Redefining Self: Interpreting the Interpretations of Three Diverse Experiences

Larry D. Compeau, Clarkson University
[ to cite ]:
Larry D. Compeau (1994) ,"Redefining Self: Interpreting the Interpretations of Three Diverse Experiences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 115-118.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 115-118


Larry D. Compeau, Clarkson University

At first blush, the three papers in this session offering a descriptive tour of three unique experiences would seem to have very little in common. The first paper by Laura A. Williams and Alvin C. Burns examines the reckless and exhilarating experience of "spring break" as recounted by college students. Shay Sayre, in the second paper, investigates the horrible and unfortunate experience of surviving a firestorm. Finally, Craig Thompson shares some insight regarding the experience associated with embracing new technology, a computer printer. Thus, it seems fairly safe to conclude that these three experiences appear to have little common ground. Collectively, the papers provide us with an emotional roller coaster of seemingly unrelated experiences. However, we can step back from each of these experiences and explore them together in an interpretive fashion. Thus, what is offered in this analysis is a synergistic integration of these diverse papers based on a loose interpretive method, rather than a specific critique or summary of results.

The notion of collectively interpreting interpretations is novel to consumer research, but can be compared to other integrative review techniques such as meta-analysis. In general, interpreting the interpretations attempts to address the same issue; namely, what can the discipline learn from a collection of studies as opposed to a single study? While a meta-analysis might require many studies to accurately assess certain relationships, the nature of interpretive analysis (e.g., richness, depth) would be better preserved by attempting to integrate the results of a few papers.

A brief summary and critique of each paper is offered followed by a synergistic interpretation of their collective findings.


Williams and Burns offer an engaging description of the emotional experiences that college students enjoyed during a spring break excursion. The study highlights the hedonic experiences in which the students choose to engage as part of the overall "spring break" experience. Students experience feelings of happiness, joy, and elation in a free and unconstrained environment. Excessiveness and over-indulgence in almost all behavior is commonplace as students report feeling carefree, reckless and out of control.

The methodology however, is constraining in that students were required to write about their descriptions and were approached long after their actual spring break experience. Thus, additional insight might be gained if students were interviewed during spring break. The authors also restricted their sample to only those students who considered their spring break vacation as a self-gift. It would also seem that contrasting those students who did not qualify on the self-gift criterion with the students in this sample would be meaningful. Did they enjoy the experience any less? Is there no self-communication involved? Can one consider a gift as earned, as a self-reward even if he or she does not pay for it? Unfortunately, we are not provided with the details of how the students were approached about this self-gift determination so it is difficult to speculate as to any differences.

Surprisingly, shopping was an activity in which some students engaged during spring break. One student reported her shopping trip to the mall as the highlight of her spring break trip. It is curious and most intriguing that in the context of "sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll," a student would even mention going to a mall, much less note that it was the highlight of her spring break. It would be tempting to dismiss this result as an artifact of the method, but the excerpt from the student's written narrative does not seem to point in that direction. The notion that shopping is so significant for this person that it can overshadow the many other "wild and crazy" events that were described seems astounding. Further investigation of the significance of shopping embedded in a seemingly more absorbing and thrilling context is warranted.

A most illuminating theme uncovered was labelled as "unfettering my social-self." Students appear to use the spring break context to liberate, and thus, redefine self. In other words and as the authors note, "the social context liberates the social-self." Students freely choose to go to spring break and thus, are active participants in liberating their social-self and engaging in behavior in which they would not normally embrace. They free themselves from the everyday restrictions imposed by self and others. In doing so, they allow themselves to temporarily lose their normal "self" and extend and create a new self that is unconstrained and liberated. Thus, they temporarily redefine self.

When spring break is over, however, they don't simply shed this temporary self in its entirety, and return to their previous self. Although they return to a position much closer to their previous self, self is nonetheless, permanently altered as a result of the experience. Thus, the students refer to being a different person, more mature, independent, and responsible (quite ironic given their acknowledgement that their behavior during spring break was generally irresponsible).

Thus, we get a peek at the hedonic experiences of students during that notorious excursion referred to as "spring break." Although the reputed excessive and over-indulgent behavior is confirmed, more importantly, the significance for self is uncovered and the process of self-redefinition is depicted.


The agony of losing all of one's possessions is captured with Sayre's account of victimization from the Oakland firestorm. Her description of the emotional experiences of despair and agony the victims suffered is a vivid example of the pervasiveness of emotional losses that can occur as a result of our inability to control nature.

Two forms of losses occurred for these residents. First, there was a loss of self. Victims speak of a lessening of self as a result of a loss of possessions. But, the possessions not only define self, they also define the community in which the self resides. Thus, the victims also speak of loss of community. Without the possessions, victims not only lose self, but because others all around them also have lost all of their possessions, they lose their community as well. It is the community however, which in turn helps to define self. This point is well illustrated by a women labelled as a 'near miss,' a person whose home survived in the face of the destruction of her neighbors' homes. She relates that it was the surroundings that gave the possessions meaning and thus these same possessions were now 'out of context.'

The lack of choice is a critical contextual frame in which this victimization occurs. The residents had no voice; they were not willing and active participants. This experience was plunged into their everyday lives without consideration. Consider the difference in the experiences these victims relate about their loss of home versus the experience of simply moving to a different home. In the latter instance, some level of choice is usually involved and thus, self can be preserved and moved along with most of the other possessions. Moreover, one is given a chance to contemplate the significance of the experience before it actually happens and thus, self can be adapted to the different context in a slow and deliberate fashion. Victims of the firestorm however, simply find themselves in a totally new context, stripped of all of their possessions and are forced to adapt, immediately.

Another important contribution is the notion that possessions can be replaced, but not their significance or meaning. The notion of absence versus loss is an important distinction that highlights that items lost can be replaced but the absence of the meaning of those items endures. Thus, Sayre's paper highlights the vast distance between functionality and meaning. Functionality can occur across many different contexts and appears to have a more universal understanding that transcends contexts and even objects. Personal significance and meaning on the other hand appears to be highly context bound and individualistic. The example of the woman and her tea set illustrates this interpretation. Although the tea set survived, it was rendered meaningless without the afternoon ritual that accompanied it. Although the tea set's functionally remained unchanged, its personal meaning and significance was loss due to the changing context. This context focused approach to the difference between function and meaning appears to be a particularly fertile area for future research.

Finally, it is striking that so little discussion was available on the loss of photographs. Many of the other possessions the victims talked about were often cited in terms of their ability to preserve and remind victims of particularly important concepts or events, thus serving a purpose similar to photographs. An interesting question is whether the lack of these possessions suggests a loss due to the victims' inability to recall or reconstruct past events (Berger 1991).

These people are truly victims. This transformation of identity was not embraced, it was endured as it was thrust upon them without warning, without any opportunity to escape. Without choice, they were forced to undergo a redefinition of self through the "involuntary disposition" of their personal possessions. This total loss of all of their possessions acts to constrain and reduce self. They lose a permanent part of self which may never be regained.

Comparatively, the permanent redefinition of self in response to the loss of all of one's possessions would seem to loom larger than the more temporary redefinition to include excessive behavior, or the less traumatic redefinition associated with the inability to master a product (discussed in Thompson's paper). Thus, the event that precipitates this more substantial redefinitions of self would seem to hold greater significance in the newly redefined self. For example, the firestorm experience would seem to have greater significance in the redefined self of the victims, and their everyday lives, than the spring break experience would have for the students. Self is so much more substantially altered as a result of the firestorm. Thus, the firestorm may actually take on a defining line of change for the victims. That is, the victims may divide their lives into two parts, before the firestorm and after the firestorm. Events, relationships with others may be divided and redefined as qualitatively different "before" and "after." It might be most fruitful to revisit these victims in a few years to examine this potential theme.


Thompson offers a glimpse into the everyday experience of embracing a new technology, a computer printer. The whole experience seems to be much less arresting than the students' experiences at spring break or the experiences of the victims of the firestorm. However, it is important to note that these latter two events are rare in the normal course of a person's life, whereas interacting with new technology seems to be a common experience for many consumers.

Central to Thompson's interpretation is the concept of the "technocratic" ideal, a belief that consumer technology is a tool for enhancing productivity and creating a better way-of-life by controlling nature (as might have been believed by the victims of the firestorm). Thus, as this technocratic ideal is embraced, emotions are viewed more as "inefficiencies to be reduced or eliminated." Concomitantly, any unproductive use of time in not tolerated, culminating in a idealization of self as a "perfectly functioning machine." Thus, it is likely that when the technology fails to deliver these benefits, there may be some impact on self as the reality of the experience conflicts with the ideology.

In this particular instance, the promised benefits of increased efficiency via the liberation from practical inconveniences and greater control eludes one consumer, "John." Thus, John experiences frustration, personal disappointment and a "begrudging resignation" over spending time with the newly purchased computer printer when it fails to perform as he had expected. Nonetheless, he pledges his allegiance to the technocratic ideology by "confessing" any failure to be solely his own.

For John, there exists a "before" and "after" set of experiences that appear to contradict each other. Prior to any consumption of the printer, he deliberately chooses to be liberated from the practical conveniences that are seemingly apparent when one does not own a computer printer. He becomes a willing participant in the purchase and consumption of the computer printer. After the purchase however, he becomes a victim of the very technology that seemed to promise freedom. He is forced to confront the technology and attempt to wrestle it into subservience, with little success, in contrast to the promises and the ideology. Thus, in his eyes he is not up to the task, and he fails. The printer now acts to constrain his abilities and his experiences. As Thompson elucidates,

In seeking to realize the ideals of control and efficiency, individuals become susceptible to the paradox of being controlled by the very technological products that are purported to enhance personal control and freedom.

Thus, John also redefines self. John comes to know self as different then before the experience. Before the experience John viewed himself as more knowledgeable, capable and accomplished at interfacing with technology. Now he has redefined himself as inadequate to this interfacing task. His view of self is somewhat diminished. He is forced into either preserving self at the cost of his technocratic ideology or sacrificing self to preserve the technocratic ideology. He chooses the latter.


Beyond the methodological link to phenomenology, what contribution do these papers offer collectively that is not obtainable individually? In other words, can the findings from these studies offer any synergistic interpretation that expands their contribution at a higher, more abstract level of understanding? By using an interpretive methodology (Ricoeur 1976) based loosely on existential phenomenology (Giorgi 1975; Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989; Valle and King 1978; Wertz 1983) and reader-response theory (Culler 1975; Fish 1980; Iser 1978), the papers can be considered text that can be interpreted - an interpretation of the interpretations. Thus, a synergistic integration of the papers is offered based on this analysis.

The following three quotes from the Thompson, Williams and Burns, and Sayre papers respectively, illustrate the distance in the emotional experiences found in these three studies:

To be quite honest with you, my actual experience with using the printer has not been as much as I had hoped it would be....

I stayed drunk for four days, barely ate, and enjoyed a lot of company from people all over the country.

It's hard to grasp the meaning of 'all gone.' Just like my condo and my things, I am 'all gone' most of the time. I just can't get it together.



In the first instance we are presented with an example of a person forced to deal with the mundane experience of mastering a technologically-oriented product, and who in the end experiences frustration and disappointment due to an inability to conquer the machine. In the second instance, we catch a glimpse of a person, a student, who experiences pleasure and happiness as he willingly escapes the mundane. And finally, the third quote illustrates the despair and sadness experienced by a victim of a firestorm as she attempts to cope with a very non-mundane loss of all of her possessions - an grossly unwanted deviation from the mundane.

Yet, in each instance the participants relate the experiences to self. In the first instance, the participant confesses to personal failure and redefines self as not the self he thought he was. The second quote illustrates a participant breaking away from "normal" self and engaging in experiences normally not allowed to occur, i.e., temporarily losing self by choice. Finally, for the victim of the firestorm there is a forced permanent loss of self. In all three instances, participants redefine "self" as a result of their experiences. One way to better understand any synergy among these different experiences is to focus on the contexts in which these experiences take place.

The Table highlights characteristics of the contexts in which these experiences are embedded. The context of "spring break" involves an active and willing participant who chooses to engage in the experiences. Thus, the students "escape," by choice, from their normal everyday lives. They are active participants who choose to escape and, in essence, liberate themselves from self, others and their normal lived-world, and consequently enjoy feelings of pleasure and happiness. Thus, the personal meaning and significance of the spring break experience is embedded in these contextual characteristics. Williams and Burns note that a group of students who could not go to the beach, created their own beach, far from any shore. The description offered by an informant who attended this version of spring break was "identical to those informants we analyzed." Thus, it appears that the "mental" escape can occur without a "physical" escape.

The victims of the firestorm stand in stark contrast to the willing participants of spring break. There is no choice here. The victims lose everything they own and are forced to redefine self or seemingly lose self altogether. They find self to be reduced, constrained by the lack of their possessions which previously allowed them to identify and continuously reconstruct self. Consequently, they experience feelings of despair and sadness over a loss that seems much greater than just the physical loss of "things." They have lost more than the presence of their possessions. They have lost meaning, they have lost personal significance, they have lost reminders and definers of relationships with self and others. They have lost self.

In the context of Thompson's examination of computer printer consumption, we can see similar elements, albeit with much less intensity, identified in the experiences of the students on spring break and the victims of the firestorm. The contexts of the "before" and "after" experiences compare with the spring break and firestorm experiences respectively. That is, John is promised (consistent with the technocratic idealogy) that he will be able to escape the constraints imposed upon him by the inconveniences of not owning a computer printer, promises of experiences similar to what the students enjoyed during spring break. Thus, John willingly chooses to become an active participant in embracing this technology so he can enjoy its benefits. However, John soon feels forced into making this technology work for him when the benefits do not materialize so easily. Similar to the firestorm victims, John becomes a victim of the very technology that was promised to liberate him. He feels betrayed, trapped, constrained and forced to redefine self or in the alternative, abandon the very technocratic idealogy that led him to purchase the computer printer in the first place. Therefore, he experiences feelings of frustration and disappointment, mostly with himself and thus, he redefines self.

In all three papers we see a redefinition of self that occurs as a result of an experience embedded in a particular context. The students on spring break enjoy a temporary loss of self, by choice. The victims of the firestorm suffer a forced permanent loss of self. John, relishes the promised extension of self, free from inconveniences - a choice he willingly makes; but, he is ultimately forced to recognize and accept that he is not the self he thought he was. Thus, the context frames the experiences and provides for different significances for the self.


The three papers in this session, individually and collectively, provide a vehicle through which we can better understand the significance of the context of consumers' experiences and its relationship in redefining self. The phenomenological insights into experiences of hedonic consumption, involuntary disposition, and technological interaction suggest that self can be significantly altered and redefined as meaningful events transpire within a particular context. Moreover, the more self is redefined, the greater the import attached to the significance of the events which stimulated this self redefinition. That is, events which precipitate more traumatic, involuntary, permanent changes in self will take on greater significance and meaning as part of that self redefinition.


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