Discussant Comments - Session 5.1


Robert F. Kelly (1990) ,"Discussant Comments - Session 5.1", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 394-397.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 394-397


Robert F. Kelly, University of British Columbia

Three of the four papers in this session are concerned with symbolic communication among consumers; an area of substantial current interest for consumer researchers generated by colleagues such as Hirschman and Holbrook, Levy, Rook, McCracken, and Belk. Of course, the study of symbolism in human behavior has been going on much longer. Marx, Veblen, and Durkheim each considered major dimensions of symbolic behavior. Within my professional lifetime but prior to the current surge of interest, Warner, Reisman, Gardner, Martineau, Rainwater, Coleman, and Levy (The same Levy), among others, considered the symbolic properties of objects acquired in the market place - especially in signalling status and/or social class. Even more work touching on symbolic consumption has been published outside the marketing literature (e.g., anthropology) and a substantial amount is in other than the English language (e.g., Bourdieu or LeviStrauss in French).

Only the Lee paper among the three in this session on symbolic consumption hinted at the broader context within which this work is being conducted. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. First, it suggests that we are either ignorant of or ignoring a rich body of knowledge generated by scholars at least our equal in their insight into human behavior. Second, it leads to the reinvention of the wheel; the "discovery" of classes of behavior well documented in other disciplines. Third, it suggests a -critical- deficiency in the manner in which we are being prepared for our discipline.

The fourth paper seems to suffer from a tendency opposite to that discussed with respect to the "symbolism" papers. The authors seem to be ignoring a very substantial body of work by consumer researchers in their efforts to extend Erikson's work on personal identity.

After a brief commentary on each of the four papers, I would like to identify some issues with respect to symbolic consumption that were not considered in this session but that appear to me to be fundamental to an understanding of the process.


The thesis, custom-made homes represent an opportunity for consumers to "create meaning" through the introduction of cultural and personal symbols ... and, subsequently, through the manner in which they live in a given house, owes much to such scholars as Edward T. Hall in both The Silent Language (1959) and The Hidden Dimension (1966), Mary Douglas in the World of Goods (1979), Csikzentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton in their The Meaning of Things (1981), Grant McCracken in several efforts (especially Culture and Consumption (1988), and earlier this year, Russ Belk's "Possessions and the Extended Self" in the JCR.

The idea of investigating the symbolic imprints of family units who have "custom made" their homes does constitute a new wrinkle so far as I know and certainly has intuitive appeal. Unfortunately, the work did not appear to produce empirical information markedly different from that available through studies on the selection of preexisting houses; a process much more convenient to investigate.

The investigation considered ten respondent households in a single community. In an exploratory study, the small number of households and the relative homogeneity of respondent units is not necessarily important. I had some problems with the husband-wife dyad as the "response unit", however. Both the family decision-making and the market research literature advise physical segregation and separate questionnaires for husbands and wives because of the possibility of contamination and/or dominance. Furthermore, the procedures employed make it difficult to detect sex-role specialization in the decision process even though most home-purchasing studies suggest such specialization exists.

Where Is Levi-Strauss When We Really Need Him?

Rather than pose a series of hypotheses for which the field procedures became a test, the authors' employed "hermeneutical analysis;" a procedure introduced into the consumer behavior literature by Grant McCracken. This may prove to be one of McCracken's less valuable contributions. Does it matter, given that categories are permitted to evolve as the data is analyzed, that the analysts are not trained ethnographers or structural anthropologists? Does such an analysis preclude hypotheses? If one does not know what to look for before the fact, how t can one be assured the observations are sufficiently complete to establish categories afterwards?

The categories that did arise from the analysis, according to the discussion, seemed more related to functionality than to symbolism. "In summary, houses represent a new way of contrasting the needs for openness and privacy." (p.12) I felt the authors let the data lead them away from their stated purpose; in the process of defining categories on an evolutionary basis the original intent seems to have been lost.

While I a n entirely sympathetic with the move away from the information-processing paradigm with its anal-retentive approach to numerical analysis, there are some restrictions that must be observed. Anarchy is no more functional in behavioral research than it is in politics. We are so inculcated with the rigidities imposed upon us by Scientism that, given license to generate and assess data without its strictures, we behave as though no discipline at all were required.

Finally, nothing in this paper actually identified the symbols that were found to connote openness or privacy. Neither did I gain any understanding on the manner in which such symbols are transmitted through socialization, observation, or formal education. Do they form part of a system of non-verbal symbols that take on the qualities of more conventional verbal languages? If so, do these languages have structures?


Reading this paper was fun....an infrequent experience while slogging through the Consumer Research literature. Perhaps Morris Holbrook is having an impact after all.

The major premise underlying the author's work is that T-shirts with words, slogans, and pictures have communication as an overt objective and their possessors share the values implicit in that message Such a maintained hypothesis concerning the symbolic content of items of dress is reasonable and was well-documented within the paper. The author cites relatively recent scholars such as Czikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1982), Holman (1980), Hirschman (1985), and Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982), but substantial evidence on this issue has been around at least since the turn of the century when A.L. Kroeber published his classic analysis on womens fashions over the preceding 300 years.

Some empirical evidence linking the messages on T-shirts with their possessors would have been reassuring. Most of us possess T-shirts that convey messages with which we would prefer not to be associated; not just because the sentiments are no longer apt (the Gary Hart T-shirt noted by the author) but also because we never wished to convey that message. I have received several such shirts from former students and former friends.

The choice of the T-shirt as an object of study is fortuitous for a number of reasons. As noted by the author, T-shirts are asexual and virtually universal in the subculture within which she operates. In addition, the possibility that the symbolic content of a T-shirt will be misinterpreted is minimized; the message is usually in verbal form, rarely ambiguous, and, unlike statements based upon a given style or fabric or color combination, interpretation is not likely to vary with the taste system of the interpreter.

I was struck by the degree of self-awareness concerning the transforming qualities of T-shirts by the various diarists in the study. "Kay" in particular linked mood and attitude changes to the T-shirt she wore at a given time. Perhaps the T-shirt is the direct analog of the transformation mask. Haida friends (from the Northwest coast of Canada) report that very similar mood changes accompany the manipulation of the masks employed in transformation rituals (in the Haida transformation mask there is a mask within a mask and one "changes" from one creature to another by pulling a string).

In the author's conclusions she avoids cosmic declarations based on five sets of observations; a restraint for which she is to be commended. She quite reasonably offers more questions than answers in her conclusions section. I would like to add one or two of my own: We know that not all persons within a given social system wear T-shirts, what qualities distinguish wearers from non-wearers? Can behaviors observed with respect to T-shirts be expected to occur with respect to other garments where the symbolic content is less obvious?


I believe the research undertaken by the authors is both ambitious and important. It brought to mind, especially, F.B. Evans, who investigated the value of Edwards Personality Preference Profiles (i.e., "personality tests") as a predictor of product and brand preferences.(Evans 1959) Claycamp (1965) and Westfall (1962) have also done work that may prove useful. However, as in Evan's work, the question may not be so much whether consumption is an element of identity but, instead, whether it is y important enough to have strategic or predictive significance. Alternatively, one may ask whether consumption is an independent element of personal identity or an extension of some other more basic elements. While the issue of order of development was addressed, the question of cause and effect was not.

I am surprised no use was made of the work of Ward (1972); Russ Belk, with and without associates (e.g., Belk, Bahn, and Mayer (1982); and others going back at least into the fifties on the character of the socialization process as it pertains to specific forms of consumption. The manner in which an individual "acquires" a consumer identity surely is linked to the socialization process. Just as the authors are surprised that no one has thought to extend Erikson's work so am I surprised they found so little inspiration within the marketing and consumer behavior literature.

I must admit I have an aversion to studies conducted among university undergraduates. Arguments pro and con are familiar to most consumer researchers so I will not repeat them here. I do wish to point out that it seems particularly awkward to use students in this research since consumption styles and consumption values may be difficult to detect in individuals who are near the beginning of their consumer life cycles. Surely, yet-to-be-attained levels of education, occupation, discretionary income, and a whole host of environmental factors such as the values held by ones significant others will do much to shape the ultimate consumption element of any given "self." The authors raised the issue of when various elements of self might evolve, but did not pursue the matter very far.

The procedures of investigation and analysis are thoroughly described - too thoroughly described for my taste -but left me hoping for more conceptual content. I would like to have seen more discussion on the bases for grafting a consumption component onto Marcia's identity interview, for example. I also hoped for conclusions more profound than "... occupational decisions are a major concern to college age individuals" or "Instead of consumer behavior lying outside the mainstream of the human experience, (an absurd perception) consumer behavior is part of a life span developmental perspective that has been successfully used to understand and explore major areas of human development." (p. 14, the comment in parentheses is mine)

What major areas of human development has consumer behavior been used to explore? How does that relate to your instrument and your research? How can you hypothesize "...that consumer identity would be developed after occupational identity but before religious and political identity."(p.7) without providing a theoretical basis for such a hypothesis? You say "...the results empirically support the existence of a consumer identity..." (p.14) but do they? On what basis were those items on consumer identity chosen? How were they tested for construct validity? Does replication produce the same results? It may be that these steps fundamental to the development of any measurement instrument were completed by the authors or by others... if so, it is not evident from the paper.

Overall: This paper reads as though it were written by a committee....which, in a sense, it was. There is extraordinary detail on procedures related to analysis of the data but none on the development of the measurement instrument. The analytical procedures are very sophisticated but there is no assurance of validity for the data to which they are applied. More thought and less action is recommended. None of these comments take away from the desirability of research on consumer identity, its measurement, or implications.


The author is correct in observing that consumer researchers have ignored social research .. lately. But only since the beginning of our rather stifling preoccupation with the information-processing model. In the fifties and sixties, Levy, Gardner, Martineau, Rainwater, Coleman, Nicosia, Lazarfeld, Katz, Katona, Rogers, and others developed many of the principal concepts that underlie our discipline. Our insights on social standing and spending behavior, on peer and personal influence, on the two-step flow of communication, on diffusion theory, and a host of other significant ideas came from social science researchers with at least one foot in the consumer research camp.

Among the critical conclusions from a literature review: "Social visibility" in consumption or display is a necessary condition in most instances if market objects are to carry symbolic content; and "significant others" are the principal audience to ones symbolic behaviors (an alternative hypothesis is possible). Aversion to social risk (a la Bauer, Cox) is seen as an important driving mechanism. "We come to know who others are by interacting with them through 'significant symbols.' These symbols enable people to predict their own and others' behavior and to anticipate the future courses of interaction." (p.7)

I cannot agree with the author's contentions that the social visibility concept (a la Goffman) and the "social norm" as a factor in Fishbein's work lack a rigorous theoretical framework to aid in the understanding the influence of social interaction on the consumer and the dynamic processes involved. To say they were unsuccessful in application constitutes something close to heresy that does not mean it is inappropriate to look for other, more rigorous bases for explanation, however.

Questions suggested but not actually touched on in the discussion include: As social visibility increases for a given product, is it more likely that distinct, symbol-laden brand images will evolve? Are their products with little social visibility that carry high social-symbolic content?

With respect to the brand choice model which is the major focus of the paper, I cannot see that this model is any more precise or lends itself to any more rigorous empirical testing than the models the author chose to criticize. Public - private use, for example, is neither a continuum nor a dichotomy. Yet that is suggested by the manner in which the model is presented. The same comment holds for Social vs. functional risks and for situational vs. actual self. Situation is clearly an intervening variable but is not adequately provided for in the model. That, joined with individual differences (i.e., consumption style) for which the author acknowledges he has not accounted, makes the new model just as fuzzy as the old ones.

While I am pleased to have had the opportunity to read all the papers in this session and each has contributed in some fashion to my understanding of consumer behavior - this is the one paper from which I would actually be inclined to steal. The paper is much richer in conceptual content and requires far fewer leaps of logical faith to move from his statement of objectives to his conclusions than the others in this set. It is flawed in an editorial sense, but one can easily overlook the occasional grammatical deficiencies in the face of the quality of the thought that has gone into it.

I do not agree that he has achieved what he says he has. He has not overcome the absence of a "...rigorous theoretical framework which can systematically incorporate the social dimension of self." But he has certainly contributed towards the development of such a framework.


The papers we have heard cover a range of issues on symbolic consumption. But many fundamental questions remain. Do the symbols purchased and/or displayed by consumers form nonverbal languages similar to the verbal ones (i.e., with similar structures)? To what extent must an object be involved in this symbolic process? Is it not possible that a service (e.g., an experience) could carry equally symbolic content? Some objects are denotative while others are connotative of a given meaning (e.g., status symbols). Why? How do we acquire our knowledge of symbolic languages? Do the meanings attached to those symbols change over time? If so, what factors are likely to trigger such changes? I suspect we all have ideas on how those questions should be answered. But those we will have to reserve for another year.


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Belk, R.W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 15 (September) 139-168.

Belk, R.W., K. Bahn and R. Mayer (1982), "Children's Recognition of Consumption Symbolism in Children's Products," Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (March), 386-397.

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Wicklund, R.A. and P.M. Gollwitzer (1982), Symbolic Self-Completion, Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.



Robert F. Kelly, University of British Columbia


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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