A Meaning Transfer Model of the Disposition Decisions of Older Consumers

ABSTRACT - This paper explores older consumers’ contemplation of and disposition of valued possessions. No consumer research has explored this facet of aging or ways in which identity preservation strategies are enacted through disposition. This research closes that gap. Findings are based on analyses of 120 interviews with older consumers conducted in two phases. Data suggest that a fundamental problem of valued possession disposition for older consumers is one of meaning transfer to facilitate identity preservation. We adapt McCracken’s model of meaning transfer to illustrate the strategies used by older consumers to mediate meanings. The stories that go with the objects are complex and nuanced and transferring meaning requires consumers’ active mediation. This research enhances our understanding of disposition, role transitions and person-object relations in several important ways.


Carolyn F. Curasi, Linda L. Price, and Eric J. Arnould (1998) ,"A Meaning Transfer Model of the Disposition Decisions of Older Consumers", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 211-221.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 211-221


Carolyn F. Curasi, University of South Florida, U.S.A.

Linda L. Price, University of South Florida, U.S.A.

Eric J. Arnould, University of South Florida, U.S.A.

[This research was funded in part by a research grant from the Research Council, University of South Florida and by a research grant from the Institute on Aging, University of South Florida.]


This paper explores older consumers’ contemplation of and disposition of valued possessions. No consumer research has explored this facet of aging or ways in which identity preservation strategies are enacted through disposition. This research closes that gap. Findings are based on analyses of 120 interviews with older consumers conducted in two phases. Data suggest that a fundamental problem of valued possession disposition for older consumers is one of meaning transfer to facilitate identity preservation. We adapt McCracken’s model of meaning transfer to illustrate the strategies used by older consumers to mediate meanings. The stories that go with the objects are complex and nuanced and transferring meaning requires consumers’ active mediation. This research enhances our understanding of disposition, role transitions and person-object relations in several important ways.

I have things that I’d like to get rid of but I really don’t know what to do with [them]. I don’t want to just throw them out, especially if they would be valuable to someone. What do you do with them? How do you find out who would like them? ...I have rare publications that probably wouldn’t be of interest to too many other people. But there I have them and I don’t know what to do. I don’t think the kids are interested in thm now, but maybe some day they will be. (Study 2, Female)

I have this painting hanging on my living room wall. ...It’s this painting of my husband and I on our wedding day. This painting is very dear to me because my husband passed away about 5 years ago... This painting is one of the dearest things that I still posses that brings me great memories about my husband...(Asked if she had to get rid of it, how she would you go about it)...I think I would leave it to my daughter. She has a deep appreciation for this painting as well. I hope I never have to part with it though. But, if that was the case, I would definitely leave it with my daughter at her house. (Study 2, Female)

...My collection only consists of Greek stamps and I’m this close to completing my collection.... When I get the other eighteen stamps that I need to collect in order to finish the collection, I’m going to sell them and the money that I’m going to get will help me open eight bank accounts...one for each of my grandchildren. I just don’t want to give them my collection because they don’t have the same feeling for stamps as I do. I don’t want my stamp collection to go to waste. I want to open an account for each of my grandchildren. (Study 2, Male)

Young and Wallendorf (1989, p. 33) argue that, "If we are what we have, then as our things die, so too do we." The disposition of objects, possessions, and experiences is infused with existentially charged meanings, and disposition decisions are often painful. Researchers agree older consumers’ valued possessions represent who they are, and the lives they have led (Belk 1988; Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton 1981; Dittmar 1991). As they confront the reality of their own mortality, tensions associated with the need to "get rid of" valued possessions intensify (Unruh 1983; Gentry, Baker, and Kraft 1995). In order to leave a legacy that validates their lives and affirms relationships with important survivors, deciding what will become of cherished goods becomes a significant and in many cases, a burdensome responsibility for older consumers (McCracken 1988a). Exploration of these complex decisions at the final stages of the adult life cycle is the focus of this paper. Specifically, this research project is an exploration of some of the strategies employed by older consumers to dispose of their valued possessions. Our study: (1) focuses on older consumers making disposition decisions at the end of the life cycle; (2) explores relationships between object transfer and identity preservation; and, (3) identifies and describes some problems of meaning transfer associated with late life disposition decisions. The description we provide is emergent, grounded in and supported by our data and previous research and theory. Thus, before presenting our method and findings, we briefly review some of the relevant literature. The review is organized in terms of the relationship between possessions and personal identity; relationships between disposition and immortality; and relationships between the transfer of objects and the transfer of meaning.


Possessions and Personal Identity

Much research describes the relationship between possessions and personal identity, arguing that certain objects are so firmly interwoven with identity that they become extensions of self (Belk 1988; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Sayre 1994). Significantly, possessions are pivotal in the construction of a life story. This aspect of the relationship between possessions and identity has received relatively less attention in consumer behavior than the gravitational model of the self-object connection (Belk 1988). Possessions can be used to direct attention in a particular way, and allow the owner to gain a provisional authorship over his or her life (Katriel and Farrell 191; Kleine, et al. 1995; Price and Walker 1991).

For older consumers, valued possessions may become "repositories of our lives, the keepers of our personal histories," (Young and Wallendorf 1989, p. 33). They illustrate the past, define the present and provide insights into our hopes for the future (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). By culling one’s possessions, keeping only those that reflect positive memories, valued possessions allow their owners to filter out negative experiences and to reflect the past as they prefer to represent it (Gentry, et al. 1995). Objects also help make a life story durable, just as the wedding portrait mentioned in the opening vignette captures one of life’s ephemeral moments for posterity. For older consumers, cherished objects may serve as adaptive objects of reminiscence in the life review process (Lifton 1973; Sherman and Newman 1977/78). In sum, we argue that valued possessions can serve as the skeletal framework, or raw material for making and remaking a life story. As such, our account is closely tied to a narrative perspective on identity, suggesting that individuals construct self-narratives to provide an organizing amalgamation of their various life experiences (Markus and Wurf 1987; Giddens 1991; Gergen and Gergen 1988). Weaving together past, present and future conceptions of self and relations with others, the self-narrative promotes integration while, at the same time allowing for different selves and multiple discourses (Sarbin 1986).

Of necessity, there is always a gap between the object and the narrative it represents that requires the active mediation of the owner. The owner’s active mediation between the object and its meaning has received little attention in consumer behavior except in the context of collecting (Belk, Wallendorf, Sherry, and Holbrook 1991). Considering objects as part of a storied self, we explore the active mediation of meanings that is a key aspect of older consumer’s disposition behaviors.

Disposition and Immortality

Indicative of its ubiquity, the desire for immortality reappears in many world religions (Schmitt and Leonard 1986). Lifton (1973) identifies two types of symbolic immortality that may be expressed through voluntary disposition behaviors. One prevalent type of symbolic immortality is biological immortality, that is the sense of living on through and in one’s progeny. Lifton (1973) posits that at some unconscious level we imagine ourselves contributing to an endless chain of biological descendants. This imagined biological immortality may be reified in the voluntary transfer of valued possessions (McCracken 1988; Sayre 1994; Weiner 1985).

Another type of symbolic immortality Lifton (1973) discusses is acquired through #works’: the creative achievement of enduring impact. Possessions may be used as markers of one’s achievements and contributions (Hirschman 1990). Consumers may seek to preserve their preferred identities and attain immortality through transfer of possessions and wealth (Belk, et al. 1989; Gentry, et al.1995; Heisley, Cours, and Wallendorf 1994). In this vein, Unruh notes that the dying interpret and apportion their preferred identities to survivors through three general strategies: solidifying identities, accumulating artifacts and distributing artifacts (1983, p. 342). Unruh’s (1883) discussion is insightful, but still quite general. Additional information is needed on the way identity preservation strategies are enacted during disposition.

Transfers of Meaning

Combining research suggesting that older consumers use possession transfers to tell and retell stories of their lives and to pursue secular immortality, leads us to anticipate that disposition decisions may symbolically communicate aspects of the self, and perceived relationships of the self to the meaning of life. To understand these relationships we may refer to consumption semiotics and to McCracken’s eaning transfer model (1988), as well as to gift-giving research.

Semiotics offers a basic way of understanding the problem of meaning transfer in terms of the Peircean triad of sign-object-interpretant (Mick 1986), for example. Building on semiotic theory, McCracken (1988) proposes a comprehensive model of the way in which meanings may be grafted onto goods through marketing processes and extracted from them by consumers. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to propose that consumer story-telling, like advertising, (Stern 1994) is also a way both to graft meanings onto long-held possessions, rehearse these meanings, and finally, extract meanings from the objects. Thus, an older consumer may seek to represent significant aspects (interpretant) of her/himself (object) through the transfer of a valued possession (sign) to a significant other.

In some cases, the interpretant or meaning of the sign, is a fairly conventional aspect of culturally constituted North American models of a meaningful life (Richins 1994). For example, diamond jewelry is consistently promoted as a sign of commitment, caring, and personal worth in the U.S. Hence, deriving some of the meaning of grandmother’s diamond earrings is a fairly straightforward task for the inheritor (Kleine, et al. 1995, p. 337; Richins 1994b). But McCracken (1986) and others (Richins 1994b; e.g., Firat and Venkatesh 1995) also emphasize the lack of clarity of meanings, their elective quality, and the fluid and dynamic nature of meaning characteristic of North American cultural categories. In some end-of-life disposition decisions, therefore, relationships between object, sign and interpretant may be singular or ambiguous. Transfer may thus require more rehearsal and personal mediation, perhaps through stories (Katriel and Farrell 1991; McCracken 1986). Our research explores the strategies older consumers use to try to ensure that complex relationships between object, sign and interpretant are understood and remembered. That is, our research is particularly concerned with how private meanings of valued possessions are communicated (Richins 1994b). Previous research has not explored how singular and complex stories of the self are communicated through valued possessions, or active mediation of meaning by the owner.


This project is based on 1) unstructured depth interviews with 40 consumers between the ages of 65 and 95 who primarily reside in retirement communities in the Southeastern U.S., and 2) semi-structured depth interviews with a further 80 consumers. The latter group reside in nursing homes, retirement homes, children’s’ homes, and commonly, the home they’ve lived in for most of their adult lives. The majority of the sample now resides in the Southeastern U.S., but in other respects represents wide variation in age, economic circumstances, living arrangements, and previous occupations. The Appendix provides a brief profile of the two samples and interviewing strategies.

In the first set of depth interviews tensions regarding disposition of valued possessions arose serendipitously in response to broader questions about older consumers’ life concerns. In the second set of data, we began by asking about valued possessions using several different kinds of phrases consistent with previous research (Richins 1994a; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988; Csikszentmihaliyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). We wanted to first elicit valued objects and ascribed meanings and gradually progress to a discussion of disposition strategies.

Interviews from both data sets were taped and transcribed, and then analyzed, organized and stored using NUD*IST, a qualitative data analysis software package. The 120 depth interviews resulted in over 1250 pages of transcripts. These served as the raw data for interpretation. An interpretive group composed of the researchers individually read each transcribed intervie, noting specific themes and tensions that they felt evident in the data. Specific themes and tensions noted in individual transcripts were investigated across transcripts to determine if they represented common themes and /or patterns. Then together the research team discussed these themes and tensions, conscientiously questioning the assumptions each member proposed to the group. Team members’ vigilance ensured that agreement was reached on each theme and tension and that each was illustrated repeatedly in the transcripts (Wallendorf and Belk 1989). An outline list of these themes was prepared, and converted into NUD*IST nodes in a fashion consistent with the bracketing discussed by Thompson, Locander, and Pollio (1989). As the iterative investigation progressed, additional themes became evident and were documented in the data until we reached a comprehensive interpretation.

There were clear differences between males and females in valued objects, essentially consistent with previous research (Csikszentimihaliyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981), and also some differences in the salience of the disposition issue depending on the health (more than the age) of the respondent, as well as the nature of their relationships with family and friends. While some of these variances are detectable in the findings that follow, in this report we choose to de-emphasize differences among older consumers in order to provide a coherent, (but not unproblematic), rendering of strategies of meaning transfer. Given our sample sizes and convenience sampling it would, in any case, be inappropriate to attempt to identify segment differences among this age group.


Our findings are organized in three sections. First, we briefly illustrate some aspects of valued object disposition decisions at the end of the life cycle. Next we develop some themes associated with the relationship between the self and the object, and the consumers’ struggle for symbolic immortality. Finally, we explore strategies and tactics used by older consumers to encode objects with meaning and ensure transfers that will not deplete meaning. Our informants’ pervasive struggle to preserve the objects’ meaning is woven through the three sections.

Valued Object Disposition Decisions at the End of the Life Cycle

Compared with disposition decisions that have been described in most other consumer behavior research, older consumers’ possession dispositions are often precipitated by growing awareness of their own mortality. Older consumers become aware of the absence of future role transitions. This awareness results in a tension about what provisions to make for their belongings. The following illustrative verbatim exemplifies older consumers’ awareness of both the necessity and the difficulty of disposing of possessions:

That’s heart wrenching. You know I think a lot at night here by myself and I said, I say to myself, "What can I let go of first? What do I treasure the most?" I go over it in my mind, over and over again. I say to myself, "What would I let go of first?" But if worse came to worse, I could let go of all of it. Right now, now that I don’t need to get rid of it, I don’t know what I would let go of first (Study #2, Female).

The disposition of possessions by older consumers is a process, not an event. Because of role uncertainties, the fear of lost meanings if possessions are transferred, and the difficulty of identifying an appropriate target for the transfer, disposition is not taken lightly or done quickly. Informants commonly identify family members as reassuring targets for disposition. The struggle to ensure receiver-congruence is implicit throughout.

... I don't think I can pinpoint how often I give my things away. Usually if the time is right, I'll give something special to one of my family members. This has been happening a lot more lately. And I give things to the migrant center when I have enough packaged up to give, which is every few months. I am saving certain things to give to my kids and grandkids, but the very valuable items are all listed in my will. (Study 1, Female).

Valued Objects and The Storied Self

In our interviews, valued possessions commonly serve as the skeletal structure or raw materials for telling and retelling a life story. Long and detailed narratives accompany the objects and informants are concerned that these stories along with the objects are preserved. Objects help make a life story durable, just as the wedding portrait in the opening vignette preserves one of life's ephemeral moments. Sometimes the stories about emblematic possessions refer to the respondent's life:

Respondent: My Mother was in the hospital having my little Brother. She was having such a hard time, they took her in the hospital way ahead of time. He was born on the 18th and she was still in the hospital on the 25th; so we waited to have Christmas until she got home. But my Dad took me to the store and had me look at dolls. And to me it was a great big room. ... I guess it could have been a little room but I wasn't that old. ... So he said pick out a doll ... and I don't remember picking out that doll, I just looked and looked. Then when Christmas came and we got to open our gifts, there was a Shirley Temple doll. Interviewer: And you still have it?

Respondent: Yes. [pleased smile] (Study 2, Female).

Other times reference is made to the continuing family line as well as personal history. Again, the stories are detailed and complex:

I have some furniture that's been in the family. They're antiques that have been in the family for a longtime. So I value them. It was given to us by my grandmother. It's an oak table ... it's a pedestal table with a lions claw. It's very old. My grandmother had the table for as long as I can remember. When I was a little girl, you know the lions claw sloped down, I used to slide on that with a dust rag as a very small child. (Study 2, Female).

Of necessity, there is always a gap between the object and the narrative it represents. Our research findings again and again stress the significance of this gap and strategies for transferring meaning with objects. After along life story accompanying the meaning of a pin, an informant talks about getting rid of the pin. Notice both the conflicted feelings and the desire for active mediation represented in the conclusion. The potential giver's uncertainty springs from the lack of closeness between her and potential disposition targets, and doubts about shared meanings with them. The informant wants more than for the receiver to value and care for the object. She wants to communicate the memories that the object holds:

I have thought about it. I have two boys though. I guess if one of their wives wanted it I could give it to them. I am just not too close to them. Maybe I could give it to my granddaughter. She lives so far away. Next time I see her maybe I'll bring it up and see what she thinks. It is beautiful and maybe she would appreciate it. I wonder if she will think it is too old fashioned and out of date. I just love it!"... She will not have the memories I do when she looks at is. I know she would take care of it, but as far as appreciating it, no. The pin means a great deal to me. I would love for my granddaughter to have it. It will be strange not seeing it in my jewelry box anymore" (Study 2, Female).

Active mediation is a key aspect of meaning transfer. Following a long life story about how she came to own a valued coffee table, another informant talks about the gap between the table and what it represents. She points out how important it is to pass it on to key disposition targets who have heard the stories that mediate the meanings she desires to pass on:

No, I've always had it. I think people can use it but they don't know how much work Joseph did to get it. I don't know if anyone would look at it as more than a table. The whole house was a lot of work. When I die I won't have a use for it. I mean I'd rather give it to someone who knows how much it means to me. My daughter-in-law Mary spends enough time here, I think she's heard just about enough of Joseph and the house and the furniture (Study 2, Female).

Disposition and Immortality.

As evidenced in the many informant quotes already provided, consumers seek to transfer not just their possessions, but stories and memories of themselves. Consistent with the idea of biological immortality introduced in the literature review, some older consumers explicitly refer to distributing "pieces" of themselves to their children and grandchildren:

All of my crochet is a part of me. Like that throw there. (Indicating a throw on her couch.) Everything I make is like a part of me. Then I can give these things to others. Like giving them a piece of me. I've made things for all the children here and some of the adults. It makes me happy to be able to do something for them (Study 1, Female).

Some reflect that passing on something to family is a responsibility:

I'm a big family person and I feel you need to leave something for your family so that they can carry on a tradition from generation to generation (Study 2, Female).

Transferred objects often move from grandfathers to grandsons, grandmother to granddaughter, and informants like to claim this pattern can be traced for multiple generations (Amould and Wallendorf 1988). Transgenerational transfer patterns are signs of genetic linkage, families use heirlooms to preserve the memory of their ancestors and perpetuate them into the future:

I gave one of my rifles, one that had been my father's, to my grandson. I gave the rifle to my grandson because I wanted him to have it. He enjoys guns and hunting as much as I do. ne gun had been my father's, but I knew that he would take care of it, because it had been his great-grandfathers (Study 2, Male).

Meaning Transfer in Older Consumers' Valued Object Disposition Decisions

We found that older consumers contemplate how their survivors will view and understand their objects (Unruh 1983). Attention begins to focus on recording and communicating facts and stories that preserve the past. Objects that may have been neglected, stored in attics or other places are retrieved and refurbished in anticipation of transfer.

But, as I said, as you get older I think you find that the material things don't really matter as much. I have dug out some of the older pictures and had enlargements made to give to my Sons, which I think that they might appreciate more ... that they don't realize now (Study 2, Female).

Oh, they enjoyed sculpting and so I have busts of each of them. I couldn't stand them at first; they made me a little depressed. I just recently took these out of my attic and put them in my "special" room at home. I just really don't know who's going to want them ... my kids were never really fond of their Grandparents, so they wouldn't care. They would probably realize it later after they're all thrown away (Study 2, Female).

We found that in making the disposition decisions related to their most cherished possessions some older consumers choose not to choose. However, many conscientiously strategize to ensure the transfer of desired meanings. Even though many interviewees are concerned about preserving harmony and cohesion among their children and grandchildren, simply distributing their possessions equally is not a common strategy. Informants looked for other methods to determine the future owners of their most cherished possessions.

These conscientious and concerted behaviors centered on six interrelated strategies. These strategies include: visualization, meaning matching, determining the most deserving, giving back to the giver, transfer during a confluence of life transitions, transfer to the "archivist" most likely to perpetuate a preferred self image. These strategies have been implicitly illustrated in many of the findings that precede this section. In fact, each of the preceding informants' comments illustrates one or more of the strategies that we now identify and illustrate.

Visualizatiom Older consumers often attempt to visualize the biography that specific items will have with possible recipients. They try to imagine who would feel the greatest responsibility and the greatest commitment to the continued telling and retelling of the stories associated with the object. They also try to speculate about who will act as the best caretaker for their possessions, and eventually assume responsibility for perpetuating the line of inheritance, by passing the possession on to someone else who will tell the stories associated with their lives:

... I want somebody to get them that appreciates them like I do. I try to visualize who would do the most good by having them (Study 2, Male).

Using the strategy of visualization they replay scenes and relationships as a guide to disposition decisions:

I don't know. I really don't know. When your father was a boy he used to play with them all the time till your grandmother would yell at him for being in my drawers. I guess your father was interested in them more than your uncle. With the coins, your father would listen to the sounds they would make if he clanged them together or dropped them on the table. He would do that, it seemed anyway, for hours. He would just entertain himself. Talking about it is making me remember so much about your father and uncle growing up (Study 2, Male).

Meaning Matching. The search for relatives or sometimes friends who share the same feelings for their belongings and understand the meanings symbolized by these things is by far the most common method used by our informants to decide how to dispose of them. That is, informants sought to ensure a high level of both giver and receiver congruence. Many comments noted in previous sections illustrate informants' hopes that the mnemonic dimension of the object will transfer to the new owner and remain an effective mnemonic device. However, informants fear that the recipient will not be able to remember and relive the event or time as does the older consumer. As illustrated in several of the preceding quotes informants sometimes believe that it would be impossible for anyone to treasure an object as they have.

I haven't thought about getting rid of the possessions that I value most and for a very simple reason, most of the things I value most any other person would most likely not care about. I value these certain possessions for the simple reason that they have sentimental value to me and therefore are important to only me ( Study 2, Female).

The question of what and how much of the meaning will transfer is woven through most of our interviews with these older consumers. The following comment was the kind of phrase we heard again and again. :

I wonder if the persons I give my stuff to will value it as much as I do (Study 2, Female).

It is often hoped and sometimes even believed that much of the meaning in the item will transfer:

I'm very happy that my family treasures them as much as I do, and I'm pleased they will use them after I'm gone (Study 2, Female).

There is a special sadness associated with possessions that are special to their owner, but where the meaning is non-transferable. These cherished belongings are especially problematic for their owners because they don't believe that the meanings and values symbolized by these sacred possessions transfer to others, even loved ones.

Oh that's my tool junk pile....l can't bring myself to carry them to the trash and I don't know anyone else who would want them. [My sons] no use for all this junk. They have all new power tools and stuff. This is just old junk to them. I think the tools I treasure, people will see as junk (Study 2, Male).

Most Deserving. The strategy of selecting the "most deserving" communicates to all interested parties the values cherished by that person. The possessions remain as visible symbols of those values and continue to reinforce the importance of those values to the deceased. In addition, those selected as "most deserving" are felt to be closer to the older consumer, and are most likely to share the feelings they have associated with those special possessions. They are also more likely to perpetuate the image of the older consumer that he or she would want perpetuated. The following quotes are from informants who decided what to do with their possessions based on who they felt were the most deserving:

I feel like I should help out the ones that have helped me. I am leaving a little bit to some neighbors I had in Indiana because they were so good to me ... better tome than my own brother. My brothers never helped me, but they did. When my husband died, they were right there.... her kids write me and send me valentines. So them, I've left in my will also because they were there when I needed them (Study 1, Female).

Giving Gift Back to Giver. Redistribution of gift to giver keeps the object away from the circuits of re -com modification (Kopytoff 1986). Consistent with the findings of previous gift research that shows that givers and receivers both exert effort to give congruent gifts, and attribute congruence to gifts, older consumers commonly give gifts back to those who gave them. Many reason that since the person selected that item and gave it to them, they must have special feelings toward it. Thus, this strategy is very closely related to the strategy of meaning matching. As in the case of meaning matching, recipients are often felt to have shared in the story making associated with the object.

... As you get older you think about things that you might want other people to have that belong to you. That would be the only reason that I would get rid of some of those things, probably. ... To my children or maybe to other people or something that someone else had given me that I'd like for them to have back or for them to pass on to someone else (Study 2, Female).

Photographs are common in these transfers. People in the photographs commonly receive them in the disposition process. ne people in the photos are thought tobe excellent "curators," able to tell the life stories associated with the pictures and to help keep those memories alive. Report cards, school pictures, art work done by children are all examples of the types of things that have been kept and cherished that are often given back to the original maker and/or owner. As we might expect, objects of this sort are often collected and retained with this redistribution in mind:

"I kept a box of all the pictures my grandchildren made and sent me. I thought that when they got older they would appreciate having them to show their kids. I recently dug that box out and sent each grandchild their art work. They really were funny. ...The kids with their art. ...I knew that one day I would send it back. That was the purpose of keeping it all these years" (Study 2, Female).

Transfer During a Confluence of Transitions. By passing on cherished possessions during a confluence of transitions or a synchronization of life transitions, consumers may believe possessions become more heavily invested with meanings. The possession will now symbolize important times in the new owner's life along with the stories and meanings associated with it from the previous owner:

I cannot drive anymore, my eyesight is bad now ... I had it for more than thirty years and it was still in good shape. I miss it sometimes. I took care of it, it was my transportation to go to work. Also, I did a lot of trips with my wife in different states. We had good time with this car. And one day since I couldn't use it, I decided to give it to my grandson as a present after he got his driving license (Study 2, Male).

Transfer to Those Most Likely to Perpetuate a Preferred Image. Older consumers interpret and apportion cues to their personal identities for those who will survive them. They hope to be remembered as good mothers, competent businessmen, creative artists, or great teachers. It is impossible for the older consumer to preserve all of the aspects of their self-identities, therefore, they preserve some and downplay others (Unruh 1983). The selection of specific stories to tell and associate with specific possessions allows older consumers to "construct their preferred image." Just as in the selection of some photographs and the casting away of others, certain memories and events are given prominence in the retelling of their life story. In the second study, when informants and interviewers generally had close relationships the keying of objects to stories and aspects of self was transparent. These associations are evident in several of the preceding quotes. The following story communicates the values the informant places on "home-made" family objects:

Most of my favorite possessions are family items. I finished sewing the applique quilt of my daughter's, after my daughter passed away. I also treasure a necklace that washers. My first husband shot the bear during an Alaskan hunting trip in the early 1970's. My mother hand made a quilt and all the children (7) had a drawing for it, which I won. My father recently passed away, and I treasure the basket he hand made (Study 2, Female).

This story, told by a very religious woman, suggests how communicated aspects of self may reflect traditions borrowed from previous generations:

My mother always put all her special items that her children gave her in her Bible, I do that too. I have things my children gave me some 50 years ago tucked in my older Bibles. I have about seven Bibles all together (Study 2, Female).

Selecting the "best" candidate to preserve those preferred identities is crucial in preserving their preferred image, and constructing the life story that they want to live on after they have passed away. The earlier story of trying unsuccessfully to interest grandchildren in a plate collection is an example of the strategic pursuit of a future owner within the family.


In this paper we concerned ourselves primarily with the struggle of older consumers to disengage from or dispose of cherished possessions. Yet, our research suggests that these words are inadequate to describe what goes on. The process of disengagement and the decisions to divest of valued possessions is very complex. It is often marked by an initial period of re-engagement or re-integration of these objects into the older consumers' lives. Objects are moved down from the attic, given sacred positions and status, written about and talked about with friends and family. Our research suggests during later life stages disposition may take place over a relatively long period of time and may be marked by conscious strategizing to interest intimate others in key possessions and to communicate meanings to them.

In contrast with role transitions that mark other stages of the life course (Silver 1996), the progression toward death is marked by quite different person-object relations. A problem common to many other role transitions is how to separate the self from the object. During later stages of the life cycle a more pronounced problem is how to anneal the self to the object so permanently and so vividly that it can pass the older consumers' life meanings forward in time. As such, a fundamental problem for older consumers is how to transfer the objects imbued with self-meaning. In this paper we considered objects as part of a storied self and explored the active mediation in object meanings that is a key aspect of older consumers' disposition behavior.

Our findings emphasize that meanings arc not simply resident in objects- objects are not more containers of meaning. Instead, meanings are negotiated with potential recipients and that transfer of meanings is often prolonged. In Figure 1 we posit a model of meaning transfer abstracted from our data on older consumers' disposition behaviors.

The meaning transfer model pictured in the Figure builds upon McCracken's (1986) Meaning Movement model. McCracken's model explains the strategized movement of meaning from the culturally constituted world to the consumer as operated by the advertising/fashion industries. This model and subsequent elaborations (Holt 1995; McCracken 1989b; Stem 1994), begins to explain how meaning is invested in goods and services by designers, marketers, and advertisers, and how consumers extract meaning from them. Our meaning transfer model elaborates some additional aspects of consumer-object relationships, especially the proactive role older consumers play in molding cherished "inalienable" possessions.

Object meanings are derived, as in McCracken's model, from the culturally constituted world from which personal life stories are likewise derived, and in which both are also embedded. In an effort to preserve personal identity and to attain symbolic immortality, older consumers employ a number of strategies to help ensure that "correct" meanings are bundled into their cherished possessions and subsequently transferred to their intimates. Similar to the narrative strategies employed in advertising (Stem 1994), through reverie, remembering, telling and retelling of stories, older consumers bundle life meanings with cherished possessions.

In enacting their strategies of meaning transfer, older consumers apportion specific cues for others to use to interpret their lives after they have passed away. Specific possessions (semiotic objects) are selected to serve as mnemonic devices that metaphorically connect aspects of the older consumer life story (interpretant) for the storied (signs) telling and after they are gone. The older consumer hopes that through disposition, selected meanings will transfer to the possessions new owner without too much friction or loss of meaning.

Significant aspects of this research include evidence that a variety of possessions are invested with meanings associated with a storied self. These meanings and possessions are unstable between informants and the meanings transferred byway of possessions may represent just a part of the object meanings available to older consumers. These findings are consistent with post-structuralist research on consumption that argues for a constructivist definition of object meanings against the more familiar static, objects-as-containers of meanings metaphor(Holt 1996; McCracken 1988; Schouten and McAlexander 1995; Solomon 1983; Solomon and Assael 1987). That is, there is an element of meaning negotiation in the disposition process, such that the disposition decision alters object meaning for giver and recipient alike.





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Carolyn F. Curasi, University of South Florida, U.S.A.
Linda L. Price, University of South Florida, U.S.A.
Eric J. Arnould, University of South Florida, U.S.A.


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