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Youth, identity and consumption
A research model
Jeremi Van Gorp
Research Assistant of the Research Foundation - Flanders
Department of Sociology
University of Antwerp
Draft paper
Prepared for the 7th Conference of the European Sociological Association
“Rethinking Inequalities”
Torun - Poland
September 9 – September 12, 2005
One of the most important applications of the communication function of consumption can be
found in processes of distinction and identification. Consumption is used to stress these
differences and similarities that have become crucial in the development of identity in
contemporary society. Contrary to traditional societies, identity in contemporary societies is
almost permanently under construction and nearly unlimited possibilities of vertical and
horizontal mobility seem to exist. People are now more than ever the constructors of their own
"self". This construction of identity is a life-long project but especially in teenage years, it is of
major importance. Youth is the phase par excellence to experiment with possible identities,
guided by feed-back from their peers, in preparation for an adult life. In this research project,
three general aspects are scrutinized. First, there are several aspects of identity that try to grasp
how a teenager sees him/herself. Second, aspects of peers are integrated that try to get a hold of
the social surroundings of a teenager that might influence his or her identity and consumption
patterns. Third, aspects of consumption are put into the model. Finally, other possible mediating
factors (parental influence, income, school and media influence) are also integrated in the model.
This paper gives an overview of the proposed research model to open the discussion about it.
This work is a draft. It is prepared to be discussed at the 7th ESA Conference in Torun – Poland.
Comments on this text and particularly on the presented research model are very welcome. The
author can be reached at:
Department of Sociology – Faculty of Political and Social Sciences
University of Antwerp
Universiteitsplein 1 – B-2610 Wilrijk
Tel.: + 32 3 820 28 90
Fax.: + 32 3 820 28 82
e-mail: [email protected]
1 Introduction
The relation between individuals and consumption has become a real sociological subject of
research from World War II onwards (Miller, P. and Rose, 1997). Reasons for this growing
attention are to be found in the fact that the (artificial) economic boom following this war
separated the views on consumption from those on production. Production and consumption
have always been and will always – at least for a part – be a game of supply and demand. In the
“golden sixties” however, supply was assured of. This shed the light almost exclusively on
consumption. Another important reason for the rising attention is the fact that consumption
became rooted in discussions on the construction of subjectivity in general and of self in
particular (Miller, D. et al, 1998).
In classical economic theories on consumption, a mainly rational view on the consumer is found
(Aldridge, 2003, Douglas and Isherwood, 1980, Gabriel and Lang, 1995). Essential in this
viewpoint is that the individual makes independent choices. By definition, rational individuals are
not driven by fears or emotions. They choose products based on objective qualities that can not
be explained by post hoc rationalizations (Miller, P. and Rose, 1997) with one single aim:
maximizing the use (Erickson and Johansson, 1985). Primary use value of products is central,
individual tastes and preferences are assumed given. They are axioms that can not be changed by
persuasion (Stigler and Becker, 1977) and thus have to be approached in a non-evaluative way as
empirical data (Slater, 1997). Choices are assumed consistent with each other and only limited by
the cost of things (Antonides, 1989). In other words, a rational approach assumes an atomised
individual, driven by an aim at maximizing use, whose behaviour can be almost written down in
mathematical formulas and derivatives.
At the end of World War II, economic frames of thought lost power in favour of sociological
approaches. Consumption was no longer seen as a merely rational approach to rational goals
(MacRury, 1997). Propositions as if the consumption behaviour of individuals was independent
of the behaviour of others were abandoned. Henceforth, consumption was seen as socially
shared process and one had to take into account the transformations that it embedded. The
rational consumer was seen as a too abstract approach to social life. Researchers became sensible
for cultural boundaries in populations, for culturally mediated pressures to consume and for
social emulation as a universal principle (Douglas and Isherwood, 1980). What people needed
was no longer seen as rational. Needs got transformed into preferences and those were seen as
arbitrary (Slater, 1997). The natural link between products and their use became a cultural link
(Firat and Venkatesh, 1995).
In the research project, the consumer is seen as handling consumption in an often extremely selfconscious way, carefully building his own “me”. In the contemporary consumption based
societies we live in (in the Western world), one central building stone of identity is often
supposed to be the goods and products that are being bought, often visual to other people.
Consumption is considered to have become an important means of communication. This paper
presents a research model that aims at exploring the role of consumption in the identity-work of
teenagers. The model consists of three main parts. The first part tries to map some aspects of
identity, as not all aspects of identity can be grasped and not all of them are relevant to the
model. The second part is about the role of the peer group. As consumption is considered to be
communication, the senders and receivers of this communication have to be taken into account.
The third part schedules the consumption activities that will be under consideration. Some other
possible relevant aspects will be included. First, there is the role of upbringing by the parents, and
the role of the attitudes and values of fathers and mothers. Second, the role of the school has to
be taken into consideration, as teenagers spend quite a lot of time among their peers at schools.
Third, there is the economic role of money. Consumption often means buying and to buy, one
needs money. The sources of money of teenagers (pocket money and money from own jobs)
have a possible intervening influence that cannot be left out of the model. Fourth, advertising
may have an important role as pointed out before. Therefore, also advertising-related issues have
to be taken into consideration.
In this paper, the different blocks of the model are discussed, and some research-choices are
explained. The first part however, will be more theoretical. In a first paragraph, the focus will be
on identity in general and in consumption related research. In a second paragraph, the processes
of distinction and identification using consumption are at stake. In the second part, the research
model is presented and discussed.
2 Grasping identity
Central to recent sociological theories about consumption is that they have the self-reflexive
consumer at their hearts (Lury and Warde, 1997). Following this approach, the consumer is seen
as carefully shaping is own identity, constantly subjecting it to reflexive evaluation (Solomon,
1983). Sociological and socio-psychological literature is teemed with research about identity and
its social construction, but there is no agreement on what exactly is meant by identity (Abdelal et
al, 2003). Research on identity in the 1960s and 1970s looked at the role of one’s profession,
religion and political ideology. Later on, also interpersonal relations, ethnicity and possible
conflicts between these domains were taken into account (Grotevant and Cooper, 1998). The
“ego” was also seen as based on four pillars of academic, social, emotional and physical selfimage (Waugh, 2001). Nowadays, also consumption has taken a special role in one’s identity
(Holt, 2000) and identity has also become an important concept in interpretations about
sociological interpretations of social life (Englis and Solomon, 1995, Lury and Warde, 1997) but
still, it is not clear what identity exactly is.
It is agreed on that identity is some kind of abstract, intangible concept, organised in an
hierarchical way (Deaux, 1993). Grotevant and Cooper (1998: 6) state: “Identity has traditionally
referred to one’s sense of coherence of personality and continuity over time; it is the meshing of
personality with historical and situational context. Thus, the construct of identity stands at the
interface of individual personality, social relationships and external context.” Abdelal et al. (2003)
make it even more abstract when they talk of an identity as an individual’s self-understanding
about his traits and characteristics as member of a certain social category. An important aspect in
this is that the realization of an individual about his own identity is decisive (Adams and
Montemayor, 1983).
Identity then, is something that connects the own personality with the (social) environment over
time. What this something is, is seldom made concrete and it remains a question whether or not
identity can be concretized. Identity is mainly an ungraspable something because as an abstract
whole it forms a kind of dome over several concrete parts. The ego organises certain parts into a
coherent personality which is seen by others as the same and continu (Adams, 1998). As other
parts may be stressed in different roles, individuals are also said to have more than one identity,
although it must be added that by saying this, we refer more to the subparts of the general and
abstract whole. These parts are often referred to as the fragmented identity (Blustein and
Palladino, 1991, Firat and Venkatesh, 1993, Fournier, 1998). This is more a contemporary
approach but it is not stated that in past days identity was an absolute unity (Mandel, 2003, Smee,
1997). The idea of the fragmented identity is funded in the fact the people’s identity is first and
for all a social identity (Craib, 1998) and people are in several social fields, always wandering
which identity must be chosen (Mandel, 2003). When talking about identity, we refer in a way to
the aggregated and less concrete level. “Social identities come and go, but my identity goes on as
something which unites all the social identities I have had, have or will have” (Craib, 1998: 4).
Identity is seldom seen as fixed, but as a continuing project that is being constructed.
Constructing identities is a recent theme. An identity can be ascribed or chosen, but the ascribing
of identities is most often situated in past societies (Adams, 1998). In past times, the life of
individuals was arranged a-priori. Building identity was not under discussion. In contemporary
societies however, identities are considered to be under permanent construction (Adams, 1998,
Craib, 1998, Hammer, 1998). Class based identities have made place for other sources of identity
(Holt, 2000, Hooks, 2000, Miller, D. et al, 1998, Smee, 1997). Choice authority has moved from
outside to inside the individual (Elchardus and Glorieux, 2002) and making choices is sometimes
even equated with building identity (McCracken, 1988).
Several different types of identity are being discerned of which some are of special relevance to
consumption research. For example, individuals are often said to have three kinds of identities
(Malhotra, 1981, 1988). A first kind is the real or actual identity, which is the identity persons
(believe to) have. The second kind is the identity one has in the eyes of others which can only be
found out in interpersonal interaction. This is the social self. Actually, a person could be seen as
having many of these social identities, namely one for each “other”. However, this social identity
can also be seen as a kind of generalization of opinions of others (Solomon, 1983). In 1902,
Cooley named this the “looking glass self” (in: Wichstrom, 1998). The third kind of identity is the
identity one would very much like to have. This ideal identity can be seen as a mental picture of
the perfect “me” (Ogilvie, 1987). As a kind of refining, Wichstrom (1998: 114) introduced the
“possible self” next to this “ideal self”. The second is what one would like to be, the first is what
is considered to be practically attainable. Often, a fourth kind of identity is added in this
categorization, namely the not-wanted self. Ogilvie (1987) even states that the real counterpart of
the ideal identity is not the real self but the not-wanted self.
In consumption theories, the ideal identity is considered to be of prime importance. The
products one buys are said to reveal more about one’s wanted identity than about one’s real
identity (Schau and Gilly, 2003). Individuals however must be cautious. They are motivated to
enhance positive evaluations about them (Berzonsky, 1994), but when they would deviate too
much from expectations about them, they take social risks that can damage the self. In every act
of self-presentation, people make themselves vulnerable (Schau and Gilly, 2003) but in view of
the social risks they take, they often choose those activities of which the possible negative
outcomes are as light as possible (Mandel, 2003, Schlenker, 1975). One of these activities is
consumption (Tian et al, 2001).
Another important contrast concerning identity is the one between the independent and the
interdependent self (Mandel, 2003). An independent person makes choices as he wants, also in
consumption. An interdependent person knows himself situated in a network of social ties and
he considers himself less free when choosing. The main aim of an interdependent person is the
conservation of bonds and harmony with others. An independent person strives for uniqueness
and being different from others members of the same group (Mandel, 2003, Snyder, 1992). The
contrast between these two types is not absolute. Often it is a matter of which aspect gets priority
in a certain situation.
Constructing identity is a life-long project (Deaux, 1993, Grotevant and Cooper, 1998) but is
initiated in childhood (Hoare et al, 1993, Wichstrom, 1998). The most appropriate period for real
identity construction is determined by the society one lives in (Adams and Montemayor, 1983),
but often the teenage years or more specific puberty are considered to be an important stage in
the psychological development of individuals (Wichstrom, 1998). The development of an identity
would be initiated by a kind of feeling of crisis, “a necessary turning point, a crucial moment,
when development must move one way or another, marshalling resources of growth, recovery
and further differentiation” (Erikson in: Adams, 1998: 3). From this moment on the often young
individual starts his journey of exploring and comparing several alternatives until commitments
can be made. Teenagers are expected by society to engage in some kinds of life-longcommitments after a certain period of searching and exploring of different alternatives (Adams
and Montemayor, 1983). This has to bring them to a relatively stable self-definition (Adams,
1998). Three steps in this process are to be discerned: exploring alternatives, constructing the
chosen options and communicating the choices to others (Fournier, 1998). In this last step,
consumption is of major importance.
There is a lot of agreement on the proposition that individuals use consumption in general and
products and brands in particular to define, form and keep their identities (Ball and Tasaki, 1992,
Belk, 1988, Englis and Solomon, 1995, Firat and Venkatesh, 1993, Kleine et al, 1995, Muniz Jr.
and Hamer, 2001, Schultz et al, 1989, Snyder, 1992, Solomon, 1983). Consumption has both a
self-defining and a self-expressive function. Bauman (2001) even refers to consumption as an
expression of the most inner “me”. People choose those products and brands that are relevant to
the own self and that accentuate some aspects of that self. Belk (1988) grasps the possessions and
the consumer objects of a person together with his identity in his term “extended self”. In
consumption, people make some aspects of their own self tangible and more concrete. In this
way, individuals create a unique personality, meant for public consumption (Schau and Gilly,
In identity research, measurement is one of the main problems. Identity is an abstract something
that can not just be calculated. Even if a researcher would limit himself to some tangible aspects
that can be related to identity like choices in consumption, problems keep arising. Because of the
fact that identity itself, in its abstract form, is hardly measurable, sometimes partial aspects of
identity are put together to provide some kind of measure of identity. One important part of
identity in that way is self-esteem (Adams, 1998, Deaux, 1993, Eiser et al, 1995, Hoare et al, 1993,
Kleine et al, 1995, Wichstrom, 1998). One can also focus on self-presentation (Schau and Gilly,
2003) or on the extent to which individuals want to feel unique. This need for uniqueness is
defined as a positive striving to be different from others (Snyder and Fromkin, 1977). Also ideas
about the own body and body image can be of extreme importance in mapping a part of one’s
own identity (Thompson, J.K., 1995).
These remarks on the measurement of identity bring us back to the definition of identity and a
major aspect of it, which has been mentioned before. The definition of identity involves two
ideas: on the one hand an absolute sameness and on the other hand a lasting distinctiveness
(Craib, 1998). Identity plays a crucial in ideas about identification and distinction and
consumption plays an important role in the expression of it (Holt, 2000).
3 Distinction and Identification
In contemporary society a value of products has stepped forward and has pushed the use and
exchange value into the background. This value is called sign value, also known as the symbolic
value. The symbolic values of things are constructed and continually have to be decoded and
questioned (DuCille, 2000) as these meanings do not stay the same forever (Baudrillard, 1970,
Dant, 1999). This symbolic value is of prime importance because the primary value of products is
not in use or price anymore, but in communication (Baudrillard, 1970). All products now have an
inherent communicative status (Vigneron and Johnson, 1999) and people are symbol-using
beings (Craib, 1998). In a consumer society, the meanings consumers create and find in consumer
goods are on the front stage (Belk, 1995). In this way, a new language is constructed1.
“It has become quite usual for sociologists to suggest that when individuals in
contemporary society engage with consumer goods they are principally employing them
as 'signs' rather than as 'things', actively manipulating them in such a way as to
communicate information about themselves to others” (Campbell, 1997: 340).
1 The “new” status does not lie in the fact that in the past consumption was never used as communication, but in the
fact that consumption is more open to individuals than it has ever been before. For teenagers for example, the
amount of money they have at their disposal and with which they can buy products has never been as high as these
People who live in the contemporary consumer society know that this kind of communication
has come to the front. Products are continually scanned and read by people who know the code
(Douglas and Isherwood, 1980) and also in a more general way, people are often thought of as
having a kind of built-in radar with which they scan the society for this kind of information (van
der Loo, 1990). Consumption as communication however, is not without problems. Signs can be
misinterpreted and the effect is never sure. Another problem is that sometimes interpretations
are made where it was not really intended to. Consumers are not always necessarily
communicating (Campbell, 1997, Warde et al, 1999). One of the most important critiques on this
consumption as communication hypothesis however, is that it has never been really and
adequately tested (Campbell, 1997).
In the communication of distinction and identification, the products’ symbolic values are of
prime importance (McCracken, 1988, Rocamora, 2002). In consumption, products are being
transformed to signs of distinction (Bourdieu, 2003 {1986}). “Being different from others or
becoming distinctive among a larger group often results from signals conveyed by material
objects that consumers choose to display” (Tian et al, 2001: 50). Constructing and keeping walls
around social groups, but also breaking them, is a major function of consumption in
contemporary society.
“Goods are neutral, their uses are social; they can be used as fences or bridges. [...] Goods
are used for marking in the sense of classifying categories. […] Consumption habits,
deemed natural as skin, are criteria for membership and become weapons of exclusion”
(Douglas and Isherwood, 1980: 12, 74, 85).
It is stated that everyone wants to be different in some kind of way to give value and meaning to
one’s own life (Wouters, 1990). This need to be unique has grown since the network of
interdependence of people has become more and more closed (van der Loo, 1990, Vigneron and
Johnson, 1999). People feel threatened in their individuality when they resemble others and
therefore they engage in anti-conformistic behaviours (Snyder and Fromkin, 1977, Tian et al,
2001). However, this does not mean that no communalities can be found anymore. People do
want to be different from others on the one hand, but on the other hand they also want to
resemble to (aspects of) others. Individuals constantly balance between individuality and
interdependence (von der Lippe, 1998). It is considered a fact that people do not only buy the
products they need in provision of their livelihood but also in view of other reasons as
distinguishing themselves from people and other social groups and imitating certain groups to get
a sort of identification (Bourdieu, 2003 {1986}, Burke, 1993, Crompton, 2003, Tian et al, 2001).
One of the most well-known distinction processes is Veblen's conspicuous consumption. It is
defined as a pattern of conduct that is intended to realize the goal of maintaining or enhancing an
individual's social position (Campbell, 1995a). An important difficulty in framing conspicuous
consumption in today’s society is that the symbolic value of things does not stay the same for
ever. They loose a lot of their distinctive power when they are generally spread in the population
(Baudrillard, 1970, Tian et al, 2001). New status symbols are continuously devalued through the
process of imitation and emulation (Laermans, 1993).
Today, it is commonly accepted that people are continuously building their own status (de
Botton, 2004). Belonging to certain social groups is an important part of it. Not all social groups
play a role in this process. Most important are the reference groups, all imposing norms on their
members, on the people who would like to become members (Mason, 1981) and in a negative
way also on the people who would definitely not like to be seen as a member of such a group. At
first sight, identification and distinction are two processes that are opposed to each other.
Nevertheless, they can fit in perfect harmony when they are placed in a society that is divided in a
horizontal and vertical way. Real hierarchies in society are less present than they used to be, but
they have not disappeared and their influence on consumer behaviour has neither (Mason, 1981).
However, the vertical dividing lines (between horizontally ordered groups) have gained much
power. One must not loose himself in a kind of thinking in closed cages. Borders between
different groups of people are running through each other and individuals do not belong to
merely one social group (Rocamora, 2002). The contemporary society is one of loose boundaries
(Warde et al, 1999) and structures in it are never definitively fixed (Smee, 1997), but this does not
mean that no structures are left. The interacting groups multiplying and being in constant flux
however, make it exceedingly difficult to develop stable consensus on what goods represent the
group (Holt, 2000).
All possessions and activities can be symbols of distinction (Holt, 2000, Warde et al, 1999), but
clothes are considered among the most important ones. Clothes can be understood as a
manifestation of cultural categories and principles that are encoded and actively transmitted to
third parties (Aldridge, 2003). In gaining “identity through practices of dress” (Rocamora, 2002:
356), the consideration of the ever present others (Miller, D., 1995) is always at stake. As
wardrobe engineering, clothing is one of the most important technologies of the self (Entwistle,
1997). Clothes remain one of the means par excellence to socially define, distinguish and group
one’s self. Kotlowitz (2000) describes this process with the phrase “dress to impress”. The idea
that clothing marks social distinction is not new, as it can already be found in the trickle-down
theory of Georg Simmel from 1904 (see: Simmel, 1957 {1904}).
In a way, we could see teenagers as crossing the ocean from childhood to adult life, which is both
physically and mentally a giant journey. For example, teenagers are already supposed to make
individual choices as if they were adults. This is true in the fields of education, in choices about
what to study, in media access, in mobility and in relations (Bouverne-De Bie, 1996). Also
choices in the field of consumption slowly grow to become a teenagers’ business. This can
become a tricky adventure. On the one hand, teenagers want to become more independent, but
on the other hand they have more need than adults to continuing confirmation by their peers and
therefore, they attach more importance than anyone else to activities of watching and being
watched like consumption. Teenagers’ feeling of self-worth is even determined by peers’
acceptance in the second place (after physical attraction) (Harper in: Wichstrom, 1998).
Teenagers have a growing autonomy of choosing whom they want to spend their leisure time
with and as a consequence of their choices, the youth period is largely situated in a network of
peers (Bouverne-De Bie, 1996). On one side, teenagers can be themselves among peers, but on
the other side, this peer group can also work in a compulsive way. If one wants to stay in a group,
he will have to communicate the right signals. Opposing the group spirit and its prevailing values
and norms, is just not done. Therefore, consumption often is the comparing of consequences of
the decisions to be taken as it is one of the activities mostly situated within a group of friends,
communicating information about one’s self or lifestyle to the people that witness it (Campbell,
1995b). Consumption is often considered a key to communication, but for teenagers, this link
would be even stronger (Aldridge, 2003). Therefore, teenagers are considered the research
subjects par excellence in studies on the link between consumption, identity and peer-related
4 The Research Model
The general frame of the model is a post-modern or late-modern, material youth culture. The
post-modern frame refers to the fact that social life is nowadays judged more open and free than
ever before, at least in the Western world. Social and cultural boundaries in the lives of
individuals have lowered, or at least this impression lives with them. Concerning the building of
an own identity, this means that this can happen more freely than in traditional societies. The
freedom also includes a certain pressure, as individuals have no other options than to build their
own identity. The frame of material culture refers to the central role that is played by things and
objects in the life of individuals. The use of products and the meanings that are attached to it, are
in the midpoint of the whole research. In the frame of this project, a youth culture is considered a
grow-, experiment- and try-out-culture, often without long enduring engagements, in which
teenagers learn to live their lives and try to fund their personalities in preparation for adult life. In
this project we refer with the word teenagers to students in secondary school, theoretically having
an age between 12 and 18 years.
4.1 Aspects of identity
We will measure several elements of identity with which in a way a bigger theoretical entity can be
created. We have to keep in mind that the aspects we would like to measure should be relevant
for the whole model. It is important to realize however that by asking people about aspects of
their identity, we are possibly not measuring identity but instead those aspects of identity that one
is prepared to or wants to reveal. Thus, in a way we are not measuring identity but public selfimage. We also have to take into account that people have as much identities as they play roles.
And even in one role several sub-identities could exist. Therefore, we start from the general idea
that when teenagers (and other people) have to respond to questions about themselves, they do
not really take into account all these different roles and corresponding identities but will refer to
some kind of integrated "I" that does only exist on an abstract level in their heads.
Berzonsky (1989) has created a classification of identity styles. He makes a threefold distinction
between information oriented, normative oriented and diffuse oriented persons. These styles are
said to be determining identity (Soenens et al, 2005). Information oriented individuals are
sceptical of their own identity and are prepared to revise aspects of it. Normative oriented
persons conform to certain normative standards and prescriptions, held by significant others.
Diffuse persons are not engaged in any kind of identity related decisions and move away from it
as long as possible (Berzonsky, 1989, 1994). The informational as well as the normative approach
can be seen as two types of social influence. Information oriented people use information of
others to shape their own identity; normative oriented persons only conform to it (Burnkrant and
Cousineau, 1975).
The extent of self-esteem (sometimes called self-acceptance) will be measured with one of the
most used scales for it, namely the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1968). It is a rather
old but still an often used scale and it has the important advantage of only containing 10 items.
Measuring the need to present oneself in a unique way will be done using the “Need for
Uniqueness” –Scale, developed by Snyder and Fromkin (1977). Other scales measuring this need,
like the “Consumer’s Need for Uniqueness” -Scale by Tian et al. (2001) (see also: Bearden and
Netemeyer, 1999) and the “Desire for Unique Consumer Products” -Scale by Lynn and Harris
(1997) were considered to be too directly related to consumption, which can cause problems of
multicollinearity in the model.
The own physical body can be of extreme influence on identity. As the body is under most
circumstances visual to other people, individuals know that the image of their own body always
has some kind of impact on others. Body acceptance and more specific satisfaction with the own
body must be measured as its impact on other identity and consumption related aspects can be
important. In the final questionnaire, several different questions on body image and satisfaction
will be used. One of these questions uses drawings of body images (see: Thompson, C.J. and
Hirschman, 1995, Thompson, J.K., 1995). Respondents have to indicate what type of depicted
body looks like theirs and what type of body is their ideal. The difference between these two is
considered a measure of body satisfaction.
All these questions are meant to measure identity or personality on some aspects and traits, so
that a kind of sum of these different parts can be made. One aspect that would have been good
to put into the questionnaire was a measure of socially desirable responding. This could have
been used for two purposes. First, it can cast a different light on responses given on other
questions and thus could have been used as some kind of estimate of error. Second, social
desirability is in itself a major aspect in the research project. The way in which people try to form
their appearances to be accepted and wanted by the social environments can be an important
treat of their identity. A problem with measuring social desirability concerns the keying of items.
Ballard, Crino and Rubenfeld (1988) investigated this for the well-known scale developed by
Marlowe and Crowne (1960). This problem was considered to be of major importance and led to
its exclusion out of the model.
Identity is often measured in different areas of life but in this, one has to take into account that
people have areas which they consider more important than others. As a kind of weight in the
measures of identity, one has to take this relativity into account. In the questionnaire, a measure
was used to calculate these weights, based on the “Aspects of Identity Questionnaire”, developed
by Cheek et al. (2002). Using the general concept behind this scale and adding some consumption
related aspects, an interesting measurement can be designed to put some things in perspective.
In the research model that is put forward, measuring identity has been limited to the abovementioned aspects, knowing that not all aspects are included and some gaps can remain.
4.2 Aspects of Peers
Friends have for everyone, but certainly for peers, and influence on how one feels and behaves.
Feeling accepted in a certain group is of crucial self-value to many. In the relation between
groups and individuals four possibilities are given. First, there are the groups one belongs to.
Second, there are the groups one would like to belong to. These are the so-called aspiration
groups. Third, there are the groups one certainly does not want to belong to. These groups are
also known under the name avoidance groups. The fourth category consists of the neutral
groups, the groups that are of no value for the individual. This fourth category is introduced to
avoid that all groups in society are in some kind of affective relation with any individual.
All these groups have specific values and norms that are often melded into behavioural rules.
Individuals who belong to a certain group (the in-group) use these rules to contrast themselves
with individuals not belonging to the group (the out-group). It is often suggested that when
individuals want to belong to a certain group, they start taking over some of the behavioural rules
of the group, so that eventual admittance gets easier. All these kind of processes fall into two
categories. There is the category of identification, which consists of behaviour by which the
individual mirrors himself to the group members and begins to imitate these behaviours, in the
hope to get accepted in the group or to at least be seen by others as a member of this specific
group. On the other hand, there are the processes of distinction. These processes hold between
groups and within groups. Between groups, members of one group may want to distinguish
themselves from members of other groups. However, also in one group, not everyone wants to
be alike. Therefore, minor differences also play in a specific group.
Two techniques that are used in these processes deserve special attention, namely peer-grouppressure and impression management. The first is always initiated by an individual; the second
can be started by an individual or a group. Peer-group-pressure refers to the existing obligation to
conform to demands and expectations of friends or members of another group to get and stay
accepted in that group. Measuring this aspect specifically related to consumption can be done in
different ways. A first possible scale is the “Attention to Social Comparison Information” –Scale
by Lennox and Wolfe (1984) (see also: Bearden and Netemeyer, 1999). This scale is particularly
about having attention for how others behave when one does not know how to behave. A
second possible scale is more oriented towards consumption. It is the “Consumer Susceptibility
to Interpersonal Influence” – Scale by Bearden et al. (1989) (see also: Bearden and Netemeyer,
1999). In this scale, a distinction is made between informational and normative factors. Using
these two factors, one tries to make a distinction between people who are led by the choices of
their friends and other significant others (which is the normative component) and people who
use their friends as a primary information source, in which the pressure of friends is somewhat
indirect. The biggest disadvantage of this scale again has to do with problems of multicollinearity.
A distinction between group leaders and group followers could be made. Rules in groups are
made by someone; they do not just exist as if they came out of nowhere. This certainly holds for
smaller and rather specific groups. In view of our research, we are not really interested in the
leaders of more general societal groups. Another aspect of the groups of friends that deserves
attention is the form of the network. Roughly, two types can be drafted. In the first type, every
individual from the peer-network of one person also belongs to the peer-network of the others.
The second main type is the network in which one central person has a relational bonding with
every other person in the network, but the other persons in the network do not know each other.
These two types can be seen as two extremes of a certain continuum. In this, we do not need to
argue that an individual can have several different networks. Special attention will also be paid to
the relationship between an individual and his or her best friend and his or her boyfriend or
girlfriend. Using scales and several different other open and closed questions, the pressure of
peers and others on a certain individual will be investigated.
4.3 Aspects of Consumption
Consumption is a very broad concept and several aspects have to be included in the model. The
main part that will be under investigation consists of attitudes, styles and specific behaviours,
whether or not hypothetic. Materialism for example, is an attitude that certainly should be
included in the model. The two most well known scales used to measure materialistic attitudes,
are designed by Belk and by Richins and Dawson. Both scales consist of several factors that all
have their importance. Belk (1985) for example, distinguishes jealousy, nongenerosity and
possessiveness. Richins and Dawson (1992) on the other hand, focus on success, centrality and
happiness of which possessions are signals. Because of the fact that both scales are relevant and a
choice was difficult to make, a way was sought to integrate them in one scale.
In the project, products and brands play and important role and even more we are concerned
with the meanings attached to these brands and products. It is impossible however, to include all
products and brands that possibly play a role in the life of teenagers. Therefore, we focus on
clothing and on mobile phones. For mobile phones for example, it is tried to look which
consumer values plays the most prominent role when a teenager buys one. We also pay attention
to aspects of conspicuous consumption.
A special place will be taken by shopping. Shopping is the most visual consumption act (Warde,
1994) and is an important leisure time activity for young people. Attention will not only be paid
to the who, what, where, when and why of shopping, but also to the how. Therefore, the
Consumer Styles Inventory, developed by Sproles and Kendall (see: Sproles and Kendall, 1986,
Sproles and Sproles, 1990) (see also: Bearden and Netemeyer, 1999) will be used.
4.4 Other Factors
Besides the three blocks in our model (identity, peers and consumption) other possible
influencing and intervening factors are included. A first element that is of possible importance
here is the home situation of the teenagers. By this, we do not only refer to the socio-economic
and socio-demographic facts about them, but we also try to map some attitudes and behaviours
of their parents. Maybe, teenagers consume in the way they were socialised to or maybe they do
the exact opposite of that. Also important is the related financial aspect of the consumption
process. Who pays for what and what is the impact of this difference? A separate questionnaire
will be used for the parents. A second extra element is the school of the teenagers. To measure
the possible influence of peers in a class and school context, a multilevel perspective will be used.
Class and school contexts will also be of interest as shaping consumption behaviour in a more
direct way, by school policy and the like. Therefore a separate questionnaire will be used for a
teacher or a member of staff from every school that will be included. A third element that can
not be left out of the model is the influence of advertisements. Ads are one of the most
important sources for meanings of products. In this perspective, we will try to include the
possible influence of role models. Therefore, enough information about media use of teenagers
must be collected, both from a general and a more specific approach. A fourth and final extra
element that will be included in the model is the financial aspect. Money is the fuel of
consumption. The most important sources of income for teenagers are pocket money and money
from small jobs. It is important to get a picture about the discretionary income of teenagers.
Finally, besides these four special other factors, several so-called controlling variables will be
used. We will use gender, age, school (year, course, type), ethnicity (based on the language spoken
at home) and home situation (more specifically the socio-demographic aspects). Also information
about the club life of teenagers will be used. Next, the possibly relevant elements (not all
mentioned before) are put into one model, to give an overview of the aspects, intended to be
used in the research project.
general frame of thought:
school context
(type, school,
(based on
origin and
spoken at
club life
Identity Styles
Self-esteem (-acceptance)
Need for uniqueness
Body and body image
- Social desirability (+)
Theoretical: four types of self;
status; need for immediate
satisfaction (?); …
choices and
values and
in-group vs. out-group
identification / distinction
leaders vs. followers
types of groups (aspiration,
avoidance, neutral)
impression management
type of friends network
romantic relations
Class, school and
other levels in view
of a multilevel
approach (also
place in leisure time
relative importance
public vs. private
aspiration, avoidance
and neutral goods
products and brands
(focus on clothes and
mobile phones)
situational influences
four consumption
values (functional,
social, emotional and
consumer lifestyle
Influence of
media use
(quantity, quality
and type)
Sources (pocket
money, own
jobs, clothing
money) and
4.5 Some Final Remarks
Most of these elements have been integrated in a questionnaire, intended for the pilot study. The
data collection of this pilot study has already been done in the period April, 19 – May, 25 2005.
About 287 students from secondary schools in the district of Sint-Niklaas in Flanders have
completed the questionnaire. The results of this pilot study will be used with two goals. The main
goal is the creation of a final one hour questionnaire for the data gathering over the total of
Flanders, aiming at five to ten thousand respondents. Based on results of and answers to the two
hour questionnaires, questions will be omitted or changed; scales will be made smaller, adapted or
omitted; other words and phrases will be used for words and phrases that seemed too difficult;
response categories will be adapted when it would seem that they were unsatisfactory; questions
that seemed too difficult will be omitted or changed; etcetera. The second goal is the gathering of
data, as it will be tried not to throw away any data. We hope to be able to integrate the results of
the pilot study in the final dataset.
Adaptations to the research model can still be made. Therefore, I am looking forward to all
comments, whether they are related to general choices or to more detailed aspects of the model. I
hope to integrate the comments in the research project, which can only improve the results of it.
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