed without any individual input. Other writers also see roles as socially structured, yet stress the importance of the individual's participation in learning, performing, and discriminating roles in the process of socialization. An extreme position in terms of the individual's participation is presented by Turner:

"The idea of role-taking shifts emphasis away from the simple process of enacting a prescribed role to devising a performance." (Turner, 1962, p.23.

In terms of external control, symbolic interactionists recognize that the individual's environment is an integral influence in the process of learning and interaction. However, they strongly resist the notion that individuals or things in the environment control the behavior or the socializing individual (Blumer, 1962).

In contrast, some of the proponents of role theory see the process as a limited form of social determinism -focusing more on social influences. The behavior of the individual is formed by the sanctions, rules, and demands of others in addition to input from the individual regarding his own understanding and prescriptions of what his behavior should be (Biddle and Thomas, 1966). Other writers, most notably Sarbin and Allen (1968), totally reject any suggestion of a conformity theory and reflect the symbolic interactionist emphasis upon individual input and activity.

In terms of generality, both symbolic interaction and role theory are capable of studying socialization throughout an individual's life. Both viewpoints recognize that the individual changes group affiliations and confronts new environments in the course of a lifetime. With regard to the symbolic environment, man is constantly creating and changing meanings:

"Socialization continues throughout life in another sense: the society and its groups are constantly creating new meanings and values: (Rose, 1974, p. 147).

Role theorists are even more explicit in their concern for socialization issues throughout the life cycle. Some roles are characterized as being nonrepetitive in nature - in effect, they are "stages" in the life cycle. Other roles that are successively enacted, such as wife and mother, must also be learned at different stages in the life cycle.

Both interactionist positions also share the view that socialization is more transitional in nature than cumulative. Although general skills are needed for effective role enactment and interaction (such as cognitive and motor skills), the specific skills are usually learned at the time the individual enters a new role situation (the obvious exception being anticipatory learning). As Sarbin and Allen (1968) note, most of the general skills are learned in childhood and contribute to later role learning. But, the specific skills learned for a particular role are usually not transferable to another position - especially roles that are nonrepetitive in nature. Successive roles to be learned do not usually build upon each other and may often conflict.

Regarding aggregative emphasis, role theorists tend to look more towards group (in this case role) characteristics than do symbolic interactionists. Roles are usually perceived to be structured by some measure of group concensus; however, role expectations do differ between individuals in the same position. For symbolic interactionists, the interaction process proceeds through a "definition of the situation" agreed upon the participants; for role theorists, this is accomplished through the sharing of role expectations.

Although these interaction approaches appear to offer rich conceptualizations for socialization processes, they fail to adequately explain the learning processes involved in socialization. Symbolic interactionists have been more interested in dynamic and developmental processes than role theorists who focus largely on description and structures. The sparse amount of work which deals with role learning suggests that individuals develop conceptions of role enactment through social learning processes, both incidental learning and explicit coaching (Strauss, 1966).

Interaction theories thus offer an active view of the individual. They treat socialization throughout the life cycle, and within many contexts (see Figure 4).




We have developed a framework for the interpretation of formal socialization theories and have positioned three classes of theories within the framework. Analysis of the theories reveals marked variation along the dimensions of the framework. Selection of formal theories for consumer socialization research must thus be viewed as more complex than a unidimensional choice dictated by a problem orientation. Rather, theory selection requires careful consideration of the multidimensional nature of theories. Although a theory may seem applicable on one dimension, it may also dictate the researcher's view of socialization on other dimensions.

The diversity of theories of socialization indicated by our analysis also points up the weakness of an off-the-shelf approach to explanation in consumer socialization research. Ultimately, the goal must be to contribute to the development of theory. This can best be done by comparing the explanatory power of existing theories.


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