Symbolic Interactionism: Some Implications For Consumer Self-Concept and Product Symbolism Research

ABSTRACT - Research on consumer self-concept has suffered from the lack of a rigorous theoretical framework which can systematically incorporate the social dimension of self. Symbolic interactionism, a research stream in sociology, is suggested as a potentially very useful theoretical basis for advancing consumer self-concept and product symbolism research. The literature on consumer self-concept and product symbolism is first reviewed. Next, conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of the contemporary symbolic interactionist perspective are presented comprehensively and then a specific orientation of symbolic interactionism is described. Finally a model of brand choice is developed based on symbolic interactionism to illustrate its potential contributions.


Dong Hwan Lee (1990) ,"Symbolic Interactionism: Some Implications For Consumer Self-Concept and Product Symbolism Research", 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: 386-393.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 386-393


Dong Hwan Lee, Indiana University

[The author thanks Professor Richard W. Olshavsky for his helpful comments on the earlier version of this paper.]


Research on consumer self-concept has suffered from the lack of a rigorous theoretical framework which can systematically incorporate the social dimension of self. Symbolic interactionism, a research stream in sociology, is suggested as a potentially very useful theoretical basis for advancing consumer self-concept and product symbolism research. The literature on consumer self-concept and product symbolism is first reviewed. Next, conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of the contemporary symbolic interactionist perspective are presented comprehensively and then a specific orientation of symbolic interactionism is described. Finally a model of brand choice is developed based on symbolic interactionism to illustrate its potential contributions.


Although sociology represents an area rich in its potential for contribution to the research in consumer behavior, it has been largely neglected. This paper is intended to introduce symbolic interactionism, a research stream in sociology into the areas of consumer self-concept and product symbolism. First the literature on the self-concept and product symbolism is briefly reviewed. Next, conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of the contemporary symbolic interactionist perspective are presented comprehensively and then a specific orientation of symbolic interactionism is described. Finally, a model of brand choice is developed incorporating the situational self which is based on symbolic interactionism and the implications of the model are discussed


Earlier Personality Research

Earlier marketing literature is replete with studies which attempted to relate purchases of product types or specific brands to personality traits of the buyers. Tucker (1957) is the first who proposed that consumers' personalities can be defined through product use. Evans (1959) in his landmark study attempted to examine the differences in personality variables between the owners of different cars. Koponen (1960) reported that cigarette smoking is related to some personality variables. Westfall (1962) found that owners of different models of cars exhibited different personality characteristics. Claycamp (1965) reported that personality variables were better than demographic variables in predicting patronage for different financial service organizations.

These studies treated the personality traits as "enduring" characteristics of people and focused on the self-expression of the inner nature of the consumer through product use. However, they neglected the influences of others with whom a consumer interacts through social process on his choice of the product or brand. Although some of these studies found relationships between consumers' personalities and the products they consume, the overall results of this line of research are inconsistent and equivocal. Thus, it is concluded that this kind of simplistic paradigm could not properly account for product choice processes (Kassarjian and Sheffet 1975).

Self-Concept and Product Symbolism

Unidimensional Self-Concept Studies

Later, researchers advanced the notion that consumers' buying behavior is determined by the "interaction" of the consumer's self-concept and the image of the product or brand purchased. The "symbolic property" of certain products was initially suggested by Goffman (1951) and Hall and Trager (1953). In the marketing literature, Levy (1959) initially emphasized the importance of the consumer's self-concept by proposing that the act of consumption as symbolic behavior- is more important to the consumer than the functional benefits of the product. Products and services are assumed to have an image determined not only by the functional attributes but also by a host of such intangible factors as brand recognition, price, advertising, country of origin, stores, packaging, etc. Following Levy's proposition, a number of self-concept studies were undertaken. Woods (1960) asserted that where ego-involvement with the product is high, product image is important to the consumer. Birdwell (1968) empirically tested the premise that one's self image would be more congruent with the image of the chosen brand than with the images of rejected brands. Grubb and Hupp (1968) and Dolich (1969) reported similar findings.

However, it is noted that in these studies the self was treated as a "unidimensional construct" and the definitions used were referring to the "actual self," i.e., one's perception of oneself. Taken as a whole, the results of a host of empirical research following the single self construct approach were ambiguous and inconsistent. Two Dimensional Self-Concept Studies

The confusion of those studies has led marketing researchers to conceptualize the self-concept as having more than one dimension. The central theme of these new approach to self-concept research was: "If there are differences among the self-concepts for consumers, then which of self-concepts do they try to match with the symbolic content of available product or brand in a brand choice decision?" The "actual self' and "ideal self" were separately conceptualized and measured to match the self-concept and product image (Delozier and Tillman 1972; Dolich 1969; Gibbins 1969; Green et al. 1969). Dolich (1969) first distinguished between "actual self" and "ideal self." "Actual self" was defined as an individual's perception of what he is like, while "ideal self" was defined as the image of an individual as he would like to be. Green et al. (1969) also attempted to investigate the relationships between the two self concepts and product ownership.

Although this stream of research broadened marketers' understanding about the consumer's self-concept, results of the studies suffered largely similar limitations to the single dimension personality research. In addition, one of these self concepts was not demonstrated to be better than the other in predicting brand choice (Green et al. 1969; Dolich 1969; Ham and Cundiff 1969, Ross 1971). Thus, it is argued that there may be other important dimension of the self, i.e., the social dimension of the self which is not captured by the psychologically oriented self conception used in those studies.

Product Conspicuousness and Sociological Perspective

In the product symbolism study, there was a stream of research which attempted to treat the self-concept from the sociological perspective. Since Copeland's (1923) seminal work on product classification, trichotomy of convenience, shopping, and specialty goods, there have been numerous studies that tried to link consumers' behavior to various product taxonomies. However, the classification schemes, despite their intuitive appeal, fail to provide useful guideline for marketing strategy (Wind 1982). Therefore, it is argued that the static product taxonomies are of little use unless consumers' "product usage" situations are taken into consideration. One of the interesting classifications is Boune's typology (1957) which is based on the degree to which products are subject to "social influence." The main dimension of his classification is "product conspicuousness", i.e., the degree to which a product is visible. This classification is of great interest because product conspicuousness can be conceptualized in light of interpersonal relationships in social process and also links the product to the concept of self. If a product consumption is conspicuous in public and is socially visible, consumers are likely to use the visibility of the product to communicate symbolically something about themselves to the "significant others" in the consumption situation. This symbolic communication is based on the premise that there exists a commonly shared meaning and experience about the product in specific consumption situations. Boune (1957) postulated that the degree to which a product is perceived to be conspicuous will influence the degree of "perceived social risk" associated with its usage. Social risk is one of the multiple dimensions of perceived risk which consumers subjectively have in product purchase and/or consumption situation. Initially introduced in marketing literature by Bauer (1960), the perceived risk construct has since evolved into different areas. Functional risk is defined as the risk that the product will not perform properly (Cox 1967). Performance risk is defined as the extent to which consumers think that the various products perform differently in what is important to them (Brody and Cunningham 1968). Social risk is defined as the extent to which consumers think that other people judge them on the basis of the product or a brand they use (Jacoby and Kaplan 1972). Among these perceived risks, the perceived social risk is the factor which can invoke the socially oriented self-concept (situational self; to be discussed) in consumption situations. Also many studies found that social risk is the most important component of perceived risk. Jacoby and Kaplan (1972) reported that the strongest determinant of social risk was the degree to which the product usage is socially "visible." Perry and Hamm (1969) proposed that social significance refers to how the purchase decision would affect the opinion other people hold of the individual. Their study concluded that social risk was related to product usage conspicuousness and social importance. In addition, there are some studies which attempted to connect product "conspicuousness" and "socially oriented self-concept." Witt and Bruce (1970) found that as perceived product conspicuousness increased, subjects (housewives) were more likely to use fellow members' preferences to guide their own preferences. Midgley (1983) also reported that a majority of men formed their preferences and made purchase decisions for new suits on the basis of recommendations from others (generally their- wives or peers).

Taken as a whole, the research on the consumer self-concept and product symbolism has treated the self-concept from the psychological perspective and largely neglected the influence of the social structure in which people interact and products are consumed. Although the product usage typology research recognized the importance of the influence of social interaction on consumer behavior and attempted to incorporate a sociological perspective, it failed to offer a rigorous theoretical framework to aid in understanding the influence of the social interaction on the consumer and the dynamic processes involved. Thus, the research on self-concept tended to be atheoretical (Sirgy 1982) and become no more than empirical testing.

Social Norm In Multiattribute Attitude Model

There was an effort to incorporate the influence of social influence on an individual's behavior in social psychology. Fishbein et al. extended their multiattribute model to include the social norm (Fishbein and Ajzen 1975). Specifically, "subjective norm" refers to the person's perceptions that particular referents think the behavior should or should not be performed and to his motivation to comply with these referents. Although the normative component conceptually incorporates the social dimension into the model, the concept is too general and broad, making operationalization and measurement very difficult. Due to such inherent limitations of the model, the effort to apply it to consumer behavior research has not been successful (see Ryan and Bonfield 1975 for a review).


[This part derives extensively on Stryker (1980), Stryker and Serpe (1982), and Manis and Meltzer (1978). Two previous studies discussed the symbolic interactionism in consumer research (Reid and Frazer 1979; Schenk and Holman 1980). However, their treatment and interpretation of the approach was partial and narrow. Thus, the intent here is to provide a broad outline of major conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of the symbolic interactionist perspective.]


Symbolic interactionism, a research stream in sociology, appears to offer a theoretical basis for conceptualizing the "socially oriented self" and its relationship with product conspicuousness. Symbolic interactionists view the basic nature of society as a system of interpersonal communication and interaction and view the basic nature of the individual (self) as the product of society. It incorporates consideration of communicational dynamics rather than focusing on a communicational participant in isolation from the others with whom he interacts (McCall and Simmons 1978). Thus, it points to the positions that underlie structural relationships among per ions and to the social roles that accompany these positions as the significant sources of relevant variation in the self.

Theoretical Contributions by Key Thinkers

James (1890) viewed humans as having a variety of types of self and argued that the human being has as many "social selves" as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares. Thus, multifaceted self is the product of a heterogeneously organized society. Cooley (1902) saw that there is no individual apart from society: personality develops from social life and from communication among those sharing that social life. Specifically, the self is the product of a process summed up in the phrase "looking glass self" which refers to an individual perceiving himself in the way others perceive him. The basic dictum of Mead's social psychology (1934) is: Start with the ongoing social interaction for it is from the social process that mind, self, and society derive. Things become stimuli (objects) only as they take on meaning for the person engaged in the social process. As do things acquire meaning that defines them through ongoing activity, so do people. 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. The self is essentially a social structure, and it develops in social experience. In other words, we come to know who and what we are through interaction with others. The self may be said to exist in the activity of viewing oneself "reflexively." That is, we become "objects" to ourselves by attaching to ourselves symbols which permit use of the standpoint of others in order to view oneself as an object. Mead viewed the self as developing through the "role taking" process (i.e., taking the standpoint of others or "generalized others").


Symbolic interactionism has been characterized as building on a set of assumptions.

1. Humans must be studied on their own level and efforts to infer principles of behavior from the study of nonhuman form is misguided.

This reflects the emphasis on symbolic communication. The assumption is justified by the highly developed symbolic capacities of human beings .

2. The most fruitful approach to the study of human behavior is through an analysis of society.

This assumption underlies the potentialities of human development in the social process. It argues against the views of biological nature of humans and of learning and socialization.

3. The human being is an active agent of behavior rather than simply a passive respondent to external stimuli.

This assumption is built on the notion that things become stimuli only as they take on meaning for person engaged in the social process. Propositions

The following propositions represent central features of contemporary symbolic interactionism, identifying a fundamental approach to human behavior by modem symbolic interactionists.

1. Behavior depends on a named or classified world. The names or class terms attached to aspects of the environment carry meaning in the form of shared behavioral expectations that grow out of social interaction. From interaction with others, one learns how to classify objects and in that process also learns how one is expected to behave with reference to those objects.

2. Among the class terms learned in interaction are the symbols that are used to designate "positions," which are the relatively stable, morphological components of social structure. These positions carry the shared behavioral expectations that are conventionally labeled "roles."

3. Persons acting in the social structure name one another in the sense of recognizing one another as occupants of positions. When they name one another they invoke expectations with regard to each others behavior.

4. Persons acting in the context of organized behavior apply names to themselves as well. This reflexively applied positional designations, which become part of the "self," create internalized expectations with regard to their own behavior.

5. When entering interactive situations, persons define the situation by applying names to it, to other participants in the interaction, to themselves, and to particular features within the situation, and use the resulting definition to organize their own behavior accordingly.

6. Social behavior is not, however, determined by these definitions, though early definitions may constrain the alternative definitions to emerge from interaction. Behavior is the product of a role-making process, initiated by expectations invoked in the process of defining situations, but developing through a tentative probing interchange among actors that can reshape the form and the content of interaction.

7. The degree to which roles are "made" rather than simply "played," will depend on the larger social structures in which interactive situations are embedded. Some structures are "open," others relatively "closed" with respect to novelty in roles and in role enactments of performances. All structures impose some limits on the kind of definitions that may be called into play and thus limit the possibilities for interaction.

8. To the degree roles are made rather than only played as given, changes can occur in the character of definitions, in the names and class terms those definitions use, and in the possibilities for interaction; and such changes can in turn lead to changes in the larger social structures within which interactions take place.

Thus, symbolic interactionism proposes a dynamic theory about how individuals formulate and reassess their plans of action in terms of the objects and people encountered in their social environment, and in terms of their own assessments of themselves. A most fundamental proposition of the symbolic interactionism is that a focus on the person without a correlative focus on social structure, or vice versa, is necessarily partial and incomplete. The "self-concept" can be conceptualized as an organization (structure) of various identities and attributes, and their evaluations, developed out of the individual's reflexive, social, and symbolic activities. As such, the self-concept is an experiential, modestly cognitive phenomenon accessible to scientific inquiry. They view the self not as a dependent variable, but as a most important variable intervening between the antecedent events of the social world and the consequent actions of the individual. In this respect, the approach basically agrees with the tenets of cognitive psychology which holds that cognitive processes mediate stimuli and responses. The difference lies in the specific emphasis by symbolic interactionists on the "effects of social stimuli" on behavior in various situations.

Situated Identity Theory

Among the diverse orientations within the symbolic interaction, situated identity theory appears to lend itself to the direct application to the study of product symbolism and the consumer's self-concept. Building on Goffman's idea about the "self presentation" in everyday life (Goffman 1963), Alexander and his associates (1971; 1977; 1981) have defined situated identities as "the dispositional imputations about an individual that are conveyed by his action in a particular social context." They argue that when a person acts, he communicates information about the kind of person he presumes to be and obliges others to regard him as being that kind of person. In Mead's terminology, behaviors are "constituted" into-action, because they have implications for the creation, affirmation, or transformation of an actor's situated identity. Alexander has postulated that if there is relative consensus about the meaning of actions within a population, situations are socially defined. That IS, there must be some agreement about the dispositional dimensions relevant to describe an individual's conduct, and about how a particular action is to be evaluated along those dimensions. When these conditions are met, a situation has consensual meaning or social reality. When a social situation exists by these criteria, behavior can be predicted if the situated identity that results from the choice of one action out of some alternatives is considered more socially desirable than those associated with alternative actions.

An identity is considered as a working self-meaning constructed out of the material of a particular situation. People act to create the most socially desirable situated identity available because of the "self-esteem" motive (Alexander and Wiley 1981). This argument is based on Goffman's notion that social identity attributes organize and orient social interaction (Goffman 1963). These propositions are supported in a number of experimental studies; cognitive dissonance, risk shifting, prisoner's dilemma, and expectation studies. In dealing with Festinger and Carlsmith's dissonance study (1959), Alexander et al. conducted an interpersonal simulation, gathering data not only on estimated responses but also on the situated identities created by the "stimulus person" whose responses were observed. The results replicated the relationships found in "insufficient justification" studies and were predictable from evaluative impressions. Attempts to reconcile these results with dissonance and incentive explanations have been unsatisfactory. It was found that subjects and observers attach the same situational meaning to experimental conditions and behaviors in them. The results obtained could be explained by the "social desirability" effects. From the subjects' standpoint, experiments may include "face saving" or "image enhancing" response alternatives that are unintentional consequences of the experimental design. Their identity imputation data show that changing some elements in the social context (i.e., by creating a different situated identity set from the experimenter's point of view), changes the meaning of the situation and of actions taken in it (from subjects' perspective). The meaning of subjects' responses changes with conditional manipulations and are associated with differentially evaluated identity attributions, because of changes in the kind of person they become by choosing among available response alternatives.

To summarize, the situated identity perspective conceives of individuals as structuring complex activities and stimuli sequences in terms of their implication for participants' dispositional attributes. When members of a given population consensually invoke the same dimensions to characterize actors, their attributional process creates social situations. Behavior is predicted if there is a "most favorable" situated identity to be gained from one- of the behavioral alternatives that are possible under the circumstances. People are expected to choose to become the kind of person that will be most highly valued in each condition.


Situational Self

Situated identity theory is expected to be used to conceptualize the socially oriented self-concept discussed in the aforementioned product symbolism studies. This symbolic interactionist perspective can explain how a consumer's purchase decision is influenced by an anticipated reactions of others and how the consumption may influence others in the social interactive processes. The "situational self' is defined as the meaning of self that the consumer wishes others to have of himself. He seeks to achieve this by means of the product or brand he owns and uses in a typical consumption situation. The situation-specific self-concept may include attitudes and perceptions that the consumer feels the need for others to form of his internal disposition. Thus, the situational self is dependent upon the parameters of a product (symbolic meaning) and its consumption situation (social process) as suggested by situated identity theory.

The situational self-concept is able to describe and predict the consumer's brand choice decision of the product which is used in public, and hence involves conspicuousness and visibility. In this product category alternative brands are assumed to be easily distinguishable and have well established images. It is also assumed that each brand implies a differentially desirable identity and there is relative consensus about the symbolic meaning of each brand within a population. The theoretical basis for the existence of brand images that are more or less the same for members of a social system lies in the propositions of symbolic interactionism. That is, people classify objects which they come into contact with in social processes, and in that process they also learn the symbolic meanings of the objects. Consequently, in the social process emerges the consensual meaning of the objects among all those who are interacting.

A Brand Choice Model

The situational self-concept is incorporated into a conceptual model of brand choice which is shown in Figure 1.

When a product is used in public (e.g., public luxuries such as golf clubs, snow skis, sail boat, etc.), its use involves high social visibility and conspicuousness because others are aware of one's possession and use of the product and can easily identify the brand. Thus, the consumer becomes conscious of the people in the consumption situation and is more concerned about how other people would judge him on the basis of the brand or the product he uses, which is defined as the perceived "social risk." Therefore, as the consumer subjectively assesses appropriate role behaviors and forms a meaningful evaluation of significant others to be encountered in the anticipated and/or typical consumption situation of the product (meaningful in terms of the plans of the consumer; enhancement of self-esteem motive). In this process, he establishes the "situational self' concept or draws one from his "self schema," if he has well established situation specific self concepts in relation to the product use situation. The consumer then identifies the self within the consumption situation in which the symbolic meaning of the product mediates the communication between him and others encountered as symbolic interactionists suggest. Therefore, the invoked "situational self' concept is to guide the brand choice process. He then searches through the evoked set of the brands in the product class and compares the images of brands with the situational self invoked. Each brand is to have a different degree of fit to the invoked situational self image because each has a different set of intrinsic an extrinsic values as a means of self enhancement when presented to significant others. In many product categories, alternative brands are easily distinguishable and brand images are relatively well differentiated (or differentiable). Also, there is relative consensus in the market because of marketers' promotional efforts to differentiate their brand from competing brands (market segmentation and brand positioning). Each brand has a different symbolic meaning commonly shared by the majority of consumers. Therefore, the brand whose image is closest to the situational self will be selected (or will be the most preferred) for consumption in the anticipated situation. This process warrants more elaboration from the symbolic interactionist perspective to gain more insight into the dynamics involved. In this process, the consumer attributes "meaning" to the product symbolically which is to be communicated to the others encountered in the consumption situation in order to enhance his self-esteem. Goffman (1963) indicated products could serve as props to aid in communication of the situational self.



This private and individual symbolic interpretation of a brand is largely dependent upon an understanding of the symbolic meaning associated with the brand which one has learned from previous interactional experiences and/or from marketers' brand positioning efforts (e.g., image-oriented ad) to map their brand on consumers' perceptual space distinctly from other competing brands. Therefore, although the consumer may treat this process in a private manner, his evaluations of symbolic contents of the brand depend upon his "perceptions" of how other people would evaluate the brands. As the consumer attributes meaning to it, so the others interacting with the consumer in the consumption situation also attribute meaning to the symbol. This represents the symbolic interactionist perspective of how the individual and social structure maintain reciprocal relationships through symbolic communication. If a brand has a commonly-shared meaning between the consumer and others, then the desired communication (self-enhancement) can take place and the interaction process will develop as desired by the consumer.

Meanwhile, when a product is consumed in a personal way (e.g., private necessities such as mattresses), its use does not involve conspicuousness or social visibility because almost nobody would be aware that the consumer owns or uses the product. When purchasing this kind of product, the consumer would be mainly concerned whether the product turns out to be defective or to be different from what he expected in some important physical and functional attributes. If that happens, he may be frustrated about or regret his purchasing decision. Thus, the consumer is expected to be more concerned about perceived functional and performance risks than the perceived social risk. "Functional risk" is defined as the risk that the product will not perform properly. "Performance risk" is defined as the extend to which the consumer thinks that different brands of a product perform differently in what is important to him. Therefore, in this situation, actual self-concept is expected to be invoked and guide the brand choice.


The model will contribute to the consumer self-concept and product symbolism research in several ways. First, it integrates the multiple dimensions of self-concepts into one construct under a symbolic interactionist framework as it applies to product symbolism. Specifically, the self concept is defined broadly enough to incorporate socially oriented self-concept (situational self) and psychologically oriented self-concept (actual self). On the other hand, the model is specific enough to suggest how to operationalize and measure the two dimensions of self. That is, the model introduced the construct of perceived risk which has been used in many marketing studies. This compares with previous approaches which were mainly conceptual (e.g., applications of Fishbein's extended attitude model and Schenk and Holman 1980's conceptual model). Also, the proposed model is very specific in terms of the product category and consumption situation to which it can be applied.

Although the model is expected to enhance our understanding of consumer's brand choice behavior and improve the prediction of brand choice in some specific product categories, it certainly has its limitations. As an initial attempt to introduce the symbolic interactionist perspective into consumer behavior research, the focus has been on conceptualizing the "situational self' and on the application of the concept to consumer brand choice. Consequently, the model is not broad in its scope. The model does not take into account individual differences. It may well be that consumers differ in their perception of product conspicuousness. Constructs such as self-awareness (Wicklund and Frey 1980) and self-monitoring (Snyder 1979) might add additional insight if integrated into this framework in future research. Finally, the ultimate usefulness of the proposed situated self-concept in explaining or predicting behavior rests on empirical validation, which should be the next stage of this research program.


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Dong Hwan Lee, Indiana University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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Mere and Near Completion

Bowen Ruan, University of Wisconsin - Madison, USA
Evan Polman, University of Wisconsin - Madison, USA
Robin Tanner, University of Wisconsin - Madison, USA

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The Best of Both Worlds: Androgyny in Consumer Choice

Niusha Jones, University of North Texas
Blair Kidwell, University of North Texas

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