Materialism Research: Suggestions For New Directions

ABSTRACT - Like marketing, materialism has been the victim of bad press. It is decried from the pulpit and the political podium. Within the social sciences, however, materialism has recently garnered a much warmer reception. Believing that an understanding of materialism will lead to further insight into the behavior of individuals, researchers have developed an interest in the subject. Scales to measure materialism have been developed and tested; the relationship between materialism and various behaviors is being explored. This paper proposes that the next stop may be to consider materialism in the context of individual and societal value systems.


Kathleen S. Micken (1992) ,"Materialism Research: Suggestions For New Directions", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 121-125.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 121-125


Kathleen S. Micken, Marketing Department, Old Dominion University


Like marketing, materialism has been the victim of bad press. It is decried from the pulpit and the political podium. Within the social sciences, however, materialism has recently garnered a much warmer reception. Believing that an understanding of materialism will lead to further insight into the behavior of individuals, researchers have developed an interest in the subject. Scales to measure materialism have been developed and tested; the relationship between materialism and various behaviors is being explored. This paper proposes that the next stop may be to consider materialism in the context of individual and societal value systems.


Investigation of materialists and materialism is a multi-faceted task. To understand both the phenomenon itself and the differences in attitudes and behaviors between people who are strongly materialistic and those who are not, measures of materialism as well as appropriate means of correlating it with attitudes and behaviors must be addressed. It is thesis of this paper that for a full understanding of the construct, we cannot measure materialism alone. We must also understand the role of materialism in an individual's overall value system and understand how different elements of the value system may be called into play in different contexts.

Two conceptualizations of materialism

Belk (1984, 1985; Ger and Belk 1990) conceptualizes materialism as a personality trait, Richins and Dawson (1987, 1990, working paper) view it as a value. it may not be necessary to 'take sides,' however, since personality traits are inextricably bound up with values (Braithwaite and Scott 1991; Kreitler and Kreitler 1990). An emphasis on values, though, does not carry with it the significant problems of personality and behavior research outlined by Kassariian and Sheffet (1981). Further, Triandis (1990) suggests that measuring personality in conjunction with behavior may be difficult. He draws on Doi's (1986) idea that people have a public and a private self. In collectivist societies, the public and private selves are kept quite separate and only the public self is "shown." In more individualistic societies, the public and private solves are interrelated because the private self is allowed more expression; still, people may be concerned with doing the right thing. Thus, in either society, measuring personality is likely to be fraught with dangers if the interest is to try to determine behavior from personality. As part of the private self, personality is either totally hidden (collectivist societies) or partially hidden (individualistic societies).

Finally, Rokeach (1968) suggests that while personality factors will give rise to variations in individual value systems, cultural, institutional and social factors will nevertheless restrict such variations to a reasonably small number of dimensions" (p. 161). Consequently, the value orientation seems warranted.


Even with the value conceptualization, however, there are measurement concerns. Flichins and Dawson (1991) point out that instruments for measuring values, such as Rokeach's Value System (RVS) and Kahle's List of Values (LOV), provide only a single item measure of each value. If values are complex constructs, then they ought to be measured in ways which reflect their dimensionality. Accordingly, the Richins and Dawson materialism scale measures three dimensions: centrality, happiness and success. [Belk's scale also recognizes the complex nature of materialism and addresses four dimensions: envy, nongenerosity, tangibility, and possessiveness.]

Developing reliable, valid measures consistent with theory is a crucial step in the investigation of any phenomenon. Now that that has been accomplished for materialism, research can move forward by "reversing the process,' by putting the study of materialism "back" into a broader consumer behavior context. This means that future research might be guided by the theoretical foundations of values. In this light, investigation might begin with a consideration of four characteristics of values which seem to be consistently mentioned across value researchers (e.g. Kahle 1983; Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck 1961; Pitts and Woodside 1983; Rokeach 1968, 1973): 1. values are formed into a hierarchically arranged system; 2. there is consistency between an individual's set of values and that person's attitudes and behaviors; 3. values may be "given' by society and its institutions, but they are altered by an individual's experience; 4. different values may be called upon to guide decisions in different situations and contexts. A consideration of each of these areas is presented next, followed by a discussion of methodological concerns.

Value Hierarchies

Rokeach (1973) defined values as "enduring beliefs that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally or socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end-state of existence' (p. 5). However, as Williams (1968) suggests, people rarely are guided by just one value. Instead, people form value systems, 'enduring organizations of beliefs concerning preferable modes of conduct or end-states of existence along with a continuum of importance" (Rokeach 1973, p. 5). Similarly, Vinson, Scott and Lamont (1977) suggest that there is a central-peripheral dimension to value structures, with the hierarchy ranging from the most to the least centrally hold values. Within the hierarchy, there may also be clusters of values. Gutman and Vinson (1979) report that respondents have complained about the difficulties of ranking values, saying that some values cluster together and cannot be separated.

It seems clear, then, that one value does not stand alone. Instead, it is an integral part of a larger system and should be considered along with others in its . set." Pitts and Woodside make the point quite forcefully: "The theory of value systems would seem to require that researchers examine the total system rather than single values ... single values are salient only in the context of the entire value system" (1983, p. 38). More recently, Rokeach and Ball-Rokeach (1989) raised the same concern: "Mat is missing from many discussions of values ... is the notion of value systems or hierarchies, the idea that societies and individuals can accurately be compared to other societies and individuals not only in terms of specific values but also in terms of value priorities' (p. 775).

To date little research into value systems has been undertaken (however, see Kamakura and Mazzon 1991; Kennedy, See, and Kahle 1988; Schwartz and Bilsky 1987). Hence it is not surprising that materialism research has not yet ventured into this or". However, it is an line of inquiry which should prove fruitful. For example, while a person may score "high' on materialism, other values such as helping others, may have more explanatory power, simply because they are more dominant in the individual's value hierarchy.

The questions which might be addressed by materialism researchers, then, ought to be guided by the need to consider entire sots of values. Accordingly, it would be interesting to investigate considerations such as the following.

The difference in value systems for materialists and non-materialists. Are the differences in the overall value systems and/or in the ranking of the values?

Can we identify a 'materialist value system'? Any common variations?

The difference in value systems for high versus low materialists. Are the differences in the overall value systems and/or in the ranking of the values? What other values are dominant or central when materialism is a dominant or central value? Conversely, what other values are dominant when materialism is a weaker value?

What is the penetration of the "materialist value system' into various groups? What is the effect on consumer choice of the materialist value system(s).

Cross-cuitural investigations of all the above issues.

Values and attitude/behavior consistency

Implicit in the idea of a value system are concepts of equilibrium and consistency. People are faced with differing, often conflicting, situations, groups, and goals and a person must loam to balance these demands. Kahle (1983) suggests that values facilitate this process of adjusting, coping, and adapting by helping to achieve the "active equilibrium that an organism seeks in relation to its environment' (p. 30). For materialism research, the question is what attitudes and behaviors are consistent with materialist value systems and which are not. To date, most research on materialism has been guided by Belk's (1984, 1985) assumption, bolstered by Fournier and Richins' research (1991) into popular conceptions about materialism, that materialistic individuals are self- rather than other-oriented, and are possessive and acquisitive instead of sharing. Values such as "concern for others' are believed to be incompatible with materialism. Is this necessarily true? Kahle's research (1983, 1984) provides evidence that while values and attitudes which we might expect to co-occur sometimes do; sometimes, however, they do not.

By way of example, Richins and Dawson (1991) asked people to read the list of Values survey (LOV) and to rank the four values which were most important to them. For three of the nine LOV items statistically significant differences (at the .01 level) in mean materialism scores were found for those who did and those who did not include the item among their top three values. The three were financial security, warm relationships with others, and a sense of accomplishment. This finding is consistent with Kahle's in one area (warm relationships with others), inconsistent in another (sense of accomplishment), and indeterminant in the third (financial security). As predicted, the mom materialism score for those valuing warm relationships was lower than the mean score for those who did not. Similarly, Kahle (1983, 1984) found that those valuing warm relationships tended to live on a social level, to be more likely to give gifts and to spend more on entertaining and community activities, and to be churchgoers. On the other hand, while Richins and Dawson found that those selecting a sense of accomplishment as one of the top three values had lower mean materialism scores than those not selecting it. Kahle found just the opposite. In his research, people valuing accomplishment were well-payed managers and professionals holding jobs involving prestige, complexity and self-direction. 'These people are ... able to consume ... and may consume more conspicuously than other groups" (Kahle 1984, p. 81). Finally, Richins and Dawson found that those valuing financial security had higher mean materialism scores than those who did not. Kahle's .security value is selected by people who tend to be retired, whose jobs involved little prestige, complexity, or pay. These individuals worry about the future are and concerned "about life's potential for catastrophe" (Kahle 1984, p. 80). Whether or not these findings are consistent is difficult to say.

And that is precisely the point of investigating attitudes and behaviors and value systems. Because materialism research is relatively now, relationships between materialism and attitudes and behaviors have been investigated, but not between materialist value systems and attitudes and behaviors.

Values and experience

That our values and value systems are derived from the culture in which we are raised, has implications for cross-cultural research. Values have to come from somewhere. Kluckhohn (1958) concluded that each society has a dominant profile of value orientations and a rank ordering of the options within each orientation. Others (e. g. Rokeach 1973; Kahle 1983) would agree that culture, social institutions, reference groups, an individual's own experiences, as wail as the media all contribute to an individual's set of values. As we develop, so does our value system. Hall (1975) puts it thus, "... the values which we choose are limited by the consciousness that we have.... values are consequences of our world view" (196).

Kahle (1983) agrees that values result from our learning to successfully adapt to our physical and psychological environment. As the environment changes, as we are exposed to new ideas and behaviors, our values may have to change to allow us to cope. In this regard Kahle is consistent with Rokeach (1968, 1973). Kahle goes one stop further, however, to suggest that values may also influence our environment. For example, valuing world peace may prevent someone from joining the army. The point here is that while our values are influenced and shaped by the world in which we live, our values also color our perception of our world. Overall, "values specify ways in which the individual comprehends personal experience by influencing how the objective situation is perceived and how subsequent behavior is initiated and guided' (Eisert and Kahle 1983, p. 214).

McCracken (1986) argues that culture is both the Ions through which we view phenomena and the blueprint for determining human activity. This discussion suggests similar dual roles for values. The implication is that . cross-cultural investigations of values must be sensitive to cultural variations which may result in the same value taking different meanings in different cultures (see, for example, Schwartz and Blisky 1987) or sub-cultures.

Situational/contextual values

Krahe (1990) takes the position that a person's response to a given situation is determined 'to a large extent by the operation of a latent mediating process in which situational information [meaning] is selected and interpreted in relation to the individual's cognitive and affective predispositions" (p. 41). Drenan (1983) suggests that the predispositions might be values: "situations are infinitely complex; something determines to which aspect of the situation the individual attends and responds. Values may be that which influences this determination" (p. 233-234). Bloch and Richins (1983) would agree that personal values, along with interests and needs, help determine how a person will perceive a situation or identify a problem.

A corollary issue is whether different elements of the value system are called into play in different situations. While it is agreed that values transcend specific situations (Schwartz and Bilsky 1987), different values may be more .appropriate' for different situations. For example, Rudmin (1990) has demonstrated that for women, materialism is often contextual: 'women value and identify with property that is connected to personal and specific social relationships and events' (p. 180). Kahle and Timmer (1983, p. 63) address the question of why a particular value may be considered "most important." Salience (whatever occupies a person's attention at the moment), current life shortcomings (what I am in need of), impression management (to create an image of myself) are all suggested. Hence, in a given situation, the order of one's value hierarchy may shift and one value or another may dominate. If this is true, then one research focus would be to investigate the situations and contexts in which materialism becomes a/the dominant value and when it recedes.


The ideas presented above make theoretical sense, but may be difficult to operationalize. Initially what is required is a different approach to measuring values. Neither Rokeach's RVS nor Kahle's LOV explicitly addresses materialism. Second, a methodology for comparing value systems across individuals which does not incur the problems of ipsative data inherent in ranking systems or the problems of ties and quality of data which attend rating methods (e.g. Alwin & Krosnick 1985; Feather 1973; Rankin and Grubs 1980) is needed. Various approaches which may be amenable to the resolution of these problems are discussed next.

Measuring materialism in a value system

To address the first problem of value measures which include materialism, Richins and Dawson (1991) call for the development of now instruments - as opposed to the revision of Rokeach's value survey. One approach which may answer this call is suggested by Jones, Sensenig, and Ashmore (1978) who offer a method for .spontaneously" eliciting values. The authors began exploring alternatives to the RVS because of objections to the manner in which it was developed. While the initial items for the RVS were selected from a variety of sources, Jones, Sensenig, and Ashmore note that it is not clear how the final 36 values were selected. They conclude, 'we are unable to determine the extent to which Rokeach's values are salient to respondents or are representative of the values which would be spontaneously expressed" (1978, p. 256).

As an alternative, they ask respondents to list five valued goals and six desirable modes at conduct. Using the 36 most frequently mentioned goals (since they wished to compare their results with Rokeach's), the authors computed the psychological distance among the goals. Put simplistically, they computed an index based on the number of times items appeared on the same list - a measure of co-occurrence. The results became the input for a multidimensional scaling (MDS) program. To facilitate interpretation of the results, respondents were also asked to rate how well the values contributed to achieving eight properties of values (such as concern about society). Then, using another MDS program the values and properties were mapped. The results allowed researchers to determine which values "cluster' together and how the values relate to the various properties. Thus a methodology which is commonly used to analyze brands and brand attribute preferences, may also be used to analyze values.

One problem with this approach, of course, is that if researchers are right about the negative connotations of materialism, getting people to voluntarily present materialism as one of their values may be difficult. Schwartz and Bilsky (1987) report that Rokeach faced a similar social desirability question when developing his survey. Rokeach wanted to, but did not, include "markers relevant to social power in his lists because he thought people would not want to admit to being motivated by power" (p. 552).

One potential solution would be to administer both a materialism scale, which has been tested for social desirability, and open-ended value questions as Jones, Sensenig and Ashmore (1978) did. This approach, however, has the effect of ensuring a measure of materialism with no similar assurance of measuring of any other value. Further, computing the psychological distance between materialism and other values is confounded (since the research design assures that materialism is included in each respondent's list).

An example of a combined approach, however, is provided by Corfman, Lehmann and Narayanan (1991). They used Kahle's LOV and their own measure of materialism to investigate values and ownership of consumer durables. Because of their focus on specific products, the authors depart from Balk's definition of materialism (1984, 1985) as the importance a person attaches to worldly possessions. Instead, they view materialism as a broader "more is better" concept which raises the utility of all possessions. Accordingly, they asked about the importance of owning things and about wealth, because of its ability to provide material possessions. The authors also factor analyzed LOV and determined that a four factor solution was a "more parsimonious representation' of consumer values: social values, self-oriented values, stimulation, warm relationship with others.

After evaluating models which included the original nine LOV variables, the four LOV factors, and each of these with the materialism measures, Corfman, Lehmann and Narayanan found that a model which included four LOV factors as well as the measure of materialism had the best explanatory power. More specifically, they found that while social values, stimulation, and materialism were the most important values in explaining consumers' utility for various products, "materialism significantly increased the utility of 79 percent of the durables studied.... These patterns became even clearer when groups of related products were examined" (p. 201). This study thus lends support to the idea that understanding of value systems will be enhanced with the inclusion of a measure of materialism.

Measuring value systems

To address the second problem of analyzing values systems instead of single values, three methods hold promise: conjoint analysis, rank-order logit, and smallest space analysis. Each will be presented briefly. (For more complete discussions, please consult the referenced articles). No attempt is made to suggest that one approach is better than another. The intent is simply to explicate the alternatives. It should also be noted that each of their options employs a predetermined listing of values, none of which includes a direct measure of materialism.

Kennedy, Best, and Kahle (19118) investigated conjoint analysis to segment markets based on Kahle's LOV survey. Conjoint analysis is a technique for assessing the tradeoffs consumers make among product attributes. Products generally offer attributes at different levels, for example ready-to-eat breakfast cereals can be crunchy or not, offer different combinations of vitamins and minerals, and come in packages of different sizes. The task of conjoint analysis is to determine the utility of each level of each attribute and then develop a profile of the preferred combination of attributes and levels. Values, however, do not inherently have different levels. So the authors assigned to each value the levels of 'to a lesser degree,' "to a moderate degree,' and 'to a high degree." Respondents were then presented with a group of cards containing different sets of values with the values being at different levels. A fractional factorial design reduced the number of cards each respondent had to evaluate. Respondents were asked to rank the cards (each listing a different set of values). From these rankings, utility scores for each level of each value were computed. The result is identification of the preferred combination of values and levels of values - thereby providing a means of assessing value structures.

A second approach to measuring value systems is proposed by Kamakura and Mazzon (1991). Their method utilizes a rank-order logit model to obtain maximum-likelihood estimates of the implied value hierarchy in the population" (p. 210) based on respondents' rankings of values on the RVS or LOV surveys. The underlying assumption is that the rankings given by respondents reflect the 'worth" or "utility" of each value. The true worth is reflected by the reported worth plus some error. A probability function which describes an individual's ranking can be expressed as follows: the reported worth plus some error of the top ranked value is greater than the reported worth plus some error of the next ranked value, which is greater than and so forth. Thus the authors are able to analyze respondents' complete value systems and then to segment the respondents. The authors caution that this approach is prone to hoteroakedasticity problems unless the list of values to be ranked is short.

A final methodology, proposed by Schwartz and Bilsky (1987) is Guttman- Lingoes Smallest Space Analysis (SSA), a nonmetric multidimensional scaling (MDS) procedure for analyzing similarities (see Canter 1985 and Guttman 1968). Like other MDS techniques, SSA maps of the 'relations among values ... represent the conceptual structure of human values as criteria of importance people use to evaluate and select behavior and events' (P. 557). Unlike other MDS procedures, however, SSA regions, but not dimensions, have meaning. Further, the regions have no easily detectable boundaries, since the points (values) in the space represent all the possible values which might exist. The boundaries are continuous and may be of any shape.

Schwartz and Bilsky's study was a cross-cultural assessment of Israeli and German values. They asked respondents' to rank the RVS values as wall as to rate the relative importance of adjacent pairs of values - thereby developing not only importance ratings but also reducing the ipsative quality of ranked data. Analysis of the data, with separate maps for the two groups, provided information about the proximity of various values as well as information about how values cluster about value domains such as enjoyment, security, achievement, etc. Additionally, Schwartz and Bilsky were able to map the relationship of the values to the 'interests' which the values serve: individual, collective, or mixed. The overall result, than, is an understanding of the structure of value systems for each country, as well as an understanding of the different meanings the "same" value may take for different countries.

The methodologies presented in this section share two common problems, the existence of which lends support to Richins and Dawson's (1991) call for the development of now value measures instead of the revision of existing ones. The first commonality is that the a priori assumptions about values and properties (or domains) of values are assumed to be accurate reflections of the populations being studied. It is obvious, however, that the reflections are not always accurate, since an explicit measure of materialism is often missing from the value surveys. Schwartz and Bilsky (1987) also acknowledge -that measures of social power are missing from their study and from Rokeach's value survey. They further suggest that other values such as "tradition maintenance" may also merit consideration.

The second commonality is that most of these methodologies have only single item measures for each value. Schwartz and Bilsky (1987) also acknowledge the importance of this issue and suggest that, for that very reason, research should focus on measuring value domains rather than individual values.


While the study of materialism is rather now, society's focus on goods is not. The ingrained, often negative, assumptions about materialism and materialists complicate the research. Because the field is relatively now, however, there is much opportunity to "do the research right.' Building on the foundations which have been laid, materialism research can now broaden its focus to include the place of materialism in an individual's overall value system and use that as a springboard for enhancing our understanding attitudes and behaviors, for segmentation, and for cross-cultural and cross-gender studies.


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Kathleen S. Micken, Marketing Department, Old Dominion University


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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