Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods
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 v/oM to consumer goods and then from these goods to the individual consumer. Severalinstruments 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 transfen-ed from one location in this system to another.
onsumer goods have asignificance that goes beyond 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 significance of consumer goods the focus of renewed academic study (Belk 1982; Bronner 1983; Felson 1976; Furby1978; Graumann 1974-1975; Hirschman 1980; Holman 1980; Leiss 1983; Levy 1978; McCracken 1985c; Prown 1982; Quimby 1978; Rodman and Philibert 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 tocontribute a theoretical 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 severallocations in the social world, aided by the collective and individual efforts of designers, producers, advertisers, and consumers. There is a traditional trajectors- to this movement. Usually, cultural meaning is drawn from a culturally constituted world and transferred to
• Grant McCracken is Assistant Professor, Depanment of Consumer Studies, University ofGuelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada NIG 2WI.The author thanks the following individuals for their contribution to the paper: Michael Ames, Duncan Joy, Mary Ellen RoachHiggins. K.O.L. Burridge, and the anonymous reviewers of this Journal.
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, theconsumer 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 1 propose to analyze this trajectory of meaning, 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 consumptionin modern society. First, such a perspective encourages us to see consumers and consumer 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 consumption rituals as instruments of meaningmovement. We are encouraged to acknowledge the presence of a large and powerful system at the heart of modern consumer society that gives this society some of its coherence andflexibilityeven as it serves as a constant source of incoherence and discontinuity. In sum, this perspective can help to demonstrate some of the full complexity of current consumption behavior and to reveal in a more detailed...
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