Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992
MUNDANE EVERYDAY CONSUMPTION AND THE SELF: A CONCEPTUAL
ORIENTATION AND PROSPECTS FOR CONSUMER RESEARCH
Robert E. Kleine III, Arizona State University
Susan Schultz-Kleine, Arizona State University
Jerome B. Kernan, George Mason University
The self--a sense of who and what we are--is offered as the
organizing construct through which people's everyday activities
can be seen as significant. The mundane tasks of daily life
(and the consumer behaviors necessary to enact them) deserve
greater attention than has been accorded them because they are
inextricably intertwined with people's sense of well-being.
A conceptual orientation to this genre of research suggests
the kinds of issues involved as well as the variety of investigative
approaches to each that seems congenial. At a minimum, the realm
of mundane activities affords researchers the opportunity to
select between buyer (acquisition) behavior and consumer (use
and disposition) behavior as a focal perspective.
"First, the very idea of consumption itself has to be
set back into the social process, not merely looked upon as
a result or objective of work. Consumption has to be recognized
as an integral part of the social need to relate to other people,
and to have mediating materials for relating to them. Mediating
materials are food, drink, and hospitality of home to offer,
flowers and clothes to signal shared rejoicing, or mourning
dress to share sorrow. Goods, work and consumption have been
artificially abstracted out of the whole social scheme. The
way the excision has been made damages the possibility of understanding
these aspects of life" (Douglas and Isherwood 1979, p.
Consumer research continues to emphasize pre-acquisition phases
of consumption. Consequently, the goods-in-use and disposition
phases remain underexplored. Similar to Douglas and Isherwood,
we submit that to understand consumer (cf. buyer) behavior,
it should be studied as it is embedded in daily life--i.e.,
as part-and-parcel of mundane everyday consumption.
"Mundane and everyday" refers to those activities
which constitute the bulk of daily life -- preparing meals,
relaxing, or getting to work, for example. Mundane everyday
consumption occurs while and as an integral part of negotiating
these daily life-tasks. Although the study of such ordinary
embedded consumption is not new (e.g., Boyd and Levy 1963),
it remains an underspecified aspect of consumer behavior.
We believe that the self (James 1890) affords a particularly
powerful lens through which ordinary consumption behavior can
be viewed inasmuch as many of our daily life-tasks constitute
self-enterprises--e.g., personal- and social-identity development.
As Belk (1988) has argued, possessions afford a person (and
others) a sense of both who and what s/he is. In the context
of Sartre's (1943) distinctions, we see the product clusters
that people use ("having") as facilitating their daily
activity patterns ("doing") and that these two, in
combination, reflect people's sense of self ("being").
Thus the ordinary things people do (and consume) every day have
profound implications for their sense of well-being. It seems
remarkable that such fundamental concerns do not reside at the
core of contemporary consumer research.
This paper is intended to: (1) direct researcher attention
to mundane everyday consumption as a not-so-mundane and, in
fact, rich research topic; (2) provide conceptual direction
for its exploration; (3) illustrate that significant research
questions are raised by such study; and (4) encourage consumer
researchers (of whatever metaphysical persuasion) to study mundane
everyday consumption phenomena.
MUNDANE CONSUMPTION: A CONCEPTUAL ORIENTATION
As noted above, mundane consumption is self-relevant; what
we consume--in order to perform even ordinary human activities--both
contributes to and reflects our sense of identity. Belk (1988)
has proposed that possessions not only define who and what we
are; they also afford us a link with the past and provide a
marker for the future. Given such a self-as-nexus construal,
it is not surprising that a variety of human concerns (quite
apart from the traditional consumer research agenda) has been
mirrored through the self--developmental psychologists, clinical
practitioners, sociologists and anthropologists, as well as
a host of critics (particularly of a post-modern bent) all see
it as a reflection of individual and social mental health. However,
we construe self broadly and do not implicate a particular self
theory. Any number of theoretical orientations on the self--e.g.,
independent vs. interdependent (Markus and Kitayama 1991), public
vs. private (Baumeister 1986), or social identity (Stryker 1980)--might
be useful for studying mundane consumption. But following Sarbin
and Allen (1968) and Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982), we believe
that mundane consumption is linked more closely with specific
aspects of the self (e.g., cyclist, parent) than with individuals'
wholistic self, even though consumer researchers traditionally
have studied the relevance of consumption to people's wholistic
self-concept (Sirgy 1982). Further, since the self is fundamentally
dynamic, a developmental (Kegan 1982) or cultivation (Csikszentmihalyi
and Rochberg-Halton 1981) approach to studying the self/consumption
link may prove most beneficial.
Casting mundane consumption as self-relevant raises three characteristics
of the phenomenon to which we believe consumer researchers have
paid insufficient attention: (1) mundane consumption involves
the patterned use of product clusters; (2) it occurs within
an activity stream; and (3) it frequently involves social interaction.
Each of these characteristics presents opportunities for consumer
Mundane consumption involves patterned use of sets of products.
Although generally studied in isolation, rarely are products
consumed that way (Boyd and Levy 1963; McCracken 1988; Michael
Solomon 1988). Mundane consumption entails using sets of interdependent
and complementary products in a particular way. A cyclist's
bicycle, cycling shorts, shirt, shoes, helmet, and gloves exemplify
the utilitarian and symbolic coherence of such sets. Product
clusters cohere around and enable an aspect of the self (Kernan
and Sommers 1967). This product-cluster-in-use orientation contrasts
with traditional symbolic consumer behavior research which adopts
a communication or person-perception perspective. Visible consumption
patterns influence our impressions of an unknown person (Belk,
Bahn, and Mayer 1982), for example, and the personality traits
we attribute to them (Holman 1980). In addition, people can
describe product clusters characteristic of certain cultural
categories of "person types" (e.g., businessman; Solomon
and Assael 1987). Yet such studies leave underspecified the
role that personal inventories of product clusters have in individuals'
daily lives. Consider the following issues raised by contemplating
product clusters in daily life.
- How do individuals select from and combine elements of their
existing product clusters? This process is not so simple when
we recognize that one's inventory of products relevant to a
particular aspect of self often contains more elements than
one can use all at once. Consider, for example, the daily challenge
of combining a set of things to wear to work. And what might
precipitate surprising, unusual, and/or innovative patterning
of items within a cluster or items from different clusters?
- Thinking in terms of self-relevant product clusters places
a different spin on product acquisition and disposition. Such
decisions become cast in a larger framework. Acquisition and
disposition are influenced by the self-appropriateness of the
product (cf. Kernan and Sommers 1967) and the impact that an
item's addition or deletion has on the resulting cluster (cf.
McCracken's  Diderot principle). We know little about
how individuals assess a product's self-relevance or how that
changes over time. We understand even less about how consumers
evaluate a product cluster's marginal utility when a new item
is added or an existing one is deleted.
Many research opportunities surround such product cluster dynamics.
How, for example, does a product cluster change over time through
acquisition, use, and disposition? What gave rise to the particular
combination of products owned? What constrains its composition?
Finally, what is the link between product clusters and self-cultivation?
How do self-relevant product clusters help us become certain
types of people? Do certain cluster elements serve as entry
(exit) barriers for cultivating (or disposing of) a particular
aspect of the self? Is it possible to create an aspect of oneself
simply by owning a particular product cluster? In short, mundane
consumption involves clusters of self-relevant products. This
view spurs us to explore product clusters, each one of which
coheres around some aspect of the self, how they arise, and
their purposes in carrying on everyday activities. This leads
us to the second characteristic of mundane consumption.
Mundane consumption occurs within an activity stream. Ewen
(1988, p. 108) observes that "life is caught between the
polarities of having and doing." Yet, to suggest that everyday
consumption is embedded within an activity stream recognizes
that having and doing are complementary, not polar opposites.
Activity streams generate, organize, and regulate consumption
(Boyd and Levy 1963). Consumption, in turn, enables the activity.
Cycling shoes, for example, enable one to ride a bicycle in
a particular way. The combination of activity stream and product
cluster forms a consumption system (Boyd and Levy 1963). Simply,
we consume while doing something; but the activity, not the
products consumed, is our primary focus.
- Casting product clusters as tools for supporting activity
streams emphasizes questions like: How are goods used to perform
an activity? How is product use embedded in an activity stream?
Are there core vs. peripheral enabling products for an activity?
If so, what happens to an activity if consumption of certain
core or peripheral products is inhibited? How is self-cultivation
influenced when this occurs?
Consumption-generating activity streams direct attention to
consumers' procedural knowledge and expertise. Yet much consumer
research is directed toward pre-having. These investigations
emphasize attributes of specific brands, consequently consumer
expertise is generally construed to reflect only consumers'
factual knowledge of brand-attributes (e.g., Alba and Hutchinson
1987). It seems implicitly assumed that consumers know how,
when, and in what combination products are used and where they
can be acquired. An emphasis on consumers' procedural (i.e.,
how-to) knowledge, however, raises questions like: How do people
acquire knowledge vis-a-vis a particular aspect of the self
(e.g., cyclist, gourmet cook, organic gardener) and the products--utilitarian
as well as symbolic--that will enable this enactment? How does
this learning affect who they can become (i.e., self-development)?
What are the sources of this learning? What relative influence
might friends, media, the marketplace, etc., have in cultivating
one's sense of self? Additional issues arise when consumers
encounter an unfamiliar (e.g., cross-cultural) realm. What are
the implications of not knowing the relevant consumption systems--e.g.,
when one doesn't understand an activity stream and/or what products
should/can be used to facilitate it? How does lack of such procedural
knowledge inhibit one's ability to function in the context?
Similarly, how are unusual or deviant consumption systems acquired
and how do they affect self-cultivation? Such processes often
involve other people, the third characteristic of mundane consumption.
Mundane consumption frequently involves social interaction.
The autonomous consumer has been consumer research's primary
focus. (There is even a budding concern with solitary consumption--Goodwin
1990). Yet many self-tasks are carried out in social settings.
Indeed, one purpose of self-relevant consumption is to help
us get along with others. Mundane consumption thus facilitates
and mediates social interaction (Douglas and Isherwood 1979).
This raises questions concerning how consumers use consumption
patterns in social interaction and, in turn, how social interaction
shapes those consumption patterns. For example, how do certain
products or product sets act as the nonverbal elements that
facilitate social communication in family settings like the
contemporary dinner table or consumers' exchanges with store
- The genesis (or culmination) of certain consumption patterns
(including those that may be dysfunctional) often depends upon
one's entry into (exit from) appropriate interpersonal networks.
Parents, for example, worry that their children will become
involved with the "wrong groups," which will introduce
them to substance abuse. Similarly, one's active participation
in a particular social-network--e.g., a sports-car club--can
stabilize consumption patterns and this can make stopping or
modifying consumption difficult. Participation in the sports-car
club might discourage one from exploring more athletic activities.
Apart from some nascent efforts (e.g., Reingen and Kernan 1986),
we understand little of how acquaintance networks influence
self-cultivation and accompanying self-relevant consumption
- Social-interaction can alter the course of a person's ongoing
consumption system. The consumption repertoire one displays
during (or in anticipation of) social interaction emerges from
the particulars of the intercourse; social exchange is a principle
source of mundane consumption's dynamism. Thus, even though
the topical context remains fixed, we bring a different set
of behaviors to each new episode in the topical drama. ("What
should I wear to work today?" "This is our third date;
what does s/he expect?") How people modify their self-relevant
consumption in response to interaction-embedded imperatives
is scarcely addressed in the agenda of traditional consumer
- And we sometimes desire to avoid social interaction. Consumption
patterns also are used to discourage or inhibit interaction,
for purposes of privacy or self-boundary regulation (Vinsel
et al. 1981). Listening to one's personal stereo, reading a
book, and Nautilus workouts are common examples. Yet consumer
researchers largely have ignored people's use of consumption
patterns to inhibit social-interaction (Goodwin 1990 is an exception).
- Finally, this social-interaction emphasis highlights the
under-explored domain of consumption that occurs only in groups.
Board games, sporting events, college educations, and academic
conferences are consumption activities for which social interaction
is fundamental. Such group-consumption phenomena perhaps best
exemplify our most basic premise: mundane consumption supports,
but is not the conscious focus of, individuals' self-cultivation.
They also challenge us, as consumer researchers, to enrich our
understanding of such complex consumption. (Ward and Reingen
1990 represents an enterprising effort toward this end.)
SOME DARK-SIDE REFLECTIONS
To recognize that both buyer behavior and consumer behavior
comprise self-relevant activities is to move beyond the ambitions
of marketing managers to the sober concerns of society. If our
consumption patterns fashion our identities, the consequences
of mundane activities are far more profound than traditionally
has been considered; both people's sense of well-being (a.k.a.
mental health) and our society's values (a.k.a. the commonweal)
are in play. And neither--at least according to the skeptics--is
immune from jeopardy.
Self-identity has always been a problem, some uneasy confederation
of the person, significant others, authority, religion and superstition.
Historically, one managed this (while not preoccupied with daily
sustenance) by negotiating a path between the tenants of Romanticism
(love, emotion, moral values) and the Enlightenment (reason,
empiricism). The postmodern era, however, complicated all this
with ever-expanding communication; one now is forced to relate
to a multitude of people and institutions in a variety of ways.
The result is that each of us is no longer one self, but many;
this is the age of the "saturated self" (Gergen 1991).
In the postmodern world the emphasis is on relationships--this
aspect of "me" (never the generalized SELF), presented
in whatever persona seems most appropriate. Gergen calls this
the "pastiche personality" (perhaps the equivalent
of high self-monitoring), a chameleon-like identity that is,
in sum, no identity. Life and truth are so fragmented, relative,
and ephemeral that no one has a residual sense of ME. As Ewen
(1988) puts it, "... the primacy of style over substance
has become the normative consciousness" (p. 2). Jack Solomon
(1988) is even less sanguine, contending that we have lost our
understanding of an "essential me," that there is
no centering self-identity or inherent character that remains.
He cites the careers of Madonna and Michael Jackson as semiotic
paradigms of our society, challenging skeptics to define who
or what these celebrities are.
If we are a society of fledgling neurotics, commercial depictions
(advertising, cinema) of mundane activities and the product
clusters that enable them surely bear scrutiny, although whether
these shape, reinforce, or merely chronicle socially-responsible
behavior may be a moot question. Apart from that sticky issue,
however, it seems clear that a multidimensional self is the
only tenable construal. We may long wistfully for a consummate
"character," but a stable (tensile?) assemblage of
self-definitions probably is requisite to contemporary life.
Such a compartmentalized construal has been central to our conceptualization
and is a tenet of Wicklund and Gollwitzer's (1982) provocative
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