From Belk's "Are We What We Own? "


The purpose of this chapter is to examine the relationship between possessions and our sense of who we are, This relationship is of importance not only for understanding our behavior as consumers but, more important, for understanding how consumption relates to our broader projects in life (Be1k 1987a). Defining ourselves by our possessions can contribute to feelings of we11being as well as feelings of emptiness and vulnerability if we believe that we are nothing more than what we own, Overreliance on possessions for self-definition may be manifested in how we shop, how we care for the things we acquire, and the degree to which we cling to our possessions rather than discard them.

A key concept linking the extended self to compulsive shopping is that of materialism. Materialism has been defined as "the importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions. At the highest levels of materialism, such possessions assume a central place in a person's life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction" (Be1k 1985, p. 265). For the highly materialistic consumer, purchases are potential panaceas for all manners of dissatisfactions with self and with life generally. O'Guinn and Faber (1989) found some aspects of materialism to be related to compulsive shopping tendencies, and Dittmar (1992) found even stronger evidence of such a relationship. To the highly materialistic person, purchases of consumer goods offer the potential for magical transformation of self (Be1k 1991a). Buying becomes a transformative ritual intended to precipitate a totally new life; it is an attempt to replay the romantic rebirth of the Cinderella story.


Research that has addressed the "things" that are viewed to constitute self (MCClelland 1951, Prelinger 1959) has generally found that possessions are second only to body parts and mind in their centrality to self. The particular possessions we see as most a part of ourselves (Belk 1987b) also show a close relationship to the objects we see as most magical, and include perfume, jewelry, clothing, foods, transitional objects, homes, vehicles, pets, religious icons, drugs, gifts, heirlooms, antiques, photographs, souvenirs, and collections (Belk 1991a). McCarthy (1984) concludes that such objects act as reminders and confirmers of our identity, and that this identity may often reside more in these objects than it does in the individual.

In claiming that something is "mine,/I we also come to believe that the object is "me." How can we explain the particular choice of possessions deemed most critical to self-definition? Besides magical efficacy, control has been suggested to be the critical determinant of feelings of possession (Furby 1978, Tuan 1984). That is, the more we believe we possess or are possessed by an object, the more a part ofselfitbecomes. There is some evidence that men are more likely than women to value objects for the sense of control that they provide (Lunt and Livingstone 1992). Where men tend to value possessions for self-focused and instrumental reasons, women tend to emphasize expressive and other-oriented reasons for feeling attachment to possessions (Dittmar 1992) Kamptner

1989, Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). Age is another factor affecting the nature of our attachment to possessions. In a three-generational study of favorite possessions, Rochberg-Halton (1984, 1986, Csikszentmihalyi and RochbergHalton 1981) found that as we age the possessions we cite as "special" tend increasingly to be those that symbolize other people (e.g., gifts from people) photographs of people). They interpret these findings to suggest an age-related widening ofthe boundaries of self (Rochberg-Halton 1984). These findings may suggest that possessions are not only regarded as a part ofself, they may also be instrumental to the "development" of our sense of self. Research on the role that special possessions may play in easing life transitions suggests that possessions can be instrumental to the maintenance of self-concept (e.g., Anderson 1985, McCracken 1987, Nemy 1986). One instance in which possessions provide such a sense of self-continuity is seen in the careful packing, transport, and redeployment of treasured possessions when we move from one locale to another (Belk 1992).