A Conception of Consumer Identity

ABSTRACT - The development of a consumer identity is proposed to occur within the context of Erikson's life span developmental conception of the identity stage. Using Marcia's work on the development and measurement of occupational, religious, and political identity, a consumer identity interview was developed. The results of interviewing a group of undergraduates suggest that the Consumer Identity interview is measuring something distinct from occupational, religious, and political identity. The sequence of identity development suggests that a consumer identity is important for becoming an effective, productive adult.


Richard A. Feinberg, S. J. Yoon, and Lori Westgate (1990) ,"A Conception of Consumer Identity", 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: 380-385.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 380-385


Richard A. Feinberg, Purdue University

S. J. Yoon, Purdue University

Lori Westgate, Purdue University

Charles Trappey, Purdue University

Jodie Monger, Purdue University

Peter Smith, Louisiana State University in Shreveport

Dennis Raphael, Ministry of Education, Toronto, Canada


The development of a consumer identity is proposed to occur within the context of Erikson's life span developmental conception of the identity stage. Using Marcia's work on the development and measurement of occupational, religious, and political identity, a consumer identity interview was developed. The results of interviewing a group of undergraduates suggest that the Consumer Identity interview is measuring something distinct from occupational, religious, and political identity. The sequence of identity development suggests that a consumer identity is important for becoming an effective, productive adult.

A central issue in human development is the development of a sense of identity. The meaning and influence of one's answer to the question, "Who am I?" is sharply etched in his/her personal histories. Moreover, as a result of Erikson's (1963; 1968) descriptions of the development of identity as the primary outcome of adolescence and a significant influence on adult behavior, a wealth of research has emerged on the development and-effects- of identity (see Bourne 1978a; 1978b).

One of the most widely accepted operationalizations of the concept has been through a semi-structured interview developed by Marcia (Bourne 1978a, 1978b; Marcia 1976; 1980). Agreement that there is an effective measure of identity and the use of this reliable and valid interview has allowed the study of the development and effects of identity to proceed. Unfortunately, this research has been essentially limited to only those areas in which Marcia believed adolescent identity development is important. Believing that Erikson viewed occupational, political and religious identity to be the most important areas in which adolescent identity evolves, Marcia created an interview to measure identity development in those areas. Other researchers seemingly adopted those areas as the dominant areas of development, and they either studied the relationship of identity development in those areas to behavior choice in those domains or they used those areas and looked at how they relate to behavior in other domains. As in many areas of the study of human behavior, once a measuring technique is well accepted it begins to define the concept under study. Thus it appears that Marcia's interview has come to define the three areas of identity development in adolescents, as if those are the only three or most important three areas of identity development. In reality there may be other areas of identity development of equal or greater significance to adult development and behavior than religion, politics, and occupation.

The primary purpose of this research is to develop an extension of the Marcia interview into the consumer domain. It is our contention that identity development occurs in the consumption domains as well as the occupational, religious, and political domains tapped by the Marcia technique, and may be as or more important in the development of an effective adult in a market economy and society.

Theoretical Foundations of Identity Research

Both the theoretical formulations (Erikson 1968) and reviews of empirical work (Marcia 1980) have painted identity formation as a critical building block of adulthood. According to Erikson, adolescence is a time for individuals to try out various social roles prior to making formal commitments. It is the time at which the crucial question is asked, "Who am I?"

Erikson conceptualized the adolescent conflict as one in which individuals organize and reorganize their notion of themselves. The outcome of the identity crisis is the acquisition of an ego identity. According to Erikson (1968) one's ego identity is" the awareness of the fact that there is self-sameness and continuity to the ego..." (p. 50) such that the individual forms consistent roles and beliefs. Ego identity refers to commitments to broader social goals (e.g., occupational goals, religious choice) while self-concept refers to an individuals self-perceptions and role images. According to Erikson each society provides a scheduled time for the completion of that identity.

Based on Erikson's theory, Marcia (1966) constructed a taxonomy which constitutes a four fold classification of adolescent identity development. According to this schema an adolescent forms one of four identities called identity achieved, foreclosed, moratorium, or diffuse. The following is a brief summary of the major characteristics of each identity status. Identity achieved adolescents have actively considered alternatives and have made a commitment to one of those alternatives. For example, in the case of making an occupational choice, the identity achieved individual has considered various career/job choices and has on the basis of this exploration made a firm commitment to one alternative. Identity achieved individuals have high self-acceptance, a stable self concept, and have made a commitment to a vocation, a religion, and a political ideology. Foreclosed adolescents tend to develop identities which are isomorphic to that of one of their parents or significant other. They are happy and accepting of whatever commitments have been handed to them. Those in moratorium tend to be actively pursuing an identity. They are in the throws of the "identity crisis" and are seeking and exploring those things that may serve as their future occupation, religion, or political choice. Finally, the diffuse person has no commitment and has undergone little or no exploration. He/she lacks certainty about him/herself and has little or no commitment to occupation, religion, or political thought.

The Case for a Consumer Identity

Today's world requires a set of decisions that may go beyond occupation, religion and political identities. It is our contention that society demands that an individual address the issue of consumption. Coleman (1974; 1978) and Raphael (1979) present evidence that adolescents do not resolve identity dilemmas in occupation, politics, and religion simultaneously. They suggest that each area has meaning as a separate identity, therein opening the possibility that politics, religion, and occupational identity are three of many possible identity dimensions. Consequently, Waterman (1985) has suggested and developed an interview like Marcia's to measure sex role identity development. Learning to be an effective, productive adult consumer functioning in the marketplace is one of the social roles for which adolescents need to acquire appropriate skills, motivations, attitudes, and behaviors (Dusek 1977; Kuo 1987).

Indeed, recent research in consumer behavior has focused on the importance of and the development of adolescent consumer motivations and skills. Consumer behavior appears to undergo significant formation and change during the adolescent years, turning the child into a fairly sophisticated consumer (Moschis 1987). Unfortunately, these researchers have proceeded in a relatively atheoretical manner and either do not know of Erikson's guidance or do not think that Marcia's operationalization of Erikson into occupational, religious, and political identity is applicable or generalizable to understanding the developing consumer. It is unfortunate when such a dominant theoretical statement, such as Erikson's, has not been utilized as a guide for understanding the adolescent consumer. The objective of this research is to investigate the utility of using an Eriksonian framework to understand the adolescent consumer. The strength of this approach lies in the fact that it adopts a powerful adolescent developmental theory in studying the learning of consumer skills by adolescents with the same mechanism ("identity") by which adolescents have been said to become adults in other important developmental areas (e.g., occupational choice).

Therefore a Consumer Identity Interview was developed which patterned the interviews previously used to identify occupational, religious, political, and sex role identity areas. Identity issues have been found to come into play and take center stage at different times in development (Coleman 1974; 1978). Research on identity has shown that individuals first assume identity development in occupational areas, next in religious areas, and last in political areas (Raphael 1979). We felt that one measure of the validity of the proposed consumer identity concept and interview was if the development of Consumer Identity would be found to occur at a different time than occupational, religious and political identities. The importance of the concept of consumer identity can be assessed from its placement/rank in the developing identities. Since occupation is an overriding concern in college, we believed like Raphael (1979) that occupational identity would be found to develop first. However, given the importance of material concerns in college, we hypothesized that consumer identity would be developed after occupational identity but before religious and political identity.



Forty-two freshman undergraduates volunteered for extra-credit toward their final grade.

Identity Status Interview

Marcia's (1966) semi-structured interview was used to determine subjects' identity status in the areas of occupation, religion and politics. Our Consumer Identity interview was used to assess their consumer identity (see Appendix 1 - each interview lasted between 20 and 40 minutes).

The questions and procedures for administration and scoring of the Marcia interview for occupation, politics, and religion are well established and explained in manuals developed by Marcia (1966), Waterman (1982), and Grotevant et al. (1982). Since these interview schemes are well organized and tested, the translation for a consumer identity was relatively straightforward. Interviewers were trained in accordance with these procedures. Practice interviews were conducted and evaluated by a researcher experienced in the delivery and use of the Marcia interview. Each interview was coded by the interviewer and a second person other than the interviewer (each interview was recorded). The interview was coded by a person of the opposite sex to the person conducting the interview to account for possible bias identified by Matteson (1977). Agreement between judges was 87%. Any disagreement was settled by conference.

Coding procedures have become relatively objective by rating the interviewees' degree of commitment and exploration for each identity domain. A person's degree of exploration was rated on a scale of 1 to 4. A rating of 4 on exploration is given for the presence of depth and breadth. Depth of exploration involves the investigation of one option (for example, becoming a professor) by means of several different approaches (getting a PhD; attending a professional conference; reading professional journals). Breadth of exploration involves the investigation of a number of different options (e.g., becoming a professor, a high school teacher, or a doctor). A rating of 3 is given if the individual has explored only 1 option in depth or a couple in very little depth. A rating of 2 is given for only superficial exploration with little depth or breadth. Finally, an individual is given a rating of 1 for exploration if he/she shows a complete absence of consideration of options in that domain. Commitment was scored on a 4 point scale, ranging from 1 (complete absence), 2 (weak or vague), 3 (moderate), to 4 (strong firm choice).





These scale ratings were used to derive identity status within each domain. In general, "identity achievers" score in the 34 range for both exploration and commitment, "moratoriums" score in the 34 range for exploration and 1-2 on commitment; "foreclosures" receive 1-2 on exploration and 3-4 on commitment; and "diffuse" score 1-2 on both exploration and commitment. For each subject, then, a set of 2 scores measuring exploration and commitment and an overall identity was derived for each content area (religion, politics, occupation, and in this study consumer identity).


Distribution of openness ratings Of the 42 subjects, 37 (88.1%) were classified as "open" (having explored) in the occupation category; 17 (40.5%) in the consumerism area; 13 (31.0%) in the religion area; and 11 (26.2%) in the politics category. A McNemar Test for differences between correlated proportions indicated that differences between the number of subjects classified as open were significant (p's<.O i) between occupation and politics, consumerism and occupation, and religion and occupation. The differences between the number of open subjects were lot significant between consumerism and religion, consumerism and politics, and the religion and politics categories.

Scaling of ratings. A scaling sequence was then tested for presence of open ratings. Based on Raphael (1979), the sequence predicted that an open rating in occupation was necessary before an open rating could be seen in consumerism. Likewise open ratings were necessary in both occupation and consumerism before one could be seen in religion. Finally, open ratings were required in all three of the previous categories before one could be found in politics (see Table 1).

Analyses supported these predictions using Green's (1956) techniques for assessing the quality of Guttman scaling. Two indices of reproducibility were found. RepA <2.4 and RepB = .939, both exceeding not only the traditional criterion of .85 but also the commonly used results, .89 and .91, found in other studies (Kasulis, Lusch, and Stafford 1979; Raphael 1979).

The index of reproducibility measures how successful the Guttman scale is in reproducing an individual's openness rating given only an individual's scale score. To assess the degree to which the index of reproducibility is influenced by scale item distribution, the expected coefficient of reproducibility is calculated. This measure calculates the coefficient that would be obtained using only item frequencies. In this study, the expected reproducibility coefficient, RepI, is .85, and is significantly different from both RepA and RepB at the Ex<-05 level.

An additional-measure obtained using Green's statistical measures for Guttman analysis is the Index of Consistency. This index shows the percentage of maximum possible improvement in reproducibility that the derived scale actually obtained. As with the "Rep" measures, its range is zero to one. In this study, the indices of consistency, .42 and .43, indicate that the Guttman scale achieved 43% of the improvement in reproducibility that was theoretically possible for RepA, and 42% for RepB. Although not quite at Green's recommended measure of .5, the results account for more of the possible improvement in reproducibility than other studies that considered .30 to .40 acceptable.

Error analysis. Since both indices, reproducibility and consistency, are less than 1.0, it is obvious that the derived scale possesses some degree of error. These statistics are obtained from the number of deviations, or errors, from a perfect Guttman scale pattern.

Table 2 contains data necessary for error analysis. There are four cells containing four numbers that represent 1) rank order of category, 2) frequency, 3) number of skip errors, 4) number of category errors, and 5) error percentages.



The rank order is simply the "popularity" of each category. The skip errors occur when a respondent is not in a particular category, but was predicted to be in that category given the respondent's score. In other words, the respondent skipped a category for a higher order category. For example, an individual that was placed in both the occupation and religion categories would be given a rank of two. However, in a perfect scale, the respondent with a rank of two would have been placed in the occupation and consumerism categories, not in the religion group. When a category is "skipped," it is recorded as a skip error.

Category errors are the opposite of skip errors. A category error exists when a respondent belongs to a particular group but could not have been included in this group given a perfect scale and the score assigned to him/her. In the above example, the respondent was in the religion category when, according to his scale score, the respondent should not have belonged to this category. Therefore, a category error is assigned.

This process of skip and category error counting means that every deviation from the perfect scale is double counted. The total skip errors must equal the total category errors. As discussed by Chilton (1969), double counting is a major weakness of the Guttman techniques.

The far right numbers in the table give the total number of skip and category errors (10). This number of errors may seem to be large relative to the sample size. In error analysis of Guttman scaling, however, two points must be considered. First, errors are double counted, meaning this entire analysis has only ten errors. Additionally, the relevant error comparison is not the sample size, because any respondent can be assigned more than a single error.

The relevant comparison in a Guttman error analysis is the percentage of errors for each category in the scale. In this study there was never more than 21.43% error, meaning that only 10.71% of the respondents due to double counting of errors belonged to a category when they did not belong to all lower order groups or they did not belong to an initial category when grouped with a higher order category. With other research claiming 12% error acceptable, a less than 11% error margin in our study would appear to be acceptable.


Examination of the scaling sequence shows that an open rating in occupation was necessary before such a rating could be seen in consumer identity. An open rating in consumer identity was needed before one could be found in religion, and an open rating in religion was needed before one could be found in politics. The results suggest that society influence mandates that occupational decisions are a major concern to college age individuals. Coexisting concerns for material, and consumer issues are of less immediate priority while those of political and religious domains do exist but to a lesser degree. The present study suggests that a conceptual extension of Eriksonian ideas is warranted into consumer behavior. Instead of consumer behavior lying outside the mainstream of the human experience, consumer behavior is part of a life span developmental perspective that has been successfully used to understand and explore major areas of human development.

This study has several important implications. First, the results empirically support the existence of a consumer identity and support the validity of the interview used to assess it. The Consumer Identity Interview, modeled after Marcia's interview for identity in occupation, religion and politics, measured something distinct from the previous identity domains. The fact that the consumer identity dimension was second to occupational identity sharply etches what we think is the hypothesized importance of the consumer identity for adult functioning.

Second, while it remains to be seen whether consumer identity is related to specific forms of consumer behavior as is true with occupational identity being related to forms of occupational choice, the results of this study support its conceptual validity. The next research step is straightforward. Using what is known about identity, its development, and effects on behavior as a model, predictions between consumer identity and consumer behavior can be made and tested. It also remains to be investigated how this approach complements the excellent work on adolescent socialization and consumer behavior by Moschis (1987).


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Richard A. Feinberg, Purdue University
S. J. Yoon, Purdue University
Lori Westgate, Purdue University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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