Consumer Socialization: Origins, Trends and Directions For Future Research

ABSTRACT - Consumer socialization is becoming a popular area of scientific inquiry. This paper presents a historical perspective on consumer socialization by reviewing origins and reasons for its emergence. It also reviews theoretical perspectives and trends in other disciplines and, on the bases of these trends, provides directions for future research.


George P. Moschis and Ruth B. Smith (1985) ,"Consumer Socialization: Origins, Trends and Directions For Future Research", 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: 275-281.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 275-281


George P. Moschis, Georgia State University

Ruth B. Smith, University of Maryland


Consumer socialization is becoming a popular area of scientific inquiry. This paper presents a historical perspective on consumer socialization by reviewing origins and reasons for its emergence. It also reviews theoretical perspectives and trends in other disciplines and, on the bases of these trends, provides directions for future research.


Researchers have traditionally borrowed various theoretical perspectives from a wide range of disciplines in their efforts to understand and predict consumer behavior. While such efforts have enjoyed various degrees of success, consumer behavior research over the past three decades has lead us to believe that no single theory or approach in itself can adequately explain consumer behavior.

In response to growing demands for approaches using multi-theoretical perspectives, some researchers have begun using models that integrate several theories. Examples of approaches that use multi-theoretical perspectives are found in the area of consumer socialization. Consumer socialization is the process by which individuals develop consumption-related cognitions and behaviors. Consumer socialization models generally assume that people develop such patterns of thought and actions partly as a result of their interactions with "significant others"--i.e., the so-called socialization agents, and partly due to internal biological or cognitive-psychological changes. These changes affect the individual's ability to learn, and they create needs that directly or indirectly (by impacting upon one's interaction with agents) can affect consumer learning. In addition, consumer socialization is affected by several social structural factors (e.g., social class, race, sex) which again directly or indirectly can affect consumer learning (cf. Moschis and Churchill 1978).

When the emphasis is placed upon socialization agents, a number of sociological and psychological theories are offered for explanations of consumer learning. Internal processes, on the other hand, are based usually upon theories of cognitive development and biology, offering sometimes competing and other times supplementary explanations. Finally, the effects of social structural factors are examined in the context of social-system theories.

Consumer socialization research has followed a trend popular in other disciplines--greater emphasis on socialization perspectives, integrating several theories to explain human behavior. Thus, the scope of consumer socialization research has been widened from studies focusing on short-term cognitive effects of television advertising on children to more general studies of multiple influences on the development and change of patterns of consumer behavior over the person's life cycle. Given these trends and the potential contribution to the field of consumer behavior, consumer socialization appears to be an approach that deserves close examination.

The present paper has several objectives: (a) to present consumer socialization origins and developments, (b) to present major contributions of other disciplines, (c) to review trends in socialization theory and research, and on the basis of these trends, (d) to provide directions for future research.


As with so many other approaches to the study of consumer behavior, consumer socialization has its origins in the social sciences. In this section, the emergence of socialization is first presented, followed by the emergence of consumer socialization.


The term "socialization" has been around for a long time, even before its study as a concept by social scientists. One source notes its presence in The Oxford Dictionary of the Englis Language in 1828 (Clausen 1968). Early usage of the term was confined to "making one fit for living in society," while more recent uses of the concept have been broader and include the development of values, attitudes, and behaviors, both socially functional and dysfunctional (Clausen 1968).

Socialization has been the concern of several writers in various areas of social sciences. In sociology, the concept was first addressed around the turn of the century. Cooley, for example, was among the first to initiate interest in the development of "self" through the process of social interaction, recognizing the importance of primary reference groups in the development of personality. Similarly, Thomas saw the emergence of the person as the product of both social demands and internal individual (mostly biological) processes. Other early writers contributing to the development of socialization include Park and Burgess who were among the first to address socialization processes influencing to the development of the person in the society; and Dewey, whose work had a profound impact not only on sociologists but also on social psychologists, anthropologists and students of child development (cf. Clausen 1968).

George H. Mead was the first to directly address the socialization process by focusing upon the development of self through the process of modeling, and he is credited with the development of the symbolic interaction approach. More recent contributors to the field of socialization include Dollard who set forth criteria for studying socialization.

Unlike sociologists, psychologists developed interest in socialization at a later time, and their work was influenced a great deal by the writings of early sociologists (cf. Clausen 1968). Perhaps the greatest contribution to this area comes from students of child psychology and several social psychologists, including Allport, Lewin, Hull, Hoveland and Sears. The psychologists' contributions to socialization include the reinforcement mechanism of learning and the integration of the sociological and psychological approaches responsible for the development of the social learning point of view and specific learning processes. This early work has led to the development of three major approaches that are now popular in socialization research: stimulus-response analysis of the neo-Hullians; functional analysis, which is closely related to Skinner's position; and the social learning theories.

Anthropologists have also contributed to the field of socialization in their course of studying how culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. Margaret Mead is credited with most of the work in this area, although several other researchers have contributed as well. For example, major contributions were made by Kluckhon and his student who make distinctions between "socialization" and .. culturation" and between individual development and culture changes.

Finally, communication researchers more recently have contributed to the study of socialization, borrowing from several other disciplines. Early studies dealing with public opinion formation and influence (e.g., Katz and Lazersfeld 1955) focused mostly on the effects of significant others on the individual's changes in cognitions and behavior. The effects of other communication processes (e.g. mass media) were assumed to have little significance (Klapper 1960). While these studies did not directly address socialization, more recent research places greater importance on interpersonal and mass media influence on consumer socialization. For example, one finds studies of family interaction patterns (e.g., McLeod and Chaffee 1972) and mass media uses and gratifications (Katz et al. 1974) relating to socialization. These later approaches are more elaborate in specifying the communication processes and the type of learning taking place.

Consumer Socialization

The field of consumer socialization as an area of scientific inquiry is relatively new. Early contributions to the field come from researchers outside the field of marketing who wished to better understand human behavior. For example, Guest's (1942, 1944, 1955) early attempts to understand the development of brand preferences are among the first descriptive psychological studies. Similarly, Parsons et al. (1953), as well as Riesman and Roseborough (1955), are among the first sociologists to speculate on consumer socialization processes and outcomes.

The major contribution to the emergence of the area of consumer socialization comes from the area of communication. During the late 60's, Steve H. Chaffee and Jack M. McLeod, codirectors of the Mass Communication Center in the School of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, had just developed a family interaction process typology (Chaffee and McLeod 1966) and were engaged in a significant amount of research in political communication. Among their students were Scott Ward, Chuck Atkin and Danny Wackman, all of whom went on to do a great deal of work in the area of consumer socialization. Scott Ward, however, is credited with the introduction of consumer socialization to the area of consumer behavior. In a monograph, Ward (1974) observed that political socialization and consumer socialization have several things in common, making both areas amenable to a similar research approach. His early thinking and research influenced some of his colleagues at Harvard's School of Business, former professors, and later students at Wisconsin (e.g., Roy Moore and George Moschis) studying under Chaffee and McLeod.

Interest in the area of consumer socialization by communication researchers was developed in part due to the issues raised by consumer advocate groups in the late 60's and the FTC efforts to respond to these groups during 1970's. For this reason, early efforts to use the socialization approach to the study of the consumer behavior of young people were limited to the effects of advertising. Later attempts, however, examined more systematically variables derived from the socialization model (e.g., Moore and Stephens 1975, Moschis and Churchill 1978), while more recently the socialization approach has been suggested as a means for understanding consumer behavior over the individual's life cycle (Moschis 1981, Smith and Moschis 1985).


Generally three types of theories have been used to explain consumer socialization over the person's life cycle. These can be classified as developmental, social learning, and social-system theories. Within the developmental category one can include maturational theories, although the distinction between the two is worth noting. Developmental theories focus upon psychological changes, while maturational changes reflect biological changes and organic growth. Examples of developmental theories include theories of cognitive development.

The developmental approach has been used to understand changes not only in the individual's consumer behavior-but also in family consumer behavior decisions (Hill 1965). The latter area has been a topic of sociological research pioneered by Hill and his associates.

The social learning model, on the other hand, views socialization as an outcome of environmental forces applied on the person rather than internal psychological processes, focusing almost exclusively upon socialization agents. Social learning theories can be divided into formal connectionist learning theories and interaction theories. The first kind are represented by the stimulus-response contiguity theories of Watson and Guthrie and by reinforcement theories of Skinner, Miller and others.

In general, connectionist theories view the process as one which is externally controlled, regardless of the person's state (active or passive). For example, classical conditioning stimulus-response theories consider learning where the outcomes are dependent on externally imposed reward contingency schedules with an external agent having complete control over the process. Similarly, instrumental conditioning theories focus on learning that occurs as a result of rewards and punishments rendered by the external agent because of active behavior of the learner.

In contrast to connectionist learning theories, interaction theory stresses an active view of the individual in the socialization process. Within this school of thought, symbolic interaction theorists attempt to explain the individual's behavior in relation to his environment which is symbolic as well as physical in nature. The individual is viewed as an active participant in the learning process, and the development of values, attitudes, and behaviors results from his interaction with others and the cues he receives from them about his behaviors and attitudes. Cooley's notion of the "looking-glass self" is the cornerstone of this theory.

Role theorists view the individual both as a passive and an active participant in the socialization process. Some early theorists subscribe to the view that roles are externally constructed without the individual's input while others see roles as socially structured but stress the individual's active participation in learning, performing, and modifying roles in the process of socialization (e.g., Thorton and Nardi 1975).

Symbolic interaction and role theory are capable of studying socialization throughout the individual's life cycle because both theories recognize that the individual changes group affiliations and confronts new environments in the course of a lifetime.

Finally, social system theories contend that the source of influence is within an organization or a group of which the learner is part. The individual is expected to acquire the norms and behaviors that are unique to the particular segment of the society referred to as "culture" or "sub-culture." Hence, socialization involves the learning of one's culture, and the learning process is often known as inculturation. Since different cultures show different norms, behaviors, and value orientations, the content of learning outcome is expected to differ across cultures and sub-cultures. However, it should be noted that these differences may be due not only to the accepted norms but also due to different socialization processes that may operate differently in each specific sub-cultural setting (Moschis and Moore 1984).

Childhood and Adolescence

Developmental perspectives. For children and adolescents, cognitive developmental perspectives appear to be most applicable to consumer socialization. Two major theories of cognitive development are Piaget's theory of intellectual development and Ausubel's learning theory. Piaget's theory suggests that learning occurs through interaction between the child and the environment. Learning is viewed as an active process involving manipulative and exploratory interaction with concrete objects and events. Intellectual development is expected to occur as a series of stages characterized by specific cognitive operations, and the course of development is an invariant sequence.

Ausubel, on the other hand, describes cognitive structure in terms of concepts and propositions arranged in hierarchial structures (e.g., Ausubel and Robinson 1969). It is expected that meaningful learning will occur when the individual can relate new knowledge nonarbitrarily to established ideas previously learned. This type of learning is expected to reduce rote learning and enhance long-term memory. Ausubel proposes that meaningful learning can best be promoted by the use of general ideas which, once learned, are expected to provide a potentially meaningful set of anchoring ideas under which subsequently presented subordinate knowledge can be subsumed. Ausubel places major Emphasis on sequential transfer. Ideas must first be identified and taught which are approximately inclusive; that is, their level of generality or inclusiveness places them in a super-ordinate level of only slightly more abstract than concepts and specific facts presented in subsequent learning activities.

Although the cognitive-development models (e.g., Piaget's) which suggest that all socialization occurs by the age of 15 have been widely accepted, some researchers have presented findings suggesting that socialization, including consumer socialization takes place after 15 years of age (e.g., Jennings and Niemi 1968, Moschis 1981).

The notion that individuals fully develop their cognitive skills by late adolescence has been challenged in recent years as a result of several studies showing that cognitive development is a life-time process (e.g., Long et al. 1980). In addition, it has been found that skills disappear in the reverse order of their acquisition, with the more difficult last acquired skills disappearing first. Not only does reverse horizontal decalage appear to take place with advancing age, but also the transition into a fifth stage of cognitive development during adulthood occurs. This stage is problem finding as opposed to Piaget's fourth (and final) stage of formal operations which is problem solving (cf. Long et al. 1980).

Social Learning Theories. Social learning models of consumer socialization differ from developmental models with respect to the emphasis and importance on environmental forces-i.e., socialization agents. While cognitive developmental theories view the individual as playing an active role in the socialization process, with socialization agents being rather passive, social learning perspectives view the individual as playing a rather passive-role, with the socializers being more instrumental in shaping attitudes and behaviors. Theories of social learning are often non-explicit, with the effects of learning from socialization agents often inferred from the socializee's interaction with the various agents. In the field of consumer socialization, for example, learning from television ads (as a result of the person's frequency of advertising viewing) has been attributed to instrumental conditioning, modeling, and cognitive learning (Adler 1977). Similarly, learning from parents may be attributed to modeling processes (Ward et al. 1977), reinforcement (positive and negative) (Moschis et al. 1983), as well as cognitive learning involving purposive consumer training (Ward et al. 1977).

Socio-cultural Theories. Socio-cultural effects on consumer socialization address theoretical perspectives regarding the influence of demographic variables. Social class is considered to be an important social system and will be used here as an example. The effects of social class on socialization can be viewed from a "life-space" perspective (Lewin 1951). With increasing socioeconomic status comes an expanded life space for the individual, resulting in increased availability of alternative stimuli which fall into one's environment.

Similarly, Hess (1970) states that:

The relative isolation of the lower-class person from the paths of experience of the dominant middle class is one antecedent of his relatively low skill and experience in obtaining and evaluating information about events and resources that affect or might affect his life (p. 408).

Speculations by Riesman and his associates (1950), as well as by Ward (1974), appear to be in line with the life space notion; they suggest that youths from more affluent families are likely to have more experience with money and may be more aware of the range of consumer goods available than youths from less affluent families. Support for the "life-space" notion comes from several studies of consumer socialization (e.g., Moschis and Churchill 1978; Moschis and Moore 1984).

Adulthood and Late Adulthood

Most explanations of differences in the behavior of older individuals are closely tied to theories of alterations in socio-psychological and bio-physical stages of life-span development. Socio-psychological perspectives include both sociological and psychological theories, in line with the social learning approach to socialization. Examples of the first type are the disengagement, activity, and social breakdown theories, whereas psychological approaches include mostly personality theories. In addition, social-system theories explain group behavior among older adults (for detailed discussion and documentation see Smith and Moschis 1984 and 1985).

Social Learning Theories. Disengagement Theory maintains that mutual withdrawal of the elderly and our social systems from each other occurs as a natural consequence of aging. As people grow old, the theory contends, there is a voluntary severing of social ties and retreat into isolation. After this inevitable process gradually shifts the relationship between self and society, a new equilibrium emerges that is mutually gratifying to both self and society. It is characterized by contraction of previous interpersonal contacts and increased interiority of the individual. Schramm was among the first to suggest that the elderly use mass media to help combat disengagement.

Engagement Theory, also called activity theory, holds that the contraction of the aged individual's life space is an involuntary exile imposed by society by the elderly. The aged individual, given a choice, will seek out other activities to substitute for previous role behaviors. If successful substitution is made, the individual's psychological well-being is enchanced. Activity theory, in fact, was espoused by early gerontologists. A media perspective known as activity substitutions has emerged from activity theory, although little application of this perspective has been attempted in consumer behavior.

Social breakdown theory argues that individuals approaching retirement are confronted with ambiguous toles (e.g., "senior citizen") and tend to assume those behaviors they feel are expected of them. Since perceptions of the elderly among other groups are generally negative, the elderly presumably internalize such negative characteristics. The "consumer role," one which changes significantly for (or is even lost by) the aging individual, may be affected by negative prescriptions, leading older consumers to perceive their consumption roles as declining, as opposed to the developing of the consumer role in-childhood and adolescence.

Personality Theory. The main thrust of personality theory is to identify personality characteristics of the individual that predict behavior with age, since the concensus among social gerontologists and personality theorists is that personalities do not change dramatically with age. Reichard, Livson, and Peterson (1962), for example, identified types of personalities indicative of successful and unsuccessful aging: mature, rocking chair, and armored (successful); angry, and self-hating (unsuccessful). One application of personality theory to the area of consumer behavior of the elderly was by LaForge, French, and Crask (1981) who tested Reichard et al.'s (1962) personality typology of the elderly for its utility in market segmentation.

Developmental Perspectives. In contrast to the theories which attempt to explain socio-psychological-changes in aging, the developmental perspective focuses on alterations in behavior due to biological and physiological changes. Cognitive problems in the decision process are thought to be age-related. The elderly have been reported to process information less efficiently than younger people in that they require more time, slower pacing of stimuli, and less distracting influences. They also exhibit greater difficulty inputting and integrating information so as to make an optimal response.

Some developmental psychologists and social gerontologists believe that certain aspects of the aging individual's behavior can be explained by biological and physiological factors. For example, data have supported a reverse horizontal decalage hypothesis--i.e., cognitive skills acquired most recently disappear first (cf. Long et al. 1980). Similarly, Clark and Anderson (1967) posit a developmental theory of aging involving five adaptive tasks, including redefinition of physical and social life space, substitution of alternative sources of need satisfaction, and reassessment of criteria for evaluation of self. The theory further posits that environmental constraints on life space (e.g., illness, loss of companions) may limit available sources of gratification and force substitution of alternative sources. Environmental forces, motivation and other developmental factors interact with and contribute to the individual's need structure which is likely to affect his behavior.

Social System theories include subculturation. This perspective views the elderly as a unique and identifiable subculture. Because of common role changes, common generational experiences in a rapidly changing society, and physical limitations, the elderly exhibit a positive affinity for one another and constitute a subsociety," much like the adolescent subsociety." As a result, the aged interact more often with their peers, identifying with the group and even exhibiting a structure for attaining status within the group through such factors as good mental and physical health and maintenance of social activity.


Consumer socialization theory and research rely a great deal upon socialization developments in other areas. Thus, changes in socialization perspectives and research approaches are likely to affect research in consumer socialization. It would, therefore, be useful to review developments in socialization research in other areas because such developments are likely to set the stage for consumer socialization research in the years to come.

Perhaps the most significant development is the tendency to use socialization perspectives to understand human behavior (e.g., Baltes 1973). This trend is not surprising given that no single theory can adequately explain human behavior. The socialization approach can incorporate several theories, providing a more realistic perspective on explanations of human behavior.

Another trend closely related to the first is the use of socialization perspectives to explain behavior over the life cycle. While early work on socialization focused on children, researchers have gradually applied the socialization explanation to other age groups. For example, Brim (1968) has viewed the development of values, attitudes, and skills related to the enactment of various roles (e.g., occupational) adults assume from a socialization perspective. Others (e.g., Ahammer 1969; Kuypers and Bengtson 1973) have used socialization approaches to understand behavior at later stages in the life cycle.

More recent developments include revisions of socialization theories and the integration of theories. Examples of the first type include Piaget's theory of intellectual development which has been extended by Flavell (1970), as well as the cognitive developmental perspective which has been extended to adulthood and late dulthood (e.g., Kohlberg 1973; Long et. al. 1980).

Social scientists have not only been modifying existing socialization theories but they also have integrated them into broader socialization perspectives. The following statement by Riley et al. (1968) illustrates this trend:

... to aid us in providing new insights into age-related phenomena over the approximate future ... two lines of research and theory in psychology and sociology ... have begun to converge over the past decade ... that now form a broad social science perspective for the study of the aging over the life course. We have begun to forge links between life span developmental psychology ... and the sociological analysis of age ... , no single stage of a person's life (childhood, middle age, old age) can be understood apart from its antecedents and consequences" (pp. 3-4).

Finally, there have been developments in the methodologies used to study socialization and test socialization theories. While early studies have used cross-sectional (stage-related) designs, more recent approaches have used longitudinal and causal designs. Causal designs, with the ordering of variables in line with the expected (hypothesized) "flow" of influence, have been in part logical outgrowths of the integration of several theories.


Several research avenues are open to those interested in consumer socialization. These directions are suggested in part from developments in socialization theory and research in other disciplines. One opportunity exists in applying socialization perspectives to the study of consumer behavior over the life cycle. While most of the research has focused upon the study of young people, more recent research has addressed later stages (e.g., Smith and Moschis 1985). The application of socialization perspectives to several stages would be a logical extension of socialization theory and research in other disciplines.

Adult stages in the life cycle will not only be associated with learning of different consumption-related variables but also with changes in existing patterns of behavior. The latter type of learning has been referred to as "resocialization" (Riesman and Roseborough 1955). In this category one could include the learning of new roles related to consumption such as shopping at home through the assistance of a home computer (Moschis et. al. 1985) and the learning of new consumption-related skills and behaviors due to relocation.

Socialization perspectives also provide opportunities for understanding differences among sub-cultures. Students of consumer behavior find few theoretical bases for explaining demographic and socioeconomic differences in consumer behavior. The socialization approach provides opportunities for understanding such differences, since sub-cultural differences are tied into socialization theories of subcultures (e.g. age groups, social classes, races, and ethic groups).

Research in consumer socialization could be enhanced through the use of multi-theoretical perspectives. The development and change of consumer behavior are influenced by several factors and, therefore, no single theory of socialization is likely to describe accurately the entire picture. Developmental perspectives should be integrated into other theoretical perspectives, including learning theories and social-system theories. This approach would not necessarily involve devising new models but rather incorporating existing theories into a broader model. Such a model would have to include a larger number and variety of variables which would have to be derived from socialization theories.

Finally, we advocate the use of more vigorous research methodologies. Efforts in this area should include better conceptualization of variables, development of valid and reliable measures, selection of appropriate sampling units, and the use of appropriate research designs (cf. Moschis 1981).


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George P. Moschis, Georgia State University
Ruth B. Smith, University of Maryland


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

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