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Symbolic Consumer Behavior
Articles, Essays, and Ponderings
by Rob Kleine
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April 1999

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 Robert E. Kleine, III
Freelance Scholar
   Susan Schultz Kleine
Department of Marketing
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green , OH 43403


Routinely, people use consumption to cultivate not only acquisition and maintenance of an aspect of identity, but also to assist identity disposition or identity reconstruction. The paper presents a working model of the identity project life cycle, based on symbolic interactionist identity theory. The model portrays the evolution of a specific social identity (e.g., biker, skydiver, bird watcher) through four phases: identity (re)discovery, identity (re)construction, maintenance, and disposition. Additionally, identity latency is portrayed. Each phase corresponds to changes in self-schemata and consumption patterns. The model is described and used to generate propositions for studying how changes in self-schemata and consumption go hand-in-hand with the cycling of an identity through its various phases.



We cultivate and preserve our identities via symbolic use of possessions (e.g., Belk 1988; Solomon 1982). Not only do people use consumption for acquiring or maintaining an aspect of self-concept, they also use it to facilitate other kinds of identity change, namely, for temporarily or permanently laying aside an aspect of identity (e.g., Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf 1988; Kleine, Kleine, and Allen 1995; McAlexander 1991; Young 1991). Additionally, having put aside a particular piece of identity for a time, an individual may attempt to rebuild that aspect of self-concept. Identity projects continually evolve over time (Kegan 1982) through stages of acquisition, maintenance, latency or disposition, and possible reconstruction of the piece of identity in question. At each of these stages, a person's cognitive representations of "self", that is, the person's self-schemata, may change.

Young girl sitting against a tree.  (c) Rob Kleine.  GentlEye ImagerySome consumer socialization researchers limit socialization processes to children (e.g., Ward 1974). Other consumer researchers expand the socialization concept to include adults and examine the role of media as socializing agents (Faber and O'Guinn 1988). A more holistic view of consumption socialization is evident in Celsi, Rose, and Leigh's (1993) and Schouten and McAlexander's (1995) portrayals of factors related to acquisition and maintenance of a part of one's self (e.g., skydiver, biker). This paper extends and complements those efforts to understand consumption socialization among adults. Specifically, we sketch the outline of a conceptual model of the identity project lifecycle. The model directs attention to consumption that influences the identity latency, identity disposition, and identity reconstruction phases, neglected modes of consumption behavior in consumer research. The model also provides the bases for a number of propositions about how identity schemas and consumption evolve through the various stages of an identity project.



Empirical Evidence of Identity Cycling

Research into voluntary blood donation provides one example of identity cycling (Callero 1985; Piliavin, Callero, and Evans 1984). At the initial stage of identity development, before a person sees him or herself as a blood donor, external pressures (e.g., encouraging friends, workplace expectations of employees) push a person to try blood donation. Over time and experience with blood donation activity, a view of one's self as a donor emerges. Inwardly, the person's self-schemata (Markus 1977) includes cognitive representations of one's self as a blood donor, including an image that "I am a blood donor" (Callero 1985). Moreover, outward symbols (e.g., gallon donor lapel pins, donor award plaques) invite reinforcing feedback from others and serve to reminde the donor of "who he is." A social structure supports the identity -- e.g., the medical personnel and other donors with whom the individual's self-image of "blood donor" is practiced and reinforced. Although not examined by Piliavin and collegues, we assume that if a person stops donating blood he would experience a self-schema change -- "blood donor" would fade from his identity. Another person who temporarily puts aside blood donation (e.g., for pregnancy or illness), may need to partially reconstruct the identity upon returning to the behavior.

A photographer along the Escalante Route, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ.  (c) Rob Kleine.  GentlEye ImageryAlthough blood donation is not a typical consumption behavior laden with possession symbols, blood donation identity cultivation illustrates the cycling of an identity through initial trial and exploration, to maintenance, to latency or disposition, and possible reconstruction. This cycling occurs through outside-in and inside-out processes that influence identity changes that are reflected in identity-related schemas. The blood donor example also shows that cultivating an aspect of identity is not just an inside-out, internally driven process in which consumption behavior is the dependent variable. As Solomon (1983) argues, social influences, including possessions, are "social stimuli" -- part of the social structure that influences identity development from the outside-in.

Social Identities and Identity-Related Schemas

People may attempt to change their entire identity (e.g., Shouten 1991), but more often than not, adult self-cultivation only involves a piece of the self, labeled a social identity here (Stryker 1980). Each of a person's social identities corresponds to an internal representation in the form of a set of three identity-related schemas (discussed below) and an external social network, labeled social connections, in which the identity is performed and cultivated (Kleine, Kleine, and Kernan 1993). All of a person's social identities are hierarchically organized to comprise the overall, or global self-concept. Identity importance describes as the relative ranking of a particular social identity in an individual's hierarchically organized self-concept. More important identities are evoked more often and across various situations, and have a greater impact on the persons' overall sense of self (Callero 1985; Stryker 1980). Identity, as construed here, links the person to society.

The self-schemas referred to are similar to Markus' (1977) self-schemata, but here we refer to each self-schema as being tied to a particular social identity within an individual's global self-concept. We further construe the schemas to contain knowledge used to guide having and doing as pertains to a particular societal role or personal identity. Empirical evidence applying this social identity approach demonstrates that there are three schemata associated with each identity: a role schema, an identity schema, and an identity ideal schema (Kleine, et al. 1993) . The role schema contains shared representations, such as norms and cultural stereotypes about "doing" a particular social role; this includes tacit knowledge about the "typical" person in that role and knowledge of the constellation of products that symbolize and enable that role (e.g., Kernan and Sommers 1967; Solomon 1988). An individual's identity schema represents one's understanding of him or herself with respect to a particular role and is thus more personalized and often more realistic. The identity schema includes representation of an identity-related product cluster (the actual possessions the person has related to the identity). The person's identity ideal schema corresponds to how the person would like to become as one who enacts that role. According to empirical results (Kleine, et al. 1993), a person's identity schema ("how I am as a gardener") is guided by the identity ideal ("how I would like to be as a gardener") and the role schema ("how the typical gardener gardens). The role schema also guides the identity-ideal schema. The identity schema has the most direct impact upon identity-related possessions schema (the possessions I own because I am, am trying to be, or was, a gardener). Below we explore how the content of the three schemas, and their relative influences on consumption behavior, may change as the related social identity evolves through the identity project life cycle stages.

Identity change is accompanied by external changes in one's social networks (Stryker 1980) and in use and display of possessions. One's social commitments (social network contacts related to an identity) provide the opportunity to learn about, enact, and receive feedback about, one's identity attempts. As with the blood donor example, this structure of identity-related social contacts can cause entry into a particular identity. A person can be ‘dragged into', pulled out of, or kept from leaving, an identity "from the outside". From this perspective, our social networks affect who we are as much as internal drives. The cycling of a particular identity in a person's self-concept is affected by and reflected in changes in the person's external social network.


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