India's Changing Consumer Economy: a Cultural Perspective

ABSTRACT - As India moves from a production oriented mixed economy to a consumer society, there is a need to understand the forces behind this transition. In this paper, I examine a number of cultural and social themes accompanying the consumerist trends in India. Although India remains in the bottom half of the world economies, there is every reason to believe that this is not likely to last long, for many structural changes are evident including the transformation of the middle class which is at the vanguard of the consumer revolution.


Alladi Venkatesh (1994) ,"India's Changing Consumer Economy: a Cultural Perspective", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 323-328.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 323-328


Alladi Venkatesh, University of California, Irvine


As India moves from a production oriented mixed economy to a consumer society, there is a need to understand the forces behind this transition. In this paper, I examine a number of cultural and social themes accompanying the consumerist trends in India. Although India remains in the bottom half of the world economies, there is every reason to believe that this is not likely to last long, for many structural changes are evident including the transformation of the middle class which is at the vanguard of the consumer revolution.


This paper examines the changing consumer scene in India. Unlike some of the other Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Taiwan, where the "consumer revolution" has already forged ahead, or is in progress, India has been a slow starter in this push for change. However, recent trends suggest that a wave of consumerism is spreading to India also. This paper is based partly on my ethnographic field work conducted in Madras, a Southern Indian city of approximately five million people, and partly on a reading of secondary sources. This should be considered work in progress and, therefore, only some initial ideas are presented here. The reader is also referred to other related works undertaken by the author (Venkatesh l994/95a, l994/95b; Venkatesh and Swamy l994/95).

The general presentation in this paper will be thematic or topical rather than analytical, or theoretical. That is, the paper explores several themes instead of a unifying set of research questions or a single theory. Thus this is a thick description of Indian culture and India as a consumer society.


Several authors have pointed out the growing economic and consumer power of India. Many multinational corporations are beginning to invest in India. In this respect, India is no different from many other emerging consumer economies, whether they are in Eastern Europe, Asia or Latin America (Arnould l989, Belk 1988, Ger and Belk l990, Witkowski l993). This fact by itself does not give any special clue to the Indian scene unless one also examines what peculiar circumstances pertain to India. In other words, just because there may be similarities across different markets and cultures on certain dimensions, it does not mean that the content and patterns of the developments are the same. The paper will not provide a comparative analysis of India with other countries where similar developments may be taking place. My experience in India has taught me some important lessons. With the burgeoning of comparative studies, there may be a tendency among researchers to draw quick conclusions about cultures in which they may have only superficial familiarity. Any serious study of different cultures requires some deep knowledge gained through a proper study of the culture. See Arnould (l989) for a good example of writing with great cultural depth and understanding. This can be accomplished by a knowledge of the literature, the economic scene, and important cultural works that reflect the culture in some meaningful terms. A second lesson that I have learnt is that belonging to a particular cultural group does not immediately qualify one to claim scholarly expertise on that group. It certainly helps, no doubt. For example, many of the best works on India are written by non-Indian scholars who have devoted a great deal of time and effort over a period of several years. Their interpretations may be different from those of indigenous scholars but they are nevertheless well-informed and well-founded. Although I am an Indian by birth, I couldn't have gained the knowledge required for my work without doing field work in India for sufficiently long duration (seven months) and studying the relevant literature that provided me with important theoretical insights needed to interpret my empirical observations.


Consumerism is used here in the sense of the development of consumer oriented tendencies, marked by the availability of a variety of manufactured consumer goods and active advertising of the products in various media. Much research exists on the evolution of consumer societies in the West. Although there are some common characteristics in these societies, there are also many differences. The differences are based on cultural variations within each culture. This is the reason why I have proposed a new paradigm for the study of consumerism based on cross-cultural differences. I have labeled this "ethnoconsumerism" (Venkatesh l994a). Recent cross-cultural work has shown us how the same products may undergo different consumer usages and experiences based on particular cultural norms and practices. The case in point is the motor scooter (dy Pessler l992). The author describes in great detail the cultural context and experience of the motor scooter in three different cultures, Italy, England and India. The vehicle was marketed as an aesthetic object in Italy, it became a mark of rebellion among punk groups in England, and a family/personal utility transportation in India.

Part of the rising consumerism in India may be cast in the general context of global tendencies in consumerism. Recent work suggests that global diffusion of consumerism has been aided by the expansion of multinationals, the diffusion of telecommunication and satellite technologies, the general dissatisfaction with socialist political regimes and rising economic success in East Asian countries. Certainly, recent moves in India echo these developments.

What is happening in India may also be described in postmodern terms. Indian development does not follow standard chronological sequences observed in some Western societies. Models of social change do not follow any known patterns of change. Modernist methods found in the conventional social sciences have limited value when the objective is to capture change in non-Western cultures. This is because modernist thinking is regimented, very rationalistic and (pseudo)scientifically oriented. Postmodernist thinking accommodates non-linear thinking, and is open-minded when it comes to alternate or non-orthodox patterns. For example, some new technologies in India are diffusing faster than some old technologies. So, one cannot use the historical progression of the West as a model to study India. Indian consumer scene is replete with what might be misinterpreted by the modernist to be contradictions and the juxtaposition of opposites (and therefore, non-natural), but in reality they represent highly symbolic modes of behavior much of which must be understood within the Indian cultural framework.

The Discourse of Consumerism

In this category, we include the rhetoric of consumerism in everyday life. A large part of consumerism depends on advertising. A second aspect of consumerism discourse relates to the everyday patterns of behavior one expects to find in consumerism or commercialism. In India, there is a burgeoning of consumer related articles from branding to lifestyles to fashion in popular media. Newspapers have regular columns devoted to these matters. A number of magazines have appeared in the area of advertising, business, women's fashion that constantly discuss these issues. Much of Indian consumerism is directly dependent on what goes on in feature films and the movie industry. In a country, where the celebrities used to be politicians and public figures, they have been gradually replaced by movie actors and actresses, and business celebrities. Thus the discourse of consumerism can be seen in media, movies, and other entertainment forms.

Televisual Culture

The televisual culture in India is marked by strong consumerism and commercialism. Singhal and Rogers (l989) have already established how influential the television has become as a cultural and entertainment medium. The TV reaches the four corners of India as no other technology has done in the country's history. The next development within the context of television is the consumer advertising. Consumer advertising is burgeoning with the arrival of satellite TV, or more specifically, Star TV. A mix of domestic and multinational brands are advertised on Star TV as for example, Bajaj scooters, Stayfree sanitary napkins, Pepsi's Hostess Chips, McDowell Whiskey, just to name a few. The diffusion of consumerism is further accelerated by the sponsoring of sports, concerts and other entertainment for the public. The participation of industries in the cultural production system is on the increase. To provide a glimpse of the quantitative developments of advertising industry in India here is an excerpt from a recent article (Mulchandani l992).

"Advertising in the visual medium stands at Rupees 410 crore (US$ 130m)...This market in the next five years is expected to boom going upto Rupees 1500 crore (US$ 480m). Advertising in most developing economies stands at 1.5 to 2 per cent of the total GNP. In India it stands at .1 per cent...The potential for growth is tremendous. And money is flowing freely."

New Technologies / Consumer Electronics

Indian economy is also changing with the advent of new technologies. Ironically, the traditional technologies have not had much impact on Indian consumer. For example, very little of the recent changes in India can be attributed to the telephone or the automobile both of which have existed in India for a long time. These same technologies have had profound impact on Western industrial economies in the last five decades. The telephone system in India is highly underdeveloped and is run by the government. It is indeed the butt of many jokes and ridicule in India. In the case of automobiles, the impact has been minimal because very few Indians could afford the automobile.

On the other hand, there are some other technologies which have made a difference in Indian life, the motor scooter, the television and the VCR, and other household appliances like the refrigerator and the cooking stove. The motor scooter and the motor cycle have become ubiquitous because of their affordability and maneuverability. Many young families and individual professionals, both male and female, use motor scooters as personal transportation.

Much of the revolutionary changes in India can be attributed to the emergence of consumer technologies. The first impact of this is the access to electronic information, and entertainment. More specifically, it has an impact on tastes in music, popular or classical, exposure to various entertainment forms from different cultures. This is also a prelude to what one might call the development of a mass culture society. Another consequence of this is the development of the material culture.

India in the Global technological Context

Singhal and Rogers (l989) have initiated important research on the diffusion of television and VCRs in India with interesting implications for the popular-cultural practices in Indian communities.

Four developments have begun to change the general nature of inquiry relative to technology. First, the rise of postindustrialism and information technologies has sensitized researchers to a radically different technological environment which is not amenable to standard modes of inquiry that were originally developed to investigate material technology. Second, the modern technologies have begun to interconnect the world in unprecedented ways giving a new meaning to the world order. This interconnectedness seems to imply the emergence of a universal language of technology which could potentially bridge cultural differences. Third, the ascendance of Eastern countries such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan as the producers of modern technologies and the accompanying rapid diffusion of modern technologies within those countries, has prompted researchers to view technologies in a non-developmental, culture-specific framework. Thus for the first time in several centuries the sources of some new technologies are no longer located in the Western hemisphere. Finally, as Appadurai (l988) has pointed out in a different context, countries like India which are experiencing new levels of material success have begun to view their cultural practices in a self-conscious, self-reflective fashion without using Western yardsticks of what is acceptable and not acceptable.

These developments stand in contrast to the notions of modernization and Westernization which dominated earlier thinking on the subject (Srinivas l966) (see next section for a discussion of this issue). Previous research on India has dealt with issues of social change occurring due to modernization and Westernization. While modernization was used as a broad concept dealing with urbanization, social mobility and new media experiences, Westernization was identified with social and cultural patterns dealing with clothing, eating, language and the like. Although these are still valid concepts to analyze contemporary Indian ethos, they can only serve as a back drop.

Recent work by Singhal and Rogers (l989) is an interesting example of the approach that one may use in studying technological change. They have been studying the cultural shifts occurring within the Indian entertainment scene as a result of the arrival of TVs and VCRs. The technological diffusion of both TVs and VCRs has been rather astonishing and cannot be completely explained by economic variables such as disposable income and standard of living. In fact their diffusion pattern is unlike that of some other technologies such as telephone, refrigerator and the automobile. It seems more to do with the patterns of culture than mere economic processes.

One can of course venture an explanation to the Indians' adoption of modern consumer technologies in terms of class ideology and consumption styles as Appadurai (l988) attempted to show with respect to certain aspects of food consumption. But this is not plausible because the historical role that food has played in Indian culture has no parallel in the adoption of technologies. Nevertheless, it is evident from Appadurai's work and the work of more recent authors that one has to look for a contemporary theme to better explain the various cultural shifts. For example, Singer (l989) has insightfully characterized the current Indian cultural scene in terms of "the coexistence of the past and the present." This is in direct contrast to some earlier views which have tended to represent past and present in antagonistic and hierarchical terms. Thus modernization and Westernization were regarded as both superior and antagonistic to traditionalism. This view is beginning to fade because the current research on India seems to suggest that the Indians are shaping their culture in ways different from those of an earlier generation.

The City of MadrasBA Transformed Consumer Space

Any one familiar with Madras would immediately recognize it, in spite of its size (Pop: 5 million), as a sleepy town known for its regional (South Indian) cultural forms, temples and traditional norms and practices. Many Indians, and even foreign visitors, have long considered Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi as modern, Westernized, sophisticated cities leaving Madras in a more traditional mold. However, in recent years, we are witnessing some forces of change that are moving Madras closer to the other cities in its profile. Much of this seems to be occurring due to rapid a rise in consumerism. Here is an excerpt from an article (Khandekar l992):

"After all, what was Madras in the '70s...[I]t] was just a big idli [a local food item]. With its simply dressed people, its lack of red lipstick and bursting salwar-kameezes [a traditional north-Indian dress], its pathetic ignorance of sofas and carpets and kabaabs and lichees. It didn't even let girls wear jeans or cut their hair and it only splurged on books, music and sports. Madras was just a mandatory stop to catch up with country cousins...Until thirteen years later, and somewhat fed up with eveteasing [a local Delhi pastime], chhole-bhature [a local food item of Delhi], tapestried chairs, was time to go back to the big idli for a change...The shocks began...Indeed, Madras in the '90s is a stunning revelation. The same girl who dresses demurely for concerts will hop on her two-wheeler in jeans, salwar-kameez or even skirts...Continental and Mughlai restaurants run by the Shettys and Reddys [local restaurateurs]..." (Khandekar l992).

The significance of changing Madras is that it represents the transformation of the Indian urban scene which for the last five decades was limited to the three cities, Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi. The changing Madras is one more dramatic example of the changing consumer scene in India. As consumer researchers, we are not accustomed to examining the semiotics of geographical spaces to understand cultural transformations and meanings. Gottdeiner's (l985) work in this area is quite instructive, that is, to study consumerism one must also look at the symbolic meanings of spatial arrangements, which include not only consumers, but street signs, shopping environments and many other urban symbolisms and iconic forms.

Specific Factors That Account for Indian Consumerism

In sum, we have identified thirteen different factors to describe India as an emerging consumer society. While these factors are not to be considered exhaustive, they are representative of the movement of India towards a consumer oriented society. The factors are:

- Burgeoning middle class, its changing values and pent up consumer demand,

- Changing women's roles, their labor participation and the changing structure of the family,

- Rising consumer aspirations and expectations across many segments of the population,

- Increased consumer spending on luxury items aided by past savings and the introduction of the credit system,

- New types of shopping environments and outlets,

- Media proliferation, satellite and cable TV, and the thriving film industry,

- Media sophistication and familiarity with English language among media people and a wide segment of the population,

- High degree of consumer awareness and sophistication across different segments,

- The emergence of traveling Indian consumersCimmigrants in US and England , overseas workers, tourists, professionals and their exposure to world-wide consumer products,

- Strong domestic consumer goods manufacturing sector,

- Resurfacing of hedonistic cultural elements after centuries of dormant state,

- Entry of multi-national corporations into India, and

- The emergence of the rural consumer sector.

Now we shall address some key cultural and social themes marking recent developments in India.


Anybody studying India cannot take it on its face value. No amount of field work will yield important insights into India unless this is also accompanied by a cultural understanding which can only be obtained by a knowledge of the secondary sources. A society that has an uninterrupted history dating back to more than 3000 years has strong cultural and historical roots that cannot be easily unraveled but must be understood nevertheless. In this seamless web of complexity one has to pick a few important threads as a way to gaining meaning into the cultural presence of India.

One of the first things that we learn from India's socio-cultural history is the role of religion in the daily life of Indians. Hinduism, which is the primary religion of the country, is not an organized theological movement but represents a way of life that has evolved over many centuries. Hinduism represents a complex system of daily practices, rituals, beliefs, and symbolic patterns that overlap various aspects of social life. From cosmological doctrines which define how the physical and spiritual world is constituted to more mundane aspects of life, Hinduism provides the framework to understand all these matters. In spite of the key role played by religion, or perhaps because of it, there is no word for "religion' in the Indian languages. There is only a literal translation for the English word but it does not represent the same reality as the word implies in English. This is because the religious history of the West has no parallel in India. In the West, religion stands in opposition to science, to rationalist thought and in fact to modernity which is the defining philosophical and cultural position of the West in the last four hundred years. Science and religion are understood in oppositional terms, science representing the materiality of life and religion representing its spiritual dimension. Such a distinction is totally absent in Hinduism and in Indian culture where spiritualism and materialism are not considered opposites. In fact, Indians believe that the material world and the spiritual world belong to the same realm of experience. Indians do believe in the notion that life can be both spiritual and materialistic at the same time without any implied antagonism. Similarly, the concept of secularism, another Western idea, is totally absent within Indian cultural scheme except as a borrowed idea from the West. Indians either ignore secularism in their daily lives or wear it like a necessary garb in dealing with the West.

Indians believe that objects have symbolic meanings at three levels, aesthetic, functional and spiritual. In contrast, the Western notion of the objective world extends to its aesthetic and functional dimensions only. What is significant about the Indian experience is the spiritual coloring that is readily accorded to material objects. This is an important part of the Hindu cosmology and must be given serious consideration in the study of Indian consumer culture.

Indian culture must be understood in cosmological terms of how human life is constituted in terms of the universal order, and also in social everyday terms and as part of daily human experience. Indians are conscious of these two dimensions, the transcendental and the phenomenological, and are able to switch back and forth

An aspect of Indian cultural life has to deal with time. Time is neither historical nor chronological. Time is essentially cyclical. Similarly, birth and death are not considered two finite events but two stages in one's continuous existence. Thus the time before birth and after death have concrete meanings for many Indians. Because of this, the individual experiences take on different meanings since the Indian is prone to establish associations with people dead a gone.

The concept of self in Indian culture is not a well defined property of a single individual but something which extends and is linked to several others selves. Clearly, it is different from the Cartesian self which establishes the identity of the individual in the West.


Several authors have written on modernization, both as a process and an end-state (Bendix l967, Gusfield l967, Inkeles l969, Schnaiberg l970, Vajpeyi l982, Singer l989). Schnaiberg has studied the change process occurring through modernization, especially in the context of the family. Based on some previous studies, he notes that there is a hypothesized shift from an extended family system to a nuclear family system, consonant with individual mobility (social and geographic). He further postulated changes in the structure of production and consumption functions at home, declining importance of primary groups, greater dependence on impersonal resources (e.g. media) for information, and decline in religious involvement. Schnaiberg conducted a study of 803 Turkish households in the city of Ankara and evaluated them on six dimensions: media usage, extended family ties, declining religiosity, nuclear family role structure, environmental orientation, and production/consumption orientation. Since the study was conducted in a "developing" country, the findings are relevant to us. He found that all these dimensions were correlated with "modernism." At the theoretical level, it means that even in non-Western societies, the process of urbanization and modernization and the impact of new technologies will grossly parallel the developments in Western-industrialized societies. One should not forget that there could be exceptions to this. For example, in Iran, the recent history tells us that modernization over the years had the opposite reaction of pulling the country toward religious formalism.

In the Indian context, the early work of Srinivas (l966) is relevant to us. Srinivas has discussed social change in terms of Westernization, industrialization, urbanization and secularization. Westernization results in the introduction of new institutions (elections, newspapers etc.,) and modifications to old institutions. It introduces such things as Western technology, clothing and eating practices, scientific and rationalistic view points. Modernization is related to Westernization. It is a general term that includes Westernization, industrialization, and secularization. Countries may prefer the term "modernization" to Westernization because it does not have the negative connotation of having to give up what is good within the indigenous culture. Vajpeyi's research (l982) explored the attitudes, opinions, perceptions and beliefs of the Indian elites toward modernization. His findings show that the Indian elites support the idea of social change through modernized developments as long as the traditional value system is not negatively impacted. This view is also confirmed by Singer (l989). In many non-Western societies modernization has become a value-laden term, because its main challenge lies in the discovery of relevant ideology. The urge for modernity is commingled with the urge for identity. In India, the dominant cultural values are hierarchy, holism, continuity and transcendentalism. There is a fundamental religio-social outlook where religion and personal life are neither separate nor antagonistic.

Rural versus Urban Economic Structure

In terms of development theory, India has been regarded as an agricultural economy which is becoming rapidly industrialized. This also means that a large percentage of Indian population lives in rural sector as opposed to urban centers. Currently, the division between rural and urban population distribution is 70% to 30%. While this reveals a large rural bias, it however points to a dramatic shift to greater urbanism because in 1960 the distribution was 85% and 15%. Urban industry, which was barely existent thirty years ago, generates 40% of the national output. While the rural labor force still exists based on historically constructed caste lines as non-competing groups, the structure of the urban labor force is becoming more cosmopolitan. Thus what used to be a caste-based labor force is slowly giving way to class-based one. Of course, even in urban areas, the transformation is not total and is limited to white collar jobs. Lower income people usually belong to lower castes in the caste hierarchy with less education and lower skill levels. It is only at the middle range that things are changing dramatically.


India is certainly witnessing some of the most significant changes in the economic and social status of women in the urban areas and in the nature of the household structure. For the first time we are able to see trends that transcend the caste hierarchy, to a more class based system. This means that caste hierarchy is disappearing among the upper strata of society. This does not however mean that caste differences are themselves disappearing. In other words, economic prosperity has touched people belonging to different castes, and educational levels are increasing along similar lines. Many women from different castes do attend colleges and universities, and are gainfully employed. This has given them both economic and social status. Many young women, in contrast to what had happened in the yester years, are choosing their marriage partners either directly or through some sort of consensus with their parents. Even though many marriages today are still arranged, men and women exercise equal choice in the decision. The decision remains a family decision more by consensus rather than by an imposition from the parents.

The attitudes of women with respect to marriage, career, economic status, are undergoing so many changes that there seem to be intra-generation differences among women within narrow age categories. By that I mean that it is not merely a difference between a parent and a daughter that one expects to find here, but differences among groups of younger women within narrow range of age categories. Thus, the views and modes of behavior of a thirty year old woman in establishing her own identity, may be radically different from those of a twenty five year old, and the view of a twenty five year old may be different from a twenty year old and so on down to younger age groups. These changes are extremely vibrant and turbulent at the same time.

The joint family system is certainly a major structural arrangement that ensures male domination within the household through traditional gender-based household patterns of behavior. More and more, the joint family system in India is giving way to a nuclear family system. When we combine this shift to nuclear family system with the emergence of career roles for women and their ability to generate independent income for the family, there is no question that women's role in household management and decision making is getting stronger. It does not necessarily mean that the nuclear family system can by itself cause these changes to occur, but it is one of the facilitating factors. The other factors are, career opportunities for women, their income generating power, the presence of the elderly in the household or in close physical proximity, the family's adherence or non-adherence to traditional norms of behavior, and attitudes toward changes that have the potential to alienate the families from traditional patterns causing anxieties in daily lives. Add to this the attitudes of friends and families that are part of the social network. If the attitudes within the social network are progressive (or conservative), the attitude of the families will also be progressive (or conservative). One cannot, therefore, minimize the social interaction effect in these matters.

In a number of cases, in spite of the structural changes, the traditional norms are so strong that both men and women closely adhere to the significations and the symbolic processes inherent in the traditional family system. In other words, even though the joint family system as an empirical reality might be disappearing, family values are still cherished and many old family norms are observed. The families feel that there is a lot that the traditional family patterns offer that need to be preserved. For example, the grand parent-grand child relationship is an absolute necessity in many families. In fact, it is the modification of the joint family behavioral norms and not their total abandonment that has been welcomed both by older grand parents and younger parents, and their children. Many husbands are very pleased and relieved that their wives are working, are pursuing jobs if not careers, generating income for the families, and finding happiness in both domestic as well as outside involvement. In this category of people, it is almost impossible to find young men (or women) wanting to marry young women (or men) who are not currently employed, or by virtue of their qualifications not easily employable. Men are not looking for women who would just tend the home, nor women are looking for men who would be economic liabilities. Both men and women seem to prefer life partners with professional qualifications (a doctor, or an accountant, or an MBA etc.,). Both seem to be convinced that they are entering the marriage as nothing but equal partners. Many housewives in their forties or even older feel a vicarious pleasure in seeing their daughters go to college and develop career aspirations denied to them when they were young. They also feel that female children are no longer a burden in this changing society, females as wage earners can only contribute to the welfare of the family. Within the family context, the attitudes toward women are changing, this even from older women and men from an earlier generation, for they suddenly see the world opening up to a part of their own flesh and blood. In this sense, there is no need to discriminate between a daughter and a son and worry about the liminality of the daughter's' status.

What I have seen among the urban middle class people is that the oppressive element of the Indian family seems to have been taken out and a more healthy version of it seems to have been put in its place. The preservation of the family system at any cost seems to be the motivation for these strategies. Much of this arises from what they learn about the West (whether true or not) that families are breaking apart, older parents are being sent away to the purgatory of nursing homes, detached from their families when there is the utmost need for people to be together. As Indians modernize (whatever the term means) or seem to approximate Western oriented independent behavior, it is important to remind ourselves that the individualistic philosophy of the West is not totally embraced by Indians. If I were to describe how the individualist and collectivist principles are being played out in contemporary modern India, I have to say that collectivism is still the preferred model with various adjustments to individual desires. This principle is the cardinal principle of the difference between India and the West and the indications are that it will remain so even as India is changing.


In conclusion some salient aspects of India that are both challenging and interesting are described briefly in the following:

a) India is multilingual, that is, it has 16 major languages and ten non-comparable scripts. For consumer researchers and practitioners, multi-lingualism presents some challenging issues of translation, semantic representation in advertising and package design. Even for consumers, the semantic differences create problems of meaning and comprehension.

b) India is multi-cultural. (Here, following Maus, an Indianist himself, we have to emphasize that India is culturally diverse but not culturally heterogeneous (Dumont l986, p. xiv)). This means that various practices relating to food, clothing, the use of symbolic forms, and rituals have regional as well sub-cultural variations, while they also have many common threads both at the religio-social and semantic levels.

c) Indian society is stratified hierarchically and laterally on the basis of caste. Caste is a social category that is unique to India and cannot be compared to race or class while some of its features may have some resemblance to both of them (Beteille l991).

d) India is multi-religious. The majority (82%) are Hindus, followed by Muslims (12%), and Christians (4%). The rest include Sikhs, Budhists and Parsis. Religious strife in India has been historically confined to Hindus and Muslims although the recent conflicts involving Sikhs have widened its scope. Although religious symbols are not frequently used, it is not uncommon to find them in the ads.

e) India is witnessing some of the most significant changes in the economic and social status of women. The attitudes of women with respect to marriage, career, and their roles in the family and society are undergoing radical changes and there is considerable literature describing these changes (Liddle and Joshi l986, Sharma l986, Wadley l977). The changing roles of women is accompanied by similar changes in the family structure and household systems (Saradamoni l992).

f) The clash between traditionalism and modernism, or the blending of the two, is a perennial theme that one discovers while studying India, and is played out in different ways depending on the social and historical contexts. From an etic point of view, one can find Indians who are traditional, or modern, or progressive, or even Westernized, or some combination thereof (Chakraborty l991, Srinivas l966). From an emic point of view, similar labels are used by Indians to describe themselves, although the term "Westernized" seems the least favored (based on personal interviews). Indians use a combination of this terminology, to represent the notion that on some aspects of their lives, they are modern, while on some other aspects, they are quite traditional. Among many middle-class Indians this ontological tension exists regardless of age or gender, signifying the fear of a possible loss of cultural identity in moving away from their imagined notions of Indianness.

h) In terms of the contemporary power structure based on political, social and economic means, but leaving the caste aside for a moment, we describe India as a multi-layered society. The layer significant for our study includes a variety of groups, the salaried middle class, professionals (lawyers, doctors, business managers, some bureaucrats, etc.,), small entrepreneurs, educationists and the like. It is this layer that is most significant from the point of view of social change. The changing values within the Indian context that are having an impact on the rest of the society seem to find their most resonance in this class of people. People in this category seem to be very ambitious, work very hard, and want to improve their financial condition. We regard this category of people most important for studying the changing consumer culture.


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Venkatesh, Alladi (l994/95a - Forthcoming) "Ethnoconsumer-ism: A New Paradigm for the Study of Cross-Cultural Consumer Behavior," in Janeen Costa and Gary Bamossy (eds.) Marketing in a Multicultural World: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Identity," SAGE Publications.

Venkatesh, Alladi (l994/95b - Forthcoming) "Gender Identity in the Indian Context: A Socio-Cultural Construction of the Female Consumer," in Janeen Arnold Costa ed. Gender and Consumer Behavior, SAGE Publications.

Venkatesh, Alladi and Suguna Swamy (l994/95 - Forthcoming), "India as an Emerging Consumer Society: A Cultural Analysis," in R.Belk, G.Ger, and C.Schultz eds., Consumption in Marketizing Economies (), JAI Press.

Witkowski, Terrence (l993), "The Polish Consumer in Transition," L. McAlister and M.L.Rothschild eds. Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 20, 13-17.



Alladi Venkatesh, University of California, Irvine


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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