The Need For a "Sociology of Consumption"


F. M. Nicosia and T. H. Witkowski (1975) ,"The Need For a "Sociology of Consumption"", in SV - Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior, eds. Gerald Zaltman and Brian Sternthal, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 8-24.

Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior, 1975      Pages 8-24


F. M. Nicosia, Consumer Research Program, University of California, Berkeley

T. H. Witkowski, Consumer Research Program, University of California, Berkeley

[We gratefully acknowledge the helpful suggestions of R. N. Mayer, T. Tyebjee, G. Zaltman, and an anonymous reviewer.]

The study of the consumer has been of interest to many disciplines. Beginning in the late 1950s, a gradual marriage of demand theory, as formulated in the neoclassical tradition, with social psychology and other branches of psychology has given birth to a comprehensive and integrated approach to the study of the consumer. At present, this approach is usually called "consumer behavior."

The rubric, consumer behavior, depicts a fundamental characteristic of this approach--to a very large extent, it focuses on the study of the individual consumer (or type of consumer) and his or her decision processes concerning entities such as a brand or a set of brands (e.g., Nicosia, 1975; Wind, 1975). Contributions to this discipline have been and are being made by both scholars and managers of private firms (e.g., Clock and Nicosia, 1963; Cox, 1961). Similarly, scholars and managers use the implications of this emerging fund of knowledge to further their interests.

In this paper we shall advocate the need for developing another approach to the study of the consumer. In this approach, which we shall call a "sociology of consumption," the focus is not on an individual consumer or type of consumer, but on all consumers and on all consumption activities taking place in a society. The focus is also on the correlates (causes as well as effects) of consumption activities such as social values, norms, and institutions (e.g., the family). The unit of observation and analysis in this approach is society and the underlying variety of its consumption orientations.

There are several reasons for proposing a sociology of consumption at this juncture of social history. To begin with, consumption activities have not been studied from the point of view of society, with the notable exception of macroeconomics. Recently, some interest has also emerged in other disciplines (Parsons and Smelser, 1956; Glock and Nicosia, 1964; Nicosia and Glock, 1968; Nicosia and Mayer, 1975; Mayer and Nicosia, 1975; and Zaltman, 1975). The development of this approach would obviously add to our conceptual and empirical knowledge at the level of both the individual and society.

The second reason for a macro or societal approach is that a variety of problems cannot be satisfactorily formulated and solved from within a micro or consumer behavior approach. As we shall illustrate, these problems are of increasing concern to managers of profit and nonprofit organizations. And they are of crucial concern to social managers--that is, elected legislators, appointed regulators, and judges.

The third reason is all encompassing; in fact, it is central to the arguments submitted below. We believe we are witnessing a number of social changes that, when considered as a whole, amount to change in kind rather than degree. There is a general agreement that change in kind took place as societies moved from subsistence (traditional, peasant, or survival) to industrialization. Intuitively, many feel that changes in kind are also taking place as a society moves beyond industrialization. The practice of inventing new labels for modern societies, such as "post-industrial," "service," or "affluent," signifies that, in fact, current changes in values and institutions are basic, structural.

As we are living through such changes we naturally experience difficulties and even disagreements in observation and interpretation. Since such changes are of kind, the major difficulties are in the basic tasks of reinterpreting old phenomena, finding new concepts, and generating more appropriate data. Perhaps the major challenge for studying whether an affluent society differs in kind from an industrialized one derives from the well-known human tendency to resist change in our ideas, views, and feelings--that is, in our self images.

The argument for a sociology of consumption is based on our belief that we are witnessing social changes in kind. In particular, we shall argue that recent changes in society's consumption behavior and its correlates are an indicator of why an affluent society differs in kind from an industrialized one. Accordingly, we shall argue that new problems, with implications for individual and social choice, are increasingly facing private and social managers in their dealings with society's consumption activities.

our considerations are tentative, programmatic, and, at best, insightful. Our concepts are not well defined and, in the attempt to argue for a new picture of society, our remarks may not yet be internally consistent. When taken together, however, our arguments will hopefully convey a feeling of the nature and importance of creating a new discipline dedicated to the study of consumption activities and correlates in affluent societies. Such study is long overdue, and the need for it has become urgent for social management decisions in such problem areas as pollution, resources, and interdependences among affluent and developing societies.


Let us begin with a sketch of orthodox views and received doctrines. Past efforts to understand the meaning of industrialization have dissected society into a number of classes of activities and institutions. For our purposes, an important distinction is work and saving, on one hand, and consumption, on the other. Undoubtedly, work and saving (and, thus, investment and technology) are paramount for industrialization. Accordingly, it should not be surprising that, for decades, sociology has dedicated great effort to the study of work, of the antecedent cultural predispositions (the famous Protestant ethic, for example), of the social mechanisms leading to choice of occupation, and, occasionally, of the ways different occupations lead to different consumption styles (Chinoy, 1952; Wilensky, 1960; Shostak, 1969).

Similarly, much economic research treats work, saving, and investment as basic decisions and consumption as a residual decision. Work decisions are the primary factors in the life of a human, a family, and a society during industrialization. By allocating time to work, each person gains the means (income and assets) for further improvements, including the right to consume. in other words, the right to work determines the right to income and, ultimately, to the right to consumer. Furthermore, and especially in public policy decisions, the basic assumption is that the amount of work people are willing to perform is directly proportional to wages. These and other assumptions are so ingrained in the cultural ethos of an industrializing society that only in very recent times haw scholars thought about testing them (Dalton, 1975).

As industrialization unfolds, more people can afford the basic necessities. Gradually, more people can afford more--from only bread to bread and meat, from small to large amounts of bread and meat. And all of this is consonant with the basic cultural value that more is preferred to less (Vickers, 1970).

As abundance continues to spread across society, the quantity of goods available and purchased increases. A few begin to wonder about this spreading abundance. For instance, by 1960, some elitists begin to argue on moral grounds (and only on moral grounds) that more is not preferable to less. others suggest that this abundance signifies that culture is becoming materialistic. Still others explicitly formulate a variety of conspiracy theories, whereby the private sector, taking advantage of technology and people's gullibility, is forcing its overproduction upon consumers.

As observers, we can at least record this much. Throughout the unfolding of industrialization, society publicly asserts that it is good to work hard, that people have the right to work; that it is good to save for a rainy day, that self-improvement is good, and that every member of the social group is entitled to satisfy basic needs. This picture becomes blurred, however, when affluence spreads and we discover that society has not yardsticks to define basic needs and the "reasonable quantities" of consumption. Thus, without cultural perspectives, debates increase exponentially.

While such debates on the quantity of consumption activities continue, most social scientists fail to note that work affects consumption not only through income but also through time. During industrialization, productivity affects work via higher wages and by requiring less work. Throughout most old and new occupations, the same total amount of real wages is obtained with fewer hours of work. Slowly and then more rapidly, people discover that the amount of time available for nonwork activities increases, e.g., consumption and leisure activities.

All in all, as we continue to preach that to work hard is good, more and more members of society can spend less and less time on work. As people gain more discretionary time, society has no cultural rules to offer about what to do with it. The coming of leisure should be blessed, of course, but some observers quickly begin to ask the same question asked of consumption: namely, do we have too much leisure? More importantly, a few observe that in fact, society is ambivalent about this sudden explosion of leisure, ;or it basically conflicts with the Judaic-Christian heritage of many affluent societies (Mendelsohn, 1966).

We cannot overemphasize the importance of discretionary time in studying changes in a society's consumption behavior and correlates. In the early period of industrialization, the tine available for allocation to nonwork activities was a residual, but as a society enters into affluence, the trend may be reversed. More consumers may first choose how much time should be spent on what consumption activities and then choose the occupation which will yield the amount of time and income necessary for such consumption activities. Although the choice of consumption activities may cause some to opt for overtime or a second job, the key is choice. For example, the freedom to choose between overtime or not has increased in importance in labor-management contracts.

To understand the meaning of affluence is to understand that the traditional relationships between work and consumption are changing in basic ways. Changes in work-activities have affected consumption activities in two fundamental ways: increasing discretionary income and increasing discretionary time. Both interact to create entirely new possibilities in terms of consumption behavior and cultural values, norms, rewards, sanctions, and institutions.

What are these possibilities? As researchers, we only know that for at least the last twenty years an increasing number of societies beginning to enter affluence have been searching for them, in an obviously unplanned manner. But most social scientists have been unable to observe and interpret such searches, for they are still using perspectives appropriate to industrialization. In fact, some have attempted to find ways to alter modern trends without realizing that they cannot be reversed-some trends are inherent to affluence.

As researchers, instead of searching for the definition of what is too much consumption, we should devote our energies to finding what new emerging cultural yardsticks seem to direct consumption activities toward some baskets of goods rather than others. As researchers, instead of searching for ways to cut down absenteeism from and low involvement with work, we should ask whether it is still true that people feel they can realize their human essence only by working in a shop or office or, for women, in the home. There is absolutely no "functional" reason why work activities should remain the only or even a major means to the fulfillment of individual and social aspirations. We should recognize and appreciate the fact that society has done a great deal to make it possible for many to live with little time allocated to work activities.

A few examples should illustrate this point. An affluent society can afford to have more youth in school for more years than ever before; it can afford to encourage early retirement; it can afford longer paid vacations and more legal holidays; and so on. Consciously or not, for one or another publicly asserted reasons, society has freed time from work activities through legislation, regulation, union-management contracts, and unwritten norms.

In sum, the emerging affluent society has already said that work is no longer the only important feature of its being. While the industrial society had organized itself around the right to work in order to distribute the right to consume, the affluent society has now approached de facto the point where the right to consume is at least co-equal with the right to work. We must acknowledge these global events and focus our efforts on understanding their consequences in other areas of life--from religion to politics and, we believe, especially to consumption.

The meaning and purposes of saving have also changed. Saving was a way to improve oneself. It was a way to provide for the rainy days, for retirement, for passing assets to the next generation. But society has organized itself to make these meanings and purposes less and less relevant. By taxation, society can offer, below cost, any training needed to improve oneself all the way up to the highly specialized Ph.D. degrees. From unemployment compensation, gradually stretching to longer periods, to social insurance against sickness and accidents, to retirement pensions, society is gradually eroding the meaning of "rainy days." It is constantly eliminating the old "functional" and cultural reasons for saving.

We must appreciate these events in their totality and study their consequences. Among these possible consequences, changes in the perception of risk and planning horizons may affect the nature of consumption patterns. Yet, we do not study whether an increasing number of people are more immersed in the present than are planning for the future. We overlook, in fact, that many of the traditional reasons making the future relevant to physical survival have decreased in number and intensity. Thus, we do not study the possibility that more single working women may be saving, not for the rainy days and for life after retirement, but for a Christmas holiday on a Caribbean island or at a ski resort--in other words, to have a good time now.

Concurrently, changes in time perspective, combined with discretionary income and time, allow more people to try out more new goods. Consumers have acquired the ability to make mistakes. They can afford to search for variety. For example, in a study of frequently purchased and heavily advertised goods, it was found that more than a fifth of the observed consumers had changed brands in a period of six months (Achenbaum, in Nicosia, 1974, Ch. 14). And consumers do change their brand loyalties-despite the so-called mesmerizing power of advertising--across all product classes. They change their houses and areas of residence, their hobbies, sports, and social clubs, and so forth. Why not? Are there any reasons that make this individual search for variety disfunctional to the consumer? on the basis of what individual yardsticks is this search for variety "wrong"?

Many of our publicly asserted values can be used to judge that the increased importance of private consumption activities, in dollars and time, in an affluent society is wrong. Elitists like Galbraith and Kaysen and others have been doing just that. But the research question we should be asking is whether the values that were appropriate for energizing a society through industrialization are, in fact, still functional in times of affluence. We need more research and less moralizing.

Let us take as an example of moralizing the case of "materialism." To point a finger at the volume and kind of consumption activities in an affluent society and assert that this society is materialistic is an interpretation of empirical evidence based on some value perspective. In contrast, let us take a researcher's posture and use some of the available knowledge.

To begin with, from the early motivational studies in the late thirties to the gradually more sophisticated recent studies, we have learned that products, brands, and services satisfy an increasing number of needs that are less and less related to a narrowly defined functionality (Dichter, Martineau, Gardner, White, Foote, and Weiss). Bauer and Greyser observe that "perhaps the distinctive feature of our society is the extent to which material goods are used to attain nonmaterial goals" (1969, p. 6).

In fact, as early as the thirties ' professional economists such as Robinson had already observed that one purchases goods, not for their material properties, but for the services that such goods can perform to satisfy human preferences. There is absolutely nothing in economic theory which asserts that human preferences must include only "functional" needs, such as survival. What affluence means is that more members of a social group can also pursue the satisfaction of needs that are psychological and social and, ultimately, aesthetical and ethical. Thus, for example, as late as 1970, the VW and the Cadillac were perceived on the same perceptual plane: a perfectly "rational" behavior if we are capable of abandoning the old adage of conspicuous consumption (the perception of a car as a symbol of social status) and reinterpret this finding in terms of nonconspicuous conspicuous consumption.

Until a few decades ago, elitists--by blood, power, or education-were the only ones who could choose among steaks, museums, hunting, and reading. Currently, working people have this discretion of choice too. Rather than moralizing about the fact that affluent consumers prefer steaks and hunting to museums and reading, elitists would be more socially useful if they researched the social and economic reasons for this. Finding and understanding these reasons can bring about congruence between social and individual choices.

As researchers, we should note that the meaning of goods in terms of functionality is losing its importance. By observing society's consumption behavior for over two decades, Katona implies that the pursuit of a standard of living may not adequately absorb the energies of an affluent society. As old wants and expectations are satisfied, new wants and expectations are formed. In fact, Katona adds:

. . . the acquisition of more and more consumer goods . . . does not necessarily impede progress toward nonmaterial values, because the affluent consumer is free to extend his wants and aspirations from comfort and fun to cultural, artistic, and spiritual pursuits and indeed has more time and opportunity to do so than ever before (1971, p. 14).

The term "opportunity" is the key challenge to researchers and public policy makers. Which opportunities will an affluent society search for? It is even possible to imagine an evolution toward an affluent society whose members are devoted to the satisfaction of only aesthetic and ethical wants (Croce, 1955). Yet many other types of affluent societies may be equally, or eve a more, possible--including the one popularized in the book, 1984.

As researchers, we may study a society's search process by asking what motivational forces are at work. We should attempt to understand these forces, Katona's aspirations, in terms of their content and the basic cultural values that guide them. This work would eventually lead us to fruitful reinterpretations of consumption behavior in terms of what is happening rather than what should happen if old values and institutions were still operative.

An example of inappropriate uses of old images of societies underlies some interpretations of the increase in the number of working women and, more generally, of the so-called women's liberation movement. Underlying some hypotheses, there seems to be a common view: women go to work because they need more income, and they need more income because they want to buy more things. We even saw a Ph.D. dissertation proposal that hypothesized that women need more things because advertising tells them that buying things is the way to material happiness.

But why should women be materialists? We can study their behavior from very different perspectives. As affluence has given discretionary income and time to the "household manager," entirely new horizons have opened up to her. Cultural values such as "be successful" or "hard work is good" can now be implemented outside the family context--from social and political to professional activities she can now choose.

Using federal statistics, we "see" that more cosmetics, dresses, and so on are bought. If we rely on old images of societies, we naturally infer that women are driven by materialistic needs, but if we use an understanding of affluence and culture, we will not make this inference. only a few decades ago, a woman needed cosmetics and good wardrobes only for attending Sunday services and for a few other rituals. But today, gainfully engaged in activities outside the home, she will accordingly use more cosmetics and dresses. Thus, it is not necessarily materialism that guides women's consumption; good old values such ad individualism and success may still be the driving forces of women's consumption. As affluence makes it possible for women to seek self-realization outside the home and in a broader slice of social life, changes in the quantity and quality of their consumption follow.


Several of the examples presented so far suggest that changes in cultural values may lead to changes in consumption behavior. Another example of this direction of a cause-effect relationship is the popular idea that changes in sexual morality have led to the adoption of the micro-mini skirt and the bikini. But it is entirely plausible that this relationship may have a diametrically opposite direction--from the adoption of the micro-mini and the bikini to changes in sexual morality. At the present stage of our thinking, we must stress that such cause-effect relationships are very tenuous assumptions.

In addition, postulating such direct relationships is simple-minded, for there are many "intervening" mechanisms between cultural values and activities in all areas of social behavior. Such mechanisms may not only intervene as mediators, but may also act as independent factors affecting cultural values and consumption activities. The patterns of causality, in other words, may be complex. For instance, it has been observed that increased women's participation in work outside the home, their increased ability to go to ski or sea resorts, technological changes (e.g., stretch pants and texture hose), and so forth may have facilitated the adoption of the micro-mini and the bikini, which, in turn, may have affected the standards determining the amount of skin that can be revealed to the public eye (Nicosia and Glock, 1968).

Cultural values cannot operate directly on any human activity by definition, for they apply to many kinds of activities. In past and perhaps some modern societies, for instance, free will is a value that guides not only political and religious choices, but also behavior in the consumption area. But, to be operative, the meaning of free will as a guide to action needs to be specified in more concrete fashion. There are several social mechanisms that do this specification.

Institutions such as the factory and the family perform this function of creating specific norms that guide the activities occurring within them. The value, "be successful," is translated into specific norms for guiding work behavior in a factory--e.g., be punctual, be sober when you report to work, and be appropriately attired for your work position. Similarly, a value such as "be parsimonious and frugal" is translated by the family into specific norms such as pray before dinner, do not leave any food on your plate, drink alcohol only in prespecified circumstances, etc.

Witkowski (1975) argues that it is entirely possible for a society's consumption behavior to change even though the basic cultural drives have not changed. For example, changes in consumption behavior may only be related to changed in those institutions and/or their norms that govern, directly or indirectly, consumption activities (see, e.g., Nicosia and Mayer, 1975).

Some historical trends lend support to the idea that changes in institutions and norms may affect several consumption activities independent of changes in society's cultural make-up. To illustrate, Nicosia and Mayer (1975) note that, as industrialization spreads through this country, several kinds of activities moved out of the family institution. Husbands, and then wives, went to work in the factory or office in an increasing number. Similarly, children's education used to be provided by the family and, once a week, by the church institutions. Gradually, however, educational activities were also absorbed by another institution, the school.

As work and educational activities move to the factory and the school, some consumption activities move along also--husbands, working wives, and students, at least, tend to eat lunch at their respective institutions. But throughout industrialization, the family dinner still remains a basic fulcrum for the creation and enforcement of norms concerning the value of being frugal and parsimonious. We believe, however, that the spreading of affluence gradually undermines the ritual of the family dinner. As the family members become more occupied with activities outside the home, the time available for preparing the meal, setting the table, and cleaning up afterward becomes scarcer. It was not a random event when the food companies, upon observing this trend, found it very successful to introduce ready-made foods.

As affluence continues to spread, the range of activities of each family member increases further--from work and study to social and political causes. It thus becomes increasingly difficult for all members to be able to congregate around the same table at the same time. Once again, those business firms that first discovered this trend found it very successful to introduce the so-called snack foods (Claggett, in Nicosia, 1974, Ch. 4).

All in all, family norms regulating food consumption habits gradually become less and less functional. Concurrently, norms, if any, at the place of work, at school, at the coffee shop, and so on take over. Perhaps, more importantly, there are many different institutions where eating takes place that is no longer clear to anyone what a "good" meal is. What is becoming clear, however, is that the norms "do not leave food on your plate," or "only drink alcohol for certain festive occasions," are no longer the criteria defining what a good meal is. The value, "be frugal and parsimonious" may not have changed, but in fie situation we haw sketched, it is hardly implementable.

Other historical trends also illustrate how changes, not in cultural values but in institutions and norms, may affect a society's consumption behavior. Some cultural values may, in fact, be "deflected" from work activities into consumption activities (Nicosia and Mayer, 1975). During industrialization, the value "be successful" seems to have had a great role in work institutions: simply put, "start at the bottom of an organization and by hard work you will get ahead."

As we all know, during industrialization, the need for workers to unionize is rather obvious. But note that, as unions affirm themselves as a new institution, they gradually develop their own norms--for instance, advancement by seniority, assurance of sick leave, development of pension funds and a good retirement income. Are these norms favoring or hindering individualistic efforts to be successful?

To the extent that these new norms apply to the work situation, the original value "be successful" applies less to work activities. If this value is still operative in our society, it cannot affect work activities, and it is reasonable to assume that its motivational force may spill over onto other activities.

Recalling that, concurrently, humans have acquired more discretionary income and time, it is perfectly rational for them to search for "success" in the area of consumption activities. The explosion of pluralism in American styles of consumption during the past three decades or so--the observable search for and acceptance of product and brand variety by Americans--may not be at all evidence of materialism. What we observe is that the energizing drive inherent in the values "be yourself" or "be successful" is gradually channeled toward those activities where there is an increasing degree of discretion, of choice--consumption activities.

Admittedly, we have reported tentative speculations. It is unfortunate that the "facts" we have alluded to are not recorded in such a way that we can design empirical tests. But such data will never become available if we continue to keep records of our society as if it were an industrializing society. All we claim is the plausibility that changes in institutions and their norms may affect consumption behavior, with or without changes in basic cultural values.


The remarks of the last paragraph set forth another task facing our community,of consumer researchers: the creation of appropriate new data and the reinterpretation of extant data. We shall only sketch a few issues here. [For a discussion of some of the measurement problems mentioned in the text, see Nicosia and Mayer (1975).]

The observation and study of a society's consumption behavior will develop if we begin to isolate some key and relevant factors operating in affluent (and developing) countries. So far, we have suggested the following as deserving research attention:

(a) cultural values;

(b) institutions;

(c) norms; and

(d) consumption behavior.

As in all other research, we shall have to perform two operations: (a) measurement of the four suggested factors, and (b) measurement of the functional relationships among these factors. With the arrival of statistical inference and computer programs, many of us have spent much effort on questions regarding measurement in (b) overlooking most often the measurement problem in (a).

We cannot afford this in the area of our concern. Even a review of textbooks in sociology and anthropology reveals that our four factors-especially values, institutions, and norms--are rather vague and fragile notions. The literature tends to use these factors as labels. There are very few efforts to translate them into constructs and then to operationalize them into measurable entities.

From the basic disciplines all the way to the social indicators literature, such terms as materialism, free will, achievement, and so on are used continuously, but only as labels. Often, such notions as "keeping up with the Joneses" or "keeping ahead of the Smiths" are referred to as cultural predispositions underlying our society's consumption behavior over time--yet they are only a posteriori, ad hoc insights (Glock and Nicosia, 1964) that no one has yet attempted to explicate and operationalize.

Explicating and measuring the concepts of social value, institution, and norm in ways relevant to the study of consumption behavior will be arduous--methodologically and, above all, conceptually. The major conceptual trap to avoid is that of operationalizing these words from the point of view of an obsolete image of society. A case in point is the definition of the term "poverty." In the past, and still often today, the term is operationalized by a facile dimensionalization: income received by a subject per period of time. Even though some studies have already shown that a major component of poverty in affluent society is perceived cultural deprivation (see, e.g., Caplowitz, 1963), most of us still manage to measure poverty only in terms of dollars--the exclusive reliance on this empirical indicator may have been appropriate only during industrialization.

The fourth key factor we have suggested is consumption behavior. Our current ability to define and measure such behavior is appalling. On the positive side, we at least have a good track record in observing personal consumption expenditures for several decades. The empirical indicator, "dollars spent on durables, nondurables, and services per period of time," is most legitimate for some questions in macroeconomics and for the study of some public policy issues (e.g., Ferber, 1973). This indicator, however, is totally inadequate for the study of an affluent society's consumption behavior in general, and for an increasing number of questions concerning public policy.

It has been suggested that a relevant definition of consumption behavior must include not only the dimension of money spent, but at least three other dimensions (Nicosia and Glock, 1968). First, if we are going to practice what we preach--that is, "the problem is not quantity but quality"--then we must observe and also analyze what different people buy. The specific products, brands, and services bought by a carpenter and a college teacher are most likely two baskets of goods that differ in kind and not in quantity of dollars spent, since they may cost the same. Even though there may be many people who show the same propensity to consume (percentage of disposable income spent in purchases), they may buy different baskets of goods. As long as we cannot describe consumption behavior in terms of "types of baskets bought," we do not have a picture of the variety and thus qualities characterizing an affluent society. We do not have information useful for public policy and for long-range planning by business firms. To put it simply, we do not know what we mean empirically when we speak of the quality of life.

The other dimension proposed by Nicosia and Glock is "activities." Their argument was originally based an the fact that purchasing certain goods is not equivalent to using them. Book sales in the U.S. are very high, but this does not mean that Americans are intellectuals. Many people buy classical records, but some of them listen to them carefully, while others only play them as background music during cocktails.

More recently, it has become clear that the distinction between purchasing versus using types of consumption activities may not be sufficient for characterizing consumption behavior of an affluent society. First, the acquisition of prepurchase information implies activities whose nature and number may vary enormously from industrializing to affluent societies. Acquiring information in India may imply activities vastly different in quantity and kind from acquiring information in the U.S. Accordingly, public policy concerning the advertising institution in this country and the roles of government in supplying consumer information calls for empirical data on prepurchase consumption activities. Without these data, we do not have even proxy ideas about society's costs and benefits concerning the sending and seeking of prepurchase information, nor the allocation of such costs and benefits to senders and seekers. Without this, can legislation and regulation be rational (Mayer and Nicosia, 1974; Nicosia, 1974)?

Second, many of the specific problems concerning energy conservation and environmental quality are intertwined with postpurchase, postuse, consumption activities--namely, disposal activities. Thus, for example, if society wants to recycle car engine oil to conserve resources, it must understand how people go about changing their own car's oil and, above all, how they go about disposing of the used oil (Nicosia and Mayer, 1973).

All in all, beyond dollars spent and types of baskets bought, the explication of the concept of consumption behavior needs the dimension "consumption activities." This dimension is a vector of types of activities--prepurchase, purchase, use, and disposal--that we must learn how to record.

Consumption behavior must also be specified along a "time" dimension. Basically, Nicosia and Glock (1968)'have argued that each of the consumption activities mentioned above does imply the use of time. As a society evolves through different economic stages, not only the number and kind of consumption activities change, but also the amount of time spent on each may vary. Such changes may even be more crucial for understanding and guiding consumption behavior than measuring how much people spend and what they buy.

Recently, economists, especially Becker (1964), and, above all, Linder (1970), have convincingly argued that the way a society allocates its time not only to various consumption activities but to the entire set of possible activities is the most basic social indicator. After all, technology has created an ever-increasing abundance of things, but the supply of time has remained constant--in fact, a long time ago Bauer had observed that much social legislation stresses freeing a person's life from disease more than extending life expectancy (Bauer, 1966).

The explication of consumption behavior, then, may be based on the following four dimensions: money spent, types of baskets bought, types of consumption activities, and time spent on different types of consumption activities.

Hopefully, these suggestions should create constructive reactions and disagreements. Their purpose is to illustrate how we need to obtain different descriptions (data) of a society's consumption behavior than those currently available to social scientists and decision makers in private and public concerns. Of course, even if we all agreed that the above four dimensions are relevant for the study of consumption behavior and its relationships with social values, institutions, and norms, the development of measuring instruments for each dimension is another formidable task awaiting us. [For example, although little has been published, the observation of how much time people allocate to different activities--the so-called time budgets--is frothed with methodological problems.]


The development of national income statistics was a response to the needs of private and social managers to know something; about key economic events affecting the industrialization of this country. But these events alone no longer suffice, for this country has gone beyond industrialization. in affluence, the relative importance of gross national product, investments, savings, assets, and so on has decreased vis b vis some of the new problems we face.

Of these new problems, two are of paramount importance. On the one hand, discretionary income and time have made it possible for consumers to pursue an expanding number of aspirations beyond those of being properly dressed at the office or at church or of having food and shelter. We argue that the roles and importance of consumption behavior in an affluent society has dramatically changed. on the other hand, as affluent societies become predominantly consumption-oriented, they are increasingly discovering two constraints bearing on such behavior. They are experiencing basic resource and technological limitations, and they are also experiencing their dependence on developing societies.

On the surface, the problem facing both public and private managers seems clear: it is necessary to change an affluent society's consumption to preserve resources, including a healthy environment, for it is unlikely that technology alone can bail us out. But the nature of the problem and the cultural mechanisms underlying it are not at all clear.

The heart of the private and public management question is: How can we reorient consumption behavior? To answer this question rationally, we need to know what consumption behavior is in an affluent society and what the cultural values, institutions, and norms are whose interactions lead to some style of consumption rather than another.

Some of the responses in the marketing literature to the "how" question have been naive so far--in fact, some of them are potentially misleading. Among the latter, we notice the writings on social responsibilities of marketing and on demarketing. These writings are potentially misleading private and public managers for at least two reasons. The first, as strange as it may seem, is internal inconsistency. For years, marketing scholars have accepted and contributed to the development of the notion that we should be concerned with the quality of life. No one, however, has bothered to explicate and measure this term. Now we see that quality did not mean much. Put to the current historical test, the literature on quality of life can suggest only one remedy--consume less! This is an answer concerning quantity, not quality.

To decrease the quantity of consumption behavior is, at best, a way to postpone facing the problem. Demarketing, is a short-range solution that can take care of only the quantity and not the quality of consumers' aspirations. By ignoring the basic motivational cultural drives toward current life styles, demarketing can fail to deliver the results that public and private managers need to achieve. The long-range solution lies in remarketing by both public and private managers (Bogart, 1975).

As marketing scholars and as consumer researchers, we must take the initiative to study and understand the many qualities imbedded in current consumption behavior and the social, as well as economic, underlying mechanisms. This understanding will give some information concerning the orientations that remarketing must follow to resolve the conflict between expanding consumer aspirations and the realities of natural resources and technological limitations.

Ultimately, understanding of the social and economic mechanisms governing the exploding pluralism of qualities in consumption behavior can give us insights into the dialectics of individual versus social choices. As affluence spreads, more and more consumers have begun to enjoy and expect greater discretion of choice. Concurrently, they have enjoyed receiving more and more public goods (e.g., in public education and in mass transit). Public policy makers must find ways to reorient such desires and expectations and therefore need information in addition to that available in our national income statistics.

We are proposing a new set of social indicators, a social accounting statistics, that can describe some key characteristics of affluent societies. Such concepts and data can tell public managers what consumers want and why they want it--thus providing the empirical basis for searching and implementing solutions to the inherent conflict between individual and social choice. Finding and implementing solutions without such knowledge is gambling. The elitists who rely on promulgation of laws should be reminded that nonfunctional laws are disruptive.

We have learned, at the brand-choice level, that consumers cannot be manipulated. If we cannot change brand-choice behavior, we certainly cannot change deeply rooted cultural values, institutions, norms, and consumption styles. To overlook such basic realities will lead not only to mismanagement of private and public affairs, but to gross misallocation of natural and human resources. This is a historical challenge to us, the consumer researchers.


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F. M. Nicosia, Consumer Research Program, University of California, Berkeley
T. H. Witkowski, Consumer Research Program, University of California, Berkeley


SV - Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior | 1975

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