Anhistorical Examination of the Shape of the Ses/Consumer Innovativeness Relationship


Leon G. Schiffman and Elaine Sherman (1985) ,"Anhistorical Examination of the Shape of the Ses/Consumer Innovativeness Relationship", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 130-134.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 130-134


Leon G. Schiffman, Baruch College, CUNY

Elaine Sherman, Hofstra University


This paper examines from an historical perspective the relationship between consumer innovative behavior and SES standing. Particular attention is given to the "Cancian Dip" phenomenon -- the largely unfamiliar and controversial stream of anthropological research that has reassessed the relationship between social status and innovative behavior.


Single and multi-item measures of socioeconomic status (SES) have enjoyed an established place in the history of consumer behavior for about two decades. The general topic of social class and consumer behavior has recently been reviewed (Coleman, 1983), as well as issues in the measurement of social class (Dominguez & Page 1981; Shim & Yokum, 1981) the present gaper focuses solely on the interrelationship between SES and consumer innovative behavior. To provide some organization for this review, the discussion is divided into three main sections: (1) a brief historical overview of the consumer behavior literature dealing with the interface of SES and innovative behavior; (2) an exploration of the "Cancian Dip," a phenomenon borrowed from the anthropological tradition of diffusion of innovations that deals the relationship between SES and innovative behavior; and (3) a critical analysis of the Cancian Dip research from the point-of-view of consumer behavior research.


Over the 20-plus years that SES measures and consumer innovative behavior have been reported in the marketing and consumer behavior literature the prevailing conclusion supports the presence of a linear-positive relationship between SES measures and consumer innovative behavior.

This relationship indicates that as income, occupational status or educational attainment increase (or some combined index increases), so does the incidence of consumer innovative behavior increase. We will now briefly review some of the watershed literature that impacts on this important relationship.

Graham's Pioneering Research

When one thinks about the evolution of research that directly addresses the relationship between SES anil consuer innovative behavior, Saxon Graham's (1951) dissertation immediately comes to mind. Graham's (1956) now classic article explored the relationship between social class standing and the acceptance of a number of specific innovations (i.e., canasta, television, supermarkets, two forms of health insurance). The findings revealed that the adoption of a particular new product or service appears to vary in terms of its basic attractiveness to the members of different social classes. For instance, with regard to TV sets it was hypothesized that they would appeal primarily to downscale consumers because TV is a passive form of home-entertainment. Indeed, Graham (1956) found that downscale consumers (measured in terms of occupational status) were more likely to initially purchase TV sets, whereas upscale consumers were more open to canasta. 4, major contribution o f Graham's research is its documentation that members of different social classes can be innovators; and that such innovativeness, in part depends upon the class-related appeal of the part cu ar new product or service.

Martineau's Early Influence

Pierre Martineau was also a key figure in the early history of social class in consumer behavior and marketing. Martineau (1958) stressed the role of social mobility. More precisely, he suggested that more socially mobile consumers (e.g., those who desire more social status) are more likely to accept new products . Robertson's (1967) consumer-diffusion research on the early acceptance of touch-tone telephone service supports Martineau's findings about social-mobility-- i.e., early purchasers of the touch tone telephone were more socially mobile. However there has been surprisingly little additional attention given to the measurement of social mobility and its relationship to various types of consumer behavior (Shimp & Yokum, 1981).

Coleman's Early Contribution

Richard Coleman (1960) also made a very important early contribution to the SES/Consumer Behavior interface. He proposed that accounting for the level of disposable income enhances the value of non-income SES indexes (e.g. occupational status and/or education). n effect, disposable income is used to accomplish a second-level of analysis in exploring consumer behavior. That is, at the heart of Coleman, s contribution is his scheme that categorized consumers in terms of their relative privilegeness. In particular, it will be recaled that he labeled those consumers within a given social stratum, with above average disposable incomes, as "overprivileged;" and those within the same social stratum with below average disposable income as "underprivileged

Building on Coleman's privilegeness scheme, a number of consumer researchers, over the past 20-plus years, have found evidence that accounting for relative income, within a social class grouping provides an improved level of understanding about various aspects of consumer behavior (e.g., Peters , 1970; Klippel & Monoky, 1974; Hugstad, 1981; Schaninger, 1981).

Coleman's writings (1960, 1983) have also dealt with the influence that consumer-lifestyles have on the relationship between SES and consumer innovative behavior. in articular, he has stressed the complexity of the relationship between social class and lifestyles; noting that certain lifestyle groups seem to overlap across classes. Myers and Gutman (1974), have also addressed the question of whether SES indexes reflect lifestyle dimensions relevant to consumer behavior. Their data analysis suggests that SES indexes do reflect lifestyle differences, as measured by psychographic statements.

Still another issue that Coleman (1983) has recently reflected on is the relative merit of using multi-item SES indexes versus income as a predictor of consumer behavior. The available evidence suggests that for "yes-no" types of consumer behavior -- c-g-9 to use or not to use a product or service , 0 r having a product on-hand -- income seems to be superior. Coleman (1983, p. 265) proposed that the important point is: "How does social class affect use of income?" Thus, according to Coleman, social class standing is seen as the driving force behind income expenditures (especial y more expressive types of consumption behavior), and reflective of consumer lifestyles.

The Diffusion of Innovations

In exploring the relationship between consumer innovative behavior and SES-standing, it would be an oversight not to briefly consider the diffusion of innovation literature. Across the various editions of his review of diffusion-related research, Rogers (1962, 1971, 1983) has summarized the conclusions fro m the available research evidence. In his most recent review, Rogers (1983) indicates that there were 275 studies supporting and 127 studies not supporting (i.e., 68 percent supporting) the existence of a positive relationship between SES standing and innovative behavior. This level of mixed results would seem to indicate that a variety of factors are likely to be interacting that would influence the shape and degree of the relationship between SES-factors and specific types of innovative behavior. The task is to identify and unravel the impact of the likely influential factors.

To conclude our brief historical overview, the Table presents a chronological summary of the small stream of consumer behavior literature that either historically influenced or directly examined the relationship between SES and consumer innovative behavior.


At the intersections of the disciplines of diffusion of innovations, sociology and cultural anthropology, there has been increased interest in the relationship between SES and innovativeness, or the acceptance of change. As recently reviewed by Rogers (1983) the majority of the research has suggested a positive and linear relationship between SES and innovativeness.

However, beginning in the mid-1960s there evolved a small body of literature that has challenged the accuracy of the frequent assumption of linearity between SES and innovativeness. Spearheading this challenge has been the research of Frank Cancian, an anthropologist, whose supplemental analysis of various research findings reveals that while at the extreme ends of the SES spectrum (e.g., lowest and highest SES groupings) the positive-linear relationship seems to consistently hold-up, that in the middle-range of SES (e.g., lower-middle and upper- middle status positions) linearity is not always observed.

Specifically, Cancian has found that individuals in agricultural communities and/or developing nations who are lower- middle-SES, are more innovative during the early stage of the diffusion of an innovation (i.e., among the first 25 percent of those who adopt); whereas upper-middle-SES individuals emerged as more likely to adopt towards the middle stage of the diffusion of an innovation (i.e., where about 50 percent of the individuals have adopted). The argument is that beginning near the midpoint in a product's or a service=s market-penetration, upper-middle class individuals catch-up and then surpass their lower-middle class counterparts in acceptance.

As an explanation of this effect (which is known as the "Cancian Dip"), it is suggested that during the early stage of an innovation's availability, higher-middle-SES individuals perceive more risk and feel that they have more to lose by adopting than lower-middle SES individuals.

Give this brief general introduction to the Cancian Dip, we will now explore the following facets of the debate about the shape of the relationship between SES and innovative behavior: (1)'the dynamics of the Cancian Dip, (2) the social system, and (3) available research evidence.

The Dynamics of the Cancian Dip

At the heart of Cancian=s upper-middle class conservatism dip are the three behavioral effects that he proposes: (1) the inhibiting effect of rank (2) the facilitating effect of wealth; and ~3) the curvilinear effect -- that is the dip.

The Inhibiting Effect of Rank. It is Cancian's contention that it is the acquired or achieved status, prestige or rank of higher-SES (upper-middle class) individuals that is the seed of the pressure on theta to be conservative when faced with innovations that might place them in a risky situation. In a nutshell, higher-ranked individuals have more to lose, or less to pin, from the "unknown" often associated with an innovation. In contrast lower-SES (lower-middle class) individuals have less status, prestige or position to lose, and they possibly may gain status by being receptive to an innovation. Indeed they may acquire an opportunity to get ahead, and the risk associated with accepting an innovation may be the thing that propels them up the SES-ladder.

Available sociological research on the influence of group norms on innovative behavior, suggests that lower-SES individuals may under specific circumstances be more innovative than higher SES individuals (Becker, 1970). More precisely, if the core social norms favor change or innovation with reerd to a specific area of innovation , then higher-SES individuals are likely to innovate. In contrast, if the group-norms favor the status quo or conservatism , innovative behavior may be more likely among lower-SES individuals who are under Tess pressure to subscribe to the existing conservative-social norms; and may actually see innovative behavior as an opportunity to achieve upward mobility.



Thus, looking at the world through the lenses of "the inhibiting effect of rank," the conclusion is that higher-middle-SES individuals will be less likely than lower-middle-SES individuals to be innovators.

The Facilitating Effect of Wealth. In the Cancian scheme or things, wealth is seen as having a countervailing effect to rank. That is, wealth serves to increase the likelihood that higher-middle-SES individuals will be earlier adopters than lower-middle-SES individuals. The underlying premise of this perspective is that wealth, especially money, is an "enabler"that makes many forms of marketplace innovations possible. Without capital (or a line of credit) it is often impossible to be an innovator.

The Curvilinear Effect. When it comes to the countervailing influences of rank and wealth, Cancian (1979~ suggests that the impact of the inhibiting effect of rank should diminish with time -- as the amount of uncertainty associated with the innovation is reduced. This reduction in uncertainty would seem to be influenced by the number of individuals who have already accepted the innovation; that is, the greater the number of individuals who have already accepted an innovation, the sooner the next individual will accept the innovation (i.e., the diffusion effect, Rogers, 1983).

Dividing the SES-continuum into four segments, a practice recommended by Cancian (1979) he members of the lowest-SES segment are likely not to have the means to purchase innovations, whereas the members the highest-SES segment have little to lose in terms of either status or economics. This leave the two middle segments as the place where the controversy associated with the diffusion of innovations takes place. Within the dynamics of the middle-range of a social system, both higher-middle-SES and lower-middle-SES individuals are subject to the inhibiting and facilitating forces of rank and Wealth. In essence Cancian suggests that there is a curvilinear relationship between SES and innovative behavior because lower- middle-SES individuals initially have more to gain than lose from adopting an innovation; whereas higher middle-SES individuals initially have more to lose than gain from adopting. However at some point-in-time in the adoption cycle of an innovation (e.g., after 25 percent penetrate) the table turns, and higher-middle- SES individuals start being less conservative in their acceptance of an innovation. This upward-shift in the acceptance of an innovation by higher-middle-SES individuals causes the appearance of a linear positive relationship between SES standing and innovativeness.

The Social System

The status associated-environment in which individuals are exposed to specific innovations is the "social system" (Cancian, 1979) used the less common term "community of reference"). The definition of the boundaries of the social system is a critical dimension of the Cancian Dip theory. According to Cancian, if the defined boundaries of the social system do not accurately reflect the actual boundaries of the social system; then the middle-rank conservatism dip may be masked or hidden, and escape detection.

Cancian (1979) defines the boundaries of a social system as the relevant local reference group looked-to in establishing one=s rank. The emphasis in this definition is on the word "local." This may be appropriate given that the adopting unit in Cancian=s analyses are exclusively rural and agricultural. However, Cancian claims to be proposing a theory that is suitable for a wide range of social systems and innovations. Therefore, the problem with Cancian's definition is that it does not provide much assistance in coming to terms with an operational definition of the actual boundaries o a social system, one that would necessarily receive widespread endorsement by consumer behavior researchers.

Available Research Results

In his various articles and summary book, Cancian (1979) draws the conclusion that upper-middle-SES conservatism (i.e., the Cancian Dip) exists. This conclusion is based primarily on Cancian's re-analysis of research data originally collected by other researchers.

There has been a considerable amount of criticism of both Cancian's methodology (including the vague definition of a "social system") and his results (e Frey & Freeman, 1981; Frey, et al., 1979; Gartrell, 1977; Morrison, et al., 1976). In particular, critics tend to suggest that Cancian has been too arbitrary in his dismissal of those studies which do not support his thesis. In light of the controversy surrounding the Cancian Dip, there is a need to conduct future research to establish the bound aries of a possible dip (when does it exist - for which groups of consumers and for which innovations).


As already noted, while Cancian is consistently and exclusively presenting results that pertain to rural or agricultural innovations (dealing with farming) and a substantial number of his data bases are drawn from less developed nations, he is nevertheless claiming that his theory of hither-middle-SES conservatism holds true for other types of populations, and other types of innovations . To this end, he acknowledges that he is proposing, "...a general theory relating rank to risk o resources relevant to gaining and maintaining that risk" (Cancian, 1979 P. 10

In this section the Cancian Dip will be critically reflected upon, and its potential implications for consumer innovative behavior will be considered. In particular, the discussion is organized around the impact of the following four factors: (1) the innovation, (2) the innovator, (3) the social system, and (4) communications. The principal objective of the discussion is to evaluate the potential of the Cancian Dip phenomenon as an aid in our rethinking o certain aspects of the relationship between SES indexes and consumer innovative behavior.

The Nature of the Innovation

Flowing from the heart of Graham's (1955) early consumer research is the notion that members of different SES-groups may be the innovators for different product/service innovations. This important observation suggests that the inherent traits or characteristics of different innovations may provide useful insights as to which SES-group (if any) will be likely to be early adopters.

To account for the underlying or perceived traits of innovations, consumer and marketing researchers have examined the following five attributes of innovations drawn from diffusion of innovations research: (1) complexity (2) relative advantage, (3) compatibility (4) trialability, and (5) observability (e.g., Ostlund, 1969 , 1974). In the absence of a sufficient stream of consumer research, one can only speculate that complexity relative advantage and observability influence the likelihood of acceptance of any innovation - across all SES groups (i e they are relative-free of a specific innovation- or SES-effect). In contrast, one might expect that compatibility would be a perceived attribute that higher-middle-SES individuals would be more sensitive to. This would be consistent with Cancian's "Inhibiting Effects of Rank" position; that is, higher-middle-SES individuals with their greater status, prestige or rank are likely to be more open to adopting products that are felt to be compatible with prevailing social norms. Along similar lines, one might expect lower-middle-SES individuals (because of Cancian's "Facilitating Effects of Wealth" principle) to be more open to innovations that can readily be tried on a limited basis (i.e., trialability) -- thereby they can reduce the possibility of financial loss.

What this rather simplistic discussion of the five basic innovation-attributes indicates is that compatibility and trialability may be underlying traits that, in part, influence the acceptance of specific innovations by members of different SES-groups. The following brief discussion of perceived risk also points to similar conclusions.

Perceived Risk and SES-Standing. It stands to reason, that what the members of the various SES-strata fee1 they have to gain or lose from a particular new product or service is likely to materially influence their eventual adoption. In this context, both rank (or status) and wealth (or money) seem to be closely associated with different types of perceived risk. More precisely, ran seems to correspond to psychosocial kinds of perceived risk ("How will others judge me?"); while wealth is more aligned to economic or functional kinds of perceived risk ("Can I really afford it?" or I can't afford another one, if it doesn't work"). From this illustration it would appear that when higher-middle-SES individuals are aced with deciding to purchase an innovation, they will perceive more social risk and less financial risk (they will have more to lose socially and less to lose financially); whereas lower-middle-SES individuals will perceive less social risk and more financial risk when faced with trying a new product or service.

This brief overview of innovation-attributes and perceived risk (components and types of risk) suggests that character is tics of the innovation -- as perceived by consumers -- are likely to interact with SES-standing to influence consumer acceptance of innovations.

The Innovators

A very real limitation of using agricultural rural diffusion of innovations studies as a frame-of-reference in consumer behavior is the fact that the agricultural samples are generally composed entirely of a single occupational status group -- i.e., farmers. As an occupational grouping -- farmers -- are likely to be concentrated into a relatively narrow SES-band. This can create a variety of potential biases that can cloud the findings. More specifically if occupational status is an important ingredient of social status, and a single occupatioaal status group (i.e., farmers, dentists, physicians) is singled out for examination, it is Rely that there will be insufficient status variation. For instance, in the case of farmers if the majority of farmers in a particular social system are either upper-lower class or lower middle class, there might not be an adequate representation of farmers who are upper-middle class or upper class.

This observation raises the question of the appropriateness of exploring innovative behavior within any single occupational grouping, since occupational status is itself a measure of social status. Such a practice seems to be circular -the sample is defined in terms of an SES variable (i.e., occupational status), and then the sample is partitioned in terms of one or more other SES variables (e.,,-., income or educational level). Under such circumstances, one might wonder: (1) if the study sample is only capturing a narrow band of the SES spectrum and (2) just how useful rural diffusion generalizations are for consumer behavior research.

Household versus Business Consumption. It appears that all of Cancian=s (1979) analyses from which he attempts to establish higher-middle-SES conservatism are based on studies that examine farmers in their role as business decision-makers. This raises the issue of the potential influence of different types of consumption environments -- in articular, the difference between household ans business consumption. In contemplating these two consumption environments, it appears that they differ in terms of SES-factors, and that in turn they are likely to influence the meaning of rank and wealth. To state it differently, one would expect that a purchase represents very different decisions for a farm-household, as compared to a farm-business. When a farm- family makes a purchase of a product for its personal use (a microwave oven), this is likely to be a different type of decision (with different inherent risks) than when the farmer is faced with a decision that will directly influence the operation of the farm (e.g use of a new seed, or an investment in a piece of farm equipment).

Future research must take into consideration these two different types of consumption roles, and attempt to account for the different kinds of SES-factors that are likely to influence households and business organizations.

The Marketplace: Local vs. Mass. It is also highly questionable if the local market orientation inherited from rural and agricultural sociology and insisted on by Cancian (1979), should be the rule in exploring the diffusion of an innovation. Instead, it is our belief that the boundaries of a market is a complex environmental and cultural issue ' one that ultimately reflects the nature of the marketing system within a particular nation.

A single-minded local market-perspective seems to ignore the marketing reality that in developed technologically oriented societies, with advanced mass communications networks there are frequently mass markets for man~ goods and services. These mass markets seem to flourish in large cosmopolitan centers with populations that are composed of individuals drawn from many different subcultural or ethnic backgrounds, as well a rather broad sampling of the full range of the social class spectrum. Future research should therefore examine the appropriate context (local or mass) for examining the relationship between SES- factors and consumer innovative behavior.

The Influence of Communications

In his discussion of the relationship between SES-standing and innovative behavior, Cancian (1979) naively ignores the power and influence of the marketing efforts of the change agents who are trying to introduce a new (agricultural) product, service or practice. This flies in the ace of common marketplace reality, where it is common for marketers to establish a promotional strategy that calls for mass media advertising and the firm's sales force to initially be directed at a particular SES-group (e.g., either upscale or downscale consumers).

For instance, if a firm's marketing policy calls for salespeople to target their new products at downscale consumers (as is the case M certain major United States insurance companies), it is feasible that downscale consumers will be the innovators (assuming the selection of an appropriate marketing program). In contrast, it the firm's strategy is to target its marketing effort to u scale consumers (as is the case for certain banking services) it is equally possible that upscale consumers will be the innovators. Thus , it would be an error to ignore the firm's mark e ting effort as one of the forces that influences which SES-group is eventually classified in some researcher's study as "the innovators." (It would also be an error to ignore the influence of informal word-of-mouth conversations -- a topic that is beyond the scope of the present paper.)


This paper has briefly explored the consumer behavior literature that is concerned with the interface between innovative behavior and SES-standing Particular attention was given to the small body of behavioral science literature that questions the classic assumption of positive and linear relationship between these two key variables. Cancian's re-analysis of others research has stimulated much give-and take in the anthropological and sociological literatures concerned with this important interrelationship. His critics have charged that he has been too quick to dismiss those studies that do not support the presence of higher- middle-class conservatism (i.e., the 'dip"). Moreover, while Cancian has argued that his theory is generalizable to a wide range of social systems and innovations -- the current discussion questions whether consumer goods and mass markets share that much in common with the local and rural orientations that reflects the samples examined by Cancian, in his research.

Commenting on the controversy associated with the Cancian Dip, Rogers (1983) makes the appropriate observation that the critical contribution of Cancian's research is that it serves as a warning to other researchers not to automatically assume the existence of a positive-linear association between SES-standing and innovative behavior.


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Leon G. Schiffman, Baruch College, CUNY
Elaine Sherman, Hofstra University


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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