Deep Meaning in Possessions: the Paper

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona
Russell Belk, University of Utah
Deborah Heisley, Northwestern University
ABSTRACT - This paper outlines the topics illustrated in the videotape "Deep Meaning in Possessions: Qualitative Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey" shown during the ACR conference session entitled "Findings from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey."
[ to cite ]:
Melanie Wallendorf, Russell Belk, and Deborah Heisley (1988) ,"Deep Meaning in Possessions: the Paper", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 528-530.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 528-530


Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona

Russell Belk, University of Utah

Deborah Heisley, Northwestern University


This paper outlines the topics illustrated in the videotape "Deep Meaning in Possessions: Qualitative Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey" shown during the ACR conference session entitled "Findings from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey."


The videotape, "Deep Meaning in Possessions: Qualitative Research from the Consumer Behavior -Odyssey," emerged from a project that has come to be known as the Consumer Behavior Odyssey. It was written and directed by Melanie Wallendorf and Russell Belk, and produced by Melanie Wallendorf, Russell Belk, Tommy O'Guinn, Deborah Heisley, and Scott Roberts (1987). Originally produced as the final report to the Marketing Science Institute for partial funding of the Odyssey Project, the videotape is available for purchase in 1/2 and 3/4 inch format from the Institute's Cambridge, Massachusetts office. The rationale for producing a videotape rather than a manuscript is that a manuscript cannot capture the richness of the audio and visual data gathered in this project. Consistent with that rationale, all this paper attempts is an outline of the topics illustrated on the videotape. There are just some things that a paper can't do for a research project. So, see the videotape.


The video begins with a description of the Consumer Behavior Odyssey. The Consumer Behavior Odyssey involved almost two dozen academic researchers who traveled for varying periods of time in a recreational vehicle from Los Angeles to Boston during the summer of 1986. The Odyssey project team observed consumers in naturalistic settings and conducted qualitative interviews. This unique research project was made possible by funding from several organizations: Foote, Cone and Belding, Hilton International, Needham Harper - Worldwide, Northwestern University, University of Arizona, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Illinois, University of Utah, Washington State University, and the participants themselves. A key feature of this project was the large number of researchers involved. Meetings at conferences to plan the project began a year and a half prior to launching the major data collection. A pilot project was conducted at one consumption venue, a swap meet, as a demonstration and test of the methods (Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf 1988). The results of the pilot guided the plans that were then made for the two months of travel (For a more detailed accounting of the history of this project, see Kassarjian 1986). Participants prepared by reading, taking video classes, and exchanging memos concerning interests. Each participant differed in extent of involvement, methodological perspectives, skills, and substantive interests. Participants included: Russell Belk, Joe Cote, Jeff Durgee, Valerie Folkes, Deborah Heisley, Morris Holbrook, Bernard Jaworski, Vic Johar, Harold Kassarjian, Deborah MacInnis, Mary Ann McGrath, Tommy O'Guinn, Rick Pollay, Scott Roberts, John Schouten, Rich Semenik, John Sherry, Alladi Venkatesh, and Melanie Wallendorf.


The Odyssey team used a number of qualitative data collection and analysis methods during its naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln and Guba 1985). These methods are discussed more fully in the videotape, but are listed in Table 1 and outlined below.



Depth interviews were conducted with many of the informants who participated in the project (in naturalistic inquiry, people who confide in researchers are commonly referred to as informants, rather than subjects or respondents, because this term more appropriately characterizes their participation in the relationship). Group interviews were used when groups were the relevant unit of analysis. Participation in consumer activities of interest was often employed, along with non-participant observation and photography of consumption activities. Another use of the photos taken was in autodriving a technique which uses photographs of informants as projective stimuli in interviewing them about their behavior (Heisley and Levy 1987). Occasionally, interviews were recorded using microcassette audio recorders. More often, in order to also capture nonverbal information, interviews were videorecorded. The major record of interviews and observations was researcher fieldnotes. Fieldnotes represent the researcher's written attempt to express and preserve her/his view of the situations and occurrences that exist during observation and interviewing. A quite different form of record kept was the journal of each researcher. The journal is a more introspective record of the research process, intended to reveal personal biases, reactions, and emerging interpretations of what is being learned. This is crucial since the researcher is the instrument in naturalistic inquiry. These data collection methods resulted in approximately 800 pages of researcher field notes and journals, 4000 still photographs and slides, 140 videotapes lasting 15-18 minutes each, and a file of miscellaneous artifacts collected during the journey. This data, along with other materials from the Odyssey project, are available to researchers through an archive housed at the Marketing Science Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Odyssey team also used a wide variety of data analysis and interpretation methods. Purposive sampling was employed to select informants who would maximally enrich and/or challenge the interpretations as they emerged. For example, a Catholic nun and homeless people provided contrasts to more noticeably materialistic consumers. Such extreme contrasts helped the team detect themes more quickly and examine apparent exceptions (Glaser and Strauss 1967). Because purposive sampling is part of emergent research design, the sample in naturalistic inquiry cannot be fully specified ahead of time. An additional feature of the methodological approach used in this project was the travel from site to site. This enabled the team to make comparisons across sites, informants, researchers, and methods. These comparisons are called triangulation and help researchers assess data quality as well as breadth of coverage. Another way of checking researchers' interpretations involves member checks. In this procedure, results are written up and shown to informants who assess whether these results seem to ring true. Purposive sampling and thematic analysis began in the field with verbal and written memos between researchers. The memoing procedure helped plan data collection and structure early analysis, and was routinized by nightly discussions called Daily Odyssey Audits. A final method employed was an audit conducted after drafting a revised report in response to member check feedback. The external auditor's role involves examining the full set of data, comparing it to the conclusions drawn, and assessing the faithfulness or plausibility of the interpretations.

The ethnographic approach of naturalistic inquiry has a goal of generating what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls thick description (1973). If successful, thick description will provide readers or viewers with the feeling that they have begun to know the informants, sites, and other phenomena of interest To begin to develop an understanding of the deep meaning that people attach to certain possessions, the video shows portions of interviews with several consumers.


The video concentrates on one central finding of the Consumer Behavior Odyssey the deep meaning of possessions for consumers. Informants often regarded some of their possessions as more than merely utilitarian things, i.e. these possessions held deep meaning in their lives. In analyzing the data to gain a fuller understanding and explanation of the nature of this issue, we determined the presence of several themes which help organize the expressions of these deep meanings. These are consistent with themes that have been found by sociologists and anthropologists to explain a wide spectrum of human behaviors, yet these themes have not been applied specifically to consumer behavior before. The video concentrates on four of these themes: 1) extensions of self, 2) fetishism, 3) anthropomorphism and totemism, and 4) sacred and profane distinctions. Each of these themes involves a different, but not mutually exclusive, type of deep meaning in possessions.

In relating to possessions as a part of one's "extended self," people feel that their sense of self is intensified by what they have or diminished by what they have lost (Belk 1987). Motor vehicles, collections, and family photographs were all found to commonly provide an enlarged sense of self when they were selectively nurtured and preserved, and a diminished sense of self and ensuing period of grieving when they were lost or damaged (or when it was anticipated that nobody would care about the possessions once the owner died). Even when possessions have been temporarily or permanently left behind, there is a portion of the self which remains vested in them. Photographs are sometimes used to document an extension of the self, thereby preserving it and allowing it to be shared with others. Loss of self through damage to such possessions is also sometimes documented photographically, again preserving and also allowing the grieving process to become social.

A second emergent theme which helps explain the deep meaning of possessions is fetishism. Fetishism is evidenced by extreme attention or devotion to certain classes of possessions. Fetishistic consumption behaviors were sometimes described as addictive or compulsive by informants. In other cases, informants did. not consciously recognize that they had made fetishes of particular objects or consumption themes, but their behavior suggested that these possessions had indeed been elevated to the status of a fetish (see Belk, Wallendorf, Sherry, Holbrook, and Roberts 1987 and Holbrook 1987).

Anthropomorphism and totemism were complementary but distinct themes in the deep meaning of possessions. In the case of anthropomorphism, informants projected human traits onto possessions. These possessions were sometimes inanimate objects and sometimes pets. Anthropomorphised possessions may serve as replacements for other desired but unattained aspects of life, such as the completion of a family or pride in accomplishments. In contrast, totemism involves deriving and sustaining personal traits and abilities from a possession or group of possessions. Totemic possessions reflected not only an extended sense of self, but also the drawing of strengths from the possession.

Perhaps the most dominant leitmotif of deep consumption meaning was the sacred status that certain possessions often held for informants. Consumer behavior regarding such possessions is different from the behavior which pertains to profane ordinary commodities (see Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1987). Sacred objects are seen as mystical, powerful, and deserving of reverential behavior, as opposed to the ordinary, common, and mundane behavior accorded profane commodities. Sacred consumption objects, although secular in nature, were treated in much the same way as sacred religious icons, and were thus "above price" and removed from the vulgar world of commerce.


Through these four themes, this research has attempted to understand deep meanings in possessions. The video conveys a portrait of consumer behavior that emerged when we examined the meaning of consumption rather than the buying process. It did not emerge from the research methods or philosophy upon which the field has typically relied. Thus, the focus and findings of this project are different from those that have characterized previous consumer behavior research.

Although the project was unusual in some respects, in other ways it is similar to other research. Its findings are replicable and were produced through systematic data collection and analysis.

Unlike most field studies, this project is not an ethnography of a particular site, other than the broad context of American consumption. Rather than focusing on a particular site or a particular type of product, its focus is on how people describe their consumption and the deep meanings this consumption can have for them. They do not see their consumer behavior as a purchase process, as have many academic and corporate researchers. Instead they see their consumption as a pervasive and sometimes important part of their lives.

While everyone knows that consumers are human, we don't always conduct our research with that in mind. Consumers are human. They live in a world that cannot be reduced to the momentary act of buying. People derive meaning in their lives through the consumption of objects they have already acquired. This project was an attempt to better understand that meaning.


Belk, Russell W. (1987c), "Possessions and the Extended Self," working paper, University of Utah, Graduate School of Business.

Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf, and John Sherry (1987), "Sacred and Profane Aspects of Consumption: Theodicy on the Odyssey," working paper, University of Utah, Graduate School of Business.

Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf, John Sherry, Morris Holbrook, and Scott Roberts (1987), "Collectors and Collecting," presented at Association for Consumer Research conference, Boston.

Belk, Russell W., John F. Sherry, and Melanie Wallendorf (1988), "A Naturalistic Inquiry into Buyer and Seller Behavior at a Swap Meet," Journal of Consumer Research, forthcoming March.

Geertz, Clifford (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

Glaser, Barney G. and Anselm L. Strauss (1967), The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research, Chicago: Aldine.

Heisley, Deborah D. and Sidney J. Levy (1987), "Familiar Interlude: Autodriving in Consumer Analysis," unpublished manuscript, Northwestern University working paper.

Holbrook, Morris (1987), "Steps Toward a Psychoanalytic Semiology of Artistic Consumption: A Meta-Meta-Meta-Analysis of Some Issues Raised by the Consumer Behavior Odyssey," presented at Association for Consumer Research conference, Boston.

Kassarjian, Harold H. (1987), "How We Spent Our Summer Vacation: A Preliminary Report on the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey," Advances in Consumer Research, 14, 376-377.

Lincoln, Yvonna S. and Egon G. Guba (1985), Naturalistic Inquiry, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Wallendorf, Melanie and Russell Belk (1987), "Deep Meaning in Possessions: Qualitative Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey," video, Cambridge: Marketing Science Institute.