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Emulation, Imitation, and Global Consumerism

March, 1996
Richard Wilk
Department of Anthropology
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405

There are good reasons for concern about the environmental impacts of five to ten billion
people consuming at the presently high levels of the developed countries of Europe, Japan, and
North America. With high economic growth rates in many parts of the developing world, and the
rapid spread of electronic media, advertising, and marketing, the next two decades are likely to
see a major transformation in the consumption styles of the majority of the world's population.
The global environmental consequences will be dramatic; comparable to the impact of the
industrial revolution, which affected a much smaller part of the globe.
The direction and magnitude of the impact of new levels of global consumerism depends
on choices the people of the developing world will make about what constitutes the "good life,"
and on the kinds of resources they have available to pursue it. This will shape their priorities in
purchasing different kinds of goods and services, their consequent demands for more energy,
water, and raw materials, and the resulting emissions, waste, and pollution. If world income levels
rise rapidly, and if that income is spent pursuing the western high-consumption life-style, the
consequences may be severe.
This paper will not address directly the first "if," the economic future of the areas where
consumption is constrained by poverty. World Bank statistics show that growth rates in different
parts of the developing world are extremely uneven, with stagnation and recession in many areas,
and rapid growth in others (1994). Even in countries with rapid growth rates, the increased
income is not distributed evenly; small cosmopolitan elites may accumulate great wealth while
urban underemployed and rural people lag far behind. In general, however, the prospect seems to
be a gradual rise in disposable income among a huge number of people who have until recently
been isolated, who have produced basic commodities for the global marketplace for hundreds of
years while consuming mostly basic goods they produce themselves or buy in local markets.1
Their change in lifestyle is being promoted by improving infrastructure, including roads, water
systems, energy, communication and electrification, declining prices for many mass-market
commodities (due to more open markets, more widespread manufacturing, greater competition,
and advancing technology), higher levels of literacy and education, and the breakdown in
autonomous subsistence economies and self-sufficient rural communities. At the same time, huge
increases in travel, tourism, and international labor migration, and in the consequent (and largely
unrecorded) flow of remittances and personal goods, brings sophisticated technologies, tastes,
and practices to even the most remote corners of the globe (Lyer 1989).
Prognostication about the second "if," which concerns just how increased incomes in the
developing world will be spent can be summarized with three different basic scenarios for the
consumer future of the developing world.2 The first could be called Modernization; developing
countries go through the same stages of development of consumer demand in the same order
that the Northern developed countries went through over the last century. We would expect a
sequence of waves of consumer innovations which typically start among an urban upper middle-
class, and then spread rapidly through all sectors, starting with major consumer durable
household goods like refrigerators and stoves, then vehicles, and finally elaborate services,
luxuries, tourism, and fashion items. Environmentally, we would expect energy and material
consumption to increase rapidly and dramatically, but then to level off with the growth of a
service economy and an increased demand for a cleaner environment (Hammond 1995).
A Shortcut scenario says that developing countries do not have to follow a narrow historical
path, but can reach the same end as the highly developed economies by different routes that skip
intermediate stages. Instead of massive investments in communication infrastructure, for
example, they could jump straight into satellite dishes and cellular phones. Rather than build a
service economy on top of declining heavy industries, they could leapfrog right into low-impact
decentralized information services. The environmental impact of this scenario would be much
more gradual and benign than modernization. The "dirtiest" phases of development and wasteful
consumption would be skipped in many areas, and people would move directly to the more stable
and sustainable levels of consumption, based on clean technologies, which seem to be the future
of the developed countries. According to some optimistic projections, rapid improvement in
technology could make dramatic improvements possible in living standards, with very low
environmental impact (Ausubel 1996).
Note that both modernization and shortcut scenarios depict convergence, that consumer
behavior in different areas, like their productive sectors and economic structures, will become
more and more alike, that developed and developing worlds will eventually achieve some stable
similarities. Whether this convergence is based on emulation, on evolution, diffusion, or any other
theoretical premise or mechanism, this convergence on a single point should be questioned and
tested with empirical data. The alternatives are much more complex.
The third possibility can be called Divergence. Each country, region, or ethnic group will
develop different and diverse aspirations, definitions of living-standards, and consumer goals, and
different levels of income with which to pursue them. The complex mosaic of different paths would
be responsive to a variety of factors, including cultural difference, access to technology and
capital, political policies and ideologies, and the structure and development of international
markets, commodity, and capital flows. Under this scenario, it is quite possible that a large part of
the developing world will never achieve the threshold income levels necessary to consume large
amounts of durables, luxuries, or services.
While the concept of convergence has an appealing simplicity, what are it's theoretical
underpinnings? The strongest theory of convergence is often labeled the cultural imperialism
hypothesis. This contends that the combination of western control of mass media and improved
advertising, along with human "natural impulses" to improve their lives by seeking leisure and
luxury, will lead new consumers to emulate or directly imitate those of the developed North
(Tomlinson 1991). There are various moral positions on cultural imperialism and the global
expansion of consumer society; some see it leading to economic freedom and the realization of
human potentials (Lebergott 1993), while others consider it a malign and socially destructive form
of brainwashing that destroys authentic values and the social fabric of civil society (Ewen 1976,
1988, Lasch 1979). Whether stressing the coercive power of the North, or the imitative desires of
the South, those who predict cultural imperialism see the homogenization and convergence of
global culture as a consequence. The new global culture will be consumer culture, mass-mediated
through advertising by large multinational corporations who will promote the same goods in every
market, changing only the language of the labels and advertisements (Barnett & Muller 1974).
The alternatives to cultural imperialism are less clear cut. Many social scientists who reject
cultural imperialism, contend that instead of increasing centralization and homogenization, the
next century will be dominated by new and revitalized forms of nationalism, localism, and cultural
fundamentalism that will challenge both the economic and cultural hegemony of the developed
North (Foster 1991). Some suggest that resistance to and rebellion against Northern models of
consumer culture, and the values they express, will be the major force shaping new national
cultures in the South (Kahn 1995). Some recent debates over the issue of global homogenization
or fragmentation and diversification have tended to see them as non-exclusive trends that may
even be linked to each other. Some forms of localization may be concurrent with other kinds of
globalization; heterogeneity and homogeneity both seem to be increasing in different sectors and
at different scales (Friedman 1990, Hannerz 1992, Featherstone 1990, Wilk 1995). One possible
scenario is Hannerz' concept of global "creolization," where instead of all cultures emulating a
Northern model, there is instead an intercultural process of mixing and hybridization, which leads
to many local adaptations and translations of international and global models, which may then be
reincorporated or reappropriated in the Northern Metropolitan centers (Hannerz 1987, 1990,
Appadurai 1990). It is very hard to predict what kinds of levels of consumption, emissions, and
waste we would find in such a hybridized, fragmented, yet interconnected world.
The clearest and simplest alternative to cultural imperialism and homogeneity is that each
country, region, or ethnic group will develop along its own unique path. In other words, there

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would be a world of many different consumer and on-consumer cultures. We would then expect a
high degree of diversity in consumer demand, and perhaps much more moderate long-term levels
of consumption, though it is also possible that some of the new consumer cultures would be even
more wasteful of energy and materials than those of the present Northern societies. Certainly
there is already a good deal of diversity among Northern high-consumption societies, both in the
way they spend money, and the resulting levels of consumption, emission, and waste (e.g. Krebill-
Prather and Rosa, Lutzenhiser, this volume), though others detect converging trends (Schipper,
this volume).
Our choice of different scenarios for the consumption trajectories of the developing world is
therefore complex and difficult, but the ramifications are enormous. The alternative paths in the
development of global consumer culture (or cultures) will make the difference between a
sustainable long-term future, or one with continually declining stocks of renewable and non-
renewable resources, runaway pollution, and potentially disastrous global climatic change,
regardless of the trajectory of population growth.

Imitation and Emulation

The cultural imperialism hypothesis and other theories of convergence depend on the idea
of emulation or imitation of the North by the South, of the rich by the poor, whether through
coercion or other ideological means. The appeal of such a theory is quite clear-cut; we can use
data on the historical development of the North as a quantitative guide for predicting growth in
the developing South. Furthermore, there are social science theories that provide justification for
treating western consumerism as an easily transferable set of practices, values, and knowledge.
These range from sociological theories of acculturation (Desieux 1981, Hoffman 1964), to
geographic models of diffusion (Rogers 1983, Gatignon and Robertson 1985), and then to
Dawkin's recent concept of cultural practices as a set of transmissible self-replicating particles or
"memes" which is grounded ultimately in epidemiology and evolutionary genetics (199X).
There are a number of reasons for great caution, however, in choosing an imitation or
emulation model to predict the future of global consumerism. The concepts of emulation and
cultural imperialism are too broad; they are not precise enough to specify exactly what aspects of
Northern developed country lifestyles are going to be copied, implanted, or emulated. From an
environmental standpoint, there is a tremendous difference between Javanese seeking to emulate
"the west" by listening to Michael Jackson CDs, and those same Javanese following the American
custom of air-conditioning the whole house. Any kind of copying, emulation, diffusion or marketing
is going to be selective; the entire corpus of Northern culture and consumption cannot be copied
entirely, because that corpus is itself so richly varied and changeable.
Emulation models also make many untested assumptions about human culture; they do
not explain the relationship between culture and consumption, and fail to explain or account for
many historical developments and current trends. For a number of reasons, as I will argue below,
we are not yet in a position to either provisionally accept, or completely reject the
imperialism/emulation model, or the alternatives that have been offered. It is also quite possible
that the developing world could change to resemble the developed countries because of as yet
undefined phenomena completely different from emulation or imitation. The goal of this paper is
to assess the areas where knowledge is more complete, and to point to other critical problems in
theory and empirical data where more work is urgently required.

Restating the Problem

The problem of predicting and understanding the future trajectory of consumption in
developing countries has many aspects. The broadest and most fundamental are the ethical
issues raised by the way the issue is defined and framed. Then there are theoretical problems that
stem from the many different approaches to understanding consumer behavior in different
disciplines and research traditions. Finally there are a series of practical problems that arise in
conducting cross-cultural and cross-national research on consumption, including problems of
measurement and data collection.

Ethical Issues.
When the many nations of the developing world began to achieve political independence

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from colonial powers in the twentieth centuries, they often sought to abolish vestiges of what they
saw as the most negative sides of colonial culture. A common criticism was that colonial peoples
had been turned into "mimic men" (to use V. S. Naipaul's label), who slavishly copied and imitated
the behavior, religion, and consumption styles of the European colonial masters. A major thrust of
the anticolonial movement was to develop local alternative national cultures built on precolonial
native models, though in practice this usually involved a good deal of "invention of tradition."
(Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, Ranger 1993). The development of nationalism in the postcolonial
world was therefore built on the idea that local culture, rather than Northern metropolitan models,
was to be the basis for the future. National governments in many areas remain hostile to what
they see as foreign neo-colonailism, which makes the issue of consumer emulation or imitation
offensive (Chatterjee 1986).
Yet in the guise of "modernization" and "development" many forms of Northern ex-colonial
culture are pursued at great expense by the same governments. So while American clothing, or
Arnold Schwartzenegger films may be seen as evidence of decadence and loss of local identity,
huge dams, nuclear plants,, automobile factories, and pulp mills may be seen as evidence of
genuine progress and even the success of national culture against Northern opposition. These
controversies about the relationship between consumerism and nationalism are not unique to
developing countries; recent historical work on post W.W.II Japan (Tobin 1992), France (Kuisel
1993), and Austria (Wagnleitner 1994) find similar developments.
These political developments give any discussion of consumption in developing countries
an inherent moral and ethical component (Camacho1995). When Northern scientists,
environmentalists, or policy makers begin to talk about restraining consumption or restricting
emissions in developing countries, they are liable to be accused of a neocolonial agenda. As with
the movement for "appropriate technology" in the 1970s, many people in the South feel like they
are being told to accept second-class technology, which will ensure that they always stay "behind"
the North. On one hand the North seduces local people and raises their expectations all the time,
but then it turns around and tells them that they have to make sacrifices for the global
environment, which may mean they never approach the standard of living which is commonplace
in the North.
This ethical and moral element is never absent in discussions of consumption and
consumerism even in developed countries. Many critics have noted the deep concern of most
major world religions with issues of wealth and over-consumption (Belk 1983), and countervailing
efforts to blame poverty on wasteful, improvident, and immoral spending by certain classes or
ethnic groups (Horowitz 1988). The dividing line between "luxuries" and "necessities" has proven
elusive, as the social definition of a "standard of living" changes over time and between classes.
There is not even an agreed-upon minimum standard of living among multinational development
organizations; even a seemingly clear goal like "universal access to clean water" is mired in
controversy and contending definitions of "access" and "clean."
Economists avoid stating their positions in moral terms, but some of the same ideas
emerge in debates over whether consumer demand is a positive or negative force in economic
growth. Some market-mediated demand for consumer goods as the basic engine that drives
economic growth, while others see certain kinds of consumption as an obstacle to development,
diverting resources from investment, and draining foreign exchange (Belk 1995). Some
economists have begun to question whether increases in consumption really lead to increased
welfare, and ask if there are better ways to measure the performance of economic systems than
income or consumption (Schor 1995, The Economist 1995).
The morality of consumption, and of societies built on the assumption that all citizens have
a right to spend their resources freely on goods of their choice, priced by market mechanisms and
bargaining, is widely debated by political scientists, theologians and philosophers. Ethicists and
historians argue that the free market has placed consumer values above all others (Leiss 1978,
Lasch 1979). Within the US Environmental and conservation communities there is a strong
divergence of opinion about the morality of consumption too, from "green capitalists" to neo-
puritan militant vegetarians (Kempton et al. 1995). My point is that the yardsticks for measuring
different levels of consumption have no objective fixed starting point or units; evaluating
consumption standards always raises political, ethical, and moral issues.

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Theoretical/ Conceptual Issues
In a recent survey, Berger found six basic theories of consumption based on different
assumptions about human nature, motivations, and the connection between values and behavior
(1992); here I condense them into three groups. Psychological approaches seek desire and need
within the process of personality formation, early family interactions, and the actualization of the
individual. Consumption may be cast as either a pathological aberration or a healthy means of
objectification and individuation. Social approaches find a basic motive for acquisition in social
interactions, especially competition and group affiliation (Burrows and Marsh 1992).
Many social theories can be traced back to Thorstein Veblen, who proposed in The Theory
of the Leisure Class (1899) that consumption was motivated by social competition and emulation;
people use goods for display in modern society because their social roles are no longer strictly
prescribed by birth, class, and social standing. In traditional society people knew their place, and
the currency of social relations were rights, duties and obligations, not material wealth. Free of
ascribed social positions, people now consume in order to obtain it anew, endlessly trying to
acquire status by emulating those with more wealth and power.
Marx also had a social theory of consumer desire. He said that in capitalism, workers no
longer have a social identification with the things they produce, and become alienated, since they
work for a wage instead of producing what they consume (Preteceille and Terrail 1985). Capitalist
wage labor therefore turns people into commodities, purveyors of labor power that can be bought
and sold like goods which breaks down the boundary between the social world and the economic
world. Goods come to substitute for lost social solidarity, but they can never satisfy because they
are empty of fundamental social meaning. The endless insatiable desire for goods is really then a
search for human wholeness, and it leads people to attach human characteristics to goods, what
Marx called commodity fetishism .
Cultural theorists instead see consumption as an inherently communicative act, a form of
symbolic behavior that creates and expresses meaning (Holbrook 1993, McCracken 1988, Douglas
and Isherwood 1979). Cultural systems embody values, and provide scripts and rules that guide
people in the choices they make. A cultural theory of values is often combined with rational choice
utility-maximization theory from economics. Culture provides the conventional meanings and
values of goods which form the underpinnings for consumers' utilities, which form the basis for
rational allocation decisions (this is the general model of most consumer-behavior studies, e.g..
Zaltman & Wallendorf 1979).
Because most empirical research tends to be conducted within one of these theoretical
traditions, their basic epistemological assumptions are rarely questioned directly, or brought into
contention with each other. The differences reflect philosophical controversies about human
nature, free will, and rationality, and very different ideas about motivation and values (D'Andrade
and Strauss 1992). A major division concerns the autonomy of the individual consumer; are their
choices expressing reasoned, consistent wishes and desires, irrational urges, or the manipulation
and influence of powerful voices? Each set of assumptions leads to contrary models of causation
in seeking to understand increasing global consumerism, and leads to very different predictions
for the future directions of change, and points to distinct solutions.
Economic models of consumer demand have tended to be less concerned with explanation,
but have sought direct law like relationships between a limited number of economic variables and
some aggregate measure of consumer spending (Lluch et al. 1977, Mayer 1972). Proponents of
"permanent income theory" have argued for a direct linkage between aggregate income levels
and consumer expenditure, though they do not specify a mechanism for the linkage (Caroll 1989).
Combined with studies of how increased income has been apportioned to different sectors
(housing, food, transport, etc.) by consumers in developing countries, the income relationship can
be used to generate straight-line projections of future consumer demand using projected income
growth rates (Whitley 1995).
Nevertheless, the causal mechanism beneath the correlations on which this method is
based have not been adequately specified or tested, so the predictions must be treated with great
caution. The form and even the existence of an economic "consumption function" that relates
income to consumption, is still in dispute (Hall 1987). There is continuing debate, for instance,
about the causes of high international variation in savings rates and preferences for different
kinds of investment. The general assumption of the economic predictive model is that the future

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of the developing world will be the same as the historical past of the developed countries (see
below), which does not account for technological change. Another problem is that the expenditure
categories that are used are far too general to predict future consumption of specific
commodities. Even if the predictions prove accurate, as Stern (this volume) points out, consumer
spending is not necessarily a good proxy measure of the consumption of materials, or of the
environmental impact of consumption.
A second serious theoretical dilemma in understanding the future of consumption is posed
by widely divergent models of global economic and social development proposed by historians,
economists, and political theorists. The "modernization" theories of the 1950s and '60s proposed
that there was one single "track" of development from traditional to modern societies (Arndt
1987). A series of stages of development were defined, based on European and North American
history, and all other countries were placed on a time line, marking how many years each one was
behind the wealthy, open consumer society of the west (Myrdal 1957). They assumed that each
country had to go through each stage, and that no other paths were possible. The implication is
that each country would "naturally" evolve into a modern high-consumption democratic republic,
not through emulation, but through an autonomous evolutionary process founded in rational
Modernization theory was widely challenged and criticized beginning in the late 1960s,
partially because the promised "take off" of large parts of the developing world never took place.
"World Systems" and "Dependency" theorists argued that the growth of the Northern economies
had been based on the exploitation and "underdevelopment" of the South (Wallerstein 1976,
Frank 1967). They argued for a division of the world into "core" and "peripheral" zones that had
different economic and political trajectories rooted in their unequal power, and their different
historical positions in world trade. Models of economic development based on the Northern
economies could not be applied to the underdeveloped world, because of their different structural
positions in the world economic system. Modernization theory was also attacked as an
ethnocentric ideology (Hobart 1993).
The last decade has seen renewed controversy about the directions of economic change. A
revived form of modernization theory claims that the global division of labor no longer exists
because of competition and the globalization of capital. Others argue that though national
boundaries are no longer as important to the global flow of capital, inequalities between areas and
classes, between low-skill low-wage and highly educated wealthy, are increasing rather than
decreasing (Gereffi and Korzeniewicz 1994). The recent group often identified with the
"International Political Economy" school, tends to recognize much more diversity in different
regions, and a multiplicity of possible development paths (Black 1991).
This controversy is important because it poses the question of consumer society in another
form; is there one path, or are there a number of different historical trajectories? Does the future
of the developing South necessarily follow the same narrow tracks of the developed North, making
the same sequence of environmental and economic mistakes? It is also important to recognize
that even if linear modernization theory has been discredited in some academic fields, it is still
widely taught and used, and continues to shape many sorts of policy (some have argued that
uniformitarian modernization theory underpins the current round of 'structural adjustment' that is
being enforced around the world by the IMF and World Bank). The idea that all societies start out
"primitive" and end "modern" has proven extremely seductive and powerful, despite more than
twenty years of counter-rhetoric about the third waves, soft paths, alternative development,
sustainable development, and multiculturalism.

Practical Issues
One of the most serious obstacles in dealing with the complex theoretical problems raised
by global consumer trajectories is the simple lack of good comparative data. The ratio of
theorizing to empirical fieldwork and data gathering has been badly skewed in many disciplines.
Many of the theories discussed above have clear implications that could be tested using good
comparative and/or historical data on consumption levels of different goods. But even in the most
developed countries, actual data on consumer behavior is spotty and poorly recorded. The most
detailed and comprehensive studies are done by commercial market researchers; they are usually
confined to a few product categories, and the data is proprietary (Albaum and Peterson 1984).

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The quality and nature of household budget data that could be used to study long-term
and cross-national trends, varies widely between countries and over time. Data is rarely
disaggregated by region, ethnicity, or other social variables, or even standard income levels, and
is often listed in categories like "entertainment" or "travel" that are defined differently for each
survey. Even in developed countries like the United States, partial consumption data is gathered
intermittently by many different departments in censuses and surveys that do not completely
overlap or produce a consistent time series. As Duchin and Lutzenhiser (this volume) point out,
there is still a great deal of basic disaggregation and analysis to be done with current
consumption data in the United States.
National measurements of consumption and waste of basic commodities and manufactures
are usually aggregated into large categories and averaged for an entire nation or region, which
can be highly deceptive when actual consumption is highly heterogeneous. Market distortions in
pricing and availability due to government price controls or import restrictions, duties, and
monopolies, make comparative budget studies very hard to work with, especially when varying
and changeable inflation, interest rates, and currency exchange are taken into account.
Cross-national and cross-cultural studies of consumer values, aspirations, and tastes are
bedeviled by difficult questions of translatability and equivalence in basic measures, sampling,
and methodology (Douglas and Craig 1983, van Herk and Verhallen 1996). Rating scales, for
example, are interpreted differently by people of different cultural backgrounds (Hibbert 1993).
Attempts to develop comparative measures of consumer values based on personality or
psychological traits have not produced statistically powerful results, and are based on
controversial assumptions about the relationship between psychology and consumer behavior
(Holt 1994).
The contending theorists in different disciplines each work within their own methodological
traditions, select different sets of data, and use various often-incompatible analytical tools and
techniques. They communicate their results in disciplinary languages that are often specialized
and narrow, in journals and books that are rarely read by scholars working on the same problems
in other disciplines. It is rare, for example, that economic and psychological or social data are
used in the same analysis. since they are often gathered by incompatible means using different
samples, by different groups of social scientists. Interdisciplinary work on consumption, using a
variety of data on different variables, is the rare exception.

Assessing Available Data

Social scientists in a number of different fields have collected data pertaining to the
various hypotheses about global consumerism discussed above. It would be difficult to conduct
and exhaustive literature review in so many disciplines, but here I will present a quick survey of
some of the more important research findings from selected areas. This will be rounded out with a
short discussion of my own research.

Macroeconomics. On an international level, Engels law (per capita expenditure on food declines
as a proportion of income as income rises) seems to hold fairly well, and general expenditure on
consumer durables also increases proportionately with income (World Bank 1994). The price
elasticities of demand for other basic necessities appears to be quite low, below a minimum
subsistence level (which is not clearly defined). Above this level elasticities are much greater, and
rural/urban differences, and cross-national differences are quite large. The share of increased
income spent on major consumption categories such as food, durables, and housing, varies
widely, as does the savings rate, though there is debate over the cause of this variation, and some
evidence that it may be decreasing (Lluch et al. 1977, James 1993).
Empirical analysis of national consumption figures does not produce results consistent with
linear modernization theory. In China consumer aspirations have changed several times during
the last 20 years. Rates of consumption of major durables are much higher in China than in other
Asian countries when they had the same per capita income, and the mix of goods is also different
(Sklair 1994). Studies of Nigerian food preferences during the oil boom show that government
policies, advertising, and the distortion of market channels had a decisive effect on gross
consumption (Andrae and Beckman 1985). Geographic disaggregation often shows that
rural/urban differences in consumption are high, independent of income levels, and there is also

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pronounced regional variation in large countries like China which is difficult to account for with
economic data.

Psychology/Consumer Research. Technocratic, urban, highly educated groups in many parts

of the world show some increasing commonalties in aspirations and cultural values (e.g.. Hofstede
1980). But are these people the leaders of a new wave of consumerism, or western cultural
enclaves of technocratic and academic "cosmopolitans" isolated from the mainstream in their
countries? Even if there are growing common values in many countries, it is not at all clear that
convergence in values will indeed lead to convergence in consumption behavior (Holt 1994, Belk
and Zhou 1987). Baker's comparative study of urban teenagers in twelve countries finds the
similarities superficial (1989). While there was a widespread appreciation and recognition of
western media stars, movies, and the symbols of multinational businesses and brands. Though
they like some of the same drinks, admired some of the same musicians and movie stars, and
recognized Disney characters, their concerns and ambitions were overwhelmingly local. Their
daily choices were made entirely in the contexts of their own families, their own religions, and
their own nation.
Cross-cultural studies of actual purchasing behavior and tastes for specific items tend to
find high levels of diversity, though the data does not have enough time depth to identify trends
(Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). Similarities between areas are often attributed to the effects of
marketing and advertising. The spread of consumer demand is also attributed to increasing
materialism, a decline in religious and other non-materialist values, and the emulation of western
models (Belk 1988, Nwachukwu and Dant 1990, Cocanougher and Bruce 1972). Nevertheless, this
emulation is often partial, symbolic, or incomplete. "Incoherent" emulation pushed by advertising
may lead consumers, for example, to sacrifice an adequate diet in order to buy a refrigerator.
Some interesting work has also been done on market segmentation in developing countries, and
surveys have defined some "standard packages" or "constellations" of desired consumer durables
in particular regions, though not on a global basis (Schultz et al 1994. Hogg and Mitchell 1995,
Kehret-Ward 1987).

Media Studies. Issues of consumerism are implicit in many studies of the effects of television,
improved communication technology, film, and other media on diverse cultures. A "media
imperialism" debate parallels the controversy about cultural imperialism discussed above.
Comparative studies do show that western media can change local values, which may increase
aspirations for western goods (Oliveira 1986). A meta-analysis of a number of media influence
studies found, however, that demonstrable effects are small and difficult to measure (Ware and
Dupagne 1994). Each country has a unique history of exposure to media, and impact studies are
difficult to compare (Kottak 1990). There is also now evidence of resurgence in locally produced
media in many countries, and in some areas Indian, Arabic, and Chinese media challenge the
dominance of Hollywood (Silj et al. 1985, Drummond and Patterson 1988). In each country, local
media productions are now offering alternative models for emulation and imitation, which are
often more popular than Western imports.
The underlying model of how advertising and media affect consumer behavior is still hotly
debated, and cross-national studies show considerable variation in the acceptance of and
meaning ascribed to western media productions (e.g.. Liebes and Katz 1990, Moore 1993).
Existing cultures and social institutions have a powerful influence on the ways that foreign media
images are understood and assimilated; while cultural convergence may still be taking place, it is
not as rapid or direct as the emulation or imitation hypothesis would predict.

History. Extensive recent research on the origins of consumer society in the West has generated
many diverse explanatory models and little consensus (Schama 1988, Brewer & Porter 1993,
Cross 1993, Richards 1991, Benson 1994, McKendrick et al. 1982, Tiersten 1993). Historians do
not agree on when modern consumer culture was first established, or where it first emerged. They
do mostly accept that the growth in western consumer demand resulted from breakdown of rigid
class hierarchies, the rise of the middle classes, and relaxation of religious inhibitions on
conspicuous consumption. Others have singled out the "romantic ethic" (Campbell 1987), and the
trend towards cultivating health and self-improvement (Lears 1989). Recent work has shifted

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away from "social emulation" or class-based models of consumer demand, towards a focus on
communication, nationalism, and the growth of markets and retailing (Mukerji 1983). Since all of
these trends are taking place in developing countries, we might therefore expect a similar growth
of consumer culture, even in the absence of any specific form of emulation. Convergence and
western styles of mass consumption can spread even without emulation. On the other hand, while
consumer culture evolved slowly in the west and in Japan, it is developing rapidly in a very
different cultural and economic environment in newly developing countries. This may cause much
greater and sharper tensions between persistent long-standing cultural and religious values and
those of modern consumerism (Belk 1988).

Anthropology/Cultural Studies. There has been a large increase in interpretive studies of

consumption both in the west and in developing countries, but not a great deal of quantitative
analysis (e.g. Sherry 1995, Miller 1995). A major point is that the symbolic meanings of consumer
goods vary widely among cultures, so demand for goods also varies. These disciplines emphasize
the key role of western goods in building and maintaining social hierarchies and social boundaries
(Bourdieu 1984). They show how western goods are often absorbed, refashioned, and
reinterpreted in local cultural systems, so that what looks like imitation or copying is really much
more complex. There is discussion of how unique local cultural configurations increase consumer
spending on religion, ritual, and ceremonies, on funerals and other conspicuous consumption, as
incomes rise in developing countries (e.g.. Appadurai 1986). Some scholars discuss the reverse
flows from South to North, as materials, objects, fashions, music and art from developing
countries become more widely desirable in metropolitan Europe and North America, and as
cultural tourism becomes a huge global business (Foster 1991). Some work has been done on
patterns of consumption that result from migration and flows of remittances in "transnational"
pathways, including high rates of investment in housing and education (Basch et al. 1994). There
is also a growing literature on fashion which emphasizes the importance of consumption in gender
ideology, imagery, and behavior (Craik 1994). If consumption patterns are indeed closely linked to
gender roles, the future convergence or divergence of consumer behavior may depend on global
directions of change in gender relations. Scholars who once predicted a steady trend towards
"westernized" gender-equality now find that cultural ideals of gender are quite resistant to
change, and there may be no convergence on a single ideal (Folbre 1994, Kabeer 1995).
Anthropologists tend to support a diversification model. They find continuing vitality in
local and ethnic cultures that provide alternatives to western consumerism (Friedman 1994,
Tambiah 1984). Some "Globalization" theories predict increasing cultural diversification and the
use of selected western consumer goods to signal local difference, rather than as a means of
emulating a metropolitan standard (Featherstone 1990). The implication is that adoption of
western consumer goods and styles will be selective, gradual, and predictable only at a local level.

Sociology / Household Decision-Making. Research in a number of disciplines suggests that

the household, rather than the individual is the best unit of analysis for understanding allocation
and consumption decision making (Duchin, this volume, also Davis 1976, Roberts and Wortzel
1984, Netting et al. 1984, Smith et al. 1984). Work on this topic discloses unexpected complexity
in consumption decision making, and the internal dynamics of the unit are still being explored
using different research assumptions and methods (Wilk 1989, 1994). There is considerable
debate on models of intra-household bargaining and power that have direct implications for
consumption, spending, and savings behavior (e.g.. Phipps and Burton 1995). These internal
allocation decisions may be responsible for differences in the ways cultural groups spend or save
income and choose products. Household dynamics based on gender roles has also been
implicated in economic studies that find that increases in household income are rarely divided in
equitable ways, with women and children often receiving little benefit (Kabeer 1995).
At one time it was assumed that household organization was also subject to convergence,
and that with modernization the western nuclear family household based on companionate
monogamy would come to predominate everywhere (e.g. Goode 1963). From the time of Veblen,
scholars have hypothesized that the dynamics of western consumption are closely linked to this
family institution (Parsons 1953). Crosscultural research on family and household organization
produces only equivocal and ambiguous evidence for a global convergence on the western model,

9 9
which has itself turned out to be heterogeneous, changeable, and variable by region and class
(Coontz 1992). Many studies suggest that cultural distinctiveness in domestic organization
persists even in very modern industrial settings (e.g. Singer 1968, Wolf 1992), suggesting
continuing divergence in consequent consumer behavior.

Case Study
The existing comparative evidence from several disciplines is clearly equivocal, and basic
theoretical issues remain unresolved. Detailed case studies are an important complement to
comparative work, which is often based on inconsistent and unreliable data. My own research
program over the last eight years, in the small central American country of Belize, was prompted
by a highly visible increase in the demand for imported consumer goods in that country during the
1970s and 80s. Though incomes have risen into the middle-rank of developing countries,
dependence on imported goods of all kinds, both luxuries and necessities, has now led to serious
economic problems. A survey in 1980 found that more than 60% of the average household budget
was spent on imported goods, mostly from the United States and Europe.
My research has used a mixture of historical, ethnographic, and survey methods to track
patterns of expenditure, taste, and consumption, relating them to a variety of possible
independent variables including foreign travel, exposure to media and advertising, education,
income, age, and sex. I conducted a long survey of tastes in music, food, leisure pastimes, interior
decorating, television and reading, in both urban and rural areas. An open-ended survey was used
among 1240 high school students in four schools, complemented by focus group interviews,
individual interviews and life histories. I also collected historical material on consumption from
customs records, newspaper archives, and other government reports and sources.
My analysis of this material was intended to test alternative hypotheses to explain the
growing taste for foreign products. A class-competition model would show distinctive tastes
among the educated and wealthy elite, diffusing downward to middle and working classes. Media-
imperialism would be supported if tastes for foreign goods were higher among those with more
exposure to international media (US cable channels are available in much of Belize). Given high
rates of migration and tourism in Belize (34% of adults have lived abroad for more than 1 month),
it was also possible to ask if visits to or residence in developed countries had a major effect. A set
of opinion questions on nationalist issues were used to find out if political and cultural positions or
party politics influenced tastes for foreign goods, music, or food (Wilk 1995a, 1995b).
The results are complex, but in general they provide little support for any single
hypothesis, and suggest that emulation has little explanatory power. The richest and most highly
educated segment of the population has a strong proclivity for western "high culture," including
classical music, Italian food, and literature. But the same group also had the highest levels of
preference for local ethnic foods, Caribbean and local music, and local handicrafts and art. In fact,
taste for foreign goods and preference for US music and entertainment was widely and relatively
evenly distributed throughout the social scale, even in remote rural areas (though which foreign
items were preferred varied quite a bit). The measures of political and nationalist sentiment
provided similarly mixed results; the strongest nationalist sentiments were found at both the top
and bottom of the social hierarchy, among rural farmers, urban workers, and top civil servants,
professionals, and educators. Nationalism had a strong effect on tastes for music and food among
the elite, but not among the working class.
Foreign travel and residence did make a difference in some kinds of taste, particularly in
preferences for television programs, interior decorating, and clothing. But in other areas of taste
those who had lived and traveled abroad were more likely to prefer local products, particularly
local food and music. The effects of media exposure were equally mixed. Among teenage high-
school students, exposure to US media and foreign travel are strongly correlated with aspirations
to buy and own American consumer goods and fashions. But even among teenagers, some tastes,
particularly for food, remain strongly local, regardless of media exposure. And the media effect
also proves temporary and transient; it is very strong among 15 and 16 year olds, but then fades
as students near graduation.
Belize provides very little support for direct single-cause emulation models, though
comparative work in other countries and settings is urgently needed. The evidence suggests that
the example of Northern developed countries, and their media, is powerful and has profound

10 10
effects on consumption patterns in developing countries. Historical evidence shows that during
colonial times, almost all elite consumption in places like Belize did mimic or follow the models of
the colonial powers. Today this is no longer the case, and copying is highly selective, and
sometimes the Western model provokes strong counter-reactions. Western media and
consumption patterns often provoke resistance and a search for alternatives. In Belize I find
growing diversification in consumer aspirations, along with increasing sophistication and serious
political debate of the consequences of mass consumerism. At the same time a particular suite of
energy-using consumer durables, including refrigerators, gas stoves, telephone, and television,
has become an almost universal aspiration among all classes.

The literature and theoretical survey, as well as my case study, lead to a series of
conclusions, mostly concerning the limitations of our knowledge.
• There is still no generally accepted model of consumer behavior.
• The database for cross-cultural comparison of consumption is inconsistent in quality.
• No single academic discipline has adequate tools or data for the study of cross-cultural
consumer behavior.
• The development of consumer culture in developing countries is probably following a different
trajectory from the historical path of the west, though they may eventually converge.
• There is good reason to expect consumption in the developing world to increase dramatically
as incomes rise, but we cannot yet predict how that increase will be apportioned to various
goods or sectors.
• Simple emulation or cultural imperialism remains an empirically weak model for prediction.

This essay has sacrificed some depth in an effort to bring together theory and results from
many diverse fields. The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in the study of consumer
culture and consumption behavior in many different fields, but the lack of coordination and
articulation between scholars in diverse research traditions is discouraging, and suggests that
there is much duplication of effort and little constructive collaboration. On the other hand, all this
scholarship has produced a massive amount of raw, and partially processed information, which
could be effectively exploited by a multidisciplinary team that was willing to work with both
qualitative and quantitative material, with case studies and comparative statistics. With the right
collection of specialists and generalists, it should be possible to convincingly discard some of the
theories and hypotheses about the direction of consumer culture in the developing world. Given
the global importance of that direction, such an effort would be well worthwhile.


1. I would argue that the developing world is presently in the midst of a second consumer
revolution. The first began at the end of the last century, when some basic western technologies
diffused rapidly throughout even the most distant rural hinterlands; this was a package that
included kerosene lamps, bicycles, radios, cheap metal cooking pots, flashlights, sewing
machines, soaps, and a few processed foods like baking powder, wheat flour, refined sugar,
bottled beer, and canned meat. During this first consumer revolution, small elites within each
country managed to reproduce the entire European middle-class consumer lifestyle in urban
enclaves, with little impact on the majority. The present second revolution brings a much broader
array of manufactured goods, fuels, and processed foods to a much larger proportion of the
population which is more widely distributed on the landscape. Common elements include cassette
players, polyester clothing, gas cookstoves, mopeds, concrete block houses with metal roofing,
soft drinks, and PVC pipe.
It may considerably simplify projections of future consumption if we can specify sets of
goods, practices, and infrastructure that tend to be adopted together. McCracken (1988) calls
such logically-connected groups of good "Diderot Unities" (after the French novelist who first
described how purchasing one object forces one to purchase others). Home furnishings are a good
example; they often come in culturally-defined sets, though they may not be purchased all at

11 11
2. For defining these possibilities I am indebted to the authors of the other papers in this volume,
and to arguments by Allen Hammond (1994, 1995).


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