Special Session Summary Identity and Modern Consumption


Evgenia Apostolova-Blossom (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Identity and Modern Consumption", 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: 332-335.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 332-335



Evgenia Apostolova-Blossom, University of Arizona, U.S.A.


The influence of culture on consumption, although examined in consumer research as pervasive, has been under-specified in terms of its complexity. This session offers a unique perspective of identityBas an arena where consumption and culture relate. The session papers examine thegenerality of culture’s influence on consumption and the specificity of consumer actions to achieve individual identity.

The session papers present contrasting yet complementing accounts based on different cultural and everyday practices. The studies by renowned scholars from anthropology and consumer research examine the cultural determinacy of the relationship between identity and consumption in five cultures (American, British, Danish, Greenlandic, and Turkish). The papers also contrast consumption and identity creation in everyday life situations of transition (rural to urban migration in Turkey, Greenlanders moving to Denmark) versus situations of relative cultural stasis (Great Britain and the United States). The session presents diverse views on the relationship between consumption and identity: as a cultural process of mutual determination or as a process of social determination where the self loses its importance for explaining consumption. Therefore, besides the multi-cultural perspective, the session offers a challenging view of a concept widely used in consumer research, the concept of the self/identity.

Daniel Miller’s paper provokes this debate by contesting the self as a relevant concept for understanding contemporary consumption. His one-year ethnographic study of household shopping in North London discovers that social relations, rather than self expression, motivate shopping decisions. His informants regard shopping as a way of connecting with others and achieving a freedom from "the burden of oppressive individualism". The individual choices of the interviewed North Londoners is replaced by the desire to stay within the social norm. Therefore, the paper argues that consumption is not a venue for self-fulfillment since the self is no longer guiding individual consumption. Rather, consumption is an arena of resolving social tensions between individuals and the normative.

The idea that the social is enacted in everyday consumption decisions also guides the paper by Apostolova-Blossom. The focus of this paper is on social structures that underlie individual actions such as consumer resistance. It examines the ideological nature of consumption practices in an advanced market economy. The ideological within consumption is found in those symbolic meanings of consumption that maintain social relationships of domination and subordination. The interpretation of depth interviews with American consumers reveals diverse consumption practices which delineate two power hierarchies. The first one, between the consumer and the market, is reflected in consumer resistance actions. The second one emanates from the everyday consumption decisions of these individuals: It is a powerful symbolic recreation of a hierarchy of social domination. Together the two hierarchies unveil a spectacle of the individual expression within the constraints of the contemporary market. Thus the ideological in consumption creates new social relationships and perpetuates old ones. The process of consumer resistance translates everyday individual consumption into social exchange structures characterized by their inequalities.

The focus of the above two papers on the determinant power of the social in consumption is contrasted by the emphasis in the papers by Askegaard and Arnould, and Ger and Bal8m on the role of the self in modern consumption. These papers examine the active power of the self in consumption by studying acculturation as a modern process that challenges the construction and maintenance of identity.

The paper by Askegaard and Arnould discovers the duality of migrant identity. The authors find that Greenlanders living in Denmark construct double identities influenced by their transition from a culture that lacks modern consumerism (Greenland) to an intensely marketized culture (Denmark). The paper underlies the potency of acculturation within a consumer market for identity formation. The duality of the migrant Greenlanic identity is reflected in consumption of the natural, the wild, and the magic versus consumption of free choice within the modern Dansh market. The influence of the dual culture on identity also carries social implications discussed by the authors.

Ger and Bal8m’s paper mirrors the acculturation theme of the paper by Askegaard and Arnould in a different cultural transition: from the rural village to the modern city. The aspirations of Turkish villagers to fit into the modern world translate into identity contradictions. Consumption of domestic artifacts is the arena of negotiating these cultural polarities, the arena of constructing a modern identity. The authors find that this negotiation is reflected in the usage patterns and meanings of domestic artifacts. The process is not a simple adoption of the modern but a creative transformation of domestic artifacts using traditional sources in an aspiration to create a unified identity. Thus in these transitions of the individual’s self the interplay between consumption and identity enacts a generative social process.

The papers in this session take up an existing stream of consumer research, the cultural influences on consumption, and reveal its new complexities in modern society. The session questions the relevance of the established concept of the self/identity, a concept connected with the rise of modernity, to explain some modern consumer practices. At the same time, the session connects the self/identity concept with consumption and culture through investigating acculturation, ideology, and the social normative. The papers in this session contribute to consumer research with their discussion of provocative issues and their insights into the world of the consumer.




S°ren Askegaard, Odense University, Denmark

Eric Arnould, University of Nebraska, U.S.A.

Globalization processes (Appadurai 1990) have led to an increase in a peculiar kind of socialization process in marketizing economiesCsocialization into a consumer identity as an adult in marketizing economies (a.o. Belk & Paun, 1995; Ger, Belk & Lascu, 1993; Lofman, 1993; Schultz & Pecotich 1995). A related process affects the waves of people moving between the world’s cultures. Much of what we call migration concerns people moving from societies with fewer overall consumption opportunities to societies with more consumption opportunities. (Ironically when they move the other way, we call it tourism). Despite the relevance of migration for understanding identity formation, not to mention public policy issues related to discrimination, assimilation, integration and segregation, research in consumer acculturation has rarely been carried out on immigrants to industrialized countries.

A few notable exceptions of research on consumer acculturation processes in industrialized countries are Mehta and Belk (1991) on Indian immigrants to the US, Joy and Dholakia (1991) on Indian immigrants to Canada, Pe±alosa (1994) on Mexican immigrants in the US and by Ger and +stergaard (1998) on second generation Turkish immigrants in Denmark. The latter is typical of the predominant focus on the relatively large group of immigrants from the Middle East in several European research environments. Paradoxically, this research shows that consumption provides a domain through which immigrants may seek to hold on to certain patterns of culture and identity perceived to link them to their culture of origin. But they also find themselves in a different cultural system that encourages new consumption possibilities and restraints, and where identity is subject to different norms and taboos.

The Greenlandic citizens of Denmark represent an interesting but hitherto unexplored opportunity to discuss consumer identity and acculturation in industrial contexts. Unlike other populations studied Greenlanders consists of internal migrants whose comigs and goings do not transgress geo-political boundaries. Nevertheless they migrate to the Danish mainland from a distinctive cultural, linguistic and geographical setting historically characterized by limited consumption opportunities relative to the mainland. Many Greenlanders live in mainland Denmark temporarily, especially to get an education. Some settle because of new life opportunities, spouses, or career possiblities. Consumer acculturation is fundamental to their life experiences.

The purpose of this paper is to investigate identity and consumer acculturation processes among Greenlandic people living in Denmark, and thereby pursue the discussion of the role of consumption both in creating new, hybrid consumer profiles but also in changing Greenlandic culture. Twenty depth interviews have been conducted with Greenlandic immigrants in various Danish cities, focusing on border crossings between the two cultures, consumption patterns in the two cultures, special meanings linking certain types of consumer behaviour in one culture or the other, and expectations for the future development of a "Greenlandic consumer society". A trained member of the Greenlandic community conducted the interviews in order to ensure maximum empathy between interviewer and informant.

Through the use of a model for analysing imagery as narratives (Askegaard & Ger 1998), the "stories" of the Greenlandic informants concerning consumer acculturation processes are extracted and analyzed. Hence, the study contributes to understanding specific consumer acculturation processes between the two investigated cultures, but also to the understanding of consumer acculturation processes in general, of the influence of consumer society on "newcomers," of images of consumption and "the good life" and the cultural impacts of such images (Arnould 1989; Ger 1992). Consistent with previous work (Appadurai 1990; Bouchet 1995), we find that Greenlanders often exhibit a relatively self-conscious attitude towards the consumption of alternative cultural identities. We also find that border crossings produce persistent identity constructions that may nonetheless alternate in Danish and Greenlandic social contexts. Border crossings also reinforce selective, evolving images of Greenlandic and mainland Danish culture.

Cultural differences in identity construction are recurrent themes in the interviews. Greenlanders consciously invoke nature and generalized familial social ties in accounting for identity construction. Greenlandic migrants come to view consumption of wild foods, experiences in nature, and sometimes magical artifacts as anchors for Greenlandic identity. By contrast, informants root Danish patterns of identity and behavior in cultural forms regulated by consumer freedom, the opportunity to choose and be judged in terms of consumption standards and norms. Consumer freedom is a bond that Greenlandic migrants feel ties people together in mainland Danish society. Some feel that while desirable, consumer freedom is a costly freedom; it is one available only for purchase. Concomittantly, social ties are experienced as closer (yet more constraining) in the Greenlandic context and looser (yet more voluntaristic) in the Danish context. Additional themes include the planning orientation typical of Denmark versus the perceived temporal spontaneity of Greenlandic culture. Temporal orientation is linked to the differing ways of scheduling daily life: clock time schedules in Denmark set against nature time schedules in Greenland. Finally differences in the tempo of life in Greenland and mainland Denmark is considered another major difference between the two that affects identity. Greenlanders sometimes feel that identity is threatened by the rapid tempo of mainland Danish life. All of these factors have major impacts on how the Greenlandic people relate to their consumption patterns.


Arjun Appadurai (1990), "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Economy," in Mike Featherstone, ed., Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity, Sage: London, 295-310.

Arnould, E. J. (1989), "Toward a Broadened Theory of Preference Formation and the Diffusion of Innovations: Cases from Zinder Province, Niger Republic," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (September), 239267.

Askegaard, S. & G. Ger (1998), "Product-Country Images: Towards a Contextualized approach", in B. Englis & A. Olofsson, eds., European Advances in Consumer Research, vol. III, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 50-58.

Belk, R.W. & R, Mehta (1991), "Artifacts, Identity and Transition: Favorite Possessions of Indians and Indian Immigrants to the United States," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March), 398-411.

Belk, R.W. & M. Paun (1995), "Ethnicity and Consumption in Romania", in J.A. Costa & G. Bamossy, eds., Marketing in a Multicultural World: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Cultural Identity, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 180-208.

Bouchet, D. (1995), "Marketing and the Redefinition of Ethnicity," in J.A. Costa and G.J. Bamossy, eds., Marketing in a Multicultural World: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Cultural Identity, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 68-104.

Ger, G. (1992), "The Positive and Negative Effects of Marketing on Socioeconomic Development: The Turkish Case," Journal of Consumer Policy, 15, 229-254.

Ger, G., R.W. Belk & D.N. Lascu (1993), "The Development of Consumer Desire in Marketizing and Developing Economies: The Case of Romania and Turkey", in L. McAlister & M.Rothschild, eds., Advances in Consumer Research, vol. XX, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 102-107.

Ger, G. & P. +stergaard (1998) "Constructing Immigrant Identities in Consumption: Appearance Among Turko-Danes," in J.W. Alba and J. Wesley Hutchinson, eds., Advances in Consumer Research, vol. XXV, Provo:UT: Association for Consumer Research, 48-52.

Joy, A. and R. R. Dholakia (1991), "Remembances of Things Past: The Meaning of Home and Possessions of indian Professionals in Canada," in F.W. Rudmin, ed., To Have Possessions: A Handbook of Ownership and Property, Corte Madeira, CA: Select Press, 385-402.

Lofman, B. (1993), "Consumers in Rapid Transition: The Polish Experience", in L. McAlister & M.Rothschild, eds., Advances in Consumer Research, vol. XX, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 18-22.

Pe±alosa, L. (1994), "Atravesando Fronteras/Border Crossings: A Critical Ethnographic Study of the Consumer Acculturation of Mexican Immigrants", Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (June), 32-53.

Schultz, C. & A. Pecotich (1995), "Vietnam: New Assessments of Consumption Patterns in a (Re)Emerging Capitalist Society", in J. Cote & S.M. Leong, eds., Asia-Pacific Advances in Consumer Research, vol. I, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 222-227.



Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University, Turkey

Yesim Bal8m, Unilever, Turkey

This paper focuses on how people who move across geographiesCin this case, from the village to the cityCseek and express identity, relationships and differentiation, in consumption. In this era, in which consumers are ncreasingly mobile and exposed to the "other," or to various "others", consumption of people who move, who are in an in-between state, is a fertile focus for the study of the interplay between identity and consumption. Identity, a central issue in today’s world, is an even more critical issue in transitional societies and transitional populations who abruptly encounter numerous contradictory cultural forces. Modern lives and consumption are about dealing with multiple contradictions. These contradictions are prominent among people crossing geographies. As people move from one geography to another (for example, with immigration and urbanization) and as they move towards becoming modern, their consumption expresses how they resolve the contradictions of and the transitions in their daily lives.

This study explores how furnishings shape and are shaped by identity among the first generation immigrants to the city compared to the rural inhabitants in Alasehir, Turkey. Informants are from twelve households, all of whom were originally from one village and half of whom moved to a city in close proximity. This ethnographic study involves photo-elicitation, observations, and three interviews with each of the twelve households. We examine the formation and meanings of the domestic surroundingsCthe choice of particular products, patterns of usage, arrangement, and meanings of furniture and appliances.

We address issues such as how immigrants to the city adapt and acculturate and relate to (connect to and/or distance themselves from) both their urban/rural presents and rural past/origins. As a sense of new "modern" identity is negotiated, most of the rural and older generation’s ways are seen to be manners and practices to be left behind while a reconstructed relationship to roots is maintained. Urban and Western ways of living (and in this case, domestic environments), whether observed in person, in the media, or imagined, are taken to be the desirable and are reinterpreted and restated. While "the West" is seen to be civilization and a comfortable and easy life, it is also incomprehensible and unfamiliar. As familiar (old, local) practices and meanings encounter foreign (new, urban, Western, global) practices, products, and images, the newly urban versus rural inhabitants adapt, reconfigure meanings and usage of goods, and creolize and synthesize differently.

The endeavor to fashion modern, warm, and beautiful homes shapes the transformations and hybridizations in the types, arrangements, usage patterns, and meanings of domestic things. For example, new/modern appliances and trinkets are domesticated, made warm, beautified, and personalized by hand-made traditional laces and displayed in show-cabinets. In the voyage the material domestic scene takes over time and across generations and space (rural and urban), not only the domestic things, but also the meanings of things consumed and desired, and the timing of purchases are transformed. This transforming voyage of the Turkish home involves a creative creolization, which goes well beyond a mere adoption of Western things and arrangements.



Daniel Miller, University College London, U.K.

This paper seeks to challenge the assumptions behind much conventional consumer research by suggesting that the self is almost an irrelevance in understanding contemporary consumption within economies such as that of Britain, notwithstanding that the concept dominates the literature on this topic. Consumer research has tended to develop using perspectives derived ultimately from Economics or Psychology, which both rely strongly upon the category of the individual. The discipline has also been dominated by examples from the United States where the ideology of individualism and choice is most extreme. This may reflect a distinction from European informants brought up in social-democratic societies, or more likely it may be that disciplinary ideoogy has precluded alternative insights into American households also.

The evidence to support my contentions will be based on a year’s ethnography of shopping by households in and around a street in North London. The dominant forms of shopping were for food, clothing and household goods. The individual is found to be not particularly important as a factor in shopping decisions as compared to social relations. Furthermore choice itself is much less important in shopping compared to the desire to develop conformity and normativity. Most shoppers feel oppressed by the current stress in the market on the individual and on free choice and prefer to delegate choice to institutions in order to concentrate upon their primary concerns which are with relationships rather than individuals, and within which the self is of limited interest or importance. The idea or ideal of self-fulfillment is generally experienced as a contradiction in terms, since the self is not of itself usually regarded as capable of being fulfilled.

In contrast to some arguments in anthropology that kinship has declined as a focus of concern as against increasing orientation to the self and self-creation, I will argue that it is the self that has declined to become merely an example of kinship. A primary use of shopping is precisely to deflect signs of individuality and bring people back within canons of normative discourse. These discourses are not themselves created by some 'system’ which imposes them upon individuals, rather shoppers seek to generate and develop normative discourses through their labour as shoppers in order to be released from the burden of oppressive individualism.



Evgenia Apostolova-Blossom, University of Arizona, U.S.A.

One of the most 'celebrated’ characteristics of modernity has been its commercialism. Another concept, tightly connected to modern life, is ideology which is actualized in the power of everyday actions to sustain a social power hierarchy amidst the divisive nature of modern life. The understanding of the modern self and its realization through everyday consumption would be incomplete without considering the social power of ideology.

Ideology is not a recent phenomenon but has been a peripheral topic for consumer researchers (e.g., Thompson and Hirschman 1995). Within consumer research, the concept of ideology has been the focus of interpretation in few studies. In those studies ideology has been defined as a system of beliefs and values that helps to legitimate the worldview of the dominant group in a society (Hirschman 1988; 1990) or as the worldview of a particular class of people (Hirschman 1993). Both views emanate from a Marxist tradition which emphasizes the social function of ideology. Ideology has also been implicitly present as a determinant of identity in two other studies (Thompson et al. 1994; Fournier 1998). Although not the focus of these latter papers, the authors’ conceptualizations of cultural views (Thompson et al. 1994) and value systems (Fournier 1998) can be interpreted as underlined by the concept of ideology.

This paper examines the relationships between consumption and ideology as symbolic social phenomena in an effort to reveal their modern complexity. The present research deviates from the conceptualization of ideology as a worldview or belief system. This paper, while acknowledging the above definitions and relationships between ideology and consumer behavior, adopts a different view, influenced mostly by the work of P. Bourdieu (1984), T. Eagleton (1991), and J. Thompson (1990). In order to highlight the significance of ideology in modern market relations, the focus of this work is on consumer resistance.

Among the symbolic meanings of consumption there are those that maintain social relationships of domination and subordination. These symbolic meanings constitute the ideological within consuption. Ideology is the silent background of everyday life translated into the symbolic use of commoditiesBconsumption acts that sustain the hierarchical social structure of modernity.

Interpretation of fifteen depth interviews with American consumers reveals diverse consumption practices within a modern society. Two power hierarchies emerge from the everyday stories of the informants. The first one, between the consumer and the market, is reflected in their consumer resistance actions. The second one emanates from the everyday consumption decisions of these individuals: It is a powerful symbolic recreation of a hierarchy of social domination. Together the two hierarchies unveil a spectacle of the individual expression within the constraints of the contemporary market.

The meaning of the informants’ consumption practices manifests different symbolic valuation strategies dictated by their positions within a field of interaction (Thompson 1990). This interpretation is enriched by a tradition of examining consumption as a symbolic process of social interaction (e.g., Solomon 1983; Belk 1988; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989; Holt 1997). These studies illuminate the present understanding of the social function of consumption to establish social relations and simultaneously facilitate the maintenance and creation of the self.

Consumption, as interpreted here, is only one part of the process that reveals the presence of ideology in the market. The other two components that complete the multiplicity of this process are the production (creation, promotion and distribution) of the product and the product itself (the structural characteristics of goods, services, ideas, etc.). This paper emphasizes only consumption as an active process of re-production of asymmetric relationships of power by the consumer.

The theoretical argument of this paper also suggests a re-interpretation of past research of consumer resistance practices (Dobscha 1997; Schor 1998). These practices can be interpreted in light of their unifying ideological meaning and differentiated symbolic strategies. This new perspective reveals the ideological nature of consumer resistance within a field structured by unequal social positions.


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Evgenia Apostolova-Blossom, University of Arizona, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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