Symbols, Selves, and Others

ABSTRACT - The three papers are diverse views on the symbolic character of products. The two studies reported are convincing demonstrations that cars, houses, and flowers have meanings that both cut across market segments and differ among them. Hirschman's paper highlights the difference between the diffusion of innovations that are physically or technologically novel and those that are innovations by virtue of change in social meaning alone. Further study can work toward clarification of concepts, exploring interaction of symbols, richness and layering of symbolic meaning, and the complex process whereby people interpret symbols to themselves, to others, and about others.


Sidney J. Levy (1982) ,"Symbols, Selves, and Others", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 542-543.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 542-543


Sidney J. Levy, Northwestern University


The three papers are diverse views on the symbolic character of products. The two studies reported are convincing demonstrations that cars, houses, and flowers have meanings that both cut across market segments and differ among them. Hirschman's paper highlights the difference between the diffusion of innovations that are physically or technologically novel and those that are innovations by virtue of change in social meaning alone. Further study can work toward clarification of concepts, exploring interaction of symbols, richness and layering of symbolic meaning, and the complex process whereby people interpret symbols to themselves, to others, and about others.


As Beth Holman noted in introducing this morning's three papers, they are unusually well-related to the panel topic of consumption symbolism and consumption behavior. Taken together, the presentations explore various perspectives on the symbolic significance of products. Belk. Meyer and Russell show that people readily interpret the sizes and styles of houses and cars for inferences about the likely characteristics of owners. Some of these inferences show great consensus, others less so. The results seem to show that there is a broad cultural recognition of the meanings of the sizes and styles, with some variations related to age, social status, and sex. It is perhaps surprising that the consensus is so great, given people's pragmatic knowledge that many circumstances can affect actual ownership.

We might also turn the problem around and wonder what is the logic in the minds of those who do not go along with the majority of the sample. If we assume that they too must be interpreting the symbolism of the different sizes and styles, it would be interesting to know what meanings they are using, and what their characteristics are that incline them to a less conventional inference; or perhaps they are making other conventional inferences.

Perhaps we might group the adults and students who agree and compare them to the adults and students who disagree, to learn more about the decoding process. In a freer style interview, we might explore the associations and thought processes people maybe that younger men think a sports car mainly represents youth rather than the success of achieved social status, or that one can be young and successful without being of the higher status that goes with maturity. In any event, the study gives useful support to the fundamental facts of age, sex, and social status as symbolic elements bound up in consensual perceptions of major products and readily decoded as such.

The Scammon, Shaw and Bamossy study adds thoughts about another product, the symbolic meaning of flowers, with particular focus on the interpersonal idea of gift giving. By exploring the characteristics of different motives among those who buy flowers, some broad dimensions are suggested about the meanings of flowers and how they may differ in different situations. They are suited to personal use, for gifts on various occasions, and as obligatory gifts for specific situations, and these uses are differentially suited to kinds of consumers, differentiated by age, social class, sex, and other aspects of custom, economics, etc.

That older women are inclined toward the obligatory event seems consistent with their mature roles as keepers and teachers of proper behavior. They are the mothers who try to socialize the young to say thank you. Also, lower status people are especially obedient to what the rules say is the right thing to give. It might be interesting to select subsamples that more purely represent the three use patterns, to examine them as ideal types. Using people who actually fit all three situations but assigning them to only one, seems to cloud the results. On the other hand, multi-use behavior is probably common, so an approach might be devised that takes account of that reality rather than riding over it.

The complexities of gift giving and the meanings of flowers might both be further explicated by considering personal use as a form of gift giving to the self--"I owe it to myself." I as subject reward me as object. Flowers (or any other product) raise the issue of what is being communicated by the choice of gift. Is it "sheer" obligation? The reward of "pick up" is mentioned; what about some of the ideas and feelings derived from flowers seen as natural, vital, beautiful, sensitive, fragile, elegant, feminine, subtle, luxurious, and so on, in general, as well as the diverse artifactual vocabulary conveyed by roses, orchids, daisies, potted mums, and Japanese Ikebana arrangements?

Hirschman seeks to distinguish "technological innovations" that arise and diffuse when some physical, technical change meets a need for superior performance from "symbolic innovations" that arise and diffuse when their social meanings change. As her examples indicate, she seems to refer to a real distinction, it being evident that there are changes in the perceptions of products even though the products do not physically change. However, there are some problems with the terminology she uses and then, as a consequence, with the resulting conceptualization, that are interesting to explore.

By treating symbolism and technology as dichotomous, in effect Hirschman denies the symbolic meanings of technological innovations. It is as if to say that "symbolic meaning" is the same as "social meaning" (which is true by definition), but that high technology lacks social meaning (which is empirically not true). She qualifies that the dichotomy is for the purpose of describing ideal types and that the two dimensions are continuous and may be interrelated for some product classes. But that does not handle the difficulty which is later compounded by the matrix that shows such categories as high and low symbolism and high and low technology.

There may be some confusion between the popular use and scientific use of these terms. An analogy might be made to the popular and scientific uses of the term personality. In everyday life a person may have "a lot of personality" or even "no personality" at all; but to the science of psychology everyone has as much personality as anyone else. Scientifically speaking, all objects have as much symbolism attached to them as people are capable of conceiving to say something is dull, uninteresting, low in symbolism is to be characterizing its symbolic nature. Therefore, even if we were to grant that there was some objective, non symbolic way to determine that there were gradations in height of technology, such a scale could not be inversely related to a similar scale of amounts of symbolism. Objects that are popularly regarded as representing (symbolizing) low technology (e.g., some jewelry, some fertilizers, etc:) might "actually" be the product of high technology in the eyes of more knowledgeable segments, from whom this view has not yet diffused to other social groups. Similarly, the objects Hirschman groups as low in symbolisms such as computer systems, lasers, medical equipment, etc., are in actuality as rich in symbolism as the ideas of the people who know of them. They are not only technological innovations, they are also symbolic innovations and can experience the same kinds of shifts in meaning that are noted for eyeglass frames. For example, the original perception of computers as intimidating business machines is being succeeded by such social meanings as child's play for kits learning in school and playing games with them as they diffuse into the home. To suggest that high technology has low symbolism because it is superior in function is rationalistic and ignores that the lab workers, technician. and scientists are snobs about their equipment, and that even the supposed superiority is a symbolic claim that may yet be shown to be false (e.g., innovative pharmaceuticals with treatful side effects that turn from miracle drugs into poisonous horrors).

Perhaps all this is to say that from a scientific view there can only be kinds of symbolism, not amounts, except as popularly perceived, and that Hirschman is pointing to variations in perceived levels of symbolism and technology And, apart from the problems of talking about these matters her distinction between the changing perceptions of unchanged products that are "customer driven" and the changing perceptions due to new technologies that are "marketer driven" remains a useful one.

The discussion of these three papers highlights to me what we might call a serial regress of perceptions, as in ; mirror where an observer sees an observer who sees an observer, to infinity. I am made self-conscious in commenting on and trying to sort out my perceptions of these authors' perceptions of their subjects' perceptions; and you will observe mine, perhaps mention them to others, etc.

The study of consumer behavior often focuses on the self-concept, as a set of perceptions whereby consumers symbolize to themselves who they are. They are able to do this by being self-conscious, being subjects taking themselves as objects. This ability is thought to be derived from early processes, whereby children internalize the attitude of significant others. Thus, from observing others, we come to observe ourselves, and then by transference continue to relate our self-perceptions to how others will perceive us. We can then have the paradoxical idea of "secret display" whereby even covert consumption is a way of symbolizing to ourselves who we are.

As we go up and back in this process, we tell the others how we perceive ourselves and how we want them to perceive us. We to this by verbalizing it ("I love you"), by acting it out (staying late at the office), and by use of product services, brands, etc., that are symbolically informative Because people are complex and layered, their symbolic communications are often not taken at face value. Another way of putting this is to note that any object or action represents many ideas, and any idea is represented by mans objects or actions. "I love you" may be teemed insincere the office devotion taken as a sign of inefficiency, while, the ways that insincerity and inefficiency can be manifest are also legion. Cigarettes and guns may be the artifacts of virile males or the superficial signs of underlying impotence, as some exaggerated tresses say sexy or frigid in the same breath. Such complexities lead to the various categorizations of symbols that may need to be taken account of, that were not noticed in this morning's papers; e.g., symbols are public, private, formal, inform conscious, unconscious, etc.

Another source of richness in the use of products as consumption symbols is the way symbols interact to limit one another or to create new meanings. Giving flowers may say one thing, candy and flowers even more so; and what might have been the effect on the results if Belk, et al. has combined big cars and small houses or big houses and small cars? The notion of-interacting symbols might be extended to encompass the patterning of more complex situations.

In this respect we may have much to learn from anthropologists who routinely examine the symbolic nature of complexes of activities. My awareness in this regard was recently refreshed by a rereading of Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures.

We academicians observe and think about the relationships among symbols by studying the ways that selves use them and the interpretations made by others who observe themselves. Although we may dignify our observations and thoughts by calling them data and theories, it may be salutary to recognize that we are just more others observing selves; and that data and theories are symbols of our profession. It is necessary to face up to the subjectivity that is involved on all sides. Symbolic analysis is not a manifestation of behaviorism. It frankly requires interpretation. We are studying people's fantasies about personalities, their ages, their sex, and their social status, and in so doing having fantasies of our own. As the three papers presented here this morning demonstrate, it is an intriguing and engaging activity, and I hope we can move it toward increasing richness and sensitivity.



Sidney J. Levy, Northwestern University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09 | 1982

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