This article examines the concept of self from the perspective of the self as manifest and reflected in consumption decisions. Within the consumer behaviour literature there is general acceptance for a high degree of autonomy in individuals' self-related consumption decisions. The assumption is that we can choose the type of person we want to be, and purchase, within income limits, the appropriate "props" to assist in achieving our goal. I argue that this view is simplistic and fails to appreciate the extent to which culture influences individuals' perceptions of the desirability of different "ways to be" and the objects that are considered appropriate to communicate specific personal attributes.
The self-concept and consumption
According to psychologists, individuals understand their self-concepts on the basis of observations of their own behaviours, as well as the reactions of others to these behaviours. If the self is viewed in terms of what actions are performed by the individual, consumption behaviours in modern consumer economies should be instrumental in the development and expression of the self-concept (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton). In the discipline of consumer behaviour, people are thought to derive their sense of self at least partially from the goods and services they consume. Through the consumption of the symbols contained in products, consumers attempt to enhance their self-concepts by using products to communicate particular personal characteristics to themselves and others. Consumption is thus argued to operate as an effective means of communicating identity and positioning oneself relative to others. Not just single products but constellations of products are required to effectively communicate this information to others (Solomon and Englis).
Anthropologists recognise that every culture-member is both a source and a subject of judgements made according to object ownership. They also note the fracturing of social systems that have traditionally been considered suppliers of self-definition. These systems include family, religious, and community relationships, and their loss of influence allows greater individual control over self-concept formation and communication. As societies come to operate on a larger scale, the growing anonymity and diversification of duties result in identities being increasingly inferred from the ownership of symbolic possessions, rather than reliance on personal familiarity. In such an environment, stereotyping according to consumption is the norm.
Stereotyping can be seen as a mechanism by which we can select between symbolic options to construct desirable versions of our selves. Advertising exists to inform us of the range of products and associated "selves" available, and thus provides a valuable service in our ongoing efforts to develop appropriate or desirable selves. In this sense the use of objects in the construction and maintenance of the self-concept is seen as a conscious, controllable process in which consumers engage to maximise their satisfaction (Ger). Consumers shop for a self-identity just as they would shop for a consumer good, and there is an assumed intentionality in their actions that stems from a conscious thought process.
Another way of interpreting the relationship between the self and consumption is that communication of the self via consumption is not an optional activity, but one that is necessary for social survival. And not just one self, but multiple selves must be constructed and maintained for each of the different roles we play in life (Firat 1995). Some have suggested that an outcome of this need to exhibit multiple selves may be individuals who are alienated from themselves due to the discomfort of being unable to identify their own core selves (Havel; Ogilvy).
Awareness of the stereotyping activities of others forces consumers into defensive modes of consumption that are designed to protect them from unwanted judgements. Self-representation via consumption thus requires planning and organisation, as opposed to being an optional pastime in which consumers can participate if they so desire. According to some analysts, this concern with presenting a desired image via consumption is actively encouraged as it is a source of ongoing consumption (Droge, Calantone, Agrawal, and Mackoy; Kilbourne, McDonagh, and Prothero). The close relationship between the self and consumption is seen as a necessary by-product of the need for high levels of consumption in capitalist markets (Murphy and Miller; Miller).
Compelled into consumption designed to manage their images to others, consumers are not free to consume any products in any combinations, as such behaviour is unlikely to achieve the image outcomes they have been conditioned to desire. In order to communicate the appropriate self in a given situation, consumers must acquire specific products and consume them in specific ways. The power of choice of the individual in this scenario is more perceived than real, and this may leave consumers more susceptible to advertising and other forms of marketing communications than is currently acknowledged. The media can widely disseminate versions of social reality that consumers absorb as part of their understanding of their world (Davis 1997). For example, appropriate consumption patterns for individuals from different age, gender, and social class categories are specifically communicated in advertising messages (Holbrook and Hirschman).
The role of culture
The self as reflected in individuals' consumption decisions is culturally influenced in that different cultures and subcultures incorporate different objects into their sense of self (Belk). The relationship between the self and culture is reflected in the term "cultural anchoring", a term that describes the process by which certain products become part of an individual's self-concept (LaTour and Roberts).
The self develops to operate within a culture, and in doing so reinforces that culture (Cushman). Consumers are conditioned to develop self-concepts that are appropriate to their age, gender, and social groupings (Levy). They feel compelled to fulfil the requirements of these classifications, usually accepting the role assigned to them by their culture (Firat 1991). Roles are culturally connected to a range of consumer goods that are considered crucial to the "correct" performance of the role, and culture is the force that specifically provides the associations between objects and social roles (Solomon). As described by Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton: "Thus, by a process whose beautiful inevitability recalls that of a cell duplicating and differentiating itself into a complex organism, the self through its own seemingly autonomous choices replicates the order of its culture and so becomes a part of that order and a means for its further replication." (105)
The inherent nature of this drive to conform to societal expectations remains unapparent to consumers, allowing them the perception of free choice rather than coercion. In fact, the perception of free choice is of critical importance to the continuation of the prevailing system. But how is it that individuals do not appreciate the extent to which their efforts at self-development through consumption are culturally driven? Consumer researchers argue that people wish to feel unique in consumption, thus supposedly selecting objects that are somehow special or unique. Paradoxically, the objects selected are often mass-produced products and are thus common to many other consumers. The argument is that these products in their sameness can perform the valued function of communicating social integration, while permitting some degree of individuality in their combination. Fiske, Hodge, and Turner give the case of the ubiquitous T-shirt, explaining how this product simultaneously provides a mechanism for communicating group membership and individual difference. The generic form of the T-shirt symbolises conformity, while the vast range of T-shirt designs allows personal differentiation. To some, consumers' beliefs in their individuality are legitimate as small differences in product combinations are considered to be adequate to claim uniqueness. Another interpretation, however, is that such beliefs are a form of self-delusion, as small differences only camouflage the over-riding similarity between the consumption patterns of individuals.
To conclude, consumption is used extensively in self-concept construction and maintenance in modern consumer economies. What is not always recognised is that the nature of the self-concept that is desired and the parameters for product usage to achieve the desired self-concept are highly specified by the cultural environment. The implication of this is that individuals are highly dependent on consumption for communication of their selves, to the point that the concept of the autonomous consumer who is free to choose between a multitude of product options can be viewed as a modern myth.