Fancies and Glimmers: Culture and Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - Suggestions for a more holistic, anthropological theory of consumer behavior are offered. Psychological models -and positivistic methods are criticized. The necessity for "thick" descriptions in consumer research tying the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and subcultural levels of behavior together is emphasized.


Eric J. Arnould (1983) ,"Fancies and Glimmers: Culture and Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 702-704.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 702-704


Eric J. Arnould, University of Arizona


Suggestions for a more holistic, anthropological theory of consumer behavior are offered. Psychological models -and positivistic methods are criticized. The necessity for "thick" descriptions in consumer research tying the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and subcultural levels of behavior together is emphasized.


Reaction from anthropologist colleagues to news of my participation in this seminar began with incredulity and disparagement and usually ended with the vague reassurance that our discipline must surely have something brilliant to say about each of the topics addressed today. After all, anthropologists have taken the entire domain of human behavior as their domain of inquiry, why not consumer behavior as well? So with disdain on one side, and arrogance on the other, I am not sure that a fruitful dialogue between anthropology and students of consumer behavior is possible. Nonetheless, the remarks which follow attempt to abstract from the three papers presented in this session some glimmerings of what an anthropologically informed approach to consumer behavior might be like. Perhaps these remarks are fanciful, but my intention is not frivolous.

In general, I think that if each of the three papers in this session could somehow be combined into one, then from both a substantive and a methodological perspective, we could speak of an anthropological approach to consumer behavior. That is, if Levy and Rook could extend their analysis of consumer ritual into the area or food preferences, a domain once explored by Professor Levy (1981); if Hirschman and Solomon could speak to the relationships between age, gender, and consumption in the commensual sense, and if Reilly and Wallendorf could coordinate their analysis of food refuse with these two approaches, then we might have the kind of holistic attack on one small area of consumer behavior which I think is generally necessary to advance the discipline. Alternatively, Reilly and Wallendorf might examine the garbology of grooming products, Hirschman and Solomon might tell us about the subjective consumption experiences people have with these products, and Levy and Rook might coordinate their study with these. Either way we have the unity of method and of substantive areas which L would advocate. As Dr. Kaplan (1¦63) stated some years ago, we can only hope to understand human behavior through a process or triangulation from diverse points.


This paper is an elegant piece of work. It lays out a clear research program, cleverly employs a methodological tool, adopts an inter-subjective approach, and lays out directions for future research which make sense. The authors use an old tool, the GTAT to study psychosocial themes in grooming rituals. They organize and interpret their data in an 'interesting" (Zaltman, Lemasters and Heffring 1982) way through the use of the Eriksonian paradigm of personality growth stages.

The subjectivist approach to their data is a welcome antidote to the logical positivism and scientism which characterizes so much work in cognitive psychology and consumer behavior. Kaplan (1963) among many others has pointed out that such methods are insufficient for sciences the subject matter of which is capable of interacting with its studiers. The interactionist approach has been vigorously and successfully pursued by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973) who espouses a semiotic view of culture. He follows Max Weber in the belief that humanity is suspended in self-created webs of significance. Culture, he says, is those webs, and its analysis is therefore not to be undertaken experimentally in the pursuit of laws, but interpretively in the pursuit of meaning. Even quantum physics has left logical positivism behind. Why then should social scientists-content themselves with the relatively "thin" results of controlled experiments subject to so many, and so many unknown contaminants when the intersubjective, semiotic method yields so much "thicker" results.

However intellectually satisfying, the paper does leave something to be desired in terms of practical results for the brand manager or advertising executive. It is therefore good to see the authors suggest they will undertake research to relate private fantasy to real behaviors, and real behaviors involving grooming to brand choice.

A few points of friendly criticism were inspired by the paper. I wish to question the psychological paradigm by which the paper is molded. Grooming behavior is pan-human-; and even-prehominid. We have only to turn to our non-human primate relatives to see that grooming behavior is social behavior par excellence. Why not make more extensive use of the social and cultural modes of analysis offered by Arnold Van Gennep, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner whom the authors do indeed reference.

A second point, which is really a suggestion for future research, is to ask why grooming rituals have become so privatized in our culture. In primate societies public grooming expresses and reconfirms dominance hierarchies. In many-non-Western cultures, circumcision, scarification. ritual ablutions, and so on are also far more public than the behavior the authors describe. Why should this be so?

A third issue which follows from the previous one is to point out that much grooming behavior in our society is in fact public. I am reminded of summer afternoons at the University of Arizona swimming pool. There one can observe the co-eds, and competitive swimmers of both sexes engaged in many overt displays of grooming ritual. They may spend many minutes disrobing, then applying leisurely and lavishly numerous ointments and cremes such as Bain de Soleil, and brushing over and over their silky sun-drenched locks. Perhaps there is a dissertation in this somewhere.


This paper seeks to relate age and gender to the consumption of rational and arational experiences as independent and dependent variables, respectively.

The authors have embarked on a very worthwhile mission to pinpoint age and gender differences in seeking and experiencing both internal and external sources of stimulus. Unfortunately they have become mired in a host of conceptual and methodological difficulties which are inextricably linked to the method of logical POSitiviSm.

The first problem concerns the concept of experience. The authors are out to study the consumption of internal and external, rational and arational experiences. But they themselves state that experience is actually a product of living, a 'residue". If this is so, then all such experiences will be recalled through cognitive processes. Thus attempts to measure experience will be inevitably biased towards the rational end of the spectrum through the recall experience regardless of whether they were initially efferent or afferent in nature.

Operationalization of the four experience types studied by the authors is also problematic. For example, a visit to a Mayan archaeological site is used as an external sensory experience in the experiment where students are asked to rate experiences as primarily rational or arational. A trained Maya archaeologist will surely experience this visit more as an external rational problem-solving one while the average tourist may experience it as the authors suggest they do. Repairing a watch was provided as an example of an external cognitive experience. Certainly a seasoned Swiss watchmaker is apt to experience this as an aesthetic, sensory experience while the average person who has dropped their watch in a crowded supermarket and is trying to reassemble it may indeed experience it as a cognitive exercise. Surely the experiential and situational particularities of subjects' experiences have a major impact on the nature of their experiences. The authors do not address this issue which seems of central importance to me.

The nature of the independent variables must also give us pause. The authors, like most anthropologists, recognize that age and gender are sociological constructs rather than biological ones. Yet they insist on operationalizing them as biological ones. I would argue that not only are age and gender cross-culturally variable, but situationally as well. That is to say, we all have notions about age- and gender-specific behavior which are more extensive than those we actually employ. We can however strategically adopt age and gender postures different than our own. It would seem to me to be of more scientific and managerial interest to ascertain not only the range of consumption experiences which people have, but also the age and gender constructs which they enact in the face of various stimuli rather than to attempt to pigeonhole such experience in rigid and rather problematic categories.

A final criticism concerns the nature of the modeling technique used--path analysis. The correlations the authors are able to calculate are very low overall. Their response to this situation is to draw speculative conclusions confirming their hypotheses. I think that these low correlations are in fact an artifact of the method which demonstrates its inappropriateness to the task at hand. Instead of disaggregating their exogenous, mediating, and criterion variables in order to trace discrete connections between them, what is really needed is an interactive model in which a range of age and gender constructs are allowed to interact with a range of experiences. In short, what I am basically saying is that the variables chosen either bite off to much or too little and contain all sorts of unforseen elements which can create only confused and uncertain results.


This paper represents what is hopefully the first of many steps in an effort to use contemporary archaeological data to understand and explain consumer behavior. The authors have also embarked on a voyage into the areas of culture contact studies, symbols and ethnic identity research, and the cross-cultural study of property. The authors employ data concerning food refuse disposal among three groups: Anglos, Mexican-Americans, and Mexicans in pursuit of their aims, and in so doing provide students of consumer behavior an excellent introduction to the use of garbage data as an inconspicuous measure of consumer behavior

This paper makes a contribution to the literature on ethnicity and culture contact. Examples of long-lived embedded subcultures, such as American blacks, and or ethnogenesis, such as the Lumbee Indians, have made anthropologists acutely aware of the ethnocentricism or the assimilationist model of culture contact. There are no compelling theoretical grounds on which to assume that dominated cultures will eventually take on the values and behavior of the dominating cultures in contact situations. In their analysis of consumption behaviors, the authors demonstrate that a multi-linear model of culture change is appropriate to the case under investigation. Mexican-Americans exhibit a pattern of food consumption distinctive or both Mexican and Anglo patterns.

As with the other papers, I have some quarrels and suggestions for improvements. For example, the authors speak of culture as shared. The exact nature of this alleged sharedness is more and more in doubt, and as a result semiotic and phenomenological approaches to its study are replacing the purely structural and functional studies of the past. At the same time, many anthropologists frustrated with the difficulties of explicating culture are turning to studies of material culture and economic relationships as a basis from which to return to the study of the more elusive aspects of culture. The authors make a positive contribution here.

I must also take issue with the unit "Mexican-American." Given what we know of Mexican-Americans in Tucson, this category covers too much ground. Here, this group includes persons of ancient Spanish ancestry, descendants of refugees from the Mexican Revolution, and very recent migrants among others. It is unlikely that the behavior and values of members of this category are homogeneous. In consumer research we must make use of both demographic and psychographic variables to define our units.

The income groups compared in this study are not commensurate. An annual income based upon three times the minimum wage in the U.S. has far greater buying power than an annual income based upon three times the minimum wage in Mexico (Murphy and Selby 1981).

As to the findings themselves, several comments are in order. The authors demonstrate that there are three distinctive food disposal patterns in the data in their sample. We cannot be sure that these are ethnically-distinctive patterns since they may overlap with the behavior of other class or ethnic groups not included in the sample. More research is needed to determine this. A more important question is whether distinctions in food disposal patterns are diagnostic of cultural differences. In the first place, the data is synchronic. Thus, we have no idea of the temporal depth and by implication cultural strength of these patterns. In the second place, we must remember that it is behavior plus values which equal culture, not just behavior. Therefore to confirm that these behaviors are diagnostic of cultural differences we need attitudinal research and semiotic studies to confirm the cultural differences hypothesized in this study.

This discussion leads to two final points which I will illustrate with data presented in the paper. The first point is that without symbolic and attitudinal studies we cannot really interpret the cultural importance of differences in food preference. For example, we note that Anglo households consume an average of 4.15 gms of tortillas a day. Does this mean that Anglos are assimilating to Mexican cultural patterns? I think not. On the other hand, it is surely the case that tortillas are an important element of culture in Mexico, but can we interpret the very high consumption of white bread by Mexican-Americans to mean that white bread has replaced tortillas as a repositor of important cultural symbols, or that simply breads have become desymbolized among Mexican-Americans in Tucson? The general point is that foods vary in their symbolic significance, and the centrality of this significance to the culture as a whole. Unless we have some information about this aspect of food we can not know whether a change in food consumption signals a radical change in cultural style or simply a stochastic shift.

The final point concerns the importance of a consideration of context in comparing cultural styles. The data indicate that Anglos consume on average 6.44 ml of coffee a day, while Mexicans consumer 15.73 ml per day, and Mexican-Americans 8.87 ml per day. I would argue that actual consumption of coffee by Anglos is much higher than indicated, but that the context of consumption differs. While Mexicans are consuming coffee in the home, Anglos are likely to be tanking up at the office. Thus, the important difference may be consumption context, rather than consumption per se, an interesting datum in itself, but one not revealed by the barbage data.

In closing let me reiterate that it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to review these tine papers and to make a plea for a holistic, more anthropological theory; or consumer behavior. I hope other students of marketing will follow the lead of these authors in adding considerations of ritual, gender, ethnicity, situation, social structure, and context to their discussions of consumer behavior. Above all, I hope that students of consumer behavior can treat these issues not as so many variables to be scaled and operationalized but as intersubjective, phenomenological experiences to be explicated.


Geertz Clifford (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

Kaplan, Abraham (1963), The Conduct of Inquiry, New York: Harper & Row.

Levy, Sidney J. (1981), " Interpreting Consumer Mythology: A Structural Approach to Consumer Behavior," Journal of Marketing, 45, 49-61.

Murphy, Arthur D. and Henry A. Selby (1981), 'Battling Poverty from Below: A Profile of the Poor in two Mexican Cities,' Paper presented at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Symposium "Households: Changing Form and Function," October 9-15, 1981, Mt. Kisco, New York.

Zaltman, Gerald, Karen LeMasters and Michael Heffring (1982), Theory Construction in Marketing, New York: John Wiley & Sons.



Eric J. Arnould, University of Arizona


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10 | 1983

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