The Impact of Mobility and Social Integration on Information Seeking

ABSTRACT - This paper integrates considerations of some social and psychological factors which may determine information utilization patterns in consumer decision making. A theoretical framework is provided and cross-cultural comparisons drawn from two studies of housing purchase are presented as partial indication of the role of two major factors affecting use of and preference for alternative information sources.


Donald J. Hempel and William J. McEwen (1976) ,"The Impact of Mobility and Social Integration on Information Seeking", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 341-347.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 341-347


Donald J. Hempel, University of Connecticut

William J. McEwen, University of Connecticut


This paper integrates considerations of some social and psychological factors which may determine information utilization patterns in consumer decision making. A theoretical framework is provided and cross-cultural comparisons drawn from two studies of housing purchase are presented as partial indication of the role of two major factors affecting use of and preference for alternative information sources.


Consumers in all societies are experiencing the well publicized problems of dealing with an ever-widening information explosion. This is a consequence of expanding information requirements (for each choice situation) as well as of a rapidly growing variety and complexity of consumption decisions. A major concern of planners must therefore be the effective channeling of communications to satisfy these increasing consumer needs. Studies of similarities and differences in information utilization which examine patterns across social systems (e.g., regional and national boundaries), however, have been confined largely to descriptive statements embodied in the diffusion of innovations literature.

While considerable research has addressed the psychological determinants and correlates of information processing, such literature seems inadequate to the task of defining inter-community utilization differences. Of more pragmatic importance to the communications planner attempting to facilitate search and utilization in various sub-populations (e.g., mover segments) would be a more aggregative examination of systemic factors influencing information "handling." Thus, extending the largely descriptive innovations approach via a focus on the interplay of both psychological and social factors influencing information utilization in consumer decision making seems particularly useful.

One of the most consequential of all consumer decisions involves the choice of family residence. The changing spatial location patterns in a society reflect fundamental adjustments in the labor force and housing stock, as well as the adaptability and propensity to change of different population segments. The various aspects of spatial mobility can also serve as useful indicants of social system development. While the functional aspects of mobility have been studied extensively, the dysfunctional consequences still remain largely unexplored in empirical terms. This is particularly characteristic of knowledge concerning the impact of changes in physical environment on information needs and usage behavior.

These are several basic reasons why this problem area is of considerable theoretical and practical significance:

1. Those experiencing high rates of physical mobility may have special difficulties in adjusting and responding to new social environments (e.g., Toffler, 1970; Packard, 1972).

2. Those who came from different regional or national social systems bring varied bases of experience and have other characteristics which may enhance their effectiveness as transmitters of new ideas.

3. Physical mobility is important as a life style attribute which can be readily measured and effectively used as a basis for market segmentation.


The conceptual scheme presented here attempts to develop a broad framework for analyzing the interaction of social and psychological variables in consumer information utilization behavior. This represents a literature review plus implications derived from several recent studies of social systems conducted by the authors. The data base used in the following section serves primarily to indicate how this scheme may be in part operationalized. While a complete application of the conceptual framework is not feasible with the data at hand, work is now underway to extend this analysis into a study of related social systems.

Physical Mobility

A review of the available literature suggests a basic distinction between two types of physical mobility. The first type involves relatively long durational expectancies and thus requires rather substantial effort to adapt to norms of a new social system. This "environmental commitment" is especially characteristic of residential changes, and, to a lesser degree, of occupational changes. This contrasts with a second type involving short durational expectances with little perceived need for adaptation and easy reversibility of behavior patterns. The "environmental transience" reflected in this classification is represented by various forms of travel, ranging from short pleasure or business trips to extended vacations. This study is concerned with the impact of both types of mobility upon the in-formation-seeking behavior of families involved in changing their residential environment.

Discussion of the consequences of long durational changes in residence or occupation shows disagreement among social observers. Packard (1972) has maintained that residential mobility--increasingly involving changes across community social systems--has social alienation consequences. He has maintained that spatial mobility (of the environmental commitment type) has rather inherent dysfunctional consequences, even for upward movers. In contrast, Gans (1972) has maintained, in line with much of the available organizational research (e.g., Vroom, 1969) that social isolation seems more frequently a result of non-voluntary spatial mobility (e.g., urban renewal), especially when the cross-system changes involve major life style alterations. It thus appears that the dysfunctional consequences of spatial mobility involving environmental commitment will depend, at least in part, on similarities in what Sheth and Sethi (1973) have termed the "cultural life style." Similarity in cultural life style across systems should ease the potential strain resultant from voluntary, or even non-voluntary, shifts in residence and/or occupation. Thus, the move from a large city in one country to a large city in another country may require less cultural adaptation than the change from a rural to an urban area within the same country.

Mobility and Search Behavior

One major area of study concerning possible mobility-induced consequences has centered on the notion of decision making and the nature of information usage. Although seldom studied directly, a part of the concern of social observers such as Packard (1972) and Toffler (1970) has to do with information "coping" behavior. As mentioned before, Packard's thesis is that mobility hinders general coping, stemming, in part, from the fact that normal channels of information search and sharing are disrupted. That there are differences in normative information usage patterns across cultural and even subcultural social systems has been established (e.g., Dervin and Greenberg, 1972). Where cultural life style differs, information-related behaviors (as one set of activities comprising this life style variable) also differ. The question centers on the extent to which different types of information search patterns are associated with decision processes which have been affected by physical mobility.

While some differences exist as to the ultimate consequences of long term spatial mobility, there has been apparent agreement that short term environmental transience is functional both for the individual (as a quality of life correlate and as one indication of openness to innovation) and for the social system (as a general correlate of system development). This may simply reflect the fact that this type of spatial mobility, in contrast with the first, almost always involves voluntary changes which are rather readily reversible and hence imply little commitment.

Rogers (1969; 1971) has proposed that certain types of short term mobility facilitate information search. Thus it would be anticipated that those who exhibit higher environmental transience mobility ("cosmopoliteness") should have different usage patterns than those low in this aspect of mobility. Rogers presents some evidence that the former should utilize more deliberate and efficient search patterns. Whether this difference arises as a consequence of the increased external contact provided by environmental transience mobility or, perhaps more probably, as a function of personality and motivational differences is actually a separate issue. The precise causative factor may not be as crucial to the information planner as the fact (and nature) of differences in information search patterns.

Social Integration

The adaptation and consequent alteration in information search patterns which are required with environmental commitment mobility are not manifested equally in all consumers. Adjustment to a new communication environment is affected by the similarity of prior cultural life style and by the extent of previously experienced physical mobility--of both the commitment and transient variety. One further variable of importance involves the consumer's level of social integration. Extent of involvement in the social system reflects both adherence to system norms and frequency of (and reliance on) intra-system contacts (Rogers, 1971). This may involve an overall higher level of communication activity with greater usage of system information sources (especially other people). As such, this would thus appear to reflect a general lack of felt "alienation" and consequently, as McLeod et al. (1966) have suggested, a greater reliance on certain types of communication sources (e.g., in-depth print media treatments).

Social Integration and Search Behavior

Packard (1972) has also suggested the potential for communication-related involvement consequences. He has proposed that social integration can act to lessen certain of the negative aspects associated with residential mobility. It is suggested that, for example, belonging to a social organization will reduce the sense of rootlessness resultant from required changes in environment, if the organization (or one closely parallel) has chapters or member groups in that new social system. Without this transference opportunity, however, even greater strain may be placed on those moving. What is proposed, then, is that contact with continuing social organizations may provide an extension of the former social system--or at least reinforce a familiar set of already shared norms. This sense of continuity or familiarity amounts to a reduction in cultural life style dissimilarity.

Furthermore, social integration seems to modify information channel exposure and influence communication opportunities. The common organization may, by means of the contacts made through these groups, facilitate information search. The result should be a group-induced and/or supported difference in information source utilization, most notable with regard to major decisions such as are involved in family housing choice.

Ultimately, it is the combination of mobility and social integration which is likely to determine how one adjusts to a new residential environment. The interaction of these factors operates both to define information needs and to provide opportunities for obtaining information. This adjustment process has important implications for overall satisfaction with life, as well as for many subsequent consumption decisions (Andreasen, 1966). The first impressions of one's living (residential) environment formed during the period of housing search contribute significantly to the perceptual framework which is then used in the selection of shopping facilities, churches, commuting routes, and other "institutional connections." These choices, in turn, influence the buyer's further exposure to information channels and to the specific sources which are used in later purchase decisions. Thus, the information channels used by families involved in residential change--especially where the degree of change is substantial--can be studies as a generative system with far-reaching implications for communication planners.


Data Base

The data for this study were obtained from two surveys of recent home buyers conducted during the summers of 1968 and 1971. Both investigations incorporated probability samples of households who purchased either a new or previously occupied house and recorded their ownership during the first six months of the study year. Personal interviews and mail questionnaires were used to obtain information from both husbands and wives in 206 households from the Hartford metropolitan area of Connecticut, and 317 households in the Preston-Lancaster area of Northwestern England. The bases for analysis of the mail-questionnaire data presented here was reduced by nonreturns and the elimination of observations with missing information. A response rate of almost 70% was obtained for both samples. Details concerning the research design and questionnaires have been published elsewhere (Hempel, 1970).


The communication channels used in most purchase decision processes can be classified into two major categories: consumer-dominated and marketer-dominated (Cox, 1961). These two channels may function as complementary information disseminators with considerable variance in their effects upon purchase behavior. The relative importance of different information sources used by the home buyer has been shown to vary with the Stage of the decision process and a number of consumer attributes (Hempel, 1969).

In order to examine the general patterns of information seeking among home buyers--in terms of both specific source usage and cumulative measures of channel usage--three aspects of information seeking behavior can be analyzed: (1) exposure--what proportion of the buyers recall using the source while looking for and purchasing their home; (2) sequence--among those using the source, what was the order in which each source was first contacted; and (3) evaluation--which sources were recommended to other buyers. These measures of source importance were obtained for each of 16 sources selected to represent four different types of general information channels--interpersonal communications, mass media, commercial sellers, and self-initiative.



An index of channel usage was constructed for each aspect of information seeking to reflect the cumulative effects of the four sources in each channel. The exposure and evaluation indexes reflect whether or not the household referred to one or more of the four specific, sources within each set. The sequence index represents the mean order in which the specific subset of sources used were first contacted.

The functioning and usage of the information channels as measured by these four indexes were studied in terms of their covariance with physical mobility and social integration. Environmental commitment mobility was measured by four indicants: frequency of change in the family's residence, expected period of occupancy for the new residence, duration of the husband's employment with one firm, and spatial distance involved in the most recent move; environmental transience was indicated by the frequency of pleasure travel trips. Social integration was not a designated focus of the original data collection efforts. It was, however, of major theoretic concern as a potential indicator of mobility-related dysfunctions. As a result, several available measures, though imperfect, were employed as partial indicants of social involvement and integration. Integration into the larger (nonlocal) community was indexed by readership of nonlocal news-feature and/or sophisticated magazines (e.g., New Yorker, Punch). Involvement in the local community alone is measured by membership in various types of local social and civic organizations.


The findings presented in Table 1 concerning the frequency of exposure indicate that newspaper ads and real estate firms were the most important sources of information in the home buying process. Walking or riding through prospective residential areas and consulting friends followed as information sources utilized by a majority of buyers, while all other sources were used far less frequently. Cross-cultural differences appeared in the greater dependence of Connecticut buyers upon friends and co-workers vs. the use of relatives as information sources in Northwest England. The English buyers were significantly (p < .01) more likely to mention employees of lending institutions, attorneys, and "For Sale" signs as useful sources of information in their decision process.



The typical (median) sequence of contacting information sources tends to parallel the relative frequency of exposure. Newspaper ads were generally used as the first source in both countries, followed by real estate agents in Connecticut and relatives in England. Friends were usually contacted as the third source in both markets. In apparent contrast with the findings of many studies (e.g., Robertson, 1971), however, personal sources were typically used earlier in the decision process than most commercial sources or self-initiative sources. This may imply that home-buyers need to establish socially relevant criteria for evaluating housing alternatives (via personal sources) before they can effectively process the information from commercial sources. It is likely that personal sources are used throughout the buying process, but the measures discussed here consider only the first-use occasion.

As one might expect, the sources that were utilized more frequently also tended to be perceived as more helpful and thus worthy of recommendation to other buyers. The functions performed by commercial sources appear to be particularly appreciated, as the buyers recommended this channel of information with twice the frequency of any other channel. Cultural differences were most notable in the importance attributed to real estate firms and friends among Connecticut buyers, and in the commendation given to employees of lending institutions by English buyers.

In order to more precisely define the extent of relationships between the component indexes of physical mobility and community integration and the measures of information source utilization, Spearman rank correlations were computed. Portions of the resultant inter-correlation matrices are presented in Table 2 for one of the utilization variables: sequence in which the information channel was used. The variations in sample sizes indicated (from 80 to 119 for Hartford and from 63 to 91 for England) represent differences in sample attrition rates resulting from inapplicability of the sequence measure for respondents who did not use the source.

Examination of the statistically non-chance (p<.05) correlations suggests several differences and similarities across the two social systems studied. For both the Connecticut and Northwest England samples, physical mobility of the environmental commitment type was weakly, but significantly, associated with later use of mass media sources. In contrast, increasing residential mobility, particularly as evidenced by distance moved, was generally associated with earlier use of personal sources. Additional analyses indicated that this, as anticipated, was most notable for one type of personal source, the co-worker. The importance of the job environments was further supported by the finding that occupational mobility was significantly related to the sequence in which personal sources were contacted.

The social integration measures yielded generally insignificant relationships for the Connecticut sample with the possible exception of some later use of media and self initiative sources by fraternal society members. No consistent pattern of source contact seemed to emerge, however. For the English sample, on the other hand, social integration, primarily as indexed by print media orientation but also in part by club membership, was related to some later use of media sources and of formal and self initiative sources. This may indicate some tendency for the highly socially involved to rely more on interpersonal contacts (rather than on their independent observations) early in the decision process as a means of identifying reliable commercial and media sources for later use. All correlations were fairly low, however, suggesting some lack of sensitivity in the measures employed as well as the complexity of the relationships examined. Still, the finding that social integration and physical mobility might function differently as determinants (or correlates) of information search patterns is worthy of note. This might thus serve both as an indicant of possible cultural differences in source utilization (which should be taken into account by multinational corporate planners) and as an additional component of cultural life style variability (the determinants and consequences of which should be investigated by social scientists).

Although the corresponding data are not tabled here because of space limitations, certain similarities and differences across the two social systems were also noted for the other two measures of information source utilization. For example, residential mobility was positively related to use of ("exposure" to) self initiative sources in making housing decisions. It was also related positively to use of personal sources, but only for the Connecticut sample. Membership in civic groups was, as would be predicted, positively associated with self initiative source use and, somewhat more weakly, with personal source use. Fraternal or social club membership proved a significant correlate only for the English sample, however, having positive correlations with use of personal sources, formal commercial sources, and mass media sources. As indicated in Table 2, however, such overall use-related findings may occasionally mask sequence differences. For this same sample, fraternal organization membership was associated with later use of formal and self initiative sources and with earlier use of mass media sources.

As can be seen from the Table 2 data, correlational analysis indicated a relatively greater importance of the physical mobility variables as predictors of information utilization. In order to further examine the influence of these variables, the three indices of utilization (exposure, sequence and evaluation) were broken down by level of mobility. The results of these cross-cultural comparisons are presented in Table 3. The mobility segments represented in Table 3 were defined by average scores on three measures of environmental commitment (residential) mobility: number of moves in the past seven years, duration of occupancy of the last two residences, and expected duration of occupancy of the new residence. The measures were separately scaled and then summed to construct the mobility index on which the buyer samples were then trichotomized.

As can be seen from the tabled data, exposure to each of the information channel types was quite high in all three mobility segments. There was heavier reliance overall on mass media sources (a function perhaps of their availability) and certain commercial sources (a function of their close--and, for all practical purposes, required--association to the housing decision). There was also generally earlier use of the mass media sources.

Some cross-cultural differences may also be noted here. While the mobility pattern holds fairly constant (with more mobile buyers evidencing greater use of self initiative sources), the differences in absolute exposure levels suggest a greater utilization of self initiative channels by the English movers. In contrast, Connecticut movers showed greater use of personal and mass media sources and, for the low mobile group, for commercial sources as well.

Table 3 data also indicate the differences among the component indices of information source utilization.



While the English sample showed higher usage and earlier usage of self initiative sources, they did not recommend them more highly. Both samples recommended commercial sources most highly, although they were typically employed in the decision process after mass media and personal sources (which may thus serve, in part, as the major identifiers of reliable commercial sources). As indicated previously, this latter function may be especially evident for the strongly socially integrated.

One interesting result that may reflect some cross-cultural difference in the impact of mobility was that commercial sources were more highly recommended by the more mobile buyers in England. This was not the case in Connecticut, where the less mobile buyers were most likely to recommend these commercial information sources. Further analysis of this pattern indicates that the high mobile English buyers tended to recommend attorneys, whereas the low mobile Connecticut buyers recommended builders. In England, the higher social status of the high mobiles may predict greater reliance on attorneys as a community contact. In Connecticut, the more stable low mobiles were perhaps more likely to be interested in having new houses built, and hence turned to builders as a major information source.


This research further demonstrates the rather apparent fact that both similarities and differences exist across identifiable social systems (in this case, across national boundaries). Of greater interest is the demonstration that marked variability exists across commonly employed indexes of mobility and social integration. Of still greater heuristic importance is the notion that information source utilization is clearly multi-dimensional--that widespread use of a given source, for example, does not necessarily indicate early use of that source. This noted complexity of information-related behaviors has theoretic significance for researchers investigating information search patterns. It also has pragmatic implications for those involved in targeting information to consumers. Analysis of the relative importance of information sources measured in terms of exposure must be supplemented by consideration of the sequence in which sources are utilized. The design of efficient and effective communication packages (e.g., consumer information pamphlets) requires knowledge of how and where information modules might best fit into the ongoing information stream. Proper sequencing of information flows can facilitate the consumer's ability to cope with and even benefit from the "information explosion." Hopefully, the more actionable bases for segmentation, such as those discussed above, may provide certain of the visible components required to allow planners to utilize this complexity in reaching appropriate consumers, through appropriate channels, at appropriate times.

Since increasing rates of mobility usually accompany the industrial development of a society, the impact of residential change upon the family and the community should be considered in the broader cost-benefit analysis of growth policy. Knowledge of the role performed by various information sources in facilitating family adaptation to residential change is vital to the planning of community development programs. If mobility and social integration are considered to be important determinants of information seeking behavior in residential choice, then the effects of the resultant source usage patterns upon other aspects of the decision process (e.g., choice criteria and post-purchase satisfaction) need further study before the functional or dysfunctional consequences of these two input variables can be fully evaluated. The influence of intervening variables, such as the motivation for moving and whether the change is perceived as voluntary or involuntary, may mediate the dysfunctional aspects of mobility, particularly of the environmental commitment type. For example, intercity moves that are associated with major job promotions may result in more limited information seeking and less scrutiny of alternatives because the family's economic outlook is affected by a halo of optimism. The perceived complexity of the residential change, affected by stage in family life cycle and accumulated moving experiences, is also likely to moderate the effects of mobility on information seeking behavior. In general, the effects of mobility and social integration upon information seeking in residential choice decisions should be examined as an environmental adjustment system which is closely tied to family satisfaction and the perceived quality of life.


Alan R. Andreason and Peter G. Durkson, "Market Learning of New Residents," Journal of Marketing Research, 4(May, 1968), 166-176.

Donald F. Cox, "Clues for Advertising Strategists," Harvard Business Review, 39(September-October, 1961), 160-176, and (November-December, 1961), 160-182.

Brenda Dervin and Bradley S. Greenberg, "The Communication Environment of the Urban Poor," in F. Kline and P. Tichenor (eds.) Current Perspectives in Mass Communication Research (Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications, 1972), 195-233.

Herbert J. Gans, "Vance Packard Misperceives the Way Most Americans Move," Psychology Today, 6(September, 1972), 20-28.

Donald J. Hempel, A Comparative Study of the Home Buying Process in Two Connecticut Housing Markets (Connecticut: Center for Real Estate and Urban Economic Studies, The University of Connecticut, 1970).

Donald J. Hempel, "Search Behavior and Information Utilization in the Home Buying Process," 1969 Fall Conference Proceedings (American Marketing Association, 1969), 241-249.

Jack McLeod, Scott Ward and Karen Tancill, "Alienation and Uses of the Mass Media," Public Opinion Quarterly, 29(Winter 1965-1966), 583-594.

Vance Packard, A Nation of Strangers (New York: David McKay Publishers, 1972).

Thomas S. Robertson, Innovative Behavior and Communication (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1971).

Everett M. Rogers, Modernization Among Peasants: The Impact of Communication (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969).

Everett M. Rogers and F. Floyd Shoemaker, Communication of Innovations (New York: The Free Press, 1971).

Jagdish N. Sheth and S. Parakesh Sethi, "An Approach to Developing a Theory of Crosscultural Buyer Behavior," (Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Conference, Montreal, 1973).

Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970).

Victor H. Vroom, "Industrial Social Psychology," in Gardner Lindzey and Elliot Aronson (eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology (second edition), (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley), 5, 196-268.



Donald J. Hempel, University of Connecticut
William J. McEwen, University of Connecticut


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03 | 1976

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