Possessions and the Extended Self
RUSSELL W. BELK*
Our possessions are a major contributor to and reflection of our identities. A variety of evidence is presented supporting this simple and compelling premise. Related streans of research are identified and drawn upon in devetopJng this concept and implications are derived for consumer behavior. Because the construct of exterxJed self involves consumer behavior rather than buyer behavior. It apjpears to be a much richer construct than previous formulations positing a relationship between self-concept and consumer brand choice.
Hollow hands clasp ludicrous possessions because they are links in the chain of life If it breaks, they are truly losL—Dichlsr \ 964
e cannot hope to understand consumer behavior without first gaining some understanding of ihe meanings that consumers attach to possessions. .•\ key to understanding what possessions mean is recognizing thai, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves. As Tuan argues, "Our fragile sense of self needs support, and this we get by having and possessing things because, to a large degree, we are what we have and possess" (1980. p. 472). That we are what we have (e.g.. Van Estcrick 1986; Feirsiein 1986; Rosenbaum 1972) is perhaps the most basic and powerful faci of consumer behavior. The premise that we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves is not new. William James (1890, pp. 291-292), who laid the foundations for modern conceptions ofself, he!d that: a man's Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his Jands, and yacht and bank-account. All these things give him the same emotions. If they wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they dwindle and die away, he feels cast down,—not necessarily in the same degree for each thing, but in much the same way for all.' If we define possessions as things we call ours, James was saying that we are the sum of our possessions. The purpose of this article is to examine the relationship between possessions and sense of self. It is based not only on the premise that this relationship is •RusscK W. Belk is the N. EJdoa Tanner Professor of Business Administration. Graduate School of Business, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84060. The author wishes to thank Melanie WaUendorf, Floyd Rudmin. and Grant McCracken for their commenis on an earlier version of this anicle.
of imponance to understanding consumer behavior, but also on the premise that understanding the extended self wi]] help us learn how consumer behavior contributes to our broader existence as human beings (Belk !987a). The first section considers various evidences that possessions are an important component of sense of self. The most direct form of evidence is found in the nature of self-perceptions. Additional, especially striking evidence is found in the diminished sense of self when possessions are unintentionally lost or stolen. More evidence ofthe role of possessions in sense of self comes from anthropological studies ofthe way possessions are treated ritually and after death. Because extended self is such a broad topic, several unreviewed areas of evidence on the extent and nature of the relationship between possessions and sense of self also are identified. In so doing, the scope ofthe present treatment is also defined. The question of what functions the extended self serves is addressed in the second section, which begins with abrief review of the basic states of our existence: having, doing, and being. These states are relevant to the question of how we define who we are. Next, the functions of possessions in human development are considered. Four stages are identified: (1) the infant distinguishes self from environment, (2) the infant distinguishes self from others, (3)...
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