Comprehending Symbolic Consumption: Three Theoretical Issues


Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1981) ,"Comprehending Symbolic Consumption: Three Theoretical Issues", in SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, New York, NY : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 4-6.

Symbolic Consumer Behavior, 1981     Pages 4-6


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University


One of the common precepts of contemporary consumer research is the notion chat products may serve as symbols, and hence may be evaluated, purchased and consumed based upon their symbolic content (Zaltman and Wallendorf 1979, Ch. 8). Because a symbol is an entity which serves to represent some other entity (Morris 1946), it follows that products which are symbols are viewed as possessing meaning beyond their tangible presence. That is, consumers who view products as symbols embue them with attributes that extend beyond their immediate physical nature.

The symbolic meaning associated with the product may greatly affect its adoption and use. For example, the decision to purchase an item of apparel may not be influenced only, or even primarily, by its color, fabric or design, but by the symbolic meaning attached to a given configuration of these tangible features by both the purchasing consumer and by others observing him/her.

The symbolic meaning of a product may, in some product classes, overcome or dominate its technical performance as a determinant of consumption. This is especially likely if the product is frequently used to signify social position and/or self identity. Falling into this "conspicuously consumed" product category are such diverse products as automobiles, apparel, home furnishings, educational institutions, hairstyles and leisure time activities.

Despite the importance of symbolism to the consumption of many products, there has been little effort in consumer research to develop an integrated framework for the analysis of symbolic consumption. As Holman (1980) notes, theorization regarding product symbolism is in an embryonic state: concepts are loosely defined and/or inconsistently operationalized, research postures are predominately descriptive, and results have not been organized into a cohesive paradigm. In short, there is too little empirical substance to provide a basis for the induction of propositions, and too few propositions to serve as bases for the derivation of hypotheses.

However, all is not as bleak as this description may imply. Where there is a theoretical vacuum, there is also the opportunity to construct a novel paradigm.

Paradigms for comprehending an emerging area of study, such as symbolic consumption, may be constructed in at least two ways. The first is to simply "adopt" an existing paradigm from an adjacent field, modify its propositions, relabel its constructs and apply it to the novel phenomenon. Although the "adopted paradigm" approach is the easiest route to theorization in a new field; it is often the least satisfactory.

In fact, it may even be destructive by causing the researcher to focus on those aspects of the novel phenomena which best fit the existing machinery of analysis. This may result in the researcher ignoring the most novel and educating aspects of the new phenomenon, because these are the portions least likely to be amenable to comprehension by the adopted paradigm.

A second approach to developing a theoretical structure for the emerging field of symbolic consumption is to cogitate carefully on the possible processes and structures that may underly its phenomena. Rather than attempting to "fit" this novel area of inquiry into an existing conceptual framework, an effort could be made to outline some initial requirements for the construction of relevant theory. For example, three central issues may be already identified in the analysis of symbolic consumption. First, are the phenomena of symbolic consumption composed of activities that occur primarily at the systemic level of the individual, the group or the society? Second, what are the major processess integral to the consumption of symbols? Third, how controllable (by institutions, by actors) are events affecting the consumption of symbols?

The second approach, it is believed, is most appropriate for the analysis of symbolic consumption. This area of inquiry appears too complex, too unique and too important to be adequately examined by any paradigm presently existing in consumer research; although concepts already in use will doubtless be relevant. It requires a novel perspective composed of a network of original propositions. Obviously the successful development of such a perspective will take several years and require the efforts of many investigators. However, it is possible at the present time to discern some of the properties this perspective will have.

In the limited space available here, I would like to outline what I believe to be some of the basic epistemic requirements of this new field and suggest some potential sources for the derivation of theory. The framework for discussing these requirements and sources is suggested by the central issues outlined above, viz. (1) systemic level, (2) integral processes, and (3) source of control.


Systems are organized along a hierarchy of size and complexity from minutiae (e.g. a cell, an atom) to metastructures (e.g. the universe). In formulating a theoretical framework for a novel behavioral area one ordinarily must adopt a posture or perspective that is organized primarily on one plane or system level. In the majority of consumer behavior investigations, researchers have adopted a psychological posture; that is most phenomena are observed from the perspective of the individual. The multiattribute attitude paradigm is an instructive example of this posture.

To examine and understand symbolic consumption, however, I believe that a primarily sociological perspective will be required. That is, the primary unit of analysis will be the group. That this is the appropriate level of systemic organization is suggested by the very nature of symbolic consumption. Symbols represent social constructions of reality; they are media of interpersonal communication (Zaltman 1980). For a symbol to serve its purpose of conveying social meaning, there must be at least two parties - the symbol possessor (perhaps a consumer desiring to express his/her identity to others via the display of symbols) and the symbol observer (perhaps another individual to whom the consumer wishes to communicate his/her identity). This implies a social phenomenon; one that must be studied from at least the dyadic level of organization.

On a more general, integrative level We may conceptualize the consumption of symbols as a collective action or process. This is based on the reasoning that in order for an object to function as a symbol, it must have a shared reality among consumers. That is, consumers (not necessarily all, but at least those in the reference group of interest) must have in common a shared conception of the product's symbolic meaning. For example, driving a "prestige" automobile will not serve as an effective symbol of one's social status unless others in the relevant social group share the driver's belief that the automobile is, indeed, prestigious. Thus, products have social symbolic meaning only to the extent that individual consumers collectively believe they possess that meaning.

Thus, I would argue that the appropriate level of theory organization for the comprehension of symbolic consumption is minimally that of the dyad, and more generally that oi. the group.


The second issue concerns the integral processes underlying symbolic consumption. This issue deals With the basic inputs, operations and results of symbolic consumption. It is my belief that there are two ma jor process areas involved: the production of symbols and the consumption of symbols.

Symbols do not arise via parthenogenesis . They are created and introduced into the consuming sector by a production process. This production process is, in itself, a social phenomenon (Becker 1973, Hirsch 1972, Hirschman 1980, Hirschman and Stampfl 1980) involving multiple participants. For example, those playing integral - and integrated - roles in the societal introduction of a new apparel symbol would include: (1) the designer, (2) the manufacturer, and (3) the retail store buyer. Playing tangential roles in the assignment of symbolic meaning to this new apparel item Would be the fashion trade media (e.g. Women's Wear Daily), the mass media (e.g. Vogue), advertising agencies, and retail sales personnel, among others.

Thus, it is important to realize that a sociological process underlies the production of symbols and their introduction into society. A group of individuals is involved in the production process who not only are responsible for physically creating the symbol (product), but who also provide it with socially symbolic meaning (e.g. "out of style", "in style for college students, etc.). It is through advertising, retail store display, television shows and magazines that a consumer learns what products currently symbolize youth, prestige, sexuality and conservatism. Hence, one of the integral processes that must be examined in the investigation of symbolic consumption is that of symbolic production. To understand why people buy symbols, generally, or why they prefer one symbol to another, we must first have knowledge of the process of ascribing meaning to products.

We must also investigate the process(es) by which symbols are consumed. One interesting generalization that may be made concerning symbol consumption is that it frequently is a longitudinal process. In some cases (e.g. a house), a symbol may be "consumed" over several years although it is purchased at one point in time. Thus in examining the symbol consumption process we must be concerned not only with the consumers' perceptions of the symbol prior to purchase and during purchase, but especially after the purchase is made and during the "life" of the symbol as it is being consumed.

The notion that many symbols undergo an extensive period of consumption lends itself to some intriguing questions. For example, what if the social meaning of the symbol changes before its physical utility is depleted? Does the consumer discard the symbol? Or, what if a symbol having a superior ability to convey the same social message becomes available after the consumer has already bought a symbol for this purpose? Does s/he purchase the superior symbol, as well? Is the earlier symbol discarded? How is consumption affected when two social groups have disparate beliefs regarding what a product symbolizes? Does one group attempt to force its interpretation of the symbol on the other?

These are the types of questions that inevitably must be answered if we are to comprehend the consumption of symbols. Not only individual adoption decisions, but also the larger process of product diffusion within and across societies may be better understood by a symbolic consumption perspective.


The third issue, source of control, is highlighted by the notions put forward regarding the production of symbols. If products are inscribed with symbolic meaning solely by their producers, Chen the consumer assumes a relatively passive role in their adoption and usage. This implies that consumers merely accept symbols as "given" and pick and choose among them to develop the set of symbols appropriate for communicating self-identity.

Conversely, one may argue that consumers can actively influence the symbolic meaning of products. For example, consumers may redefine the symbolism of existing products - a case in point would be the symbolic relabeling of wire-rimmed eyeglass frames as "hippie" and "left wing radical" during the 1960's, when previously this product had been viewed as "conservative" or "intellectual". Further, it is often said that a fashion design~ er's inspiration or a novel apparel item comes "from the streets", meaning that a particular garment or style has been observed being worn by some group of consumers (often an ethnic --roup or other subculture) and is adapted by the designer for selective or mass distribution.

Therefore, consumer-originating symbols may be input to the symbol production process. However, they do not always emerge from this process with their original meaning intact. In some instances, the consumer-originating symbol is out-put With a new, and even antagonistic, social meaning.

For example, the corn-row hairstyle worn by actress Bo Derek in the movie "10" originated within the African culture (and was maintained Within the American Black ethnic subculture), Where it represented social status and religious symbolism. As a result of the movie "10", however, the corn-row hairstyle came to symbolize youth, sexuality and a white standard of beauty - attributes chat were at odds with the symbolism it held for the consumers originating it. Although Blacks had originated this particular product and embued it with social meaning, they lost control of the symbol to the larger process of commercial symbol production (Hirschman 1980b).

Thus an intriguing and important question facing researchers of symbolic consumption is who controls the meaning of symbols. It is evident that symbols are created, not indigenous; that they are malleable, not immutable; and that their meaning as social referents is dynamic, not static. Discovering who are the salient social agents and institutions controlling the meaning of symbols is an important and difficult issue to be dealt with in the study of symbolic consumption.


The field of symbolic consumption is an innovative, complex and intriguing area for the investigation of consumer behavior. This discussion advocated that it be examined with a fresh perspective; that a novel paradigm be constructed to comprehend it, rather than "bending" it to fit our existing conceptual schemas. Three issues presently confronting researchers of symbolic consumption are presented and discussed. These include (1) the choice of a systemic level for analysis, (2) the designation of underlying processes for study and (3) the determinants of social control over symbol meaning. The position is taken that a sociological perspective (i.e. group-level systems) is required, that symbol production is of equal importance as symbol consumption, and that control over symbol meaning may flow from both consumers and producers.


Becker, Howard S., "Art as Collective Action", American Sociological Review", 39, 767-76.

Hirsch, Paul M., "Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organization Set Analysis of Cultural Industry Systems", American Journal of Sociology, 77, 639-59.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C., "Retailing and the Production of Popular Culture", in E. C. Hirschman and R. v4. Stampfl Stampfl (Eds.), Theory in Retailing: Traditional and Non-Traditional Sources, American Marketing Association, Chicago, IL; in press 1980a.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. and Ronald W. Stampfl, "Roles of Retailing in the Diffusion of Popular Culture: Four Micro-Perspectives", Journal of Retailing, Spring 1980, 56:1, 16-36.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C., "Symbolism and Technology as Sources for the Generation of Innovations", working paper, Graduate School of Business, New York University, New York City, 1980b.

Morris, Charles, Signs, Language and Behavior, New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1946.

Zaltman, Gerald and Melanie Wallendorf, Consumer Behavior: Basic Findings and Management Implications, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York 1979.



Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University


SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior | 1981

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