The Imperial Self

Michael R. Solomon, Rutgers University
[ to cite ]:
Michael R. Solomon (1990) ,"The Imperial Self", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 68-70.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 68-70


Michael R. Solomon, Rutgers University


The three papers presented in the session on The Extended Self appropriately enough attempt to extend prior work on the Self in consumer behavior to the domains of, respectively, our sense of the past (Belk 1990), our pets (Sanders 1990), and gifts we bestow on ourselves (Mick and DeMoss 1990). All three were influenced by BeLk's (1988) recent paper on the Extended Self.

It is indeed heartening to witness the reemergence of the Self as a research topic. This trend represents another important acknowledgment of the need to extend our view of consumer behavior well beyond the traditional confines of the individual as a mechanistic buyer of goods. These papers help us to continue to move toward the embrace of the phenomenological individual who actively uses goods -- and even relies on them -- to construct and maintain his/her social reality.

Indeed, William James' discussion of the Material Self a century ago anticipated this long-overdue recognition (James 1890). As the commentator on these papers, the gift I grant to myself is the luxury of raising some issues prompted by these thoughtful papers without necessarily providing resolutions to such questions.

When Is an Effect Not an Effect?

The foremost conceptual issue that emerges from these papers is a definitional one: When is an effect not an effect? While I laud the idea of extending our notion of Self beyond its corporeal confines, we run the risk of overextending the construct and in so doing obviating its usefulness. Some objections to the contrary (cf. Cohen 1989), there does appear to be a theoretical role for the Extended Self, but we also must acknowledge the construct's limitations.

To wit, in the present papers: When is a pet not a pet? When is a gift not a gift? And, perhaps most importantly: When is the Self not the Self?

Self Versus Not Self

In thinking about what I have termed the Imperial Self, two somewhat similar (and admittedly rather tacky) images come to mind. The first is the old macho myth of the lusty sailor who boasts of children bearing an uncanny resemblance to him in ports around the world. The second (perhaps inspired by Sanders' paper), is of the dog who "marks" his territory by leaving traces of himself along its perimeter.

These two "consumers" have in a sense expanded the empire of Self by imbuing external objects with their Selfhood. Do we do something similar as we leave a trail of significant objects in our paths? And, is this wake truly a part of the Self?

Belk's propositions about the use of objects to (re)construct the past are valid and useful. Clearly, any object is transformed (phenomenologically and sometimes literally) from the time it leaves the "factory" to the time it is consumed -- that is the basis for the personalization process whereby a commodity is turned into a prized possession.

My concern (and one raised as well by Cohen 1989) is that in future work we try to make a distinction between objects that happen to possess some mnemonic value and those that clearly are a component of Extended Self. Belk's emphasis on such dimensions as type of attachment (functional versus emotional) and degree of control over an object (Belk 1989) is a first step in this direction, but this important issue has yet to be fully resolved.

And, as in the case when two dogs lay claim to the same territory, this distinction gets particularly dicey when an object serves as Extended Self for more than one person. A good example might be a married couple's treasured photograph of themselves in bygone days -- can an object do double duty, selfwise?

Pet Versus Not Pet

Sanders' paper provides a nice corrective to our neglect of the (non-dietary) "consumption" of animals. In providing a symbolic interactionist perspective on animal ownership, he has moved away from the notion of the animal as possession and toward the animal as companion. This raises some interesting issues about the precise relationships between people and animals. More often than not, animals appear to "own" their owners more than vice versa! So, when is a pet not a pet?

While the term "pet" is usually taken to refer to a domesticated animal, a secondary definition is a cherished individual (e.g., "teacher's pet"). If one adopts the interactionist notion of the Self deriving from interactions with others, the animal may be closer to a friend than to a possession. Parenthetically, the tendency of people to come to look like their pets over time provides anecdotal support for this dynamic.

So, it seems there are many instances where a pet is not a pet (in the primary sense of the word). Indeed, Sanders' preliminary delineation of "excusing tactics" implies that the Self is reflected in the conduct of the pet.

Of course, there are other domains where an animal is neither a pet nor a companion. Here we may find a relationship that more closely resembles slavery; the animal's output is harnessed to provide benefits to the owner.

Many "pets" are in fact income-generating devices, whether they are milk cows, pit bulls, fighting cocks, or racehorses. The "performance" of these animals may also help to constitute the owner's Self, much as the records of race cars or baseball teams reflect on the character of their owners. Finally, as the "animal rights" movement appears to gather momentum, it remains to be seen to what degree (non-laboratory) animals will be treated as commodities in the future. Perhaps a litmus test of the person/animal relationship would be provided by studying owners' reactions/rationalizations when deciding to put their pets to sleep.

Gift Versus Not Gift

Mick and DeMoss' paper on self-gifts integrates the Extended Self with prior work on gift-giving. Again, the issue for future work here is to delineate what is essentially meant by a gift. There is a tautological danger here that is acknowledged by the authors. If we broadly define a gift as some creation or delivery of positive affect initiated by an individual, then virtually anything can be a gift. As noted in the paper, gifts to other people can be seen as gifts to ourselves, since we usually derive pleasure from the act of giving (whether instrumental or not). So, is doing any good act (or refraining from a bad one) targeted to ourselves and others a gift? What is not a gift?

In contrast to other-gifts which are often initiated by some structural requirement (e.g., we learn to give and expect gifts on birthdays, Christmas, etc.), self-gifts appear to often be initiated by some state of polarized affect. This can be positive (e.g., a celebration) or negative (to alleviate stress or depression). The role of affect in such gifting raises some questions:

- Can we identify differences in the type of self-gift given in "up" versus "down" situations?

- Are there differences between spontaneous and premeditated self-gifts?

- Since self-gifts often appear to occur during times of high arousal, is their receipt thus more impactful? Do they play a role as significant past markers in the manner described by BeLk? Or do gifts mean less to us in the long run when we had to give them to ourselves?


The three papers (at least indirectly) raise questions about the role of society in providing input to the Extended Self. Our culture may, for example, sanction self-gifts and pampering to a greater degree now than in the past (e.g., ads that proclaim "I use it because I'm worth it"). As current values appear to be evolving somewhat away from self-indulgence and crass materialism, will this license to reward oneself change in the post-yuppie, more altruistic world some project we are headed toward?

We have also experienced an increase in fears about personal safety. As Sanders implies, this in turn appears to have accelerated the use of pets (and even recorded pets) as security devices; a way to fortify threatened personal space. Perhaps an analysis of the names people give to their pets or longitudinal changes in the types of pets favored by consumers would tell us something about the qualities people have projected on to their companion animals.

Belk notes that objects are used to preserve our past. This past is, of course, more than an individual one. The "collective collecting" of past markers also creates the informal archives from which the history of popular culture is culled. In analyzing the role of objects as repositories of memories, we must also address the semiotic issue of the correspondence between the object and the actual event it is intended to memorialize. Belk, in fact, correctly notes the distortion process that frequently occurs in nostalgic behavior.

Indeed, it is not unusual to observe a sort of semiotic fraud, a "phenomenological short-cut" whereby objects can be substitutes for experience in addition to markers of it. As Belk and his colleagues have observed in their Odyssey work, museum gift shops and other purveyors of souvenirs contribute to this process.

Thus we ran now purchase past markers without the bother of experiencing the past. Some examples include companies that sell college T-shirts -- removing the need to actually visit the college -- or collections of matchbooks from a city's restaurants that are now available in airport gift shops.

If one endorses the claim that ours is an increasingly anomic society intent on destroying its past, we can expect such manifestations of synthesized experience to escalate. For this reason, Belk's emphasis on the importance of authenticity may not always apply. Our desire to recapture the "good old days" (if these in fact existed) has fueled the acquisition of "reproductions" or even the consumption of imagery that never existed at all (or is idealized).

Thus, we can boy faded jeans without having to wait for them to be "worn in." Or, consider the fantasy WASP world created by Ralph Lauren. This designer, who was originally a poor Jewish boy from Brooklyn, has succeeded in creating an upper-class world of graceful manners and aristocratic bearing that has been internalized by many. As a result, many consumers "plug in" to common images of nostalgia and yearning --they are acquiring the markers of someone else's imagined past.

Another illustration is in the realm of music. Certain songs functions as past markers in that they often are associated with specific events or times of one's life. As a result, we often feel somewhat proprietary toward these "objects" even though they are in the public domain. However, even these experiences increasingly are synthesized and mass-mediated.

While a rendition of "Under the Boardwalk" might bring a salacious smile to one person while "My Girl" or "Feelings" might bring back precious memories to others, MTV has abrogated these unique connections. The imagery prompted by Dire Straits' "I Want My MTV" or Madonna's "Like a Prayer" is likely to be shared (at least by MTV viewers) rather than idiosyncratic. Similarly, songs like "Revolution" or "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" are more likely to evoke images of sneakers or raisins than they are to initiate individual recollections .

Since some "custom-made memories" are not really customized at all, perhaps we should focus more attention on the intermediaries who create these images. For example, how does a music video director choose the images to be associated with a song? How does a museum curator decide what objects should be enshrined as part of our collective past?


A final issue raised by all three papers is the overlooked therapeutic value of objects. Because many artifacts are so tied to the Self, they can also help to stabilize the Self. Belk alludes to the importance of possessions in anchoring the Self, as in times of role transition. Objects can also be used in therapy to elicit buried responses, as when a childhood object triggers a memory. Some therapists are even developing an approach known as aromachology, where familiar smells are used to break down mnemonic barriers. The use of objects to inspire fantasy or nostalgic recollection has barely been explored.

The role of objects in regulating affect also has not been adequately addressed by consumer researchers. Sanders' work promises to tell us more about the role of animals in alleviating loneliness, teaching love, and perhaps even inspiring fear. Mick and DeMoss' study strongly implies that people use self-gifting as a form of self-medication. Ironically, popular culture has known this for a long time: A common antidote to "the blues" is the purchase of a new article of clothing, a record, etc. While this compensatory purchasing is familiar to many, we do not know much about its effectiveness: Is shopping, as some c aim, superior to therapy?


The focus on the Extended Self underscores the many "empires" we build as we accumulate and distribute objects. A basic question, still to be resolved, is whether the Self is communicated or constituted through its satellites. An interactionist approach would tend to endorse the latter: Our core Selves are largely instantiated by the external symbols with which they are aligned (cf. Solomon 1983). A final, somewhat Zen-like question thus arises: Just as an Empire cannot exist without subjects, can the Self exist without its markers?


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