Special Session Summary Understanding Consumer Culture: Contributions of Practicing Anthropologists


Eric J. Arnould (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Understanding Consumer Culture: Contributions of Practicing Anthropologists", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 361-362.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 361-362



Eric J. Arnould, University of Nebraska

Suddenly it seems cultural anthropology and its hallmark methodology, ethnography, is in vogue. Popular press articles in American Demographics, Business Week, USA Today and elsewhere tout the virtues of this technique and these researchers in uncovering "consumer secrets" and providing competitive value-added to mainstream business practices ranging from advertising research to new product design. What’s all the fuss about?

The purpose of this session was to meld theory and practice and to provide a window on the contributions of practicing anthropologists to understanding consumer culture. In an effort to spark new research directions for and partnerships with academic researchers, this session sought to show how practice feeds back to theory. But this was not merely a star turn for accomplished practitioners, since the discussant, Dr. John Sherry, a prominent consumer behavior theorist, suggested some reasons for the vogue for anthropology in business.

In the history of the consumer research field, anthropologists have contributed on two fronts: they have shown how fundamental cultural categories have explanatory potential in accounting for consumer behavior, and they have demonstrated the virtues of ethnography in eliciting the theoretically enriching voice of the consumer. The papers in this session reinforce this tradition while covering new ground.

The first paper by Michael Donovan, Partner in the B/R/S Group, builds off recent thinking on the social life of brands in a new direction. Brands are not merely the focus of communities (Schouten and McAlexander 1995 Muniz and O’Guinn 2001), nor objects with which we have relationships (Fournier 1997; Olsen 1995). Increasingly, brands are implicated in our contemporary notions and experiences of self and person, specifically, one important, emerging aspect of the self, what we can tentatively label the postmodern/relational self. Moreover, through a panoply of consumption behaviors we participate in building and revising the meanings, values, and identities of brands. Put slightly differently, we animate brands and brands animate us. As Donovan argues, this is a relatively new concept and experience of a self that exists "out there" in public consumption spaces. It is at the heart of what we mean by culture in consumer culture.

Our second paper by Patricia Sunderland, Nina Diamond, and Rita Denny of the B/R/S Group introduced us to some "thinking tools" provided by linguistic anthropology. These authors show how attention to metaphors and what linguists cal marked and unmarked semantic cases enable them to decipher the tacit cultural meanings of consumer behaviors. Their research illuminates the cultural categories and the cultural blueprints in Holt’s (1994) terminology that consumers draw on as a basis for both thought and action, providing marketers with a more complete and actionable understanding of consumer behavior.

John Sherry’s discussion focused on illustrating how ethnographic methods of cultural inquiry are well-suited to generating theoretical and practical insights in the current marketing environment. For example, he pointed out how the form and content of contemporary global culture emerges from material, both tangible and conceptual, that often derives from marketing practice. And, he illustrated how polyvocalic, polyphonous, polysemous and culturally embedded are contemporary consumer behaviors. In many cases, the brands, images, and values loosed on the world by marketers take on very different lives of their own, driven by the desires of heterogenous groups of consumers.



Michael Donovan, The B/R/S Group, Inc.

Anthropologists have long been interested in the cultural construction of the selfCthe "me," the "I," our subjective connections to the world around us. How are ideas, perceptions, and experiences of self mediated by culture? What makes a person a person in Papua New Guinea, in19th century working class England, in present day Silicon Valley? One of Anthropology’s fundamental and most subversive discoveries is that such taken for granted concepts and experiences can be quite dissimilar at different times, in different places, and in different cultures.

This paper examined some of the ways that brands are implicated in our contemporary notions and experiences of self and person, specifically, one important, emerging aspect of the self, what we can tentatively label the postmodern/relational self. It looks at how we animate brands and brands animate usCHow we recognize ourselves in a pair of Converse sneakers, say, and how we singularize ourselves, and at the same time place ourselves within wider and always changing cultural frames. Likewise, it argues that through consumption we participate in building and revising the meanings, values, and identities of brands.

Brands have become the stuff (at least some of the stuff) we use and deploy in the ongoing construction of ourselves. As I’ve just hinted, this is a relatively new concept and experience of the self, a self that exists "out there" in the public spaces of consumption. It is a fragmented, situational, relational self, a self that is negotiated in the public arenas of buying and consuming.

The idea of a relational self, one that develops and is supported through human participation and interaction is very ancient. Examples include the Classic Greeks, where concepts of the person were firmly tied to the polis, and many "traditional" peoples anthropologists have encountered over the past century, Melanesians, Bedouins, Africans, Amerindians, where boundaries between self and other, that seem so clearly articulated to us, are far more permeable.

The private, bounded self truly comes into its own in the modern era, very late in the modern era for many. This familiar "me", separated by a skin of daily social experiences that confirm a distance between self and other, between inner and outer worlds, is thoroughly modern, and at its base, a Western development. It is supported by popular ideologies of individualism and nurtured by an array of cultural forms associated with the rise of the midle class, such things as diaries, novels, biography, and more recently, film, psychoanalysis, and market research.

Originality, some might say the cult of originality, is a supreme expression of the private self. The notion that we are all original, unique, differentClike snowflakes our mothers told usC is a very modern indeed, probably not more than a century and a half old. And quite tellingly, it develops in the age of mass consumerism.

There is as much to be praised as critiqued in our nearly boundless esteem for originality. It provides the license for creativity and freedom as well as the tyranny of the new and the fresh. It provides us with the cultural warrant to reinvent our institutions while at the same time it often obliterates our institutional memories. It also fuels our appetites and desires for a constant parade of new products.

Consumption provides a venue and a medium to express our originality. Our consumer culture provides a vast banquet table of possibilities that enable us to cultivate our tastes, create a pastiche, express, and "be" ourselves. As social philosopher William Robertson Smith might put it, consumption provides the original in us with the "husk of material reality." Without such expression the meanings, and varied experiences of originality would be lost on us.

In this sense, originality and the private self contain the seeds of the new, emerging self that I will be examining in this essay. In rough outline, this "new" self is remarkably similar to the open, participatory, relational self of archaic and traditional societies. What makes it postmodern is its fragmentary and situational character. As Paul Edwards put it in a recent marketing think piece: "One person can be more different at two times than two people at the same occasion."

Melanesian ethnography offers a long tradition of examining the mythic dimensions of selfChow the self is experienced and given cultural meaning through participating in mythic forms of life. (What Maurice Leenhardt and others have called "living myths"). This perspective is not so well developed in consumer studies where the focus of late has been on the performative dimensions of consuming. Melanesian ethnography provides a chance to see consumption as a narrative act. It gives us the chance to twist our analytic lens half a turn, to frame consumption, consuming brands in particular, as a form of participation, however provisional, in mythic forms of life.

Thus, there are selves, perhaps it is better here to talk in the plural, which we create when we think and talk in brands. They are expressive, iconographic, mythic, and relational. They take shape outside the inner, private, bounded worlds that we also inhabit, in the public spaces of consumption. And they are supported by new, emerging cultural forms and technical possibilitiesCcyberspace, interactivity, the new iconographic literacy associated with personal computers and the internet, and of course, the growing ascendancy of brands.



Patti Sunderland, The B/R/S Group, Inc.

Nina Diamond, DePaul University

Rita Denny, The B/R/S Group, Inc.

Why might tweens snort Altoids or sugar? Why are displays of books disappearing from home offices? When is breakfast not breakfast? How does a product defined by its marketer as a 'fabric refresher,’ become a talisman against all that its users define as alien or 'unclean’?

An anthropological perspective of the study of consumer behavior assumes that consumers’ knowledge of products and services is socially constructed and mediated by cultural beliefs. Evolving cultural contexts may subsequently alter the meanings assigned to these culturally embedded entities (McCracken, 1988).

Marketers who wish to know the consumer experience in a way that enables effective action on behalf of brands and businesses need to be intimately engaged with the everyday processes of consumption which cotain the seeds of meaning. Then they must deconstruct the cultural backdrop against which consumption experiences occur, and continuously monitor alterations to the contexts which frame acts of consumption. Work by McCracken (1988), Holt (1997) and others suggests that tracking the trajectories of assigned product and service meanings is critical to an understanding of their significance within consumer life- and work-worlds.

As if this were not marketing challenge enough, what Firat and Venkatesh (1995) call "the conditions of postmodern consumption" mandate that consumers be viewed as co-authors of their consumption experiences, rather than passive recipients of marketers’ product and service positioning efforts (Cova, 1996; Denny, 1999). We must assume, then, that changes in the cultural landscape do not automatically and predictably effect alterations in the meanings assigned to products and services, but instead prompt active recasting of these entities by consumers into roles that seem to them more contextually appropriate. The means by which this recasting occurs, and the circumstances under which it takes place, provided the focus for our presentation.

Influenced by linguistic anthropology, we look to metaphors, marked and unmarked semantic categories, and similarities and differences across contexts, and within contexts over time, for clues on cultural meaning. We employ a case-based approach to demonstrate the profound influence of postmodern consumers on the way product and service 'objects’ are defined and acted upon, and illustrate the importance of recognizing changes in the cultural milieu that may trigger the recasting of these entities. We discuss examples from our work for B/R/S Group client companies that utilize constructs provided by linguistic anthropology, and consider the broader consumer research and marketing implications of our findings.


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

Cova, Bernard (1996), "The Postmodern Explained To Business Managers: Implications For Marketing," Business Horizons, 39, 15-23.

Denny, Rita (1999), Consuming Values: The Culture Of Clients, Researchers And Consumers: In The Race For Innovation, conference presentation, ESOMAR: Amsterdam.

Douglas, Mary (1966), Purity And Danger; An Analysis Of Concepts Of Pollution And Taboo, New York: Praeger.

Firat, A. Fuat. and Alladi Venkatesh (1995), "Liberatory Postmodernism And The Reenchantment Of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 22, 239-267.

Fournier, Susan (1997), "Consumers and Their Brands," Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (March), 343-373.

Frazier, Sir James (1910), Totemism And Exogamy: A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society, London: Macmillan and Co.

Holt, Douglas B.(1997) "Poststructuralist Lifestyle Analysis: Conceptualizing The Social Patterning Of Consumption In Postmodernity," Journal of Consumer Research 23, 326-350.

Holt, Douglas B. (1994), "Consumers’ Cultural Differences as Local Systems of Tastes: A Critique of the Personality/Values Approach and An Alternative Framework," Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research, vol.1, Russell W. Belk and Ronald Groves, eds., Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 178-84.

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1962), Le TotTmisme Aujourd’hui, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

McCracken, Grant (1988), Culture And Consumption: New Approaches To The Symbolic Character Of Consumer Goods And Activities, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Muniz, Albert and Thomas O’Guinn, (2001), "Brand Community," Journal of Consumer Research, 28 (March).

Olsen, Barbara (1995), "Brand Loyalty and Consumption Patterns: The Lineage Factor," Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior, John F. Sherry, Jr., Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 245-281.

Schouten, John and James McAlexander (1995) "Subcultures of Consumption: An Ethnography of the New Bikers," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (June), 43-61.



Eric J. Arnould, University of Nebraska


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


My Experience or My Expectations: The Effect of Expectations as Reference Points on Willingness to Recommend Experiential Purchases

Stephanie Tully, University of Southern California, USA
Amar Cheema, University of Virginia, USA
On Amir, University of California San Diego, USA
Davide Proserpio, University of Southern California, USA

Read More


I11. Self-Presentation in the Mating Market: The Influence of Gender and Sexual Orientation on Profiles on Tinder and Grindr

Chaim Kuhnreich, Concordia University, Canada
Lilian Carvalho, FGV/EAESP
Gad Saad, Concordia University, Canada

Read More


The Psychology of Fun: Inquiry into Consumers' Fun Experiences

Travis Tae Oh, Columbia University, USA
Michel Tuan Pham, Columbia University, USA

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.