Examining and conceptualising the negotiation process of the self-in-relation: The role of cosmetics consumption within personal narratives of the self

  • Chih-Ling Liu

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis seeks to contribute to theory building on the relationship between self and consumption (e.g., identity projects in Consumer Culture Theory (CCT)). CCT refers to a family of theoretical perspectives that address the sociocultural, symbolic, experiential, and ideological aspects of consumption (Arnould and Thompson 2005). Existential phenomenology is used to theorise the negotiation process of the self-in-relation that has been largely overlooked in earlier research. By self-in-relation I mean the self that operates in a variety of different social contexts in response to or interactive with others, and hence its growth is dependent on the development of self-other relationships. Earlier research has largely focused on exploring the content of a series of definable and separate selves that emerge from experiences. Yet, the process through which each self is created has attracted rather less research attention. Therefore, the focus of this thesis is on examining and conceptualising the negotiation process of the self-in-relation, by bringing together two theoretical lenses from the consumer research and authenticity literature of existentialism. Whereas the former offers a complementary perspective of negotiation processes between the internally and externally focused self-narratives, the latter largely focuses on describing an individual's negotiation process of the self-in-relation from a conflictual perspective. Cosmetics are chosen as the empirical context for the phenomenon under exploration, because they serve as important socio-cultural markers on women's self-creation.Findings that emerged from the thirty-one unstructured phenomenological interviews conducted in this thesis make four substantive contributions to the literature. First, the research findings shed light on the debate in the consumer research and authenticity literature concerning how 'a self' is negotiated, by highlighting the dual-nature of self-narratives. Two strands of self-narratives are identified that focused firstly, on the level of self-acceptance and secondly on the felt security in the referent point (e.g., a significant other). These two strands lead to a series of mixed complementary and conflictual negotiation pathways (i.e., nine prominent negotiation pathways that my informants engage in to determine which aspects of the self-in-relation get presented to outside world). Second, my findings contribute to the limited consumer research on issues around felt authenticity about the self by illustrating how different negotiation pathways can influence the extent to which someone might feel authentic about her self-presentation in a particular social context (e.g., 'this is me' vs. 'this is not me'). Third, the thesis contributes to a theoretical understanding of the link between negotiation and consumption, by showing how consumption fits in with self-management within a social context, from an internal and external perspective of managing the self-in-relation. Whereas the target audience for the internal perspective of managing the self-in-relation is the self (e.g., confidence builder), the target audience for the external perspective appears to be the specific other(s) (e.g., prove one is worthy). I show how the different ways through which the self-narratives are merged (i.e. complementary versus conflictual) can affect the type of goals and strategies pursued for managing the self-in-relation. Finally, from the findings I propose a conceptualisation of the relational dynamic interface that seeks to explain how different selves compete to be heard and enacted within the context of everyday lives. My thesis has taken some first steps to present the first half of the picture with respect to how the self-in-relation is negotiated - it looked at women.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorKathy Keeling (Supervisor) & Debbie Keeling (Supervisor)


  • the relational dynamic interface
  • cosmetics consumption
  • consumer wellbeing
  • consumer culture theory
  • the negotiation process of the self-in-relation
  • consumer identity projects

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