Self-Fashioning Oneself Cross-Culturally: Consumption As the Determined and the Determining


Stephen J. Gould and Robert N. Stinerock (1992) ,"Self-Fashioning Oneself Cross-Culturally: Consumption As the Determined and the Determining", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 857-860.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 857-860


Stephen J. Gould, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Robert N. Stinerock, Fairleigh Dickinson University

What processes rather than essences are involved in present experiences of cultural identity? What does it mean to write as a Palestinian? As an American? As a Papua-New Guinean? As a European? From what discrete sets of cultural resources does any modern writer construct his or her discourse? To what world audience (and in what language) are these discourses most generally addressed? (Clifford 1988, p. 275-276).

Ethnographic self-fashioning (Clifford 1988) is a process which involves "increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulatable, artful process" (Greenblatt 1980, p. 2). In this process, an individual assumes the authority to control and purposely determine his/her own identity. This involves the linking of "cultural artifacts" drawn from discrepant worlds in ways that reflect the individual's own subjective experience (Clifford 1988). There are numerous well-known examples of such self-conscious bridging of cultures, especially in anthropology (e.g. Malinowski) and literature (e.g. Joseph Conrad). Such ethnographic self-fashioning also blends with today's postmodernist pastiche of emerging world cultural themes, made possible by both the mass and also the more segmented communications of the global village which have presented us with a montage of ever shifting and seemingly random images and their amalgams of ever new forms (e.g. world music). It also represents a process by which the self interacts with the extended self (Belk 1988) in the individual's self-determined psychodynamic development and also by which the self can adapt and integrate cross-cultural phenomena, such as occurs when one moves from one culture to another (Mehta and Belk 1991). Such a process situates the extended self in what one takes as one's given culture(s), defines its limits and range of activity, and helps to constitute what we might call one's personalized self-culture (cf. Obeyesekere 1981 on personal-private symbols versus public ones). In very practical or praxis terms (Gould 1991a), consumers can very much take an active role in designing their total consumption experience (akin to self-actualization) by deciding what cultural artifacts to take in or expose themselves to or avoid. They may have very definite goals in this regard (e.g. consumers who want to become more knowledgeable about classical music will attend concerts, read books toward that end, etc.) or they may have more 'goalless goals' defined in terms of 'experience and growth' though they are never certain where these will take them.

Against this backdrop, we as the Caucasian-American, middle class authors of this paper represent two colleagues who discovered that we have had parallel experiences in adapting Asian cultural beliefs and mores into our lives, while retaining our Western residences, livelihoods, and cultural roots. Our consumption represents blends of the two cultures. We might characterize the process in the following terms: "When we're with Westerners, we feel Asian, but when we are with Asians, we feel Western." This pattern takes strange twists, however, in that many Asians have become so Westernized at least in our eyes that we feel more "Asian" in some respects than many 'real' Asians seem to be. Of course what it means to be Asian or Oriental is really problematic as a form of social construction and for further thought on this, see for example, Said (1978) and Clifford (1988). Here, we are concerned with our own phenomenological perceptions as individual consumers.

Consumption as an aspect of ethnographic self-fashioning plays a role in determining the directions we go as well as representing activities which are determined by the direction we have chosen. In the following, each of us gives an account of his personal self-fashioning experiences and at the end we draw some conclusions, based on these, for future developments in consumer research.


When I was about seventeen, I made a kind of life-determining pledge to myself that I was going to realize as much about the world as possible in both a spiritual and intellectual sense. Needless to say, how I have framed that self-pledge over the last 27 years or so has changed enormously and continues to do so today. Perhaps most seminal in my ultimate life-course was the displacement and dislocation of the Sixties. For those of you who grew up about then, you will quite possibly have shared a similar displacement of our concepts of a 'normal existence' into wild, unknown, disorienting and sometimes frightening worlds involving a generally nomadic existence of disruption, disquiet, 'free love', drugs and self-exploration. My own self-explorations led me not only into these areas but also into such things as hypnosis, meditation and Eastern philosophy, and European film. In fact, I have as a practice tried things from just about anywhere if I felt something stimulating about it. I came to regard the ordinary culture in which I had been raised as somehow constituting a lack which could only be filled elsewhere. For instance, to this day, although I have fought with myself over it, I remain biased in favor of foreign movies, especially European and Japanese. I think I know what the American experience is like and therefore don't need to be told about it -- nonetheless I see more U.S. films anyway because I live here and some are of course good.

But it is my experience with Asian culture which has transformed me even more into something different than I could have ever conceived or different than most other people of my own culture even recognize. This long experience of over twenty years has transformed the very nature of my consumption. On one level, I have explored products and services derived from Asia so that I have blended the use of Asian herbs and medicines, foods, books, ritual objects, etc. into my life. At this level, I have observed that people getting involved in Asian culture will often mark that involvement with the adoption of Asian customs of consumption -- a form of symbolic self-completion usually performed by someone less secure in a role than someone more secure in it (Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982). This often marks an initial stage which later becomes more consonant with a combination of East and West. I must observe that I was combining from the beginning. For example, I have had no problem with being treated by traditional medical practitioners from India, Tibet or China nor do I have a problem being treated by modern Western allopathic doctors. It all depends on the circumstances but for some people, I have observed that such an openness extends beyond their belief system.

At a deeper level beyond the superficial parrotting of Asian life style which I never really went too far with anyway, I have experienced a complete transformation of how I experience consumption and other aspects of life such as sex (Gould 1991b). Consumption has taken on a major role in my life praxis of self-fashioning a path of growth and balance. I have already recounted a portion of this in my paper on perceived vital energy in which I frame my consumption activities in terms of a general Asian approach to energy (Gould 1991a). Thus while some of my external forms of consumption activities have been visibly changed, much more important is how I consume in everyday circumstances some of the same things we all consume but with a different perspective. In this sense, I live in a visionary world in which all ordinary consumption activities help constitute and are inhabited by an extraordinary poetic beauty and grace. This vision I attribute to my internalization of various Asian views and my direct experience with 'high' practitioners of Asian methods and philosophies, especially Tibetan.

Thus, consumption for me is not a mundane matter of consuming to exist but instead is a revelatory activity in which my energy and consciousness are manifested as existence itself. This is not to glorify consumption since I regard other aspects of life to be more exalted but it is also to say that exaltation can emerge anytime, anywhere. At the same time, I make consumption choices with exaltation in my mind -- in others words, I both actively intend to create such exaltation out of my experience yet leave room for it to happen without any intended action on my part except to watch and experience it. For example, I may try a new food because I feel it has a certain power or appeal and I want to experience that. Yet, I might also have some passionate experience with something I eat everyday. This for me is the self-fashioning experience brought about by my continuing and insistent exposure to Asian culture which magnifies the ordinary. Indeed, it has been a major research project of mine to explore the dimensions of consumption experience in East-West terms (Gould 1991a,b,c) to enable us to emerge from the "Occidental enclosure" which shields us not only from the East but much of the rest of the world (Barthes 1988). I might add that this might be construed as deconstructing and rephenomenologizing the 'modern/post-modern project' which disembowels traditional cultures and serves their sinews up as part of the hyperreality of Western culture (Baudrillard 1983). The real penetration of other cultures, if it is at all possible, and if it is also possible to speak of a culture as an existing thing at all, must be at much deeper level than hyperreal social construction will allow.


One particularly memorable and invigorating consumption experience -- an Asian trip during December 1989 to January 1990 -- led me to an entirely new pattern of subsequent consumption experiences. The decision to make such a trip was based on simple curiosity about the East as well as a life-long love of international travel. I had spent part of my life living overseas but never in the East -- several years in various parts of Europe, somewhat less time in parts of Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean. I had also had many Asian friends and acquaintances during all periods of my life, most notably Chinese during my grade and secondary school years, and Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis during my college and graduate school years. Nonetheless, until I decided to make my initial foray into Asia, the West was all I knew directly; the East I only knew through friends, schoolmates, television, films, foods and a smattering of Eastern art, literature and music.

None of this prepared me for what I found in India. Indeed I learned that simply knowing a lot of Asians in New York City in no way prepared me for what I experienced. The impact was immediate, powerful and far-reaching. It occurred on at least three levels which can be seen in their effect on my consumption to this day: (1) physical, (2) mental and (3) spiritual.

Physically, I now practice hatha yoga which is characterized by exercise techniques with the goal of physical relaxation and mental calm. Also, my interest in Asian food has extended far beyond my having an occasional meal in Asian restaurants. For example, I regularly entertain groups of friends in my home by cooking Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and Sri Lankan cuisines. This new interest culminated this year by my taking an extensive course in Indian cooking. Nearly half of all meals I prepare for myself include some type of Asian cuisine. Moreover, I returned to Asia the following year and I have plans for more extensive Asian travel (at this writing), including not only India where I concentrated before, but also Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Mentally, my new consumption pattern is represented by my strong interests in Asian art, literature, and music. In addition, I have been watching television programs, seeing films and reading publications targeted to Asian-Americans. I also joined the Asia Society of New York and have taken a course in Hindi.

Finally, and most important to me in a personal sense, my new consumption pattern has manifested itself at a spiritual level as well. What started as merely an intellectual interest in Eastern philosophies and religions has inevitably evolved into something more deeply important in a spiritual sense. Indeed, I have been a struggling but enthusiastic student of meditation and raja yoga for nearly a year and a half.

Does all this mean that I have repudiated the more materialistic West of which I am a product. Certainly not. Even if I could do so, I have no desire to turn away from my formative culture. Even though I now see the West with a keener sense of perspective than I did before my travels to Asia and even though I now see my culture in a kind of "warts and all" light, I am, and always will be, essentially Western.

What all this does mean, however, is that I can now pick and choose my consumption experiences in a way I never could before and that I am now faced with choices which are the best of the West and the best of the East. For example, while the nature of and motivation behind many of my consumption experiences have changed, I still choose to live in the West (in Manhattan, where I have lived most of my life), work there (as a business school professor in New Jersey), and recreate there (spending part of each year in such places as Europe, Texas and Minnesota). Thus, I now have more choices and I make these choices in a more informed manner than I did before.

In the broadest sense, my consumption experience of traveling East turned out to be deeply and personally liberating and that I now have more interesting choices as a consumer represents only one change in my life. There are several others, not the least of which is my becoming aware of all the Western cultural biases I have been carrying all my life. Ironically, perhaps, I required a number of trips to the East to begin to learn what it even means to be Western. Happily, this awareness has resulted in a reduction in the initial tension I felt between my native Western side and my newly emerging Eastern persona. In fact, I feel no sense of dislocation but instead I feel more like a citizen of the world than merely a citizen of New York, the United States or even the West.


While the two of us share many similarities in our approach to life and consumption, we have arrived there by different paths and continue on them as well. For example, one of us (Bob) took a trip to India and based on that intense experience underwent a psycho-spiritual transformation which led to his becoming involved in Indian spirituality upon returning to the states. On the other hand, the other of us (Steve) got involved in Tibetan spirituality in the U.S. and marked that some years after his initial involvement by a visit to India (where Tibetan refugees live). In Bob's case, the consumption experience served as a determinant of new unforeseen patterns of self-fashioning and led to a major and unexpected transformation which he has subsequently followed with continued self-fashioning. In Steve's case, consumption experience in the form of an Indian trip was determined by his already ongoing pattern of self-fashioning.

Beyond these experiences, we two in common have engaged in a whole host of self-fashioning consumption 'growth' experiences such as eating and cooking macrobiotic food and also Indian food with hot spices, using Asian herbs such as Ginseng, collecting Asian art objects, reading Asian books, seeing Asian movies, listening to their music, and studying and practicing their psychotechnologies (Roberts 1989), such as yoga and meditation. Moreover, our own experience is not confined to one or two countries but extends to other East Asian countries, such as China, Korea and Japan as well as European. Beyond that, it seems to have made us open to other 'traditional' cultures such as Native American, Native Hawaiian, Balinese etc. in search of the 'primordial wisdom of the primitive. Yet again each of us has had our particular idiographic experiences which have made us differ widely in many aspects. In any case, our view of consumption in our own society has changed tremendously (cf. Gould 1991a). For example, an occasion of celebration, dancing and drinking etc. whether at a bar or a party now seems to take on shamanistic energies and informs and transforms the event semioticly into aspects and levels of meaning beyond what is ordinarily conceived. Thus, even our Western consumption has changed existentially, connotatively, and in purpose - a sort of Nietzschean transvaluation of our experience. While there may seem to be some conflicts and even some alienation between our Western and Eastern minds, our consumption necessarily will always be some amalgam of the values, beliefs and mores of the two cultures although the nature of the amalgam will always be evolving.


The following comprise the summary and interrelated themes of our experience in which cross-cultural consumption on the part of the individual plays a large self-fashioning role:

(1) the enhancement of identity formation and enrichment, especially as that relates to one's cultural identity,

(2) the formation of a transformed world-view which provides one with a radically different perspective than one had before,

(3) the personalization of cross-cultural phenomena in relating and mixing various cultural symbols for oneself,

(4) the marking of the encounter with otherness (i.e. foreign cultures) [Bar 1979], including many aspects of consumption from food to film,_

(5) the expansion of the construction of one's personalized self-culture.

Future research should aim at discovering the meanings of goods involved in self-fashioning and at penetrating the mysteries of consumers' overdetermined behavior which involves the nexus of cultural and psychodynamic phenomena (Devereux 1980) in the construction of their personalized self-cultures. This may involve cross-cultural aspects of consumer self-fashioning as we emphasized here but may involve many other aspects as well, among which are included: (1) sexual self-fashioning through the use of goods to enhance or fulfill sexual activities in defining one's sexual identity, (2) gender self-fashioning through taking on more or less qualities associated with a particular gender identity, (3) lifestyle self-fashioning in seeking to mold oneself as a representative of a particular lifestyle, and (4) self-actualizing self-fashioning in whatever way any particular consumer views it for him or herself. The idea of self-fashioning requires us to shift our focus to more holistic and phenomenological notions of consumption so that we can investigate at the deepest possible levels how consumers actively and consciously personalize their cultural environment, embody it, and transform it to suit themselves.


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Stephen J. Gould, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Robert N. Stinerock, Fairleigh Dickinson University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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