Possessions and Identity in Crisis: Meaning and Change For Victims of the Oakland Firestorm

Shay Sayre, California State University, Fullerton
ABSTRACT - This study chronicles the experiences of residents evacuated in conjunction with the Oakland residential fire (October 1991) in order to better understand what happens to self definition in the wake of an involuntary disposition of personal possessions. Computerized text analysis is used to analyze interview transcripts within the context of a disaster culture.
[ to cite ]:
Shay Sayre (1994) ,"Possessions and Identity in Crisis: Meaning and Change For Victims of the Oakland Firestorm", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 109-114.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 109-114


Shay Sayre, California State University, Fullerton


This study chronicles the experiences of residents evacuated in conjunction with the Oakland residential fire (October 1991) in order to better understand what happens to self definition in the wake of an involuntary disposition of personal possessions. Computerized text analysis is used to analyze interview transcripts within the context of a disaster culture.

Changes in the meanings attributed to physical possessions following the fire are examined for their relationship to the transformation of identity which occurred for victims who lost their homes. The study also develops the notion of 'absence,' which emanated from the transcripts, for its contribution to the disaster literature.

"If we are what we own, then who are we when own nothing?" A paraphrase of William James' notion that we are the sum of our possessions, this question, posed by a disaster victim, illustrates the confusion surrounding loss of personal possessions to natural forces. Involuntary disposition (Young and Wallendorf 1989) of personal possessions eliminates the material and social source of identity for disaster victims, forcing them to transfer meaning to new possessions, and often to recast meanings of possessions destroyed.

The notion that people regard possessions as extensions of themselves has been studied 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. Loss of possessions [the things we call ours] often results in a lessening of self (Goffman 1961). When possessions are destroyed, the question of what happens to the self is of great importance to those who study behavior.

During the largest residential fire in US history, 3354 homes and 456 apartments were destroyed and 5,000 people were left homeless. For those who lost their possessions, the October, 1991 fire changed their lives. This study uses the experiences of evacuees from the Oakland fire to understand the nature of change in the meaning of possessions lost, and possessions retained during the time of disaster. This event was chosen because of the availability of a unique opportunity to chronicle disaster through news media, personal interviews, diaries, photographs, videotapes, and letters prepared during and after the event, and neighborhood meetings and workshops held following the disaster. The relationship between disaster and possessions can be understood best in the frameworks of meaning, attachment and loss as presented below.

Possessions and Meaning

According to Furby (1978), possessions are multidimensional in nature. Her cross-cultural investigation points out that possessions take on meaning from the society in which they are used. A possession can be a physical entity that signals to others one's self-definition attainment. Abelson & Prentice (1989) suggest that possessions can transcend the physical property dimension when they are expressed as ideas and beliefs. Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982) suggest that the construction and preservation of a self-definition depends heavily on a person's use and possession of objects as symbols of completeness. For self-symbolizing to begin, they argue, feelings of incompleteness needs to exist; fire victims take on such characteristics.

Most material culture receives meaning through association with specific use and contexts; Kleine & Kernan's (1991) paradigm is ideal for illustrating how individuals understand meaning as a perception or interpretation of an object, idea, or belief in a particular context.

Attachment, Loss and Possessions

According to Rudmin and Berry (1987) attachment is a central factor for understanding property ownership. Ball & Tasaki's (1992) definition of attachment as "the extent to which an individual uses an object to develop and maintain a cognitive structure of self" where self is an organization of knowledge, is most appropriate for studying disasters.

The loss literature is exhaustive. Loss through disaster has been found to disrupt one's sense of ability to find meaning in experience. Especially significant for this study is Weiner's (1985) finding that by embodying ancestral links, objects may be the basis of an individual's present social identity such that loss of the object would constitute a danger to the viability of the person.

When a familiar pattern of relationships has been disrupted, when symbols of identity are lost, possessions may change significantly in their subjective meanings (McAlexander, Schouten and Roberts 1993). The aspect of loss central to an understanding of the relationship between possessions and identity is one of loss of self, a natural correlate to the construct of possession centrality to self.

Possessions and Identity

Sartre (1943) defined identity as the totality of a person's being, having and doing. Personal identity as it relates to disaster victims is understood to mean their ideas and beliefs (being), objects (having) and activities and lifestyle (doing). Belk's (1987) notion of 'extended self' is useful for understanding the relationship between identity and the relevance of objects. This study assumes that the meaning associated with identity is group-dependent, sociologically determined, and culturally based.


Findings from the research literature on natural disasters emphasize the importance of examining disaster through a social framework. Bolin (1989) suggests that social responses to natural disaster flow from pre-disaster characteristics of the impacted individuals and social groupings. A systems approach to disaster analysis, where networks of social units exist within a material environment (Jasnowski 1984), is used for this study.

Person-object relations among fire victims were determined through a qualitative process using in-home and work location interviews. Interview materials were transcribed, entered into computer-readable files, and analyzed using a text-analyzing software to select and organize interview and journal material by key word. The purpose of analysis was to identify patterns of association between the meaning of objects and identity in a variety of references made about the fire. Concepts were allowed to emerge from the data in a holistic and cultural construct.

The Place and the People

The affected area located in the hilly, affluent section of Alameda County, California, is bordered by a regional preserve and the UC Berkeley campus to the northwest, chaparral peaks of about 1500 feet to the north and east, and expensive older homes completely surround the southern portion. Residents worked in nearby Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco in mostly professional capacities. Homes ranged in price from $250,000 to three million dollars; the average price of the homes lost in the fire was $375,000. An active seismic area, the Hills were rocked in the 1989 earthquake and pose a constant state of disaster alert, it is considered to be a "disaster subculture" (Hannigan & Kueneman 1978),which is a group living in a constant state of danger. Members of the upper socio-economic strata, residents were professionals and executives who preferred a suburban lifestyle but who also enjoyed the convenience of urban activity and culture. This profile suggests that material possessions may have played a significant role in the lifestyles of these pre-fire residents.

Sixty-nine residents were selected for their willingness to act as informants and for their ability to represent the ages, gender, and occupational groups of people evacuated during the firestorm. Seven were renters, 12 lived in college dorms, and the balance were homeowners.

Disaster Subcultures

After the fire, two distinct sub-cultures emerged, separating informants who were able to return to their homes from those who were not ["There is them, the people who didn't lose their homes, and there is us, the people who did. And not one of them can know what we have lost."] Differences in language, activity and emotions were obvious among members of the two informant sub-groups. One informant said that after the fire, residents of the Hills were no longer co-survivors, they had become 'the residents' and 'the victims'. [Both terms were adopted for use in this text.] "Residents talk about being inconvenienced by the fire; victims stare in emotional agony,' said one male. The victims became a subculture of isolation, unable to communicate with anyone but other victims. One victim who had also survived the holocaust, said that losing everything set him apart from the rest of the world, and that only others who had gone through the experience understood.

Where residents who returned home claimed to feel guilt, victims testified to experiencing feelings of anger (Kubler-Ross 1975) at the termination of the long-term relationship, attachment, and caring they felt for their possessions. Depression, referred to in much of the disaster literature as post-traumatic stress disorder (see Bravo 1990), was apparent in the testimony of many victims. One woman said, "It's hard to grasp the meaning of 'all gone.' Just like my condo and my things, I am 'all gone' most of the time. I just can't get it together."

Nowhere were differences between residents who returned home and victims more apparent as in the transformation in meanings ascribed to objects after evacuation. Informants who returned home expressed a heightened sense of attachment to their belongings. Asked how the meaning of their possessions had been altered as a result of the evacuation, most 'near misses' said that the experience of packing up had increased their general awareness of the meaningfulness of their possessions ["I realized I didn't have a handle on what was really valuable, and that I was going to take a better inventory."].

Others said the evacuation process had enhanced the personal value of many items, and enabled them to recognized the vulnerability of material possessions to disaster and loss. A female informant said after she returned home and unpacked the car, she thought about how important her spoons were because it took so much time to collect them. Another female said that once she returned, she appreciated her things much more, and interjected, "Of course they're, just material things, but they mean a lot to me, they are the summary of my life." The least fortunate were 'near misses' whose homes survived, but not those of their neighbors. One woman said that while she had her possessions, she lost the surroundings that gave the possessions meaning, that they (possessions) all seemed out of context after the fire.

None of the men and women interviewed admitted to placing less emphasis on the importance of possessions as a result of the evacuation and threat of fire, although one college student reflected, "It was stupid that all this stuff was so important. It's really just stuff. But at the time, it was real important."

The Notion of Absence

For people returning home, objects reverted to their utility function, their former use-value. For victims, however, objects had lost their former use-value and assumed a much more powerful meaning as signifiers of absence. The term "absence" was used by informants to denote a state of not being present, and implying a lack of something. Testimony taken from victims who could not return home indicates that certain possessions became signifiers for absence. Semantics of their references revealed a distinction between absence and loss; many informants referred to feeling an 'absence of' things, and to things as being 'missing' rather than being lost.

The use of this term absence allows the research to shed inappropriate connotations of the term loss, which implies grief from something 'never again to be found.' Indeed, insurance enabled most victims to replace their lost possessions. However, the language used by victims suggests that what they suffered was an absence of symbols of their former lives, and that it was this absence that was so disabling.

With no tangible attributes to contribute to the 'layers of meaning' for absent and lost items, possessions assumed labels and dimensions that were symbolic of the shared reality of the victim subculture. Absent material possessions became concepts, taking on idiosyncratic associations that were unique to the discourse of victim survivors. A search was made of the transcripts using their words to signify concepts [concept-set] and then to count the mentions of those concepts in conjunction with either absence or loss referents. Seven specific sets of possessions absent emerged from the data through frequency of mention. The number of occurrences of each concept-set appears in Table 1. This notion of absence is the major construct developed in this paper and the following sections will illustrate this construct in the context of the absence of possessions as concept-sets.

The Absence of Things

Kopytoff (1986) noted that the world of things lends itself to an "endless number of classifications, rooted in natural features and cultural and idiosyncratic perceptions (p. 76). Many informants grouped all objects into single classificationC'things.' Things that received meaning through use and context were rendered meaningless in the absence of that context. For instance, a woman's tea set had no meaning without her afternoon ritual that took place in the living room.

Absence of Home/Absence of Personal Space

The importance of the home as an extension of self (Belk 1991, McCracken 1989) is well documented as it relates to status (Hayward 1978), memories (Saegert 1985), territory/place (Hummon 1986) and self-expression (Sadalla et al 1987). Defined as 'action territory' by Bakker & Bakker-Rabdau (1973), home is the place a person claims as his/her own. A house provides an important building block of identity because it reflects history, special interests, strengths and weaknesses. According to one woman's journal: "A home is not just a structure containing a collection of objects, it's the environment in which I feel most comfort, most secure. It's my retreat from the world, my pause from life."


Homes were occasionally referred to as 'children': "Our home was our third child, nurtured, loved, encouraged to rise to its highest potential." Or as 'lovers': "This home we searched for so long, loved like a lover, chose simply to be with." And as a 'friends': "My house was my best friend and I miss him." For others, home signified relationships. The leader of a women's group summed up countless stories: "For many women, the loss of their homes represented memories from many years of marriage and raising children. Many women were widowed or divorced, and for them losing their home represented the finality of their relationships."

Similar in nature to an absence of home is the absence of personal space and territory, as expressed by one woman:

"What's missing is my territory, my space. I am still me, but many of the things that identify my purpose and creativity are not there. My territory had my markings, my routines, my responsibilities, my purpose clearly defined."

Loss of Work, Absence of Hobby

Conceptualized as property by Hallowell (1982), work is an example of the subjective dimension of possessions. Architects and writers, painters and photographers saw the death of their productivity when the fire removed all traces of renderings, manuscripts, art and negatives. For them, replacement was not possible. A musician lamented:

"I lost my museum. My work. 100 musical scores. All that is left is a surreal setting. I am now a museum, my work is gone. My work is my life chronicle. My identity was tied to my work, what I produced. My musical expression is all gone as if it were never wrenched from my soul."

A writer who lost the manuscript for her novel said "the Chinese burn messages to the dead at funerals, and being Chinese, I must believe that my book was meant to be a message to the dead."

For others, the absence of hobbies was devastating. A male informant who had 8000 tools and parts in his shop asks, "How much of my identity is tied up in what I can make, fix or modify with tools and a few parts?"

Absence of the Past

Past life emerged from the transcripts as an important possession by informants who felt that by losing all the records, photos, belongings that chronicled their lives, they lost themselves. They have a sense of non-existence before the fire. Reminiscent of Sartre, one man made the connection thus:

"I talk to myself about the elusive relationship between material and sentiment, and the mystery that sentiment might be contained and fused with tangible objects. The fire took everything I had, but it also took everything I was."

Two female informants expressed the sentiments of many others.

"We became orphans without a past. Like we had amnesia, like we didn't exist before the fire. I got new clothes, but they weren't like the old ones. The new ones were sad colors not bright ones, And they were long skirts instead of short ones. I had become another personCthe former person was lost in the fire."

Absence of Neighborhood and Community

For many informants, one of their most prized possessions was the Hills neighborhood. Among the attributes mentioned as being missed were the status, the view, the convenience, the stability, the character, the familiarity, the activity and the feeling of belonging that the Hills embodied.

An interesting phenomenon was noticed by a man who recalled that after the fire "all over the neighborhood, Weber grills were standing. We should have designed our houses like the Weber." Adopted by survivors as the 'symbol' of their neighborhood, the Weber was featured in many photographs, drawings, and journal entries portraying the fire's aftermath.

Absence of Lifestyle and Routine

Often possessions were characterized by informants as the way they lived their lives. The findings of Kleine and Kernan (1991) were confirmed by much of the testimony indicating that objects take on the most significance as part of a set, and that their meaning is derived from the contextual set to which they belong. Similarly, one woman said what she sensed first was the disappearance of a regular system of objects that organized her life and "contributed to a smooth flow of daily functions: a pen, a pad, addresses and phone numbers; a nail, a hammer to drive it; a map, a pair of glasses to read it."

Many informants spoke about the absence of their ability to socialize in the same fashion as before the fire. Missing were their routines, their ways of conducting everyday life: "I'm not myself without my morning run along Hiller, my couch-nap in the afternoon, people dropping in for coffee, or our parties on the deck at night." A professor said she missed the "lifestyle of Oakland's urban-edge community that has disappeared from the face of the earth."

The Emergence of Sacred Items

Almost immediately after the fire, victims returned to reclaim whatever they could from the ashes that were once their homes. The experience caused victims to re-define certain possessions so that they had new meanings, and to elevate the status of fire artifacts to that of 'sacred.' In their discussion of sacred items, Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989) tell how objects become sacred when they are separated from the profane, and when their value is associative/symbolic rather than practical/non-symbolic.


In this instance, objects' resilience to the fire delivered them to a state of reverence for many victims who embraced charred artifacts as symbols of their past lives. For most, possessions recovered became possessions prized. An informant admitted to having placed the artifacts from the ashes in a glass case: "They are all we have left of our past lives." Calling themselves the 'ashes crew,' victims combed their land for their 'melted histories', recovering "a drapery of crystal stemware, a stamp pad fused shut, a gutted camera crammed with irretrievable images."

Fire relics had a very high subcultural commodity value among victims, and as such were instruments of communication and therapy. Utilized by therapists to help victims work through loss trauma, relics were important for one workshop participant whose set of fused and knurled silver facilitated personal catharsis. Fire relics were also incorporated into sculpture and mixed media pieces created for the Fire Art Project, which was sponsored by the art community for exhibition in venues throughout the Bay Area to commemorate the one year anniversary of the fire.

The Signification of Possessions and Self

Almost without exception, possessions removed during the evacuation had their meanings enhanced by virtue of either the unpacking process or their destruction. Informants' testimony verify the notion of past research that the level of significance of objects is dependent upon the level of change in physical form. This research found three levels of form-based meaning. 1) Objects that were returned in their original form had their meanings only slighted enhanced. 2) Lost possessions were re-conceptualized and became the most significant symbols of the victims' lost identity. Loss of past as possessions had the specific implications for causing Post Traumatic Syndrome, or despair. 3) Objects that were recovered from the ashes enjoyed the greatest degree of change in meaning for most fire victimsCCa spoon, worthless before the fire, became a sacred item that represented the totality of a victim's past life and former identity. In Table 2, Dittmar's (1991) classification scheme is used to compare the meaning inherent in physical possessions retained by residents who returned home with the change of meaning attributed by victims to physical possessions that were lost.

Besieged by the trauma of absence and loss, victims expressed the need to re-examine their relationship with possessions. For many, the absence of possessions allowed them the opportunity to reflect on how their things impacted upon their identities. One informant said she was so wrapped up in her material possession that she did not realize they were beginning to own her. She wondered if she had any identity apart from her possessions. Figure 1 is an attempt to conceptualize the transformation of identity that victims reported by comparing the proportions of commodity importance of pre and post fire possessions for self identification. This figure is not intended to represent quantifiable segments but rather to approximate the importance of each aspect of identity to the whole unit.



What role does absence play in the victims' rebuilt identity? To what extent is the new identity a reaction to the post-disaster circumstances? How do gender and age variables affect the personal rebuilding process? These and other questions may be more thoroughly addressed by follow-up research.

The firestorm text used in this preliminary research generated the notion of 'absence,' a concept new to the disaster literature. Results of this study suggest that absence and loss of possessions from involuntary disposition cause a corresponding change in personal identity. Further research is needed to expand and generalize the notion of absence, and to develop the concept of identity signification following natural disaster.


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