Consumption As Self-Presentation in a Collectivist Society


Giana M. Eckhardt and Michael J. Houston (1998) ,"Consumption As Self-Presentation in a Collectivist Society", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Kineta Hung and Kent B. Monroe, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 52-58.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 52-58


Giana M. Eckhardt, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.

Michael J. Houston, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.

The globalization of markets and the necessity for companies to operate beyond their domestic boundaries to stay competitive characterizes many industries in consumer markets today. One of the most promising markets in the global economy is China. With many Western companies clamoring to enter this market with a wide variety of products, increasing research attention should be given to this vast consumer market (see Aaker & Maheswaran, 1997 and Tse, Belk & Zhou, 1989 for recent examples of studies on the Chinese consumer).

In response to this need, a one month, in-depth qualitative study of the Chinese consumer was conducted in the fall of 1997 in an effort to improve the knowledge base regarding the Chinese consumer. Specifically, we look at consumption as a means of self-presentation and document how consumption is used for this purpose in China.


Self-presentation is the process by which individuals attempt to control the impressions others form of them (Leary & Kowalski, 1990). Behavior is characterized as a means of acting out a role, with other individuals being fellow actors as well as the audience. Virtually all social behavior has self-presentational elements; it is necessary to engage in self-presentation because the impressions people make on others have implications for how others perceive, evaluate and treat them. Self-presentation helps define an individual’s place in the social order, sets the tone and direction of an inteaction and facilitates the performance of role-governed behavior (Goffman, 1959). The process of self-presentation is thought to underlie all human behavior, but is not necessarily a conscious process.

The act of purchasing and/or consuming different products and services can become part of a person’s self-presentation strategy toward relevant others. By purchasing and consuming different products and/or brands in a social setting, one can facilitate the manipulation of information about the self to others. For instance, Harley-Davidson riders use their bikes to signal their personal freedom and machismo to others (Schouten & McAlexander, 1995), and native Nigerians refrain from purchasing Western goods to signal their pride in their national identity to others (Arnould, 1989).


Research conducted on the self-presentational nature of consumption for the most part has focused on consumption in Western, individualistic societies. An individualistic society is characterized by people being independent from others and freely expressing their unique attributes. Individualist societies include North America, Western Europe and Australia/New Zealand (Hofstede, 1990). By membership in an individualistic society, people develop an independent view of the self. People think of themselves (and other individuals) as consisting of a set of internal, personal attributes such as abilities, talents, personality traits, preferences, subjective feeling states, beliefs and attitudes (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus & Nisbett, 1997). These attributes are thought to be internal and personal in the sense that they come from within and characterize the person regardless of the social context. The norm within individualist cultures is to be independent from others and express one’s unique attributes (Shweder & Bourne, 1984).

In much of the rest of the world (including Africa, Asia, Latin America), however, people do not think of themselves as distinct from others and do not necessarily construe themselves as having unique internal attributes (i.e., abilities, traits, motives and values). Furthermore, they do not necessarily behave as a consequence of internal attributes (Geertz, 1975), but rather behave in response to social roles and norms. These societies have been referred to as collectivist, and people within these societies develop an interdependent view of the self. This implies that one will behave and have thoughts, feelings and actions only in relation to the context one is in. The interdependent person is a relational being connected to others and belonging to groups, constituted as a member of society by virtue of this participation in a web of relationships and roles which people devote their lives to creating, sustaining and enhancing (Fiske et. al., 1997). "From this perspective, an assertive, autonomous, self-centered person is immature and uncultivated" (Fiske et. al., 1997, p. 23). This construal of the self will have direct implications for attention, cognition, affect, motivation, and consequently behavior, as these processes will be organized with respect to relationships and norms to a greater degree than to internal barometers.

In collectivist societies, then, how will self-presentation differ from what has been documented to date, in both process and strategy? In these societies the propensity to self-present should be even greater than in the West due to the increased sensitivity to social context. Also, when people with an interdependent view of the self engage in self-presentation, they are presenting their relevant in-group, not just themselves. There have been several studies documenting self-presentation phenomena in collectivist societies which point out that even when collectivists and individualists engage in the same self-presentational strategies, the strategies can have profoundly different meanings for both groups (Singelis & Sharkey, 1995). The cetral goal of this paper is to extend this literature through an exploration of how individuals from a collectivist culture (China) use consumption in their self presentation.


With the paucity of research on the use of products as self presentation vehicles in collectivist cultures, the development of an a priori research design with pre-set hypotheses regarding how self-presentation would manifest itself in consumption was avoided. Rather, the research design was developed using methods drawn from interpretive epistemology (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) in order to capture an understanding of consumption patterns from the actors’ points of view, rather than trying to fit consumption patterns into a previously developed framework. We adopted the ethnographic method from the #toolbox’ of different approaches available in an interpretive research design primarily because this method provides an excellent source of insight into different cultures and consumer behaviors (Sherry, 1995). The lead investigator went to China for one month and engaged in extensive participant observation, interviewing (via translators) and photographing to record some of the symbolic elements of consumption from an emic perspective.

As one of the largest markets in the world and increasingly important in the global economy, as well as being one of the most collectivist societies in the world (Hofstede, 1990), we deemed China to be an appropriate and relevant locale in which to examine collectivist consumer behavior. Specifically, we chose the cities of Beijing and Tianjin, both located in north-east China, as our data collection sites. The people living in northern China have been identified as being much less #rational’ when making product decisions than those in southern China (personal communication from Cooper Peng, J. Walter Thompson, Beijing), making it an ideal location for investigating the symbolic nature of consumption.

The lead investigator spent two weeks in each location, and tried to become part of the fabric of life in the cities as much as possible. These two cities were chosen because we wanted to have two urban areas that were similar enough in culture to be comparable but yet distinct from each other in some ways (i.e., average income of the population) so as to provide a broader picture of the north-east China urban consumer. Beijing and Tianjin are both surrounded by the same province (Hebei Province), but the population of Tianjin, like the population of the rest of China, is less wealthy than that of Beijing.

The observation, photographing and interviewing took place in numerous diverse sites around both citiesClow-income, middle income and wealthy residential areas, as well as shopping and working areas frequented by all three of these social groups.

In each city, interviews were conducted via translators. In Beijing, the translator was a 25 year old male who worked in the tourist information office in a hotel catering to foreigners. His native language was Chinese, and he had been studying English for 10 years. In Tianjin, the translator was a 20 year old female who was an English student at one of the local universities. Her native language was Chinese and she had been studying English for 10 years, also. The interviews were conducted #person on the street’ style, for the most part. The translator and the lead investigator would walk around, participate in various activities, and the conversations that would ensue would be taped with an audio recorder.


Over twenty interviews of varying lengths were conducted, which were then analyzed in conjunction with the observational and photographic data in a hermeneutic, iterative method (Arnold & Fisher, 1994; Thompson, 1997; Thompson, Locandr & Pollio, 1990). Four major themes emerged, each of which posses direct implications for consumer research and theory development in self presentation (see Table 1).

Theme 1: Always in character

A cornerstone of self-presentation theory is that there is frontstage and backstage behavior, with frontstage behavior being public and backstage behavior being private (Goffman, 1959). The implication of this distinction is that behavior will differ depending on the audience, and frontstage behavior will have more role-playing elements to it than backstage behavior. In an individualist society, typically people only live with one other or a few other people, and thus there is ample opportunity for backstage behavior to occur, with the home being the usual place where people can #let it all hang out.’ When the actor’s audience is oneself, or very intimate others, such as a spouse, there is usually less concern with one’s #image.’ In product usage, less concern with high status brand names, for instance, will exist if the product will be used solely in a backstage setting.

In China, we found that very few consumption activities take place in a backstage setting. The home is not the center of activity as it is in many individualist societies. Many of the activities associated with the home in individualist cultures, such as eating in the evening and socializing with friends, family and colleagues, do not take place in the home in China. For instance, in Tianjin, in the residential area, food stalls are set up on the sides of the streets as people begin to come home from work in the evening, and the majority of the people purchase and consume their meals outside (see Figure 1). Also, as evidenced in many supermarkets in Beijing, the majority of the products are snacks and ready to eat meals, not ingredients for cooking or bulk foods, implying not much time is spent in the home on activities such as preparing meals. When one entertains friends, out-of-town guests, or colleagues, this is typically done in a restaurant, not in one’s home.

Additionally, the home is simply not used for self-presentational purposes. While the Chinese will take great pains to control how they appear outside the home, there is much less concern with how their homes appear to others, especially in the lower to middle income groups. In Figure 2, the occupants of the dwelling farthest to the left dress in well-tailored clothing, eat healthy meals and have the equivalent of a middle-class income. According to them, the appearance of their home is simply not important.

This is quite intriguing, as it is in stark contrast to individualist societies such as the U.S. where the home is perhaps the ultimate self-presentational vehicle: people can show the world everything about themselves by the way they choose to furnish and decorate their home (see Belk, 1991, for an analysis of a person based on the objects in his home). Henry James uses the idea that one can gage people’s lives, personalities and place in society by the #empire of things’ in their home throughout his novels. This vehicle of self-expression is apparently not nearly as important for interdependent people.

Another interesting distinction is that even if a lot of time was spent in the home, entire extended families typically live together; hence people do not get many opportunities to be alone. The time at home therefore could be categorized as frontstage behavior, with all the different roles that must be played (e.g., respectful and helpful to elders). Finally, when taking part in consumption-related activities in public, it is rare to see people doing this alone, again adding that extra element of self-presentational concerns to behavior. According to many of the retailers and consumers in Tianjin, most people eat, shop, and do basically every daily activity with either friends or family, rarely alone.

What makes this finding important is that there is almost always soe form of role playing going on; there is no reprieve from it in backstage situations, when one can #slip out of character,’ because there are significantly fewer backstage situations in China than have been documented in individualist cultures. For consumption, there will be significantly fewer situations in which the symbolic component of a product or brand will not be meaningful. Conversely, it also implies that, since it is not important for the home to become an extension of oneself, or even of one’s ingroup, consumption related to the presentation of the home will have less symbolic importance.

Theme 2: Outgroup? What outgroup?

One hallmark of a collectivist orientation is that one’s ingroup will be of central importance to one’s sense of self, and that the needs and feelings of the ingroup as a whole become of the utmost importance, not those of the individual. Or rather, those of the individual are those of the group (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). There are typically only a few ingroups, such as one’s family and work unit. Everyone outside these groups can be categorized as outgroups, people with whom one does not share a close connection. It has been suggested in the literature that outgroups are of a lot less consequence to collectivists than to individualists (Fiske et. al., 1997). This is evidenced in China in the way strangers treat each other, such as pushing and shoving each other to get on a bus and not saying thank you to sales clerks. The idea of politeness to outgroup members is largely not a concern. Only in individualist societies, where every person is seen to be an individual and worthy of respect, is the phenomenon of niceness to outgroup members able to manifest itself.









In consumption situations, we found outgroups to be completely irrelevant as targets for self-presentation or as influencers over consumption decisions. For instance, in Tianjin, when consumers were asked if which item was the most popular throughout the country, or if the brand name of an item was Western or Chinese had any effect on their purchasing decisions, they would invariably say no. The only thing that seemed to have any influence over their choice of products and brands, symbolically, was what their friends/family thought, and what it was that their friends/family bought (see Table 2). This finding occurred over a variety of product categories, such as food, clothing, electronics and cosmetics. This was also supported by observation in both Beijing and Tianjin: people were always consuming with members of their ingroup, and hence the impetus for self-presentation at the time of purchase was always in reference to them.

In individualist societies, it has recently been suggested that groups one is currently not a part of, either aspirational or avoidance groups, which are included in one’s outgroups, wield more influence over actual consumer behavior than one’s existent group (Soloman & Englis, 1997). In a collectivist society, these aspirational or avoidance groups will not necessarily hold any influence. If outgroups are in fact completely irrelevant in a consumption situation, people are in effect ignoring what these outgroups are doing with reference to consumption, and not necessarily trying to be similar to or differentiate themselves from these outgroups through consumption. By not actively attempting to differentiate oneself from members of other groups, there should be different groups actually consuming in very similar manners.



For instance, high profile brand names are extremely popular in China, but, as Yan (1994) points out, these brands afford Chinese consumers security, which they desire due to their limited experience with a modern free market system, not necessarily for status reasons. The Chinese also use brands as an indicator of product function more so than U.S. consumers (Pan & Schmitt, 1995). Therefore, even though many people in different outgroups consume products with the same name brand, they are not necessarily doing so due to the social influence of these outgroups.

Theme 3: If it’s Western, it’s got to be good

Another self-presentational strategy that is very prevalent is the use of Western-looking people to symbolize high status or high quality to others. Models in advertisements and mannequins for higher-end products are almost exclusively Western in appearance (see Figure 3). When asked about this, one Beijing respondent (male) said, "The Western body is the ideal body, tall and thin. It is more beautiful than the Asian body. A product is seen to have prestige if it is associated with a Westerner." Another Beijing respondent (male) said, "I have never seen a Chinese model. I don’t know why. I suppose because the American body is better. Tall and thin."

Also, when the lead investigator went to an upscale restaurant in Tianjin with another Westerner and sat in a secluded area in the rear of the restaurant, we were promptly moved to a table close to the window. Later, when talking to the proprietor of the restaurant, he told us it was part of his marketing plan to have Westerners in the restaurant. He gave us a substantial discount on our meal in the hopes we would come back, and also asked us to please tell other Westerners we might run into about his restaurant. When asked if he was trying to appeal to Westerners (the menu was in English as well as Chinese), he responded, "No, I am trying to attract rich Chinese. They spend more than the foreigners. They come if they think it is a Western restaurant."

Theme 4: Why, I’m the same as the next gal

In an individualistic society, we tend to take for granted the idea that consumers are differentiated. A thirteen-year-old girl will most likely not want to read the same magazines or desire the same styles of clothing as a mid-fifties male corporate executive, except for a few mass consumption products, such as Coca-Cola. By focusing on the uniqueness within people and the differences between people, consumers are segmented and specifically targeted for products that suit their distinctness.

In China, this intuitive notion that different consumers have different needs in the marketplace and that certain products would appeal to some consumers and not others, seems absent from the mindset of many of the vendors and consumers alike. In Beijing, interviewing concerning this occurred with various vendors around the city, including those that sold such products as clothing, cosmetics and electronic equipment from booths they set up on the street, inside the indoor markets and in department stores. Typical responses from vendors, when asked who their typical customer was, included, "We have everyone shopping here," and "It is hard to say what the typical customer is. We get young people and old people."



Not only did these vendors not individualize or differentiate their customers from customers of different products or brand names, but they would in fact become upset when asked about their typical customer. One man responded, exasperatedly, "Everyone is my customer, all kinds of people. Why do you keep asking me this?" This man sold very stylish lingerie, which one would imagine the customer profile to be mainly women, and probably younger, more affluent women, but he did not wish to single even a group of people out in this manner. Similarly, the array of cosmetics being sold, as shown in Figure 4, would seem to have a defined target market. The woman in the picture, who is the owner of the shop, claimed that no particular group of people bought from her.

Scholars have, of course, pointed out that China is not one market, and that for marketers to be successful, they must segment the market appropriately (Swanson, 1997). The country is far too large and is made up of too many income levels, linguistic groups, age groups, and education levels for everyone to be reached with one marketing program. This is an accurate assessment of the diversity of the Chinese people, and in fact the Chinese people are acutely ware of their differences on a macro scale B there are fierce geographic and ethnic loyalties. However, on a micro scale (i.e., within their own communities), they seem to focus more on their similarities than differences. The desire to be part of the mainstream is much more prevalent than the desire to be part of a subgroup.

While part of this unrealization that there are subgroups within mass markets may be due to the relative inexperience of many sellers and consumers in a free market economy, it also is congruent with the ideas of collectivism. Most basic marketing texts teach that the more one can identify a consumer’s individual characteristics and segment them from dissimilar others, the more efficient and successful a marketing effort will be. But perhaps if people inherently do not like to be separated from others in that manner, they will not respond more positively to a specifically targeted marketing message. In fact, in looking at many of the Chinese advertisements, there is typically just product information, and the execution does not seem to have a specific market, which is perhaps a reflection of this.


Because of the nature of collectivism, the nature of self presentation differs from what has typically been documented in the literature. When consumption is used with reference to self presentation goals, consumer behavior will also tend to look different in collectivist societies. As shown above, self presentational concerns will be even more ubiquitous than they are in individualist societies, since the nature of life is more public, or frontstage. The symbolic nature of products should be even more important for many product categories, and product categories typically not associated with symbolic elements at all will in fact have those elements in collectivist societies.

Also, the audience for self presentation is different for collectivists from what has been typically reported in the literature. While individualists see others who may not be part of one’s ingroup as relevant for self presentational strategies (if only to ensure a distinction from them), collectivists have very little consideration of others outside the ingroup. There will be little effort to differentiate one’s group from others, and also trends taken up by certain groups may not necessarily carry over to other groups.

The use of Westernness itself to convey symbolic messages to consumers is another example of how important it is to understand presentational strategies within cultures to gain an informed awareness of the consumption process. Finally, both local marketers and consumers do not engage in consumer differentiation in the marketplace. Consequently, a highly targeted marketing effort may not necessarily be appealing to either sellers or consumers.

Since virtually all behavior can have a self presentational component to it, there are no doubt numerous ways that the process and strategies of self presentation in a collectivist society will differ from what has previously been researched in a Western setting. While much investigation remains into this area, we hope to have provided a meaningful first step toward documenting some of these differences.


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Giana M. Eckhardt, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.
Michael J. Houston, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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