Special Session Summary Collecting, Collectors and Collections: Ethnographic Insights on the Interrelationships


Margaret K. Hogg (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Collecting, Collectors and Collections: Ethnographic Insights on the Interrelationships", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 176-180.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 176-180



Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, UK

The purpose of this session is to present a series of studies that offer new insights into the relationships between collecting, collectors and collections.

Collectors and their collections and collecting behaviour have attracted increased interest at ACR conferences over the past ten years. This literature focuses on the ways in which people collect and the reasons for establishing and building their collections. Most often these studies are based "on psychologistic perspectives, examining the subject from the position of an individual actor, the collector, with a view to identifying why people collect" (Cheetham 2002:2, who cites in support, Belk 1995a; Belk 1982; Belk et al. 1988; Guerzoni and Troilo 1998; Holbrook 1987; Pollay, 1987; Troilo 1999). Drawing on ethnographic approaches and also netnography, the papers in this special session offer four new perspectives on researching collectors, collections and collecting behaviour.

The first paper (Cheetham) uses ethnography to explore collecting from the perspective of material culture. Cheetham’s paper draws on 'process sociology’ to examine the processes within which "novelty teapot collectors and the novelty teapots they collect are produced as entities in a network of relationships that are materially and socially contingent". Cheetham argues for using a material culture (rather than a consumer behaviour perspective) because it ensures that the three aspects: collecting, collectors, and collectionsBremain embedded in the material and social environment, rather than being abstracted from it (as is often found in studies which draw on psychology).

This them of the collecting community is also examined in the second paper (Hooi Beh and Pickton) which explores the interactions between collecting, collectors and collections within the context of a brand community (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001). McAlexander et al (2002) have recently extended Muniz and O’Guinn’s traditional model of customer-brand relationships within brand communities, to encompass a wider variety of dyadic relationships. The authors explore the customer-customer dyad within a brand community of Mini car owners using a netnographic approach. Their paper demonstrates how the behaviors of swapping and trading are central to building and enhancing the social interactions within this brand community of collectors. Whereas Cheetham’s ethnographic study of a collecting community was undertaken in a traditional field setting; Hooi Beh and Pickton’s study of the role of collecting within a brand community was conducted online in a virtual environment.

In the third paper (Hughes) draws on dyads and also gender for her research. Her examination of dyadic relationships concentrates on the dyads represented by collecting couples. Long term participant observation in the field allows Hughes to offer a series of observations about these dyadic relationships, as well as the gendered nature of collecting behaviour and the discourses which surround it. She identifies a number of potential dimensions from the literature (e.g. instrumentality versus self-expressiveness) and from her findings (competition/competitiveness versus collaboration/co-operativeness) around which to conceptualize the differences between male and female behaviour in the world of collecting.

In the final paper (Nee Loh) the focus moves to what happens to collections when they are broken up and disposed of. Rather than being interested in how goods and possessions are invested in meaning (which was one of the key themes explored in the first three papers), this paper is interested in how collections are divested of meaning; and the impact of this on the collector. This provides the opportunity to bring a different perspective to bear on the traditional interrelationships between collectors, collecting and collectors in order to capture the dynamic and changing aspects of the collector’s world towards the end of the life cycle of the collection. It also shows again, the importance of the social context for collecting behaviour, although in this case collecting often serves as much to disrupt, as to enhance, interpersonal ties, because the collections often become the focus of disagreement.




Fiona Cheetham, University of Salford, UK

This paper addresses shortcomings in consumer behaviour research on collecting, contributing critical insights to research on collecting material objects specifically, and material consumption generally. This is achieved through two specific and interrelated means: first by employing an ethnographic research methodology to situate collecting within the material and social environment within which it is embedded and second by treating collecting as an incidence of material culture rather than a form of consumer behaviour. Fieldwork undertaken with a novelty teapot collectors’ club has comprised mainly participant observation. This has involved listening to and observing collectors, dealers and manufacturers as they interact with each other, through the handling, buying, selling, bidding, admiring and swapping of novelty teapots.

The relationship between collectors and their collections has received particular attention in the literature. However these analyses have tended to coalesce in a functional approach, which identifies the potential for a collection to serve as an extension of the self. This notion s most clearly articulated by Belk in his early research on collecting (see Belk 1988; Belk et al. 1988 and 1991), but is widely acknowledged across the literature (see Formanek 1991; Smith and Apter 1977; Storr 1983). Nonetheless, the self-extension thesis has been subject to criticism. Indeed, Olmsted (1991) argues that the reason consumer behaviour researchers have failed to analyse fully the relationship between non-human objects and the social self is precisely because the self-extension thesis is based theoretically on the functional approach of Talcott Parsons (1991: 293). I would argue, furthermore, that in reducing their analyses to individual psychology consumer researchers have tended to abstract collecting from the material and social environment within which it is embedded.

Focusing on material culture rather than consumer behaviour is helpful because it "implies that the material and the cultural are always combined in specific relationships and that these relationships can be subjected to study" (Lury, 1996: 1). As Lury suggests, a material culture perspective highlights the significance of "objects-in-use", while simultaneously reminding us that "this attention to the materials of everyday life is not at the expense of a concern with the meaningful, the symbolic or the moral" (1996: 1). Thus in a more recent study of collecting, Belk and Wallendorf (1997) adopt a material culture perspective, in favour of their earlier preference for a functional approach, to provide an excellent analysis of how gender is "expressed, shaped and marked" through the process of collecting (1997: 16-23). Indeed, their case study of the interaction between Brent and his collection of Barbie Dolls provides a theoretical precursor to this study. Moreover, Lury (1996) argues that consumer culture constitutes a particular form of material culture, suggesting, furthermore, that viewing consumer culture from this perspective is helpful because it provides for a "critical distance from our everyday understandings of consumption" (1996: 1) which often serve to distinguish consumption from production. Indeed, Lury urges us to consider that the use or appropriation of objects often comprises elements of both consumption and production. This is consistent with Belk et al. who argue that "collecting is perhaps the purest example of a consumption activity that it also a form of production. At its best, collecting creates and produces a unique, valuable and lasting contribution to the world" (1991a: 180).

That consumer behaviour researchers frequently ignore the mutually constitutive relationships among people and things is a consequence both of the theoretical frameworks which inform their analyses and the research methodologies that privilege surveys and interviews with collectors, over ethnographies and participant observation within various fields of collecting. Exceptions can be found and in a psychological study of fine art collecting, Baekeland (1981) asks us to consider the notion that "if the collector stopped buying works of art, the rationale for his (sic) network of personal art relationships and activities would begin to disintegrate. It would then lose much of its raison d’etre and the future its aura of anticipation. He would still have a collection, but he would no longer be a collector" (1981: 50). Thus Baekeland (1981) encourages us to question the assumption that the identity 'collector’ resides exclusively within an individual, externalised only in the accomplishment of a collection of material objects, as psychologistic perspectives would suggest. Instead he intimates that the identity of an art collector and the act of collecting art reside somewhere between the two: within a network of personal art relationships and activities. A network which, for Baekeland’s art collectors at least, includes regular contacts with other collectors, with artists, dealers and museum staff as well as making "regular rounds" of the auction houses, antique shops and art galleries (1981: 50). This paper builds on the ideas laid out in Baekeland (1981) by employing a theoretical perspective based on 'process sociology’ to illuminate the processes within which novelty teapot collectors and the novelty teapots that they collect are produced in a network of relationships, which are materially and socially contingent.



Kok Hooi Beh, De Montfort University, UK

David Pickton, De Montfort University, UK

Although collecting is often regarded as an individual pursuit, the act of collecting may be done collectively in a family or within a community. There have been limited references in relation to the social aspects of collecting behaviour and the interrelationships between collectors. The exploration of the different ways in which collecting activity can enhance the relationships among the members of a brand community will be the main focus of this paper. No research thus far has studied collecting behaviour within the context of a brand community. Therefore this paper seeks to further expand the literature both on brand community and on collecting by demonstrating how the collecting behaviours of brand community members reinforce their social bonds.

Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) introduced the notion of brand community; a specialised and non-geographically bound community based on the social constructions of relationship among community members who admire the same brand. Recently this research has been further developed by McAlexander et al (2002) who demonstrate the complex role of a brand community in facilitating the process of negotiating brand meaning among members and the multiplicity of relationships involved therein. Their customer-centric model extends Muniz and O’Guinn’s (2001) traditional model of customer-brand relationship which construes brand community as a social aggregation of brand users who share the same interest towards a particular brand, building up a 'repository of meaning’ around the brand. McAlexander et al’s (2002) model suggests a web of relationships that exist within a brand community which include: the customer-product relationship; the customer-brand relationship; the customer-company relationship; and the customer-customer relationship. The exploration of the customer-customer relationship within this customer-centric model is the main emphasis of this research that carried out a longitudinal study of the Mini car owners’ brand community. Collecting activity among members in the Mini car brand community exists within a strong social context as members interact and communicate with each other in a dense fabric of relationships that are either formed or further developed through their collecting activities.

The main methods used to conduct this study involve both netnography in the online environment and semiBstructured interviews in the offline environment. A netnographic approach first devised by Kozinets (1998) is selected as the main methodological tool as it is specifically used to investigate the cultural aspect of the communities on the Internet. Typically, this method includes activities such as participant observation, interaction in chat-rooms, semi-structured interviews via email and discussions on message board lists and other sources taken from official web sites of Mini online communities. Semi-structured interviews will have also been carried out in the offline environment together with participant observation at various Mini club events.

In relation to the Mini car brand community, the findings suggest that many Mini car owners collect Mini car memorabilia such as miniature version of Mini car models, Mini car event T-shirts, car accessories and parts that are used to customise and individualise the car and other Mini-related items. They do not just collect such items, however, but also swap and trade among themselves. Such activity enhances and strengthens the interpersonal ties that underpin the concept of brand community. In turn it also reinforces their mutual appreciation of both brand and product as members interact and share meaningful collecting and trading experiences. In particular, collecting behaviour provides a strong bond between traditional Mini car owners, emphasising personal and social histories that exclude owners of the new BMW Mini who do not engage in such activities and are thus not accepted by other members of the community.



Nia Hughes, University of Staffordshire, UK

This paper speculates on the interplay between gendered consumption effects and ownership of a collection in the context of collecting couples, which is an under-researched area. There are more women collectors in Britain than men (Pearce, 1998), but male collectors are usually given more attention by media and academics alike. This paper reviews the notion that men are deemed the serious collectors, because they collect "proper antiques and collectables" (or authentic art and authentic artefacts), whereas women are deemed inconsequential collectors because they collect "rubbish" (or inauthentic art and artefacts).

There seems to be general agreement that there are distinct gender patterns to collecting and possession (Eccles, 1968; Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Wallendorf & Arnould, 1988; Belk 2001; Pearce, 1998) and the investment of goods and possessions with meaning (e.g. Dittmar 1992). In the specific context of collecting, differences have been observed to exist firstly in the type of object collected; secondly in the gendered processes involved in collecting; and thirdly in the gendered meanings that accrue to collections (Belk and Wallendorf, 1997; Belk, 2001; Pearce 1998).

In the UK, men are more likely to collect authentic art and antiques including fine art, applied 'high’ decorative arts, sporting material, machinery, musical instruments, militaria and fine specimens of natural history (Pearce, 1998). Men are also more likely to be competitive in their collecting search and purchase behaviour (Martin, 1999, p70). Given the nature of the material they collect, they are more likely to use their collections as links to their own occupations, as a focus for historical research or interest, and a further effect is that they are more likely to engage in data-gathering and recording (Pearce, 1998, p140) rituals. Thus instrumentality and competitiveness are two themes which run through men’s relationships with goods and possessions.

Women, on the other hand, tend to favour possessions that are self-expressive (Martin, 1999, Baker and Martin, 2000), that are capable of being openly displayed in their homes (Pearce, 1998, p141), and which might be well be classed as inauthentic (manufactured 'collectables’), kitsch, or 'low’ culture. Women collect decorative items such as ornaments, tourist material, household goods, jewellery and pop material, but they do not tend to classify these items, nor to display them en masse, nor to keep them pristine in boxes (Pearce, 1998, p141). Thus self-expressiveness tends to be a dominant theme in women’s relationships with goods and possessions.

In Pearce’s survey, all the machinery, the musical instrument and militaria collections were collected by men, and the vast majority of sporting and recorded material also. Women dominated the household ornament, jewellery and tourism souvenir categories. Men also tended to have larger collections, in terms of the number of items in the collection, especially younger male collectors. The larger the collection, the more influence it had on family life, although small collections were just as important to the owner in terms of the feelings and the memories of past events that they generated (Pearce, 1998, p32).

As defined by classification schemes of authenticity (such as Griemas and Rastier, 1968; Clifford, 1988; Pearce, 1995), there is agreement that the type of material culture that women collect is 'non-authentic’ art and artefacts i.e. what might commonly be called 'rubbish’. Running parallel to this assertion, that women collect rubbish, is the popular notion tht serious women collectors are relatively rare. Historically there have been fewer women collectors of authentic art and artefacts. However important women collectors of "high culture" and artworks (Rigby & Rigby 1944, Saarinen, 1958, Eccles, 1968) have included Christina of Sweden, Madame de Pompadour, Catherine the Great, Gertrude Stein, and Peggy Guggenheim.

The study reported in this paper is part of a longitudinal field study of collectors and collecting. The empirical findings reported here are drawn from a series of dyadic interviews held with couples who are collectors. The themes which emerge include: significant differences between male and female collecting styles; the negotiation of the ownership of shared meanings and identities as created by the objects in the collection; the rituals which surround the possession or exchange of artefacts (McCracken, 1981, p591); the different pattern of responsibilities in the rituals associated with grooming and divestment (McCracken, 1981, p592); how affiliation and autonomy are negotiated between couples in relation to investing possessions with meaning (cf. Pearce, 1998, p104); and the classification of possessions on gendered lines. These findings can be linked to the issues which are starting to emerge from the larger study, most notably the identification of two potentially gendered dimensions in collecting communities, which revolve around competition/competitiveness; and collaboration/co-operativeness; and also instrumentality and self-expressiveness (as identified in earlier literature, e.g. Dittmar 1992).



Yah Nee Loh, De Montfort University, UK

Belk et al (1991) suggest that, despite the diversity of collections and collectors, all collections follow a lifecycle from birth, through associated life experiences, to eventual disposal. This paper aims to expand current research on collecting by exploring how collections are dealt with at the later stage of the collecting lifecycle i.e. the death or immortality of the collection.

A collection seldom begins purposefully and many collectors start collecting or discover an object for collections accidentally with little planned forethought about what to collect or whether or not to collect (Belk et al, 1991). The birth of a collection is often the result of an accident known as 'serendipity’ (Pearce, 1995). Usually during a collection’s life cycle, the most time is spent on its acquisition. The ability of collections to evoke memories of 'other people, other time and other places’ are all accumulative experiences of this acquisition stage, and feature frequently in recalling and retelling these experiences of collecting. However, this emphasis changes when approaching the final stage of the collecting lifecycle. Belk et al (1991) indicate that at this point, the collector becomes more concerned with the immortality of the collection and the problems that this immortality entails, such as seeking a suitable heir to preserve and care for the collection. The exploration of the ways in which the collection can be preserved and cared for to gain immortality is the focus of this paper and hence, the research questions are: how collections 'die’ or are disposed of, and what does this mean to the collector?

A recent study by Price, Arnould and Curasi (2000) explores precipitating events, emotions and decisions that are involved during older consumers’ disposition of special possessions. Their findings relate how older consumers voice their concerns over avoiding intra-familial conflict; reducing uncertainty; and attempting to control the meanings transferred with their cherished possessions. Other research into the disposition of possessions include: Sherry, McGrath and Levy’s (1992) ethnographic study of the disposition of gifts; and Young’s (1991) study. Young (1991) examined firstly, the disposition of possessions during role transitions; secondly, how the disposition of possessions can help to facilitate role changes; and thirdly how disposition can contribute to the process of reconstructing self-concepts and social role identities of consumers. Finally, Roster’s (2001) research examined how the special meanings that are attached to the act of disposition may facilitate the psychological experience of severance during the final stage of the consumption experience.

There has been little previous research in consumer behaviour, however, to explore disposition in relation to collecting behaviour. Using semi-structured interviews with individual collectors and participant observations at collectors’ clubs and fairs over a 12-month period, this current research explores the temporal aspects of the whole collecting process with a particular focus on the end of the lifecycle stage. Most importantly, it seeks to highlight firstly, the different ways of disposing of a collection; and secondly how a collection can be preserved, or cared for, in order to gain immortality. It also considers the precipitating events and emotions that are associated with the decisions to dispose of collections; and how the symbolic meanings attached to the collection change or are transferred at this time, using the framework of the movement of cultural meaning (McCracken 1986, 1988). McCracken’s (1986) meaning transfer model was also adapted by Curasi, Price and Arnould (1998) for their study on the transfer of meaning involved in the disposition of valued possessions of older consumers. Curasi et al (1998) used the meaning transfer model to illustrate the strategies used by older consumers to mediate these meanings in order to facilitate identity preservation.

The findings suggest that the immortality or death of the collection is a concern for many collectors. They experience mixed feelings and emotions when the idea of their collection’s disposal occurs during the final stage of the collecting lifecycle. The emotions associated with disposition are often complex and maybe influenced by voluntary or involuntary disposition. Voluntary disposition tends to involve normally positive feelings whilst involuntary disposition tends to arouse negative ones. The findings also indicate that certain events may precipitate the disposition of a collection, such as its incompatibility with a spouse or partner; insufficient space in a room; and or having to dispose of a collection due to a house move. In addition, the decision to dispose of a particular collection was often ascribed to a feeling of boredom with that collection. Lastly, the main ways suggested for disposing of a collection generally involved passing it on to the next generation; selling it; or willing it to a museum to preserve the collection for posterity. As the process of disposition takes place, the symbolic meanings and the stories that are used to recall and retell the life experiences of the collection may be changed or enhanced as the collection is passed on to the heir who has been identified as suitable to receive, curate and continue the collection.


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Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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