New Perspectives For Self-Research


Beth Ann Walker (1992) ,"New Perspectives For Self-Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 664-665.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 664-665


Beth Ann Walker, Arizona State University

The concept of self has fascinated social scientists for centuries. Some of social sciences most important philosophers, psychologists and social psychologists, clinicians, anthropologists, sociologists and symbolic interactionists have placed self squarely in the center of their theories of human behavior. Although self-research in marketing is more recent, interest in self has been equally pervasive, beginning with "motivation research" in the 1950's, followed by self-concept research in the 1960's and 1970's (cf. Sirgy 1982), and continuing today with a more anthropological and sociological perspective emphasizing the role of symbolic consumer behavior in the maintenance and construction of the self (Belk 1988; Mehta and Belk 1991; Schouten 1991). This perspective has been most useful, revealing a complex and powerful self that is implicated in all aspects of consumer's lives. However, given the richness and complexity of the self-construct, multiple perspectives and visions of self are needed to address the multitude of research issues that have intrigued self-researchers for decades. Only by combining and integrating frameworks and perspectives can one more fully understand self as it relates to consumer behavior.

The purpose of this special session is to bring together a group of researchers with distinct and unique "visions" of self that may serve as a catalyst for future self-research. The session will familiarize the audience with alternative theoretical perspectives that can be used to investigate the self. New research issues and questions not previously addressed in the consumer behavior literature are identified and include understanding the core or authentic self, the relationship between self, affect and emotions, motivation, and decision-making, the representation of self in memory, and finally how self is constructed and measured. Most importantly, however, is the session's objective is to stimulate creative thinking and research on self from these alternative points of view.

Conceptualizing the Self from a Cognitive Structure Perspective

The session begins with Beth Walker's presentation of her theoretical conceptualization of self from a cognitive structure perspective.

Much of the recent work on self describes how symbolic consumer behaviors are used to maintain and construct the self, without clearly conceptualizing or defining the concept. In this presentation, the author addresses the issue "what is self?" by discussing how self may be represented in memory. The proposed framework, which integrates the self, motivation, and situation literatures, details how self and self/product relationships may be stored or represented in memory.

Specifically, self is conceptualized as a multifaceted cognitive-affective structure which contains, among other beliefs, consumer's representations of motives, goals, hopes and desires which are hierarchically organized at different levels of abstraction. Products and services may be linked to important self-goals through means-end structures. Once activated, self and self/product structures have motivational properties that direct affective and cognitive processes and overt behavior. In contrast to the early self-concept research (Sirgy 1982), this framework emphasizes the dynamic, flexible and goal-directed aspects of the self. Implications for understanding consumer's affect and emotion, information processing, and felt involvement and ideas for future research are then discussed.

This is Really Me! The Consumer's Search for the Authentic Self

Linda Price presents her work with Walker which focuses on consumer's sense of their core or authentic self.

The assumption that there is a "real self" that is more than a composite product of our performances, is among our most cherished beliefs. As participants in a culture that privileges the authentic self, but demands rehearsed and planned role performances, we value experiences, interactions, and possessions that lead us to exclaim "this is really me!" While answering the philosophical question of whether there is a "real" self is difficult, the more tractable goal is understanding the authentic self as conceived by the person, and the relationship between this self, experience and possessions in a social world.

In this presentation, Price presents the results of a phenomenologically based investigation of the meaning of "really me" to consumers from their own, everyday lived experiences. While one group of subjects provided descriptions of their most recent "really me" purchases and possessions, a second group provided descriptions of a "really me", "impulse" and "high involvement" purchases. For both groups, minimally structured interviews combined with more structured scales of affect, experience characteristics, and memory of experience were used to collect the data.

The results illustrate that the interrelationships between these different "really me" experiences and purchase experiences form an important nexus of meanings through which a personal sense of self emerges. The results also identify structural relations between meanings of authenticity and between types of purchase, possession, and consumption experiences. Interesting relationship between the incidence of affective content of "really me" experiences and measures of self-complexity are also discussed. Finally, suggestions are made for future investigations of the authentic self.

Narrative Constructions of the Self

Using narrative theory as their theoretical foundation, John Howard and Jerry Olson present their view of how self is represented and actively constructed as consumers relate continually evolving stores that represent their life experiences.

Narrative is the basic mode of representing experience that people use to construct meaningful interpretations of the events in their lives (Bruner 1986). The authors conceptualize self as a complex narrative, composed of many interrelated stories which evolves as the narratives change over time. Narrative, then, is used to create and represent self-meaning. Howard and Olson elaborate and establish this position by drawing on several relevant literatures concerning narrative theory and its many applications.

First, they describe the narrative mode of thought and distinguish it from other forms of representation and communication such as logical argument and description, and illustrate how self is constructed by creating narrative representations of events in one's life. People who possess a well-developed self narrative can easily travel backward and forward in time, telling stories about who and what they are, were, and hope to become. Next, the advantages of a narrative perspective for understanding self are discussed, and implications of a narrative construction of self for consumer research illuminated. Since everyone continually constructs self narratives that reflect the self, narratives can also be used to measure aspects of self. The authors propose that such self-stories could be more revealing of self than more common methods such as self-ratings of traits in structured questionnaires.

The Self, the Whole Self, and Nothing but the Self: Toward New Theory in Consumer Behavior

John Schouten concludes the session by presenting his vision of self as the unifying construct which may serve as the foundation for integrating theory and research on emotion and cognition.

One of the earliest conceptualizations of the self comes from Plato who defined it as the experiential center of all human thought, feeling and action (Bostock 1986). In other words, the individual self not only performs the functions of cognition, affect, and conation, it also interprets the results of those activities in a holistic fashion, thus giving meaning to the world and to its own place therein (Allport 1943). Furthermore, the self employs the same functions reflexively to understand the inner world. The resulting self-concept has a strong cognitive component consisting of multiple schemas, as well as an affective one which arises from evaluation of self-schemas to the expectations of self and others.

After presenting his vision of self as an integrating framework, Schouten concludes his presentation by highlighting areas for future research, and stressing the need for an integrative approach to further research and theory development.

In sum, this special session introduces several alternative visions of self to the consumer behavior discipline, with concrete suggestions for future research with the hope of stimulating creative thinking and research on the emerging topic of self.


Allport, Gordon W. (1943), Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality, New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

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

Bostock, David (1986), Plato's Phaedo, New York: Oxford University Press.

Bruner, Jerome (1986), Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mehta, Raj and Russell Belk (1991), "Artifacts, Identity and Transition: Favorite Possessions of Indians and Indian Immigrants to the United States," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March), 398-411.

Schouten, John W. (1991), "Selves in Transition: Symbolic Consumption in Personal Rites of Passage and Identity Reconstruction," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March), 412-425.



Beth Ann Walker, Arizona State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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