Syntax and Creolization in Cross-Cultural Readings of Rooms

ABSTRACT - Exposing respondents from an English mainly traditional furnishing culture to photographs of Danish mainly modernist domestic interiors, and vice versa, an analysis of these cross-cultural readings of rooms explores shifts in encoded and decoded social and cultural meanings of the consumption contexts shown. The paper demonstrates the role and cultural specificity of product syntax in the readings, and examines the coping strategies of respondents when faced with the incompletely understood messages of a foreign Aconsumption language@Bcoping strategies which from both a cultural analysis and a marketing perspective become particularly interesting when understood as creolizations.


Malene Djursaa and Simon Ulrik Kragh (1999) ,"Syntax and Creolization in Cross-Cultural Readings of Rooms", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 293-303.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 293-303


Malene Djursaa, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Simon Ulrik Kragh, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark


Exposing respondents from an English mainly traditional furnishing culture to photographs of Danish mainly modernist domestic interiors, and vice versa, an analysis of these cross-cultural readings of rooms explores shifts in encoded and decoded social and cultural meanings of the consumption contexts shown. The paper demonstrates the role and cultural specificity of product syntax in the readings, and examines the coping strategies of respondents when faced with the incompletely understood messages of a foreign "consumption language"coping strategies which from both a cultural analysis and a marketing perspective become particularly interesting when understood as creolizations.


This paper aims to explore how one set of respondents "read" interiors from a different culture, focusing mainly on shifts between different consumption contexts [The terms "consumption situation" and "consumption context" are apparently used interchangeably, but not consistently, in consumer research. In line with previous work we choose the latter term, in order to indicate a cultural setting rather than a narrow focus on one or more situational variables' impact on the individual consumer.] and product syntax. Exposing respondents from a mainstream traditional furnishing culture (English) to photographs of living rooms and dining rooms from a mainstream modernist furnishing culture (Danish), and vice versa, the encoded and decoded social and cultural meanings of rooms are analysed, with particular emphasis on the impact of conflicting syntaxes, and on the "coping strategies" of respondents who are faced with interiors interpreted as holding offending or alien messages. These strategies often involve a reallocation of objects into alternative consumption contexts, or adjustments of product syntax within particular consumption contexts, both of which can usefully be understood as "creolizations".

Although in this case we are working with European empirical material, we would like to acknowledge our debt to the mainly Northern American scholars (see theoretical outline) who have shown us the rich possibilities of studying products in combination rather than isolation, in their cultural embeddedness rather than in the isolation of the individual’s need-fulfilment.

The paper also draws on the field of (the history of) the material culture of the home in Britain as well as Denmark, as well as the rich field of ethnographic studies of domestic environments (e.g. Attfield 1997, Lawrence 1987, Putnam and Newton 1990, Putnam 1995, Hvidberg et al 1989).

While previous material culture studies have demonstrated the existence of syntactical differences between domestic interiors both in different subcultures (Pratt 1981 on Vancouver suburbs, Laumann and House on Detroit) and different national cultures (Chevalier 1993 and 1995 on French vs. English lounges, Lawrence 1987 on English vs. Australian domestic layouts) no previous work has come to our attention in which the point of interest is the respondents’ perception of culturally alien domestic scenarios, or the role of culturally specific product syntax in the cross-cultural understanding of domestic settings and objects.


As the name consumer research indicates, the focus of the discipline is heavily biased towards analysis of individuals in groups, their behaviour and its psychological background. From the point of view of Parsonian action theory, this approach represents one of two main theoretical and methodological directions.

According to Sheldon (1951:31), the basic unit of sociological analysis is the situation, encompassing both object(s) and actor(s), to be conceived of as an entity, but for analytical purposes separable into either the object situation or the actors.

Applying this basic notion to consumer theory, consumption is understood as a complete situation or, as we would prefer, context, encompassing both product(s) and consumer(s), conceived of as an entity. In this perspective, consumer research becomes the analysis of the total consumption context, but, purely as an analytical abstraction, separable into the analysis of the products (objects) and the consumers (actors), neither of which can be fully understood except by reference to the total context. The meaning of products is, in the last resort, part of the actors’ mental universe, just as the norms and values of consumers must ultimately refer to objects. Consequently, when we use the term product syntax in this paper, we draw a parallel to language. [While some semioticians see product syntax as analogous to language syntax, i.e. the rules for ordering and structuring words in a sentence (Barthes 1984 [1964] p.130-31, Kehret-Ward 1987 p.220, 1988), others see it as a more restricted communicative tool (Baudrillard 1996 [1968] Douglas and Nicod 1974, McCracken 1988, McCracken and Roth 1989), being basically additive, as Noth points out (1988 p.184) and lacking the power of features like prediction in linguistic syntax to change the meaning of the other words in the sentence. We are content to allow this doubt about the power of the linguistic metaphor to resolve itself in practical work.] While syntax is part of the language, it must equally be understood as a mental property of the actors.

For analytical purposes, however, research has divided itself between the two foci, with certain costs. Mainstream consumer research shws a heavy bias towards the actor-dimension of the consumption context, while the focus on the object situation, i.e. products and especially product combinations, represents a minor, but complementary trend.

In our view, the prevailing cognitive psychological approach of consumer research runs the risk of losing sight of the products. Thus the focus on the psychological characteristics of the consumers combines with a tendency to see the products as mental concepts, stored in different kinds of memory, as if they did not also exist as concrete, tangible reality (Friedman 1990).

Neither does the actor-oriented approach sufficiently recognise that some important, culturally shared aspects of product meaning can best be analysed independently of the individual actor. In the course of a day, the consumer passes through a number of different universes of product meaning, some of which fit and some of which clearly contravene his personal lifestyle and identity. To take a simple example from the world of furniture, an individual may in the course of a day sit on any number of different chairs; the utilitarian chair in the dentist’s waiting room, the leather wing chair in the gentleman’s club, the rickety thing in mother’s kitchen and the designer’s chair in his own lounge. It is not even possible to object that only the chairs bought by the individual in question are of interestBsince he may in fact be the dentist, and sit on the board of the gentleman’s club making the purchases. In those instances the purchase is primarily tied to the meaning of the contexts in which the products must function and not to the individual’s psychological dispositions, his individual lifestyle or identity.

The object-oriented direction in consumer research is basically semiotic, focusing on the meaning of the products rather than the objects as physical entities. A number of significant contributions have been made within this line of theory (Belk 1975a, 1975b, Douglas and Nicod 1974, Douglas 1996, Kehret-Ward 1987, 1988, McCracken 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, McCracken and Roth 1989, Solomon and Assael 1987). By analysing products as carriers of meaning, these authors have shown how individual products and product combinations serve as building blocks for identity formation, and how consumption contexts are constructed on the basis of culturally determined rules for selection and combination of products.

In the furniture example above, as in so many others, a different kind of sense is made of the objects by tying them not to the overall identity of an individual, but to the particular context in which they are consumed or used along with other objects by individuals pursuing their purposes. The totality of the physical setting, composed and used by people, becomes the unit of analysis, endowing the objects with meaning through human purpose, and reflecting the purposes and values of our shared culture.

Consumption contexts as institutions

The focus on consumption contexts comprising objects and actors can be seen as an institutional approach. In so far as contexts (situations) are grouped according to regularities of action in them, they become institutions, or systems of actors’ roles, which again aggregate into social systems (Sheldon 1951:40).

As private dining rooms and lounges are the settings of relatively rule-governed consumption contexts, we can see the items of furniture which make up the rooms as constituting the object dimension of the institutionalised context, whose rules constrain the free choice of the actors by requiring that the objects must be selected and combined in specific ways. These constraints appear as syntactical rules, simultaneously part of the products and of the consumer’s cultural learning.

Syntax and creolization in intercultural contacts

When products are transferred from one cultureto another, or when consumers are confronted with product combinations which belong to a different culture, the receiver must employ the syntactical knowledge already learned, in order to assess if and how the products can function in a meaningful way in the range of the receiving culture’s possible consumption contexts.

Evidence from anthropological studies indicate that adoption of culturally different products and product combinations often take the form of creolization (sometimes called indiginization), meaning the appropriation of culturally alien imports to fit the receiving culture’s own purposes and structure; a partial adoption in a sense, in which the receiving culture accepts the product without necessarily accepting the full meaning complex or the syntactical rules which attached to it in the originator culture (see e.g. Appadurai 1990, Barber 1987, Belk 1988, Feld 1988, Friedman 1990, Hannerz 1992 and 1996, Howes 1996:5, Ivy 1988, Nicoll 1989). Colourful examples from anthropology are e.g. the tribal chief who had a three-piece suit tailored out of leopard skin (Comaroff 1996:29)Bor the substitution of biros for the cannibals’ nose-piercing bones (Belk 1988:117)Bbut more mundanely we need only think of our adoption of individual foreign food ingredients (olive oil, mango chutney, various exotic spices etc.) which most of us use in ways and combinations quite different from the originator cultures, and presumably imbue with different meanings.

In sum, the use of the foreign products in the receiver’s culture and the meanings that are given to these products depend on the product syntax of the consumption context. By placing themBif only in his imaginationBin a culturally relevant consumption context, the consumer interprets and gives meaning to the products. (Baudrillard 1996 [1968], Chevalier 1993, Kehret-Ward 1988, Kragh 1996) The outcome is a negotiated meaning resulting from a dialogue between the respondent’s culture (shared codes) and the respondent’s personal interpretations, often based on a partial rather than a complete knowledge of the code. (McCracken and Roth 1989)

Syntactical rules are not equally strong in all consumption contexts. In what we may term "central" consumption contexts, products fill important identity-creating or identity-confirming functions in an individual’s or a culture’s life. The syntax is stronger, there is a high degree of institutionalisation and the demands placed on the objects’ symbolic properties are generally more exacting. In more peripheral consumption contexts, the institutionalisation can be weaker, the syntax more lax and the demands on the symbolic properties typically less pronounced.

Elsewhere, we have suggested that peripheral consumption contexts are more easily penetrated by culturally unknown products (Djursaa and Kragh 1998). In extension of this, we suggest in the present study that one way in which consumers can cope with products from cultures with different syntactical systems is to relocate them in a more peripheral consumption context; products which in the source culture belong to central consumption contexts may in the receiver culture be acceptable in more peripheral consumption contexts with less exacting syntactical rules.


The primary data supporting this paper was collected in 1996 and 1997 [Further details of the survey design are explained in Djursaa 1996. The data supports two further articles, both with substantively different foci: Djursaa and Kragh 1998 (see ref. list), and Kragh and Djursaa, "Product Syntax and Cross-cultural Marketing Strategies; a Model for Choice", forthcoming.] and consists of photographs of homes in Denmark and Britain, and interviews with 20 English and 10 Danish respondents. The respondents were asked to respond to photographs of 12 lounges and 12 dining rooms from private homes in "the other" country. The interviews were structured by the sequence of photographs, but otherwise left free within the basic instructions of 1) "Who do you think lives there?" 2) "Do you like it?" 3) "Please comment freely on anything that catches your attention." [The interviews were taped, and transcriptions analysed with the aid of the qualitative data-processing programme NUD.IST.] Both sets of homes and respondents were as far as possible selected to be parallel in socio-economic and demographic terms, and to represent the spectrum of "economic and cultural capital" (Bourdieu 1984) except the most deprived and the most privileged. Immigrant or otherwise culturally atypical households were avoided in both countries, since the aim is to attempt to capture an aspect of a national aestheticBbut otherwise no attempt was made to monitor the expressions in the photographs, including the distribution between traditional and modernist homes. (The pictures shown in this article serve mainly illustrative purposes, and do not carry the analysis on their own.) Although clearly one cannot capture the range of furnishing expressions of a country in a set of 24 photographs, it is our belief, based on a close knowledge of both countries, that neither set is atypical.


Before turning to the data analysis, it is necessary to sketch the recent furnishing design history of the two countries in the broadest of terms, since this forms the back-cloth to the respondents’ readings, including ideas of proper and improper syntax. Riding roughshod over finer distinctions, the analysis focuses solely on the distinction between the traditional and the modernist [Although design history distinguishes between modernism as a movement and modernity as a broader "cultural condition" (Attfield 1997:269), both tradition and modernism are here used as paradigms encompassing high and low quality, original design as well as copies and craftsmanship, pieces of high aesthetic appeal within the given paradigm, and pieces which at best could be said to serve a function.] paradigms; between tradition as the adorned and ornamented aesthetic originating in previous centuries on the one hand, and modernism on the other hand as the unadorned, un-fussy, functionalist aesthetic of LeCorbusier and kindred spirits. Both paradigms have their origins in elitist architecture and design, but have since trickled down to the masses in cheaper imitations.

The Danish experience

Modernism has been an international phenomenon, but has only become the mainstream furnishing paradigm in a few countries, notably in Scandinavia.

Traditional furniture such as English furniture of the 18th century Chippendale and Hepplewhite mould is found in a number of especially elderly Danish homes, and kept alive as a cultural expression in Denmark through the exposure to especially English upper-class interiors depicted in TV series and filmsBthus four of the 16 Danish homes depicted were in fact wholly or partly furnished in traditional English style.

Undoubtedly, however, the majority of Danish homesBand the majority of the homes in the surveyBare found within the modernist paradigm. Strong designers in liaison with some fine cabinetmakers created a taste for modernism among the "experimenting classes" from the 1920s onwards, and during and after the war the equivalent to the English "utility movement" (though never by legislation in Denmark) created a following for modernist furniture in the broad populationBand among the furniture manufacturersBwhich has never since been seriously challenged. Only recently, there seems to be a move away from modernism to "old charm" voluptuousness, but it is too early to tell if this will be a lasting phenomenon to challenge the modernist paradigm in Denmark.

The English experience

England, whose mainstream furnishing culture in contrast to Denmark is traditional, did have its modernist fashion period in the 1950s and 1960s, much of it via Danish and Swedish furniture imports, but has since reverted firmly to tradition. It seems that English people who furnish in the modernist style are mainly design-conscious urbanites and young unmarried men, and in fact some of the Danish furniture architects from the 1950s are experiencing a renaissance in the UKBbut in terms of mainstream aesthetics, the mood and indeed fashion is once again firmly traditional, with modernism, and its syntactical structures like plain walls and restricted patterning, low-hanging lights, asymmetrical "group"-arrangements and coffee-tables, seen as old-fashioned.


Within any country, we will be able to find a number of aesthetic subcultures, but mostly the aesthetic of the power-holders will be dominant, with cheaper variants reproduced for the less wealthy. The most pertinent point for further analysis, then, is the observation that this dominant aesthetic in England is traditional, while it is modernist in DenmarkBbut of almost equal importance is the observation that both paradigms, differently weighted, are part of the historical and cultural experience of both countries.

Turning now to the cross-cultural readings, section five will give a number of examples from the data material of how syntax operates in practice as culturally determined rules both on the item combination and the room composition level, and which problems the respondents experience when they feel these rules are broken. Section six will focus on how syntactical rules are used in the creolization process.


Syntax as item combinations

In general, modernism insists on simplicity, where traditionalism indulges in a greater profusion of colours, lines and patternsBfundamental syntactical rules which had clearly been thoroughly internalised by the two nationalities. By way of example, several Danes objected to the English lounge shown as Figure 1, with statements like: "There are too many patternsBpatterned carpet, patterned wallpaper, patterned cushions etc."(Knud [See appendix with a brief description of each respondent quoted.]), and "It’s really very overloaded with flowers everywhere, and cushions which don’t match the sofas." (Birgit)

These objections should be read as syntactical insistence on simplicity, but should not be taken to mean that Danes can’t accept flowers or patterns, as reactions to other English rooms clearly show. Their acceptance, however, is within strict limits of one thing at a time. Even Danes who have traditional furniture themselves insist on pattern restraint.

Turning now to the English respondents, what they mind most about the Danish modernist rooms is of course precisely their absence of patterns, flowery textiles and other intricate details. English respondents complain that there are "bare floors and no curtains"(Mrs Baron), that rooms are "spartan and bareBsomething I admire rather than would live in"(Tracey), and that generally rooms are "very simple, whereas the Brits seem to add on embellishments."(Philip) Here the traditionalist English syntax of pattern profusion emerges as critique of modernism’s restraint.

A number of the English respondents (Mrs Calder, Mrs Heath, Mr Heath, Ross, Terry, Tracey, Mrs Baron, Janice, Judy, Liz, Mrs Falconer, Mrs Wood) object to the frequent uses of different kinds of wood in the same room in Danish pictures, and other mixtures of materials like metals, while a couple (Philip, Richard) observe that matching woods is the English way, while they personally like the Danish mixtures. In general terms it is probably true to say that where Danes will tend to insist on natural materials and worry less about mixing them, the English will tolerate veneers and imitation materials as long as they superficially look the same.



Syntax as room compositions

The examples above show syntax played out at the level of item combinations, in local enactments of the fundamental rules of modernism and tradition. However, syntax is also payed out at the level of room composition, i.e. in rules about how a room should be structured.

Where the traditional room is normally constructed symmetrically, with a focal point (the fireplace and/or the television) and the furniture lining the walls, the modernist room is normally constructed asymmetrically, composed in groups, with floor-space between groups rather than in the middle. (Bonnes et al 1987:224, Baudrillard 1996 [1968]:15-19).

Reflecting these syntactical rules, some of the English respondents search in vain for the "focal point" in Danish rooms (Mrs Heath: "There’s no focal point, like a television"; Judy: "Where we tend to group everything around the televisionthat’s our focal point, you don’t see a focal point"; Mrs Hughes: "So you don’t sit round the fire do you? You don’t feel you’ve got to have this focal [point]"); they find the Danish seating groups closed-in and even claustrophobic (Mrs Falconer: "A barrier to conversion"; Richard: "You’re in there and you’re not going, and the chairman’s going to sit there, and when you’ve had a good conversation you can go"), or reminiscent of public spaces like offices and waiting-rooms, which are mostly held within the modernist paradigm in Britain. In their turn, Danish respondents look at English rooms like the one pictured in Figure 1 and observe that "they are rather shouting at each otherByou have to twist around in your chair to get eye contact" (Peter), that they place the furniture "in a half-moon" (Inger), "with the backs against the wallyou can’t sit in them and talk together" (Flemming), and almost all the Danish respondents wonder how the English cope without coffee tables, "what they do with their coffee and glasses and all that" (Lisbeth). Clearly the two aesthetics hold very different notions of the room structure which is most conducive to human togetherness.

Different ideas also apply to the relative merits of appearance vs. function. Many examples could be cited, but one will have to suffice: Where the English object to visible electric cords and radiators (Mrs Calder: "We have a thing about wires and cables. We seem to spend half a lifetime trying to conceal them"; Richard: "There are lots of ways of doing radiators these days"), Danes say that they are there to serve an "honest" function and need not be elaborately stowed away behind fake panelling. Such ideas give a glimpse of the value systems behind the syntactical rules.

Trading paradigms

The comments above are the average modernist Dane’s syntax objections to the average traditionalist English room, and vice versa. But in fact there are also syntax problems when Danes comment on the few modernist English rooms in the photo set, and English respondents comment on the few Danish traditional rooms.

The lounge in Figure 3 belongs to an English professional girl in her mid thirties, and is clearly modernist in inspirationBbut the room structuring principle used is a hybrid between modernism and English tradition. The traditional symmetrical arrangement around the fire place has been abandoned (the fire-place is further up the room)Bbut as noted by a couple of the Danish respondents (J°rgen, Lis), the furniture lines the walls without forming a group, as would be the modernist way, and the whole impression is "spartan" (Peter), "lacking something" (Signe), with the walls too bare (John, Flemming, Kaj, Susanne, Lisa, Signe), with the perceptive J°rgen (architect) noting that "once they’ve got the white walls it’s as if they don’t know what to do with them." Where a traditional room would fill the space, saturate it, this hybrid between modernist and traditional follows neither paradigm’s fundamental principles.



Similar examples are found from the Danish photo set, where traditional lounges attracted criticism from English respondents attributable to perceptios of the Danes’ incomplete mastery of the traditional room syntax. In the Danish rooms, traditional furniture was arranged in modernist fashion in asymmetrical groups around coffee tables, with low hanging lightsBand ornaments failed to be arranged symmetrically, as prescribed by tradition. As one English respondent (Mr Baron) said, "They’ve got the furniture rightBthey’ve even got the carpet right this timeBit’s what they’ve done afterwards."

What seems to happen is that the country’s dominant paradigm, traditionalism in England and modernism in Denmark, is the language we are familiar with, to such an extent that when we try to employ the other paradigm in our own home, some traces of our country’s dominant paradigm remain, most notably in the room compositions. As one Danish respondent (J°rgen) saw it, the English seemed comfortable in their own dark and textile-oriented design-language, but appeared to "lose their roots" and their sense of direction when they tried to move into modernism. As cultures we appear to be aesthetically monolingual, speaking foreign design languages with an accent.

In conclusion so far, the evidence supports the notion that syntactical rules are important tools in respondents’ decoding of product meaning; further, that they are culture specific and hence potentially unreliable as decoding tools; lastly, that they are to a certain extent culture-pervasive and can infuse attempts to move into different aesthetic expressions.


The cross-cultural readings are more than catalogues of potential problems for the marketer, however. Perhaps the most interesting evidence to emerge concerns the respondents’ efforts to absorb the foreign products into their own culture. The readings also reflect the receiving culture’s and the consumers’ "creolizing" abilities to reshape the object world to their own purposes ( Hannerz 1992, 1996, Howes 1996). These creolizing efforts take several forms.

Hybrid room compositions

Creolization takes place when items from a foreign culture are adopted and used and at the same time modified according to the syntactical rules of the receiving culture. Thus the sofas in Figure 3 may be IKEA (Habitat in fact, same difference), but it does not follow that the owner is trying for the complete Scandinavian or modernist expression, just as it would be naive to assume that the tribal chief with the leopard skin suit (Comaroff 1996:29) is trying to look like a city banker. Seen from the sender culture’s point of view, creolizations mean "getting it wrong". But why indeed should the adopting culture be bound by another culture’s rules? The owner of the Figure 3 lounge is creating her own mixture of her native English tradition and modernism, avoiding those parts which are now in England seen as old-fashioned. And why indeed introduce a coffee table, low lights and pictures into the Figure 3 lounge if the result is being seen as old-fashioned in one’s own culture? Similar arguments hold for the Danish traditional lounges like the one pictured in Figure 4; why adopt the English symmetrical open room composition and fill the space with patterns if that is seen by one’s Danish peers as overloaded?



Putting the room to rights

Creolization as a combination of adoption and modification of foreign cultural expressions can also be observed when the respondents seek to put the rooms to rights. Naturally much of the intercultural criticism which emerged involved implicit improvement suggestions, but sometimes they became explicit.

One example is a Danish lounge with English furnitur; dark bookcases, Chesterfield furniture and light flowery curtains. Were the Danes trying to use English syntax? If they were, they did not pass muster. Most of the English respondents acknowledged the furniture, where, as one put it, you could do some "serious sitting down" (Mr Baron) and be served glasses of port, but quite a number (Mr Heath, Kevin, Mrs Falconer, Philip, Ross, Terry, Tracey) hastened to point out that light flowery curtains were all wrong. English syntax demands heavy velvety curtaining with that furniture, as in a stately home or a gentleman’s club.

Our favourite improvement suggestion, however, is the English owner of the room in Figure 1 (Mrs Wood) who felt that a set of Danish dining room chairs with woven seats similar to the ones in Figure 5 would be much improved if they were fitted with chintzy cushions. Danes in the know groan at the barbarity of the suggestion, which amounts to sacrilege. The chairs in question are designed by Denmark’s chair designer no. 1 Hans Wegner, and are recognized as "the Y Chair". Still in production, they cost upwards of ,800 a piece. To the English respondents, however, they were quite clearly just simple chairs with simple woven seats, albeit a slightly intriguing shapeBand definitely, from the English point of view, much improved by chintzy cushions.

Changing the consumption context

A particularly interesting creolization strategy is employed when respondents suggest a different and more suitable consumption context than the one they are shown in the photographs. When presented with a deviating syntax, the respondents mentally change the consumption context to make the objects fit the reader’s own culture.

As reported in the next section, English respondents had a strong tendency to read Danish, modernist rooms as young and cheap. In the process of this mis-reading, they are shifting the consumption context from culturally central social roles to more peripheral ones, and saying at the same time that if such a shift is made, the room is culturally acceptable.

A Danish black ash and chrome dining room, owned by a single woman, in her mid to late forties with children, working as a secretary, was more or less consistently read by English respondents as either an office or a male, i.e. bachelor environmentBor indeed as "something I had 20 years ago". But apart from the old-fashioned aspect, these respondents’ mis-readings are positive expressions that in England, black ash furniture would now be acceptable in male or public-realm consumption contexts.



More deliberate situational shifts were carried out by respondents when they lifted the objects from the stated consumption context of lounges and dining rooms and relocated them in more suitable surroundings. Thus a Danish pine dining room was insufficiently formal to be acceptable in English central rooms of ordinary middle-class housing and was "relocated" by some of the English respondents to a bedsit (Mrs Falconer), a flat (Mr Baron, Mrs Falconer, Terry), or a study (Terry), and a Danish light-wood designer’s dining room was relocated as a kitchen or breakfast room (James, Mrs Falconer). A French wicker chair was thought better placed as a bedroom chair in England (James), and a set of Bruno Matsson (Swedish design) lounge chairs were generally admired by the English respondents but "relocated" to any number of imaginative places like a boardroom (Janice), a TV panel discussion area (Kevin), or the pilot’s cockpit in a space-ship (Mr Weaver, Richard, Tracey). A very flowery English lounge was relocated by a Danish respondent (Kaj) as a bedroom, and a large gilt mirror in an English dining room relocated by a Danish respondent (John) to a hall or a bedroom, by others (Birgit, Flemming) to a restaurant.

As the respondents in this survey are only being shown central consumption contexts, i.e. dining rooms and lounges, any situational shifts performed must go towards more periphera consumption contexts. The present evidence combines with material reported earlier, however (Djursaa and Kragh 1998), to suggest that in rooms which are important as the front stage of our identity-creating efforts (Goffmann 1959), such as the living rooms, the actors tend to avoid the adoption of "strange" items and maintain quite a strict adherence to the local syntactical paradigm at the same time as they tend to accept these same items in more peripheral rooms, where the constraints on product combinations and style are less pronounced.



Even outright rejections of the foreign items were often expressed as situational re-locationsBas when Danes say of the English lounge in fig.1 that it looks like a hotel lounge (Lisa, Susanne, Kaj)or a brothel (Peter), and the English respondents who didn’t care for the Bruno Matsson lounge chairs "moved" them to a barber’s, a shoe-shine place (Ross) or a dentist’s (Mrs Heath, Mr Weaver). Even these more metaphorical situational re-locations are clear expressions of the importance of consumption context in the allocation of meaning and indicate that placesBrooms and housesBconstitute a social hierarchy of syntactical rules characterised by varying degrees of constraint on combinations of products and features of style.


It is clear from the readings that respondents deal with the foreign photographs with the help of their own culture’s syntactical rules, and that this results in both meanings and intended usages which are substantially different.

If, as stated from the outset, the consumption context encompasses both objects, syntactical rules and actor/consumer, it follows that the objects and their use should mirror the personalities, social characteristics and cultural identities of the actors. That this is so is common knowledge to both admen and consumers, many of whom are adept everyday social semioticiansBwithin the limits of the culture or cultures they have learned.

Recognising that we were indeed exposing our respondents to a foreign "consumption dialect", we were not really expecting them to be able to portray the occupants of the rooms they were shown accurately, but we were interested in possible patterns in the way they would get it wrong when asked "Who lives there?"

Socio-economic position

What everybody got most right was the occupants of their own furnishing paradigm, but there is a tendency for both sets of respondents generally to err to the low side, i.e. to place people in a lower social class than the one they actually belong toBespecially if the overall valuation of the foreign room is negative. This reaction is consistent with the tendency reported above to mentally move a number of the pieces of furniture from the central consumption contexts in living and dining rooms as shown, to more peripheral rooms/consumption contexts with less symbolic value. In other words, the actors follow their objects in the readings; if the objects are lowered in status, so are their owners.


The English respondents place all six Danish traditional pictures more or less correctly in terms of the occupants’ agesBand all nine modernist dining rooms, as well as three of the modernist lounges (including Figure 2 and 5), incorrectly as younger than they are. It would appear that the bare, simple lines of the Danish modernist dining rooms send the most consistently "wrong" signals, while the Danish upholstery and carpets in the lounges provide slightly better cues. When the Danish respondents go wrong on the English traditional pictures, they make them too old.

In itself, the interpretation of modernist s young and traditional as old is hardly surprising. Where it becomes interesting is with the identification of "young" with "poor". Overall, probably the culturally most revealing reading error was that the three Danish dining-rooms (as e.g. Figure 5) representing the pride of Danish/Scandinavian design, exclusively furnished (at great cost) with the big architectural names from the #40s and #50s, were dismissed by a number of the English respondents as young, cheap beginners’ homes, a fate also suffered, though to a lesser degree, by two expensive Danish design-lounges (including Figure 2). Here, too, the cultural difference of syntax implies a social downgrading of both furniture and owners.


It has been a starting assumption for the work reported here that the cultural analysis of consumption is best carried out at the consumption context level, understood as the totality of objects and the human purpose of their usersBbut also that for analytical purposes, it is necessary to choose either objects or actors as primary focus.

Following the lead of the mainly Northern American scholarly tradition which has shown the possibilities of deriving culturally shared meaning by studying products in combination, we have exposed respondents from a mainstream traditional furnishing aesthetic (English) to photographs of dining rooms and lounges from a mainstream modernist furnishing aesthetic (Danish), and vice versa, in an attempt to identify some of the syntactical rules and coping strategies used by the respondents (actors) when confronted with foreign product (object) constellations in given, culturally quite institutionalised, consumption contexts. The data indicates that foreign combinations of products are interpreted according to the respondents’ own syntax, changing the use and social meaning of the products in the process.

Danish and British furnishing traditions represent two dominant aesthetics tied to historical design paradigms. Responses show that while respondents prefer rooms in their own aesthetic paradigm, and the English in particular prefer Danish traditional rooms over the more frequently occurring modernist rooms, both sides find fault with both expressions of both paradigms.

Readings of rooms in terms of "who lives there", i.e. getting the reader to link the objects and the setting shown to the culturally appropriate actors, reveal interesting mis-readings. Most startling was the insistence of the English respondents on seeing expensive Danish design rooms, especially the light-wood dining rooms, as young, cheap starter homes or as "something we had 20 years ago"- a reading which speaks volumes about the marginal place held by modernism in England today.

The differences between the two sets of respondents in syntax use can partly be ascribed to the differences between the rules governing modernism and tradition as general, ideal types, and partly to the two countries’ more local enactments of either paradigm. Although both paradigms are in principle known to and used by both nationalities, it seems that the native "dominant" paradigm becomes the yardstick against which both are measured, as regards item combinations as well as room compositionsBjust as it seems that the native dominant paradigm’s room compositional principles invade the rooms where the occupants try to employ the competing, non-dominant paradigm.

Last but not least, we have seen the ability of both cultures to make the unacceptable acceptable by a process of "creolization", by moving objects to more suitable consumption contexts, in the process transposing their meaning, and by modifying syntactical structures. Understanding these creolization processes in more detail appears a real challenge.




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Malene Djursaa, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Simon Ulrik Kragh, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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