A Psychology of Buying: Demonstration of a Phenomenological Approach in Consumer Research

ABSTRACT - Our aim is to exemplify a phenomenological approach to consumer research by investigating buying from the first-person angle. Twelve descriptions of buying were provided by six subjects. One such protocol, an analysis of that instance and a general qualitative explicitation of buying are Presented.


Frederick J. Wertz and Joan M. Greenhut (1985) ,"A Psychology of Buying: Demonstration of a Phenomenological Approach in Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 566-570.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 566-570


Frederick J. Wertz, Iona College

Joan M. Greenhut, City University of New York


Our aim is to exemplify a phenomenological approach to consumer research by investigating buying from the first-person angle. Twelve descriptions of buying were provided by six subjects. One such protocol, an analysis of that instance and a general qualitative explicitation of buying are Presented.

Since phenomenological psychology has used diverse methods in accordance with the variety of its phenomena and research interests, the present effort is characteristic but not paradigmatic. In researching buying, we have focused exclusively on the psychology of the buyer and within that limit attempted to keep our interests fairly open-ended. We investigated a representative instance in some depth and attempted an analysis of buying in general, at least as a heuristic for further research. We wished to learn about the situation in which buying is undertaken, the meaning, purpose and structure of buying, and how the value of a purchase is constituted.


Six individuals, including the two researchers, volunteered to participate in the research. These included both genders, ages ranging from twenty to thirty six, professionals and non-professionals, and a variety of socio-economic positions.

Each subject was given the following instructions: "Please describe as fully as possible a situation in which you bought something. Be sure to include whatever led up to the purchase and what followed it." Four subjects provided more than one description upon our requesting examples of "good" and "bad" purchases. We obtained twelve written descriptions in all, each ranging from one to five pages. The items purchased included an automobile lock, emergency room health care, a hair-styling "mousse", groceries, perfume, rolling papers and pipe screens, a hotel room, gasoline, a concert ticket, a clock radio, and a bathing suit.

One description was chosen on the criterion of completeness in order to demonstrate the analysis of an individual instance. The analysis proceeded sentence by sentence in an attempt to explicitate the psychology of this particular case. This required an empathic immersement in the situations described, an attentiveness to their meaning for the subject, distinguishing the various constituents of the buying process (e.g. temporal phases), relating these moments to each other and to the whole, and integratively expressing the findings.

The general analysis included a reflection on general features of the individual case analyzed, comparisons of our twelve examples of buying in which commonalities and divergences were distinguished, further comparisons involving cases recollected and imagined by the researchers, and finally an integrative expression of insights.


I was offered a car by my girlfriend's parents, who had bought a new one and were willing to give the old one to us. It seemed like a great idea since summer was coming and it would provide a way to get out of New York City to the beaches and mountains. It's so hot in the city, and oppressive. More importantly, I'm changing jobs and am going to have to travel about a half hour up into Westchester County in September onward for my new job. The train would eat up three or four hours a day, and a car could get there in a half hour. That will allow me to do work I could never get done on the train. There were two main problems, the main one being parking. Indoor lots are too expensive. So I looked and the cheapest I found was at the Pan Am heliport near the river, for $115 per month. At first I thought "great" because it's right near home but then I wondered if the car would be safe there--the second problem. I asked the attendant but he didn't know, and neither did the police.

It was a Sunday that I drove the car, in right to the heliport. I pulled in next to a guy washing his car and asked him if he parked there, if he thought it was safe, etc. He said he didn't park there--had time to park it in the street. He doubted that it was safe, said the whole city isn't safe. I'd vaguely realized that already but his comment aroused more fear. My car could really be stolen. He said he had one of those hooks to connect the brake and wheel and took out a little black one. I'd seen them before but they always seemed kind of foreign, mysterious, mechanical, and even needlessly paranoid. But this time I thought immediately I'd try to get one. He said, "it won't stop anyone who really wants the car, but it is another obstacle in their way." I thought that's probably right. I immediately thought of getting one right then, but I wasn't sure if stores were open. I hate auto stores because that equipment is so foreign to me and I've spent a lot of money for things that never worked. I wondered what the best kind was, if they'd have one that would fit my car, if I'd be able to install and use it, if it would cost a fortune (though I was glad to pay). I went home and called, and the auto store was closed. I felt I really needed this thing, as if my car could be stolen without it. We'd miss the car, be stuck in the city, I'd have to ride the train, and my girlfriend's parents would be upset and embittered about this city, whose dangers they already think about too much. It was funny, because before this I hardly even knew these things existed, and now I was becoming more and more obsessed with buying one.

The next day I asked around and found an auto store in Fort Lee, explained what I wanted. The owner, there with his wife, were parent-types and pointed to the walL It was a small store and seemed like a very reliable one, down to basics rather than a lot of commercialism. The lady said there were two kinds and one is the best de, adding that the $25 price was really good and how they sell them for more somewhere else. Her husband agreed. It looked odd--I was definitely going for "the best." The metal looked a lit flimsy I must admit, and that made me nervous. It had a red day glow plastic part for the wheel and brake rather then black like the other guy's. That made it seem a little less serious. I went to the bank, got a cash advance, went back and got the hook. I felt relieved to have one and rushed to my car to check it out. It felt more solid than it looked, had all kinds of reassuring things written on the package, like "they'll never break this one." I ripped it out of the package and to my surprise, I figured out how to work it quickly and it was easy. The key worked good. It was adjustable--for any car, and fit mine fine. I got to like the idea of the florescent red when I realized it warns burglars that they're in for a hassle before they break the car window. I was really happy with my purchase. I felt safe. So I put it aside and went on my way.

Then I started to use it almost every time I parked the car, even places I'd never have worried about having my car stolen before. You never know cars are stolen everywhere, so why not? It works easy and gives me confidence because if you want to steal a car, why not take an easy one. Who carries a hack saw anyway? If they do, they'll probably get your car no matter what you do. Somehow I feel they'll leave me alone with that thing on the wheel--the car's not new or expensive. One time I had to have the attendant park my car after I left and since I took my keys, they couldn't lock the hook on. It was out there for two days without it and I was a little worried, but when I got back I saw the attendant had put the hook on even though he couldn't lock it, and I thought that was good of him and smart. It could deter even if it wasn't locked' The only thing I don't like about it is that it is a bit of a hassle to unlock it and also it hits your knees when you slide out. It could be more unobtrusive and easier to lock, but I'm really happy with it. It's always there, keeping my car there. When I'm in the car I feel like it's mine permanently, not tenuous or threatened or here today maybe gone tomorrow. I never felt so secure.

So by now I've been to the beach several times and have used the car for all kinds of things. It makes everything run more smoothly and leaves me more time to work, which I love. I've since kind of forgotten about the hook, and I guess I use it a bit less. I don't like the idea of feeling I have to use it all the time, being in a constant state of fear. I read an article on preventing car theft in New York magazine and they'd have you get all kinds of expensive chains, sirens, etc. That's crazy, too cumbersome and involved. I always use it in the parking lot automatically - and if I'm in a place that seems like it could be stolen, I'll use it, but that's rare. I often park without even noticing the lock. I know the car could be stolen, but I feel like I've taken reasonable steps. The hook is no production --it's sort of cute. If the car's stolen, so be it. Of course I'd be angry, but that's life.


In this case buying is a transaction wherein the subject gives up valuable resources to an other in order to appropriate a car-lock. It is the pivotal point through which the subject overcomes an array of fearful anticipations and establishes greater security in a newly undertaken life-style. In its successful maintenance of relative or limited safety and facilitation of enriching endeavors, the lock is considered well worth the price. In this structure or flow, we distinguish the problematic situation, the discovery of a buyable solution, the act of purchase, and the transformative integration of ownership.

The Problematic Situation

The subject is attempting to preserve possession of a car, which is a gift from supportive others and instrumental in desired work and play activities. The car allows access to the beach and mountains, and to a new loved job. Just as these activities depend on the "vehicle," this material support in turn depends on a safe place with convenient access, so the subject interrogates the city environment. He finds a convenient and affordable parking lot but for the first time views the city in its possibilities for car theft. The problem is that the subject's grip on the car in the affordable lot is tenuousCthe car must be left unattended--which allows for an other to snatch it from his possession. This anticipation is at first shrouded in uncertainty but the dawning sense of vulnerability and jeopardy, vaguely given, is clarified in dialogue with others. The police and parking lot attendants do not offer any perspective on the likelihood of theft, but the subject finds a fellow owner, with whom the problem is articulated. The subject identifies with the other, who is in the same position, and believes his assertion of the presence of thieves, doubtful safety, and ever-present uncertainty. The subject's fears thereby deepen, gain reality, and widen beyond his parking lot to the whole city. However specific, the meaning of the problem is not limited to the demise of the desired lifestyle by the loss of its material means. The threatening probability also includes irresponsibility and powerlessness on the part of the self, the effacement of the bond with supportive others embodied in the gift, disappointment and intensified fear on the part of the concerned others, and a global change in the experienced quality of city life towards an admission of its dangerousness, which the subject has hitherto minimized.

The Object: A Buyable Solution

The subject pushes for a solution from his more worldly "twin," who helps not only by articulating this diffuse problem but who shares his solution, an ingenious wheel/ brake lock which has kept his car immobilized except to him who has the key. The subject recognizes the shown object with an "Aha'." experience whereby what had been previously seen occasionally and viewed as "theirs," unnecessary, alien, strange, foreign as well as mysteriously mechanical and even crazy (paranoid), immediately appears as "just the thing for me." This click into the subject's world rests in the object's material embodiment of the subject's own human intentions and purposes, namely to get a tight grip on and hold onto the car when not present "in person," without incurring too much expense. This object has a purpose, an intention-a tight, vigilant and enduring grip. It is a steel stand-in for the subject's body. This reification of the intention to hold onto the car transcends the body's natural powers; the lock is stronger than and separable from the body so that the person is free to go while the object "does his work." And it is "cheaper" than an indoor garage with live attendants, which the subject cannot afford. It is this internal link that connects this inert object with the subject and makes it desirable as his. Hence the sense of appropriating this object is an extension of his hold on the car to everywhere and always such that he can leave the car without giving up his hold on it. The object cheaply yet strongly grips, secures and transforms safety from doubtful to probable, as the comrade says. The subject agrees with the comrade's evaluation that the object does not guarantee security in an absolutely certain way, which makes the latter seem sober and credible rather than self-deluded and thereby makes object more trustworthy.

The Act of Purchasing

The intention to buy the object immediately regestalts the subject's surroundings as they refer to the availability of the object. His stock of knowledge supplies him with a sense of which type of store -- auto stores -- sell this object. Several spatial directions leading to these stores light up and the time--Sunday--is viewed as meaning they might be closed. Also in play comes the subject's historically sedimented relationship with auto stores, which seem foreign, unfamiliar and have sold unfitting, inconvenient, and expensive items to this nonmechanically inclined buyer. This appropriative order also includes the subject's financial resources, which are sufficient and the cost of the item is considered well worth it, i.e. far less than the cost of indoor parking, let alone the car itself. As the subject begins to gear into this buying totality, both his desire for the object and his anxiety over his expertise at purchasing this type of thing increase. Behavior--reading the phone book, making calls, and driving to New Jersey are instrumental in the attempt to punctuate the growing fearful fantasies of theft by buying the lock.

The store partially transforms the subject's anxious expectation of a difficult and possibly unsuccessful purchase. It is not big, anonymous, commercial, and run by unconcerned mechanics but smells personal, providing-oriented, and run by a parental couple. The ambiance of a home-like, effective, mechanical world makes it seem reliable. What is at stake here is getting an object which solves the problem rather than one that doesn't work or is less than optimal. The owners are helpful and encourage with their fuller knowledge without being pushy, manipulative or too apparently self-interested. This is how the store begins to alleviate the subject's fear. After the owners point out two brands of locks and give advise on "the best" with its "good price," the subject focuses perceptually and sets out to assess and choose. The product pointed to looks "odd"--different from the other one, and flimsy. Here the subject views the object from expectations of something strong, hard, and big, against which the flimsy, breakable character of the object stands out. The subject implicitly takes the role of the thief, and the red, day glow color makes the lock look plastic and "showy," as opposed to the comrade's "serious" lock. However, the subject implicitly trusts the word of the owners on the lock's value.

The act of purchase is itself essentially a transaction, a trade of valuable resources--money - for an object of greater worth, but the value of the object is not fully determinate at this moment. The subject is taking a risk by trusting the salespeople and giving over a possession of unequivocal value and multiple uses for an object that may not even fulfill its one limited use. Buying-anxiety pertains to the everpresent horizon (i.e. implication/potentiality) of depleting one's resources, the polymorphous power of money, for something of less worth. Buying involves an uncertain reciprocity with other people in which one stands to lose or gain without yet knowing which. Hence the significance of the act of buying, inasmuch as it aims beyond a store-situation containing deconcextualized idle objects, is not disclosed all at once and remains to be determined in the unfolding relation of ownership.

Owning the Bought: Successful Integration

Buying leads to an extended process of having which begins with the anticipation of a usefulness which will lessen the subject's fearful anticipations of theft. By transposing the object from the store context into the subject's personal world, the latter is transformed. This is initiated by the subject's excited journey back to the car, in which he immediately tears it out of the package and begins a personal relationship with it. The producers, who have made the object and fashioned it according to the subject's intention, symbolically reassure him that it will effectively preclude theft, like a strong slave at his disposal. It embodies power that will now be his. Touch confirms this-- the lock feels more solid than it looked in the plastic. The feel and the writing secrete a whole new scenario that gradually replaces the fantasy of theft. It works easily, conveniently, is simple to handle, and adapts itself to fit the car perfectly. In this process of unfolding the object's meaning, new purposes or intentions are discovered in its materiality; the red dayglow plastic is recognized as a warning which will stop thieves in their tracks from a distance, before they break a window or even enter the car. The key is an extension of the subject's hands, which thereby acquire the unique power to unlock the car's mobile potential. The object's value is adumbrated in its relational fit with the subject's hand, the key, the car, and the eye of the thief. The nascent evaluation is therefore positive, even better than those lacking the visual-warning feature.

But virtue of its peculiar use, this object autonomously exerts an efficacy or power over the situation including its owner. It makes its own demands and dictates (as the car itself had previously done in its bid for a safe space). As the object is integrated into the circuit of existence through further use, it not only masters the lurking threat of theft but evokes an ever widening sense of threat, only to outstrip it. Each time the subject parks his car, the lock lying on the floor functions as a new eye on danger, announcing the unguarded character of the car and demanding to be engaged to do its work. Far from being idlely inert, this little guard suggests the presence of danger where it had never been anticipated prior to ownership. Despite its manner of tyranny, the lock is also a protective friend always ready to lend a helping hand by vigilantly retaining the car for its owner and giving its florescent announcement of security, confidence and strength. Inseparable in its meaning from the intentionality of the subject, its strength of steel and vigilant gaze are transferred to the owner through the possessive relation. He, who is reminded of his weakness, naivete, and fear by the object, is also strengthened, wiser, and more confident with it. This object is so infectious that it calls out (without a word from the subject) to other drivers of the car (e.g. lot attendants) to join in and become part of the new "security force" by using it. The lock's presence thereby transforms previously unhelpful others into servants who in this new capacity appear as "good," "smart," and "on his side." Further use also brings out discordant features of the object to which its owner must uncomfortably adapt--the inconvenient locking mechanism and an intrusion into the driver's knees as he slides out. But the owner complies willingly since bodily convenience is a priority second to protection from theft.

With this suggestion of will, we must return to the originality or creative participation of the subject, who is far from wholly enslaved by this possession. Inasmuch as ownership involves the subject's sovereignty and larger existence, it is an integrative movement beyond the narrow contours of the problem in which the petty cyranny of the possession would have our subject absorbed. Ownership entails an emergence out of this bondage which after all the subject has created by possessing the object. Paradoxically, submitting to the demands of the lock holds the danger of theft at bay, and in this zone of safety the subject evaluates the lock. He resists on one hand its overuse and on the other hand the desperate expansion of buying (e.g. alarm systems, hood locks) that would compensate for its insufficiency in the face of the fearsome world it evokes and combats. The subject resists these not only because of the effort and expense but the "constant state of fear" and virtual "insanity" they imply. While the object evokes spreading fear and infinite possibilities of buying, the subject reverses his stance by loosening his hold on his possessions, and striking a balance between protectiveness and acceptable fallibility in his handling of the lock. The lock then comes to embody and anchor this balance of limited safety. Eventually, the lock is only employed in the parking lot and rare situations that seem especially dangerous, and this is "safe enough." In this way the object is put in its place and its role is modified by an openness to a measure of uncertainty about the continued possession of the car. The subject thereby escapes being reduced to fear and possessed by the lock and the car, with a little help from his acquired lock. As the subject becomes freed from fear, the obtrusive presence of the lock fades and the subject pursues his work and play abandoned from preoccupations with the safety of their material support. In the new order in which the lock is a mainstay, the responsibleness and power of the self are enhanced; concernful others are saved from disappointment and fear; the subject is faithful to their support embodied in the gift; the new life-style is established and new areas of play and work open up; the city is experienced as safe enough. All of these changes are relative. within limits for life, with its dangers, is accepted. This success, however bittersweet, bestows a distinctive meaning back on the buying situation - the store, the owners, the manufacturer, the packaging, and the subject's own ability to buy - namely, the genuine provision of a trustworthy support for the maintenance and enrichment of existence.


As an extension of my personal quest, buying transforms an other's possession into mine at the cost of valuable economic resources. Buying moves from a future possibility through an actual activity to a past accomplishment, each phase implying the other two. Within each we may distinguish the following irreducible and yet mutually implicated and dependent aspects: the subject's quest, an other's relevant offering, and the subject's economic means. The intention of the buying act is to appropriate, by means of giving over one's own resources, a possession of the other who, in spite of his being a potential source of adversity, is relatively trusted. The purpose is to further one's own quest in a valuable way through ownership. The full meaning of the transaction, which is ambiguous, risky, and always involves both gain and loss, is wholly settled in neither its anticipation nor its actual accomplishment but unfolds later in the vicissitudes of possession. In time, a dynamic, reciprocal action or interchange between the subject and the bought constitutes the latter's contribution to and significance in existence. The meaning of this possessive relation then retroflects over the entire buying activity and situationS which thereby establishes its value in the ongoing history of the buyer.

The Quest for the Other's Priced Possession

Coming into the world with almost nothing, the person's life is forever incomplete, in question, at issue, and oriented toward an uncertain future. We have called this prospective teleological flow from deficiency to plenitude a quest in order to stress the spanning intention whereby existential boundaries are extended. In the face of the possibilities of inertia, decay, loss, and death, the person seeks to maintain, restore, and enrich his existence through appropriative acts. The intentions that make up the appropriative moment of each person's quest range from being reflectively known to mutely lived, active to latent, spontaneous to routine, and determinate to indeterminate. One subject actively searches for her first sofa bed, looking specifically for a certain tan corduroy at a predetermined price. Another subject browses openly through a department store and the smell and sight of a perfume display calls out of latency her desire for a new scent. Comfortable, fun, useful, and alluring things stand in the shadows of our world as quests lie hidden in the depths of our selves. Given or sought, things resonate with our needs, wishes, problems, practical projects, appreciations, preferences, inspirations, and social aims. This mutual implication of the quest and an object, the enhancing fit of an object in the person's ongoing existence, constitutes its relevance. Together with its being made available by an other and its afford ability, its relevance to the quest makes it a prime target for the buying intention. The buying intention is often complex, at once practical, aesthetic, and social in its historical nexus (i.e. relatedness, context). One subject has had difficulty controlling her unruly hair all her life. It is hard to comb and looks horrible to herself and others, hence the relevance of a magazine ad which shows a woman with hair like hers made totally controllable and beautiful by a hitherto unknown hairstyling mousse. This object could be a node in the woof of a whole new life. The subject's history of buying colors the anticipated worth of the buyable. Some are taken for granted as positive thanks to routine, past success--like the gasoline that relieves one subject's desperate search. Others are of questionable value. The emergency room subject who had often been disappointed with medical services, put off going until she couldn't urinate for eight hours and felt her bladder was about to burst. The qualitative structure of buying intrinsically involves one's specific appropriative intentions in the context of the overall quest, the spendability of the subject's economic resources, and the potentially fulfilling possessions of others that are offered as buyable. None of the three is static or fixed, but dynamically shifting and affecting each other underground. One subject struggles not to be seduced by the groceries into paying more than she intended, but another lets the perfume invade her wallet. How much can I spend, is this thing really for me?

The Buying Act

The act of buying it an instrumental behavior which converts a buyable and spendable into a purchase and spending. It involves a real commitment on the part of the buyer to a particular purchase in the midst of all possibles, for one's means are limited and the other will give over a possession only at a price. Thus a tension or opposition of self and other is at the heart of buying. This opens the way for bargaining, power struggles, disrespect, and deceit but the act of buying, to the extent that it is voluntary, requires relative trust in this other, which of course may prove misplaced. On the part of the self, one has the power of available financing and expertise including knowledge of the product, the buying situation, and social skills. A given purchase is not isolated but undertaken in light of the greater totality of economic means and the wider realm of buyables to be targeted. One subject looks for an inexpensive couch in order to leave enough money for food, rent, and school. Buying often entails a horizon of disappointment; one may be committing oneself to something that will not be valuable, i.e. worthy of the expense. Things seen in stores and "talked up" by sales people have a different meaning there than as possessions in the subject's life. Hence the buying act targets an object estranged from its intended nexus. The store in which one "tries out" a bat is not the same as a game situation. One subject persistently buys perfume which smells good in the store and looks attractive in the display but proves unappealing at home. Another tried on a bathing suit and took the salesperson's word for its good fit but didn't like it at home. Another subject tried to overcome this difficulty by taking the clock radio out of the box and plugging it in to make sure it worked. Advertising media and stores, however helpfully informative about buyables, fall short of the subject's life-world, which is the ultimate aim of the appropriative act. As its crystallization, the buying act manifests the multicolored fabric of the overarching quest. Buying cleaning fluid may reach for purity, strength, mystery, ease, status, esteem, and beauty. The secret truth of buying, which appears on the surface to entail a specifically limited character and forget, is that one grasps not merely the object but the existence it opportunes or participates in.

Thus the total quest forms the implicit background of the act. The emergency room subject wants a solution to her problem, to be recognized as a person, reciprocal dialogue, indeed power, equality, love and respect. The person buying the bat in the store is not simply buying a bat but so many hits, a better batting average, social recognition, and all it entails secretly resides in the act of purchase. Therefore there is much to be gained, but also the possibility of spending for something that falls short of these gains.


Ownership is the test of adumbration, consummation, and integration. The grocery shopper returns home to make dinner. The "mousse" subject tries it out on her hair. The alarm clock is put on the bedside table. Others comment on the new bathing suit. The new possession is a certain power, an extension of the buyer's embodied existence, and only outside of the appropriative space, in the subject's own space, does value come to pass. In ownership, the meaning and worth of the object is constituted by the extent to which it fulfills the quest in light of what has now been spent the subject's depletedness. Owning involves a reciprocal action in which both the buyer and the bought are transformed in relation with each other, and it is in this transformation that solution, enrichment, and plenitude or failure, impoverishment and deficiency are found. While the lock owner's purchase solved his problem, the "mousse" made its owner's hair more unruly than ever, leading her to doubt her hair styling abilities and deepening her sense of inferiority to others like the ad's model. The buyer belongs to the thing as much as vice versa, for what is bought demands and engenders a particular kind of presence on the owner's part, which may become sedimented (i.e. habitualized) as a way of life or rejected. The shopper now has to cook fish before it spoils. The clock radio owner is now responsible for waking herself up rather than relying on friends. The perfume buyer smells differently. The bathing suit owner exposes parts of her body not previously visible. The possessor and possessed are external to each other only in a superficial sense, for each animates and takes form in relation to the other in a single identity. The possessor must responsibly embrace and sustain the possessive relation lest the bought be lost, decline, slip away, into misuse or disuse, or be destroyed. The possessed reflects his treatment-care and neglect--in its concrete substance and milieu. Things oblige, but they may also inspire. The possessed need not dominate the possessor completely, for the latter remains a potential source of initiative. One may participate creatively with the thing, be enslaved by it, or disown it. When our subject doesn't like the new smell on her skin, she uses it up on the cat litter or her underwear. The bathing suit owner goes so far as to return the purchase and undo or reverse the buying act, an option on which the buying itself was contingent. Some vegetables rot in the refrigerator. The bought may be given up, used as planned, or used in creative ways, all involving different levels and types of integration. Thus the bought assumes a place in the buyer's existence, often in its relation to the subject, others, and i_s surrounding objects, with the most complex and profound depth and radiance of meaning.


One dimension of buying which has been announced but not explicitated here is the historical. Buying involves a certain autonomy on the part of the self that must have its developmental precursor in the infant's relationship with the mother, in which each possesses the other. Such early family relations must provide the historical ground out in which the self-other transaction has its roots. Parents buy things for their children, children buy things with parents' money, and eventually with their own. In this developmental process must reside a learning of skills, knowledge and expertise whose organization becomes quite differentiated and complex. Each purchase has a place in the longitudinal series that allows for a fine-grained interrogation of person-centered research.

Research could also branch out in a product-centered fashion. For instance, one could research buying the wheel brake lock for one's car to discover the meaning of this particular purchase at individual, typical and general levels. Any object or service could be elaborated in terms of the intentions it fulfills and frustrates, the demands it makes on spending, the kinds of expertise needed to make a good purchase, and its place in the owner's life.

The dimension of spending requires closer attention. The respective meanings of money, check writing, credit cards, food stamps, and expense accounts in their bearing on what is bought and its worth is a major area in need of explicitation.

The place of media and advertising in the world of buying merits much closer scrutiny. Our research indicates that the media can be helpfully informative, evoke latent intentions, and perhaps even create new lived senses of deficiency that lead to buying. Of great interest is the gap between such representations and actual ownership, which allows for deception in advertising and may lead to skepticism, infatuation, and even self-depreciation on the part of the buyer.

We have been very struck by the uncertainties pervading the phenomenon of buying, which are themselves rooted in the uncertainties of life itself. Buying is risky and ambiguous indeed in its attempt to shift the tense boundaries between the self and the other in one's favor. Yet it is perhaps less risky in many ways than other frontiers on which one's life is at stake. Hence the saying: "when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping." By virtue of its capacity to embody and fulfill the most diverse intentions, buying may become a primary way in which one attempts to resolve the intrinsic deficiency and incompleteness of life. Research is needed to address this orientation in order to resist a reduction of living to buying.

Finally, we have discovered that the meaning of buying ultimately rests in owning. This complex and subtly transformative phenomenon of owning calls for intensive study in its own right, and this would certainly shed a fuller light on buying.



Frederick J. Wertz, Iona College
Joan M. Greenhut, City University of New York


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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