The self-concept of a person is about how he/she believes their own characteristics and the evaluation of these attributes (Solomon et al., 2010). A common term, self-esteem, is used to define the positive aspect of an individual’s self-concept (ibid.). A simple distinction of self-esteem is the ideal versus real self (ibid.). As there is usually a gap between the two of them, products are used to minimize the gap and assist an individual in achieving certain goals (ibid.). Thus in this literature review, products would be a main concern in explaining how they are used to help develop a person’s self-concept.
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Belk (1988) stated that possessions are seen as a part of our sense of self. Our possessions are used to broaden our self-concept and thus we use them to understand ourselves (Sartre, 1943 cited in Belk, 1988). McCarthy (1984 cited in Belk, 1988) also concluded from his research that a product might contain more of our identities than an individual. Products could act as a consequence to an established self-concept as well as an antecedent to self-definition (Solomon, 1983). The former appears more often in most research, in which consumers buy a product to satisfy their particular need or to manage their appearance or impression in front of others (ibid.). The later is about the consumer’s use of product as stimulation to define a particular social role (ibid.). Products consist of symbolic qualities which are used by consumers to clarify the behaviour and performance of a social role (ibid.). Both aspects of the product usage are significant for consumers in their self-definition process.
In this chapter, the two factors, ‘consumption’ and ‘interaction’, are addressed in two separate subsections in order to explain their influences on the definition of an individual’s self-concept. The third subsection, ‘work identity’, is also included in this literature to explain some characteristics regarding this specific self-identity which is novel to the participants in this research.
Sartre (1943/1956 cited in Kleine et al., 1993) mentioned that ‘who we are’ is represented by ‘what we have’, hence consumption is related to self with respect to the person’s possessions. Buying objects is a form of putting one’s self into the object (Belk, 1988). Sartre (1943 cited in Belk, 1988) suggested that buying an object is similar to creating an object, in which the identity of a person is invested into the object through associating the object with his/her characteristics. The strength of maintaining the self identity also increases after immediate purchase of the product (Ball and Tasaki, 1992).
Relationship between ‘self’ and possessions
A person’s concept of self and social identity could be defined by his/her use of products (Holt and Thompson, 2004 etc. cited in Solomon et al., 2010) because the products consist of hints which includes information about the person’s particular social role (Solomon, 1983). Social role is defined by Young as ‘a behavior pattern associated with a particular person in a particular social system’ (1991: 33). A person acting as a particular social role would behave according to role expectations (Young, 1991). People could choose to enact any role and they would alter their behaviour in different situations (ibid.). Even if two persons are acting as the same social role, they would not behave in the same way (ibid.).
The role the product plays in the consumption process could be explained by ‘consumption system’, which describes how the consumer uses the product to achieve his/her goal (Boyd and Levy, 1963: 129). Consumers purchase the product not for its physical existence but the function it provides for the user in accomplishing certain tasks (ibid.). Thus even basic or daily products, such as our house and clothes, could be used to express our self (Kleine et al., 1993; Young, 1991).
The relationship between a person’s self identity and his/her possessions could be explained by the term ‘attachment’, which means that the maintenance of self-concept is supported by current or previous ownership of a product (Ball and Tasaki, 1992). As attachment and time in owning the product increase, that product would become more associated with any significant circumstance or people in the life of the owner (ibid.). But it should also be noted that time is needed for the increase in the level of association even for a high attachment (ibid.).
Prominence of identities
An individual could possess many identities or roles within him/herself (Solomon et al., 2010). Different products may be required for an individual to display his/her particular social role (ibid.). We usually choose products which agree with our identities (Kleine et al., 1993), and consequently each of the identity would be supported by a consistent set of possessions (ibid.).
For each of us, some of our identities would be more prominent in specific occasions (Kleine et al., 1993; Solomon et al., 2010). Our behaviour would be affected by the salience of an individual’s certain identity, and therefore those behaviours related to the prominent identity would be performed more frequently (Kleine et al., 1993). We tend to do something which is rewarding to ourselves (ibid.). The more we perform these rewarding behaviours, the more confident we feel with the usage of those possessions (ibid.). More central identities would be more likely to guide an individual for suitable behaviours (Solomon, 1983).
More about the prominence of identities would be explained in Section 2.2.2.
Several consumer researchers (Bonsu and Belk, 2003 etc. cited in Arnould and Thompson, 2005) had argued that disposition is important in the transition of roles and identities of consumers. Especially during times like getting a new job in this research context (Belk, 1988), those possessions related to the role of a student may be disposed because the self-image of the new employee role is inconsistent with those old possessions (La Branche, 1973 cited in Belk, 1988). The quitting of the student role could also be regarded as disposition for which the graduates acquire the new role of an employed person instead, according to the example of one participant in Young’s (1991) research that her role is transited from a manager to a student. Ball and Tasaki also agreed that ‘people will psychologically outgrow many possessions and acquire attachments to others that reflect the new self’ (1992: 170).
However, a person may choose not to discard a product because it acts as a storage platform of valuable memories relevant to his/her past (Belk, 1988). An example is given by the case of one participant in Young’s (1991) research, in which she was keeping the plaque which stored the memory of the relationship with her former boyfriend. She kept it for some time before she threw it away (ibid.). To conclude, whether to dispose or retain a product depends on its importance to the individual for his/her desired identity.
Social identity theory states that a person’s self-identity is created from comparison with others and then he/she is classified into appropriate social groupings (Abrams and Hogg, 1990 etc. cited in Walsh and Gordon, 2008). It is a continuous process (Walsh and Gordon, 2008) through interaction between individuals (Charon, 1992 etc. cited in Walsh and Gordon, 2008). The value of one’s self is then confirmed by others (Pratt, 1991). Belk also agreed that ‘others are an important mirror through which we see ourselves’ (1988: 146). Therefore in this section, the concept of symbolic interactionism and prominence of identities are discussed to address the influence of interaction on a person’s consumption pattern and self-concept.
Symbolic interactionism would be a useful concept in assisting the explanation because it emphasizes the formation of self-concept in relations to other people (Solomon et al., 2010). This theory states that a symbolic environment exists and it provides a platform for people to interact those symbols in creating symbolic meanings (ibid.). With shared symbolic meanings established through socialization, people should be able to adjust their behaviour and determine their self-image with respect to how others predicted those actions (Solomon, 1983). Those products containing the shared meanings may then be used for enhancing the social role as they provide a greater chance in guiding the user to act consistently with that role (ibid.).
Other people could provide reflexive evaluation to an individual with regard to the symbolic value of the product he/she uses to represent his/her role (Solomon, 1983). This evaluation would then be used to shape the self-concept of that person (ibid.). It could exist in an interpersonal or intrapersonal level (ibid.). The former is a more common one, in which those symbols used to determine one’s role exists at the societal or cultural level (ibid.). The latter is about the imagined appraisal of an individual within oneself, for which the interaction process exists within oneself and he/she use his/her internal evaluation to build up his/her desired role (ibid.). Both processes are effective in determining one’s role and self-concept.
Prominence of identities
The prominence of identities was explained in Section 2.1.2. Some more points are added in this part. Kleine et al. (1993) provides two reasons of the salience of our identities. The first one is about our surrounding social circle (ibid.). The circle forms our social connection, and the interaction with those people would help shape whom we are and the stability of these salient identities (ibid.). The second one is about the evaluations we receive from our social connections (ibid.). As explained in Section 2.1, we have a tendency to perform rewarding behaviours (ibid.). Thus we would adopt the identities which receive the best appraisals from others and choose those identities as the salient ones (ibid.). Thus the effect from our social connections may be one of the factors influencing the prominence of our identities.
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A new role: the work identity
Work identity is a self-concept related to work (Walsh and Gordon, 2008). People usually form their work identity from their organizations or professions (ibid.). The greater the status and competence of the organization or profession, the more an individual creates his/her work identity from the group (ibid.). Baumeister and Muraven (1996) viewed work as a way of building up one’s self. Especially for the young females in this context, mastering their first job could be viewed as another kind of possessions which help create their self-identity (Belk, 1988).
Wrzesniewski et al. classified three levels of ‘work-orientations’: ‘jobs’, ‘careers’ and ‘callings’ (1997 cited in Walsh and Gordon, 2008: 54). People who are jobs-oriented view their work as obtaining returns and rewards and they care less about their work identity (ibid.). Individuals having a careers work-orientation are likely to create their work identity through membership of their organizations or professions or both of them (ibid.). People who have a callings work-orientation would create their full self-identity through their profession because they consider their work as the most important thing in their life (ibid.). Thus it implies that a strong work identity is a consequence of having a careers or callings work-orientation.
Income and Money
Income is the basic appraisal for the work of every employee. They can either spend their income on various products or save the money for further use. Although having possessions is a way of enhancing self-concept, money is also considered a kind of self extension (Belk, 1988). Money provides a person with greater flexibility in choosing activities or possessions and thus it helps magnify the person’s sense of self (ibid.). Rubenstein (1981 cited in Belk, 1988) mentioned that people usually regard money as being successful and powerful, and in fact people with higher income are also reported to have higher self-esteem, happier and more satisfied (e.g. Diener, 1984 cited in Belk, 1988).
Current research context
The three sections above have discussed the theoretical findings by different scholars on the content of this research. However, most of the findings are from European context, for which they may not be applicable to the Asian context. Therefore, this research is aiming at understanding whether the practical findings from an Asian context would be relevant to the European scholarly findings, or if the cultural difference occupies more for this research context.
This research aims at answering the three research questions raised in Chapter 1. Specific research details related to each question would be discussed below.
What products do young female university graduates in Hong Kong choose to define their desired self-concept and social role?
First of all, for females, the research from Secord and Jourard’s (1953 cited in Belk, 1988) found that females concentrate on body parts more than males. Solomon (1983) also suggested that appearance-related products could produce a strong link between the sense of self and the behaviour associated with that ‘self’. Therefore participants may purchase more appearance-related products like clothing or skin-care products. Second, consumption is used for self-definition when the person has an unfamiliar role (Solomon et al., 2010) or when he/she is undergoing a role transition (Solomon, 1983). As mentioned in Chapter 1, the employee ‘self’ of young graduates is in a comparatively fragile sense. Tuan (1980) suggested that this fragile self should be supported by possessions because these possessions may be able to represent the identity of an employed person. Young (1991) also mentioned that role transition requires a change of the environment, social role, enacted behaviour and possessions. Especially when the self-image of being an employee is weak at the start of their career, they tend to purchase user-image related products to strengthen their self-perception (Wright et al., 1992). Research from Wicklund et al. (1981 cited in Solomon, 1983) also found that students possessing a more imperfect sense of ‘career’ self would tend to utilize luxurious products to represent their desired ‘career’ role.
Therefore in this research, their preferred types of products and spending pattern would be explored to understand how they view their identity at the moment. The issue of difference in spending pattern before and after graduation would be especially addressed to explore the process of their role transition.
How do their interactions with others shape their salient social identities?
In this research, participants are all playing a relatively unfamiliar role of being an employed person. They may not understand the appropriate behaviour of their new role and thus there may be large gap between the ideal behaviour and their actual capacity in performing those behaviours (Solomon, 1983). Therefore they may rely on external cues in guiding their actions (ibid.). Their self-image would be largely shaped by the appraisals of others on their own possessions (ibid.). They would access whom they are or their role based on the evaluations of others (ibid.).
From the literature by Kleine et al. (1993) in Section 2.2.2, the two reasons of salient identity are both about a person’s social connections. Therefore in order to explore the relationship between interaction and the salience of identity, the issue of social circle and the interactions among the group would be explored. The interactions may affect how they view themselves and subsequently their consumption patterns and behaviour, and finally their salient identity would be shaped accordingly.
To what extent does their work identity constitute to their self-concept?
In their role transition from a student to an employee, their salient identity may not be stable and they may have several prominent identities instead of just an obvious one. Thus the issue of level of importance about the working role in their self-concept would be addressed to explore if work identity is considered important in their mind. Their view towards their current job would be explored because the research from Wrzesniewski et al. (1997 cited in Walsh and Gordon, 2008) indicates that people who are more career-oriented tend to have a stronger work identity and vice versa. Their view towards their income and their general spending and saving habits would also be asked to explore how they view money and the appropriateness of the spending and saving patterns for young graduates.
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