A Conceptual Theory of Relocation


Cathy Goodwin (1993) ,"A Conceptual Theory of Relocation", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 366-370.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 366-370


Cathy Goodwin, University of Manitoba, Canada

In recent years, researchers have directed attention to transitions associated with major life events. Consumer researchers studied a wide of variety of adult life transitions, including divorce (McAlexander 1991), job loss (Roberts 1991), and departure for two-year Mormon missions (Ozanne 1991). A common theme of this research is the role of consumer goods and services in expressing, symbolizing and facilitating these transitions. For example, divestment of physical goods often parallels major role transitions (Young 1991), including divestment of bodily parts: Schouten (1991) observed that election to undergo plastic surgery often coincides with major life transitions.

This paper identifies consumer research themes associated with another form of life transitionCrelocation, defined as individual or household moves from one residence to another. Hormuth (1990, pp. 9-10) suggests that relocation represents a particularly useful way to understand changes in the self-concept:

"A relocation usually constitutes a radical change from one social context and physical setting to another one, thereby providing the opportunity for change. In a new environment, the individual is exposed to new contacts and role models, acquires a new behavioural repertoire, and undergoes role transitions. The opportunity to seek out new and different aspects of the self-concept is given...Absolute continuity in the person-environment relationship is impossible. However, continuity in selected aspects can be approximated by the way one's personal environment is created, for instance through furniture or other long-term personal possessions."

Relocation deserves increased attention from consumer researchers for at least four reasons. First, large numbers of people experience relocation. In the United States alone, over three million people move each year ( McCollum 1990). Understanding consumption behaviors of this large segment will benefit marketing managers as well as researchers.

Second, the act of moving draws attention to physical and symbolic aspects of physical possessions as well as psychological and symbolic relationships with services. Both possessions and service relationships represent critical aspects of identity which are transformed, if not lost, during a move.

Third, relocation often requires a transition from one culture or subculture to another. Aspects of both old and new cultures often become more salient during a move; for example, in learning the new culture's norms for dining and entertaining, the mover [The word "mover" here refers to the person who is relocating not to the moving company.] becomes aware of elements that were taken for granted in the former location of residence as well as those that are unique to the new location. In particular, people moving within a country, or moving between rural and urban areas of a state or province, may become aware that activities and values assumed to be universal may actually constitute a subculture.

Fourth, relocation represents an instance of adult consumer learning or socialization, a topic that deserves more attention from consumer researchers. Even a move from one section of a city to another requires learning new shopping options and neighborhood consumption norms; the latter include norms associated with entertainment, lawn care, objects placed on lawns or porches, and even clothing worn outside the house.

This paper identifies consumer behavior themes associated with relocation to a new residence. These themes arise from the conceptualization of relocation as self-concept change. Each theme suggests directions for future research.

Relocation as Transition

Life transitions are often described in terms of the three phases suggested by Van Gennep (1960): separation from previous social role or status; transition, a period of adaptation or change to the new role; and incorporation, when the new identity is integrated into the self. Characteristics of movers resemble those associated with the transitional phase, including status ambiguity, identity, lack of status and invisibility. For example, movers told McCollum (1990) they felt invisible when current residents ignored them.

When people are initiated into organizations, enter total institutions, or set out on missions, they are often separated from previous competencies as well as possessions associated with their former identities. For example, both military trainees and monastic novices must relinquish occupational status as well as personalized hair styles and clothing. An analogous separation seems to occur during relocation. Levy-Warren (1987, p. 307) suggests that

"vast differences between the culture of origin and the culture of relocation...may allow fewer opportunities for a person to function in ways that maintain self-esteem...Something that in one culture may be a source of pride may, in the other, be of little or no importance."

To be sure, the majority of movers experience cultural differences that do not seem very large. However, differences that seem small to an observer may be experienced as traumatic by a participant. McCollum (1990) notes that loss of familiar physical surroundings diminishes one's sense of mastery.

Furthermore, relocation, by definition, requires a separation from one's previous dwelling. In many parts of the world, one's home and furnishings symbolize and communicate essential aspects of the self. Movers may have difficulty finding homes and furnishings that communicate desired messages as effectively as the ones left behind. McCollum (1990) talked to women living in temporary quarters up to a year while house-hunting. Some resisted inviting others to visit because their surroundings communicated inaccurate messages about themselves.

Future research will be useful to understand the meaning of possessions while the mover is in the liminal state between identities, especially the time when household goods have been picked up by a moving company or stored and the time they arrive at the new residence. Long-term travelers, such as members of the Odyssey research team, professors on sabbatical or students on extended vacations are separated from their possessions but hold on to the image of "home" as a constant entity that awaits them on return. In contrast to these situations, the relocating person experiences transiency at the same time his/her possessions are also in a limbo state. Further research will be useful to understand the use of substitute or temporary objects for identity creation as well as difficulty in communicating identity successfully to self and others during the transition.

Loss and Continuity

Elements of loss and continuity can be viewed in context of a dichotomy suggested by Van Maanen and Schein (1979, p. 250). These authors suggest that people who join organizations undergo processes of investiture or divestiture.

Divestiture is associated with attempts to "deny and strip away certain personal characteristics" of people who are new to the organization. Examples vary from corporate training programs in isolated settings to fraternity initiations. In extreme forms, divestiture is required for entry into total institutions, including prisons, monasteries and military academies (Dornbush 1955; Goffman 1961). The degree of change required for many major transitions has been described as a death of the former self (Eliade 1958). The death metaphors which emerge when movers discuss their relocation experience suggest the strength of loss they feel. Indeed, a female mover reported to McCollum (1990), "Moving is like dying." Writing from a Freudian perspective, Levy-Warren (1987, p. 305) suggests, "A move from one's culture of origin can be seen as similar to the loss of a loved person, which initiates a process of mourning."

Because relocation is always accompanied by loss, movers can be expected to undergo divestiture processes to some extent. There is loss of a home, with its rich symbols of shelter and safety. In nearly every move, cherished possessions are given away due to space constraints and/or lost or damanged in transit. Implicitly recognizing Belk's (1988) depiction of possessions as part of the extended self, McCollum (1990, p. 71) wrote that leaving behind special possessions "can feel like an amputation."

In addition to the loss of material possessions, relationships with new service providers and retail outlets must be established. At the same time the mover is learning social norms of the community, s/he has to revise scripts associated with shopping and service encounters. A single grocery shopping trip can lower perceptions of self-efficacy. Does one leave groceries in the cart or place them on the moving belt? Are vegetables weighed at the checkout counter or the produce area? Where and when can alcoholic beverages be purchased? And just what is a grocery store? Many Safeway grocery stores in the U.S. also carry small clothing items, but a newcomer to Canada won't be able to pick up a t-shirt at many Safeways that look just like their US counterparts. In England, newcomers may not know that Marks & Spencer, a clothing-department store, also carries upscale groceries. In some countries, and specific locations within many countries, one buys groceries in small shops rather than supermarkets. Local brands and retail outlets may be remembered as old friends. An unmarried male, relocated to the West Coast from the southeast US, told the author, "I feel homesick when I go grocery shopping. I miss seeing Kroger and Piggly Wiggly store names." Research will be useful to understand the sense of being at home associated with store names, as well as the way consumers learn new scripts in service encounters.

In contrast to divestiture, newcomers undergoing investiture processes will acquire a new identity by building on the old, enhancing feelings of self-efficacy. An investiture process communicates, "We like you just as you are" (Van Maanen and Schein 1979, p. 250). In organizations, investiture processes include orientation programs, social functions and even ceremonial visits to high-ranking officers, all designed to help recruits experience a smooth transition.

During relocation, investiture processes occur spontaneously when people feel at home right away in a new community. The phenomenological experience is suggested by the line of the John Denver song, "Coming home to a place he'd never been before." On the other hand, investiture processes tend to be initiated by organizations whose employees move frequently, such as the military; a commonality of customs, ritual and etiquette can be found on bases throughout the world. Whyte (1953) described transient communities of lower-level corporate managers which emerged in several US locations during the 1950's. Similarities among these communities as well as among the upwardly mobile residents allowed people to settle in easily. Riesman and Roseburgh (1955, p. 2) relate this ease of transiency to the emergence of what they call a "standard package" of consumer goods and services:

"While possession of the standard package, the theme items [furniture, radios, television, refreigerator and standard brands in food and clothing] carries membership in the broad band of the American middle class, the variations identify one as the possessor of a specific life style, localized by region, subclass, ethnic group and occupation. Social mobility in America is made easier by the ability of the family, through minor variations...to adapt the standard package to new peer-groupCmuch as one can buy parts that will make one's Ford look much like a Mercurcy."

It is not clear whether a form of standard package exists today and, if so, what form it would take. For example, certain fast food restaurants and popular music are available all over the world. Consumer researchers can identify possessions, services and behavior which support the former self, creating feelings of self-efficacy. Hirschman (1990) reports experiencing a "profound impact" from simple consumption behaviors associated with grooming rituals following a stress-producing medical crisis. Similarly, consumption behaviors associated with activities that reinforce pre-existing skills and knowledge may facilitate investiture processes. Examples include recreational activities (e.g., gardening, woodworking, sports, or dancing) and rituals associated with organizational membership (AA, church services, fraternities). Research on investiture processes will be especially useful because publications which focus on relocation tend to focus on the negative aspects of loss; indeed, some include subjects who have sought psychotherapy to deal with distress (e.g., Bayes 1989).

Material and Symbolic Aspects of Possessions

When people review their possessions as part of the relocation process, they face a conflict between symbolic and material properties of these possessions. The dining table that hosted family gatherings becomes an awkward, breakable nuisance object. In this way, objects may be deconsecrated, transferred from sacred to profane realms by logistical necessities. A group once gave the author a large, autographed snow shovel as a humorous going-away present. The friendship symbolism conflicted with the need to pack this object into the trunk of a small car.

The act of moving also requires people to dig into corners of houses which are usually neglected. Korosec-Serfaty (1984) notes that attics and cellars tend to become repositories of secrets and indeed to symbolize family secrets. In unpacking these areas, people are forced to become aware of their most hidden possessions. Hormuth (1982) suggests that people undergo increased self-focused attention during a relocation process. The increase in attention to possessions parallels and perhaps reinforces this enhanced self-focus.

Research will be useful to explore the relationship between the material and symbolic aspects of consumption. For example, difficulty in moving an object may create as well as reflect a sacralization process; just as people associate family histories with much-loved objects, they will associate objects with memories of moving. The need to pack often forces a triage process: which items will be taken regardless of cost? Which will be discarded or given to anonymous charities? Which will be given away to retain some connection with the mover? Outcomes of this process will reflect the mover's current and anticipated self-concept, and also reinforce a contrast with previously held identities.

Defining a Successful Move

Defining the appropriate dependent variable for the research question, "Was this move successful?" depends on the model of identity change that is used. Two models can be identified in the marketing literature.

Acculturation represents the outcome of two or more cultures coming together, generally by force (Haviland 1990). Socialization, on the other hand, involves learning new roles. In conceptualizing change associated with relocation, this distinction becomes blurred. Wallendorf and Reilly (1983, p. 293) equate acculturation with cultural assimilation, "which involves changing the behavior pattern of the immigrants...[including] such elements as language, dress and food." However, people moving between regions of the US or between urban and rural areas of any country may experience cutural differences. People living in warm climates in Los Angeles, Tucson, Atlanta and Miami differ in speech, norms regarding dress, and food preferences. Wallendorf and Reilly (1983, p. 293) describe structural assimilation as "entry into occupational categories and primary groups such as clubs, cliques, and organizations composed primarily by members of a dominant culture." If the words "dominant culture" are replaced by "new residence location," the difficulties associated with structural assimilation closely resemble those of recent arrivals seeking to establish a social network (Hormuth 1990; McCollum 1990).

As described by Wallendorf and Reilly (1983), the traditional assimilation model is framed in terms of behavior patterns rather than cognitive or affective dimensions. Assimilation is measured by identifying the elements of one culture absorbed by the other. Thus, Mexicans are more acculturated if they eat more Anglo food products.

As they note, this model may not be applicable to voluntary movers, especially those hoping for material gains. Within much of the world, including the US, Canada and Western Europe, reluctant movers rarely experience the degree of involuntariness associated with compulsory relocation. Wallendorf and Reilly suggest that voluntary movers will be motivated to change to the new culture, engaging in anticipatory behavioral activities. However, as noted below voluntary movers may be selective in adopting behaviors of the new culture.

An alternative perspective comes from the socialization literatures which have developed in a variety of disciplines and sub-disciplines. Adult socialization tends to be defined in terms of learning new roles (Brim 1966). Processes of role acquisition include the identification of social expectations associated with roles and development of congruence between internal needs and these social expectations (Thornton and Nardi 1975).

Ward (1974) contrasted learning the consumer role (learning how to select, buy and consume) with consumption associated with role knowledge (learning clothes to select for a job interview). Researchers of consumer socialization tend to focus on the consumer role and to identify outcome variables in terms of norms and prescriptive rules. For example, Moschis and Moore (1984) focus on norms and orientations of children and adolescents, such as the need to budget and plan for purchases. In his general model of consumer socialization, Mochis (1987) suggests that socialization will lead to "cognitions and behaviors...necessary for the performance of a given social role." Following a review of the literature on consumer socialization, Faber and O'Guinn (1988, p. 71) conclude that research has focused on "predominantly goal-oriented skills needed to be a 'good' consumer."

However, social roles associated with relocation may be ambiguous or poorly defined in terms of social and behavioral expectations. The transplanted mover may reject aspects of the new community's expectations for the "newcomer" role ("Why do I have to bake cakes for them?") Perhaps most important, consumers may find creative ways to meet their consumption goals. Goodwin and Sewall (1992) noted that a variety of adaptive strategies can be used to find desired food items, ranging from self-production to mail order to searching for local substitutes. There are no clear-cut norms or rules to identify the best or most correct strategy. Thus, successful adaptation to a new community may best be measured in terms of self-reported feelings of satisfaction, adjustment and intention to remain in the community. McCollum (1990) quotes a newcomer: "Feeling at home means knowing how to find things and make them work." This person "was referring both to 'things' in the dwelling and to needed goods and services in the community."

To address these aspects of role learning, the processes associated with organizational socialization resemble newcomer socialization in three ways. First, individuals may have great discretion in developing roles (Nicholson 1984). Van Maanen and Schein (1987) suggest that role innovation will be facilitated by informal, one-to-one socialization processesCprocesses that occur naturally during relocation. Jones (1986) found that role innovation is enhanced by perceived self-efficacy, which in turn is increased by investiture processes. Second, successful socialization has been discussed in terms of commitment and intention to remain in the organization (Jones 1986; Porter et al. 1974). Third, a large part of both organizational and newcomer socialization tend to be voluntarily undertaken; just as new employees often supplement formal orientation by identifying appropriate information sources, newcomers supplement the few formal channels available with their own activities. Schein (1988) suggests that organizational socialization will depend on the employee's motivation to join the organization.

Further research will be useful to understand the way consumers alter consumption behaviors in relation to changes in self-concept. Two issues are presented as examples.

First, a definition of "successful relocation" may prove elusive. A newcomer may self-report feelings of satisfaction with his/her lifestyle, yet resist accepting many elements of the new culture. How does the researcher compare the adjustment of this newcomer with his/her neighbor who is equally happy but considerably more acculturated?

Second, what is the relation of motivation to successful adjustment? People who anticipate a more positive self-concept may be more motivated to seek out socialization opportunities. This enhanced self-concept may be associated with career or geographic aspects of the move; for example, the move may represent a promotion or a chance to become a resident of Paris. McCollum (1990) found that some women experiencing relocation tended to avoid learning about the new community and anticipating how their needs would be satisfied. These women often moved solely in responds to needs of their husbands. The new self-concept associated with the change in residence may not have been sufficiently attractive to serve as a motivator.

Third, just as possessions and activities may facilitate investiture processes, certain services seem particularly well-placed to serve as socialization agents. Newcomers often find themselves interacting with real estate agents, attorneys, restaurant servers and retailers. These "urban agents" provide specialized forms of support that cannot be obtained from closer ties (Adelman et al. 1987). Consumer researchers have observed that lonely people often turn to retail outlets for social contacts. Analogously, newcomers may turn to these urban agents for social support. The ability of these service providers to offer appropriate support may influence an individual's adjustment to the new community. Furthermore, the consumer's initial dependency may alter role relationships between service providers and consumers, including the newcomer's expectations, satisfaction with service provided, and loyalty.

The "Mover" Identity

Finally, some people move a great deal more than others. While identity loss has been associated with movement from one residence to another, individuals experiencing multiple moves may have more diffuse concepts of identity. Indeed, they may have accepted a unique "mover" identity. Whyte (1953) described a community of transient corporate managers and their families. Andreasen (1966) identified a mobile segment defined in terms of demographics. The mobile consumer of the 1990's can be expected to differ substantially. Environmental changes which may influence attitudes to mobility include:

(a) The publicity of low-cost options for foreign travel has allowed large segments of the population to visit other cultures as consumers; those who travel during college-age years will be especially open to learning about new cultures. This trend contasts with groups described by Whyte and Andreasen; many American male consumers who were adults in the 1950's and 1960's had experienced other countries as members of the armed services, or knew others who had done so.

(b) On the other hand, dual-career families have resisted transiency and the "trailing spouse" (Bayes 1985) who accompanies her husband will be less passive in accepting change.

These and other global attitudes toward relocation can be expected to influence the way consumers adapt to a new community. More specifically, Andreasen and Ratchford (1976) found that multiple movers consulted more sources of information than those who lacked moving experience. They note a number of possible explanations, including demographic patterns of upward mobility associated with frequent moves and increased expertise acquired from the moves themselves.

Further research may identify the characteristics of the 1990's multiple mover. Demographic changes may differ from those identified by Andreasen (1966) and Andreasen and Ratchford (1976). Furthermore, multiple movers may attach different meanings to their possessions and may find alternative ways to communicate their identities through objects. People who know they will move again soon may make different consumption choices than those who expect to remain a long time in the new location; for example, they may choose less expensive curtains and accessories, which do not travel easily, and may avoid heavy, awkward furniture. Finally, the author (a multiple mover) believes that multiple movers gain a sense of self-efficacy from the move itself. For them, moving represents an investiture process, reaffirming previous skills and knowledge. Confidence derives from knowing how to pack awkward objects, negotiating with moving companies, finding a new home easily, and quickly finding resources to accomplish one's consumption goals. The experience of packing old possessions and filling empty cabinets in a new home becomes familiar. Further research will be useful to compare the way occasional and multiple movers experience a relocation.


This paper has identified a number of consumer behavior topics associated with relocation to a new residence. This area appears to be useful for understanding consumer life transitions, identity issues and socialization. A number of research areas have been suggested.

To summarize, consumer products and services parallel the consumer's relocation experience. The consumer becomes more self-focused as a result of transition and more focused on possessions as s/he packs to move. Change in symbolism of possessions parallels a change in the consumer's geographic and sometimes status identity.

Consumption behaviors may also facilitate or delay the transition. Familiar products and services create an investiture process, helping consumers feel at home in a new environment. Activities which can be incorporated into the new environment may enhance feelings of self-efficacy: the experienced golfer and the gourmet cook find clubs to join. Service providers take on facilitating roles.

Finally, the concept of a successful relocation needs to be understood in the context of consumption behaviors. The lack of role prescriptions suggest a diversity of ways to define success in this context.


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Cathy Goodwin, University of Manitoba, Canada


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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