Woman in a Material World: Two Interpretations of a Consumer Case Study


Eileen Fischer and Stephen Arnold (1992) ,"Woman in a Material World: Two Interpretations of a Consumer Case Study", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 181-187.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 181-187


Eileen Fischer, Faculty of Administrative Studies, York University

Stephen Arnold, School of Business, Queen's University, Canada

Our cultural inventory of stereotypes regarding women and materialism contains two which are in sharp contrast. One image convoys women as 'born to shop'-as naturally acquisitive consumers more preoccupied with purchasing and owning things than men. The other image derives from our archetype of women having 'caring' natures, and being chiefly concerned with maintaining social and familial bonds. This paper represents an attempt to explore the influence of both of the cultural images concerning women and materialism, and in particular to explore their interstices and limitations so as to allow for hermeneutic understanding. The paper juxtaposes two interpretations of an interview with a young mother about her purchasing behaviours and possessions. One interpretation stresses the woman's seemingly excessive preoccupation with acquiring and owning material objects and describes the woman as a compulsive shopper obsessed with buying and having things. The other interpretation focuses on the manner in which the woman uses acquisition behaviours and material things to care for her family and maintain social relationships. The consequence is a deeper understanding of gender, materialism and shopping behaviour.

Materialism in general and the materialism of women in particular are subjects which have attracted much derisive social commentary (cf Pollay 1986, Frat 1991). Preoccupation with acquiring and owning goods is viewed as having 'a social effect of displacing affect from people to objects and an alienating effect where the self is perceived not as a child of God or as an element of the community, but as an exchange commodity' (Pollay 1986, p. 25). In other words, it is argued that caring about goods diverts people from caring about other people, and defining the self as a commodity diverts people from defining the self in terms of some linkage to community or spirituality.

Women in particular have been associated with materialism in the sense that they are identified much more than men as the principal consumer in the family. As First (1991) explains, the consequence of the increased industrial productive capacity brought about by the industrial revolution was that women were assigned to the 1. private" domain of the home in order to consume the ever-increasing supply of products. Firat notes that, paradoxically, women were "devalued for being I consumers, and yet if they were not I good consumers I they hurt the national economic growth" (1991, p. 382).

A paradox related to the characterization of women as particularly materialistic can also be noted. At the same time women are assigned the role of "consumer," they are assigned the role of "kin-keeper' or maintainers of familial and social relationships (Rosenthal 1985). To the extent that they-as consumers-are materialistic, women might be assumed to invest their affections in goods rather than people and define themselves as objects rather than as members of social communities. At the same time, to the extent that they-as kin-keepers-are communally oriented, women might be assumed to invest a particularly high value in social relationships and to be much more communally oriented than men. Indeed, some social scientists and feminists have argued that it is an "other-orientation' that is quintessentially feminine (see, for example, Cheal 1988; Chodorow 1978; Gilligan 1982). This paradox is compounded when we recognize the contrasting social valuations placed upon a materialistic versus a communal orientation. Materialism is often regarded as a sinister characteristic; a devotion to caring for others and maintaining social relationships is often regarded as a highly desirable feature.

To explore these paradoxes in our consumer culture, we undertook a hermeneutic analysis of a transcript produced from an interview with a contemporary female consumer. The transcript was selected from several produced through a series of interviews on the topic of holiday gift shopping. The informant in this case had much to say not only about gift shopping but also about her consumer behaviours in general. Relative to other informants interviewed for the original project, the informant seemed to the interviewer extremely preoccupied with acquiring and owning goods. Thus, the transcript, though created for another purpose, seemed well-suited for an opportunistic exploration of the ideas reviewed above.

The research approach adopted for this study is consistent with hermeneutic philosophy (Gadamer 1975) which stresses that developing understanding-of others and ultimately of one's self-requires an effort to achieve a "fusion of horizons' with the object of inquiry (in this case, the transcript). That is, the goal in this type of inquiry is for the researcher or research team to use their initial [pre-] understanding, prejudice or bias as a starting point for analysis, and then open this [pre-] understanding to revision in the course of the interpretation. The process involves requires repeated iterations of analysis, moving back and forth between individual elements of the transcript and the transcript as a whole, to make an increasingly coherent and contradiction-free reading.

Portions of the transcript interpreted are presented immediately following this introduction; these are intended to allow the reader to form their own initial reaction to and understanding of the transcript. Two related but different interpretations of the transcript are then presented in an effort to show how an initial interpretation, grounded more completely in our original [pre- ]understanding yielded to a distinctly different interpretation reflecting substantial revisions to our (pre-] understanding. Comments on the cultural paradox of woman as consumer versus woman as kin-keeper are offered in conclusion.


[Interviewer's Note: Jeanne is in her early 30s. She has 2 children, Todd age 2 and Karen age 5. The interview takes place in her home; both her children and another child are present.

Before I have a chance to explain my purpose, she toils me that she does Christmas shopping all year round, but that she puts some off because she loves to be out close to Christmas in the crowds. I try to got the tape on quickly, since she seems to have some thoughts she wants to express right away.]

Question: So some, years you do your Christmas shopping prior to Christmas, as easy as January ?

Answer: I=ve already got some things now. But I started' even earlier than tha. Canadian Tire had half price on toys, and I bought extra toys for next year and the toys are in the closet. I hit the sales, and if I can grab it, I grab it. It was really cheap, because everything was half price.

Question: So that takes a lot of forward planning.

Answer: Yes, plus I buy ail my presents at Woolco, and I got them for mom too. Like for the kids, so she doesn=t have to bother doing it. And I got twice as much for the money.

Question: At Woolco in particular?

Answer: Yes, they=ve got everything on really cheap right now. In another week or two, they'll have half of the sale price again. They'll chop it in half again. / got really nice outfit there last year. I got a couple in the cupboard for Todd that still don? fit yet. Just bordering on.

Question: Do you keep track of their prices on a regular basis?

Answer: I don't go ail that often. I go maybe once a month, and I don't usually buy a lot of things unless the kids need it I usually go to Biway to got Me kids clothes. If I don't got them on sale, that's where I buy them. You have to loam how to shop if you have kids.

Question: If you miss the sales, when do you start?

Answer: Usually right at the start of the summer. Just because I don't figure I'm going to have Hm money right at Christmas. I have to do it gradually, because I don t have, like say 100 or 200 dollars in the bank where I can just go blow it. I just start picking up like that. I find it easier, and its easier on Me pocket too. ... I thought I was done this year, and I went to Canadian Tim and came bark with lot more things.

Question: How did that happen?

Answer: Like I said, all the toys were half price, so I went out to s" what they had. A couple of things that I wanted mem gone, but there was other things that I know that Todd would play with. / had so much stuff then I put some of it away. I had too much.

Question: How many things would you actually buy for the kids?

Answer: I don=t know; I just kept picking up stuff until I thought I had enough. I try to keep it somewhere even, but usually Karen, because she's a little bigger, gets a little bit more. She got a record player for Christmas too, and things like that She wanted a hundred dollar talking doll, but she didn=t got it this year...

Question: Do the kids usually go out with you? How do you work that?

Answer: He's still young enough that I can take him out. Karen I cant If I'm going to go shopping with her, I usually leave her home with Gord. Him, its ail right.

Question: So you go shopping on evenings when he's home to take care of her?

Answer: No, usually on Saturdays. Until recently, he was working straight evenings. This year will be different, because he'll be working alternate shift, so I'll be able to get out more. I might not have to take any of the kids this year.

Question. Would that be something you look forward to?

Answer: Oh yes. You got out and he gets cranky, and it's hard to keep him happy. You can't stop for long. You start looking at things, he starts trying to climb out, and he's gone....

Question: Can you think of any ways your Christmas shopping differs from your regular shopping?

Answer: As far as the kids, I got it when they need it. I don't just say I'm going to got this and got that. Usually if I need clothes I head to Biway at the normal time of the year. For summer clothes I got it when I need it. Its not that I really plan it. If they need something, I go looking for it.

Question. You said you like to have some shopping to do close to the end. Can you talk a little about that?. What is there about it?

Answer: I like all the people that are out. Usually I don't got in the mood for Christmas right until the end, and if you have ail your shopping done, its pretty hard, like you're ready for Christmas, but mentally, I don't feel like its Christmas. Unless I'm out the last week. I like to go out me last couple of days, too, when it's packed. A lot of people don't like it. But you usually only have 2 or 3 things. You don't start your Christmas shopping then. I just like to be out when everybody's out. Christmas music's playing. I enjoy going out then, and my mother hates it. She just likes to got it done.

Question: What about the kids? Do you enjoy taking them out?

Answer: Oh I don I mind taking them, because I'm usually finished with them before the last few days, and normally I do take them because Gord will be working day shift. The kids are out of school and my husband's on days, so usually if I'm home I've got the kids. They like to go and see Santa Claus and all that stuff, too. Usually they have to go a bunch of times. He's there for so long, and we're up there about once a week. He's there all the lime. I always got their picture done every year. I've had a picture done ever since she was little, and the past couple of years he's been in it with her. I didn't think he'd even go this year. He didn=t go until she went up, and then he went up and sat with him too. I bet if she wasn't More he wouldn't, because I tried one other dam and he backed off.

Question: Do you do all the shopping for your family?

Answer: Yes, and I do the shopping for my mother for the kids too, because that takes a load off her. With all who she buys for, she's got a lot, too. My sister does that too, she buys things for her kids at Woolco, in January. My mom gives her the money, and she shops for my niece. And they got a lot of stuff. It looks like these kids got more than the others because the girl's wear is really cheap over there. My kids really got a lot of stuff this year, but it wasn=t a lot money wise. They just got a lot.

Question: How does your husband work it? You do the grocery shopping and the clothes shopping -Answer I do all the shopping. Question: What about his gift for you?

Answer: He does that. Well he said this year he didn=t know what to buy. He started saying, Well, what do you want for Christmas?' Two weeks before Christmas, I told him I wanted a family ring. I thought it would be too late to got it, but I got my family ring.

Question:. Is that usually how it works - you tell him what you want?

Answer: Usually he starts hinting around. Some years I got something big, some years I got something small. If he can't think of what to got me, I=ll say why don't you give me some money and I=ll go out and buy clothes. Because I got twice as much for the clothes. If there's nothing I really want, I say why don=t you just give me a few dollars after Christmas. I'll got some pants and some shirts and stuff. That takes it off him. It=s not as nice but - if there's nothing I really want, there=s no point spending the money.

Question: What about for his family?

Answer: He doesn=t buy for any of his family. His dad lives in Montreal and they haven=t bought for each other in years.

Question: How often do you go out to do Christmas shopping?

Answer" Around Christmas, I go out a lot. The oftener I got out, the better it is. I go out every couple of days, or every day. As long as it=s not a bad snow storm or something. I=ll just go out and look And now there's a lot of sales on right before Christmas where there didn't used to be. I guess people weren=t spending as much away the past few years, and blue gets sales up. And with the markup on everything anyway they=re still making a lot of money.

Question: Normally how often do you go, say this week past?

Answer: I would say about three firms. I try to got out on Saturday for sure and usually another couple of days a weak. We usually go shopping and Men go to my mom's for dinner. Them's no sense in me sitting at home every day. I like to go out. I go the shopping center, and if its during the middle of the week when the ads are out, I go to Loblaws and got my grocery shopping done too.

Question: Would you do your grocery shopping all in one day?

Answer: I buy a big load. Usually on Thursday or Friday. Payday is usually on Thursday so I go shopping on Thursday or Friday, and I think I spend about 150 bucks. Next week, you=re still in for stuff. Like I went in yesterday and spent another 10 bucks. I was in there the other day and spent another 10 or 15. As long as you=re in there for one or two days you buy more.

Question: Do you keep fairly close track of what you spend on individual items?

Answer: I do because I do a lot of shopping. I wouldn=t send my husband in, because he doesn't normally do it. And I go to Savemore and got my broad and stuff If I sent Gord, he'd come back with the most expensive brand. I know what the prices ate everywhere. I look at the ads, and I write down what I want at both stores. ff I'm going to go to Food City I write down what I want and if there's not enough, then I don=t bother.

Question: Do you keep track of what you spend on Christmas?

Answer: I did sit down and add it up, just to see. Karen did end up with mom. For my mom and dad, if I see something I want, I just buy it, long as I got the money. This year was a little different because I'm babysitting, so I got some money every week, and I went out and spent it every week. He pays me on Fridays, and I make sure I spend in on Christmas, rather than go out and blow it on something for the house. My husband gives me so much money for groceries every two weeks, and I can go through that money in no time. If I didn=t go spend the babysitting money on Saturday or Monday, I'd spend it in the middle of the week for something else. So I have to spend it when I got it. ft's an awful way, but I suppose it's the only way for me really. There's always something you need, always running out of diapers and stuff.

Question: Is shopping, then, a major way you spend your time?

Answer: Not really so much since I've been babysitting. Before that I was out a lot more. Irs too hard going out in the morning with 3 kids. The girls go to school in the afternoon. Then I've still got Todd, and he sleeps practically the whole afternoon. I'm not getting out as much as I used to. But next year I won=t be babysitting, I=ll be out every day. I=ll take Todd out in the mornings. I enjoy going to the shopping center. I don't even have to have that much money in my pocket. I go out and see who I see, stop and have a drink.

Question: Which stores do you most like to go into?

Answer: Biway, Woolworth=s Just Kids, Sears, Reitman=s. There's quits a few I do go in, but there's quits a few I don? go in, too. The Cataraqui Town Center, I like it, but unless I'm going to a certain store for something, I don? even go. If you want shoes, it=s a great place to go. There's so many shoe stores. You just have to know where you going for what you're looking for.

Question: What about comparison shopping?

Answer: I look through the flyers, and Me paper. And you see things. Like we went out to Biway two weeks ago, and I got a pair of leather boots for ton dollars. If You just happen to hit the sales right, you can do really well. If I'd gone out them later, I wouldn't even have bought them. It was just one of those things. You hit the right day.

Question: Does that give you a real sense of pleasure?

Answer: Yes. For 10 dollars, sure it does. I had boots, but I couldn't pass them up for 10 dollars. They were North Star, and they were leather When you know they fit, you have to buy them.

Question: What things do you like shopping for the best.?

Answer: I like going shopping for myself, but I don't even do that that much. It seems like now you got kids, the first place you go is Me kids clothing. I sometimes glance, but I know the kids need something worse than I do. The first place you go is the children's department. And it=s funny, because you never think you'd do that. You see what they have, and see what=s on sale. I always look. Usually I can tell where to go, like if I want jeans, I know where to go for that kind of stuff too.

Question: You make pretty good use of the January sales, it seems. Do you put off a lot of purchases until then?

Answer: Really this year, I didn't buy Karen a lot of clothes for Christmas. I bought her a lot of clothes to go back to school, and I figured that would carry her through until January. So I guess I do. Because usually I pick up a lot of clothes for her. I was out there last night, and they don't have that much so I don? know if she's going to got that much this year. For Todd there's a lot of stuff. I=ll probably go back next Saturday, because when May start those sales it's on Saturday, then they carry them on for the rest of the week. Her, she's not going to do good this year.

Question: What will you do, then?

Answer: I=ll wait and got it during the year. Go to Biway when they got their fail clothes in. When she goes back to school, she'll need mom clothes.

Question: Do you ever go shopping with friends, for a day out?

Answer: I do, but I don=t really enjoy it. Usually I figure I'm heading to a department they don't want to go to, or they're taking me somewhere I don't want to go. One day I was out with a friend shopping, and I took her to a toy store. She doesn't have any kids. You feel like you're boring them. Next time I'll say, you go down there, I'm going down to the children's. Doesn't matter where I go, I look at kids clothes. I pretty well buy all of them when they're on sale, because than she has a lot more clothes that way.

Question: You prefer shopping by yourself then?

Answer: I got a lot mom done. Same as if I'm going Christmas shopping. If I go with someone else, I don't seem to got anything done. If I go by myself, I seem to do pretty good.

Question: Closer to the end, when you have got less to buy, would you go out with someone else?

Answer: Well I did it this year, but I came home with nothing, it's all right to go out, but if you want to get something -.

Question: Is that a bad shopping trip for you, when you got nothing? How often would you browse but buy nothing?

Answer: I wouldn=t say I ever buy nothing. There's always something you need. It may not be clothes or anything, but you'll be going by and you need toothpaste. You always purchase something. It=s not something you enjoy buying, but you have to buy it.

Question: I'm interested in where the sense of pleasure leaves off, and the sense of necessity soft in. What about that?

Answer: Well, I like buying clothes. I enjoy buying them for Karen, and she likes clothes a lot. I like buying myself something now too. But I do like buying for her and for him because I like the new outfit - something I really like - and I like buying it...

Question: What about Herbie=s? Do you shop there?

Answer: No, I think the prices have really gone up. The prices used to be really good. I bought honey out there for a $1.39 and I went back after they added the food store, and it was up over $2.00, the same price it is in the grocery store. There's do odd thing that's cheap. But a lot of the stuffs gone up. Like someone was telling me about Barbie and the rockers, the price was $13.00 before Christmas, and by Christmas it was up to $18.00. You could buy them cheaper somewhere also So when they started telling me about things jumping - well some things are good, but a lot of it's not

Question: Who would you got that kind of information from?

Answer: Well, for Herbie=s my mother says she goes out there; she has her prescriptions out there, but she says she isn't buying hardly anything out there any more either. Prices have gone up. And I was talking to a woman in the store I didn't even know, she said look at the price of that. So I started talking to her, so even a perfect stranger might start talking to you to. As far as sales, I just got my now lamps, and a girlfriend was telling me where to go and got them. She told me first of all Woolco, and I went, and the lamps had scratches on them. /just happened to see these, because I was over in Frontenac Mall anyway, so I'm glad I did walk by

Question: Do you think you got a lot of your better buys that way?

Answer: I think so, because some of the stuff isn=t advertised. The papers help. But somebody telling you helps own more.

Question: On the subject again of what's enjoyable and what's not about shopping, what's your least favorite kind of shopping?

Answer: I like shopping. I even like going grocery shopping. I just don't like hauling them. That=d be the only down point on that. I like just going out. If I can leave Todd at home, I enjoy shopping a lot more. Getting him in and out of the back seat is hard because I have a bad back. So I like to go on Saturdays when I can leave him at home. But as far as the shopping goes, I like it.

Question: Do you and husband and the kids ever go out?

Answer. Sometimes. Not all that often. Sometimes he=ll take me out to get groceries, but he'll usually stay in the car. When he goes out, it costs me more anyway, so it=s just as well if he doesn=t come. Karen enjoys shopping with me. It doesn't matter where I go she just likes to go. She doesn=t even ask where we're going half the time. Gets her snowsuit on and she's ready. She likes to be with me wherever I go, and she likes to go to the mall too. And whenever we go in a store, she wants something new too. And she heads right for the clothes too. Where usually boys aren=t so much into clothes, little girls are. I like shopping. I enjoy it. And if I don't buy anything, I don=t buy anything, and if I do, I do.

Question: Do you ever find shopping stressful normally, or close to Christmas?

Answer: I don't think so. Only if I have to get home to pick these kids up. If I take Todd, I've got to rush, and I'm going out Bath road trying to hit all the lights. But usually I'm not in a hurry, and usually by Christmas I have a of it done. I can get out often, and I try to got out on the weekends, so I can spend the money when I have it. I don't mind spending the money while I have it, but I don=t want to go into debt either.

Question: Do you use credit cards much?

Answer: We have a Visa card, but I don't usually have, my husband does. We use it for gas sometimes, things like that, but I don I usually have it because if there were big sales on -. It's a little too handy. If I'm short of money, I just don=t buy much for the next few weeks. There's always lots of food in the house. The kids have everything they need. And if I see something I want, and they have everything, I spend it on myself once in a while. But they got more than their share of it. It always goes somewhere.


"Born to shop." This bumper sticker epithet encapsulates Jeanne's way of life. She states again and again how much she enjoys shopping. In her own words "I even like grocery shopping." She appears to be saying that even the most mundane acts of acquisition are appealing to her. In fact, she seems to have an love for shopping and buying that borders on the obsessive. She acknowledges going to stores without any specific objective in mind, but like a compulsive buyer finding there is "always something you need.... You always purchase something."

Jeanne's hunger for acquisition seems to drive her to irrational purchasing behaviour. She describes how, having completed her Christmas shopping, she goes out again and comes back with a lot more things." Similarly she recounts how, even though she already owns perfectly good boots, when she sees a new pair on sale she cannot .pass them up for 10 dollars." She ends up with so much .stuff" for her children she has to put some of it away. "I had too much," she states. Yet it seems that no amount of goods is ever enough to satisfy Jeanne.

In fact, Jeanne takes pride in her ability to acquire more things than other people for the same amount of money. She brags that she gets 'twice as much for the money.' In this competitive acquisition Olympics, she says she is better than her husband, her mother and her sister. She also suggests her friends and acquaintances are not as efficient at acquiring goods as she is.

Her self-perceived expertise appears to have more to do with acquiring quantity than acquiring quality. She doesn't go shopping with a list of specific things to buy. She just keeps "picking up stuff" until she thinks she has "enough.' She appears to operate on the philosophy that 'more is better,' whether in regards to clothing, groceries or toys.

While Jeanne enjoys buying things and having things, and is proud of her shopping acumen, she feels a certain lack of control over her acquisitive impulses. Money slips through Jeanne's hands. it seems to burn a hole in her purse. She spends her grocery money "in no time." She says "I have to spend it when I get it." She can't carry the Visa card because if she came across a sale, it would be a "little too handy."

This lack of control in the face of materialistic impulses is almost a form of illness: Jeanne seems addicted to acquiring things. Shopping provides a temporary high. It serves as her daily I fix. I Even to feel a part of the Christmas spirit, she has to go into a store.

One symptom of this I illness I or I addiction I is that Jeanne can't wait until her kids are in school so she can be more free to shop. She looks forward to a time when she 'might not have to take any other kids.' She views caring for the, children as an inconvenience preventing her from getting out to the stores. It would seem, consistent with the criticism of materialism leveled above, that Joanne's relentless quest for and acquisition of goods detrimentally affects relations not just with her children but also with her friends and husband. She won't go shopping with friends because it slows her down. Her attitude towards her husband borders on contempt because he, unlike her, doesn't know the regular price of every item in every store.

On this interpretation of the transcript, Jeanne's central preoccupation seems well described by Rassuli and Hollander (1986, p.10) as "materialism, an interest in getting and spending that results from the perception of possibilities for acquiring large sets of desirable goods and services, and the perception that others are generally also so engaged" (p.10). Her particular kind of materialism is what Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Hafton (1981) diagnosed as 'terminal materialism: ... [where] consumption for the sake of consumption becomes a fever that consumes all the potential energy it can got access to' (p.231). It seems that Jeanne's happiness and "greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction" (Belk 1984, p.291) comes via her consumption activities.


Recognition of Jeanne's financial and social circumstances, largely ignored in the preceding interpretation, sheds a slightly different light on her materialistic behaviours. Jeanne's husband works shifts in a factory, and Jeanne earns what money she can by caring for a child in addition to her own. Jeanne and her family live from paycheck to paycheck, constantly feeling financially squeezed due to the many housing, clothing, food, appliance and insurance purchases that must be made.

Based on both spouses' education, income and occupation levels, Jeanne's family could be categorized as members of a relatively low socio-economic class. As a member of such a group, Jeanne's values are likely to emphasize sharp sex role divisions and traditional values (Coleman 1983, pp.270-71). In taking all responsibility for the family shopping, Jeanne is enacting a fairly traditional division of labour. Her husband is the wage earner. She looks after the household. He holds the Visa card, consistent with his role as "head of the household," but Jeanne does all the physical work of household maintenance, including shopping.

As Jeanne is not employed outside the home and is primarily responsible for the care of her two young children, her chief roles are those of mother / wife and home-maker. Buying goods and maintaining a household inventory of "necessities' is one way in which Jeanne fulfils normative social prescriptions pertaining to these roles. Her statement that "You have to learn to shop if you have kids" shows that her acquisition behaviours are associated in her mind with her role as mother. Moreover, much of what she acquires is not actually for herself, or at least not for herself alone. She buys groceries for her family. She buys toys and clothing for children. Significantly, the goods which she tends to stockpile are things for her children-clothes and toys. While Jeanne does recount buying things for herself, the majority of her shopping and acquisitions appear to be for her children. Thus it seems reasonable to argue that Jeanne is not so much displacing her affections for others into affection for things, but expressing her devotion to her children through her acquisition of things for them.

Jeanne's remarkable enthusiasm for shopping and buying, however, seems more than might be expected if shopping simply allowed her to fulfil her mother/wife and home-maker roles effectively. The fact that her children are sometimes regarded as obstacles to the effective performance of shopping suggests that while the fruits of her efforts may be intended to benefit others, there is an immediate sense in which acquiring things is more important than the people for whom she acquires them.

As we noted above, Jeanne appears to take pride in her acumen as a consumer: it is not simply having things, or the thrill of acquiring them at a good price, or the knowledge that the goods will increase the well-being of her family, that makes Jeanne place such emphasis on her purchasing role. Underlying her enjoyment of the activity is her sense that what she does is important and requires certain skills. She relishes the superior skills which she fools she possesses.

Moreover, close reading suggests that Jeanne construes her shopping activities just as others might construe their job outside the home. She states: "[My husband] pays me on Fridays. . . . [He] gives me so much money for groceries every two weeks." Jeanne is paid every two weeks and earns her pay by being an expert shopper. The testimony to her labour is the stockpile of "stuff" she brings home-large quantities of goods all acquired at deeply discounted prices.

In Jeanne's family, where a traditional division of labour between spouses exists despite contemporary trends toward wives working outside the home, a heightened importance seems to be attached to the consumer activities which are one aspect of her role-related duties. House cleaning and meal preparation have been simplified by modern conveniences. Shopping, however, has been rendered more complex by the proliferation of stores and brands, and by the pricing practices of retailers which make simple choice algorithms impossible for those who wish to ensure they pay a minimum price. Moreover, unlike caring for children, shopping is like most forms of paid employment in that it requires leaving the home to .go to work" and directly managing money. Shopping can more readily be viewed as a job-equivalent since it has some of the hallmarks of paid employment. Although no extant consumer typology would classify Jeanne as a .working wife," it is clear that Jeanne has a job: she is a shopper.

Contributing to the depiction of shopping as obligatory work rather than voluntary entertainment, Jeanne emphasizes the importance, the difficulty, and the necessity of shopping; the pleasure or self-indulgent aspect she do-emphasizes: "There's always something you need. it may not be clothes or anything, but you'll be going by and you need toothpaste. You always purchase something. it's not something you enjoy buying, but you have to buy it."

In a world where there is inevitable pressure to draw in a significant second income to make ends meet, a woman in Jeanne's position may feel her shopping and purchasing must be recognized for the contribution to domestic production which it clearly is. This helps to explain her pride in being a better shopper than her husband or mother. While society (including consumer researchers) do not label shopping as a job, Jeanne views it as such and derives from it the rewards that others gain from their paid employment.

We now understand more fully Jeanne's preoccupation with shopping and acquiring. First, Jeanne uses her purchases to care for family, both literally and symbolically. The care she lavishes on buying things for her children, and the piles of goods she has for them, are a testimony to her affection for them. At the same time, Jeanne is like a "workaholic," preoccupied with her job to such an extent that it sometimes does take precedence over her relationships. She views successful shopping as a challenging form of work and a meaningful contribution to her family's well-being. It is her most unique contribution to the family, since her husband assists in child care responsibilities. She derives her unique status and a sonse, of accomplishment from this work, and she devotes herself to the task unremittingly.


Neither of the" two interpretations is the correct I interpretation. We would argue, however, that the second represents more of a departure from our [pro-] understanding and is more comprehensive: it does not negate the first interpretation, but reconfigures the emphasis on material acquisitions in two slightly different ways. First, Jeanne's enthusiasm for buying and having goods is a form of demonstrating her owe for her children and thus fulfilling her role as kin-keeper. Second, Jeanne's heavy emphasis on shopping and buying relative to other activities is interpreted as a form of careerism.

These two interpretive themes have interesting implications for the paradoxes noted above. First, it would appear that Joanne negotiates the potential contradiction between 'woman as consumer' and 'woman and kin-keeper' by construing material goods and her efforts to acquire them as a way of caring for her children. A critical theorist (see Murray and Ozanne 1991) might argue that Jeanne suffers from "false consciousness" in that she buys into the capitalist notion that she needs to use material objects to express love. A semiotician (see Mick 1986), on the other hand, might regard the vocabulary of goods as a rich one from which to construct expressions of affection for others in contemporary North American society.

The second theme concerning Jeanne's shopping career speaks directly to the paradoxical value assigned to women's roles as consumers. Women have been, as was noted above, assigned the "private realm" role of consumers, and simultaneously devalued for being so concerned with the materialistic activities of consumption. Joanne appears to move beyond this contradiction by recognizing the public nature of shopping activities and the basic correspondence between doing the work required to earn money and doing the work required to spend money.

These reflections on the meaning of materialism in the case of Jeanne have implications for one of the 'foremost issues involving materialism, (Le.,] whether materialism is a positive or a negative trait" (Belk 1985, p.266). This interpretation suggests it cannot, in isolation, be classified as either. Materialism must be viewed it terms of the way it operates in the context of individual lives.

All would likely agree Jeanne fits at least some definition of a 'materialist." Acquisitions are central to her life, acts of acquisition are central to her satisfaction, and Jeanne seems to judge herself and others in terms of their success in acquiring possessions (Richins and Dawson 1991). Some might argue that Jeanne's materialism is a positive trait because it is "instrumental materialism ... the possession of things serves goals that are independent of greed itself and have a specific limited scope with a context of purposes" (Csikazentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981, p.231). To the extent that shopping for and acquiring goods enables Jeanne to care for others, her materialism can be regarded as instrumental.

Yet while shopping for and buying goods is a means to an end for Jeanne, it is also an end in itself. She derives a considerable portion of daily satisfaction from her perceived ability to shop well and from the stockpile of goods she accumulates. To Jeanne, the acquisition of goods is the forum wherein she can exercise her intelligence, build on a knowledge bass, demonstrate expertise, wield power and experience success. The purchase of goods is an inherently satisfying occupation - being a materialist is her job.

As end in itself, Jeanne's shopping activity would be defined as "terminal materialism." To construe to Jeanne's career materialism as a negative trait, however, requires a value judgement that making money to support a family is more valuable than spending money to support that same family. This notion not only ignores the imperatives of the capitalist system in which we live, but draws on and contributes to social stereotypes which devalue 'women's work' relative to "men's work."

This hermeneutic investigation has been undertaken with the hopes of deepening our understanding of materialism, particularly as it figures in the social construction of gendered stereotypes. Materialism may be intrinsic, to various degrees, in membership in various demographic and socio-economic categories. Attaching a valence to materialism without considering the context in which it is exhibited may be a result of failing to challenge pervasive "prejudice' or "[pro-]understanding." This (pro-] understanding is both enabling and constraining. it is enabling in that it offers a starting point for ascribing meaning to such phenomena as the actions of a woman in her role as consumer. It is constraining to the extent that it remains untested and unrevised.


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Eileen Fischer, Faculty of Administrative Studies, York University
Stephen Arnold, School of Business, Queen's University, Canada


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

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