Becoming A Culturally Plural Consumer Cultural Studies Essay

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Today, globalization and the accompanying intermingling of cultures are making people adopt habits, tastes and dispositions that belong to more than one culture. Rather than any convergence or homogenisation of cultures, what we are observing is that people exposed to new cultures are adopting new products and services and behaving in ways that are culturally plural (e.g. Niemonen, 1999, Craig and Douglas, 2006, Haug, 1967). Worldwide, people living in urban environments are increasingly exposed to multiple cultures in their daily lives, at the supermarket, at work or in the streets, whether they are linked by ancestry to these cultures or not, whether they have an interest or liking for these cultures or not. People in Sydney have access to a wide range of foods from the Mediterranean or most Asian countries; people in Toronto are surrounded by restaurants, cinemas and shops offering foods, films and products originating from a multitude of ethnicities; people in Singapore can shop at Little India, Chinatown or the modern malls offering the latest global or western brands.

Today a very large number of consumers the world over are "bombarded" with multiple cultures in all their day-to-day acts including those related to consumption. "In this age of globalization, cultures are traversing national borders, comingling, hybridizing, morphing, and clashing through media, migration, telecommunications, international trade, information technology, supernational organizations, and unfortunately terrorism" (Nakata, 2009, p.4). In such an environment, we define culturally plural consumption simply as individual-level patterns of consumption acts consisting in the adoption of products or consumption practices from several cultures.

This study aims to understand how culturally plural consumption processes develop over time from day-to-day consumption. The current focus of consumer research on consumer traits and consumer motivations tend to ignore such events, acts and their implications (Nakata, 2009). The fact is that the non-stereotypical contemporary consumer making purchases and consumption decisions in a landscape that is culturally and ethnically interlaced cannot be explained through traditional theories of culture, individual dispositions or motivations or acculturation theories (Craig and Douglas, 2006).

In this study we view culturally plural consumption behaviour through the lens suggested by Holbrook (1987). Holbrook famously proposed that the consumer act should be viewed as consummation. He was of the view that the field of consumer research suffers from uncontrolled suggestions of what consumer research means without one single overarching perspective. Different researchers define it in different ways. According to Holbrook these multifarious suggestions are useful provided there is an agreement on what consumption means in a fundamental manner which for him could be characterized as "consummation". "Consummatory behavior involves activities aimed at achieving goals, fulfilling needs, or satisfying wants. In short, it entails processes wherein consumers seek, reach, and surpass consummation" (Holbrook, 1987, p.131). For us, consummation represents completeness and closure, a fulfilment of what is sought by the consumer, an achievement and a sense of creative union such an achievement brings about, which finally results in yearning for more or, paradoxically, a nostalgic end to the seeking. There is no mistaking that consummation is a process.

Cultural Pluralism and Consumption Behaviour

There are three lenses through which consumption has been traditionally viewed in multicultural contexts. These lenses provide alternative explanations for consumer behaviour based on (1) individual traits and dispositions; (2) consumer culture theory; and (3) acculturation theory.

The first stream of research in consumer research assumes that consumption is predominantly influenced by the individual traits of the consumer, what we could term as inside-out. Cosmopolitanism (Thompson and Tambyah, 1999, Cannon and Yaprak, 2002, Riefler and Diamantopoulos, 2009); ethnocentrism (Shimp and Sharma, 1987, Balabanis and Diamantopoulos, 2004); consumer animosity (Riefler and Diamantopoulos, 2007); xenocentrism (Mueller et al., 2009); and consumer affinity (Oberecker et al., 2010) are some of the descriptors that characterise the dispositions people have towards their own cultures or those of others on which their consumption choices depend. Related to the first stream is the notion that consumption could be explained through social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978, Tajfel, 1982, Triandis, 1989, Hogg and Abrams, 1988) according to which consumption depends on the interplay of a consumer's self identity and his or her affective and conative dispositions towards belonging to a specific group (social identity). In all such inquiries, the way these dispositions develop in the first place is an important question that is not answered. Riefler and Diamantopoulos (2009) show that one is not born, but rather becomes cosmopolitan; the same should apply to the other descriptors. Further, it is unclear how, at the point of consumption, these dispositions are triggered. As Briley (2009) argues, many decisions may occur 'on the fly' and be based on the situational context rather than deeply-held values.

The second stream, namely, consumer culture theory is outside-in where it is theorized that the consumer is influenced by the culture she or he is situated in. It shows how consumers can appropriate foreign goods and give them new uses and meanings in their local context (e.g. Ger and Belk, 1996, Holt, 1994). Sandikci and Ger (2007), for instance, argue that in poor countries, such common products as coke or candy bars are seen as luxuries. Such studies study people's interactions with foreign goods and how these goods are incorporated in people's consumption; however, the theory developed applies to cultural groups, with the assumption that individual behaviour is predicated on groups sharing essential elements of a single culture. Yet, multi-cultural entities are becoming too interpenetrated, and individual life trajectories too varied, for such an assumption to apply to them.

The third stream, namely, acculturation theory (Berry, 1997, Berry, 1980) describes strategies of cultural adaptation both in terms of inside-out and outside-in factors and applies to groups as well as individuals. Coming from the anthropology literature, acculturation means "those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups..." (Redfield et al., 1936, p. 149). Many have taken issues with acculturation theory for its overly rationalistic and context-free treatment of a complex process. Chirkov (2009) summarizes these critical views and points to acculturation theory's lacunae as among others, treating cultural adaptation and pluralism as a "linear form of adaptation", accompanied by "stress" with no appreciation of its potential for contributing to "personal growth, individual development and family relations" (p. 178).

None of these approaches inquire into the consumption process itself. They instead emphasize the antecedents of consumption such as individual attitudes, group behaviours and rational choices that are available to the consumers. We subscribe to Holbrook's argument that consumption behaviour could be better understood if we undertake the "study of processes wherein the acquisition, usage, and disposition of all kinds of products potentially provide value by fulfilling human wants" (Holbrook, 1987, p.131). Capturing the idea of consummation in the context of the plurality of cultures as an emergent process is our task here. The culture within which consumption occurs corresponds to Askegaard et al.'s (2009, p.102-103) reflexive culture which they describe, following Beck and Sznaider (2006), as "an idiom for the expression of new types of potential consumer practice, a cultural response in a time in which national and transnational political-economic entities no longer enjoy the legitimacy and power to socialize through the provision of integrating values with which citizens willingly or unconsciously affiliate..."

Consumption Behaviour as a Process

Holbrook's clarion call on studying consummatory behaviour is a call to concentrate on the process of consumption that meets the deeper urges of the human spirit. The consummation process is not a deliberate, purposeful act as the outside-in, inside-out views suggest, nor do they merely align with acculturation's rational choice strategies (Cleveland et al., 2009). Many consumption acts are spontaneous, unplanned, expedient and extemporaneous. In such a view, purpose simply becomes inaccurate reification. There is no deliberate design that drives the consumer that can be neatly determined (Bhatia and Ram, 2009, Tardif-Williams and Fisher, 2009). We are reminded of how the anthropologist, Joseph Campbell replied to a question by Bill Moyers in the hugely popular PBS television series to a question on purpose, "Just sheer life cannot be said to have a purpose, because look at all the different purposes it has all over the place..." (Campbell and Moyers, 1991, p.197).

If culturally plural consumer behaviour cannot be entirely explained by arguments of purpose or deliberateness, neither can traits and characteristics explain it totally either (Douglas and Craig, 2009). Those who treat traits as formative of consumer behaviour inherently consider it as deterministic. The implication of such as view misses the dynamic nature of consumer behaviour (Hermans and Kempen, 1998, Nakata, 2009). For Holbrook both the deliberate and the deterministic views are reifications that neglect an inquiry into the action itself (Bhatia and Ram, 2009). An inquiry centred on either deliberateness or determinism is unlikely to capture the emergent nature of the unfolding reality of Holbrook's (1987) consummation.

Such a process of inquiry should look at the spontaneity of playfulness, experimentation, acceptance or rejection of environmental cues, symbolisms and experiential outcomes that were expected, unexpected or neither expected nor unexpected (Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982). To achieve this we need to study the process itself. An interesting illustration may be the way consumers come to use features of Android based mobile phones. The product initially comes with a set of preinstalled programs. As one starts using it, there are all kinds of playful applications that users come across at the Android Market. While these programs have functional value, there is also something to play with that is experimental, challenge-generating, and attitude (towards technology) altering.

Consumption may not even entail any kind of purchase or even choice or decision (Foxall et al., 1998). For instance, people may be served food from a different culture at a meal they have been invited to; they may have been offered a gift which originates from another culture. Belk (2010) points out that because sharing, which is a common food-related practice, not involve exchange, it has rarely featured in consumer research. Many purchases, similarly, are made through instant decisions at the point of purchase, which might be motivated by stimuli or internal conditions (haste, stress, mood) rather than by deeply-held attitudes. Descriptions of the post-modern customer (Fırat et al., 1995) similarly allow for inconsistence and lack of premeditation in many consumption acts and patterns.

Since there may not be any pre-purchase psychological processing of information and since purchase may not be involved before trial, the experiencing of goods is an important determinant, and trial is a most crucial phase in the study of consumption (Foxall et al., 1998). Further, according to self-perception theory (Bem, 1972, Bem, 1965), people may only derive their attitudes from reflecting on what their behaviour and the context in which it happened, suggest. This study of consumption in multi-cultural environments adopts a broad view of consumption, which can account for both emergent consumption acts and repeat behaviours and is not restricted by assumptions of rationalistic behaviour (Weinreich, 2009).


Data collection context

This study used a qualitative approach to understand the emergent nature of culturally plural acts and explored the nature of triggers that shaped them (Thompson, 1997, Laurent, 2000). It enabled the exploration of processes and mechanisms underlying the relationship between several phenomena (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983) and the development of theory. Data elicited through 20 depth interviews of between 35 and 70 minutes, were searched for concrete acts of culturally plural behaviour with the idea of tracing them to different contextual origins, influences, individual traits and life trajectories.

The interviews took place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with UAE residents. To study cultural pluralism, the UAE provides a revelatory context for several reasons: there is no dominant nationality (local citizens were only 20.1% of the population in 2005: Gulf News, 2009); the residents represent many cultures and creeds; residents remain in close contact with the country of their family's origin since they cannot acquire UAE citizenship; the expatriates may live there by choice or because they have few other options, therefore one cannot assume they are cosmopolitan. UAE cannot be described as a 'melting pot', nor a small community of 'professional expatriates' who regularly move from one posting to another out of a lifestyle choice or cosmopolitan dispositions (Thompson and Tambyah, 1999). It is a source of data on culturally plural consumption behaviours with much variability in terms of the participants' personal characteristics, life stories and cultural identifications.

Sampling strategy

We adopted a purposive sampling approach to select participants displaying high variability on characteristics which we deemed, a priori, to potentially influence culturally plural consumption behaviours, such as number of years spent in the UAE, family's country of origin, number of countries lived in, languages spoken, occupation, age, size of close family living in the UAE. Additionally, variance was obtained on reasons for living in the UAE; economic reasons, being the country of birth, reasons of adventure, and political difficulties in their own countries. Exclusion criteria involved language (we did not approach those unable to carry out the interview in English, the UAE's lingua franca and language of business) and income spend (we did not include those remitting most of their income to their family back in their country of origin and therefore not consuming much in the UAE). The final sample size of 20 participants was fixed once further data did not appear to add any new dimensions to the analysis.


The sample consists of 8 males and 12 females whose length of stay in the UAE ranges between 2.5 years and the whole life. The range of countries in which they have lived is between 1 and 5. They speak between 1 and 8 languages fluently. Some are the only members of their family in the UAE, while the whole immediate family of others also resides in the country. The participants' families originated from a variety of countries, reflecting the diversity of the UAE population. India was the country of origin of eight participants' families; Pakistan of three participants; Lebanon, Iran, the UK, the UAE and the Philippines were represented by two each; and finally, Palestine, Australia, Canada and Nigeria were represented by one each (the number of countries adds up to more than 20 since several participants' families originate from two or more countries). Five participants had either two or more cultures in their ancestry, or had lived their whole life in the UAE while belonging to a different ethnicity. The main demographic characteristics of the participants are shown in Table 1. All references to participants are pseudo-anonymised. To reflect the participants' cultural origins, the pseudonyms were selected among the names commonly born by people from similar national, religious and ethnic backgrounds.


Take in Table 1


Data collection

The interviews were shared between both authors and took place in the premises of a well-known multinational café chain. The interviews contained two successive and clearly delineated parts. In the first part, the interviewer asked the participant to identify and describe concrete acts of culturally plural consumption behaviour. Through probing, we traced their origins and aimed to capture how some turned into repeat behaviours, while others were terminated. Hence, the investigation during the interviews' first part focused on participants' life experiences in terms of exposure to different cultural contexts, and considered potential contextual influences to concrete, emergent behaviours. The investigators suggested possible product categories (e.g. food, restaurant and cuisines, TV programs, music, clothes, health treatments, cultural activities etc.), which cover the main categories of goods and services consumed regularly, for which there is a range of culturally differentiated options available in the UAE. We asked participants to stay away from stereotypical categories such as Japanese cars or Swiss watches, since in these products, the culture or country of origin may be simply perceived as an indicator of quality, (Johansson, 1989), without lending any kind of ethnic or cultural connotation to the products. The categories which participants chose to discuss the most by far were food and cuisines and entertainment; music, dance and movies. Other culturally-cued consumption practices were mentioned: books, healthy eating, grocery shopping in modest quantities (referred to by Ernest as a western practice) and buying in sales.

In the second part of the interview, the interviewer probed the participants' self-defined cultural identification and attitudes towards other cultures. Importantly, since the study views cultural pluralism as an emergent behaviour rather than an attitude, questions about values, cultural identity and attitudes towards different cultures were only asked during the second part, so as not to artificially lend a reason to earlier description of emergent behaviours and situations. Broadly we followed a hermeneutic approach (Arnold and Fischer, 1994) to elicit how consumption behaviour emerged, from which we interpreted how the process emerged. The data were analysed to identify the sequence of events which led participants to adopt the products or consumption practices of other cultures. Subsequently, the data were analysed to identify the main triggers of each act along the way.

Findings and Discussion

On analysing the sequences of events which led participants to adopt the products or consumption practices of other cultures, it emerged that the process is made up of three main successive steps, and that each of the three steps can consist of different consumption acts. Each step can be triggered by a number of outside or internal influences. After presenting the general pattern of step-wise sequences (Figure 1), this section reports the most common sequences, with illustrations from the data (Table 2).


Take in Figure 1


Figure 1 shows the generic steps which consumers go through in the consumption process. The ovals represent steps which are specific acts or components of the consumption process. The oval on the left represents the first step which may consist of the first-time trial (XTR) or first-time purchase (XPU). This is followed by the second step in the chain which may be YTR (first-time trial) that comes as a result of XPU; or YPU (first time purchase) as a result of XTR. Conversely, the second step could be termination (YTER) as a result of XTR. The third step consists of repeat purchase and usage (ZUSE) or termination (ZTER). Before this, there may be more than one trial (YTR2, YTR3,..., YTRn) which is also shown in the figure.

Each of these acts may be triggered by the previous act as well as interaction with a number of influences, which are represented by circles in Figure 1. Taken together, the sequences of individual consumption acts represent consumption patterns, and several patterns emerge from the data, confirming Holbrook's (1987) description of consummation as a process.

Patterns of cultural pluralism

Table 2 provides a description of the patterns of cultural pluralism acts which have emerged from the data. Column 1 shows the different patterns in terms of the sequencing of steps; column 2 indicates the main triggers associated with each pattern; column 3 provides illustrative evidence from the data. The notation used in Columns 1 and 2 of the table relates to the notation used in Figure 1.


Take in Table 2


The initial consumption is often accidental, unplanned, and sometimes 'imposed' by others, highlighting the social aspect of the consumption experiences, as exemplified in the first trials triggered by gifts, friends, chance. Of course, even with social influences, not all trials are successful. In particular, the trials which are motivated by either a willingness to experiment or to go along with the wishes of others often remain one-off instances of consumption. For instance, Sharifa explains that she has eaten at American steakhouses because her friend likes this kind of food. However, she does not like it very much is not interested in cooking it or returning to a steakhouse.

Traits and values do play a role in some of the cases. According to Lena, "Maybe some people are more open to trying different things, foods etc. Just interested in trying. I'm not very adventurous, when it comes to foods and things like that. So it's how they are, their character." However, these dispositions only seem to have an impact at the initial trial time: additional cognitive factors need to be present for trial to turn into permanent consumption. It is as if the result of the cognitive operations evolve from trial to repeat through a learning process (Di Giacinto and Ferrante, 2007, Villas-Boas, 2004) supported by different triggers along the way.

Repeat consumption arises from the initial trial and the realisation of some benefit as a result of trial. These benefits could be social, utilitarian or hedonic, or a combination of these. Repeat behaviour is related to the realisation that a habit has formed or of a sense of familiarity having developed, or a confluence of several benefits. For instance, Yousef's repeat eating of Lebanese food is the result of a series of benefits which have a 'multiplying effect' on his consumption: "I liked the taste. It's simple. It's similar to food back home [Pakistan]. My wife eats a lot of it since she grew on in [Yousef's wife grew up in Saudi Arabia where Lebanese food is very common]. Our friends like it so we order it a lot". Typically, the transition from initial to long-term culturally plural consumption happens a consumers appropriate a cultural product or practice. In a sense, the product or practice becomes 'theirs', and consumers venture further into the cultural behaviour which progressively becomes less alien. It is important to note that in most cases, the initial behaviour influenced the disposition and attitude that eventually gave rise to repeated consumption.

However, many cultural shifts taking place in consumption are often imperceptible, and only recognised after the shifts have happened. Consumers come to terms with the shift through an ex-post exercise. For example, each summer, when Elizabeth goes back to her home country, Canada, it takes her several days to adjust her dress, away from the more elaborate styles worn in the Middle East, to the simpler and more casual Canadian style. This is resonant with Sussman's (2000) findings that expatriates relocating home only realise that they have changed when confronted with their culture of origin on their return from expatriation. For Shafiq, the experience is a kaleidoscopic potpourri, " [I] might be eating Indian food, watching a western TV serial, wearing a kurta (Indian tunic) and jeans. When you move to a more traditional setting, then your traditional persona comes out. What I am seeing is I am not uncomfortable with [changing personas]." Repeated exposure primes the mind to become more accepting of alien products or practices, even if some of the family influences may have a dampening effect as in the case of Bader, whose family discouraged him from watching Hollywood movies or western TV soaps.

Managerial implications

Consumption behaviour exhibited by culturally plural consumers is an emergent process with several nuances. Through a preliminary qualitative study, we find that these nuances may be rooted in many diverse factors such as the culturally diverse practices of the consumer, multi-cultural identities, social cues, contextual factors and individuals' predisposition towards experimentation. In such an environment the questions that marketers need to ask are, "Are the current marketing practices in line with such emergent acts?", "Do marketing campaigns support the multi-cultural behaviours and aspirations of the target population?" In many cases the answer may be no. The shortcoming, we reckon, is rooted in the paradigms of inquiry (Goulding, 1999) adopted by marketers and marketing pundits.

In a fundamental sense we are advocating praxis as the aim of inquiry. We concur with Stewart (2009) who that says, "Such an understanding [understanding of praxis] would allow for practical action, (emphasis ours) based on edifying philosophy" (p. 307). The discursive approach (Maritz, 2010, Stewart, 2009) we are supporting here has important practical implications. For instance, if marketers and market researchers observe how the customers go over the praxis of consumption in a fine-grained sense, we believe they will be able to intervene creatively in fine tuning their marketing mix.

The rational economic model that is dominant now over-emphasises the individual decision making while our inquiry here reveals the significance of social influences and social situations on individual consumers. Such influence is beyond interpersonal effects based on demonstration effects (Mason, 1995), perceived quality, image and brand (Aaker and Biel, 1993), and brand personality (Blackston, 1993) etc. There may be an important role for relationships and affective factors in decision making related to consumption (Phillips et al., 1995). If relationship marketing emphasizes the relationship between the marketer and the consumer, we think relationships amongst customers themselves have influence on consumption patterns which marketers should take account of, particularly in their communication and service settings.


The study provides initial insights into new consumer behaviours emerging as a result of evolving cultural dynamics, an area identified by Craig and Douglas (2006) and Yaprak (2008) as requiring significant development work. It identifies several factors - contextual, personal and dispositional - able to explain culturally plural consumption behaviours. It conceptualises cultural pluralism as a pattern of emergent acts, which together form a variety of patterns with consumers engaging in individual acts in an accidental, unplanned and sometimes imposed situations. They sometimes only realise that they have acquired a habit or that it resonates with their values etc. after the event. These are very initial results, whose generalisability is limited by the small sample size. Future research should consider the manner in which consumers' cultural identification, their dispositions, and different cultural situations, interact with their culturally plural consumption.