In Search of a Broadened Paradigm For Cross-Cultural Study: the Influence of Bicultural Competence on Bicultural Chinese Consumption

ABSTRACT - As the world becomes more globalized, a broadened paradigm of high generalizability is necessary to advance knowledge in cross-cultural consumer behavior. This paper uses qualitative methods to investigate how bicultural competence influences cross-cultural consumption, and concludes with four themes: (1) consumer expertise. Consumer expertise in a cross-cultural context includes not only cognitive processing ability, but also attitude, confidence and behavior dimensions. (2) Learning. Bicultural competence moderates the learning process. The learning process mediates cross-cultural product adoption. (3) Information processing. Bicultural competence moderates information processing. (4) Involvement. The five antecedents theory needs to be broadened to include culture-specific constructs.


Jufei Kao (2002) ,"In Search of a Broadened Paradigm For Cross-Cultural Study: the Influence of Bicultural Competence on Bicultural Chinese Consumption", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Ramizwick and Tu Ping, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 238-244.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2002      Pages 238-244


Jufei Kao, The City University of New York, The Graduate Center, U.S.A.

[The author thanks professor Stephen J. Gould and Patrick Bishop at the City University of New York, Baruch College for their comments.]


As the world becomes more globalized, a broadened paradigm of high generalizability is necessary to advance knowledge in cross-cultural consumer behavior. This paper uses qualitative methods to investigate how bicultural competence influences cross-cultural consumption, and concludes with four themes: (1) consumer expertise. Consumer expertise in a cross-cultural context includes not only cognitive processing ability, but also attitude, confidence and behavior dimensions. (2) Learning. Bicultural competence moderates the learning process. The learning process mediates cross-cultural product adoption. (3) Information processing. Bicultural competence moderates information processing. (4) Involvement. The five antecedents theory needs to be broadened to include culture-specific constructs.

The 21st century marketplace is the globalization of fragmentation (Firat, 1995). At the international level, technologies diminish the boundaries between countries. At the same time, each individual culture is resuming its identity at the local level. The United States 2000 census data reveal that in the last ten years the domestic population growth, as a whole, outpaced the growth of Baby Boomer generation alone (U.S. Census 2000). The increased population came from American ethnic groups: Hispanic, African American and Asian Pacific etc.

Culture is the accumulated social beliefs, values, and practices of a group of people. It is embodied in language, psychology and social institutions. Consumer goods are also one of the carriers of culture (McCracken, 1986). People of different cultures can "use goods to move between one cultural identity and another as they negotiate relations between home and host cultures" (Oswald, 1999). In global marketing, culture is becoming a commodity (Firat, 1995). Marketers are interested in how consumers of different cultural backgrounds adopt a second culture product category. Thus, cross-cultural consumer behavior is becoming an important topic.


Briley, Morris & Simonson (2000) point out one new direction for studying cross-cultural consumer behavior. They argue that culture is not just static dispositional character. It influences consumers’ decisions through dynamic processes. Consumers from different cultural backgrounds use different rules when they need to provide reasons to make decisions. Consumers of different cultural backgrounds will reason differently and choose differently. They emphasize the importance of studying cross-cultural consumer behavior from individual-level variables. This approach is a promising direction.

Consumer expertise (Alba & Hutchinson, 1987) is a multi-dimensional construct. Experts and novices differ in the product evaluation process, information search behavior (Brucks, 1985), and new product adoption tendency (Moreau, Lehmann, & Markman, 2001). Most of the literature on consumer expertise focuses on consumers’ product category knowledge. However, in a cross-cultural context, consumers will need to know the other cultures’ values and meanings to adopt their product categories. Thus, cross-cultural consumer expertise should include (1) product category/brand expertise, (2) cultural knowledge, and (3) the ability to cope with and learn the second culture so that consumers can consume the second culture through adopting consumer goods.

Bicultural competence, as defined, consists of six dimensions (LaFromboise, Coleman, and Gerton, 1993): "(1) Cultural Awareness/KnowledgeBrefers to the degree to which an individual is aware of and knowledgeable about the history, institutions, rituals, values and everyday practices of a given culture. (2) Positive attitudes toward both cultural groupsBthe individual holds each cultural group in a positive (but not necessarily equal) regard, and does not endorse positions that promulgate hierarchical relations between two cultural groups. (3) Bicultural efficacyBthe belief or confidence that one can live effectively and in a satisfying manner within two cultural groups without compromising one’s sense of cultural identity. (4) Role RepertoireBthe range of culturally or situationally appropriate behaviors or roles an individual has developed. (5) Communication abilityBan individual’s effectiveness in communicating ideas and feelings to members of a given culture, both verbally and nonverbally. (6) GroundednessBdevelopment of a stable social support network in both cultures." In this definition, bicultural competence includes consumers’ attitudes, believes, knowledge, coping behavior and social relationship. It reflects all aspects of adopting cross-cultural products categories/brands.

Based on these conceptual backgrounds, this study will focus on the effect of bicultural competence on cross-cultural product adoption, and seek possible individual-level constructs or theories that need to be broadened in a cross-cultural context.


Because of its exploratory purpose, this study incorporates three qualitative research methods: existential-phenomenology, observation, and researcher introspection.

Data Collection

Existential-phenomenology (Thompson, Locander & Pollio 1989) provides researchers a way to immerse themselves in the consumer’s world. "Existential-phenomenology seeks to describe experience as it emerges in some contexts the meaning of an experience is always situated in the current experiential context and is coherently related to the ongoing project of the life-world." Since culture is context-dependent, it cannot be separated from consumers’ experiences. Existential-phenomenology’s philosophical assumption is a natural match to study cross-cultural issues. This study conducts several phenomenological interviews to understand bicultural Chinese consumption by starting with the open-end prompt, "Tell me about consumption experience in the U.S. that you would like to talk about."

Target informants are those who were born in China, or Taiwan, and moved to live in New York City. They come to the United States to study, work, or immigrate. Two in-depth interviews and one focus group are conducted. The place is the interviewer’s house, or the informant’s house or a coffee shop in New York City. A total of six informants are interviewed. Four of them are female and two are male. They age from 25 to 37. They were either referred by friends or recruited on-line through a Chinese MBA student web site. The conversation usually lasts for 2 to 4 hours depending on the size of the groups. The conversations were tape recorded for future analysis. Informants were given video renting coupons as a reward for participation.

Observation. Observation studies allow for the recording of nonverbal behavior. Nonverbal behavior can be a communication process by which meanings are exchanged among individuals (Zikmund, 2000). Observation is the best method when researchers want to avoid respondent bias. Human observation is also very useful where no predicted hypotheses exist in advance. In the coffee shop interview, informants were invited to choose their drinks and desserts, the second culture products, so that the researcher could observe their behavior. Also, the interviewer hosted a homemade cheese fondue party for the focus group. The purpose is to observe the informants’ reaction to the cheese fondue, a Swiss tradition not common to Chinese. The observations also serve as inputs to the analysis.

Introspection. Because of globalization, more and more researchers have bicultural backgrounds. The researchers themselves experience cultural meaning shifting among different cultural backgrounds. Although researcher introspection has been a controversial issue in consumer research (Gould, 1991; Gould 1995; Wallendorf & Brucks, 1993), for a bicultural researcher it is the primary research method to explore cross-cultural consumer behavior. One powerful aspect of researcher introspection is that "one can not only provide content of the issues under study, but also describe the underlying process and the habitual mind patterns (Gould, 1995)." The author is a bicultural Chinese. My own experience about the transition from Chinese to American consumption also served as an input to the analysis, especially the learning process.

Data Analysis

No prior hypotheses are set when conducting the research. After the interview, the conversation and observation are analyzed. During the analysis, literature review is conducted. Literature and field results are constantly compared to find out which existing constructs or models ned to be broadened.


The following discussion groups the findings into four themes: (1) consumer expertise (2) learning and adoption (3) information processing, and (4) involvement. Table 1 summarizes these themes.

Theme 1: Consumer Expertise

The informants’ backgrounds are summarized in the following. Their names are disguised.

Ana just came to the States four months ago. She is 24 with minor working experience in an exporting company in Taiwan before she came abroad to study.

Linda is in her early 30s. She just came from Taiwan to United States to study four months ago. Before she came to the States, she had been to other countries for vacation and she had worked in a bank in Taiwan for eight years

Vanessa is 30. She is doing her postdoctoral research in NYC. She has been in the States for one year. Her husband still lives in Shanghai.

David is in his early 30s. He and Angela are a married couple from China. They have been in the States for about eight years. They both get their Ph.D. degrees from the States. David now works in a financial consulting firm, and Angela works in a medical lab.

Wang is from Taiwan. He has been in the States for eight years. He got his Ph.D. from a university in NYC, and he is now doing his post-doctoral research.

<Observation>: cheese fondue party

In the cheese fondue party, all of the subjects show curiosity and are eager to try the new food, although the adoption outcome varies. Wang has had cheese fondue before. He is familiar with the origin of fondue in Swiss. He likes it. David shows his dislike after a few trials. Angela and Vanessa do not really say anything. However, they had bread with the cheese from time to time though not much. [Vanessa later told me that she likes the taste of cheese and wine in the fondue although she has never had it before.]

<Observation>: coffee shop

Although Linda chooses green tea [she is an expert on green tea], she shows variety seeking for her dessert. She spends some time browsing the desserts and asks me about the desserts before making her decision. Ana has an aggressive attitude toward tasting new food. She chooses the items she has never had before.

All the informants show confrontational coping strategies (Mick & Fournier, 1998) for cross-cultural food. They exhibit the early adopter characteristics (Roger, 1995). They are willing to try new things. One interesting thing is that although Linda and Ana both just came to the United States four months ago, they showed high confidence in their ability to cope with the second culture.

During the last few decades, Taiwan has been through a period of economic growth. The domestic consumer market is similar to the Western market. Global consumption information is readily available from television, movies, the Internet, etc. Therefore, Ana and Linda are familiar with the Western culture before they come to the States. Their confidence in their ability to cope with the second culture makes them willing to try new things, and to adopt the second-culture products/brands. Familiarity with the second culture seems to induce higher confidence and positive attitudes toward both cultures. And, high confidence and positive attitudes toward both culture serve as enzymes facilitating willingness to learn the new cultural and adopt cross-cultural products. Further, the more they have usage experience with the new cultural products, the more they feel confident about themselves’ ability to adopt new cultural products. In other words, the dimensions of bicultural competence may not be independent. There may be causal relationship or feedback loop among the six dimensions.

Consumer expertise is consisted of five dimensions(Alba & Hutchinson, 1987): cognitive effort, cognitive structure, analysis, elaboration, and memory. These five dimensions are all related to consumers’ cognitive processing ability. Alba & Hutchinson (2000) review the related literatures of consumer product knowledge calibration, and find that empirical findings have shown that there is relationship between confidence and decision-making. They point out that the dimensions of consumer expertise need to be expanded to include the dimension of meta-knowledge. From the exploratory data of this paper, it seems to be necessary to include also attitude and behavior dimensions, i.e. communication skills (sign system and language), and role repertoire in a cross-cultural context. More research is required to investigate the dimensions of bicultural competence and their relationship.


Theme 2: Learning


Ten years ago when I first came, I was lucky. I lived with my sister, who had been in Los Angeles for some time. She gave me lots of hints about living in the United States: for example, how to use the laundry machine and dryer in the apartment [vs. using the sun to dry clothes], how to use an electric stove to cook [vs. gas stove]. My favorite toothpaste brand was not available hereBI would need to choose a new one. All those daily living details here were so different from home. I had to learn from the beginning (plus the language barrier). Most of the time, I could only learn by trial-and-error. I had a period of as long as six months that I did not feel like to go anywhere, nor making friends.

The culture shock diminished as I became more familiar with the new environment. After I got my MBA, I went back to my country to work for six years. During that period, I had the chance to go to different cities around the world for business: Tokyo, Hong-Kong, London, Paris, and Singapore etc. I became more and more familiar with switching among different cultures and adopting their specific cultural product categories. I accumulated cross-cultural product knowledge through "a learning pattern." A learning pattern that helped me learn the new culture faster, and adapt to different local environments quickly. Global standardization makes this learning pattern possible. This standardized products/services enable me to contact with different culture much more easily. I know what products are available from local convenience stores in different cities. I know local newspapers can provide useful local shopping information. I have gradually built up an attitude to communicate with people of different cultures. Most importantly, I had gradually built up my confidence, Confidence of behaving properly in an international context and still feel at peace with my own Chinese cultural identity and values. That confidence maintains a positive learning feedback loop.

In my own cross-cultural product adoption experience, learning pre-exists decision-making. Initially, there is a period of slow learning and frustration. In the latter stage, the learning speeds up. After cumulating experiences of learning different cultures, I have a learning pattern. When I observe similar cues in different cultures, the cues can induce a pattern of learning. Understanding the learning process and the elements in the "cross-cultural learning pattern," global marketers can adjust their marketing communication messages to facilitate consumers’ cross-cultural learning and increase adoption rate.

Consumers learn from two information sources: external source (advertising, PR news, events, words of mouth, and product experience, etc.), and internal source, i.e. knowledge transfer from base domain to novel domain. In terms of mechanism, there are three main mechanisms: schema-based learning, adaptive network models (Smith, Eliot R., 1996), and analogy (Gregan-Paxton & John, 1997). Since cross-cultural consumer learning may involve some new culture meaning that does not exist in consumers’ existing memory, adaptive network models and analogies may be more appropriate in this context. More research, both qualitative and quantitative, will be required to understand the cross-cultural learning process.

Theme 3: Information Processing

When the informants first move to the United States, they are not familiar with the new environment. Their bicultural competencies are lower. During that period, they rely heavily on their peer group’s network support. The peer groups include their friends, or family. Mostly, they shop in Chinatown/Chinese ethnic stores, or they shop from nearby stores because of convenience. Bicultural Chinese rely heavily on those who have quanxi (relationship) with them as the source of information especially when they first come to the States.

David: When I first came here, I got help from my friends whom I had known in China. I just brought two packages with me cause the airline limits two packages per person. I even brought chef knife, and Chinese wok [and I am still using them now]. There were several of us would go to China Town to pick up some food during weekend, and went back to our department to cook. I did not buy any thing when I first came except some groceries and food.However, I found that some brands were much cheaper here. We had Blue Ribbon beer in China, too. That brand is very expensive there, but here it is much cheaper. Also, Coca Cola and Pepsi are both cheaper here, and most of the time either of them will be on sale. I will always choose the one that’s on sale.

Wang had a different story when he first came to the States. His source of information was from an American friend.

Wang: I was lucky. When I first came to the States, I had a roommate, who was an American. He told me lots of things that you needed to know to survive in this big city. I personally did not feel any culture shock. I was more concern about my study and research. My life was simply lab and dormitory. After several years of hard working, and then suddenly you feel that you are part of the city. I go back to Taiwan every year. Ironically, I feel cultural shock when I go back there.

Vanessa had a similar situation when she worked in Australia on a six-month research project before.

Vanessa: When I lived in Australia, we had a group of friends in our lab. They told me a lot about the Australia culture. During weekend, we went for a trip by the seashore. It was a wonderful experience.

Vanessa: Last summer when I first came to New York, my roommate helped me a lot. She came from Hong-Kong. However, I also got product information from ad. I bought my bed by looking for information from local newspaper ad.

Ana: I got connected to the alumni network through the alumni website. And I got a lot of information from there. I do not have much money to study abroad. I got to know where to buy used-furniture from previous alumni who are graduated. I got to know where to buy cheep electronics, and cheep grocery. Recently, I am planning to move to a cheaper apartment. I got in-side information from the network, too. The information really helps.

Both Chaiken & Maheswaran’s (1994) systemic and heuristic dual information processing mechanism, and Petty & Cacioppo’s (1983) elaboration likelihood model posit that involvement (or task importance), source credibility, and argument ambiguity are factors that moderate consumer information processing. In a cross-cultural context, bicultural competence can also moderate the information processing mechanism. The previously established theories are valid when individual’s bicultural competence is high, i.e. within the same cultural context.

Those consumers who are of low bicultural competence tend to rely on heuristic cues. Brand name and price are the two heuristic cues most mentioned in the informants’ conversation. And friends are he most important source of information. Low bicultural competence may also inhibit systemic information processing. None of the informants mention any systemic processing when they first came to the States. For Chinese, the heuristic processing is supported by a sophisticated quanxi network; they can obtain related and well-integrated information from their quanxi network. How bicultural competence moderates information processing is another theme worthy of investigating in a cross-cultural context.

Theme 4: Involvement

Bicultural Chinese show different degrees of ease adopting different categories of the second culture’s products/services. They accept credit cards easily, but are not comfortable going to non-Chinese beauty/barber shops for a haircut. They can change their personal hygiene routine by adopting new hygiene products, but their eating habits die hard.

Interviewer: This is a coffee shop, why do you still choose green tea?

Linda: Oh! I love green tea. I try to drink coffee several times, but I always go back to green tea. My family owns a tea farm in the northern part of Taiwan. I have been drinking green tea for years. When I moved here, my package was simple and compact, but I brought much of green tea with me. I need to drink it. Since I am not sure where I can get green tea here. I brought much of them with me." "This green tea bag is made of low quality tea. I don’t like it very much. However, compared with coffee, I will still choose green tea."

David: Initially, Angela cut the hair for me. I was afraid to go to a barbershop for a cut. Partly because it was more expensive than in China, partly because I saw many friends came out of a barbershop and their hair looked miserable. I did not know which barber was good. And the pricing and tipping was killing me. Therefore, I asked Angela to cut my hair....One summer, I went back to China. The first thing my parents told me was "Why don’t you go to have a hair cut first? You hair looks miserable." They did not know that Angela did it.

Angela:<Giggling>...I had done my best.

David: Going to have a professional haircut is an indicator of your degree of acculturation. Now I am comfortable to have a haircut by a non-Chinese barber. I actually found a good one. He is from India. But a couple of weeks latter when I visited the barbershop again, he had left the store. Now I have to look for a good one again.

David: ...I brought some Chinese medicine with me when I came to the States. Sometimes, my family back in China will ask some family friends to bring some more for us.


In the fondue party, David does not like the cheese. He avoids having it after some trials, and sticks with Chinese pork-rib and radish soup.

Angela: We like to shop at Home Depot especially after we move to our new apartment. We need some more new furniture. It is very pleasant to shop there. The furniture designs are of style.

Obviously, some product categories involve more culture specific meaning and values, some less. For example, green tea, cheese fondue, beauty shops or medicine are high cultural involvement categories. However, furniture, computers and the Internet are low cultural involvement product categories. Credit cards are somewhere in between. There are different ways to conceptualize and measure involvement (Andrews, Durvasula and Akhter, 1990). Several scales have been developed (Zaichkowsky 1985, Laurent and Kapferer 1985, Ratchford 1987). Conventionally, involvement is posited to have five antecedents: utility, sign value, hedonic value, risk probability, and risk importance (Laurent and Kapferer 1985). However, the measurement scale of the aforementioned study is developed within a single cultural context. In a cross-cultural context, involvement will need to be broadened to include culture-related antecedents. These culture-related antecedents maybe are multi-dimension constructs themselves.



Interestingly, the more knowledge the consumer has about her home-culture, the higher involvement with the home-culture product categories, and the less likely that she will replace them with the second-culture product categories. Too much knowledge with their original culture may block consumers’ adopting cross-cultural products. Several existing studies investigate similar phenomena, but in different contexts. Moreau, Lehmann and Markman (2001) found that experts are less likely to accept discontinuous innovations than novices. Van Osselaer and Alba (2000) found that brand name is a blocking factor in product evaluation for brand loyal consumers.

Also, involvement has been found to be a confounding factor influencing the effect of knowledge on consumers’ decision-making (Park & Lessig, 1981). Cultural involvement may confound the effect of bicultural competence on consumers’ cross-cultural learning and adoption. Is Linda’s avoiding coffee the result of her low bicultural competence (she just came to the States four months ago) or low involvement with coffee? When investigating the effect of bicultural competence, the effect of involvement should be partialed out.

The New Paradigm

Based on the exploratory research, this study posits that bicultural competence moderates the learning process, and the learning process mediates adoption. Because of the more complicate decision-making process involving both product evaluation and cultural adaptation, a mixed model combining both moderator and mediator will be more proper in a cross-cultural context. Figure 1 depicts the theoretical conceptual relationship of the new model. Compared with Briley, Morris, and Simonson’s model (2000), both models are based on individual-level variables.

Methodologically, Baron and Kenny (1986) provide a good operation and analysis guideline. They point out that conventional experimental design and ANOVA will not be sufficient to prove the moderating and mediating effects of the variables. It requires experimental design together with structural equation modeling analysis.


In search of a new paradigm, this study focuses on how bicultural competence influences bicultural Chinese consumption and attempts to find a broadened paradigm to study cross-cultural consumer behavior. The triad relationship of bicultural competence, learning and adoption is a promising model. It approaches the cross-cultural study from individual-level variables. This model treats each individual as an independent entity instead of a member of pre-classified cultural groups. Therefore, it allows individuals to adapt to the environment dynamically.

This research finds that familiarity of the 2nd culture is the first step to become bicultural competent. Familiarity leads to higher bicultural confidence and positive attitudes toward both cultures. Higher bicultural confidence and positive attitudes leads to positive behavior, i.e. communication skills and role repertoire. Also, positive behavior has positive feedback to confidence and attitude. Future research will require quantitative measurement of bicultural competence. Are the six dimensions appropriate? Are there more dimensions or fewer? What is the relationship among the dimensions? Is this model generalizable to other cultures? The model should be robust for both directions of diffusion: from majority culture to minority culture and vice versa.

Adaptive network learning and analogy are more proper mechanisms in cross-cultural learning since cross-cultural learning involves more new values and meaning. The content of learning should include both cultural knowledge and knowledge about how to learn new culture.

Other research includes how bicultural competence moderates consumer information processing. Also, a reinvestigation of involvement to include culture-specific constructs in the antecedent domain is necessary. Since culture is context-specific, it implies that products of different cultural backgrounds have different involvement antecedents. It may be necessary to develop different involvement scales for different cultures. Finally, since involvement may be a confounding factor, when study bicultural competence it should be controlled.

As a marketer, focusing too much on one’s own culture may lead to cultural myopia and lose opportunity in different cultural groups. As a marketing researcher, too ethnocentric an approach to global marketing research may blind the researcher and limit his/her creativity. As a consumer, low bicultural competence may result in unbalanced cultural identities and lead to ethnocide, or cultural blocking.


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Jufei Kao, The City University of New York, The Graduate Center, U.S.A.


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2002

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