Symbolic Consumer Behavior: an Introduction


Morris B. Holbrook and Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1981) ,"Symbolic Consumer Behavior: an Introduction", in SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, New York, NY : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-2.

Symbolic Consumer Behavior, 1981     Pages 1-2


Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University

[The authors gratefully acknowledge John Perry's helpful comments on an earlier version of these introductory remarks.]

This volume contains papers and transcriptions of talks delivered at the Conference on Consumer Esthetics and symbolic Consumption on May 16 and 17, 1980, at the Surdna Conference Center, New York University. The conference was organized and chaired by the authors, sponsored by the Association for Consumer Research and NYU's Institute of Retail Management, and attended by over 40 distinguished academicians and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and industries. Though these participants contributed presentations on many different topics, all were held together by their focus on some aspect of symbolic consumer behavior.

All consumer behavior does, of course, contain some symbolic component. However, if one were to distinguish between the more concrete, tangible, and utilitarian as opposed to the more abstract, intangible, and esthetic aspects of consumption, it might be argued that marketing researchers have typically tended to focus on the former set of considerations at the expense of the latter. By contrast, the research presented in the present volume deals primarily with these latter concerns and pertains to phenomena that we shall refer to as "symbolic consumer behavior." Symbolic consumer behavior designates those facets or consumption that relate to the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic aspects of products viewed as signs in the sense intended by Charles Morris in his development of semiotics. This focus encompasses the communicative impact of products as components of popular culture and embraces their role as esthetic objects among the art forms at "higher" cultural levels.

Even so brief a definition of symbolic consumer behavior raises a number of problems that threaten prematurely to exclude various issues from this sphere of study. By "culture," for example, do we refer to the anthropologist's concept of societal ideas, values, and behavior patterns transmitted from one generation to the next or do we refer only to the subset of shared elements that are widely regarded as educational or intellectually stimulating? By "esthetic" do we mean any reaction of pleasure derived from the appreciation of a product for its own sake or do we allude only to those hedonic responses that result from experiencing a product deemed artistically worthwhile? And, if the latter restrictions were intended, then who would get to decide what was intellectually challenging or artistically elevated enough to be included in this area of inquiry?

Certainly not the authors! We make no claims concerning the ability or need to restrict the sphere of consumer activities that contain important symbolic components. We freely acknowledge that audiences may derive esthetic pleasure from entertainment in the mass media such as that provided by The Waltons or Star Wars. We cheerfully accept the fact that consumers may communicate their self-images to one another using products as costly as a diamond necklace or as cheap as a bobby pin. Indeed, we suggest that all such forms of symbolic consumption--running the gamuts from Bob Dylan to William Shakespeare and from Woolworth's to Sotheby's--constitute a related sphere of concerns unified by their common denominator in the abstract, intangible, esthetic aspects of product usage. In short, we favor a broad rather than restrictive definition so as to encourage research on all interrelated facets of symbolic behavior engaged in by consumers.

Clearly, the above discussion offers only a sweeping glance at the range of important research concerns that bear on the central issue of symbolic consumer behavior. More specific questions were the focus of the Conference on Consumer Esthetics and Symbolic Consumption, whose proceedings appear in this volume. The conference was conceived at the Fall 1979 meeting of the Association for Consumer Research where the authors chaired special topics sessions on style and taste (King and Hirschman) and on consumer esthetics (Holbrook). After attending each other's sessions, we realized that many of the issues discussed tended to overlap under the general rubric of what we here refer to as symbolic consumer behavior. We also realized that the high level of interest evinced by participants at the ACR sessions warranted a larger conference dealing more broadly with this set of issues. We further realized that (like the King-Hirschman session) such a conference should include both academicians and industry practitioners in order to encourage a dialogue between the basic and applied sides of symbolic research. Finally, we realized that, to assure an appropriate breadth of focus, such participants should be drawn from a variety of disciplines and industrial specialties both inside and outside of conventional marketing research.

Given these objectives, we invited academicians from a number of disci~lines and practitioners from several industries to join together in a conference devoted to the subject of consumer esthetics and symbolic consumption. The level of enthusiasm and commitment among these participants resulted in a crowded but fascinating two-day program of presentations. These presentations are collected here. They speak for themselves--both with respect to the variety of academic disciplines that have been brought to bear on the study of symbolic consumption and with respect to the broad range of industry viewpoints represented. We have organized the contributions into logical groupings suggested by their content:

(1) Introduction;

(2) Symbolic Consumption;

(3) Consumer Esthetics;

(4) Mass Communication and Audience Segmentation.

These headings reflect an ex post order imposed upon a diverse set of papers held together by their common focus on symbolic consumer behavior. The reader will note certain themes that recur throughout the proceedings;

(1) the symbolic uses of ordinary products such as clothing;

(2) the role of culture in shaping shared symbolic res ponses;

(3) the esthetic implications of nonartistic consumer products;

(4) the gradations of esthetic responses from simple hedonic pleasure to heightened emotional experience;

(5) the cognitive mechanisms underlying esthetic response;

(6) the general customer characteristics underlying audience participation;

(7) the role of such audience patterns in shaping industry behavior;

(8) the influence of industry behavior on popularculture;

(9) the relationship of popular culture to high culture;

(10) the intrusion of value judgments in research on symbolic consumption;

(11) the distinction between symbolic consumption and ocher forms of consumer behavior;

(12) the distinction between esthetic and utilitarian product benefits.

These issues and other questions raised herein might well suggest integrating themes in which to focus in future work on symbolic consumer behavior. If so, the conference represented by this volume will have served its purpose.



Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University


SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior | 1981

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