A Look At the Consumption Community Concept Through a Psychological Lens


Monroe Friedman, Piet Vanden Abeele, and Koen De Vos (1992) ,"A Look At the Consumption Community Concept Through a Psychological Lens", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 126-127.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 126-127


Monroe Friedman, Psychology Department Eastern Michigan University

Piet Vanden Abeele, University of Leuven

Koen De Vos, University of Leuven

The concept of consumption community, first proposed by historian Daniel Boorstin, claims that in the modem era of high mobility, people look not only to neighborhood as a basis for feelings of community but also to communality of consumption behavior (e.g., drinking the same brand of beer). The idea was tested cross-nationally by administering a newly devised psychological sense of community (PSC) scale to adult respondents in Belgium and the U.S. The findings support the Boorstin thesis.

This study looks analytically and empirically at the concept of consumption community. In his social history of America, Boorstin (1973) proposed that since the Civil War advertising has been responsible for the creation of .consumption communities" consisting "of people with a feeling of shared well-being, shared risks, common interests, and common concerns. These came from consuming the same kinds of objects: from those willing to "Walk a Mile for a Camel', those who wanted 'The Skin You Love to Touch% or who put faith in General Motors. The advertisers of nationally branded products constantly told their constituents that by buying their products they could join a select group, and millions of Americans were eager to join." (p. 147)

This thesis, while lacking the objective language of a social science definition, suggests that consumer usage of certain product brands and models has performed an unexpected social function by engendering feelings of community among those who share the commercial identification. Indeed, Boorstin contends that in America's increasingly immigrant society of the late 19th and early 2Dth century, community ties weakened leaving many individuals with painful feelings of separation from their local origins. To compensate for these feelings of loss and alienation, Boorstin claims that consumption communities formed, centered around the common brands and models of goods people buy and use.

It is these contentions of Boorstin which stimulated the empirical study reported herein. The study asks if people perceive themselves as being part of consumption communities of various types. It also asks if these self-perceptions can be reliably measured and if they behave like self-perceptions of membership in more traditional kinds of community, such as neighborhood. Finally, the study asks if these seif-perceptions of community membership, sometimes called psychological sense of community (PSC), seem to serve a substitutive function, so that individuals with a weak neighborhood-based PSC have a strong consumption-based PSC.


In light of the thorny problems associated with more than two decades of scholarly efforts to come to grips conceptually with PSC, it was decided not to adopt a particular theoretical perspective as the appropriate one to guide this study. Instead, following the lead of Chavis et

al. (1986) who used self-reported PSC to test the McMillan and Chavis (1986) formulation, it was decided to measure PSC by securing respondent self-reports on a six-point scale, varying in strength from the complete absence of PSC to a very strong PSC. This scale was applied to a wide variety of respondent characteristics and behaviors including neighborhood and other areas of residence, as well as demographic and consumption descriptors. Since the primary focus of the study is on consumption communities, the data analysis and interpretation deal principally with a) respondent reports of PSC for consumption items, and b) how these reports compare with those for more established forms of PSC (i.e., PSC in relation to residential neighborhoods).


The Survey Instrument

A 92-item survey instrument on PSC was developed and pro-tested in English for use in the United States and Belgium. The instrument consisted primarily of self-report items each of which asked the respondent to indicate on a six-point scale how strong (or weak) a PSC he/she had in relation to a group of people with whom he/she had a certain characteristic in common. The scale ranged from 0 (the complete absence of PSC) to 5 (a very strong PSC). Intermediate values were 1 (very weak), 2 (weak) 3 (neither weak nor strong), and 4 (strong). In each instance PSC was defined as the feeling that one is part of a community when he/she thinks about his/her association with a group of people with whom he/she has a certain characteristic in common. Among the characteristics examined were ten consumption behaviors; other characteristics included geographic residence areas, demographic indicators, and several relating to family, friends and co-workers.

The consumption items consisted of an overall qualitative item (people who share your consumer lifestyle - buy the same kinds of products and services that you do) and an overall quantitative item (people who spend as much as you do on consumer products and services). The remaining eight consumption items looked at specific commodities commonly purchased in the United States and Belgium. They included living quarters, automobiles, furniture, kitchen appliances, entertainment choices (films, books etc.), clothing, household cleansers, and toiletries (toothpaste, shampoo, etc.).

Associated with each PSC item was a question relating to the certainty with which the PSC answer was given. A five-point scale was employed ranging from 1 (very uncertain) to 5 (very certain). Questions were also asked relating to the basis used by the respondent to make the PSC judgment. Three primary choices were offered here ("people I know or have known personally"; . people I have learned about in other ways'; and "people I know or have known personally, or have learned about in other ways").

Questions wore included too concerning the value expressiveness of the eight consumption items dealing with specific consumer commodities. Respondents were asked to indicate on a five-point scale the extent to which their choices of the particular commodity (e.g., clothing) express their personal values. Scale points ranged from 1 (very weakly) to 5 (very strongly).

Finally, demographic questions relating to gender, age, marital status and occupation were asked of the respondents together with questions relating to the total time they had engaged in various activities noted in the survey (e.g., time lived at current address and in same neighborhood).

The Respondents

Two groups of respondents were tested. Both groups consisted of part-time MBA students, most of whom were working full-time. The first group was associated with a Belgian university near Brussels. All instruction in the Belgian MBA program was in English and all student enrollees were fluent in English. The second group was studying at an American university near Detroit, Michigan. Both groups were volunteers who were recruited in evening and weekend classes at the business schools of the two universities. The surveys wore completed during the last month of 1990 and the first few months of 1991.

Consumption Communities In Empirical Context

What do the study findings have to say- about the concept of consumption communities? The question is easier to pose than to answer, partly because the concept has never been articulated with the necessary precision to permit rigorous social scientific analysis and measurement. We are presented only with some basic ideas which seem to be that consumer usage of certain product brands and models has engendered feelings of community among those who share the commercial identification, and that, in aggregate, the" consumers constitute consumption communities. Boorstin also claims that the formation of these communities resulted in part from the declining importance of common geographic origins as a basis for establishing community.

Of these three basic ideas it is the first that has received the most concentrated attention in this empirical study of American and Belgian respondents. For the study asks if people in two western societies have developed PSC with regard to others who buy and use the same subclass of an individual class of consumer goods (e.g., same make and model of automobile), as well as others who share more highly aggregated consumption behaviors (consumer lifestyle and consumer expenditures).

Within the constraints commonly found in empirical research, the study results seem to suggest that such PSC's have indeed developed. The results indicate that both at the individual product class level and at the aggregate level of consumption behavior, most respondents report feeling a sense of community in relation to others who share their consumption behaviors. And the strength of sense of community they report is not markedly different from that reported for residential neighborhood, a community focus many social scientists believe to be of paramount importance in the modern era. Also supportive of the Boorstin thesis is that the PSC measures used to tap these feelings appear to be reliable and that the respondent reports are generally issued with a high degree of certainty. Encouraging too are the strong correlations found for the PSC measures with other measures, correlations which are consistent with social science theory. Particularly impressive here were the high correlations at the individual commodity level and between PSC and value expressiveness as well as the substantial correlations between the PSC consumption scale values and PSC for personal income level. Also impressive was the trend toward a difference in cognitive basis for the PSC consumption decisions as compared to PSC decisions for more traditional kinds of community 0.9., neighborhood). Since individuals in consumption communities are less likely to have contact with each other than is the case for communities of neighbors, it would be expected that consumption PSC decisions would be lose likely to derive primarily from personal knowledge of other members of the community; and this indeed is what was found.

That the consumption community coin may be two-sided is suggested by other empirical findings which question the significance of the concept. Perhaps most evident in this regard are the low values for the consumption PSC's. Very few respondents in either sample reported strong or very strong PSC's at the individual product level or at the aggregate level of lifestyle and consumer expenditures. While these findings may be disappointing to advocates of the Boorstin thesis, two caveats suggest that the situation may not be as negative as it seems. The first is the low values generally found for non-consumption PSC's and especially for neighborhood PSC's - the one arena that community psychologists and sociologists have studied more extensively than any other. The second is the claim by Boorstin that consumption communities are different from residential communities in that they are unlikely to be tied together by strong links of attachment. He uses the metaphor of "gossamer webs" to suggest the weak and fragile nature of their connective tissue.

Also questioning the significance of the consumption community concept are the near-zero correlations found for both samples between consumption PSC and PSC for neighborhood. While this finding does not question the existence of the consumption community concept, it raises concerns about its ability to serve as a substitute for residential community for those who feet little or no sense of connection to their neighborhoods.

Thus the study results tend to support the Boorstin thesis by suggesting that people do indeed feel a sense of community, albeit a weak one, in relation to others with whom they share certain consumption behaviors. What is less clear from this preliminary study is that Boorstin is correct in claiming that 1) people with PSC toward the same consumption behaviors can be referred to as a consumption community, and 2) such communities can serve a psychologically substitutive function with regard to neighborhood-based communities.


Boorstin, D.J. (1973). The Americans: The democratic experience. Now York: Random House.

Chavis, D.M., Hogge, J.H., McMillan, O.W. & Wandersman, A. (1986). Sense of community through Brunswik's Ions: A first look. Journal of Community Psychology. 14, 24-40.

McMillan, O.W. & Chavis, D.M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology. 14, 6-23.



Monroe Friedman, Psychology Department Eastern Michigan University
Piet Vanden Abeele, University of Leuven
Koen De Vos, University of Leuven


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

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