Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Eller College

When families bring consumer products into the home, those products sometimes take on deep meaning and resonance through use — prompting a series of questions that researches have been examining over the last 30 years.

Along with co-author Amber Epp, marketing professor Linda Price, department head and Soldwedel Family Fellow, has published a new longitudinal study on the topic in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

“My research examines how consumers’ emotions and imaginations enrich and give agency to their lives,” explains Price. “This paper answers the call in existing literature to take a long view of the flow of objects in relationships. Our research presents a dynamic cultural biography of an object as it interacts with a family; in this case, the object is a kitchen table.”

Price and Epps conducted a two-year case study tracking the biography of a Midwestern family’s kitchen table as linked to a network of other objects, family identity practices, and physical spaces. “We conducted multiple interviews with five family members, including the mother, the father, two children, and the maternal grandmother,” Price says. Over the period, the authors made multiple trips to conduct interviews and photograph the table in different roles.

“Between the first set of interviews and the second set, the family moved to a new house,” Price says. “This gave us an opportunity to asses contextual changes in the family’s relationship to the table as they unfolded.”  

The table originally came into the family home through the maternal grandmother; the 13-foot-long table occupied a central role in the family home. In addition to hosting meals, it was a place the family gathered for large-scale craft projects, homework, reading, and parties. When the family relocated to a new house, they couldn’t fit the table into the new kitchen.

“Most researchers would predict that when the table is displaced, it would be moved to the garage or similar place, and then returned to the marketplace,” Price says. “We observe two other processes at work: reincorporation attempts and reengagement.”   

The family tried to reincorporate the table into different rooms, including the dining room, and in the basement as a project location, but it in fact did end up in storage. Still, the family takes it out and sets it up for special occasions. “We demonstrate that it’s not just the meaning that an object has combined with family transitions like moving that determines whether the object is retained or returned to the marketplace,” Price says. “It’s also the object’s agency granted by its place and history in the family network.”

The work, she says, has implications in other marketing spheres, such as diffusion of innovation. “What happens when a Wii game console comes into the household?” she says. “What other things are displaced to carve out space for it? The parents might think the Wii will make them more of a family, but they may not know how to integrate it into their lives.” The console could have a host of unexpected effects, everything from necessitating the reorganization of living room furniture to make room for it to cutting down on the amount of time a family spends outside.

“Something as mundane as a table or as technological as the Wii can completely change the dynamic of a household,” Price says.