Immigrant Consumers and Community Bonds: Fantasies, Realities, and the Transition of Self-Identity

ABSTRACT - Recent research in the Journal of Consumer Research has investigated the impact of immigration on consumer behavior. This study extends previous work through long interviews with recently arrived immigrants who came to the United States to join relatives. Our focus is on their "consumption" images of the U.S. and the sources of these images as well as the roles previous and new possessions play in the development of their post-immigration identities. Three themes serve to summarize our findings.


Ronald Paul Hill and Liz Somin (1996) ,"Immigrant Consumers and Community Bonds: Fantasies, Realities, and the Transition of Self-Identity", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 206-208.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 206-208


Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University

Liz Somin, Villanova University


Recent research in the Journal of Consumer Research has investigated the impact of immigration on consumer behavior. This study extends previous work through long interviews with recently arrived immigrants who came to the United States to join relatives. Our focus is on their "consumption" images of the U.S. and the sources of these images as well as the roles previous and new possessions play in the development of their post-immigration identities. Three themes serve to summarize our findings.


He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles.

Hector St. John de Crevecouer, 1782

The issue of immigration has, once again, captured the attention of the United States population. Popular press reports show that Americans are intolerant of the flow of people into this country regardless of their status. As Yang (1995, p. 35) states: "Americans are fed up not only with illegal immigrants but with legal ones, too....They [reformers] want to cut down on the number of newcomers to the U.S. on family-unification visas by creating a point system that measures applicants' potential for contributing to the economy. The criteria: education, job skills, and English-language abilities." Yet, as the Atlantic Monthly (Connelly and Kennedy 1994) notes, whether this concern has "realistic" or racist origins is inconsequential; as the population continues to rise in countries steeped in poverty and political repression, the poor of these regions will continue to migrate to the so-called "western paradise."

Consistent with recent research by Penaloza (1994), this study extends previous work through long interviews with recently-arrived immigrants who came to the United States in order to join relatives. We explore their images of this country compared to their home countries before their arrival, with an emphasis on material images (e.g., houses, cars, clothing, foods, etc.) and their sources (e.g., TV, movies, music, etc.). We then examine the possessions brought to this country in their relocation and their meanings within the context of their previous and new identities. Finally, we investigate the possessions they have acquired since their arrival, and focus our attention on the ones that remind them of home as well as those that were purchased for the first time.

The findings from this study can be summarized in three themes: 1) Material fantasies versus material realities among these immigrants as well as changing expectations and their sources; 2) The role of possessions in the maintenance of aspects of the pre-immigration self; and 3) The role of possessions in the transformation of the post-immigration self.


Once the general thesis of this investigation was established, an interviewers' guide was developed. This guide, presented in the Table, was designed to determine the informants' backgrounds, reasons for immigrating, and images of our consumer culture as well as the importance of possessions to them. Please see the Table for more details.

In order to locate newly arrived immigrants, we contacted the Philadelphia office of the Department of Immigration and Naturalization. Individuals in this office suggested we contact one of the numerous religious-affiliated groups in our community established to provide assistance to newly arrived immigrants. The Incarnate Heart of Mary (IHM) Literacy Center in Philadelphia was particularly accommodating, and we conducted long interviews with ten adult students from Mexico, South Vietnam, Columbia, Pakistan, El Salvador, Laos, Haiti, and Ecuador.

Interviews were conducted on a voluntary basis, with staff support to help us find willing informants. Interviews were conducted in English, but informants were encouraged to respond in their native languages if they preferred. In these circumstances, a translator from the center was utilized to explain the questions as well as the responses. Because of the concerns of our informants, all recordings of the interviews were destroyed after transcription and no attempt was made to associate information with informants' real names.


The first set of questions asked informants' their rationales for coming to the U.S. While the simple answer was to reunite with their loved ones who preceded them here, the underlying reasons were more complex. Primarily, they can be categorized as "freedom" and "opportunity." The former implicates many of the dominant institutions in any society, the latter involves the economic system. Thus, freedom from persecution was part of the motivation for these individuals:

One woman from Laos simply stated "Because my country is a communist."

A Pakistani woman explained "Pakistan hard. My religion Jesus Christ. Difficult Pakistan. Murder."

Opportunity, on the other hand, was for education, especially for children (a Vietnamese woman stated "My family come here children ah go to school. I think America very good."), or for economic advancement here or in their home countries (a Mexican man responded "Economic conditions are fair in Mexico, and only reason when I went to work in computers I was told on several occasions that if I was bilingual the opportunities for getting a job were much greater.").

The next set of questions examined their images of the U.S. as well as their lives here following immigration. While all believed that their lives would improve in a variety of ways once they arrived, their expectations differed depending upon their country of origin. For example, the informants from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam had little or no prior experience with western media and products, relying on a limited number of books and word of mouth for their impressions. On the other hand, the informants from Mexico and South America had first hand experience with U.S. industry icons, including McDonalds, Tops, Jack in the Box, Denny's, WalMart, Sam's, Kmart, Target, Sears, and Clover, allowing them to form more fully their impressions and expectations of this country. Further, advertisements as well as movies helped exacerbate these images, and Terminator, Delta Force, Beauty and the Beast, and a variety of children's cartoons were mentioned.



Unfortunately, virtually all of our informants were dissatisfied with their lives and current situations, especially with regard to the "quality" of Americans, their material existence, job opportunities, and the conditions of cities. The images of freedom and opportunity that gave them the courage to make this difficult transition were unrealized. Consider the following comments by a Mexican man that summarizes their frustrations well:

Two images [I] have...of the U.S. One is good and the other is bad. One is that it is a capitalist nation, and they paint a very rosy picture for us through movies. [But] when you come to the U.S., it is much harder to work to earn money to be in society from the image they paint. I thought the people here would be of a higher quality, they would also be smarter, but it turned out that they were not as smart as they are painted both through the movies and the general consensus of Hispanics.

When asked about the possessions that they brought from their previous homes, the answers were surprisingly curt and the list was very short. Virtually all of the informants discussed clothing, concentrating on their attempts to bring items that were suitable to their (expected) new lives in the U.S. However, informants also indicated the difficulties they had acquiring in advance or bringing these goods to their new homes. Reasons ranged from their relative poverty to political concerns stemming from their desire not to alert the authorities to the permanent status of their "visit" to the U.S.

Other items that were brought from their previous homes tended to be "sacred" possessions (see Belk et al. 1989; Hill 1991). The most common property mentioned had little innate cultural significance but was symbolic of their previous lives and familiesCphotographs or videos. For example, a Haitian woman told us that she brought the video tape of her wedding as well as her wedding album. A Mexican man provided more insight into the role of family photos in his life when he noted that they served as motivation and a reminded of "why he is here." Thus, these items served to ground our informants in their previous "worlds" and social identities.

Finally, regarding the meanings of and experience with products from this country since their arrival, two general categories seem particularly germane. The first deals with the acquisition and preparation of food. Informants felt that the customs of this country involving the processing and preservation of foods was inadequate to their needs, bordering on repugnant (a Columbian man stated that "The meat is cold here. In Columbia no. The meat is fresh.), and they believed that the preparation of food has much less significance in this country. As one response, our informants preferred to create a sense of continuity with their previous lives and cultures by growing their own food when possible (a Laotian woman stated "Here summertime I plant it.) and frequenting small shops that cater to their nationalities (a Pakistani woman).

The second category, admittedly an atypical "product," is the English language. The informants uniformly believe that their family's abilities or inabilities with this new and often strange sounding language was their key to long-term successful acculturation into U.S. society and economic success. Whether this is in fact the case, is a different empirical question.


As noted earlier, the findings from this study can be summarized in three themes. First, the material fantasies that existed among these immigrants before coming to the U.S. failed to become material realities, due, in part, to limited job opportunities. In the end, virtually all of our informants had substantially modified (and lowered) their expectations in this regard. Second, relatively few possessions were brought from their home countries, but these sparse items, as well as customs such as food preparation, played an important role in the maintenance of the pre-immigration self. Third, "atypical" possessions such as "acquiring" the English language were seen as integral in the transformation of the post-immigration self into an individual capable of successfully maneuvering within our society.

As mentioned earlier, the informants in this study, like many of the immigrants who came to this country as a result of the family reunification principle of the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, were fleeing the poverty and violence of the Third World (see Mills 1994). Noonan (1994, p. 177) notes:

In many ways, immigrants know what Americanism is better than we do. They've paid us the profoundest compliment by leaving the land of their birth to come and spend their lives with us. And they didn't come here to join nothing, they came to join somethingCus at our best, us as they imagined us after a million movies and books and reports from relatives. They wanted to be part of our raucous drama, and they wanted the three m'sCmoney, mobility, meritocracy.

Unfortunately, when they arrived they often experienced profound disappointment at the lack of opportunity and overt or covert racism. National debate, of course, will continue to concentrate on the ethnocentric issue of how many, but a humane society also must consider the quality of life of these individuals once they exist with our borders.


Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf, and John F. Sherry, Jr. (1989), "The Sacred and the Profane in Consumer Behavior: Theodicy on the Odyssey," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (June), 1-38.

Connelly, Matthew and Paul Kennedy (1995), "Must It Be the Rest Against the West?" Atlantic Monthly, 274 (December), 61-84.

Hill, Ronald Paul (1991), "Homeless Women, Special Possessions, and the Meaning of 'Home': An Ethnographic Case Study," Journal of Consumer Research, 18 (December), 298-310.

Mills, Nicolaus (1994), "Introduction: The Era of the Golden Venture," in Arguing Immigration, ed. Nicolaus Mills, New York, NY: Touchstone, 11-27.

Noonan, Peggy (1994), "Why the World Comes Here," in Arguing Immigration, ed. Nicolaus Mills, New York, NY: Touchstone, 176-180.

Penaloza, Lisa (1994), "Atravesando Fronteras/Border Crossings: A Critical Ethnographic Exploration of the Consumer Acculturation of Mexican Immigrants," Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (June), 32-54.

Yang, Catherine (1995), "Immigration: You Can't Test For Drive and Ambition," Business Week, May 29, 35.



Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University
Liz Somin, Villanova University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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