Anti-Constellations: Conceptualization and Content

ABSTRACT - The creation of meaning via consumption involves positive and negative choices. Consumption constellations have been used to model the complementarity of positive choices among multi-category products. Consumption anti-constellations have been proposed to represent the complementarity of negative choices across multi-category products. Anti-constellations involve two aspects of consumers’ negative choices: non choice and anti choice. We report findings which show that the creation of meaning via negative consumption is influenced by two sets of factors: by affordability, availability and accessibility which can be linked to non choice; and by abandonment, avoidance and aversion which can be linked to anti choice.


Margaret K. Hogg (1998) ,"Anti-Constellations: Conceptualization and Content", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 44-49.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 44-49


Margaret K. Hogg, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, England


The creation of meaning via consumption involves positive and negative choices. Consumption constellations have been used to model the complementarity of positive choices among multi-category products. Consumption anti-constellations have been proposed to represent the complementarity of negative choices across multi-category products. Anti-constellations involve two aspects of consumers’ negative choices: non choice and anti choice. We report findings which show that the creation of meaning via negative consumption is influenced by two sets of factors: by affordability, availability and accessibility which can be linked to non choice; and by abandonment, avoidance and aversion which can be linked to anti choice.


Studies of symbolic consumption have largely concentrated on the positive aspects of consumption and yet the meanings which can be derived from consumption revolve around both positive and negative choices. Consumers use product, brand and activity choices for the purposes of establishing similarity and differentiation and to indicate inclusion and exclusion in relation to different social groups (Bauman 1990).

This study investigates the 'aversive’ aspects of consumer choice, described by Bourdieu (1984:56) as 'the refusal of taste’, within the context of a series of product or brand choices. After a literature review of identity, roles and consumption constellations, we present a model of the factors which influence the formation of anti-constellations. We outline the research design and methodology; we discuss the findings from the exploratory study; and we review the limitations of the study.


Identity, roles and consumption

Following Mead (1934) consumption involves behaviors which are 'constituted’ into action and have meaning in creating, confirming, and transforming situated identities. Following Rogers (1951) and Alderson (1957) it would be expected that consumers would seek a 'fit’ among consumption choices within the context of the relevant role/identity.

Consumption combinations

Most consumer research has been directed at understanding the symbolic meanings which could be attached to the consumption of individual products. A number of studies have examined the association between consumers and groups of products (Alderson 1957; Levy 1964; Kernan and Sommers 1967; Wells 1968; Alpert and Gatty 1969; Green, Wind and Jain 1972; Kehret-Ward 1987). Holman (1980; 1981a; 1981b; 1983) indicated the value of examining the complementarity of meaning carried by goods. Solomon used consumption constellations to explore the complementarity of symbolic meaning which could be carried by consumption choices across multi-category products and services (Solomon 1988; Solomon and Assael 1987; Solomon and Buchanan 1991). Solomon and Assael (1987) argued that the symbolic content of products could be derived from the appearance of products in consumption inventories of 'prototypical social role occupants’.

Consumption Anti-Constellations

Consumption anti-constellations were an emergent theme in a study of British consumers (Hogg 1995) and represent sets of negative choices across multi-category products and services. Anti-constellations were seen to involve two aspects of consumers’ negative choices: non choice and anti choice. Non choice included products and services which were simply not bought, often because they were not within the means of the consumer. Anti choices included products and services which were positively not chosen because they were seen as incompatible and/or inconsistent with the consumer’s other consumption choices and preferences.

The negative choices embraced by anti-constellations are influenced by two sets of factors: affordability; availability; and accessibility (non choice): and abandonment; avoidance; and aversion (anti choice)(Bourdieu 1984; Wilk 1994; 1995).


We used a two-stage research design to examine the inventories of products and services which would specifically not be asociated with prototypical social role occupants; and the reasons why. The first stage exercise was modelled on earlier research into constellations (Solomon and Assael 1987). Forty-seven undergraduate Management Science students completed a series of open-ended questions to elicit the structure and content of anti-constellations. Secondly five semi-structured in-depth interviews were held with participants from the first stage, to explore more extensively the meanings which could be related to role-to-product associations within anti-constellations, and linked to their actual, aspirational and avoidance selves. These interviews were also used to explore further the factors which the model-building had identified as influential in affecting negative consumption.

Research objectives

The research objectives of the first stage of the study, in line with Solomon and Assael’s original goals (1987), were firstly to confirm that consumers can generate anti-constellations on the basis of an occupational cue and we sought to explore the level of detail generated by respondents when thinking about anti-constellations. Secondly, we wished to examine the level of specification (e.g. product versus brand). Thirdly, we wished to establish the similarity and difference in product category content for anti-constellations across occupations. In addition to the initial three goals from the previous study (Solomon and Assael 1987), we also wanted to see, fourthly, if the three product categories (clothing, electronic equipment and cars) which had dominated the content of constellations (Solomon and Assael 1987), were also represented to the same degree in anti-constellations. Or, were other product categories (e.g. food and music, cf. Wilk 1994) more dominant in anti-constellations? Fifthly, we also sought to confirm that consumers’ knowledge and understanding of role-to-product associations could be linked to their degree of familiarity with the occupational cue. The final research objective was to use both stages in the study to identify and explore the factors which influenced negative choices.




Forty-seven undergraduate management science students (average age of twenty years) at a British university took part in the first exercise. The overwhelming majority were of U.K. origin and from the social classes A/B/C1 [Social classes A/B/C1 represent socio-economic and occupational categories covering upper class, middle class and white collar working class groups.] with family backgrounds largely linked to professional and business social groups. Five participants from the initial stage participated in the second stage of semi-structured in-depth interviews.

The Exercise

Participants in both stages were asked to generate anti-constellations for three occupational roles. The first occupational role was 'student’ which represented their 'actual situational self’. The second occupational role was chosen to represent the students’ 'aspirational self’. The third occupational role was selected to represent part of their 'familial self’Btheir father’s or a family member’s occupational role.


For the first stage, the participants were given a verbal briefing and then each participant received a written briefing: explaining the purpose of the research; assuring anonymity of responses; and setting out the nature of the task. Participants were asked to form a mental picture of the relevant occupational role, thinking about a typical day in the life of that person. Students were then invited to list any products or services which they would not expect to associate with that occupation.

All the respondents were askedto generate anti-constellations for all three occupational roles. The occupations were chosen to ensure the respondents’ maximum familiarity with the roles. The first occupational role cue was 'student’. The second cue represented the respondents’ 'aspirational occupation’ (and hence their aspirational reference group): participants were asked to imagine themselves in their career in five years’ time. The third cue was selected by the respondents: they were asked to describe their father’s occupation (or the occupation of someone with whom they were very familiar). The participants spent fifteen minutes altogether completing the exercise. They concentrated an average of two and a half minutes on generating responses for each section of the prompt sheet (this is in line with Cantor and Mischel’s design 1979:20).

For the second stage, five participants completed the same written exercise in advance of the interview. They were asked to give reasons for the inclusion of products and brands in the anti-constellations for each occupational role. These completed questionnaires were the basis of the subsequent discussion. Each student was interviewed individually; the discussions lasted from thirty-five minutes to an hour. All the interviews were recorded and transcribed; and then analyzed using Miles and Huberman’s (1994) themes: positive, negative and discrepant.


Generative ability

An analysis of the number of products and brands which the respondents generated for anti-constellations in the first stage is shown in Table 1. For the second cue, the aspirational occupations described by the respondents were largely at the basic or middle level of categorization (Cantor and Mischel (1979:25)). When describing the third occupation, eighty per cent of the respondents described their father’s occupation; for the remaining twenty per cent, most respondents chose an occupation with a family relationship (e.g. mother, fiancT(e), brother, uncle).

These results (Table 1) compared with a range of between four and twenty 'with a typical listing consisting of six to ten products’ for the generation of positive associations between product and role (constellations)(Solomon and Assael 1987:205). The results suggest that the generation of negative associations (anti-constellations) produced a smaller level of detail than the generation of positive associations (constellations). Also, the 'average number of product mentions’ supported earlier research that the level of role knowledge and familiarity would be linked to level of detail on consumption. The 'typical range of product mentions’ also suggested that level of knowledge and affinity to occupational cue was important in influencing the degree of detail attached to anti-constellations.

Brand Level Associations

When describing role-to-product non associations for the first occupational cueBstudentsBsignificant levels of brand associations were found in three categories: food, cars and clothing/footwear. The brands generated in describing the anti-constellations which would be associated with the aspirational cue centred largely on cars, food and fast food outlets. Similarly, for the third set of anti-constellations associated with a familial occupation, the main brands generated were linked to cars, media, food and fast food outlets.





Solomon and Assael (1987) had also found mixed results when examining the ratio of 'brand to product mentions’. Solomon and Assael (1987:207) argued that there were 'differences in the composition or clarity of constellations at different levels of abstraction’. These findings (Table 2) would suggest that composition and clarity can be linked more easily to the structureof constellations than to anti-constellations. In anti-constellations the level of detail does not necessarily seem to be related to affinity to the occupational cue (Table 2). The attributes used to describe products in anti-constellations were frequently not linked to brand but to other features (e.g. proxies for or indicators of quality such as cost, source of goods (such as takeaways or market stalls) or location (e.g. housing)).

Major product categories in anti-constellations

In Solomon and Assael’s study of constellations 'almost one half of the product elements came from three categories: clothing, electronic equipment and cars’ (1987:207). In this study the relative contribution of product categories is shown in Table 3. The changing composition of the anti-constellationsBas the cue moves from actual occupational role (student) to aspirational occupational roleBis interesting because it indicates quite clearly the abandonment of certain product categories, most notably the use of public transport, particularly buses. The interpretation of the presence of other major product categories in the anti-constellations, such as cars and clothing, can only be undertaken by examining the attributes used by the respondents to describe the product elements. A major distinction was made between the presence of upscale cars and expensive branded clothing in the students’ anti-constellations; and the presence of cheap cars and poor quality clothing in the anti-constellations associated with both the aspirational and the familial cues. The respondents used these attributes or product features to help them categorize goods and thus identify the membership characteristics of anti-constellations. The presence of expensive examples from the product categories of cars, clothing and food in the students’ anti-constellations, suggested the importance of factors such as: affordability; availability; and accessibility in influencing the components of the anti-constellation which could be associated with students.


A number of points emerge clearly from the experiment. Firstly, consumers can generate anti-constellations in response to occupational cues. Secondly, consumers can provide information about anti-constellations at product and brand level; however detailed brand knowledge of anti-constellations did not seem to be necessarily related to occupations with which the consumers were in close proximity. Thirdly, the respondents generated fifteen product categories for the anti-constellations associated with the occupational cue: student; and eleven for the other two occupational cues: aspirational and familial. This compared with the thirteen product categories generated by the study of constellations (Table 3, Solomon and Assael 1987:209). The major product categories which appeared across all the anti-constellations were clothing/footwear; cars; and food. Public transport and fast food/takeaways appeared in the anti-constellations associated with the occupational cues: aspirational and familial. Fourthly, of the major product categories in constellations (Solomon and Assael 1987:207)Bcars, clothing and electronic equipmentBthe latter did not appear in the anti-constellations. Fifthly, consumers’ knowledge and understanding of role-to-product associations could be linked to their degree of familiarity with the occupational cue.




The second stage of the study, a series of semi-structured interviews, was used to explore in greater depth the factors which drive negative consumption choices; nd to elicit the meanings which individual consumers attribute to their anti-constellations. Within the anti-constellations non choices were clearly linked to availability, accessibility and were connected to a consumer’s ability to afford a particular product choice.

Rebecca: "I’ve discovered Dales and I love it. It is a good store. It has bargains all the time and it’s cheap and it has some cheap brands Tesco’s is quite expensive whenever we come back at the beginning of term, everyone has a boxBand it has lots of Tesco food in it, and it is wonderful, and after a while you go back to Dales which isn’t so good.. [Tesco is] something you associate with being at home and having a bit more money" [Tesco is a major, somewhat upscale, supermarket chain; Dales is a small grocery chain, with a somewhat more downscale and cheaper image.]

In contrast, abandonment, avoidance and aversion each expressed different degrees of anti choice or the refusal of taste. Abandonment was linked to the casting off of consumption choices linked to former social group membership (indicated by the presence of buses and public transport in the aspirational anti-constellations). Avoidance involved the desire to minimize potential consumption choices which could have symbolic or socio-cultural associations: ('nothing associated with a student’). Aversion was the strongest expression of 'distaste’ and involved definite decisions not to consume.

Sally "the studyingBI’m getting fed up with that now.. just wanting to get better quality products and electrical things .. not wanting to have the basic necessitiesByou want something a bit more.. "

By examining the different anti-constellations, it is possible to identify the varying influence of each of these forces on consumers’ choices. The anti-constellations of students were largely characterized by issues of availability and accessibility associated with their generally poorer economic status. There was more evidence of non choice than of anti choice in the students’ anti-constellations. Non choice is often indicated by what consumers cannot afford, and was illustrated by the presence of Marks and Spencers’ [Marks and Spencer is renowned for retailing very expensive foodstuffs.] food in the students’ own anti-constellations. There was little evidence of the influence of abandonment/avoidance/aversion in the students’ own anti-constellations. However, the descriptions of their aspirational anti-constellations gave clear indications of the importance of both abandonment and avoidance as factors for their expected consumption patterns in five years’ time.

Food was present in the anti-constellations of both students and aspirational groups, and was an example of how the meaning of product categories could vary across anti-constellations. Similarly when shopping for clothes, in the aspirational anti-constellation there was evidence of moving away from cheap clothing (e.g. free T-shirts, poor quality clothes: 'a shift that fell apart after I washed it once’); cheaper brands (e.g. clothes from New Look and Etam [Retailers of cheap clothing.]); cast-off clothing (e.g. Oxfam [Oxfam is a major U.K. charity whose fund-raising activities include selling second-hand clothing.]); clothes from market stalls and shopping in factory outlets. Choices about clothes could be seen to be influenced by abandonment/avoidance factors in the aspirational anti-constellations.

Elements of abandonment/avoidance/aversion were clearly present in the aspirational anti-constellations identified by students. Aversion can be summarized as "what I don’t want at all in my aspirational self"; and abandonment can be summarized as "what I plan to leave behind me as characteristic of my present role or actual situational self". Both aversion and abandonment were represented in the aspirational anti-constellations by such aspects of student roles as: debt, banger cars, 'No Frills’ food, poor housing, laundrettes, examinations ['banger cars' is slang for beaten up autos; 'No Frills' foodstuffs are a very cheap supermarket own label brand.]. These were expected to be absent from the lifestyle associated with aspirationa cues; and were seen as absent from the familial lifestyles.

Role Affinity and Role Familiarity

Evidence was found that consumers’ understanding of anti-constellations was clearly linked to role affinity and familiarity with occupational role and group identity; although all the interviewees commented on the difficulty of describing a 'typical student’.

Erica: "I found it very difficult to categorize 'a student’ .. I tried thinking of myself, other students I knowBand there is so much difference"

Rather they could identify a range of student types. The different levels of detail about anti-constellations linked to occupational cues reflected work in social psychology which demonstrated that the closer the affinity to the group, then the finer the understanding of different aspects of group membership and the associated consumption (Taylor et al 1978).

The symbolic complementarity of product/brands within the anti-constellation could be understood within the context of family resemblance structure (Wittgenstein/Cantor and Mischel 1979:9)linked to such descriptives as: cheap, poor quality, second hand or tacky.

The interviews confirmed how positive and negative aspects of consumption could be used to show both similarity and differentiation. For instance, to establish similarity, negative consumption choices were used as a marker to demonstrate membership of a group (e.g. certain cars and clothing were associated with student lifestyles rather than with career lifestyles). Differentiation in consumption choices was used as a marker to indicate distance from other groups. The most notable example of this for both the survey respondents and for the interviewees was the absence of extensive personal debt from the consumption constellation associated with their career roles in five years time.


This was a small scale study. Some of the issues surrounding the use of students as subjects were considerably alleviated firstly by the examination of 'actual self’ of students in their roles as consumers; and secondly by the concentration on occupational roles with which the participants were either very familiar (part of their 'familial self’), or to which they aspired (aspirational self).

The focus of this study was on exploring the generative ability of respondents in relation to anti-constellations, rather than on necessarily examining the role-to-product associations for particular occupational groups. Therefore we have not analyzed the anti-constellations for aspirational and familial occupations within the context of these specific occupations (e.g. fashion buyer, engineer). There was also little evidence (e.g. Table 1) of different levels of knowledge for products associated with their aspirational or familial self.

Whereas the first stage of the study had been modelled on earlier work (Solomon and Assael); the second stage represented the first attempt to elicit anti-constellations via semi-structured interviews, and represented part of a longer term multi-method project. Although the early qualitative findings provided some valuable insights, respondents found it difficult to fulfil fairly abstract tasks. A projective technique which involved more directive prompts might aid respondents’ generation of product and brand details.


This study extended an earlier Amrican study of consumption constellations. Anti-constellations were found to revolve around certain product categories: clothing/footwear, cars, food, fast food/takeaways, public transport. This was in contrast to the predominance of the categories of cars, clothing and electronic goods which was found in earlier studies of constellations. The study explored the factors which influence negative choices: affordability; availability; and accessibility ~ which could be associated with non choice ~ and abandonment; avoidance; and aversion ~ which could be associated with anti choice. The discussion of how individuals assign meanings to the negative aspects of their consumption choices showed that anti-constellations represent an important topic area for future research.


[a complete set of references is available on request]

Bauman, Zymunt (1990): Thinking Sociologically, Blackwell, Oxford.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984): Distinction, translated by Richard Nice, Routledge and Kegan, London.

Cantor, Nancy and Walter Mischel (1979): 'Prototypes in Person Perception’, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 12 ed. L. Berkowitz 4-52, Academic Press, New York.

Hogg, Margaret K. (1995): "Conceptualizing and Investigating Patterns of Consumer Behaviour towards In-Home Shopping", unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Manchester.

Holman, Rebecca H. (1980): "Clothing as communication: an empirical investigation", in: Advances in Consumer Research. Vol. 7. (Ed: Olson, J. C.) Association for Consumer Research, Ann Arbor, MI, 372-377.

Kehret-Ward, Trudy (1987): "Combining Products in Use: How the Syntax of Product Use Affects Marketing Decisions", in: Marketing and Semiotics: New Directions in the Study of Signs for Sale. (Ed: Umiker-Sebeok, Jean) Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 219-238.

Kernan, Jerome B. and Sommers, Montrose S. (1967): "Meaning, Value and Theory of Promotion", Journal of Communication, 17 (2) 109-135.

Miles, Matthew R. and A. Michael Huberman (1994): Qualitative Data Analysis 2nd ed. Sage, Thousand Oaks.

Solomon, Michael R. and Assael, Henry (1987): "The Forest or the Trees? A Gestalt Approach to Symbolic Consumption", in: Marketing and Semiotics: New Directions in the Study of Signs for Sale. (Ed: Umiker-Sebeok, Jean) Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 189-217.

Taylor, Shelley E. et al (1978): 'Categorical and contextual bases of person memory and stereotyping’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36 (7), 778-793.

Wilk, Richard R. (1994): "'I hate Pizza’: Distaste and Dislike in the Consuming Lives of Belizeans", American Anthropological Association Meeting, Atlanta, November.

Wilk, Richard R. (1995): "Learning Distaste: The Social Importance of Not-Wanting", conference paper read at "Learning to Consume", Lund University, August.

Wilk, Richard R. (1996): "A Critique of Desire: Distaste and Dislike in Consumer Behavior" Special Session Paper, Association for Consumer Research, Tucson, October.



Margaret K. Hogg, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, England


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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