The Role of Consumption and Disposition During Classic Rites of Passage: the Journey of Birth, Initiation, and Death


Julie L. Ozanne (1992) ,"The Role of Consumption and Disposition During Classic Rites of Passage: the Journey of Birth, Initiation, and Death", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 396-403.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 396-403


Julie L. Ozanne, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Our lives are marked by stages through which we pass. From childhood we pass into adulthood. Many of us become wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, and even grandparents. Death punctuates our life and is our final passage. These journeys are important for they announce that we are different; our lives as before no longer exist (Gennep 1960/orig. 1908).

Rites of passage tell us who we are and how we fit into the fabric of society. While consumer behavior has been studied during role transition (McAlexander 1991; Roberts 1991; Schouten 1991a, 1991b; Wright 1991; Young 1991), the role and meaning of consumption and disposition during the classic rites of passage into adulthood, parenthood, and death are unexplored. The objective of this special session was to examine consumer behavior during these critical life events. The proposed session included four presentations of interpretive empirical work from researchers in the fields of consumer behavior and communications. John Schouten was the discussant.

First, Newell Wright and Jon Shapiro examined the transformation of women and men into parents upon the birth of their first child. This study was based on a series of in-depth interviews with mothers and/or parents before the birth of their first child. For those parents who gave birth to their child, the gestational period is a liminal state between being childless and being a parent. While some of the preparatory activities during this period are functional in nature, other pre-birth consumption activities and rituals help prepare the couple for their new role as parents. Consumption activities also help the parents deal with some of the anticipated stresses and anxieties of being a parent.

Second, Julie Ozanne discusses the rite of passage into adulthood. The child's transition into adulthood in our society generally lacks any formal initiation rite (Hiebert 1976; McCracken 1988). In the absence of initiation rites, consumption habits take on a greater role in distinguishing the pre-adult from the adult (Wright 1991). However, when formal initiation rites exist, consumption behaviors may play a less important role. This study examined young men from the Mormon subculture. It has been suggested that the mission experience acts as a public demarcation for the young men between being a pre-adult and an adult. Analysis of daily journals, graffiti, and in-depth interviews with young men before, during, and after their missionary work suggests that being on a mission is a rite of passage. Furthermore, these men enter a sacred state that is nearly devoid of the material concerns that exist in their former profane state.

Third, Ron Hill's in-depth interviews with troubled young men trying to come of age in a harsh environment offers a stark contrast to coming of age as a Mormon. Whereas the Mormon young men in the Ozanne study are almost exclusively from intact, secure, middle-class families, Ron investigated the rite of passage into adulthood with young men who are institutionalized for criminal behavior and come from broken and economically impoverished homes. While the passage into adulthood is difficult for most people, the transition into adulthood for these young men exacts a price from society. Criminal behavior, namely acquisition of goods through illicit means, plays an important role in their claims to adulthood. Ron explores the implications of such dysfunctional behavior for society.

Finally, Mara Adelman discusses the different rites of passage that people living with AIDs face, first as they move into institutions and then as they come to grips with their imminent death. After over two years of courageous volunteer work at an AID's residential home and interviews with patients and staff, Mara suggests that possessions help individuals during change to reassemble and disassemble the self. For example, institutionalization forces AIDs patients to dispose of possessions as they break with their past lives. They then use the few possessions that they are allowed to bring to reassemble a new life and self. The disposition of possessions prior to death is another opportunity to disassemble the self. The material legacy offers the people left behind an opportunity to reassemble the person through associated experiences and memories.


Gennep, Arnold van (1960/orig. 1908), The Rites of Passage, trans. Manika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

McAlexander, James H. (1991), "Divorce, the Disposition of the Relationship, and Everything," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, eds. Rebecca Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 43-48.

McCracken, Grant (1988), Culture and Consumption, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Roberts, Scott D. (1988), "Consumption Responses to Involuntary Job Loss," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, eds. Rebecca Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 40-42.

Schouten, John W. (1991a), "Personal Rites of Passage and the Reconstruction of Self," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, eds. Rebecca Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 49-52.

Schouten, John W. (1991b), "Selves in Transition: The Consumption of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March), 412-425.

Wright, Newell D. (1991), "The Role of Consumption in the Transition from Pre-adult to Adult," unpublished working paper, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and State University.

Young, Melissa Martin (1991), "Disposition of Possessions During Role Transitions," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, eds. Rebecca Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 33-39.



Julie L. Ozanne, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Initiation rites mark the transition from childhood to adulthood (Gennep 1960/orig. 1908). Generally few formal initiation rites exist in western cultures (Hiebert 1976; McCracken 1988). However, the passage from pre-adult to adult in the Mormon faith occurs for many young men during their missionary work. At this time, young men are separated from their family and friends and almost all aspects of their material world. For two years these men have few possessions and live in a monastic state, forsaking worldly goods and pleasures such as television, newspapers, music, friendships, jobs, school, romantic relationships, and family. Thus, the rite of passage into manhood for the Mormons is defined in part by antimaterialism. It was hoped that greater insight might be gained into materialism by examining individuals who temporarily renounce their possessions.

In-depth interviews were done with six informants at different stages in the mission experience: before, during, and after their missionary work. As well, two daily diaries of missionaries were analyzed over the two year missionary experience. Graffiti found in the Language Training Center (later called the Missionary Training Center) also provided insight into the experience. In the following section on the results, two sets of initial findings from the study are discussed. First, the role of the community in the lives of these men is explored. Second, the missionary experience as a rite of passage is examined.



The informants receive strong support from family and friends. All the young men received partial to full financial help from their parents. Sometimes fathers worked extra jobs to support their children's missionary work. Some families were supporting two missionaries at once, yet these financial difficulties were taken in stride. The families were excited about the prospect of their sons going on a mission and believed that they would be blessed for their efforts. As well, family members showed their support through letters over the two year sojourn. For example, Ben comments on his parent's reaction:

They love it. They're glad I'm out here. I don't think it would matter how tight the money got at home they'd still support me while I was out here. We're a close family.

Because young men are expected to go out when they are 19 years old, many high school friends leave around the same time. Often watching friends leave on their missions is a pivotal event and motivates the young men to decide to go. As Adam remarks: "Then when I got out of high school, when my friends started leaving, it really kind of hit me that I should go on a mission." Friends also stay in contact with each other while on missions.

Church members and family friends provide financial and emotional support. At the missionary farewell, a ritual ceremony in church given to the young men before their departure, family and friends shower the initiates with money, good wishes, and advice. And during the mission experience the local church members act as surrogate fathers and mothers to the missionaries. The missionary companions provided daily support and help. As well, the church and church officials were seen as being supportive and wanting to help the young men succeed. Even potential converts at times are supportive, as David noted, he and his missionary companion were affectionately referred to by the black community as their "preacher boys."

Not all aspects of the social environment were supportive. Girlfriends were seen as trouble to missionaries, since they would be distracted from their missionary work by thoughts of them. There were Mormons myths surrounding girlfriends. Stories abounded of "dear John" letters sent by girlfriends who could not wait for their return. A common theme was that women in general were trouble and should be kept at arms length. Eli recalled a story from his uncle's foreign mission experience:

...there were several occasions where he and his companion literally ran home from a meeting...because they (women) would want to chase them. They were American and its a ticket to the United States.

But the influence of the community extended beyond emotional and financial support. The religious indoctrination was pervasive. Many young men graduated from seminary school during their high school years. For four years classes meet for an hour a day, often before regular high school, to study religious texts. Students also attended their regular Sunday school meetings and midweek youth activities, and families are encouraged to have Monday night family home meetings for religious studies. Couple these influences with personal prayer, religious study, church youth groups, church social activities, church callings, and so forth, and there is a powerful religious training given to these young men.

Thus, the family and friends of the missionaries provide strong and consistent emotional and financial support for their missionaries. However, the spiritual preparation is so pervasive and comprehensive that it is surprising how any practicing Mormon could choose not to go on a mission. In fact, one interesting group to interview would be practicing Mormons who chose not to go on a mission or Mormon missionaries who left the church.

Rite of Passage

Consistent with Gennep's (1960/orig. 1908) three principle phases in rites of passage, the young men are separated from their past life, go through a stage of transition between their past and future lives, and are eventually reincorporated. However, this rite of passage is not the same for each young man and varies from a passage into adulthood to a religious coming of age.

Separation. Before entering the Missionary Training Center, all young men receive short, conservative hair cuts, purchase dark, conservative suits, and are "set apart" by the stake president, a regional church authority, who literally lays his hands upon the initiate, sets them apart as missionaries, and transfers responsibility to them. From this time forward until the man is released two years later by the same stake president, he is a missionary. Next they report to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) where they are physically set apart from their families, community, and past lives before beginning their mission. The young men head off to the MTC carrying all their possessions for the next two years in two suitcases and a briefcase. Often the initiates arrive at the MTC with their parents for an orientation. After the orientation, the parents leave through one door and the missionaries leave through another. For many young men, it is at this point that they realize the magnitude of what they are doing:

Well, the first day of course I was just freaked. They bring you in there and your parents leave. All of a sudden you're just standing there and you are freaking out going you're looking at two years. What am I doing? (Adam)

Life before and after the MTC is clearly different. This MTC experience allows the missionary to break with his old life and prepare him for his new life as a missionary. It is here that he get over being homesick and where he is intensely trained to be a missionary.

Not only is he separated from his past life, he is also severed from his past identity. He gives up one of the most individual of all possessions, his first name. He is no longer "John," he is now "Elder Smith." This new identity is reinforced by a name tag that is always worn, by a new uniform (i.e., dark suit, white shirt, black shoes,...) and by a "missionary hair cut." All Elders are the same in name and dress for all are equal servants of the Lord. Elders are identified not by where they have been (i.e., their home and past) but by where they are going (i.e., their field of labor, whether that be in Paris, Lima, or San Francisco).

Life in the MTC is characterized by asceticism. Few possessions from their past are brought or allowed. What few possessions are brought are related to their work. The primary possessions brought are clothes: white shirts, conservative ties, slacks, suits, dark shoes,... The new clothes and haircut are put on as the new role is donned. Few of the men had worn these clothes before. If worn at all this uniform was worn to church. One or two other casual outfits were brought for the one day a week that the men had off to do personal tasks like shopping, laundry,... Other possessions that were brought were primarily spiritual in nature: religious books, pictures of Christ, poems,... The only real personal possessions taken were pictures of the family. There were no other possessions or symbols of their past lives.

Life at the MTC is different. One is thrown among new people, schedule, food, surroundings,... Every moment is scheduled, even recreational time is planned. All control and choice is removed from the initiates upon entry into the MTC. The schedules is seen by the missionaries as physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. (This experience is more demanding for those who learn a language and stay for eight weeks rather than two weeks.) Graffiti discovered at the Language Training Mission, the predecessor to the MTC, refers to this place as the "rock" and "the ball and chain." Surviving this experience is considered to be an accomplishment, yet informants speak of a closeness and comraderie among the missionaries forged by common adversity.

Transition. After the MTC, the missionaries go to their respective fields of labor and begin their work. In Mormon scriptures, missionaries are commanded to go out "two by two," therefore they are assigned a companion with whom they spend every waking moment. Over the next two years they are assigned to different locations about every 4 to 6 months and are assigned new companions every 3 to 4 months on average.

While each mission experience is unique, some common elements exist. Each missionary entered the field confident only to experienced an initial period of adjustment during which he was not very effective.

When you come out you expect to get into every door you knock on cause you're so powerful and everything. You start knocking on doors and they shut them on you. It kind of hurts (Ben).

During this period most missionaries felt their testimony challenged. (Testimony is knowing in your heart that the scriptures are true as opposed to believing that they are true.) Day in and day out these men had to face 16 hour days of religious work that included tracting (door to door proselyting), studying, teaching, counseling, baptizing,... Personal and religious doubts would make this grueling schedule difficult. These adversities strengthened most missionaries' testimony. Similarly, one had to struggle with selfish desires and thoughts of the past in order to live up to the expectations for a missionary. As Caleb put it:

You represent the Church. You are the Church...You're not suppose to speak about other things--you are a missionary full time...So you take on that pretty seriously...You don't talk about going out doing something else. You talk about scriptures and helping people out. Serving people, that's basically who you are...Your family's still the same and you're kind of different. You're still part of the family and you write and sign you name, you know, your first name, but as far as who you are you're kind of different...being a missionary servant, you always have to be serving you know. You have to kind of give up selfishness, your going to have give up worldly things.

This quote captures the transition that these men face.

A strong theme across the informants was that the mission was a sacred time and task. Their experience of time was different than their life before. In their pre-missionary lives, weekends meant something but here there was a "sameness" of days. The days are full but the months fly by. Being a missionary is like being a priest. These young men are set apart; they must remain celibate and refrain from all worldly concerns and stay focused on the spiritual realm. They feel different. Caleb talks about sitting on the plane looking at all the people around them and thinking "these people are just regular people...we're missionaries." Each man spoke of the physical weight of the responsibility that they felt. Many spoke of the physical sensation of spirituality as "goose bumps all over," "a calm feeling inside," and so forth. Other people treated them differently, "like they know everything." People "put you on a pedestal."

The difference between the mission life and their life after the mission is most dramatic upon their return. Adam describes his brother's return:

The thing he said was the hardest, was one week he was doing something that's the most important thing that someone can ever do--try to teach someone the truth--and how he returned back from God to filling ash trucks.

David said he "felt like bawling" upon his return. The return to the past life is often met with depression.

Reincorporation. While the results in this section are less complete, there were some preliminary findings. The new experiences faced by the young men had changed them: living away from home and family, being in a large town, living in the country, traveling overseas, and meeting new people and new ways of life. Many of the men spoke of a new tolerance for people of differing backgrounds. These men had learned new skills. Caleb talked of learning how to lead people and David spoke of overcoming his shyness.

However, most missionaries felt out of touch with the secular world and experienced some depression. Successful return seemed to depend on getting on with life and using the new skills and insights that they had acquired. Many returned missionaries go back to school or work. Others become involved in the church. Others get married.


To summarize, the Mormon missionary experience is a rite of passage. These young men are separated from their community and all of their worldly goods. They then struggle with the demands and challenges of missionary life that often lead them to reevaluate different aspects of their life. The time after the missionary experience is characterize by a the need to go on with their life while somehow integrating this experience into their life.


Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf, and John F. Sherry (1989), "The Sacred and Profane in Consumer Behavior: Theodicy on the Odyssey," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (June), 1-38.

Gennep, Arnold van (1960/orig. 1908), The Rites of Passage, trans. Manika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

McCracken, Grant (1988), Culture and Consumption, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Stack, Carol B. (1971), All Our Kin, New York: John Wiley & Sons.



Ron Hill, Villanova University

The transition from childhood to adulthood is a major rite of passage in all societies, and involves a significant change in status and role behaviors (Wright 1990). However, unlike societies in which adolescents develop new identities by emulating the actions of adults within their communities, American youths "have difficulty finding a preordained place in the social unit" (Lipsitz 1977; p. 5). Instead of supplying a clear path, our culture provides adolescents with a long period of emphasis on self-definition, with expectations of "open choice" and the possibility of social mobility.

While most individuals are able to confront this challenge and re-create the self into a positive, functioning adult member of the community, there are many in our society who fail to move successfully to adult roles and end up engaging in anti-social or criminal behaviors. According to Lipsitz (1977), one possible explanation is that these youths are faced with the additional burden that mobility and opportunity are closed to them because of poverty and lack of education. Thus, violent and illegal acts may become a way of gaining revenge against a society that imprisons them. For example, stealing may be viewed as a substitute for employment at low level service jobs that provide limited opportunities for advancement or higher incomes (National Commission on Youth 1980).

The purpose of this research is to balance the discussion of rites of passage by including a group of individuals who are finding this transition troublesome. To this end, twelve in- depth interviews were conducted with 17 and 18 year old males who were boarders at a residential facility for court adjudicated youth. All of these young men had been convicted of serious crimes including robbery and assault, burglary, auto theft, and possession and selling of illegal drugs. Our discussion of this experience focuses on the lack of positive role models in their lives as well as the threatening nature of their day-to-day existence. Next, our attention is turned to their resulting desire to "live for today" through the acquisition of money and possessions, typically by unlawful means, and the subsequent value of these items to these youths. Finally, a brief conclusion presents preliminary analysis.


One of the greatest deficits among these young men is the lack of a positive male role model or mentor in their lives. To a person, they had troubled relationships with their fathers, who were distant, strict, reserved, or absent and often viewed negatively. Consider the following description provided by Jim:

See my Dad, he lives in [another state]. Like we don't get along all that good... My dad has always been for him [my brother] and like he's never had no time for me or nothing.

Occasionally, a brother or uncle took on this role, but this substitute usually fell short of providing necessary guidance and interaction. Further, the older men in their communities provided little in the way of additional mentoring, and were also seen as wishing they were young or acting young themselves, almost in competition with their younger counterparts. Thus, these men were often viewed in negative terms:

When I was younger, I would go up and say look at those bums. With their kids, drinkin'. I still say it when I'm walkin' with my friends. We see some, you know, we'll come back from the movies or something and it's real late at night and we'll look over there [and see men in our neighborhood] hangin' over all drunk, disgustin' and me and my, we all say `I can't wait to get out of this neighborhood!'(Tom)

Further, the world that these young men inhabit is filled with violence and crime, and they feel that they must grow up fast in order to survive. Gangs and street fighting are common, and there is little one can do to avoid contact with the resulting brutality:

What's it like growin' up in [your neighborhood]?

It was tiring, I guess you could say 'Man I want to get out of here!' Like you look around and there was a situation, you figure out who you should be with, you gonna look around now and be like 'Where's so and so? He's dead. What about so and so? He's dead too, he got shot in the head' somethin' like that."(Dan)

This combination of factors - lack of role models and a hostile environment - leads them to focus their attention on living for now with members of their peer group. Also, opportunities for engaging in criminal behaviors such as stealing cars and selling drugs exist widely, and are considerably more rewarding than the menial careers that these young men are qualified to enter. Thus, to avoid the frustrations associated with the working world and to enjoy the things that are available within society, they tend to gravitate towards criminality in an almost addictive way:

And like a couple nights straight just, I just stayed up like all night, I don't know, stealing... cars and stuff. I brought, ahh, I had to put a lot of stuff in bags and stuff that I had about, I'd say about 150 dollars in cash like, change, dollars, stuff like that. And then we just caught the bus and went back to my house and dropped, dropped the stuff off and then emptied our pockets and all, put it in the jar and went back out later on and got another car.(Steve)

The resulting money received from such activities provides these youths with status and power in their communities and a sense of freedom that is not possible given the relative poverty in their communities:

My neighborhood's a real materialneighborhood like if you don't have something you're shit. If someone's got something, you don't got it, you're shit.(Bill)

You gots to have money to impress, but not to just impress the girls. I got to have money to impress myself. Like I can't walk through a mall you know and be like 'Oh, I want to get that. I get that next week with my paycheck.' or 'I'll get that, you know, when I get the money.' You know I want that, I want to get that right now! I got to get that!(Jim)


The results of this study suggest that youths who live in a world of poverty and violence without appropriate role models and legitimate opportunities to raise their standard of living may resort to criminal behaviors in order to "live for today." While Belk (1988, p. 148) concludes that "self-definition through doing things may be preferred to self-definition through having things," their lack of skills and uncertain futures may lead them to search for "achievement through consumption" (Cox, Cox, and Moschis 1990, p. 158). Future research needs to explore this link between self-concept development and possessions more completely, and look for ways to enhance self-esteem through legally sanctioned methods such as skills development.


Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (September), 139-168.

Cox, Dena, Anthony D. Cox, and George P. Moschis (1990), "When Consumer Behavior Goes Bad: An Investigation of Adolescent Shoplifting," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (September), 149-159.

Lipsitz, Joan (1977), Growing Up Forgotten, Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company.

National Commission on Youth (1980), The Transition of Youth to Adulthood: Abridge Too Long, Boulder: Westview Press.

Wright, Newell D. (1990), "The Role of Consumption in the Transition from Pre-Adult to Adult," Working Paper, Virginia Tech.



Mara Adelman, Northwestern University

"The past is hidden...beyond the reach of the intellect -- in some material object." (Marcel Proust)

In his classic work, The Rites of Passage, van Gennep (1908) identifies three stages in 'life crisis' -- separation, merger or transition, and reincorporation. During the states of transition, people experience what van Gennep refers to as liminality -- a boundaryless, marginalized experience often accompanied by isolation and suspension of social status. In short, liminal people are 'betwixt and between' two life stages or social roles.

Recently, scholars of consumer behavior have examined the role of disposition of objects during role transitions (Young, 1990; Roberts, 1990; McAlexander, 1990). A central theme in these works is the notion that objects facilitate and reflect identity transformation during various life passages. Furthermore, in some transitions the symbolism and manipulation of possessions is a central feature of the ritualized transformation (e.g., the removal of wedding rings to symbolically mark a divorce).

Yet few passages are as dramatic or adverse as those experienced by persons facing a terminal illness. The purpose of this study is to explore the role that disposition of objects play in a residential community for persons living with AIDS (PLWA). A major premise in this study is that the meanings, forms, and functions of dispossessing are inextricably linked to the liminal nature of the AIDS illness and the community setting.

Liminality and Life-threatening Illness

Works on the social construction of life-threatening illness (LTI) points to the liminality that accompanies the chaos and threat to physical and social identity. Physical identity is severely shaken by the uncertainty of the diagnosis, the ambiguity surrounding complex symptoms, and the loss of control in predicting remissions and ultimately the time of death (Comaroff & Maguire, 1981; Murphy, 1987). For persons living with AIDS, the range of opportunistic infections, the side effects of new medications, and the unpredictable onset of disabling symptoms heightens a sense of physical liminality.

Social liminality is often experienced by PLWAs as their personal identity is threatened by the stigma of this disease and loss of social ties. Furthermore, the images associated with AIDS are so symbolically powerful, that this illness has emerged as a metaphor for societal paranoia and chaos (Sontag, 1989). Murphy et al. (1988) observed that disability creates liminality, since the disabled are neither well, nor sick, "declassified but are not yet reclassified; they have died in their old status and are not reborn in a new one" (p. 237). For those unfamiliar with the extended prognosis and fearful of AIDS, PLWA's may represent the living-dead, a state which is betwixt and between.

Liminal Settings

Between diagnosis and death, there can be intermediary stages or multiple role transitions in redefining the personal and social self in coping with a LTI. Changes in a living situation often signals a transition for personal identity, particularly for those moving from independent living to assisted living. These physical moves in coping with a LTI can become dramatic demarcation points, especially when the new environment is designed for those who share a similar illness.

In response to the needs for housing, social services, and medical assistance for PLWA, there has been a rapid growth in congregate living facilities specifically designed for PLWA. The variation among these residencies makes it likely that some settings are more liminal or ambiguous than others. For example, a hospice is specifically designated and designed for those in their final stages of dying may be less liminal than other forms of congregate living for those during various stages of the illness, even before the onset of frail health. Regardless of its mission, residential facilities for PLWA openly acknowledges the illness, heightens awareness of personal death (Unruh, 1983), and provides a reference group of comparable others. As Frankel (1989) demonstrates in her study of a therapeutic community, socialization to these environments can produce a dramatic shift in self-concept, altering the attributions for self and others.

Disposition of Possessions

Personal possessions serve numerous identity functions as people move through various life transitions and specifically during death when artifacts become the symbols by which individuals wish to be remembered (Unruh, 1983). But possessions are also vehicles for social communication (Olson, 1985). Herein the symbolic meanings of the object itself and its use in facilitating interaction can serve as rituals for departing, as spiritual companions for those who survive, and as visible markers for reaffirming community purpose.

The goal of the present study was to explore and obtain descriptions of the role of disposition of possessions for PLWA in a residential setting for similar others. More specifically, this study examined the phases of the disposition of possessions and the significance of personal possessions for the community at large.


This study was conducted in a congregate care facility for PLWAs, herein referred to as "Homelife." Founded in 1988 by a religious order, this facility houses 26 PLWAs and is designed for those who are still ambulatory and self-sufficent in daily activities. The demographic profile of the residents during the past 2 years shows a highly diverse population (i.e., age, race, gender, education, income), with an average stay of approximately 5.8 months. Approximately 80% of the residents remain in the home until their death or final transfer to another facility.

Participant-observation based on 2.5 years of volunteer work, transcriptions from a documentary film on Homelife (Adelman & Shultz, 1991), initial interviews on community life (n=22) and with key informants (n=5), form the corpus of data for the following thematic and interpretive analysis.


Reassembling and Disassembling the Self

The disposition of objects is inextricably linked to the psycho-social orientation of the residents to Homelife. Expectations and attitudes toward this community will be influenced by the ways in which residents discard and use possessions to reconstruct their identities at Homelife. Furthermore, the process of reconstructing social identity does not take place in a closed relationship between the resident and the possession. Rather social attachments with community members plays a critical role in determining the how possessions will be used and to what affect.

As with any relocation, objects are retained and discarded based on expectations for the new setting. For some residents, entering Homelife signals what one informant referred to as "the last stop" -- the final resting place. This acknowledgement of death, coupled with the pragmatic constraints of small private rooms, can initiate a disposition of major assets long before death is inevitable.

For those who viewed Homelife as a temporary place until recovery, there was minimal effort to reassemble the material world. In some cases, minimalist reassembling appeared to reflect a denial of the illness and lack of commitment to community life. One very affluent resident placed all his possessions in storage for a later time when he recovered and could move out. During his eight month stay at Homelife, he sustained a social detachment from community members. Although he remained critically ill, he continually made plans to move-out. With the exception of a fur coat, a few clothes, and a small television, his room remained stark and in perpetual disarray until his death.

However, most residents, even those who were homeless and with few possessions, use their possessions to reconstruct personal living spaces as a permanent home. Although these possessions were the primary form of personalizing their living quarters, there was also the accumulation and display of others' possessions. Acquisitions from other residents formed a symbiotic materialism with the community, where the resident's collective identity is fostered by his or her attachments to the possessions of others. A long-term resident who entered the home with two bags of clothes, after two years and several close relationships with dying residents, her room is now filled with their possessions. She notes, "I made this room for memories and good feelings."

Studies of possessions reveal their significance in extending the self (Belk, 1988). Even the organization and display of remnants in the form of scrapbooks, provides a portable secular ritual for assembling the self (Katriel & Farrell, 1991). The transition into Homelife serves as both an environmental and psycho-social boundary marker for incoming residents. Forms of environmental schematization (Holahan, 1978) or reconstruction of the material world within this community setting is central to the role of objects in the final transition to death. Findings from this study indicate that possessions play an important role in reassembling and disassembling the self as residents enter the community. As such, the disposition of possessions as a dying ritual is embedded within the initial transition to the community setting and the development of social involvement with fellow residents.

Collective Memory

The personal possessions that residents leave to fellow members or to Homelife have become a way of incorporating the passing member into the community culture. As with individuals, these possessions provide a visible legacy that triggers stories for the community at large of the incidents and personalities of those who have died. In her study of Holocaust survivors, Myerhoff (1982) found that life stories not only functioned to remember the past, but also to "re-member" -- a special type of recollection that calls

"attention to the reaggregation of members, the figures who belong to one's life story, one's own prior selves, as well as significant others who are part of the story. Re-membering, then is purposive, significant unification, quite different from the passive, continuous fragmentary flickering of images and feelings that accompany other activities in the normal flow of consciousness...It becomes a tidy edited tale" (p. 111).

Although the process of re-membering may remain more fragmentary and less intense for residents than that experienced by Holocaust survivors, PLWA are survivors of a catastrophe in which the search for meaning is essential to account for their suffering and to circumvent despair.

The symbolism that surrounds possessions and the stories evoked by their presence offers an opportunity for residents to re-member with those before them and to develop a collective memory for the community. For re-membering, linkages must be found "between the group's shared, valued beliefs and symbols, and specific historical events" (p. 111), which may evolve to stories and myths. This form of local knowledge becomes evident at Homelife in the socialization of new members, in the references and stories about past members, and in the naming of specific objects that have become household ornaments.


Congregate living for those facing a LTI can relieve or create chaos and uncertainty for personal and collective identity. Disposition of possessions can play a critical role in reassembling and disassembling the self from initial entry to the community to the final stages of dying. Because a major threat to any community is the loss of its members (Kanter, 1972), the disposition of possessions can enhance a sense of communitas (Turner, 1969) or psychological support among residents by providing a collective memory for those who have died and evidence for those who are living -- that they too shall be remembered.


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Julie L. Ozanne, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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