Object-Subject Interchangeability: a Symbolic Interactionist Model of Materialism

Reid P. Claxton, East Carolina University
Jeff B. Murray, University of Arkansas
[ to cite ]:
Reid P. Claxton and Jeff B. Murray (1994) ,"Object-Subject Interchangeability: a Symbolic Interactionist Model of Materialism", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 422-426.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 422-426


Reid P. Claxton, East Carolina University

Jeff B. Murray, University of Arkansas

Why do some consumers emphasize the building of human relationships while others emphasize acquisition and possession of material goods? While an impressive amount of consumer research has addressed the definition and measurement of materialism (e.g., Belk 1985; Richins and Dawson 1992), somewhat less attention has been devoted to theoretical explanations of the phenomenon. The purpose of this paper is to draw on the insights of symbolic interactionism to suggest an explanation as to why some consumers are more materialistic than others.

Symbolic interactionism (Blumer 1969; Mead 1934; Solomon 1983) suggests that society is continually produced and re-produced through the individual's interaction with the symbolic representations of surrounding society. As will be explained, symbolic interaction with material and non-material culture enables the individual to develop a sense of self, become socialized, participate in society, and understand the roles and significance of other people. It is this continuous process that permits the individual to fulfill multiple roles without, in the words of Csikszentmihalyi (1982), "falling apart."

The concept of interchangeability is introduced to refer to a psycho-social mechanism that permits individuals to selectively substitute the influences of objects and subjects (other people) for each other as necessary to construct, adapt, and maintain self definition. Presumably, an individual who places greater symbolic reliance on objects, as opposed to subjects, is more materialistic.

Understanding the sociology of interchangeability may provide insight into materialism by making more explicit the role of consumption in the individual's adaptation to changing physical and cultural environments. Interchangeability may also offer a dynamic dimension to other theories of self-via-consumption, e.g., extended self (Belk 1988), self-concept (Goffman 1959; Sirgy 1982), and product symbolism (Levy 1959).

This paper has three major sections. The first reviews previous materialism research. The second presents specifics of the interchangeability model. The third discusses materialism from the perspective of interchangeability.


Over the last quarter-century, materialism has been generally defined in terms of the role of material objects in affecting terminal goals such as life satisfaction, happiness, and social progress (Belk 1985; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981).

One of the foremost issues pertaining to materialism is whether it is a positive or negative force in society (Belk 1985). History records a number of bases for disapproval of materialism. Puritanism faulted materialistic consumption as providing a distraction from spirituality. Quakerism condemned the multiplication and acquisition of goods as an affront to simplicity. Socialist criticism interprets consumerism as stemming from worker exploitation. Aesthetic snobbery provides an aristocratic criticism of materialistic consumption: mass tastes are, by definition, low (Schudson 1991; Will 1991). Materialism has also been classified as a potential source of inter-group conflict (Murray and Ozanne 1991). Materialistic individuals may be more vulnerable to personal dissatisfaction due to a greater tendency to compare their lives with idealized media images of wealth (Richins 1992). In addition, evidence exists that materialistic people tend to be relatively unhappy (Belk 1984), desirous of fast solutions, easily frustrated, and prone to violence (Rudmin 1992).

While materialism is often considered a negative social force, some researchers have postulated that self-denial of material objects may be related to psychological debilities such as eating disorders, masochism, and self-hatred (Belk 1985; D'Arcy 1967; Masson 1976), thereby suggesting that insufficient emphasis on material objects may also be damaging.

From a symbolic interactionist perspective, materialism is neither positive nor negative in society. In fact, from this perspective, defining self through symbolic interaction with objects is a natural and pervasive part of socialization. McCarthy (1984) asserts that human identities reside in objects more than in individuals. One reason this may be true is that objects help orient individuals by "making visible and stable the categories of culture" (Douglas and Isherwood 1979).

Belk (1988) indicates that without insight into the meanings people attach to possessions, attempts to understand consumption behavior are virtually hopeless. Over time, symbolic meaning is transferred from society to objects, then from objects to individuals (McCracken 1986). The acquisition of objects as expressions of self, symbols of security, and symbols of connectedness and differentiation appears to be "a usual and culturally universal function of consumption" (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988, p. 532).

At the social level, objects create a common language necessary for three fundamental social processes: integration, comparison, and differentiation (Weissner 1984). Mass-produced, homogeneous consumer goods provide an avenue of cultural integration across a society (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). Boorstin (1971) indicates that advertising has become the folk culture of American society, thereby integrating consumption communities. This value-expressive dimension of objects suggests that brand names often produce feelings of community among purchasers (Friedman 1985). Two Japanese automobiles, the Honda Accord and the Honda Civic, provide literal examples of how agreement, harmony, and community can be embodied by objects' brand names.

At the individual level, mass-produced objects provide a way for individuals to embrace cultural values and social integration, while simultaneously demonstrating individual self-expression. Objects become singularized by the individual through transfer of meanings and emotions (Kopytoff 1986; McCracken 1986). Singularized objects come to symbolize the self and thereby become part of self concept. Any loss of these objects is felt not only as loss of face and status, but also more deeply, as actual damage to the conceptualized, or extended, self (Belk 1988). Ultimately, however, the symbolic meaning of singularized objects results from social relationships. Thus individuals derive meaning from, and reproduce culture by, interacting with both objects and subjects.


Interchangeability and Symbolic Interactionism

Theoretical support for basing self-definition on relationships with interchangeable objects and subjects stems from symbolic interactionism (Blumer 1969; Mead 1934). This perspective rests on three basic tenets: people behave toward objects according to the meanings the objects have for them; such meanings are created by social interaction among people; and, the individual subsequently learns such meanings through a dynamic and interpretive process which is applied to everything encountered during the experience of living (Blumer 1969). The applicability of symbolic interactionism to the study of materialism is apparent from the words of Blumer: "[people] live in worlds of objects and are guided in their orientation and actions by the meanings of these objects" (1969, p. 21). For society to be possible, actors must share a strong reciprocity of perspectives made possible largely by objects.



Central to symbolic interactionism is the concept of "self-identity" (Stone 1962). Self-identity is knowledge that the self exists. Self-identity permits communication and other interactions with the self which, in turn, produce "self-definition." Self-definition is a simultaneous recognition of self, and of a beyond-self reality. Knowledge of an alternative reality compels the individual to experience portions of it. Individuals thus act toward the self, becoming the object of their own action. This infers that the self is not a structure, but a dynamic and constant process (Blumer 1969; Mead 1934).

Understanding the self as process means that self-definition must be continually reconfigured as symbolic meanings in the environment change and evolve. For example, as styles and product designs evolve, the meanings of already-owned products change, as do other people's perceptions of the product owners (Kehret-Ward 1982; Mick 1986). Social actors consume objects' symbolism in order to help define social reality and thus ensure that subsequent behavior will be appropriate for the reality defined. The consumer therefore relies on objects' inherent social information to enhance role performances and thus shape self-definition (Solomon 1983).

In sum, as meanings change, the contexts in which individuals define themselves also change. The result is a social process in which the survival of the individual is dependent upon constant adaptation of self-definition.

A Model of Interchangeability

Individuals may experience deficiencies in self-definition stemming from an absence of critical symbols for the identity in question. An example would be a lack of the "speech markers" (e.g., speaking style, technical vocabulary) appropriate to a particular social setting, situation, or occupation. Deficiencies in such symbols result in the tendency to compensate with other symbols within that same "identity area" (Braun and Wicklund 1989, p. 164). Interchangeability in the form of materialism may be used to compensate for feelings of emotional deprivation, dependency, or lowered self worth (Wachtel and Blatt 1990). In such instances, material objects may be directly substituted for human relationships that contribute insufficiently to an affected individual's self-definition.

The interchangeability model (see Figure 1) represents the relationship among subjects, objects, and self-definition. The model suggests that, in some cases, when someone cannot adequately integrate aspects of other people into his or her self-definition, then objects may be substituted, consciously or otherwise. In other words, the respective contributions of subjects and objects to the individual's continuing development may be substitutable for each other at various times.

Subjects (people) generally serve to help the individual feel connected to a culture, community, reference group, and family. Objects (material goods), generally help the individual fulfill what is widely regarded as a universal need for personal uniqueness within the culture (Snyder and Fromkin 1980). The interchangeability model shows double-headed arrows extending from self-definition to both subjects and objects. These arrows reflect the two-way, mutually-affecting relationship that exists between us as individuals and the subjects and objects in our lives. As Belk observes, "we may impose our identities on possessions and possessions may impose their identities on us" (1988, p. 141).

The sense of belonging that arises from the individual's relationship with subjects is akin to the concept of Gemeinschaft (Tonnies 1957), or mechanical solidarity (Durkheim 1893/1964). These concepts emphasize the shared meanings which produce community identity. The sense of individuality imparted largely from the individual's relationship with objects is commensurate with the concept of Gesellschaft (Tonnies 1957), or organic solidarity (Durkheim 1893/1964). These concepts emphasize unique experience and individual interpretation of shared meanings. In many respects, the bonds between the individual and subjects are also forms of sacred consumption, while those between the individual and objects are forms of secular consumption (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989), although exceptions occur in both instances.

In the interchangeability model, the degree of contribution by objects and subjects to the creation and rejuvenation of self-definition is never static. In response to certain environmental demands, greater reliance may be placed on objects to help in the adaptation of one's self-definition. In other circumstances, relatively greater reliance is placed on subjects for the preservation and evolution of the sense of self. Further, objects and subjects do not simply make "non-human" and "human" contributions, respectively, to self-definition. Although the model represents a social/material duality, each may contain part of the other, and serve in the other's role at certain times. Such is the case when people are used as objects (objectification), and when objects are viewed as possessing human qualities (anthropomorphism). In other words, the lines of contribution between object and subject to self-definition may sometimes blur.

The horizontal arrow between objects and subjects at the bottom of the model represents the ability of individuals to maintain and modify their self-definition by selectively interchanging either objects or subjects in response to environmental demands. The situationally-determined interchangeability of objects and subjects in the continuing evolution of self-definition is akin to forms of mediating consumption (Hirschman 1990/1991).

A concrete example illustrates many of these points. In rural regions of post-Soviet Russia, being called an "individual" can be a form of social censure. The current economic turbulence has caused pro-collective Russian farmers to rebel against capitalistic measures. Successful, pro-capitalist farmers are described by their less prosperous, pro-collective detractors as being "individuals" who are living only for themselves. Part of the incriminating evidence of such individuality is the pro-capitalist farmers' newly-constructed, two-bedroom single family homes (Hays 1992). Such a situation exemplifies how a relative absence of material possessions tends to negate the perception of human beings as individual entities. In addition, the behavior of the pro-capitalist farmers may be interpreted as their giving stronger emphasis to the objects portion of the interchangeability model in constructing self-definitions. At the same time, their pro-collective counterparts may be viewed as placing greater emphasis on the subjects portion of the model.


The interchangeability model prompts a number of consumption related questions about the interrelation among objects, subjects, and self-definition. What happens to self-definition when too much emphasis is placed on objects? On subjects? By suggesting that a life-enhancing self-definition results from both objects and subjects, it is assumed that sufficient resources exist for every individual to draw upon in response to emerging environmental circumstances. In some circumstances, however, objects can be in short supply, as in the crippled economies of the post-Soviet nations. In other circumstances, the availability of subjects can be insufficient, as in the African-American community's need for more black role models.

A legacy of the Industrial Revolution is the potential for an abundance of objects. In many respects, an abundance of objects has permitted the advancement of knowledge, comfort, and other forms of civilization on a scale unprecedented in history. At the same time, a wealth of objects has produced greed, addiction, pornography, and other examples of the dark side of consumption (Hirschman 1990). In identifying the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption, Veblen (1899/1979) described a deleterious aspect of emphasis on objects.

Tournier (1957) similarly described a world in which material things are substituted for people and cited an inability to communicate, relate, and connect as a cause of human objectification. Citing 19th century laws treating women as chattel, Dworkin (1981) argues that women of today are still treated as sexual objects in pornography, prostitution, and rape (Belk 1988).

Yet, modern America still socializes its children to place tremendous emphasis on the ability of objects to forge self-definition. As one example, the Milton-Bradley company targets pre-teen girls for a board game called "Mall Madness." The first player to buy a certain number of items and successfully leave the mall wins. It can be argued that the "born to shop" and "shop 'til you drop," bumper-sticker sense of self encouraged by such products may be demeaning and deleterious to young people. It is also noteworthy that the game's name - Mall Madness - overtly equates shopping and consumption with insanity. It is as if the culture is warning that an emphasis on objects, at the expense of subjects, has dysfunctional consequences. Similarly, millions of young Americans have been encouraged over the years to "go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs." Not coincidentally, a number of time-honored American shopping themes carry similar associations with mental disease, e.g., moonlight madness sales and the various "Crazy" epithets adopted by discount retailers. The overriding theme of all of these examples is an unbalanced, even irrational, emphasis on the importance of objects in self-definition. Deteriorated human relationships and a weakened social fabric may be unintended results.

While swings in emphasis between objects and subjects in defining the individual occur more or less continuously, interchangeability swings appear to occur in whole societies at more periodic intervals. The decade of the 1980s has been widely characterized as a decade of greed in America, a decade when emphasis was clearly on the contribution of material factors in defining the national self. During the recessionary 1990s, however, the interchangeability pendulum has largely swung from objects to subjects for much of industrialized society, including Japan.

Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, Japan's postwar generations practiced unfettered "consumer one-upsmanship," fueled by the island-nation's great "bubble" economy of spiraling land and equities prices. The bubble burst, however, with the 1992 recession. A freshly sober Japan has awakened to new economic realities. "'Having ridden Japan's economic wave to the crest of excess, the material generation is suddenly growing reflective.... The civilization based on rapid consumption is over'" (Ono 1992, p. A-1). Embarrassed by the "conspicuous consumption of the 1980s: thick gold chains, tinted hair and Remy Martin by the quart," the Japanese are in the midst of a sweeping interchange from objects to subjects in a reconfiguration of national self-identity. According to one 35 year-old Japanese woman:

"Before, I was trying to provide my well-being by arming myself with products." Now, "no matter who [else] spends what kind of money, I don't care.... The crucial thing is to always be able to feel warm-hearted" (Ono 1992, p. A-1).

Popular Japanese magazines that once heralded the newest consumer fads now offer columns on strengthening romantic relationships. In the past, such publications often promoted objectification, counseling women to collect a different man for each purpose: "one with a car, another with money, one as a standby and, of course, one to get serious about." As the pendulum swings from the material to the social, these same magazines are advising women to choose just one man, "preferably the 'uncool but sincere' type" (Ono 1992, p. A-1).

In the western hemisphere, North Americans are variously characterized by marketers as returning to "family values," "cocooning," "burrowing," or a host of other terms referring to greater emphasis on the contribution of other human beings to the construction and maintenance of individual self-definition. While such a trend may be encouraging to some observers, one perspective is that - instead of re-balancing the values of the 1980s - the apparent emphasis on hearth, home, and family in the 1990s may be the latest round of person objectification. As one observer noted, "I see people having babies as if there were a race on. You've got to have an MBA, a BMW and a baby - it's the accessory of the '90s" (Gannett 1992, p. A-10).

Many marketing practitioners of the 1990s may be offering the themes of hearth, home and family as camouflage for promotion of postmodern conspicuous consumption. Such 1980s status symbols as Waterford crystal, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, designs by Donna Karan, the MasterCard gold card, Shearson Lehman brokers, and even Money magazine have attempted to reposition themselves in terms of 1990s family values. As noted by Lipman (1992, p. B-1), "...the theme rings especially false for the luxury goods that proudly touted themselves as symbols of conspicuous consumption just a few years back."


This paper draws heavily on symbolic interactionism to further consider the important role of material objects in individual self-definition. The establishment and maintenance of a viable sense of self results, in part, from symbolic interaction with subjects and objects. Where functional human relationships are lacking, people may turn to the symbolism of objects for portions of self-definition. We contend that the individual may substitute subjects and objects for each other, consciously or not, in the creation and maintenance of self-definition. "Interchangeability" is the term we give to the substitutability between subjects and objects for self-definition purposes.

Our intent is to portray interchangeability and materialism, not as negative and damaging forces motivated by greed and power, but as ways of protecting the self in a class society. In the words of Sennett and Cobb (1972, p. 171):

...the activities which keep people moving in a class society, which make them seek more money, more possessions, higher-status jobs, do not originate in a materialistic desire, or even sensuous appreciation, of things, but out of an attempt to restore a psychological deprivation that the class structure has effected in their lives. In other words, the psychological motivation instilled by a class society is to heal a doubt about the self.

Although improvement of the conceptualization and measurement of materialism is important (and indeed precursive) to theory-building, it is time to move forward and begin to construct explanations. By applying symbolic interaction to a social/material duality, consumer researchers interested in materialism have an additional perspective for further explication of why some people, but not others, emphasize material objects in their lives. Thus the interchangeability model may prove helpful in further explaining some of the complexities and apparent inconsistencies of consumption behavior in real life.


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