Consumption, Role Transitions and the Re-Construction of the Self: an Exploratory Study of Social Capital Within the Context of Transitional Consumers

ABSTRACT - We examine how women use consumption to negotiate their identities and reconstruct their sense of self as they experience major role transitions and the associated disruption to the networks which represent their social capital. We investigated the Alived experience@ of mothers whose grown children had recently left home. A multi-method approach, which combined in-person interviews with netnography, was used to explore women’s feelings, behaviour and experiences. We identify the distress experienced through the loss of tasks associated with the parenting role; the diminution of social capital which follows from the re-configuration of their familial roles; and how these empty nest women use consumption to help them re-negotiate their identities in this period of transition. We discuss how transitional consumers represent a valuable 'site’ for exploring issues of identity creation.


Margaret K. Hogg, Pauline Maclaran, and Carolyn F. Curasi (2003) ,"Consumption, Role Transitions and the Re-Construction of the Self: an Exploratory Study of Social Capital Within the Context of Transitional Consumers", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 258-262.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 258-262


Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, UK

Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University, UK

Carolyn F. Curasi, Georgia State University, USA


We examine how women use consumption to negotiate their identities and reconstruct their sense of self as they experience major role transitions and the associated disruption to the networks which represent their social capital. We investigated the "lived experience" of mothers whose grown children had recently left home. A multi-method approach, which combined in-person interviews with netnography, was used to explore women’s feelings, behaviour and experiences. We identify the distress experienced through the loss of tasks associated with the parenting role; the diminution of social capital which follows from the re-configuration of their familial roles; and how these empty nest women use consumption to help them re-negotiate their identities in this period of transition. We discuss how transitional consumers represent a valuable 'site’ for exploring issues of identity creation.


In this paper we examine how women use consumption to negotiate their identities and reconstruct their sense of self as they experience major role transitions and the associated disruption to the networks which represent their social capital. Transitions have been described as "a limbo between a past state and a coming one, a period of personal ambiguity, of non-status, and of unanchored identity" (Schouten 1991:49) and represent valuable sites for exploring the relationship between consumption and identity creation. Transitions can also be linked to changes in roles and disruption to networks, which are central to the location of the self in the social world.

Structural changes, role adjustments and alterations in social capital can be associated with a number of different familial transition points in adult-child relationships (Kell 1992) (e.g. starting school; changing school; first school trip). We concentrate on the empty nest stage where previous attention has been largely focused on economic aspects (e.g. spending habits) to the relative neglect of consumption linked to psycho-social needs. However, the empty nest stage also represents a potentially rich site for researching consumers in periods of transition. This interpretive study explores how women use consumption to negotiate this transition phase and their adjustment to new identities and roles; their re-configuration of roles, tasks and networks; and their experience of and response to the disruption to their social and emotional capital. We briefly review the literature on social capital and the associated themes of networks, foci of activities and friendships.


Social capital

There is considerable debate about what constitutes social capital. Some key definitional issues revolve around "sociability, social networks and social support, trust, reciprocity, and community and civic engagement" (Morrow 1999). These are all central to family life; and in particular to the 'work which women do’ (Bruess and Pearson 1996) within the family in terms of generating and enhancing social capital.

Firstly, social capital denotes a number of important connections to social networks and social network theory (Scott 1991); the strength of weak ties (Granovetter 1973) and embeddedness (1988); relationships (Duck); friendships and foci of activity (Allan 1979; Adams and Allan 1998); and emotional capital (Nowotny 1981) and emotion work (Hochschild 1975; Hochschild with Machung 1989). Secondly, social capital has been seen as 'currency (Astone et al 1999:1) and relates to "the resources that emerge from one’s social ties" (Portes and Landolt 1996:26). Thirdly, social capital has been defined as "access to time and money, help from friends and family" (Boisjoly, Duncan and Hofferth 1995:609. Coleman (1988) made a distinction between "social capital inside and outside the household, with a primary source of intrahousehold social capital consisting of the time parents spend with one another and with their children" (cited in Boisjoly, Duncan and Hofferth 1995:609). Allatt (1993, 1996) similarly identifies the contribution which women make, in terms of such resources as the investment of time, in building both social and emotional capital (Nowotny 1981:148) in the home, most noticeably for their children (Morrow 1995:755).

Morrow (1999) argues for conceptualising "social capital as a set of processes and practices that are integral to the acquisition of other forms of 'capital’ suh as human capital and cultural capital (i.e. qualifications, skills, group memberships, etc.)" (Morrow 1999). In this context, the family can be seen as the 'factory’ for the production of social capital (Allatt 1993, 1996; Collins 1992) as mothers introduce their children into social networks; teach their children how to acquire, maintain and enhance the networks which constitute social capital; and help their children acquire the skills necessary for building their own networks. In one study Allatt (1993) found that parents encouraged a range of qualities in their children, including 'responsibility, individualism, hard work, effort and pleasure in achievement, social competence and access to critical social capital networks’ (1993:157). She showed that parents try to develop their children’s agency and indeed saw this as an aim and outcome of their parental investment" (Morrow 1999:756). Parents also used their social networks on behalf of their childrenBin other words they taught their children both how to use social capital and how to create their own social capital. Morrow concluded 'This is a critical transfer, since such aspects of social capital have to be recreated with each new generation’ (1993:143). These transfers of social capital have both micro and macro implications with resulting far reaching ramifications.

Roles, networks and foci of activities/friendship

Scott (1991:30) argued that "roles, together with their role sets are defined through networks of interdependent activities". Families have interlocking networks with interdependent activitiesBand the degree of interlocking is linked to the variety of roles, which in turn are the source of identity and self-esteem. Where self-esteem is dependent on multiple roles (e.g. parenting, motherhood), adjustment to a role loss tends to be easier, especially when the change in the parenting role leads to diminution of social capital, and reduced access to some networks as sources of social capital.

The variety of networks and the associated foci of activity and friendships that one is involved in seem to be important for adjusting to changes in relationships. Network density relates to "the number of different focus sources underlying the networkBmore sources means lower density (Feld 1981; Fischer 1982a)" Feld and Carter (1998:146). Feld and Carter (1998) argue for the importance of looking "beyond the overall density to the number and nature of the continuing foci of activity to understand how participation in each of those particular foci of activity facilitates or hampers adjustment" (ibid). This links to Simmel’s argument about the importance of "intersecting rather than overlapping social circles" when adjusting to disruptions to networks based on activities or friendship groups (Feld and Carter 1998:148-9). Important linkages can therefore be mapped between social capital, networks and roles so that social capital encompasses inter alia "sociability, social networks and social support" (Morrow 1999:744).


Our objective was to study 'consumers in transition’ from the subjective perspective of individual women. We sought to better understand the lived experience of empty nest women and how they use consumption to negotiate their role transition. We used a mixed-method research design that combined in-person, unstructured interviews with netnography. We collected two separate data sets using an interpretive methodology.

First data set: Our first data set consisted of twenty-one in-person unstructured interviews with empty nest women whose children had left the parental home within the last 18 months. Participants were recruited via friends and acquaintances using a snowball sampling method (Miles and Huberman 1994). An informal approach was adopted for the interviews, with the researchers using a broad topic list covering key issues including: changes to daily activities; lifestyle; social networks; consumption patterns; and their role as a mother. The interviews were audio taped and transcribed verbatim, resulting in approximately 300 pages of data. Themes were identified independently and then discussed amongst the team members.

Second data set: The second data set was collected by participating on two Internet on-line bulletin boards, using netnography, or online ethnography (Kozinets, 1997, 1998). Data was collected through participant observation to develop a better understanding of the experiences of empty nester women and to attempt to better understand how they negotiate this transition in their lives as expressed via cyber-space bulletin boards. The sites selected were specifically designed for women dealing with the day-to-day experiences of recently becoming empty nesters. Following the research ethics suggested by other researchers involved in ethnography (Sharf 1999), we announced on the bulletin board our presence as researchers interested in the topic of empty nest women, and of our plans to prepare research papers on this topic. We believe that we benefitted from the fact that the three members of our research team are women, and that two of the three team members are themselves empty nesters negotiating the same role transition as the participants on the bulletin board. The second data set resulted in approximately 200 postings to the bulletin board, which was organized and analyzed using qualitative data analysis software.

Both data sets are international in nature. The in-person interviews were conducted in the U.S., England, and Ireland. The bulletin board sites contained postings from participants from numerous countries with English speaking populations, reflecting the international landscape of many online communities.


In the analysis and interpretation of our data sets three main themes emerged: the distress caused by this role transition and identity transformation; the evaluation and redefinition of the self which flowed from this experience of role status change and identity transformation; and the disruption to the networks of these respondents, with the subsequent diminution of their social capital. We deal very briefly in this paper with the first two themes that have been reported elsewhere in detail (Curasi, Hogg and Maclaran 2001) in order to provide a context for the more detailed discussion of the third theme. Our findings are discussed in relation to the changing patterns of consumption and are illustrated with representative quotes that specify whether the informant participated via the cyberspace bulletin board or through an in-person interview.

Role Transition, Identity Transformation and the Redefinition of the Self

The empty nester phase clearly represents a liminal state (van Gennep 1961). We found that informants’ adjustments were complex, idiosyncratic and affected by many factors including: their relationships to others, especially their children; roles occupied outside the home, including employment, and involvement in church or other organizations; and the length of time spent adjusting to this transition.

Many of the women interviewees and all the bulletin board participants articulated difficulty dealing with this transition e.g:

"This year hasn=t been bad. It’s the second year. The first year was... just devastating for me... I mean, I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping... we took her to school and I thought I was going to die. I cried all the way home. I literally made it from her dorm room to the elevator, which was probably about 6 yards and completely came unglued". (In-person interview)

Many empty nester women openly questioned just what their roles were. Most women commonly asked about their role as a mother, and what their identity was, now that their child-raising role seemed to lie behind them:

"My nest has been empty for about one and a half years... So many pieces of my life that now are part of the past. I am not the me I understood myself to be. I love being a Gramma but I miss being the mom I was." (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board) [emphasis added]

"I loved giving up the mommy duties (food, clothing, worry), so I thought I had escaped the dreaded Syndrome. Now, I’m not sure. If I’m no longer a nurturerCmy most satisfying role thus far in life, what am I? Has anyone else been through this? Any suggestions?" (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)[emphasis added]

Establishing, Maintaining and Developing Networks and Social Capital

Our informants experienced the loss of the important tasks (caring for and caring about, De Vault 1991) attached to the key mothering role in their lives as their children move away. One major task was teaching children how to create and use social capital. They described the consumption of all the resources (e.g. time, money, emotion) committed to fulfilling this aspect of their parental role.

There was much evidence of Thompson’s (1996) 'juggling lifestyle’ as women related the time and effort that they put into activities that established, maintained and developed their children’s social networks and social skills. These activities included: regular attendance at youth organisations such as girl guides and brownies, boy scouts and cubs; participation in sports such as hockey, swimming, soccer, rugby; weekly elocution, piano, singing or dancing lessons; and more informal visits with friends; and were all associated with the production of sociability (De Vault 1991). In many cases informants’ lives had revolved around such activities while the children were at home.

"I guess the biggest changes were due to the fact that both of my sons were very active in sports and played soccer for many years. So our weekends were pretty much tied up with their activities, because we followed every activity as much as we could, or every one that we possibly could. And, all of a sudden there weren=t any games to go to as frequently. We had a lot of extra time on our hands... we’re not as actively involved in our children’s lives as we were when they were younger" (In person interview)

From this participant’s description we can see how her family’s consumption of leisure time activities had changed when her sons left home; and the impact which it had had on one of the key household resources: time.

Many had taken part-time or flexible working hours to accommodate the balancing act that was required to maintain these activities. Even those who had pursued a career still had to find some way of organising such activities, albeit by frequently delegating to others. Indeed, for career women, their own social capital networks can become even more vital to ensuring the smooth running of their children’s networks as they shared these tasks on a reciprocal basis with other mothers. The following quote from one informant whose children have just finished college typically illustrates the multiple roles that women adopt, and their juggling lifestyles (Thompson 1996):

"I worked the whole time my kids were growing up but I still did everything. I was the PTA mom, the cheerleading mom, football mom, wrestling mom, gymnastics mom, softball mom, baseball mom, diving and swimming mom. I volunteerd and did it all." (Empty Nest Bulletin Board).

Whether working outside the home or not, most women conveyed a sense of arranging their lives around their children’s and prioritising their children’s activities over their own.

In terms of consumption and provisioning, household rituals were often established around the maintenance of such activities, for example, having meals at particular times on certain days to accommodate children’s busy schedules. Rook argues that the family "is the source of numerous and highly variable rituals that animate mealtime, bedtime, and birthday and holiday celebrations. Within a family unit, ritual practices cement relationships and foster joint participation in household activities" (Rook 1985:255). This echoes Allatt’s (1993, 1996) idea of the interlinking of social and emotional capital. We can clearly see a strong emotional involvement accompanying the various mothers’ roles and rituals that contribute to the development of children’s social capital. Kathleen, for instance, related how she would dutifully prepare the evening meal every morning before she left for work, when her children were at home. Kathleen is a good illustration of the importance placed on the family meal (Miller 1998). Significantly, mealtimes provide a good opportunity for family communication and can therefore play a crucial role in the development of the children’s social capital (Putnam 2000). However, significant changes in provisioningBand thus in patterns of consumptionBfollowed the children leaving home. Kathleen described how the routine of family mealtimes changed in the empty nest setting. Therefore all the routines associated with 'feeding the family’ (De Vault 1991) changed in the empty nest setting, and had a concomitant impact on patterns of consumer behaviour (e.g. foodstuffs bought; retail outlets patronized; re-allocation of resources of time and money from provisioning the family to other pursuits).

Loss of Social Capital Structures

For many women, however, the changes often produced deep role insecurity as suddenly they found themselves with more time on their hands. Days that had once seemed so full of activities were frequently referred to as "empty" by many informants.

"I miss watching her [eldest daughter] perform, singing, and dancing the most. She was so good. It seems I’m having trouble finding something I enjoy as much as watching her perform. I do plenty of hobbies, churchwork, and have 3 other girls, but the first one is hard. It seems all the activities I said I would do when I didn=t have to drive her around anymore just don’t seem to be as inviting as I thought they would." (Empty Nest Bulletin Board)

This informant’s story highlights the switch in leisure activities within the pattern of consumption from 'consuming’ her daughter’s performances, and also consuming 'vicariously’ her daughter’s success and achievement in those performances; to other patterns of leisure time consumption (e.g hobbies, church work).

One woman even used the term "dreary" to describe how her pattern of life had changed. And adjustment was clearly more difficult for those women who had not worked outside the home. They were especially vulnerable to feelings of insecurity at this time. Mandy recalled her feelings as she realised that she was "losing" her kids, her uncertainty over her new situation is evident:

"I had arranged my life around them, and it was unconscious, actually, but my money, my time, projects that I worked on, I would check their schedules first. So now that they are gone, it’s very confusing at times, the emptiness that I think is invigorating, for the most part, most days but then it’s the other part about what I didn=t do with my life to prepare myself now." (In person interview).

Mandy highlights again the important switch in resources of time and money when children leave home, and the impact not just on financial but also on social aspects of consumption. Having spent so much time and energy developing their children’s social capital (the production of sociability, De Vault 1991), it seems that many women do not have their own social capital resources to fall back on. Suddenly they find that networks held together through their children and their children’s activities have diminished and that they have nothing with which to replace these networks. A switch in consumption patterns from being based around their children’s lives to being located around neighbourhood activities and clubs (e.g. golf) is visible in Mary’s description:

Mary: "it was just like you have to build a whole new base of friendship because all of your friendships were based on what your kids did, and that was hard."

Interviewer: So, how do you make friends now?

Mary: "Work, and we’re involved in a few more activities stuff in the neighbourhood, just a few more clubs, golfing a little more, just getting into a few more activities that the children’s time didn=t take up." (In person interview)

Our findings suggest that many women neglect their own social networks during their years of child rearing. Consequently, feelings of loss and emptiness were commonly expressed. Such feelings were particularly acute with several women who had also moved their residence during their transition to an empty nest. They found themselves cut off from their old social networks and in a situation where it was more difficult to generate new ones. This was often because friendships had hinged around the maintenance of their children’s social networks. Helen’s story is a good example of how a woman can suddenly find herself isolated. Her two children are both at college and she and her husband have moved to a smaller house in a more rural area. Although this is only three miles from the town where they used to live, Helen now feels very alone, and is finding it very difficult to keep up with her old friends or make any new ones. She puts this down to the fact that her children’s activities held her social networks together:

Helen: "Our social life has definitely changed because everyone else’s families that we know have gone away. You tend to lose contact with the parents because the children aren=t there. We only went to see Mike and Dee and various other couples because our children were friends with theirs. But now their children have gone away we don’t have as much contact."

Interviewer: So you actually find your social lives diminished?

Helen: "Oh, definitely."

Interviewer: Have you made any new social contacts then?

Helen: "Not really, noBwe sound really boring don’t we!" (In-person interview)

Although she has always worked part-time, Helen is not coping well with the adjustments that are required of her at this life-stage and she is suffering from a related depression that further hinders her ability to be more proactive in developing new opportunities for herself.

Other women made a more deliberate effort to overcome their feelings of loss by searching out new social networks for themselves. Like Helen, Anne works part-time but much happier with her situation than Helen because she has recently taken up golf, an activity she can also enjoy with her husband. This, in turn, has helped her build a new social network. She considers that she has much more freedom than when her children were at home, and a much wider circle of friends that relate to her as a person in her own right rather than to her role as a mother:

"Before they left you were taxiing them everywhere. You really are a lot more involved before they go away. But you just have to move on. I mean I was like a taxi driver for years running them to the guides or the brownies or whateverBelocution, piano lessons. Your life does revolve around them and then suddenly, I don’t know, I think it’s just nice to have time for me and my husband now...We now go on more golfing weekends and we have a holiday now and again in South Carolina for two weeks’ golfing. I mean this has just come up since the kids have gone and we would never dream of doing that before and we’ve met friends through that." (In person interview)

Helen’s story is rather similar to Mary’s (see above) and again the changing location of consumption away from children’s activities towards her and her husband’s own (e.g. golfing, holidays) can be traced in her words. In a similar way, Jean has coped well with the adjustment by re-building her networks around social activities that she now wants to do, rather than her children’s activities:

"Yes, it was an adjustment but I adjusted very well I think. I had activities that I wanted to do. I wanted to pursue playing tennis, which I had just taken up about two years before my daughter graduated. I wanted to be a gardener. I love the outside and having more time to just spend there rather than being a chauffeur, so to speak, to the kids." (In person interview)

Here the changing patterns of consumption can be seen in the explicit contrast which Jean draws between child-centred activities (e.g. chauffeuring children around) and a series of adult-centred leisure activities (tennis and gardening). Of course it must be acknowledged that these two examples of good adjustments come from middle class married women who lead relatively affluent lifestyles that enable them to have more choices in taking up new activities. Clearly for many women in this lifestage, family and economic circumstances will not always easily facilitate the building of new networks.

A moving illustration of this came from the bulletin board where a single parent who is disabled and living on income support discussed the implications of her children leaving. When her children move out she will lose the associated child benefits and no longer be able to maintain her apartment. She will not only lose her children but also her home. Her plight, whilst extreme, illustrates well the deep reliance a woman’s own social (and, indeed, economic) capital can have on her role as mother.

"Oh Lord, where do I begin. My 19 yo son moved out 2 months ago and my 17 yo daughter is pregnant and moving in with her boyfriend and his parents in June. These are my only kids. I’ve been a single parent for the past 16 years and those children are my life. I’m disabled and on a fixed income which means I’m going to be losing not only my children but benefits and child support monies which have enabled me to provide a home for ourselves over the years. Now I’m about to lose my apartment too. And all this within a 6 month period. (Empty nest bulletin board)

This is an example where the empty nest does not represent a positive changein patterns of consumption because of an increase in resources such as time and money, but rather represents a negative change in patterns of consumption because of a decrease in resources (e.g. money, housing).

Support/Lack of Support Through Social Networks

We can see from the previous section that as the social networks that have been dependent on children dwindle, many women experience a concomitant crisis in role identity. Scott (1991) argues that the diversity of networks and their linking to a variety of roles are a major source of self-esteem and that adjustment is easier if not dependent on one role. Thus, consistent with role identity theory (Thoits 1983; White and Edwards 1990) one of the major factors to influence the extent of this crisis in role identity depends on whether a woman has her own independent social networks that allow her roles outside of her mothering home-based ones (Thoits 1983; White and Edwards 1990). Varied social networks, if independent from those of the children, can offer a stronger support system. These networks may be career, hobby or community-related. For example, several women described the solace they found through their professional activities, their voluntary work, church group, or health club. For others such as Lea, it was a regular coffee morning with friends that had been meeting for many years and had been established prior to her having children.

We have already described some of the ways that women sought to establish new networks to help overcome their feelings of loss. In this respect the online bulletin board can be represented as a form of social capital in terms of the social support that women can receive from others in a similar situation. This notion is reinforced by Putnam (2000) who highlights the potential of virtual communities to increase the otherwise diminishing social capital in American society. It also converges with Miller and Slater’s (2000) view that the Internet is embedded in mundane social structures and relations and, as such, represents an extension of a person’s social world rather than a world apart. The empty nester online community appears to provide a support system that is otherwise lacking in many of its members’ lives. Here they are able to find others who can relate to their problems and with whom they can share their feelings. However, the board is more than a support system, it is a place to seek and build friendships. Women chat regularly about their children’s activities, swop confidences about their partners, ask advice about decisions they have to make, and generally treat the board as a social arena.


We used a study of the lived experiences of women in empty nest households to explore how individuals use consumption to renegotiate and reconstruct their sense of self when faced with major changes to their roles and with significant disruptions to their social networks. These changes, notably children leaving home, prompt alterations to tasks and family responsibilities linked to different aspects of the various roles (e.g. mothering). We explored how they coped with the associated dislocation and disruption of their social ties and social networksBin effect, the diminution of their social capital (represented by their ties within and beyond the family setting to the wider social context of their community). The levels of distress experienced seem to be directly related to the variety and degree of enmeshment of the different role sets and associated networks that represent their social capital. What seems to happen in the empty nest stage is that these two sets of social capital start to be 'decoupled’ and the experience of that decoupling process is more or less painful depending on how 'enmeshed’ these sets of networks are.

We investigated transitional (empty nest) consumers because we flt they provided a valuable site for examining the relationship between consumption and identity creation. This study deals specifically with consumption, roles, networks and social capital which are major and interlocking themes within 'identity/identification work’ and which provide clear links between the micro/individual and macro/social aspects of life projects, consumption and identity creation within the context of the empty nest household (c.f. for instance Hawe and Shiell’s (2000:871) call for research in social capital to investigate further "the underlying constructs, in particular the qualitative difference between the macro/context level and the micro/individual level"). This exploratory study supports earlier arguments that during transitional or liminal states (Turner 1969, 1974, referenced in Schouten 1991) identity is reconstructed following re-evaluation of the self and extensive changes to patterns of consumption and social capital within the family setting.


A full list of references is available on request from the authors.

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Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, UK
Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University, UK
Carolyn F. Curasi, Georgia State University, USA


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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