ArticlePDF Available

Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods

Abstract

Cultural meaning in a consumer society moves ceaselessly from one location to another. In the usual trajectory, cultural meaning moves first from the culturally constituted world to consumer goods and then from these goods to the individual consumer. Several instruments are responsible for this movement: advertising, the fashion system, and four consumption rituals. This article analyzes the movement of cultural meaning theoretically, showing both where cultural meaning is resident in the contemporary North American consumer system and the means by which this meaning is transferred from one location in this system to another.
Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical
Account of the Structure and Movement of
the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods
GRANT McCRACKEN*
Cultural meaning
in
a consumer society moves ceaselessly from one location to
another.
In
the usual trajectory. cultural meaning moves first from the culturally
constituted world to consumer goods and then from these goods
to
the individual
consumer. Several instruments are responsible for this movement: advertising. the
fashion system. and four consumption rituals. This article analyzes the movement
of cultural meaning theoretically. showing both where cultural meaning
is
resident
in
the contemporary North American consumer system and the means by which
this meaning
is
transferred from one location in this system
to
another.
Consumer goods have a significance
that
goes be-
yond their utilitarian character and commercial
value. This significance rests largely in their ability to
carry and communicate cultural meaning (Douglas and
Isherwood 1978; Sahlins 1976). During the last decade,
a diverse body
of
scholars has made the cultural sig-
nificance
of
consumer goods the focus
of
renewed ac-
ademic study (Belk 1982; Bronner 1983; Felson 1976;
Furby 1978;
Graumann
1974-1975; Hirschman 1980;
Holman 1980; Leiss 1983; Levy 1978; McCracken
1985c; Prown 1982; Quimby 1978; Rodman and Phi-
libert 1985; Schlereth 1982; Solomon 1983). These
scholars have established a subfield extending across
the social sciences that now devotes itself with increasing
clarity and thoroughness to the study
of
"person-object"
relations.
In
this article, I propose to contribute a theo-
retical perspective to this emerging subfield by showing
that the meaning carried by goods has a mobile quality
for which prevailing theories make no allowance.
A great limitation
of
present approaches to the study
of
the cultural meaning
of
consumer goods
is
the failure
to observe that this meaning
is
constantly in transit.
Cultural meaning
flows
continually between its several
locations in the social world, aided by the collective
and individual efforts
of
designers, producers, advertis-
ers, and consumers. There is a traditional trajectory to
this movement. Usually, cultural meaning
is
drawn
from a culturally constituted world
and
transferred to
Grant McCracken is Assistant Professor, Department
of
Con-
sumer Studies, University
of
Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N I G
2W
1.
The author thanks the following individuals for their contri-
bution to the paper: Michael Ames, Duncan Joy, Mary Ellen Roach-
Higgins, K.O.L. Burridge, and the anonymous reviewers
of
this Jour-
nal.
71
a consumer good. Then the meaning is drawn from the
object and transferred to an individual consumer.
In
other words, cultural meaning
is
located in three places:
the culturally constituted world, the consumer good,
and
the individual consumer, and moves in a trajectory
at two points
of
transfer: world to good and good to
individual. The Figure summarizes this relationship.
In
this article I propose to analyze this trajectory
of
mean-
ing, taking each
of
its stages in turn.
Appreciating the mobile quality
of
cultural meaning
in a consumer society should help to illuminate two
aspects
of
consumption in modern society. First, such
a perspective encourages us
to
see consumers and con-
sumer goods as the way-stations
of
meaning.
In
this
manner,
we
focus on structural and dynamic properties
of
consumption that have not always been emphasized.
Second, the "trajectory" perspective asks us to see such
phenomena as advertising, the fashion world, and con-
sumption rituals
as
instruments
of
meaning movement.
Weare
encouraged to acknowledge the presence
of
a
large and powerful system
at
the heart
of
modern con-
sumer society that gives this society some
of
its coher-
ence and flexibility even as it serves
as
a constant source
of
incoherence and discontinuity.
In
sum, this perspec-
tive can help to demonstrate some
of
the full complexity
of
current consumption behavior
and
to reveal in a
more detailed way
just
what it
is
to be a "consumer
society. "
LOCATIONS OF CULTURAL
MEANING: THE CULTURALLY
CONSTITUTED WORLD
The original location
of
the cultural meaning that
ultimately resides in consumer goods is the culturally
© JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH. Vol.
13.
June
1986
72
FIGURE
MOVEMENT OF MEANING
Culturally
Constituted
World
I I
Advertising/Fashion Fashion
System System
i +
Consumer Goods
I I I I
Possession Exchange Grooming Divestment
Ritual Ritual Ritual Ritual
+
~
~
~
Individual Consumer
KEY:
CJ
Location
of
Meaning
-Instrument
of
Meaning Transfer
constituted world. This is the world
of
everyday expe-
rience in which the phenomenal world presents itself
to the individual's senses fully shaped
and
constituted
by the beliefs
and
assumptions
of
his/her culture. Cul-
ture constitutes the phenomenal world in two ways.
First, culture is the "lens" through which the individual
views phenomena;
as
such, it determines how the phe-
nomena
will be apprehended
and
assimilated. Second,
culture is the
"blueprint"
of
human
activity, determin-
ing the co-ordinates
of
social action and productive ac-
tivity, and specifying the behaviors and objects that issue
from both.
As
a lens, culture determines how the world
is seen.
As
a blueprint, it determines how the world will
be fashioned by
human
effort. In short, culture consti-
tutes the world by supplying it with meaning. This
meaning can be characterized in terms
of
two concepts:
cultural categories
and
cultural principles.
Cultural Categories
Cultural categories are the fundamental coordinates
of
meaning (McCracken 1985a), representing the basic
distinctions
that
a culture uses
to
divide
up
the phe-
nomenal world.
For
instance, all cultures specify cat-
egories
of
time.
In
our
culture these categories include
an
elaborate system that can discriminate units as fine
as a "second" and as vast as a
"millennium."
Our
cul-
ture also makes less precise
but
no less significant dis-
tinctions between leisure and work time, sacred
and
profane time,
and
so on. Cultures also specify categories
of
space. In
our
culture these categories include mea-
surement
and
"occasion." Cultures also segment the
flora, fauna,
and
landscape
of
natural
and
supernatural
worlds into categories. Perhaps the most
important
cat-
THE
JOURNAL
OF
CONSUMER
RESEARCH
egories are those
that
cultures create in the
human
community-the
distinctions
of
class, status, gender,
age, and occupation.
Cultural categories
of
time, space, nature, and person
make up the vast body
of
categories, creating a system
of
distinctions
that
organizes the phenomenal world.
Each culture establishes its own special vision
of
the
world, thus rendering the understandings
and
rules ap-
propriate to one cultural context preposterously inap-
propriate in another. A specific culture makes a privi-
leged set
of
terms, within which virtually nothing ap-
pears alien
or
unintelligible
to
the individual member
of
the culture
and
outside
of
which there is no order,
no system, no safe assumption, and no ready compre-
hension. In sum, by investing the world with its own
particular meaning, culture "constitutes" the world.
It
is
from a world so constituted that the meaning destined
for consumer goods is drawn.
Cultural Categories
in
Contemporary
North
America
It
is worth noting that cultural categories in present
day North America appear to have unique character-
istics. First, they possess
an
indeterminacy
that
is
not
normally evident in other ethnographic circumstances.
For instance, cultural categories
of
person are marked
by a persistent and striking lack
of
clarity, as are cultural
categories
of
age. Second, they possess
an
apparent
"elective" quality. Devoted as it is to the freedom
of
the individual, contemporary North American society
permits its members
to
declare
at
their own discretion
the cultural categories they presently occupy. Exercising
this freedom, teenagers declare themselves adults,
members
of
the working class declare themselves middle
class, the old declare themselves young,
and
so on. Cat-
egory membership, which in most cultures is more
strictly specified and policed, is in our own society much
more a matter
of
individual choice. In our culture, in-
dividuals are to a great extent what they claim
to
be,
even when these claims are, by some sober sociological
reckoning, implausible.
We
must note a third characteristic
of
cultural cat-
egories in contemporary North America: they are sub-
ject to constant
and
rapid change. The dynamic quality
of
present day North American cultural categories
plainly adds
to
their indeterminacy. More important,
however, this dynamism also makes
our
cultural cate-
gories subject to the manipulative efforts
of
the indi-
vidual. Social groups can seek
to
change their place in
the categorical scheme, while marketers can seek to es-
tablish or encourage a new cultural category
of
person
(e.g., the teenager, the "yuppie") in order to create a
new market segment. Cultural categories in contem-
porary North America are subject to rethinking
and
rearrangement by several parties.
CULTURE
AND
CONSUMPTION
The Substantiation
of
Cultural Categories
Cultural categories are the conceptual grid
of
a cul-
turally constituted world. They determine how this
world will be segmented into discrete, intelligible parcels
and
how these parcels will be organized
into
a larger
coherent system.
For
all their importance, however,
cultural categories have
no
substantial presence
in
the
world they organize. They are the scaffolding
on
which
the world is hung
and
are therefore invisible. But cul-
tural categories are constantly substantiated by
human
practice. Acting in conformity with the blueprint
of
culture, the members
of
a
community
are constantly
realizing categories in the world. Individuals continually
play
out
categorical distinctions, so
that
the world they
create
is
made consistent with the world they imagine.
In
a sense, the members
of
a culture are constantly en-
gaged in the
construction-the
constitution-of
the
world they live in.
One
of
the most
important
ways in which cultural
categories are substantiated is through a culture's ma-
terial objects.
As
we shall see
in
a moment, objects are
created according to a culture's blueprint
and
to this
extent, objects render the categories
of
this blueprint
material
and
substantial. Thus, objects contribute
to
the construction
of
the culturally constituted world
precisely because they are a vital, tangible record
of
cultural meaning
that
is otherwise intangible. Indeed,
it
is
not
too
much
to say
that
objects have a "perfor-
mative" function (Austin 1963;
Tambiah
1977) insofar
as they give cultural meaning a concreteness for the
individual
that
it would not otherwise have. The cultural
meaning
that
has organized a world is made a visible,
demonstrable
part
of
that
world through goods.
The process by which a culture makes its cultural
categories manifest has been studied in some detail by
anthropologists. Structural anthropology has supplied
a theoretical scheme for this study,
and
several subspe-
cialties, such as the anthropologies
of
art, clothing,
housing,
and
material culture, have supplied areas
of
particular investigation. As a result
of
this work, there
is
now a clear theoretical understanding
of
the way in
which linguistic
and
especially nonlinguistic media ex-
press cultural categories (Barthes 1967; deSaussure
1966; Levi-Strauss 1963, p. 116; Sahlins 1976). There
is also a wide range
of
empirical investigation into the
areas
of
spatial organization (Doxtater 1984), house
form (Bourdieu 1973;
Cunningham
1973), art (Fernan-
dez 1966; Greenberg 1975), clothing (Adams 1973;
McCracken 1986; Schwarz 1979),
ornament
(Drewal
1983), technology (Lechtman
and
Merrill 1977),
and
food (Appadurai 1981; Douglas 1971;
Ortner
1978).
This study
of
material culture has helped to show how
the world is furnished with material objects
that
reflect
and
contribute to its cultural
constitution-how
cul-
tural categories are substantiated.
The Substantiation
of
Cultural Categories
in
Goods
73
Goods may be seen as
an
opportunity
to
express the
categorical scheme established by a culture. Goods are
an
opportunity
to
make culture material. Like any other
species
of
material culture, goods allow individuals to
discriminate visually among culturally specified cate-
gories by encoding these categories
in
the form
of
a set
of
material distinctions. Categories
of
person divided
into
parcels
of
age, sex, class,
and
occupation can be
represented
in
a set
of
material distinctions by means
of
goods. Categories
of
space, time,
and
occasion can
also be reflected
in
this
medium
of
communication.
Goods help substantiate the order
of
culture.
Several studies have examined the way in which goods
serve
in
this substantiation. Sahlins' study (1976)
of
the
symbolism
of
North
American consumer goods ex-
amines food
and
clothing "systems"
and
shows their
correspondence to cultural categories
of
person. Levy's
(1981) study
of
the correspondence between food types
and
cultural categories
of
sex
and
age
in
American so-
ciety
is
another excellent illustration
of
the way in which
one can approach the demographic information carried
in goods from a structuralist point
of
view. Both ofthese
studies demonstrate
that
the order
of
goods is modelled
on
the order
of
culture. Both studies also demonstrate
that
much
of
the meaning
of
goods can be traced back
to the categories
into
which a culture segments the
world.
The
substantiation
of
class categories by con-
sumer goods has been considered by Belk, Mayer,
and
Bahn (1981), Coleman (1983), Davis (1956),
Form
and
Stone (1957), Goffman (1951), Sommers (1963), Ver-
shure, Magel,
and
Sadalla (1977),
and
Warner and Lunt
(1941). The substantiation
of
gender categories has been
less well examined
but
appears to be drawing more
scholarly attention (Allison et al. 1980; Belk 1982;
Hirschman 1984; Levy 1959). The substantiation
of
age
categories also appears to be receiving more attention
(Disman 1984; Olson 1985; Sherman
and
Newman
1977-1978;
Unruh
1983).
Cultural Principles
Cultural meaning also consists
of
cultural principles.
In
the case
of
principles, meaning resides
in
the ideas
or
values
that
determine how cultural
phenomena
are
organized, evaluated,
and
construed.
If
cultural cate-
gories are the result
of
a culture's segmentation
of
the
world
into
discrete parcels, cultural principles are the
organizing ideas by which the segmentation is per-
formed. Cultural principles are the charter assumptions
that
allow all cultural
phenomena
to be distinguished,
ranked,
and
interrelated. As the orienting ideas for
thought
and
action, cultural principles find expression
in every aspect
of
social life, goods
not
least
of
all.
74
Cultural principles, like cultural categories, are sub-
stantiated by material culture in general
and
consumer
goods in particular.
It
is worth observing
that
cultural
categories
and
cultural
principlt~s
are mutually presup-
posing,
and
their expression in goods is necessarily si-
multaneous. Therefore, goods are incapable
of
signi-
fying one without signifying the other. When goods
show a distinction between two cultural categories, they
do so by encoding something
of
the principle according
to which the two categories have been distinguished.
Thus, the clothing
that
distinguishes between
men
and
women
or
between high
and
low classes also reveals
something
ofthe
nature
of
the differences
that
are sup-
posed
to
exist between these categories (McCracken
1985c). Clothing
communicatl~s
both the supposed
"delicacy"
of
women
and
"stre:ngth"
of
men
or
both
the supposed "refinement"
of
a higher class
and
"vul-
garity"
of
a lower one. Appare:ntly, the categories
of
class
and
sex are never communicated without this in-
dication
of
how
and
why they are
to
be distinguished.
The world
of
goods, unlike that
of
language, never en-
gages in a simple signalling
of
difference. In fact, goods
are always more forthcoming
and
more revealing. In
the world
of
goods, signs are always, in a sense, more
motivated
and
less arbitrary
than
in the world
of
lan-
guage.
Cultural principles in contemporary North America
have the same indeterminate, changeable, elective
quality
that
cultural categories do. Such principles as
"naturalism" can fall into disrepute in one decade, only
to
be rehabilitated and advanced
to
a new place
of
im-
portance in another, as occurred in the 1960s. The
principle
of
"disharmony" that the punk aesthetic finds
so useful was once not a principle
but
merely the term
for phenomena that had somehow escaped the suc-
cessful application
of
another principle. The ethno-
graphic literature on the meaning
of
objects as principle
may be found in Adams (1973), Drewal (1983), Fer-
nandez (1966),
and
McCracken (1982a). Substantive
literature
that
shows the presence
and
nature
of
the
meaning
of
objects as principle in contemporary North
American society
is
not
abundant. Levy (1981) makes
passing reference to this question, as does Sahlins
(1976),
and
the idea is implicitly treated in the work
of
Lohof (1969)
on
the meaning carried by the Marlboro
cigarette. The idea also surfaces in the attempt
of
so-
ciologists to make objects
an
index
of
status and class.
For
example,
Laumann
and
House (1970) sought
to
establish the meaning
of
household furniture
and
re-
sorted
to
the principles
of
"mode:rn"
and
"traditional."
Felson in his study
of
"material life styles" (1976) pos-
ited something called a "bric-a-brac factor" while Davis
(1958) coined the term "Bauhaus Japanesey" to char-
acterize a certain principle
of
interior design. The prin-
ciple
of
"science" (or, more exactly, the concern for
technical mastery
of
nature
and
the confidence
that
hu-
man
affairs can be benignly transformed through tech-
THE
JOURNAL
OF CONSUMER RESEARCH
nological innovation) was a favorite motif
of
the kitchen
appliances and automobiles in 1950s
and
1960s North
America (Csikszentimihalyi
and
Rochberg-Halton
1981, p. 52). Scholars in the material culture
arm
of
American studies
and
art history have made the most
notable contribution here (Quimby 1978; Schlereth
1982). Prown (1980)
and
Cohen (1982), for instance,
have examined the principles evident in American fur-
niture.
It
is plain in any case that, like cultural categories,
cultural principles are substantiated by consumer goods,
and these goods, so charged, help make up the culturally
constituted world. Both cultural categories and prin-
ciples organize the
phenomenal
world
and
the efforts
of
a community
to
manipulate this world. Goods sub-
stantiate both categories
and
principles
and
therefore
enter into the culturally constituted world as both the
object and objectification
of
this world. In short, goods
are both the creations and the creators
of
the culturally
constituted world.
INSTRUMENTS
OF
MEANING
TRANSFER:
WORLD
TO
GOOD
Meaning first resides in the culturally constituted
world. To become resident in consumer goods, meaning
must be disengaged from this world
and
transferred to
goods. The present section proposes to examine two
of
the institutions that are now used as instruments
of
meaning transfer: advertising, and product design as
practiced in the fashion system.
Advertising
Advertising works as a potential method
of
meaning
transfer by bringing the consumer good
and
a repre-
sentation
of
the culturally constituted world together
within the frame
of
a particular advertisement. The
creative director
of
an advertising agency seeks to con-
join
these two elements in such a way that the viewer/
reader glimpses an essential similarity between them.
When this symbolic equivalence is successfully estab-
lished, the viewer/reader attributes to the consumer
good certain properties s/he knows exist in the culturally
constituted world. The known properties
of
the cultur-
ally constituted world thus come to reside in the un-
known properties
ofthe
consumer good and the transfer
of
meaning from world to good is accomplished.
The mechanics
of
such a complicated process deserve
more detailed exposition. The creative director is con-
cerned with effecting the successful conjunction
of
two
elements, one
of
which is specified by a client. In most
cases, the client gives the director a consumer good, the
physical properties
and
packaging
of
which are fixed
and
not subject to manipulation. The second element,
CULTURE AND CONSUMPTION
the representation
of
the culturally constituted world,
is constrained and free in almost equal proportions. The
client, sometimes drawing
on
marketing research and
advice, will specify the properties being sought for the
consumer good. Armed with these specifications, the
creative director now enjoys a wide range
of
discretion-
ary control. Subject only
to
the negative constraints
of
budgetary limitations and the positive constraints
of
a
continuous brand image, the director is free to deliver
the desired symbolic properties in
anyone
of
a nearly
infinite number
of
ways.
This delivery process consists
of
a lengthy and elab-
orate series
of
choices (Dyer 1982; McCracken 1984;
Sherry 1985; Williamson 1978). The first choice is a
difficult one. The director must identify with sufficient
clarity for his/her own purposes the properties that are
sought for the good in question. This procedure some-
times results in a period
of
complicated discourse be-
tween client
and
director where the parties alternately
lead and follow one another into a sharpened appre-
ciation
of
the properties sought for the consumer good.
In any case, the advertising firm will enter into its own
consultative process in order to establish clarity suffi-
cient for its own purposes. The second choice in the
delivery process is equally difficult
but
perhaps less
consultative. The director must decide where the prop-
erties desired for the ad reside in the culturally consti-
tuted world. The director has
at
his/her disposal a vast
array
of
possibilities from which to choose. Place must
be selected,
and
the first choice here is whether the ad
will have a fantasy setting
or
a naturalistic one.
If
the
latter is chosen, it must be decided whether it will be
an interior
or
an exterior setting,
an
urban
or
rural
landscape, or a cultivated
or
untamed environment.
Time
of
day and time
of
year must also be chosen.
If
people are to appear in the advertisement, their sex,
age, class, status, and occupation must be selected and
their clothing
and
body postures
and
affective states
specified (Goffman 1979). These are the pieces
of
the
culturally constituted world that can be evoked in
the ad.
It
must be noted that this selection process can be
performed more
or
less well, according
to
the skill and
training
of
the director. There is no simple route from
the desired properties for the consumer good to the
pieces
of
the culturally constituted world that can evoke
them in the advertisement.
As
members
of
the adver-
tising profession point out, this is a creative process
where the most appropriate selections for the adver-
tisement are not so much calculated as glimpsed. Im-
precision
and
error in this creative process are not only
possible but legion. It must also be noted that the process
of
selection, because it is creative, proceeds
at
uncon-
scious
as
well as conscious levels. Directors are
not
al-
ways fully cognizant
of
how and why a selection is made,
even when this selection presents itself as compelling
and
necessary (e.g., Arlen 1980, pp. 99, 119).
75
In sum, the director must choose from among alter-
natives that have been created by the network
of
cultural
categories
and
principles that constitute a culture's
world. The chosen alternatives will reflect those cate-
gories and principles that a director decides most closely
approximate the meaning that the client seeks for the
product. Once these two choice processes are complete,
a third set
of
choices must be made. The director must
decide
just
how the culturally constituted world is to
be portrayed in the advertisement. This process consists
of
reviewing all
of
the objects
that
substantiate the
se-
lected meaning and then deciding which
of
these objects
will be used to evoke this meaning in the advertisement.
Finally, the director must decide how to present the
product in its highly contrived context. Photographic
and visual conventions will be exploited to give the
viewer/reader the opportunity to glimpse an essential
equivalence between the two elements
of
world
and
ob-
ject. The director must bring these two elements into a
conjunction that encourages a metaphoric identification
of
sameness by the would-be consumer. World and good
must seem to enjoy a special
harmony-must
be seen
to
go
together. When the viewer/reader glimpses this
sameness (after one
or
many exposures to the stimuli),
the process
of
transfer has taken place. Meaning has
shifted from the culturally constituted world to the
consumer good. This good now stands for a cultural
meaning
of
which it was previously innocent.
Visual images and verbal material appear to assume
a very particular relationship in this transfer process.
It
is chiefly the visual aspect
of
an
advertisement that
conjoins the world
and
the object when a meaning
transfer is sought. Verbal material serves chiefly
as
a
kind
of
prompt
that
instructs the viewer/reader in the
salient properties that are supposed to be expressed by
the visual part
of
the advertisement. Text (especially
headlines) makes explicit what is already implicit in the
image. Text provides instructions
on
how the visual
part
of
the advertisement is to be read. The verbal com-
ponent allows the director to direct the viewer/reader's
attention
to
exactly those meaningful properties that
are intended for transfer (cf., Barthes 1983, pp. 33-39;
Dyer 1982, pp. 139-182; Garfinkle 1978; Moeran
1985).
All
of
this must now be successfully decoded by the
viewer/reader.
It
is worth emphasizing that the viewer/
reader is the final
author
in the process
of
transfer. The
director brings the world and the consumer good into
conjunction and then suggests their essential similarity.
It
is left to the viewer/reader to see this similarity
and
effect the transfer
of
meaningful properties. To this ex-
tent, the viewer/reader is
an
essential participant in the
process
of
meaning transfer, as Williamson (1978, pp.
40-70) notes. The viewer/reader must complete the
work
of
the director.
Advertising is a conduit through which meaning
constantly pours from the culturally constituted world
76
to consumer goods. Through advertising, old
and
new
goods continually give up old meanings and take on
new ones.
As
active participants in this process, the
viewer/reader is kept informed
ofthe
present state and
stock
of
cultural meaning that exists in consumer goods.
To this extent, advertising serves as a lexicon
of
current
cultural meanings. In large part, advertising maintains
a consistency between what Sahlins calls the
"order
of
culture" and the
"order
of
goods" (1976, p. 178).
The Fashion System
The fashion system
is
less frequently observed, stud-
ied,
and
understood as an instrument
of
meaning
movement, yet this system also serves as a means by
which goods are systematically invested and divested
of
meaningful properties. The fashion system is a
somewhat more complicated instrument for meaning
movement than advertising. In the case
of
advertising,
movement is accomplished by the efforts
of
an adver-
tising agency to unhook meaning from a culturally
constituted world and transfer
it
to a consumer good
by means
of
an advertisement. In the case
ofthe
fashion
system, the process has more sources
of
meaning, agents
of
transfer,
and
media
of
communication. Some
of
this
additional complexity can be captured by noting
that
the fashion world works in three distinct ways to transfer
meaning to goods.
In one capacity, the fashion system performs a trans-
fer
of
meaning from the culturally constituted world to
consumer goods that is remarkably similar
in
character
and effect to the transfer performed by advertising. The
same effort to conjoin aspects
of
the world and a con-
sumer good
is
evident in magazines or newspapers, and
the same process
of
glimpsed similarity is sought after.
In this capacity, the fashion system takes new styles
of
clothing or home furnishings
and
associates them with
established cultural categories and principles, moving
meaning from the culturally constituted world to the
consumer good. This is the simplest aspect
of
the
meaning-delivery capacity
of
the fashion system (and
ironically, the one
that
Barthes (1983) found so per-
plexing and difficult to render plain).
In a second capacity, the fashion system actually in-
vents new cultural meanings
in
a modest way. This in-
vention is undertaken by opinion leaders who help
shape and refine existing cultural meaning, encouraging
the reform
of
cultural categories and principles. These
are distant opinion leaders: individuals who by virtue
of
birth, beauty,
or
accomplishment are held in high
esteem. These distant opinion leaders are sources
of
meaning for individuals
of
lesser standing. In fact, it
has been suggested
that
the innovation
of
meaning
is
prompted by the imitative appropriations
of
those
of
low standing (McCracken 1985c; Simmel 1904). Clas-
sically, the high-standing individuals come from a con-
ventional social elite: the upper classes. These classes,
THE
JOURNAL
OF
CONSUMER
RESEARCH
for instance, originated the "preppie look" that has re-
cently trickled down so widely
and
deeply. More re-
cently, opinion leaders have come from a group
of
un-
ashamedly nouveau riche characters who now dominate
television
in
evening soap operas such as "Dallas" and
"Dynasty" and who appear to have influenced the con-
sumer and lifestyle habits
of
so many North Americans.
Motion picture and popular music stars, revered for
their status, their beauty, and sometimes their talent,
also form a relatively new group
of
opinion-leaders. All
ofthese new opinion leaders invent and deliver a species
of
meaning that has been largely fashioned from the
prevailing cultural coordinates established by cultural
categories and cultural principles. These opinion leaders
are permeable to cultural innovations, changes in style,
value, and attitude, which they then pass along to the
subordinate parties who imitate them.
In a third capacity, the fashion system engages in the
radical reform
of
cultural meanings. Some part
of
the
cultural meaning
of
western industrial societies
is
always
subject to constant and thoroughgoing change. This
radical instability
of
meaning is due to the fact that
western societies are, in the language
of
Claude Levi-
Strauss (1966, pp. 233-234),
"hot
societies." Western
societies willingly accept, indeed encourage, the radical
changes that result from deliberate human effort and
the effect
of
anonymous social forces (Braudel 1973,
p.
323; Fox and Lears 1983; McCracken 1985d;
McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb 1982).
As
a result,
cultural meaning in a hot, western, industrial, complex
society
is
constantly undergoing systematic change. In
contradistinction to virtually all ethnographic prece-
dent, members
of
such a society live in a world that
is
deliberately and continually being transformed
(McCracken 1985b). Indeed, it
is
no exaggeration to
say that hot societies demand change and depend on it
to drive certain economic, social, and cultural sectors
in their world (cf., Barber and Lobel 1953; Fallers 1961).
The fashion system serves as one
of
the conduits to
capture and move highly innovative cultural meaning.
The groups responsible for the radical reform
of
cul-
tural meaning are those existing at the margins
of
so-
ciety, e.g., hippies, punks, or gays (Blumberg 1974; Field
1970; Meyersohn and Katz 1957). Such groups invent
a much more radical, innovative kind
of
cultural
meaning than their high-standing partners in meaning-
diffusion leadership. Indeed, such innovative groups
represent a departure from the culturally constituted
conventions
of
contemporary North American society.
They illustrate the peculiarly western tendency to tol-
erate dramatic violations
of
cultural norms. These
groups redefined cultural categories,
if
only through the
negative process
of
violating such cultural categories as
age and status (hippies and punks), or gender (gays).
The redefined cultural categories
and
a number
of
at-
tendant cultural principles have now entered the cul-
tural mainstream. The innovative groups become
CULTURE
AND
CONSUMPTION
"meaning suppliers" even when they are devoted to
overturning the established order (e.g., hippies) or are
determined not to allow their cultural inventions to be
absorbed by the mainstream, (e.g., punks; cf., Hebdige
1979; Martin 1981).
If
the sources
of
cultural meaning are dynamic
and
numerous, so are the agents who gather up cultural
meaning and effect its transfer to consumer goods. In
the case
of
the fashion system, the agents form two main
categories:
(I)
product designers,
and
(2) fashion jour-
nalists and social observers. Product designers may
sometimes be the very conspicuous individuals who es-
tablish themselves as arbiters
of
clothing design in fash-
ion centers such
as
Paris
or
Milan,
and
who surround
themselves with a cult
of
personality. Other product
designers, e.g., architects
and
interior designers, some-
times achieve a roughly comparable stature and exert
an equally international influence (Kron 1983). More
often, however, they are unknown outside their own
industries (Clark 1976; Meikle 1979; Pulos 1983). The
designers
of
Detroit automobiles are a case in point
here,
as
are the product developers in the furniture
and
appliance industries. (Individuals such as Raymond
Loewy are exceptions that prove the rule.)
The second category
of
agents consists
of
fashion
journalists and social observers. Fashion journalists may
belong to the print
or
film media and may have a high
or a low profile. Social observers may be journalists
who study and document new social
developments-
e.g., Lisa Birnbach (1980), Kennedy Fraser (1981), Tom
Wolfe (1970), Peter York (1980), or they may be aca-
demics who have undertaken a roughly similar inquiry
from a somewhat different point
of
view-e.g.,
Roland
Barthes (1972), and Christopher Lasch (1979). Market
researchers are beginning to serve in this capacity as
well-e.g.,
John Naisbett (1982) Arnold Mitchell
(1983), and possibly, John Molloy (1977).
These groups share a relatively equal division oflabor.
Journalists perform their part
of
the enterprise by serv-
ing as gate keepers
of
a sort. They review aesthetic, so-
cial, and cultural innovations as these first appear and
then classify the innovations
as
either important or
trivial. In this respect, journalists resemble the gate-
keepers in the art (Becker 1972) and music (Hirsch
1972) worlds. Journalists are supposed to observe as
best they can the whirling mass
of
cultural innovation
and decide what is ephemeral and what will endure.
After they have completed their difficult winnowing
process, journalists engage in a dissemination process
to make their decisions known.
It
must be admitted
that everyone in the diffusion chain (Rogers 1983) plays
a gatekeeping role
and
helps to influence the tastes
of
individuals looking for opinion leadership. Journalists
are especially important because they make their influ-
ence felt even before an innovation passes to its "early
adopters" (Baumgarten 1975; Meyersohn and Katz
1957; Polegato and Wall 1980).
77
When journalists have identified genuine innova-
tions, product designers begin the task
of
drawing
meaning into the mainstream
and
investing it in con-
sumer goods. The product designer differs from the ad-
vertising agency director in that s/he transforms not
only the symbolic properties
of
a consumer good but
also its physical properties. Apart from fashion and
trade shows (which reach only some potential consum-
ers), the product designer does not have a meaning-
giving context such as the advertisement where s/he
can display the consumer good. Instead, the consumer
good will leave the designer's hands and enter any con-
text the consumer chooses. Product design is the means
a designer has to convince the consumer that a specific
object possesses a certain cultural meaning. The object
must leave the designer's hands with its new symbolic
properties plainly displayed in its new physical prop-
erties.
The designer, like the agency director, depends on
the consumer to supply the final act
of
association and
effect the meaning transfer from world to object. But
unlike the agency director, the product designer does
not have
at
his/her disposal the highly managed, rhe-
torical circumstances
of
an advertisement to encourage
and direct this meaning transfer. The designer can not
inform the consumer
of
the qualities intended for the
object; these qualities must be self-evident in the object,
so
the consumer can effect the meaning transfer for him/
herself. Therefore, it is necessary that the consumer
have access to the same sources
of
information about
new fashions in meaning that the designer has. The
journalist makes this information available to the con-
sumer so that s/he can identify the cultural significance
of
the physical properties
of
a new object. In short, the
designer relies on the journalist
at
the beginning and
then again
at
the very end
of
the meaning transfer pro-
cess. The journalist supplies new meaning to the de-
signer as well as
to
the recipient
of
the designer's work.
In this way, both advertising and the fashion system
are instruments for the transfer
of
meaning from the
culturally constituted world to consumer goods. They
are two
of
the means by which meaning is invested in
the object code.
It
is thanks to them that the objects
of
our world carry such a richness, variety, and versatility
of
meaning and can serve us so variously in acts
of
self-
definition and social communication.
LOCATIONS OF CULTURAL
MEANING: CONSUMER GOODS
That consumer goods are the locus
of
cultural mean-
ing
is
too well-established a fact to need elaborate dem-
onstration here. This is what Sahlins has
to
say about
one product
category-clothing
(1976, p. 179):
Considered as a whole, the system
of
American clothing
amounts to a very complex scheme
of
cultural categories
78
and the relations between them, a veritable
map-it
does
not
exaggerate to
say-of
the cultural universe.
What can be said
of
clothing can be said
of
virtually all
other high-involvement product categories and several
low-involvement ones. Clothing, transportation, food,
housing exteriors and interiors, and adornment all serve
as media for the expression
of
the cultural meaning
that
constitutes
our
world.
That
goods possess cultural meaning is sometimes
evident to the consumer and sometimes hidden. Con-
sumers may consciously see and manipulate such cul-
tural meanings as the status
of
a consumer item. Just
as often, however, individual consumers recognize the
cultural meaning carried by consumer goods only in
exceptional circumstances. For instance, consumers
who have lost goods because
of
burglary, sudden im-
poverishment,
or
the divestment that occurs with aging
evidence a profound sense
of
loss and even mourning
(Belk 1982, p. 185). The possession rituals about to be
discussed also suggest that the meaningful properties
of
consumer goods are not always conspicuously evident
to a consumer, however much they serve to inform and
control his/her action.
It
was observed at the beginning
of
this article
that
the last decade has seen
an
outpouring
of
work on the
cultural significance
of
consumer goods. Indeed, the
wealth
of
this literature reassures us
that
the study
of
the cultural meaning carried by goods is a flourishing
academic enterprise. None
of
this literature, however,
addresses the question
of
the mobile quality
of
cultural
meaning, and
we
may wish to make this question
an
operative assumption in the field. When
we
examine
the cultural meaning
of
consumer goods,
we
may wish
to determine where cultural meaning came from and
how it was transferred.
INSTRUMENTS
014'
MEANING
TRANSFER:
GOOD
TO
CONSUMER
Thus far
we
have tracked the movement
of
cultural
meaning from the culturally constituted world to con-
sumer goods and have considered the role
of
two in-
struments in this process. We must now address how
meaning, now resident in consumer goods, moves from
the consumer good into the
lifc~
of
the consumer. In
order to describe this process, a second set
of
instru-
ments
of
meaning transfer must be discussed. These
instruments appear to qualify as special instances
of
"symbolic action" or ritual (Munn 1973; Turner 1969).
Ritual is a kind
of
social action devoted to the manip-
ulation
of
cultural meaning for purposes
of
collective
and individual communication and categorization.
Ritual is an opportunity to
affirm.,
evoke, assign,
or
re-
vise the conventional symbols and meanings
of
the cul-
tural order. To this extent, ritual is a powerful
and
ver-
satile tool for the manipulation
of
cultural meaning. In
THE
JOURNAL
OF
CONSUMER
RESEARCH
the form
of
a classic rite
of
passage, ritual is used to
move
an
individual from one cultural category
of
person
to another, where s/he gives
up
one set
of
symbolic
properties, e.g., those
of
a child, and takes
up
another,
e.g., those
of
an adult (Turner 1967; Van Gennep 1960).
Other forms
of
ritual are devoted to different social ends.
Some forms are used to give "experiential reality" to
certain cultural principles and concepts (Tambiah
1977). Still other forms are used to create certain po-
litical contracts (McCracken 1982b). In short, ritual is
put
to diverse ends in its manipulation
of
cultural
meaning.
In
contemporary North America, ritual is
used to transfer cultural meaning from goods to indi-
viduals. Four types
of
rituals are used to serve this pur-
pose: exchange, possession, grooming, and divestment
rituals. Each
of
these rituals represents a different stage
in a more general process by which meaning is moved
from consumer good to individual consumer.
Exchange Rituals
In contemporary North American exchange
rituals-
especially Christmas and birthday
rituals-one
party
chooses, purchases, and presents consumer goods to
another (Caplow 1982). This movement
of
goods is also
potentially a movement
of
meaningful properties. Often
the gift-giver chooses a gift because it possesses the
meaningful properties s/he wishes to see transferred to
the gift-receiver. Thus, the woman who receives a par-
ticular kind
of
dress is also made the recipient
of
a par-
ticular concept
of
herself as a woman (Schwartz 1967).
The dress contains this concept and the giver invites
the recipient to define herself in its terms. Similarly,
many
of
the continuous gifts that
flow
between parents
and children are motivated by precisely this notion. The
gifts to the child contain symbolic properties
that
the
parent would have the child absorb (Furby 1978, pp.
312-313).
The ritual
of
gift exchange establishes a potent means
of
interpersonal influence. Gift exchange allows indi-
viduals to insinuate certain symbolic properties into
the lives
of
a gift recipient and to initiate possible
meaning transfer. In more general terms, consumers
acting as gift-givers are made agents
of
meaning transfer
to the extent that they selectively distribute goods with
specific properties to individuals who
mayor
may not
have chosen them otherwise. The study
of
gift exchange,
well established in the social sciences (Davis
1912;
Mauss 1970; McCracken 1983; Sahlins 1972), is already
underway in the field
of
consumer research (Belk 1979)
and deserves further study. Attention must be given to
the choice process used by a giver to identify the gift
with the cultural meanings s/he seeks to pass along to
the recipient. Attention must also be given to the sig-
nificance
of
gift wrapping and presentation as well as
the context (time and place) in which gift presentations
are made. These aspects
of
the domestic ritual
of
gift
CULTURE AND CONSUMPTION
giving are vitally important to the meaningful properties
of
the goods exchanged.
Possession Rituals
Consumers spend a good deal
of
time cleaning, dis-
cussing, comparing, reflecting, showing
off,
and
even
photographing many
of
their possessions. Housewarm-
ing parties sometimes provide
an
opportunity for dis-
play, while the process
of
home "personalization"
(Hirschman 1982, pp. 37-38; Kron 1983; Rapoport
1968, 1982) especially serves as the occasion for much
comparison, reflection,
and
discussion. Though these
activities have
an
overt functionality, they all appear
to have the additional effect
of
allowing the consumer
to claim possession as his/her own. This claiming pro-
cess
is
not a simple assertion
of
territoriality through
ownership. Claiming is also
an
attempt to draw from
the object the qualities that it has been given by the
marketing forces
of
the world
of
goods. This process is
most conspicuous when it fails to take place.
For
ex-
ample, occasionally a consumer will claim that a pos-
session-a
car, house, article
of
clothing, or other
meaning-carrying
good-
"never really seemed to be-
long to me." There are certain goods that the consumer
never successfully claims because s/he never success-
fully claims their symbolic properties. The consumer
good becomes a paradox: the consumer owns it without
possessing it; its symbolic properties remain immovable.
Normally, however, the individual successfully de-
ploys possession rituals and manages to extract the
meaningful properties that have been invested in the
consumer good.
If
the cultural meaning has been trans-
ferred, consumers are able to use goods as markers
of
time, space,
and
occasion. Consumers draw on the abil-
ity
of
these goods to discriminate between such cultural
categories as class, status, gender, age, occupation, and
lifestyle. Since possession rituals allow the consumer to
take possession
of
the meaning
of
a consumer good,
these rituals help complete the second stage
of
the tra-
jectory
of
the movement
of
cultural meaning.
As
we
have seen, advertising agencies and the fashion world
move cultural meaning from the culturally constituted
world into a consumer good. Using possession rituals,
individuals move cultural meaning
out
of
their goods
and into their lives.
It
is
worth observing that possession rituals, especially
those devoted to personalizing the object, almost seem
to enact on a small scale, and for private purposes, the
activities
of
meaning transfer performed by the adver-
tising agency. The act
of
personalizing is, in effect, an
attempt to transfer meaning from the individual's own
world to the newly obtained good. The new context in
this case
is
the individual's complement
of
consumer
goods, which has assumed a personal
as
well as public
meaning. Indeed, perhaps it is chiefly in this way that
an anonymous possession-manifestly the creation
of
79
a distant, impersonal mass manufacturing
process-is
turned into a personal possession that belongs to some-
one
and
speaks for them. Perhaps it is in this manner
that individuals create a personal world
of
goods that
reflects their own experience
and
concepts
of
self and
world. The meaning
that
advertising transfers to goods
is
the meaning
of
the collectivity. The meaning that
personal gestures transfer to goods is the meaning
of
the collectivity as this meaning has been inflected by
the particular experience
of
the individual consumer.
Grooming Rituals
It
is
clear that some
of
the cultural meaning drawn
from goods has a perishable nature.
As
a result, the
consumer must draw cultural meaning
out
of
his/her
possessions
on
a repeated basis. When a continual pro-
cess
of
meaning transfer from goods to consumer is
necessary, the consumer will likely resort to a grooming
ritual. The purpose
of
this ritual is to take the special
pains necessary to insure that the special, perishable
properties resident in certain clothes, hair styles, and
looks are, as it were, "coaxed" out
of
their resident goods
and made to live, however briefly
and
precariously, in
the life
of
the individual consumer. The "going
out"
rituals with which one prepares for
an
evening
out
are
good examples
of
this process. These rituals illustrate
the time, patience, and anxiety with which an individual
will prepare him/herself for the special public scrutiny
of
a gala evening or dinner party. Grooming rituals arm
individuals who are "going
out"
with the particularly
glamorous, exalted, meaningful properties that exist in
their
"best"
consumer goods. Once captured and made
resident in an individual, these meaningful properties
give him/her new powers
of
confidence, aggression, and
defense. The language with which advertisements de-
scribe certain make-up, hair-styling goods, and clothing
tacitly acknowledge the meaningful properties available
in goods that special grooming rituals release.
Sometimes, however, it is not the consumer but the
good that must be groomed. This occurs when the con-
sumer cultivates the meaningful properties
of
an object
in the object rather
than
coaxing
out
the properties in
him/herself. The extraordinary amounts
of
largely re-
dundant time
and
energy lavished on certain automo-
biles
is
perhaps the best case in point here (Myers 1985,
p. 562). This type
of
grooming ritual supercharges the
object so that it, in turn, may transfer special heightened
properties to an owner. Here again, the individual's role
in meaning investment is evident. The importance to
the consumer
of
cultivating consumer goods
so
that they
can release their meaningful qualities is most strikingly
highlighted by the behavior
of
aging individuals. Sher-
man and Newman report that the occupants
of
nursing
homes who regard themselves as being
"at
the end
of
the line" engage in a process
of
"decathecting [removing
the emotional significance from] the significant objects
in their lives" (1977-1978,
p.
188).
80
In the field
of
consumer research, the study
of
ritual
has been significantly advanced by Rook (1984), who
has observed how much consumption behavior is rit-
ualized
and
who has noted the value
of
studying con-
sumption from a ritual perspec:tive, and by Rook and
Levy (1982), who have examined grooming ritual
and
grooming product symbolism.
It
is clear that grooming
rituals are one
of
the means by which individuals effect
a transfer
of
symbolic properties. In grooming rituals,
the meaning moves from consumer goods to the con-
sumer. Grooming rituals help draw cultural meaning
out
of
these goods and invest it in the consumer.
Divestment Rituals
Individuals who draw meaning
out
of
goods come to
view these meaning sources
iIll
personal terms, asso-
ciating goods with their own personal properties. The
possible confusion between consumer
and
consumer
good encourages the use
of
the divestment ritual. Di-
vestment rituals are employed for two purposes. When
the individual purchases a good that has been previously
owned, such as a house
or
a car, the ritual is used
to
erase the meaning associated with the previous owner.
The cleaning
and
redecorating
of
a newly purchased
home, for instance, may be seen
as
an effort to remove
the meaning created by the previous owner. Divestment
allows the new owner to avoid contact with the mean-
ingful properties
of
the
previoUls
owner and to free
up
the meaning properties
of
the possession, claiming them
for him/herself. The second divestment ritual takes
place when the individual is about to dispense with a
good, either by giving it away or selling it. The consumer
will attempt to erase the meaning that has been invested
in the good by association. In moments
of
candor, in-
dividuals suggest that they feel
"a
little strange about
someone else wearing
myoid
cOIat."
In moments
of
still
greater candor, they will confess that they fear the dis-
possession
of
personal meaning, a phenomenon that
resembles the "merging
of
identities"
that
sometimes
takes place between transplant donors
and
recipients
(Simmons, Klein, and Simmons 1977, p. 68). Both rit-
uals suggest a concern
that
the meaning
of
goods can
be transferred, obscured, confused, or even lost when
goods change hands (Douglas 1966). Therefore, goods
must be emptied
of
meaning before being passed along
and
cleared
of
meaning when taken on. What looks like
simple superstition is, in fact,
an
implicit acknowl-
edgement
of
the moveable quality
of
the meaning with
which goods are invested.
In
sum, personal rituals are variously used to transfer
the meaning contained in goods to individual consum-
ers. Exchange rituals are used to direct goods charged
with certain meaningful properties to those individuals
the gift-giver supposes are needful
of
these properties.
In
an
exchange ritual, the giver invites the receiver to
partake
of
the properties ppssessed by the good. Pos-
session rituals are practiced by
an
owner in order to
THE
JOURNAL
OF CONSUMER RESEARCH
retrieve a good's meaningful properties. Possession rit-
uals are designed to transfer a good's properties
to
its
owner. Grooming rituals are used to effect the continual
transfer
of
perishable
properties-properties
likely to
fade when possessed by the consumer. Grooming rituals
allow the consumer to "freshen" the properties s/he
draws from goods. These rituals can also be used to
maintain and "brighten" certain
of
the meaningful
properties resident in goods. Finally, divestment rituals
are used
to
empty goods
of
meaning so
that
meaning-
loss
or
meaning-contagion cannot take place. All
of
these rituals are a kind
of
microcosmic version
of
the
instruments
of
meaning transfer that move meaning
from world to goods, since these rituals move meaning
from goods to consumer.
LOCATIONS OF CULTURAL
MEANING: INDIVIDUAL CONSUMERS
Cultural meaning is used to define and orient the
individual in ways
that
we
are only beginning to ap-
preciate.
It
is clear that individuals living in a contem-
porary Western industrial culture enjoy a wide range
of
choice in the meaning they may draw from goods.
It
was observed at the start
of
this article
that
contem-
porary North American culture leaves a great deal
of
the individual undefined. One
of
the ways individuals
satisfy the freedom and fulfill responsibility
of
self-def-
inition
is
through the systematic appropriation
of
the
meaningful properties
of
goods. Plainly this task
is
not
an easy one,
nor
is it always successful. Many individ-
uals seek kinds
of
meaning from goods
that
do not exist
there. Others seek to appropriate kinds
of
meaning
to which they are not, by some sober sociological reck-
oning, entitled. Still others attempt to constitute their
lives only in terms
of
the meaning
of
goods. All
of
these
consumer pathologies are evident in modern consump-
tion behavior
and
all
of
them
illustrate how the process
of
meaning transfer can
go
wrong,
to
the cost
of
the
individual and society. In normal situations, however,
the individual uses goods in an unproblematical manner
to constitute crucial parts
of
the self and the world. The
logic, imperatives,
and
details
of
this process
of
self-
and
world construction through goods are enormously
understudied
and
are only now attracting rigorous
study.
Our
culture has studied its own beliefs
and
prac-
tices with a thoroughness
and
enthusiasm unheralded
in the ethnographic record. With the same thoroughness
and
enthusiasm it has also made