Cultural Interpenetration: a Critical Consumer Research Issue For the 1990S

ABSTRACT - This paper introduces the concept of "cultural interpenetration" and suggests that it is a rapidly growing societal phenomenon that ought to occupy the attention of consumer behavior researchers concerned with macro issues. Several central research issues are proposed.


Alan R. Andreasen (1990) ,"Cultural Interpenetration: a Critical Consumer Research Issue For the 1990S", 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: 847-849.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 847-849


Alan R. Andreasen, California State University, Long Beach


This paper introduces the concept of "cultural interpenetration" and suggests that it is a rapidly growing societal phenomenon that ought to occupy the attention of consumer behavior researchers concerned with macro issues. Several central research issues are proposed.


Consumer behavior researchers are typically concerned with micro and "somewhat macro" processes of consumption behavior. At the micro level, we study how individuals seek information, evaluate alternatives, develop affective responses, plan actions and then decide, act and evaluate. At the "somewhat macro" level, we attempt to understand group behavior of households, neighborhoods or lifestyle segments. For the most part, our methodologies develop explanations of phenomena that cover either one point in time, as in cross-section studies, or relatively short periods, as in studies of scanner-recorded purchase patterns over one or two years.

Focus on these narrower approaches restricts the field's potential to contribute to our understanding of broad, sweeping trends that characterize our modem society or have characterized it in the past. In his 1986 Association for Consumer Research Presidential address, Russell Belk admonished the field that: "Our mission as consumer researchers should in fact be . . . to examine the relationship between consumer behavior and the rest of life." (Belk 1986, 1). Among other things, Belk was urging that we not get so close to our models and our data that we do see the "broader picture." We need consumer behavior studies at the macro level of the entire society and studies that look at formative processes that may take decades to work themselves out. Such studies can focus on either the past or the present and should frequently attempt to understand evolutionary phenomena that will have major impact on our collective futures.

Cultural Interpenetration as a Macro Issue

Three papers at this conference touch upon a macro consumer behavior issue that has received little attention in the field, yet that is going to have a dramatic effect on both local and international social relations over the next fifty years. I refer to what I have termed "cultural interpenetration." By cultural interpenetration I mean the exposure of members of one culture (or subculture) to another through direct experience and/or indirectly through the media or the experiences of others. This, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Over many centuries, a major impact of wars, conquests of new continents, political alliances, religious crusades, and many and diverse trade developments has been to provide opportunities for particular populations to be exposed to -- sometimes in extremely unpleasant ways -- the influences of other peoples and cultures.

In a very specific example, Costas (1989) describes how the little Greek island of Cephalonia over the years came under the dominance of a number of Western European cultures, most prominently the Venician and Greek cultures. These experiences have had lasting effects on the social structures, values and consumer behavior of residents of the island today. Costas also points to examples of other kinds of cultural interpenetration that have been taking place in the past several decades. For one, Cephalonians have been exposed to Western European cultures when they or members of their families or villages have gone abroad to serve as migrant workers. More recently, they have had contact with mainland Greeks, Europeans and some North Americans who have come to their island as tourists. And, finally, although Costas does not focus on it, there has been the growing exposure of island natives to such exotica as Hollywoodian and British culture through radio, television, magazines and newspapers.

While Costas focuses on geographic interpenetration, Dawson, Stem and Gillpatrick (1989) have studied relationships among social classes within a specific geographic area in terms of their consumption behavior. These authors investigated social class norms and the extent to which the availability of income to acquire the consumption norms of a class affects store choice. Obviously, one important determinant of this process is whether specific consumers identify with others at their own social class level or aspire to be like their "betters." It is certainly a hallmark of the late 1980s that members of all classes are now increasingly able to penetrate vicariously the inner workings of higher social class cultures through television programs like "Dallas", "Dynasty" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and through upscale magazines such as Town and Country and Architectural Digest (see also, Hirschman 1989).

Kim, Laroche and Joy (1989) focus on a third kind of intercultural penetration, namely the horizontal interpenetration of two cultures in a relatively small geographical area that differ primarily in language. Their paper explicitly looks at the extent to which French and English cultures in Quebec Province are involved in the culture of their opposites, at least in terms of speaking in the other culture's language and reading their newspapers. These authors found newspaper readership to be a strong indicator of a person's language grouping, confirming that cultural interpenetration has both direct and indirect causes and consequences.

A Growing Phenomenon

Intranational and international cultural interpenetration is a phenomenon that has heretofore been little explored in consumer behavior research. It is also a phenomenon that is destined to grow significantly in the next quarter century. Two sweeping changes, one under way, one in the offing, make it essential that consumer behavior researchers pay it particular attention. The first change is the accelerating rate of in-migration of new immigrant groups into the United States. In the last two decades, the U.S. has had a major shift in the inflows of other nationalities into the culture. In the first half of the century, the principal immigrant groups were from cultures not greatly different from that already here. These include the Irish and Italians in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the Central Europeans in the late 1930s and 1940s. However, since the late 1960s, the United States has experienced a major shift in the source of its immigrants. The new immigrants are heavily concentrated in six major Asian cultures that are dramatically different from that with which most Americans are familiar.

In the 1960s, families and individuals from Western Europe comprised 37 percent of all immigrants to the U.S. and Asians 13 percent. However, in the period from 1981 to 1986, 11 percent of immigrants were from Western Europe and 47 percent were Asian (Statistical Abstract of the United States 1988).

The United States is also being impacted by the growth internally of another, very different culture, the Hispanic. Between 1980 and 1985, the Hispanic population grew at five times the pace of the population as a whole. Hispanics now comprise one in every fourteen Americans, a ratio that is expected to continue to grow until they become the dominant racial and ethnic minority in the country. It is estimated that Blacks and Hispanics will together make up 37 percent of the population in 2080. (What Lies Ahead, n.d.)

The aforementioned statistics understate the impact of the cultural penetration of the Asian and Hispanic cultures since they are not spread evenly throughout the country but, rather, are heavily concentrated in specific areas. Seventy-five percent of Asians now live in five states, California, Hawaii, New York, Illinois and Washington. Hispanics are even more concentrated: 60 percent live in just three states, California, New York and Texas.

The second major broad social change that will dramatically affect future world cultural interpenetration is the removal of economic and social barriers between the European Common Market countries in 1992 and potentially within the Eastern bloc beginning in 1989. Levels of permanent and temporary migration may be expected to increase dramatically, as presumably will short-term culture sampling through intra-European vacationing and exposure to other European media.

Implications for Consumer Researchers

If cultural interpenetration is to be one of the most striking characteristics of the United States and Europe in the next decade, consumer researchers owe it to both their discipline and to the society as a whole to attempt to describe and explain both the nature of this interpenetration and, perhaps most importantly, its consequences for both the cultural groups doing the "penetrating" and the cultural groups being "penetrated." Not only is it important from the society's standpoint that we study cultural interpenetration, it is also important for the advancement of our knowledge at the micro and "somewhat macro" levels. For example, I have argued elsewhere (Andreasen forthcoming) that the opportunity to study aspects of consumer behavior that are extremely involving, such as occurs, for example, when a peasant flees from Cambodia to Los Angeles, can put into stark relief basic consumer behavior processes that are difficult to see in the slower moving, less dramatic evolution of our typical middle class "native" subjects.

Among the topics hat merit attention are the following:

1. Just to what gent is a cross-section of a given population exposed to other cultures, directly or vicariously, on a long-term or short-term basis? How many different cultures does this involve and what is the "depth of exposure"?

2. Just how do we measure "depth of exposure"? What are the relevant dimensions? How does one calibrate them? Are some dimensions more lasting than others?

3. Is the effect of going to a culture (even by TV or a movie) different from having it come to you (i.e. having a Cambodian move in next door or join your business or religious group)?

4. What differences are there across individuals in the extent of intercultural penetration? Are these related to personality traits, economic circumstances, chance?

5. For those who chose to enter another culture on a reasonably long term basis, what is the process by which acculturation takes place? What aspects of the new culture (e.g. products and services) are adopted rapidly, which ones slowly? What aspects of the former culture remain? What "blending" of former and new cultures takes place (and how do we describe it)? (An issue of particular interest to social marketers would be the impact of the non-smoking U.S. culture on immigrant Asian teenagers and adults. The latter are notoriously heavy smokers; anything we might learn that could accelerate their adoption of healthier lifestyles would produce major social benefits.)

6. Do migrants enter the new culture at the same social class level as they held in the former culture? Do people from poorer countries (e.g. Thailand or Costa Rica) enter the new culture at a lower level and move up? Do those moving to a poorer culture move up in social status?

7. If cultural interpenetrators move to a different social class in the new culture, do they really have to learn two cultures (i.e. how to be a Mexican resident and how to be a relatively affluent business-person in the Mexican culture)? If they do have to learn a new class (up or down), do they adopt the class norms (e.g. in consumption) from their old culture or from the new?

8. How does vicarious and first-hand experience differ in the way it is processed or in the memory traces and structures it leaves? Fazio and Zanna (1978), for example, suggest that direct experience has a greater effect on attitude and eventually behavior. Does this explain, for example, individual differences in willingness to visit or work in a particular country or region or to seek to interact with members of a particular culture?


Andreasen, Alan R. (forthcoming), "Consumer Behavior Research and Social Policy," in Harold H. Kassarjian and Thomas S. Robertson (eds), Handbook of Consumer Behavior: Theoretical and Empirical Constructs (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.)

Belk, Russell W. (1986), "ACR Presidential Address: Happy Thought," Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson (eds.) Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XIV, pp.14.

Costa, Janeen Arnold (1989), "Toward an Understanding of Social and World Systemic Processes in the Spread of Consumer Culture: An Anthropological Case Study," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XVII.

Dawson, Scott, Bruce Stern and Tom Gillpatrick (1989), "An Empirical Update and Extension of Patronage Behaviors Across the Social Class Hierarchy" in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XVII.

Fazio, Russell H. and Mark P. Zanna (1978), "Attitudinal Qualities Relating to the Strength of the Attitude-Behavior Relationship" Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 14, pp. 398 -408.

Hirschman, Elizabeth (1989), "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Saul Stienberg and Malcolm Forbes" in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XVII.

Kim, Chankon, Michel Laroche and Annamma Joy (1989), "An Empirical Study of the Effects of Ethnicity on Consumption Patterns in a BiCultural Environment" in James Muncy (ed.) Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XVII.

Statistical Abstract of the United States (1988) (Washington, D.C: U.S. Government Printing Office).

What Lies Ahead: Looking Toward the 1990s (n.d.) (Arlington, VA: United Way of America).



Alan R. Andreasen, California State University, Long Beach


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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