Possessions and Property: the Semiotics of Consumer Behavior

Rebecca H. Holman, Young & Rubicam, Inc.
ABSTRACT - The papers from two Special Topics Sessions are reviewed within the context of a semiotic perspective. Semiotics is defined in some detail and its potential contribution to the artifactual communication area of consumer behavior highlighted. Each paper is discussed in relation to the overall theme and to the other papers.
[ to cite ]:
Rebecca H. Holman (1983) ,"Possessions and Property: the Semiotics of Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 565-568.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 565-568


Rebecca H. Holman, Young & Rubicam, Inc.


The papers from two Special Topics Sessions are reviewed within the context of a semiotic perspective. Semiotics is defined in some detail and its potential contribution to the artifactual communication area of consumer behavior highlighted. Each paper is discussed in relation to the overall theme and to the other papers.


The papers presented in the two Special Topics Sessions on."Possessions and Property" are akin to one another in two fundamental and important ways. One is that they address issues that are at the core of Consumer Behavior research, namely how it is that people desire to acquire physical possessions and how that acquisition is viewed both by acquirer and by others. These papers also deal with the semiotics of consumer behavior: how it is that people communicate through the medium of products. Because or such commonality, these papers will be treated together in the comments that follow.



Trudy Kehret's paper is seminal for these two sessions as it introduces the discipline of semiotics to consumer behavior. Semiotics (the study of signs - things with weaning), has proved to be-an enormously-successful perspective to take when studying communication as is evidenced by the sophistication existing in the area of linguistics (which may be viewed as a sub-species of semiotics). As pointed out by Ransdell (1977), semiotics takes two forms. The older one, called general semiotics (emerging from the work of Charles Peirce), addresses questions like "What is the nature of meaning?" As such, general semiotics may better be thought of as a branch of philosophy. Ernst Cassirer's work, for example, lies along this branch (1965).

The other form, called specific semiotics, poses questions like "How is it that things have (or acquire) meaning?" The "things" may be words, as is the case with linguistics, or they may be gestures (kinesics), interpersonal space (proxemics), music (see Langer 1957), or myths (e.g., the structural anthropology of Levy-Strauss 1963). As Kehret points out, products may also be used as signs and as such fall within the purview of study. Clearly, most of the consumer behavior study or products as communication will be of the specific semiotic, as elaborated by de Saussure (1959) and Barthes (1967).

The value that semiology brings to the study or communication lies in the discipline it encourages when approaching communicative phenomena. Unlike the view normally taken in scientific enquiry, a semiotic perspective required that one temporarily assume that nothing is known about the phenomena being studied. The procedure, as described by Barthes (1967), is deceptively simple, requiring only two steps:

*dissection and articulation of sign units;

*discovery or establishment of rules of association among units.

An example of an elegant application of semiotics within the consumer behavior domain may be found in Peninou (1966). A critical point to make about such an approach is the notion of distributive logic: it is not so important how many times an event occurs but rather where it occurs (relative to other units) and that one understands the rules for why it occurs where it does. Therefore, a mindless counting of the occurrences of some sign or another is irrelevant to understanding the underlying logic of the system. Understanding that logic eventually allows one to manipulate a system in some meaningful way and is a necessary condition to being able to communicate. [I am grateful to Volney Sterflre who pointed this out to me several years ago.]

In studying phenomena, one may look at a system at one point in time (a synchronic approach) or one may scan over time (diachronic). One may choose to identify the referents of the signs one identifies (semantics), the rules for manipulation of units (syntactics), or the systematic relationships among units (pragmatics). It was de Saussure (1959) who contrasted synchrony and diachrony; Morris (1946) who identified the three areas of enquiry within semiotic studies.

Semiotics may, in short, bring a precision to the study of communication not possible with other disciplines. For example, semiotics differentiates the communicative functions of signs and symbols, a distinction not made in an earlier era of consumer behavior research on products as communication (c.f., Levy 1959). Such a distinction was undoubtedly not necessary when the notion that products can serve as communication was new to consumer behavior scholars. Increasing sophistication, however, has meant that a blurring of these, and other distinctions, may mask more than can be tolerated. If such is the case, then the principles of semiology may prove to be very useful in the study of product systems as communication, clearly a position endorsed by Kehret. As an illustration, consider the other papers in these sessions: Belk's is diachronic and semantic; Brown's is synchronic and pragmatic; Kourilsky's is diachronic and syntactical; Furby's synchronic and syntactical; Fox's diachronic and semantic; and Tschirgi's diachronic and syntactical. The only paper that overtly takes a semiotic perspective is Furby's (assuming that nothing is known about the system a priori), although Brown's is an extension of Altman's work (1971), which was a semiotic approach. The others should not be faulted on this matter, however; it would be interesting to see how they would have differed in their approach, nevertheless.


Russ Belk's is a semiotic approach in that it examines the religious/philosophical/ethical bases for the somewhat universal desire to censor or repress the almost genuinely universal desire to possess many physical products. A structural anthropologist like Levi-Strauss might see Belk's work as an examination of the myths surrounding product ownership. One must, however, approach those myths as highly-ritualized semiotic systems, not accept on race value alone their ability to explicate the subject they address. As Boas pointed out many years ago (1908), one should be wary of the explanations for behavior offered by those whose behavior is being studied as those explanations may serve more to regulate that behavior than to understand its roots.

Belk's work is a very scholarly investigation of the criticism received by many undergraduate/graduate students majoring in marketing during the lace '60's and early '70's implicit in questions like "You seem to be a nice person...why do you want to major in marketing?" The underlying theme of such questions was that there was something immoral or at least amoral about "going establishment" and pandering to the desires of those Capitalist Pigs who perpetuated evils like the Viet Nam war for the sole purpose or greedily increasing their own coffers (since everyone knows that profits increase during a war). Belk explores the published bases for such ethical stances and traces the historical development of the belief that people should be discouraged from wanting to own too much.

I wish to offer a more parsimonious explanation for why those who are in positions of authority (whatever the basis) seek to encourage their followers to desire fewer possessions than they actually do. Rather crudly stated, my position can be summarized as "Might is Right." Now for the explanation.

It seems to be a well-documented fact of nature that within a particular species (and especially in an environment of scarcity), larger folks survive longer and are better able to ensure the survival of their progeny. "Largeness" doesn't always mean physical size alone; skill, cunning, ability to accrue supporters, and even charisma seem to enter into the dynamics for establishing. a dominance hierarchy, certainly among men, but also probably among other primates. In fact, one of the marks of a more "cultured" social system is its reliance on the signs [The word "sign" is used here in the sense of a semiotic sign, something with a distant referent.] of size or personal power as the basis for dominance rather than the combativeness found in a chicken yard during the establishment of a literal pecking order. Such signs act to discourage actual fighting which could, over time, weaken not only subordinates but also the dominant individuals.

One very important sign or size is the amount or space to which an individual can lay claim (Ardrey 1966). The space controlled by an individual becomes a virtual and symbolic [The word "symbol is used here to mean "having the property or either a sign or a symbol." There is no convenient adjective form of the more general term, "sign".] extension os the self - things "not me but mine and which act in my stead". Markers or personal space, to identify the owner and hence the boundaries of the self, include smell (dogs), sound (birds), and moats (men). Man has become the most creative or all animals in marking space, using all sorts or personal possessions to lay claim even to public spaces like libraries and park benches (Sommer 1969).

The question then, is why, if this is such a fundamental drive not only in humans but in other animals as well, is it that people are encouraged not to acquire more and more objects in order to gain more and more personal power. Could it be that those in positions of authority, who seem to have been the most vocal in encouraging everyone else not to be acquisitive, wish to maintain the current balance or power in order to discourage potential challengers to their own positions? An alternative explanation is that by forbidding acquisitiveness, Authority may actually be encouraging it, knowing full-well that man desires most what he cannot have. By focusing the attention of others on the signs of power, Authority may be diverting attention from the real issue, might (which is right).

Belk poses some provocative questions at the end of his paper, one of which is whether acquisitiveness/possessiveness is a "given" in human behavior. If my alternative explanation is correct, the answer is easy. Acquisitiveness and possessiveness will remain as motivators of behavior as long as the goals for these drives (the products themselves) continue to be markers or space. I f we, like birds, were to rely on sounds to mark space, we might see different motivators altogether. It is interesting to note, by the way, that in some urban environments, individuals who lack actual defensible space have taken to carrying (and playing) powerful radios and cassette players in their movements through a world that allows them no other territory.


Barbara Brown's paper is an investigation of another question posed by Belk, namely what are the social consequences of possessiveness/acquisitiveness' One or these consequences (within the same paradigm as that proposed in the discussion of the Belk paper) is that some of the people who do not have much (or enough) personal space invade the territories of those with large spaces in an effort to gain some of that territory for themselves and upset the social pecking order by elevating themselves. If the territory is the type that can easily be taken far away from the space of the original owner, then it is much more desirable than territory (personal possessions) that are more firmly attached. Burglary is a challenge to another, but it is a challenge to the symbolic self of the other, not to the physical person. (It is fascinating that the victims of burglary report feelings of personal violation similar to those reported by victims of rape, showing, perhaps, the depth or meaning associated with the symbolic sell.) Among criminals, burglars are regarded as being somewhat more "civilized" than those committing acts or physical violence in that like an embezzler - the elite of the criminal hierarchy - the burglar wishes to avoid a physical confrontation with the victim, if at all possible.

Brown addresses the question of what the signs are that are used by burglars to determine the likelihood that a physical confrontation might result from an attempted burglary. Brown's approach is correlative and post hoc (differences in territories were examined after the burglaries had occurred) and yet the results make a great deal of sense. Brown round three levels of boundaries (neighborhood, exterior or house, house itself) which, if properly marked, were associated with fewer burglaries. Some of the more effective markers included toys in the yard and a name on the house.

It Brown's results become widely-disseminated, one wonders what might happen to the system as a result. Will childless people buy children's toys to strew about as a deterrent to burglary? If this and the other territory markers are widely-adopted, what is the well-intentioned burglar to do? Burgle at random? Then what happens to the system?

One might imagine a scenario in which wary home-owners create external environments that are well-marked but so modest (or so formidable) that no self-respecting burglar could envisage any gain to be made from an intrusion. Thus, well-constructed intrusion-proof walls might replace gentle herbaceous borders; external clutter and refuse replace neat boxwood topiary and sculpted lawns. (One can see such solutions in parts of urban Mexico where only family intimates are allowed to view the artifacts of real wealth.)

However, this scenario is unlikely because there is no social benefit (in this country at least) to acquiring possessions if the, cannot be displayed for the purpose of impressing others and increasing the size of one's figurative self. Even if the external signs of an inviolable territory (as defined by a burglar) are decoded by homeowners and used falsely (in an attempt to deter intrusion), other signs will develop, subsequently will be decoded by burglars, and intrusion will continue. There may be no solution from the perspective of social well-being, but it is a fascinating research topic.


Marilyn Kourilsky's paper addresses vet another question raised by Belk. Belk wondered (indirectly) whether the extant rules for valuation of physical objects are inherent or learned and if learned, whether they could be un-learned. While Belk focused on possessiveness in a personal sense, Kourilsky deals with the distribution of resources, the act of conferring possession, in a social sense.

Kourilsky's is the first of the papers addressed so far to take a developmental perspective. The issue for the developmentalists is the nature of the relationship between the physical maturity to reason logically (relatively invariant across individuals, as elaborated by Piaget 1996) and manifest behavior in a social mileau. Children at various ages apparently cannot apply the same logic to a problem, not necessarily because of learning disabilities, but because of a process that is linked to growth and aging. The tricky, part is distinguishing what is learned from what is maturational. This is especially critical in dealing with semiotic systems of logic.

Kourilsky looks at the phenomenon of distributing scarce resources among a large number of individuals. She notes that it is not until a child is six or seven that the symbolic link between work and distribution of rewards is made. Furthermore, females are less likely to express the desire to distribute scarce resources on the basis of effort expended than are males. If one can accept the premise that a certain level of maturity is necessary to understand that possessions can symbolize the amount of work one does, the question is whether some females, perhaps because of hormonal or other genetic differences, are less able than males to understand this symbolism, or whether, understanding the symbolism, they choose (or learn) to disregard it. In short, can-females learn to be as acquisitive as males?

In order to explore the question, Kourilsky planned an intervention in the learning program of kindergartners. She found that not only can females be taught to learn "distributive justice reasoning" (suggesting that females have in the past been socialized to be more egalitarian than males), but that it is essential that the intervention occur at the kindergarten level if it is to be successful. Like imprinting, with geese (as Lorenz 1966 found out), there is apparently at least one critical learning period with humans: if certain things are not taught during the critical developmental period, they may never be learned. Such an insight may have implication for the issues raised by Belk. If altruism is not taught by a certain age. it too, may never be learned.


Lita Furby, also taking a developmental perspective, provides strong evidence that possessiveness, at least, occurs at a very early age. (Earlier work by Furby 1976 has documented the cross-cultural nature of possessiveness, even in environments explicitly de-emphasizing its importance.) Furby's domain of interest is the day-care world of 1-2 year olds. The question asked is 'What does possessing mean for children of this age?"

Furby's data, tentative though they may be at this point in the analysis, are consistent with the assertion that children of this age establish dominance hierarchies and are aware of a link between possessions and dominance. Even though children at this age are primarily nonverbal, they can differentiate between "mine" and "not mine". Whether a possession is seen by the child as an extension of the self (and all of the implications arising from that realization) cannot be determined. That such a linkage has been made by this age may be sufficient evidence to conclude that teaching individuals not be possessive and acquisitive (should that be desirable) may have to start shortly after birth.

It should be noted that Furby's subjects are ideal for semiotic study. As they are fundamentally nonverbal, they cannot offer explanations for their own behavior. In order to get around this, Furby was obliged to develop an elaborate system to identify units of behavior and discover the rules of association among those units. She has, indeed, satisfied the minimum requirements for semiotic research.


Karen Fox's work follows very closely on that of Furby. Fox's is more overtly communicational (also within a developmental domain) in that she examines the bases for claiming possession of objects as expressed by children at different age levels. Fox's work is also within the domain of artifactual communication (using products to communicate) in that personalizability may be one of the necessary and sufficient conditions for a product to serve as a semiotic sign (Holman 1981). If an individual cannot claim an object as his/her own, then it cannot be used to express something about that individual. Fox explores how children at various ages understand this notion.

Fox identified five potential bases for claiming personalizability (ownership): gift, purchase, use, non-ownership by others, and authority. I would add proximity (the entourage effect) and creation by self. Creation by self has two aspects, tangible creations (the result either of manipulation of raw materials, or of some physical by-product of the self) and intangible (one's ideas, emotions, aura).

Fox also used Piagetian stages of development to posit (ant explain) differences in the sophistication in understanding nuances of possession among children of different ages. Fox was, however, uncomfortable with the reports of one 11-year old who cited "location" as the basis for ownership. Fox equated this to the sophistication of eight year olds who distinguish objects on the basis of physical properties. I would call this an acknowledgement of proximity and therefore find no conflict with the theoretical stages of mental maturity.


Judy Tschirgi looked in even more detail at developmental differences in the ability of children to manipulate artifactual communicational systems. The system here is personal clothing, a system largely under control by children from ages 5-6 on, but subject, nevertheless, to parental censorship until the late teen years. In other words, this is a semiotic system about which children learn in all three of Hall and Trager's (1953) teaching modes: formally, by proscription, informally, through imitation, and technically, through instruction. What Tschirgi examines in this paper falls more into the realm of the informal which in part accounts for the fascination of the topic.

Incorporating Piagetian insights about logical reasoning, Tschirgi designed a task that children of different ages should perform differently. A priori expectations were confirmed for the 5-6 and 10-11 year olds, but not for the 12-13 age group. Unless Piaget's theory is to be modified, some alternative explanation must be developed for the purposes of augmenting his basic structure. As Tschirgi didn't do so in the paper as presented, I shall offer several alternatives, each of which could be explored in future research.

Tschirgi's situation was as follows. Children were shown a drawing of a same-sex child dressed either formally or casually, except for shoes. Four drawings of shoes (one formal, one casual, and two in-between) were presented and the child was asked to project the choice of another child, given that the child was to be in specified formal or casual environments. Two basic tasks were defined: shoe choice when the clothes and situation were congruent; shoe choice when the clothes and situation were incongruent. It was hypothesized that in the incongruent choice context, 12-13 year olds, like 10-11 year olds would choose shoes that were "compromise" choices in between formal and informal. Instead, the 12-13 year olds chose shoes that were congruent with the clothes, not the situation (as did many of the 5-6 year olds). The older children justified their choices by claiming that they would prefer to be dressed well, even if it meant not fitting in with the environment. Three possible underlying motivations include the following:

*The older children may be more inner-directed than the younger ones, thereby being less sensitive to situational demands and the anticipated censure coming from others for being out of place.

*The older children may find more value in self-presentation than the younger ones, understanding more thoroughly how definition of self is linked to clothing choice.

*The older children may more thoroughly understand the relative transitoriness of the situation, recognizing that one enters and exits from many environments during the course of a day but one rarely makes complete changes of clothing during a day.

From a semiotic perspective, the latter explanation offers more appeal as it ascribes greater sophistication with the product-situation-self Gestalt to the older children, rather than relying on theories of intra-psychic phenomena (which have no: been demonstrated to have developmental correlates). This is an area for further theory and research


The papers presented in these two sessions were all quite excellent and show a growing competence in evaluating semiotic phenomena, especially semiotic phenomena involving product use. Within the consumer-behavior discipline per se, semiotics is in its infancy. This lack of attention, if it springs from any source other than lack of familiarity, is hard to understand because semiotics has so much to order: it is an important area or enquiry, striking at many unexplored roots of consumer behavior; there is a wealth of information on the topic available from researchers outside of the marketing/consumer behavior fraternity; and best of all, it's an enormously fascinating and compelling area to study. Perhaps others will get involved after being stimulated by reading the papers that were presented here.


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