Context-Dependent Ethnic Identity and Its Impact on Product Evaluations: a Case of the Asian Indian Immigrants


Sangeeta Singh and Michael Y. Hu (2001) ,"Context-Dependent Ethnic Identity and Its Impact on Product Evaluations: a Case of the Asian Indian Immigrants", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 150-155.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 150-155


Sangeeta Singh, Norwegian School of Management, Norway

Michael Y. Hu, Kent State University, U.S.A.


Academic research examining the behavior of ethnic groups residing in a mainstream culture has oftentimes used the acculturation processes to explain this behavior. Research that has studied ethnic identity within the framework of acculturation hasbeen guided by two distinct models- a linear, bi-polar model and a two-dimensional model. The linear bi-polar model assesses ethnicity exclusively in terms of the membership group. That is, ethnicity is conceptualized to be the result of belonging to a particular ethnic group. Contrary to this belief, supporters of the two-dimensional model of ethnic identity perceived it to be an outcome of identifying with more than one ethnic group- the membership group as well as the non-membership group. This two-dimensional approach to ethnic identity is in accordance with the tenets of the social identity theory (Tajfel 1981, 1982), whereby an individual identifies with more than one social group depending on the categorization criteria being used. The following section discusses the theoretical implications of studying ethnic identity within each of these two frameworks.


The linear model conceptualizes ethnic identity along a continuum from strong ethnic ties at one extreme to weak ethnic ties at the other extreme. In addition, the weak ethnic ties coincide with strong ties with the core culture or mainstream society (Donthu and Cherian 1992; O’Guinn and Faber 1986; Pe±aloza 1994; Valencia 1984). The underlying assumption in these studies has been that a strengthening of ties with one group (ethnic or mainstream) results in the weakening of ties with the other group (mainstream or ethnic) (Phinney 1990). This stream of research has been grouped under the assimilationist studies, which have been the dominant conceptual framework used for explaining immigrants’ behavior in the society. Assimilationist studies view the nation as being socially integrated and are based on the premise that with the passage of time, members of an ethnic group residing in a mainstream culture would develop behavior patterns more like those of the culture of residence and less like those of the culture of origin (Gordon 1964).

An alternative to the linear model emphasizes that acculturation is a bi-dimensional process. This model suggests considering the relationship of the individual both with the traditional or ethnic culture and that with the dominant culture. The key point of this conceptualization is that the two relationships may be independent of each other. That is, minority group members could have either strong or weak identifications with both their own and the core cultures and that strong ethnic ties do not necessarily insinuate a weak relationship or low involvement with the dominant culture.

Based on the degree of identification with both the ethnic group and the majority group, Berry et al (1986) describe two more outcomes of the acculturative process than just the two extremes of assimilation and pluralism. According to them, there are at least four possible ways of dealing with ethnic group membership and ethnic identification in a diverse society. The outcomes of the different ways are dependent on whether or not the cultural identity of the individual belonging to the subcultural group was being retained or not, and if so, was it accompanied by the acceptance or rejection of the dominant society’s norms.

Assimilation results when the individual identifies weakly with the ethnic culture but strongly with the dominant culture. Integration is the outcome of the process when the individual adapts some of the norms of the dominant culture but in addition retains the identification with the ethnic culture. This outcome has also been termed cultural pluralism, where an individual belonging to an ethnic group feels equally strong identification with the ethnic group as well as the dominant group. Identification with only the ethnic group indicates separatism while lack of identification with the ethnic group and the majority group suggests marginality. Figure 1 is an illustration of these outcomes as proposed by Berry (1980).

Given the high educational andoccupational status of "new immigrants" to the United States, which includes recent Indian immigrants, a pattern of integration in the American society is more likely to emerge. Data from Saran’s (1985) study shows that Asian Indians in America accept the institutional arrangements and value system of the American society and participate actively in the educational, economic, and political institutions, thus contributing positively to the American society. At the same time, they see no conflict with the larger society if they maintain their culture, religion, customs, and festivities.

Mehta and Belk (1991) have given several reasons for the Asian Indian population in the U.S. not assimilating in the mainstream society. One of the reasons cited is that Indian immigrants to the United States since the relaxation of U.S. immigration laws in 1965, have been high in educational and occupational status. The immigration decision is voluntary and often job related which leads to maintaining good relations with the dominant culture. At the same time, their prestigious occupations and intellectual resources give them the ability to retain their Indian cultural identity. Indian immigrants are also distinguished from the white Americans by physical feature of skin color, which deems them sufficiently "different" to impede assimilation in the host society. In terms of consumption, an alternative pattern of integration might result in material culture by the simultaneous adoption of "American" possessions and retention of Indian artifacts (Mehta and Belk 1991). Therefore, it is expected that:

H1: Ethnic identity is composed of identification with the minority group as well as the mainstream group.

As pointed out by Mehta and Belk (1991), it is the educated professionals who have a relatively high socio-economic status that are able to adopt the mainstream society’s norms and behavior. Yet, at the same time, these same individuals retain their original cultural identity. Thus, the described phenomenon of identifying strongly with both the Indian and American culture should be more likely to be prevalent in Asian Indians with a high socio-economic status than other groups of Asian Indians.

H2: The structure of ethnic identity is going to depend on the socio-economic status of the individual.

The dual nature of ethnic identity suggests that it is possible for an individual with such an identity to have the two components differentially salient in certain circumstances. The idea of "cultural pluralism", whereby members of minority ethnic groups exhibit equally strong identification with their culture of origin and that of the host country, has been gaining importance in recent years. Instead of a linear pattern existing in the adoption of the norms and values of the host culture, the subcultural groups display behavior that may reflect norms of the host culture or that of the culture of origin or both, depending on the situation encountered.




The idea of an ethnic identity dependent on the social situation is not new. Researchers in sociology and anthropology have long acknowledged the conceptualization of ethnic identity as an emergent phenomenon produced by structural conditions in the society (Yancey, Erickson, and Juliani, 1976). The individual’s social environment determines the importance and relevance of his or her ethnic identity but thnicity may not necessarily be significant in all social situations within a society (McGuire et al 1978; Okamura 1981). The degree of significance of ethnicity in any given social situation and its (ethnicity’s) impact on behavior is going to be dependent upon its overall relevance to the social situation.

Researchers in consumer behavior have suggested consumer choice to be a function of consumer characteristics, product attributes and the environment the product is to be consumed in (Belk 1975; Dickson 1982). Mischel (1968) points out that behavior is specific to situation and individuals display far less consistency in their behavior across situations than has been assumed by researchers. Studies in consumer behavior recognize the moderating role of situation on an individual’s consumption behavior and empirical results have established a combination of individual differences and situation to be a better predictor of behavior than just individual differences or situational differences by themselves (Belk 1974; Sandell 1968).

The term "situation" has been described in varying manners by different researchers in consumer behavior. Perhaps the most comprehensive (and possibly the most widely accepted) definition is one offered by Belk (1974). He provides a general definition of situation as "something outside the basic tendencies and characteristics of the individual, but beyond the characteristics of the stimulus object to be acted upon." According to this definition, situation then excludes characteristics of the individual that he or she may be presumed to possess for a reasonable period of time e.g. traits, personality, general skills, and intellect. These characteristics are attributable to an individual as a source of decision influence and are therefore not considered a part of the situation. In buyer behavior terms, characteristics of the stimulus object refer to the attributes of a particular product or brand, which are relatively constant and therefore may not be considered as part of the situation. These exclusions and clarifications narrow the definition of situation to "those factors particular to a time and place of observation which do not follow from a knowledge of personal and stimulus attributes, and which have a demonstrable and systematic effect on current behavior" (Belk, 1974). This definition includes the individual’s perceptions of the situation.

Researchers in marketing studying the impact of membership to a minority or ethnic group on consumption behavior have often chosen food as the experimental product used. The reason cited has been that food consumption situations are "ethnically cued" (Patai 1977). Other researchers of minority group population have also highlighted that food and language are the two most important aspects of behavior reflecting the individual’s affiliation with the minority group (Pe±aloza 1994) and deemed language and food choice to be ethnically oriented. Empirical studies have used the same product depicted in different forms of print advertisements (Khairullah 1995) and food prepared in different ways (Stayman and DeshpandT 1989) to convey ethnic cues. Since these orientations of the product are not intrinsic attributes of the product itself but the interpretations based on the perceptions of the individual, this classification scheme of products may then be considered a situation variable as defined by Belk (1974).

Stayman and DeshpandT (1989) refer to the heightened awareness of ethnic identity as "felt ethnicity" and link it with consumption related behavior. Since their conceptualization of ethnic identity includes only the identification with the culture of origin, felt ethnicity refers to identification with only one component of ethnic identity. Although Stayman and DeshpandT (1989) are able to explain why individuals in a heightened state of ethnic awareness were more likely to select an ethnically oriented product when encountered with an ethnically oriented situation, they offer no explanation of the phenomena taking place when the individuals encountered a mainstream culture oriented situation when they were not in a heightened state f ethnic identification (In this scenario, Stayman and DeshpandT (1989) found subjects to be more likely to select a product that was mainstream culture oriented). A possible explanation might be that individuals might have an equally strong identification with the mainstream culture and participate in behavior, which they deem appropriate for the corresponding situation. Perhaps a more comprehensive explanation may be offered by accounting for both dimensions of ethnic identity. Extending Stayman and DeshpandT’s (1989) findings to include the dual structure of ethnic identity which determines the salient dimension of ethnic identity, it is expected that:

H3: A combination of the dimension of ethnic identity salient in the situation, the cultural orientation of the social surroundings and the product is going to affect behavior.

Another interesting finding of Stayman and DeshpandT’s (1989) study is that subjects not in a heightened state of ethnic awareness chose a mainstream culture oriented product in a mainstream culture oriented situation. Moreover, as mentioned previously, subjects with heightened ethnic awareness selected an ethnically oriented product in an ethnically oriented situation. Apparently, there is a cultural orientation match between the salient dimension of ethnicity, situation and product chosen. Based on this, it is expected that:

H4: The impact of situation and product type on behavior is going to be more favorable when there is a match in the cultural orientation of the salient dimension of ethnic identity, situation, and product as compared to in the case of a mismatch.




Sample and Procedure

Participants in the study were 318 Asian Indians recruited from two universities in the Midwest and the local area. This allowed the sample to include subjects of different ages, varying in their length of stay in the U.S., and belonging to different socio-economic groups. The sample included not only people who had migrated from India but also offsprings of such immigrants. The offsprings may or may not have been born in the United States.

Subjects were randomly assigned to either experimental groups (n=262) in which product and situation were manipulated, or a control group (n=56) in which neither the product nor the situation had any cultural meaning attached. The products assigned to the experimental groups were either American or Indian in orientation, as were the situations in which the products were to be evaluated for consumption. Therefore, a 2X2 between-subjects design was used in this study. The structure of ethnic identity (assimilated, integrated, separated, marginal) was a post hoc determination of the subjects’ identification with the mainstream and ethnic culture based on measures taken during the experiment but before the assignment of the treatment. A total of 11 sessions were administered to groups ranging in size from two participants to 42 participants. Each session (both experimental and control group) lasted approximately 25 minutes each.


Respondents’ identifications with their ethnic group and the mainstream group (enduring identifications) were measured using Mael and Ashforth’s (1992) scale to classify them into one of four groups- assimilated, integrated, separated, or marginal. The medians for each of the identifications were used to determine whether an individual identified weakly or strongly with the two groups in question.

Another measure of the subjects’ identificatons (using the same scale) was taken after the subjects had been exposed to the treatment (transitory identifications). The change in the two measures of their identifications was used to determine the salient dimension of their ethnic identity.

Three scales similar to the ones used by Stayman and DeshpandT (1989) were employed to assess subjects’ reactions to the scenarios they considered. Product evaluations were summed averages of the three scales. A lower score on product evaluations indicated more positive evaluations of the products in the described situations, whereas, higher scores were interpreted as less favorable assessments.


Hypothesis 1 proposed that ethnic identity of immigrants living in a multi-cultural society is going to consist of identification with the minority ethnic group as well as identification with the mainstream American group. The basic premise here is that if indeed the ethnic identity consisted of two dimensions, measures on identification with these dimensions would exhibit little correlation with each other. For establishing this, the correlation coefficients between the two enduring dimensions of ethnic identity- Asian Indian and AmericanBwere calculated. Table 1 shows the results of this analysis. As expected, no significant correlations were identified between the measures of the two enduring dimensions.

In addition, scatterplots of the enduring Indian identification against the enduring American identification were examined for patterns. Any trends or patterns on this plot would be an indication of the existence of a relationship between the Indian and American identification felt by the subjects. No such patterns were detected in the scatterplots.

These two results together provide definite support for the first hypothesis, giving indication that the immigrants’ ethnic identity consists of at least two dimensions- one relating to identification with the Indian group and the other to identification with the American group.

The second hypothesis had proposed that the identification felt with the majority and the minority group was going to be determined by the socio-economic status of the subjects. An analysis of variance using education and income as the independent variables was run on the two identifications. The interaction effect was found to be significant with p<.05 for the American (F=1.842) as well as the Indian identification (F=3.402). Thus, it can be concluded that the structure of ethnic identification is dependent on the socio-economic status of the individual.





The objective of the third hypothesis was to establish the combined influence of the salient dimension of ethnic identity and the cultural orientations of the product and the situation on the product evaluations. In addition to examining the differential aspects of the individual factors, the hypothesis also assesses the combined effects. For these purposes, an analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to examine the above mentioned effects using the salient dimension of ethnic identity and the cultural orientations of the product and the situation as the three independent variables. The dependent variable of interest was subjects’ product evaluations. As expected, the general linear model suggested by the ANOVA results indicated a significant three-way interaction affect of the independent variables on the subjects’ product evaluations (F=25.36, p<. 0001). The main effect was due to the cultural orientation of the situation (F=6.40, p<. 05). These results are presented in Table 2. The product evaluation means for the combination of the three variables were closely examined to understand the valence of this effect. These means are presented in Table 3. It should be noted that the lower means indicate more favorable evaluations.

The first objective of comparing thesemeans was to examine how the products were evaluated when the Indian dimension was salient as compared to the case when the American dimension was salient. The results of this study confirmed the findings of Stayman and DeshpandT (1989). Product evaluations for Indian products to be used in Indian situations were the most favorable when the Indian dimension was salient (Means=2.07 vs. 2.80, 4.63, and 4.68). In the case of the American dimension being salient, American products to be consumed in American situations were assessed most favorably (Mean=3.22 vs. 3.25, 3.43, and 4.17). Indian products for consumption in American situations were evaluated least favorably of all the conditions irrespective of the dimension of ethnic identity salient.

The second objective of examining the means was to understand what was happening when there was a match as opposed to a no match in the cultural orientations of the product and the situation. When there was a match between the cultural meanings of the product and the situation (Indian product being consumed in Indian situation or American being used in American circumstances), the product evaluations were better for the case in which the Indian dimension was salient (Means=2.07 for evaluation of Indian products in Indian situations and 2.80 for American products in American situations) as compared to when the American dimension was salient (Means=3.43 for Indian products being evaluated in Indian situations and 3.22 for American products in American situations). Interestingly, the product evaluations when there was no match between the product and situation types, were more favorable when the American dimension was salient (Means=3.25 and 4.17) as compared to when the Indian dimension was salient (Means=4.63 and 4.68). These results strongly substantiate the effects hypothesized in Hypothesis 3.

The purpose of Hypothesis 4 was to examine the combined impact of the salient dimension of ethnic identity, the situation and the product on product evaluations when there was match between the cultural orientation of the three and when there was no match between the three. More specifically, Hypothesis 4 had postulated that the product evaluations were expected to be more favorable when there was a match between the three as compared to the case when there was no match between the three.

For the purposes of testing this hypothesis, an independent samples t-test was run to compare the means for the product evaluations in the case when there is a match between the cultural orientation of the salient dimension of ethnic identity, the product, and the situation and the case when there is not a complete match between the three. The F statistic of 1.21 with a p-value of .27 indicates that we assume that there is no difference between the match and the mismatch subjects with respect to their variances on the product evaluations. This conclusion is based on accepting the hypothesis of equal variances because of the p-value being greater than .05 (Hatcher and Stepanski, 1994). Therefore, we will review the t statistic associated with equal variances for the current analysis. This t statistic is 5.12 with a p<.0001 which leads us to reject the null hypothesis and subsequently conclude that indeed, there are differences in means of product evaluations for the two groups.

Once it has been established that there are differences in the means of product evaluations for the two groups in question, we look at the means to determine which of the two indicates more favorable product evaluations. The mean for product evaluations in the case of there being a match in the cultural orientation of the three factors is 2.53 whereas it is 3.74 for the other group. Since lower scores mean a more favorable evaluation, we conclude that the products are evaluated more favorably when there is a match between the cultural orientation of all the factors. Therefore, this result supports Hypothesis 4.


Theoretical Implications

The findings of this study demonstrate that indeed the immigrants’ identity is composed of identification with two groups- the ethnic group as well as the mainstream American group. This conceptualization of ethnic identity not only offers a more comprehensive view of ethnic identity but also suggests that ethnic identity might not be as stable as visualized by the majority of prior researchers in consumer behavior. The findings of this study imply ethnic identity to be partly dependent on the circumstances encountered by the individual and the role these circumstances play in determining which of the components of the ethnic identity is going to be more prominent in that particular situation.

This dynamic nature of ethnic identity is more obvious when the product and the consumption situation are considered together and reinforces its dual composition. It urges researchers to not consider ethnic identity merely as an entity inherent in the individual but also as being partly determined by the circumstances he or she is in. This view of ethnic identity is more in keeping with the social identity theory where it is believed that an individual’s social identity, which ethnic identity is a part of, develops and changes as a result of the changes in the boundaries of the different groups with whom the individual is associated.

Researchers in marketing who have acknowledged the role of the circumstances in influencing consumers’ behavior (Stayman and DeshpandT 1989) used only the consumption situation to explain the dynamic nature of ethnic identity. This research work adds to this the role of the product type as also being influential in accounting for the dynamic behavior of immigrant ethnic identity.

The dual conceptualization of ethnic identity offers a more complete explanation of the variability in consumption behavior as it uses two different identifications to elucidate what is happening. Evidence from this research work supports that the consumers’ product evaluations are dependent not only on the nature of product and situation but also on the dimension of ethnic identity salient in the given circumstance.

Managerial Implications

In addition to their theoretical implications, the results of this study have important significance for marketing practitioners. First, the study suggests that consumers within an ethnic group are not necessarily similar in their behavior. That is, members of any immigrant group should not be treated as one market. Different groups of members within the minority group population may well require different strategies. The strong and weak identification with the ethnic and the Anglo group together can be taken as a means of segmenting the ethnic group population into smaller, more meaningful groups. The next related question that arises from this issue is, do all the different groups require customized strategies? Perhaps this question is better answered when combined with some other findings of the study. Evidence from the study supports that different groups of consumers respond differently to the same stimuli. For example, Indian products for use in Indian consumption situations were evaluated most favorably by integrated, separated and marginal individual but the least favorably by assimilated individuals. Assimilated subjects evaluated American products the most favorably, irrespective of the consumption situation, an indication that perhaps this group of immigrants does not require a marketing strategy different from that employed to target the mainstream population, when marketing American products. Marketers might also be well advised to consider the nature of the product they are marketing vis-a-vis the subgroup of the ethnic population it is aimed for before developing their marketing strategies.

Using products as a means of explaining the variability in immigrant consumer behavior leads one to conclude that perhaps marketers of certin types of products might have to pay special attention to marketing their products and be more sensitive to the needs of the ethnic group or groups in question. Specifically, products that have a cultural orientation might require being marketed in a specific manner to a corresponding ethnic group, yet not all products marketed to ethnic groups require a specialized or customized strategy. Products that have no special meanings for any particular ethnic group (for example, dishwashing liquid) do not necessarily require customized marketing strategies. In addition, certain consumption situations were shown to have a more positive influence on product evaluations for some product types. This can act as a guideline for advertisers for developing advertising themes.


The ethnic identity of an individual is a much more complex structure than represented by the simplistic dual structure approach taken in this research. Indeed, as suggested by the social identity theory, human beings are members of a variety of different social groups and it would be rather ingenuous to assume that only two of these groups are responsible for determining a person’s ethnic identity. In addition, the scale used for measuring the strength of identification with the groups has used quite general questions relating to the subjects’ overall feelings of identification. The scale used does not measure identification to specific beliefs and values, which might provide a better and more complete understanding of the behavior.

The subjects’ responses have been used dichotomously in deciding whether the individual identified strongly or weakly to any of the two cultural groups in question. This was done following some of the previous studies in consumer behavior that had used the identification with the ethnic group alone for separating the strong identifiers from the weak identifiers. This dichotomy not only facilitates some of the data analysis and interpretation of behavior but is also relatively less complex to administer. However, such a division is ignoring some of the finer differences that might exist between the respondents that have been partitioned off into the same group from the entire sample.

Can these findings be generalized to other ethnic groups that have a similar history and background of migration to the United States? If indeed, this can be demonstrated, then it makes these findings more strong and improves on the contributions already being made to the literature.

One of the drawbacks of this study has been the scale used for measuring the felt identification of the subjects with the cultural groups. This was in part due to the lack of availability of scales that measured the dual identifications of immigrants. Future research could direct its efforts in the development of more superior scales that better capture this identification.

This study employed products that had been identified to hold a certain cultural meaning for the ethnic group in question. No attention was given to the brand name or country of origin of the products. It might be interesting to identify specific brands that hold a special meaning for certain ethnic groups and replicate this study using these brands.

Future research could aim at examining whether the structure of ethnic identity varies across different generations, and if it does, whether variability in consumption related behavior could be linked to these differences.


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Sangeeta Singh, Norwegian School of Management, Norway
Michael Y. Hu, Kent State University, U.S.A.


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

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