I Shop, Therefore I Am: the Role of Possessions For Self Definition

Shay Sayre, California State University, Fullerton
David Horne, California State University, Long Beach
[ to cite ]:
Shay Sayre and David Horne (1996) ,"I Shop, Therefore I Am: the Role of Possessions For Self Definition", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 323-328.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 323-328


Shay Sayre, California State University, Fullerton

David Horne, California State University, Long Beach

Mute black night,

Sudden fire.


Deng Ming-Dao

Furniture? Gone. Clothing? Gone. Home? Gone. Cherished items? Gone. So reads the personal inventory list of countless victims of natural disasters. On the day before the disaster struck, the same victims had defined themselves, in part, through material objects they had accumulated during their lives. Would the destruction of personal possessions result in a restructuring of values and lifestyles for the victims? If so, how would those changes manifest themselves in the post-disaster purchase behavior of those victims?

In 1992, the insurance industry paid out $23 billion for destruction due to catastrophic loss in the U.S. (Scism, 1994). Media coverage of such disasters describes grief and disclosed astronomical costs from physical damage, but few reporters allocate space or time to the personal reconstruction process. The billions of dollars paid out in claim settlements to policy holders for the replacement of lost items provides an unique opportunity to study post-disaster consumer buying behavior. One important issue for study is the repurchase process. As Belk often suggests, by considering the role of consumption in providing meaning in life, we may develop a stronger vision of the significance of consumer research.

Post-disaster conditions provide a singular opportunity for studying certain aspects of consumption. Unlike normal purchasing patterns that are episodic in nature, post-disaster buying necessitates an overwhelming and pervasive commitment to personal restoration through the acquisition of new furniture, new clothing, new art, and sometimes even a new home in a very short period of time. Whether they realize it or not, disaster victims have the opportunity, through their purchases, to re-define themselves. Understanding the nature of that purchasing process is the objective of this exploratory study. Specifically this research utilized one community, transformed by a natural disaster, to investigate the relationship between material objects and personal identity. Using Babbie's (1989) definition of a proposition, we strive to draw conclusions drawn about the relationships among concepts; specifically, we plan to investigate some general propositions based on the literature of materialism and self-definition. We will utilize exploratory research to derive further insights into the relationship between newly purchased material objects and individual redefinition by victims of natural disaster.


The literature on disaster research, the nature and meaning of possessions, self-gifts, and identity are reviewed here to ground this study.

Disaster Research

Disaster literature emanates from several perspectives: psychologists study the grief and loss brought on by disaster (Gist & Lubin 1989; Bravo, et al 1990); sociologists are interested in group reaction and adaptation to disaster (Fiske & Taylor 1984): and organizations formulate policy to manage disaster relief activities (Wolfenstein 1957).

The use of natural disasters as a setting for the study of consumer behavior is almost absent from the literature. Sayre (1994) examined change in the meanings of possessions lost for victims of a firestorm, but did not explore how shifts in meaning affected post-disaster consumption or repurchasing behavior. Because insurance settlements would enable disaster victims in this sample to repurchase destroyed items [IRS law specifies that insurance settlement proceeds must be spent within two years of the settlement date; unspent funds are taxable as regular income.] , this study embraces Sayre's notion of "absence" (implying temporary separation) of possessions rather than "loss" (denoting permanent separation) of possessions. Although we acknowledge the loss of cherished items or "favorite things," (Mehta & Belk, 1991) this study does not concern itself with irreplaceable objects. The absence notion is useful for conceptualizing the purchasing mindset of disaster victims.

Nature and Meaning of Possessions

The significance of material objects to people has been of interest to consumer behavior researchers since psychological theories of development were used to approach how people attached meaning to objects (Piaget 1957; Erikson 1979) . Possessions have been studied as collections (Stewart 1984), money (Lungren 1980; Furnham and Lewis 1986), pets (Cain 1985), gifts (Cheal 1986), and body parts (Rook 1985).

According to Furby (1978), possessions are multidimensional; she points out that possessions take on meaning from the society in which they are used. Lancaster and Fodly (1988) suggests that the use and control of objects are principal characteristics of ownership. Csikszentimihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) made the psychological connection between objects and personal meaning in their study of ownership which investigated how extensively things shape the identity of the users. These authors, and later Walendorf, Belk and Heisley 's (1988) research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, demonstrated that possessions are infused with meaning by those who own them.

Osgood (1952) defines meaning as a bundle of components including experiences, images and feelings in addition to information. Meaning can reside in the object itself or in the mind of the user. Most material objects receive meaning through association with specific use and contexts. Kleine & Kernan (1991), who define meaning as a perception or interpretation of an object, developed a social-psychological paradigm for how individuals ascribe meanings to contextualized objects that embraces symbolic differentiation.

The relationship between material things and individuals is often overshadowed by the concept of property which cannot be separated from the basic relationship between being and having (Sartre 1969), a relationship that purports the importance of goods for self-definition. Miller's (1987) notion of personal property, which assumes a genuinely self-productive relationship between persons and objects, is a manifestation of Sartre's notion that is particularly relevant to this study.

However, since disaster had destroyed the possessions that were vested with significant meanings, victims may decline to make similar emotional reinvestments in their new purchases. In fact, we expect disaster victims to place less significance in the objects they will or have acquired as symbols of self than they had previously placed in personal possessions.

Proposition #1: Objects will be less significant to respondents as symbols of self than they were prior to the disaster.


Out of necessity, disaster victims become prone to materialism because the main focus of their post-disaster lives is to rebuild and rebuy for themselves and their families. Belk (1979) and Sherry (1983) stress that the roles and meanings of self-gifts (gifts purchased for one's self or family) are context bound. In this instance, the context for gift buying is repurchasing involuntarily disposed goods, an area not covered by research on gift giving.

According to Mick and Demoss (1990), self-gifts can be the result of disappointments, depression and/or having extra money. They proposed a dimension of "specialness" in gifting which, when applied to self-gifts, brings an extra meaningfulness based on the uncommonness or deserving elements. When applied to interpersonal gifts, specialness also implies extra meaningfulness facilitated by qualities of sacredness and deep emotions. The extent to which specialness, deserving, and money figure into the nature of purchasing is of interest to this post-disaster research where one would expect self-gifting to be an integral part of the repurchase process.

Impulse buying, defined by Rook (1987) as the urge to buy immediately, is often associated with sensitive emotional states and may play a role in disaster victim purchasing. Because of the psychological reorientation caused by physical displacement and loss and by the sense of immediaacy, we expect disaster victims to approach repurchasing with a different perspective than had they not experienced disaster. We also expect impulse buying and gifting to play a role in purchasing behavior among disaster victims.

Proposition #2: Respondents are likely to reward themselves for surviving the emotional trauma of disaster with buying behaviors that are untypical of their previous purchase occasions.

Identity and Self-definition

The idea that we regard possessions as extensions of ourselves has been well developed by Belk (1988), whose research indicates that the relationship established by an attachment to an object by its owner is an important source of identity. Hirschman and LaBarbera (1990) define objects for self-identity as being secular (symbols of accomplishment) and sacred (representative of past and personal memories with relationship links; utility items). Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982) suggest that the construction and preservation of a self-definition depends heavily on a person's use and possession of symbols of completeness, which can be physical entities that signal to others one's self-definitional attainment. The use of owned possessions to develop and maintain self concept has also been studied by Ball and Tasaki (1992) who emphasized the changing character of identity as a factor in attachment to items.

When possessions are lost, the question of what happens to the self may be of great importance to those who study consumer behavior. Consumer research involving the construction or reconstruction of identity (Solomon 1983; Shouten 1991) suggests that consumer behavior is instrumental in the process. McAlexander, Shouten and Roberts (1994) found that people emerging from loss following divorce placed emphasis on acquisitions that symbolized desired or emerging identities.

In the absence of property, disaster victims are forced to replace their possession-based identity with relationship, values and activity-based self definition. After disasters, victims become "have-nots" and are forced to seek other means of personal identity until they are able to repurchase and reconstruct what was lost. Because disaster victims have no existing benchmark for measuring self-definition, purchases have no relationship to context and are made without contextual influences. And because victims lack the normal context as a basis for purchasing, we expect respondents to initiate change through the purchase of objects unrelated to their past identities.

Proposition #3: The nature and style of post-disaster purchases will evidence change or differences in the lives of the respondents.

In her disaster study, Sayre proposed a matrix to conceptualize the relationship between pre- and post-disaster identity based on Sartre's (1943) definition of self as "doing, having and being." In this study the researchers will use respondents' testimony to more accurately characterize the importance of property (having) for self-definition (being). Our three propositions are based on past disaster research as characterized by Sayre.


As suggested by Wells (1993), we began our research "backwards" with a definite objectiveCto find out about the repurchase processCand worked back through a methodology that was constructed to give us "thick descriptions" (Geertz 1973). However, collecting elaborate voluntary descriptions of complex buyer behavior from a vulnerable respondent makes the task of the researcher a difficult one.

Stewart and Cash (1988) discusses the difficulty of interviewing grieving respondents and suggests extra care be taken to respect their situation. In order to stimulate the process of self-disclosure (Jourard 1964), researchers decided to utilize a hybrid of the photo-elicitation technique, video-elicitation, which would combine words and images together. We felt this technique would address the sensitive privacy issue.

Video-elicitation was chosen as a projective technique ideal for organizing in-depth interviews to guard the privacy of a sensitive sample. A third-person video exposure was used to lead the respondents to their own disclosures. Since daytime talk show hosts entice viewers and studio participants into intimate revelations, perhaps our simulation could create a para-social relationship between disaster victims and the video characters.

For the purpose of this study, buying situations and circumstances were discussed on video by actors playing the role of disaster victims in the process of rebuilding their lives. At intervals during the video, respondents were asked about their behavior in comparison to the people they had just seen. The video was designed to jog their memories about different aspects of buying and simultaneously be sensitive to their privacy needs.

Gaining access to disaster victims also posed a research problem. One of the researchers in this study, however, was also a disaster victim and president of a homeowners association that acted as a front for issues dealing with rebuilding Through this association, he solicited and got ample volunteers for the study. The other author was a member of the planning commission that dealt with rebuilding regulations for the city where the disaster occurred, and as such was acquainted with many disaster victims. Access not readily afforded to an outsider was granted to both researchers, the second of whom was given sanctioned outsider status because of her relationship to the other author and to the governmental body responsible for overseeing home replacement.


A script was written and pretested for its ability to lead victims through the stages of purchasing furnishings for their new homes. The script contained fourteen vignettes, each of which became a scene of the videotape. An announcer explained the purpose, and then scenes played out as a couple sitting in a living room discussing their behavior as they recalled their buying experiences. At the end of each scene, questions were posed simultaneously on the screen and by the announcer.

The taping was done by a professional crew to insure that respondents would react to the contents of the video and not to the foibles of an amateur home movie. The investigator played the twelve-minute tape on a TV/VCR unit that was taken to each respondent's residence. The tape was stopped after each scene, and the respondents comments were recorded on an audio tape.


Eighteen video-elicited interviews were conducted with respondents who had suffered complete losses of their homes. All respondents had substantial insurance settlements and were either building replacement homes or had purchased another home that they needed to completely refurnish. Respondents were representative of the demographics of the entire sample of this city's disaster victims. Two interviews were conducted without the videotape to act as a control for comparison purposes. These respondents, who had also lost everything, were asked the same questions and their replies recorded.


Interpretive analysis of respondents' accounts of their rebuilding and repurchasing efforts was undertaken to test our three propositions and to identify other themes related to the reacquisition process. One surprise emerged from the data.

Object Symbolism

Our first Proposition was that objects would be less significant to respondents as symbols of self than they were prior to the disaster. As expected, objects were not significant symbols of self for disaster victims. Past research (McCracken 1987) suggests that repurchased objects serve as 'dramatic props' that help people deal with the transitions to and performances of their new roles. Although we found respondents purchased items that materialized their future roles, these objects were not significant criteria for self-definition. During the absence of their possessions, most victims undertook personal value reassessments. Many respondents reported that "things" no longer assumed a significant role in their lives. Others were determined not to reinvest their emotional energy in material possessions, but to concentrate on relationships and self-actualization. Transcripts yielded the following disclosures:

I had so much love tied up in my things. I can't go through that kind of loss again. What I'm buying now won't be as important to me. [F 50s]

We got a Wolf range instead of a Kenmore, and a Sub-Zero instead of a Hotpoint. Because we had the money. Not because we care what our friends think. We got quality conscious, I guess. [M 40s]

Yea, we got better stuff, but it doesn't mean anything to us. It's just stuff. [M 50s]

Thus, this research indicated that victims were less likely to place emphasis on objects for self-definition than they had prior to the disaster and their testimony provided support for our first proposition.

Self-gifts and Impulse Buying

Our second proposition was that respondents were likely to reward themselves for surviving the trauma of a disaster with buying behaviors untypical of their previous purchasing behavior. As expected, themes of self-gifting and impulse buying were described in several ways among respondents; the most prevalent are discussed here.

Bigger is Better. Expansion of home size was an element of self-gifting revealed in the text of interviews. Any victim who was rebuilding a destroyed home with the same configuration and less than a 10% increase in the square footage had a city guarantee of an expedited review and permitting process. Those who chose to enlarge their homes or make significant architectural changes (move the garage, change the roofline, etc.) were subjected to more rigorous scrutiny and possible delays. In spite of the financial and temporal incentives to rebuild in kind, only two households interviewed chose that option. Reasons for house expansion centered around the opportunity to improve personal lifestylesCa gift to themselves for surviving disaster. One respondent decided to move rather than rebuild; she went into a retirement community after neighbors rebuked her rebuilding efforts of a slightly larger home. The following are some interview transcripts about rebuilding as gifting.

We decided to go for it. After all, we deserve it, going through the fire and all. Bigger will be better. [F 40s]

We always wanted a larger bedroom and maybe an office. So after the fire, we said, 'why not.' After all, we might never get another chance like this. [M 40s]

Hey, our family is growing and the insurance company is paying, so for sure we're building bigger. [F 30s]

Cash and Carry. Another aspect of self-gifting revealed itself as the novelty of purchasing with a full wallet. Depending on insurance policies, many respondents received significant settlement checks earmarked for either rebuilding or repurchasing household contents. The sudden implosion of funds altered some of their buying habits.

I never used to like to shop, but now that we have the money, it's fun! [M 40s]

[After I got the money] my sister came to town and we went down to the store and bought everything at once. We just picked one of this and one of that. Only took us a few hours. [F 80s]

We got so used to buying that our lifestyles had evolved to a new level. We were very nervous about what would happen when the money dried up. Could we go back to living within our salaries? [M40s]

We had the money, so we took trips. We had no house to come home to, so why not? We went to Europe three times in six months, one time for several weeks. Just for the fun of it. [M40s]

We have some buyer's remorse because we went around spending like kids in a candy store. We got some expensive artCin JapanCthat just doesn't go with anything else. [M 50s]

Other victims indicated that, while picking out appliances, they acted on their impulses to buy up in price from what they might have otherwise.

We probably don't need one, but the Sub-Zero is a super special fridge . . . we treated ourselves. [F 40s]

A Wolfe range . . . because we had always wanted one and now we could have it. [M 50s]

Gifting and impulse buying were characteristic of most shopping descriptions.

We Deserve It. The aspect of "deserving" appeared at least once in every interviewCa clear indication of self-gifting psychology. Respondents felt that the trauma and hardships endured after the loss of their homes and possessions were ample justification for rewarding themselves. Some bought things out of their normal price range; others upgraded their cars and appliances; all victims improved their dwelling space or quality. Here are some of their rationalizations for spending:

. . . . so we decided to splurge. What the hell, we deserve it. [F50s]

After all we've been through, why should we deny ourselves the best? [M40s}

It's a treat for us, for our pain. [F 30s]

We found ample support for proposition 2, and, indeed, previous buying habits were discarded in favor of larger homes, more expensive brand sets, and other items previously out of their financial reach.

Change Manifestations

Our third proposition was that the nature and style of purchases would evidence change or difference in victims' lives. As expected, most respondents opted for change when purchasing replacements for their absent belongings. Two manifestations of change appeared in respondents' transcripts.

Different is Desirable. The decision to change architectural styles was common with our respondents. Only one couple rebuilt exactly the same house; two others built similarly with modifications because they had recently remodeled or purchased. Change was the rule rather than the exception: three respondents wanted to create a certain look in keeping with the city's style; the remainder let their architects have free reign. A few architectural renderings submitted to the city planning department departed substantially from tradition, but most of our respondents decided on more modest designs. The following remarks are from victims who wanted their new homes to reflect personal change:

You can't put back or replace what you had. It was too personalCit was customized. Everything should be new. Our jobs have changed, our lives have changed. Our house will be different, too. [F 40s]

I wanted a different house so that the missing items wouldn't seem gone. I couldn't look in a room and see something was not there anymore. [F 60s]

Only one household wanted no change:

We wanted to feel like we did before. We liked our house and our furniture, so we had the same designer do our plans. [M 70s]

Innovation is Imperative. Research indicates (Erikson 1979) that furniture styles change to correspond with different phases of ones' life cycle, and as such are indicative of change in self-definition. However, when rebuying furniture, only three households opted to change their styles completely; two households were replacing lost antiques with other antiques of a similar period; five households were integrating styles to include pieces similar to their former furniture and styles new to them; one couple replaced their household contents exactly. Overall, respondents were happy for the opportunity to change styles.

I want a mix of styles; stuff with a sense of humor. So I hired a low-key decorator and told her to help me choose, then do the rest. I just wanted to get it finished. The new stuff won't have the same history. You can't buy history, it has to get done. I just want whimsy now. [F 60s]

We changed our [furniture] style. The love is gone for what was lost. We won't love the new things like we did the old, but we'll get by. [F40s]

One obvious exception to the rule was a couple who held fast to their past tradition:

We called Plummers [local furniture store] and had them send over the same furniture we had before. It was newer, of course, but we got the same colors and sizes. It's all just like it was. We didn't want better, and we have no regrets. [F 70s]

We expected that victims' purchases would reflect changes, and respondents confirmed our third proposition through the frequent use of words like "different" and "alternative" in their discussions.


In addition to our propositions, a theme that emerged from the narrative was the nature and enormity of the shopping experience. Transcripts were filled with remarks about the amount of time victims had allocated to the shopping process. All respondents, without exception, described the experience as a "task" that took much of their efforts for the past year. All but one household, however, had no remorse for the way they conducted their repurchases and rebuilding, and were pleased with the outcomes of their endeavors.

Shopping became my full-time job. I quit work just so I could attend to all the details. You just don't realize how much work is involved in getting everything new. From your shoes to the door knobs, everything has to be chosen. [F 40s]

If I have to make another decision I'll scream. I hired a few people to help me, but I could have used a few more. It's too much for one person to do alone. [F 60s]

No, we'd never have a decoratorCshopping is too much fun. [F 40s]

We had all antiques, so we're searching for similar ones. They're ten times the price we paid, but looking is fun. We love poking in shops to find just the right piece. [F 40s]


Preliminary results from this research suggest that victims of catastrophic events experience several types of changes that are reflected in the way they relate to material possessions. While all three of our propositions were validated by respondents' testimony, the most significant finding is the extent to which reacquisition involves reconstruction of self-identity for disaster victims. Meanings inherent in possessions that were symbolic of accomplishments, events, or relationships were buried with the objects. Some victims wondered, since the tangible expressions of their skills and talents were gone, whether those skills and talents were lost as well. Did the missing trophy erase the championship game? Most victims, reluctant to reinvest part of themselves in new possessions, viewed objects with detachment. No longer symbols of self, objects served to accommodate rather than to delineate.

Self-gifting seemed to play a significant role in the repurchase process. The notion of "deserving" the best resulted in an elevated evoked set of brands for post-disaster consumersCvictims moved up in their purchase sets, raising their standards of living. None of the respondents reported choosing items costing less than their predecessors. Testimony indicated that price dropped in relative importance as a purchase attribute for most respondents.

Narratives reflected that, in spite of the elevations in lifestyle through larger homes and more expensive durable goods, respondents placed less importance on their possessions than they did before the fire. The porous relationship that existed between being (self) and having (objects) before the fire was transformed into a fixed relationship: possessions took on a finite value and were less important for self-definition after disaster than they had been prior to the catastrophic event. Narratives also suggest that victims were more likely to look to relationships and ideological symbols of completeness for their personal definitions than they had previously. A change in purchase philosophy was reported by most respondents who believed that fewer objects were better; most said that they preferred product quality over quantity.

A significant discovery that emerged from the data suggests that the more time respondents allocated to shopping, the more they expressed attachment to the objects obtained. Respondents indicated that goods purchased in haste or as part of a multiple- purchase effort were without personal significance. Victims' disclosures caused us to suspect that perhaps the time, place and experience of acquisitions are the factors that lend meaning C when faced with having to replace many objects in a short span of time, there may be less meaning associated with those objects than others purchased over extended time periods in a variety of settings. This characteristic seemed true independent of the cost of the items bought. Thus, the temporal aspect of post-disaster shopping may be important for understanding post-disaster purchase behavior.

For many respondents, meaning could be created through the shopping experience. Because meaning is dependent upon a relationship or a history that exists between an object and its owner, objects become symbols of events, people and places. When objects are destroyed and the symbols are removed, their meanings cannot be replaced simply by repurchasing like items. But if the shopping experience had a story, the object was vested with meaning from the experience.


This study is limited by the number of interviews and the narrowness of the geographic data set. The similarity of demographics among respondents also restricts generalization to other victims of catastrophic events who are insured and have upper-middle class incomes. However, our research should be of interest to manufactures and retailers who need to understand differences in post-disaster victims as consumers.

Another problem lies with our inability to measure the levels of Sartre's components of identity, having, being and doing, as they relate to our respondents. Lack of measurement resulted in our evaluating the relationship between the victim's having and being components after the unexpected event; doing was not studied.


Within the realm of interesting circumstances caused by disaster and with the cooperation of disaster victims, this study found a changing role of possessions and their meaning. The process of post-disaster identity reconstruction may be conceptualized as a huge shopping trip. For most respondents, the experience was utilitarian in nature and seemed like work. However, on occasion, the shopping experience could be fun. Objects purchased by respondents who perceived shopping as work had little impact on self-definition. Conversely, respondents who approached shopping as fun developed an attachment for the purchase-objects, culminating in a meaningful and identity-building experience.

Babin, Darden and Griffin's (1994) model for evaluating the shopping experience as either work or fun directly corresponds to the level of attachment reported between shopper and purchase during disaster reconstruction. This study expands that model by suggesting that, for all victims of catastrophic loss, the shopping experience may be a substitute for product-owner history, and that the nature of that experience very well may shape the process of reacquisition for the assemblage of identity-facilitating symbols.


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