Consumption and the Symbolic Project of the Self

Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, U.K.
Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan, University of Oxford, U.K.
[ to cite ]:
Richard Elliott and Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan (1998) ,"Consumption and the Symbolic Project of the Self", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 17-20.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 17-20


Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, U.K.

Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan, University of Oxford, U.K.


In postmodernity (or high modernity), where society has become more global but fragmented and dispersed, the consumer is "forced to negotiate lifestyle choices among a diversity of options" (Giddens, 1991). The consumer’s self-concept or identity seems to be the "Rome to which all discussions of modern Western consumption lead since the consumer is thirsting for identity and using commodities to quench this thirst" (Gabriel and Lang, 1995). The search for self-identity is a key determinant of postmodern consumption, so studying the consumer’s concept of self and its relations to symbolic consumption is essential for marketers seeking to understand the essence of postmodern consumer behaviour.

Recently much literature suggests that in the postmodern era the consumer should be perceived as an individual who, in a cultural context, is meaning-centred, and central to this approach is the recognition that the consumer does not make consumption choices solely from products’ utilities but from also from their symbolic meanings (Belk, 1988; Bourdieu, 1994; Dittmar, 1992; Douglas, 1982; Gabriel and Lang, 1995; Giddens, 1991; Goffman, 1959; McCracken, 1988). The functions of the symbolic meanings of products operate in two directions, outward in constructing the social world: Social-Symbolism, and inward towards constructing our self-identity: Self-Symbolism (Elliott, 1997). As consumption is central to the creation and maintenance of the consumer’s personal and social world, so advertising is recognised as one of the major sources of the symbolic meanings and values conveyed by consumption (McCracken, 1987; Mick and Buhl, 1992).


In the postmodern era, the development of communication and transportation technologies has exposed the consumer to various different realities. The consumer not only has travelled outside her/his community to get in touch with other cultures, but has also been exposed to other cultures at home via mass media such as television. Giddens (1991) comments that "in high modernity, the influence of distant happenings on proximate events, and on intimacies of the self, becomes more and more commonplace." New information is being fed to the consumer all the time, reality is constantly under construction and its creation never ends, consequently the consumer starts to question reality and the self.

The self is not a given, but is something the person creates, partially through consumption (e.g., Dittmar, 1992; Gabriel and Lang, 1995; Giddens, 1993; Glover, 1988; Solomon, 1996; Tyler, 1978). The consumer has exercised free will to form images of who and what s/he wants to be, although, paradoxically, 'free will’ is directed by values which are probably also a social product. Thompson (1995) describes the self as a symbolic project, which the individual must actively construct out of the available symbolic materials, materials which "the individual weaves into a coherent account of who he or she is, a narrative of self-identity."

To create a sense of identity is not only to distinguish the individual from the masses but perhaps also to lose a sense of difference and become like the others. This depends on how the consumer defines her/his self-concept. Generally, the consumer visualises her/his self according to the imagined possibilities of the self. Markus and Nurius (1986) suggest that "an individual is free to create any variety of possible selves, yet the pool of possible selves derives from the categories made salient by the individual’s particular socio-cultural and historical context and from the models, images, and symbols provided by the media and by the individual’s immediate social experiences." The concept of possible selves as components of the self-concept suggests that the self can be multifaceted. Also, the concept allows us to account for both spatial (situational) and temporal malleability of the self and its continuity and stability.

The nature of the self-concept is complex: the consumer possesses various actual selves (or roles) and a variety of possible or ideal selves. If the consumer possesses a variety of role identities, how can these multiple selves coexist in harmony? How does each identity develop? And how does the consumer express each self in a particular social situation? It is widely accepted that we live in a symbol-rich environment and the meaning attached to any situation or object is determined by the interpretation of these symbols. In the socialisation process, the consumer learns not only to agree on shared meanings of some symbols but also to develop individual symbolic interpretations of his/her own. The consumer uses these symbolic meanings to construct, maintain and express each of her/his multiple identities.

The development of individual self-identity is inseparable from the parallel development of collective social identity, and this problematic relationship has been described as the internal-external dialectic of identification by Jenkins (1996), who maintains that self-identity must be validated through social interaction and that the self is embedded in social practices. Endeavours to create the consumer’s self identity often involve her/his consumption of products, services, and media. Dittmar (1992) comments that "material possessions have a profound symbolic significance for their owners, as well as for other people and the symbolic meanings of our belongings are an integral feature of expressing our own identity and perceiving the identity of others." Through consumption, the consumer 'magically’ acquires a variety of identities. A pair of Nike Air trainers or a Christian Dior lipstick 'allows’ the consumer to believe that s/he is a different person than s/he would be without them. Although McCracken (1988) suggests that ritual is the prime means for the transfer of symbolic meaning from good to person, the complex social practices of consumer culture extend far beyon the concept of the ritualistic, and entail a reciprocal, dialectical relationship between the individual and her/his cultural milieu.


All voluntary consumption carries, either consciously or unconsciously, symbolic meanings; if the consumer has choices to consume, s/he will consume things that hold particular symbolic meanings. These meanings may be individual or shared with the others. For example, using recycled envelopes may symbolise 'I care for the environment.’, going to classical concerts may represent 'I am cultured.’, supporting gay rights may signify 'I am open-minded.’, or even buying unbranded detergent may mean 'I am clever.’

A considerable literature suggests that the consumer is what s/he has, since her/his possessions are viewed as major parts of her/his extended selves (Belk, 1988). Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) suggest that the consumer invests "psychic energy" such as effort, time, and attention in an object. This energy and its products are regarded as a part of self because they have grown or emerged from the self. The symbolic meanings of the consumer’s possessions may either portray essences of her/his individuality, or reflect her/his desirable connections with others (Kleine et al, 1995). Evidently, this symbolic consumption helps the consumer to categorise her/himself in society, to ease her/his self-transitions and to achieve her/his sense of continuity and preparation for death (Belk, 1988). It is a continuous process of attempts at symbolic self-completion (Wicklund and Gollwitzer, 1982). The consumer seems to learn and develop consumption symbols through socialisation processes and exposures to mass media (e.g., advertising). However, it does not mean that everybody who possesses the same product bought it for the same symbolic meaning. A product may carry a varied range of meanings since the creation of meaning is not deterministic and unidirectional, and each individual may ascribe different and inconsistent cultural meanings to a product depending on the extent to which they share the collective imagination (Ritson, Elliott & Eccles, 1996),


The symbolic resources available to the individual for the construction of the self can be distinguished as being either lived experiences or mediated experiences (Thompson, 1990). Lived experience is the practical activities and face-to-face encounters in our everyday lives. It is situated, immediate, and is largely non-reflexive, in that we take it for granted as 'reality’. Mediated experience is an outcome of a mass-communication culture and the consumption of media products and involves the ability to experience events which are spatially and temporally distant from the practical context of daily life. It is recontextualised experience, in that it allows the experience of events that transpire far away, and will vary widely in its relevance to the self. The individual can draw selectively on mediated experience and interlace it with lived experience to construct the self. The life history and social situation of individuals will lead to differential valorisation of forms of experience, varying between those at one end of the continuum who value only lived experience and have little contact with mediated forms, and others at the opposite end of the continuum for whom mediated experience has become central to the project of the self. However, central to postmodern consumer culture is a growing range of opportunities for the use of mediated experiences in the project of the self.


Advertising is recognised as one of the most potent sources of valorised symbolic meanings (e.g., Goffman, 1976; Grunert, 1986; Lannon and Cooper, 1983; Mick and Buhl, 1992; Sherry, 1987). As a part of a cultural system, advertising is viewed as a guideline to map out all aspects of the consumer’s existence (Ritson and Elliott, 1995), on the other hand, all aspects of the consumer’s existence are also guidelines to map out advertising creativity. The relationship between advertising and the consumer is dialectical: advertising not only helps in creating, modifying and transforming cultural meanings for the consumer (Lannon and Cooper, 1983), but also represents cultural meanings taken from the consumer’s world view and invested into the advertised product. This dialectical relationship drives a cyclical flow of symbolic meanings derived from culture and transferred into the semiotic world of advertising, then interpreted and used by the consumer to construct internally her/his self-concept and externally her/his social world. "Finally as part of the external construction of an individual’s life world the meaning returns back to its original starting point, the mass of flowing meanings that represents culture" (Ritson and Elliott, 1995). Thus, advertising is both a means to transfer or create meanings into culture and a cultural product itself.

Although advertisers aim to create particular meanings for their products in advertising, meanings interpreted by the consumer may be varied and diverse. There is agrowing recognition that the consumer is an active and participating audience (e.g., O’Donohoe, 1994; Mick and Buhl, 1992; Livingstone, 1995; Anderson and Meyer, 1988). The consumer may attend only to certain messages and interpret or make sense of the meanings according to her/his personal perception (Lannon, 1992) and her/his social knowledge (Livingstone, 1995). The meaning of a particular advertisement is not given within the advertisement itself, for as Anderson and Meyer (1988) point out: "meaning is not delivered in the communication process, rather it is constructed within it." But the meaning that consumers construct from advertising is viscous in nature, and signification through the media is likely to be much less potent than signification through actual behavioural experience (Elliott, Eccles and Hodgson, 1993). Certainly, there is considerable empirical evidence that attitudes formed through direct experience are stronger, more accessible, held more confidently and are more predictive of behaviour than those derived from mediated experience through advertising (e.g. Fazio and Zanna, 1978; Smith and Swinyard, 1988).


The creation of meanings does not consist of a negotiation process between advertising text and the consumer only during the period of exposure to the advertisement. Since advertising is a form of mass communication, its meanings also emerge in the interpersonal communication among consumers and may later become socially shared meaning: "Shared meanings involving media content will arise among participants in the social action performances of reception and subsequent accommodation" (Anderson and Meyer, 1988:47). Yet, these meanings are not solid, but remain viscous and tentative . Anderson and Meyer (1988) note that "sense making is an ongoing process in which meanings emerge in layers of time and circumstance and the development of one meaning does not preclude the development of others. We are prolific in our sense making, developing a depth and complexity of meaning." A variety of meanings are created as outcomes of the consumer’s personal interest-driven, culturally-situated act of advertising interpretation (Mick and Buhl, 1992).

Ritson and Elliott (1995) suggest that the issues of cultural and interactive advertising can be integrated by a model of advertisng literacy. Modelled within the framework of contemporary literacy studies (e.g., Heath, 1980; Scribner and Cole, 1981), advertising literacy is not only the skills to be able to understand and transfer the meanings from an advertisement but also the ability to use those meanings within the social context of existence. Advertising literacy becomes a significant factor employed by many consumers, especially teenagers, to locate and relocate their social groups and their identities within those groups, because advertising literacy is used by group members to evaluate each other (O’Donohoe, 1994). The process of discursive elaboration (Thompson, 1990) involves the social consumption of advertising meanings, as they are described, discussed, argued about, laughed at. Advertisements become "tokens in young people’s system of social exchange" (Willis, 1990); they are a form of cultural capital for teenagers, to be invested carefully to gain dividends in term of social status and self-esteem (O’Donohoe, 1994). Willis (1990) notes that young people are increasingly involved with advertisements and proposes that part of this increased interest in advertising stems from the ability of advertisers to utilise the latest fashions in order to make advertisements aesthetically pleasing as a product independent of the advertised item. He also describes young people deriving 'symbolic pleasure’ from the advertisements and in particular they are appreciative of the 'active role’ they are expected to play in understanding the advertisements. Buttle (1991) describes several studies which show that advertising is used in some situations as a means of initiating social interactions, while O’Donohoe (1994) notes that advertisements are also used on a social level in 'peer relationships’. Generally advertisements were seen by her respondents as being facilitators to conversation. This is not uncommon, Anderson and Meyer (1988) note that mass media is often a source of interpersonal debate. Until meanings from mediated experiences of advertising have been subjected to discursive elaboration in a social context and interwoven with behavioural significations derived from lived experience, they remain viscous, liable to be rejected or just forgotten. Only after this discursive elaboration can symbolic meanings be fully concretised and become what Eco (1979) calls 'realised text.’



The process of the consumption of the mediated experience of advertising, the lived experience of the consumption of products/services and the two realms of self-symbolism and social-symbolism is illustrated in Figure 1.


Empirical research should focus on teenagers since they are in a crucial period of forming symbolic templates through which "they understand themselves and their possibilities for the rest of their lives" (Willis, 1990). It is also when they are actively creating their self and group identities. However, it has been argued that the 'baby-boomer’ generation and subsequent age cohorts have been encouraged by advertising to go on re-inventing themselves and therefore are 'eternally adolescent’, at least as consumers (Oram, 1996).

Interpretive research employing naturalistic modes of inquiry via ethnographic fieldwork is the most appropriate approach to understanding the interpretation of meaning and construction of identity. Central to the choice of methodologies is the need to deal not only with the incoherence and paradox of the cultural meanings and symbolic significance of the everyday consumption from the perspective of the consumer involved, but also the distinctive nature of each individual’s lived experience and the socially-shared meanings of the consumption.

Exploring Self-Symbolism

A phenomenological approach (Thopson, Locander and Pollio,1989) should be appropriate to study the individual’s lived experience and constructed reality of symbolic meaning. It aims to capture personal meanings, values and sense of identity which are embedded in the advertising literacy and symbolic consumption as well as their relationship to the culturally constituted world. The long interview (McCracken, 1988) and participative observation should be the main data collection methods, while biographical sketches, diary keeping and projective techniques could be used as supplementary methods.

Exploring Social-Symbolism

At a group level, an hermeneutic approach (Gergen, 1990; Arnold and Fischer, 1994) should be employed to understand the relationship between cultural influences and the meanings that individuals constructs themselves. The concept of Social Representations could also be adopted to explore the socially shared meanings of consumption. Social Representations are not mental creations that have social effects but are rather, social creations, constructed via mental processes that acquire reality, and have been proposed as "the psychology of postmodern society" (Moscovici, 1990). Group interviews and participative observation should be the main data collection methods to grasp the group’s interaction process, and to explore how the group’s shared meanings may influence its members’ consumption choices.


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