Material Culture and the Extended Or Unextended Self in Our University Offices


Russell W. Belk and Joel C. Watson (1998) ,"Material Culture and the Extended Or Unextended Self in Our University Offices", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 305-310.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 305-310


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

Joel C. Watson, University of Utah

Although there are studies of the meanings of the possessions we keep in our homes (e.g., Wallendorf and Arnould 1988; Mehta and Belk 1991), as well as theoretical treatments of how possessions come to act as parts of our extended self (Belk 1988), studies of our extended selves in the workplace are lacking. In one interpretation (Hochschild 1997), as home and family become more fragmented and insecure, we increasingly seek and find at work the pleasures, security, recognition, and selves that we once enjoyed at home. Despite the opportunity to share jobs, work part time, or telecommute from home, as corporations have moved from scientific management to TQM, the workplace has become more home-like and many of us view it as an escape to a home away from home. Thus, a chief reason workers give for personalizing their work places by altering material culture, is that "It makes me feel at home" (Scheiberg 1990, p.334). As Jones (1985) points out, the way we personalize our personal work space with objects can express who we feel we are, who we wish we were, or how we would like others to think of us. In an individualistic culture like that of much of the United States, the corporate move toward partitioned office cubicles may be seen as threatening such personalizing opportunities (Lohr 1997).

Offices have various degrees of restriction on the extent to which workers may decorate and personalize their personal spacs, but we found little restriction in the offices of the university professors we studied. As one of our informants put it, "I think one reason that people go into academia is for freedom - doing what they want when they want." One way of symbolizing this freedom is by creating an office that is richly inscribed with personal meanings through our choices of idiosyncratic objects and arrangements. At the same time, university offices are not totally private spaces and as professors we also recognize that our offices are likely to affect impressions that others form about us, as well as the tone of interactions within our offices. We initially expected that more junior professors would opt for less personalized more "professional" offices, that women’s offices would be more expressive and show more signs of connections to others, that those in the humanities and arts, would have more personalized and aesthetic office decor, and that there would be greater similarity in decor within disciplines and departments than across. However, as our work progressed it became clear that despite a grain of truth to most of these expectations, there was much greater and more meaningful diversity in office decoration than could be explained by these factors alone. This led us to the current focus on the individual office-related life projects of informants: the dominant theme or themes that seem to drive the decorating, arranging, and accounting for office appearances by each individual.

Our methods involved one- to two-hour depth interviews with 13 University of Utah professors concerning the meanings of objects in their offices. We explored personal and professional background, perceived freedom in decorating, changes made in the office, work habits at home, office, and any special "third place" for work, work and non-work activities in the office, perceived similarity to colleagues’ offices, perceived impressions generated by their offices, and their most treasured possessions within the office. We systematically explored which objects were gifts, mementos of people, places, or experiences, emblematic of professional interests, or held other special meanings that might not be self-evident. We took digital photographs of all thirteen offices and videotaped three. To study similarities within disciplines, we chose three people from one department and two from another.

Analysis is based on a close reading of the interviews by both of us. We have chosen to present five informants with differing types of office decor, although in each case, with the partial exception of Walter, we found similar interpretive threads in at least one other office. The five include two women and three men; two Assistant Professors, one Associate Professor, and two Professors; and one each from art, science, social science, humanities, and education.


Walter came to the University 13 years ago from the Midwest where he received his Ph.D. and had a previous appointment. He is currently a 48-year-old Professor of mathematics. Of those interviewed, Walter’s office had the least evidence of self-extension. While it is neither entirely bland and institutional nor without some evidence of personalization, compared to other offices, it appears sterile, utilitarian, casual, nondescript, and incomplete. It has only a few more books, papers, and personal artifacts than the office of a visitor who has come for a term or two, unencumbered by possessions. It has, for example, a photo of Walter’s wife as well as a map of Australia and a photo of koala bears that represent his several trips to Australia. Still, Walter’s office seems to have accumulated little trace of the person who has occupied it for more than a dozen years. It is a large high-ceilinged office in a 100-year-old building, and its spaciousness, austerity, and neutral colors combine to leave the visitor feeling more cool than warm.

Walter’s area of specialty is probability, and it is evident that removing uncontrolled variance from his life is a major life project carried through n his office decor. This is illustrated by the white noise machine that he keeps on his desk. "I turn that on if I’m being bothered by noises" he explained as he turned on the device for a moment. He continued:

This kind of noise doesn’t bother me, but it bothers some people. But it doesn’t bother me. Though hearing people talk and shout or whatever does disturb me because it is not predictable. This is deterministic and predictable, so it doesn’t bother me.

In light of this penchant for control it might seem ironic that he keeps a small shelf full of books on gambling. He explained that Markov models and other mathematical approaches can be applied quite well to games like blackjack and craps. However, "poker is not something I am particularly interested in because you can’t really do much with it mathematically." The human psychology of players instead makes poker mathematically intractable.

One decorative object in Walter’s office is a pair of dice. Although he describes them as being beautiful, it seems clear that their beauty for him lies in their perfect precision rather than in their visual aesthetic or any association with a person, place, or experience:

I’ve got some green dice that have never been used in a casino that are really beautiful - brand new. There is a place in Las Vegas that makes them and you can go and buy them. And they are really beautifully made - so absolute precision instruments.

Most of the other objects in Walter’s office also seem to be about controlling his environment and operating efficiently. For example, there are two pairs of shoes for snowy winter days, a space heater to take the chill off cold days, and a small black and white television so he can watch the 5:30 news before going home. Walter does have two hobbies that can be discerned in his office: photography and occasional bicycle riding. Even these are not totally exempt from considerations of probability and control however. We had asked about one photo in the office and he said:

Yeah, that’s of the Grand Canyon. And I’ve got a picture there of six women in a probability class I taught last year. Very unusual to have a graduate level class in mathematics consisting of six women and no men....So I thought I would record that for posterity on film.

Walter’s bicycle interest is signalled by a small wire bicycle sculpture. In accounting for it, he seemed to apologize for having so frivolous an object in the office: "It could just as well be at home. I kind of like it, but for some reason it’s here." Similarly, he explained his photo of the Grand Canyon as being suitable for his inelegant office because "It wasn’t really good enough to frame it, and so I thought rather than just throw it away, I would just put it in my office."

Walter’s office shares the practicality of the worn winter shoes he keeps there year-round. On his office desk is a 10-year-old computer and an outmoded dot matrix printer. In his recent purchase of a laptop computer he showed his practical bent and desire for controling uncertainty:

I just got this. It’s an old model, but I’ve been burned twice in getting computers that were really expensive and then suddenly dropped dramatically in price. ...I decided to get one that had already dropped and was being phased out. And it works fine. It’s a great computer. It’s much faster than this one [the desktop] by a long shot.

A might be expected, Walter’s books and papers are neatly organized and do not fill up the office. He has three small shelves of books which are mostly texts. There is a simplicity to the office that is not the elegant simplicity of offices we found in the Architecture School as much as an austerity that seems born of Calvinism. Walter’s office also has a unique absence of intentional humor. Because his office provides so little evidence of his extended self, it offers a good base for comparison to the other offices studied where the case for extended self is more pronounced.


Corrina is a 28-year-old Assistant Professor of Philosophy in her first year at the university. Her office seems bright and cheerful. While it is not stuffed with things, it seems more alive and comfortable than Walter’s and has none of its sparse and austere feel. Live plants, bright posters, two children’s crayon drawings, and abundant contemporary and antique photographs of people seem to breath life and vitality into the office. This look is not accidental and coincides with Corrina’s major life project: the creation of a positive self. In Nippert-Eng’s terms (1996, p. 37), hers is a more inwardly directed strategy of office decoration rather than an outwardly-directed strategy. There is some expression of self and impression management as well, but shaping her own mood and identity take precedence. She is primarily concerned with managing her own emotions (Scheiberg 1990). Her method, which she says has helped her avoid years of analysis, is simple: create a pleasurable office environment. By contrast, in graduate school she had made her room "this unpleasant sort of torture chamber." She had a fear of public speaking and would schedule talks that she found she had to cancel. She put up the posters for the failed talks in her office along with xeroxes of "nasty comments" others made on her papers. Not surprisingly, she also got writer’s block, until at last she began to change her office decor:

I just took everything down out of my room and made my office really pleasant and happy. And that’s how I live - happy - like my friends, my sea shells and stuff. It’s just all things I like, you know, and things that make me happy. That’s how I changed everything. And so I have all of these...things that say groovy stuff about me. I mean as a Pisces, you know, [laughs]: "You astonish others, yourself even more," "You are so dynamic, also." ...and then I have all of these fortunes [from Chinese fortune cookies] that I got. This one says, "You will receive some prestigious prize award." The Peking Noodle company assures me of that.

Other pleasurable things that Corrina has added to her current office include a stereo and the Puccini operas that she loves, a large framed "funny" picture of her aunt and other bathing beauties at Coney Island in the 1930s, a photo of another aunt’s 1949 Brooklyn grade school class, a similar photo of her mother’s kindergarten class in 1944, humorous cartoons, and two going away drawings from children. These things emphasize education themes and a child-like and old-fashioned innocence. She also consciously manages her mood and energy in the office with classical music CDs and Power Bars. Like some of the others we studied, she often uses these things as "treats" to reward doing drudge-work like reading student papers. On the other hand, she does such chore-like work as grading and more anxiety-provoking work like her own research at the office and saves more pleasurable professional reading for home. Otherwise she fears she would not find home such a pleasurable place and would be unable to sleep well. By keeping negative tasks out of the home she finds she rarely needs to listen to music and never eats Power Bars there. This split between what is done at home and at the office is not unusual in our research, but more commonly the home is the place for more tedious or lss challenging work. There does seem to be a bit more boundary-defining segregation of home and work activities in our study than among the scientists in Nippert-Eng’s (1996) study, although these boundaries seem quite permeable for most of the professors studied.

Another part of Corrina’s project to fashion an identity through her office decor includes a desire for individuation and elimination of what she describes as the institutional look:

I’d like to have an office where I could put some real furniture in because it had that real institutional look, you know, of office furniture. So I’d eventually like to get some of my own furniture and put it in my office and have my office more like a study, like a kind of room; not some institutional looking thing that looks like a barracks or something.

She describes her office as having a lot of "personal stuff" and "wacky stuff" and prides herself on not looking like some "whitewashed thing." Corrina also emphasizes that with students she wants to be perceived as informal and accessible. She was also very open with us, showing "things like brushes and hair things and toothpaste and some feminine [hygiene] things" in the office. This, to her, is part of being a "whole" person, a role which she models after her mentors:

I think the people that affected me when I was a student were people who you see that they had a life. They were more whole and, I don’t know, that sort of impressed me, so I try to do the same.

Connections to her past and personal growth also are part of the wholeness she seeks and these seem to be most strongly represented in her framed family photos, in her verdant office plants, and in a recent conference invitation letter that she has pinned up in the office.

As a beginning female professor, Corrina also uses humor in the office as a way "to deliver unpalatable, or potentially unpalatable messages with a softened impact" (Linstead 1985, p. 743). She observes that "I sort of look younger than I am and people sort of think Im a pushover, you know. So I like to sort of get things clear straight away." Thus, she consciously displays a favorite post card of a stern 1930s woman holding a whip, with the caption, "What part of 'No’ Don’t you Understand?". Her use of antique motifs seems to be another way of establishing her authority while at the same time diffusing such status claims through the humorous retro look of another time and place. This too is a part of her project of self-creation.

At the same time, her connections to the past through her office decor also tie Corrina more to New York (Long Island and Ithica) than to her present locale in Utah. Her photos, books, cartoons, mementos, music, and artwork all represent New York to her. The only artifacts in her office acquired in Utah are a heavily stained coffee mug and the plants. She is still quite new to the area and it exaggerates to call the office a shrine to New York. But there may be cause for concern if this pattern continues. Vinsel, Brown, Altman, and Foss (1980) found that university students who decorated with hometown and high school artifacts were more likely to drop out than were those who adopted local and university artifacts in their dorm rooms.


Ron, a 43-year-old Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Studies, has been at the University throughout his 14-year academic career. Like Corrina he displays links to his past-in Seattle where he was raised and went to college. But he also has numerous evidences of links to the local community. For instance, while he has two large framed photos of Seattle in his office,a jar of rain water from Seattle, and a Washington Huskies mug, he also has Karl Malone Utah Jazz souvenirs, art by Utah artists, and an historic photo of the University of Utah up in his office. As these objects suggest, Ron is a hoarder. His office is a cluttered accumulation of objects that comprise a grand collection of curiosities and amusements not unlike wunderkammern of old. His major project explicated in his office decor might be described as one of preservation.

The most obvious way in which this project is enacted is through the abundance of things in his office. Bookcases and filing cabinets are full and piles of papers and books occupy a number of areas on the floor. The walls, window, ceiling, and tops of file cabinets are also full of art, sculpture, photos, ornaments, posters, artwork by his children, collections, and miscellaneous objects of wonder. For example, there is a collection of plastic California Raisins characters from the former television commercials. They were at one time sold by a fast food chain and Ron acquired three of each character: one each for himself, his son, and his daughter. When his children were going to get rid of theirs, Ron asked if he could have them back, and now all are in his office. He got a figure from his son’s Masters of the Universe collection the same way. When his wife was discarding a large cloth angel she had made as a Christmas decoration, he hung it on the blinds near the high ceiling of his office. And when a colleague discarded a poster the two of them used in a conference presentation, Ron acquired that as well. At home he has his mother’s magazine collection from before he was born and a large collection of Mormon religious books, while his university office houses a collection of cassette tapes of rock music from the 1960s. His door is covered with cartoons from Doonesbury, Gary Larson, Calvin and Hobbes, and Jules Pfeiffer. He recognizes that these retentive urges are most likely born of his childhood insecurity, and says that he has only recently given himself (largely unenacted) "permission to throw things away."

Another part of what Ron seems to be preserving is his sense of family, a theme that is especially stressed by his religion (Mauss 1984). Besides photographs of his two children and wife, he displays numerous gifts from his family, artworks produced by each family member, and toys that his children once collected. Among the artwork from his children is one with the label "Dad is Rad" and another the he calls "Sunday at Home." He keeps golf balls and putters that his teenage children play with when they come to the office. Notably, he is in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies and researches and teaches in the area of family and sex roles. Unlike some colleagues, Ron is also happy that the noise from the preschool playground outside can be clearly heard in his office and that he can see the children playing outside his window.

Besides nostalgic family memories, Ron also seems to enjoy preserving traditional values. This is seen most clearly in the hints of religion in his office. They include a replica of the "sunstone" from the destroyed Mormon temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. He explains that,

Although I know that because I know what it represents and its significance, I think it’s a veiled way of having that in my office, so it’s not obtrusive or anything...and less than obvious in its connection to what it is. I’m not one to wear the LDS on my sleeve, so I choose that as a daily representation. So it has a lot of levels of significance to me.

There is a less conscious religious theme present in his office in the only characters he has placed near the ceiling of his office: the cloth angel already noted, and two of his collectible characters. He explained of the latter objects, "That’s Shoe and the Professor. I call them 'The Watcher.’ And they’re sort of beings of another feather, looking down on what’s going on." It does not rquire great imagination to view "The Watcher" and the angel as visions of God and heaven. In addition to the angel, there is also a Christmas tree ornament in the office. Beyond such symbolic representations of religious values, Ron also has a large collection of books on ethics in his office, even though they are not directly related to his teaching and research interests.

One further theme that helps to counterbalance the conservative preservation theme in Ron’s office is his desire to reduce anxiety over status differences. While other office settings may use space, furnishings, arrangements, and personal objects to convey status (Sundstrom 1986), we found that the majority of university offices studied downplayed status elements. Prior studies have suggested that placing a desk between the professor and visitor emphasizes status differences (Hensley 1982, Zweigenhaft 1976) and that the use of plants, posters, photographs, and clutter deemphasize status considerations (Campbell 1979, Miles and Leathers 1984). In addition, jokes and humor have been suggested to have a subversive effect that suggests the triumph of the informal over the formal (Douglas 1975). All of these elements of status leveling are evident in Don’s office. Most of the crowded collage of cartoons on his door concern professor-student relationships, education, and grades. His door remains open in another a status-defeating gesture. The collectible objects in the office are mostly children’s toys that lack status pretentions. His Ph.D. degree is displayed in the office in a miniaturized 3 by 4-inch version set in an oversized 2 by 3-foot frame. Don’s furniture arrangements also minimize status differences:

I tried a number of configurations. ...That’s why I’m sitting over there and the person’s sitting over here...I didn’t like the over-the-desk...That seemed very status-oriented or very hierarchical. Not that teacher-student relationships aren’t that way. But it was particularly problematic for a colleague, I thought. Or it just seemed very stuffy. And I’m very comfortable with students, and I like this; it’s much more open.

His choice of rock music for the office, even though he also likes classical music, also seems intended to strip himself and his office of connotations of status.


Jocelyn is in her early 40’s and has been at the University for four years. She is originally from California and has a dual appointment in counseling and educational psychology. Like her dual appointment, her life is an amalgam of dualities: work and family, office and home, profession and hobbies, Utah and California. Of these pairs, family and work are the best integrated, form the highlight of her office space, and reflect her major life project. Jocelyn reflected on the link between her family and her work:

They are very impacted by my having this job. My performance in this job is very impacted by having them in my life and I think maybe that going through graduate school and raising a family at the same time, I don’t separate the two. ...I was in graduate school and my son was three and my daughter was seven. That’s when I started graduate school so for a long time I felt I was so involved in school [that] when I got out and graduated I was going, "Oh, my God, did I miss their childhood?" Because I was so scattered and so, it was really reassuring, one day I just sat and went through all my pictures and this is the kids at that age. I didn’t miss it, I was there, at least I took pictures . ...It does bring me back to a really wonderful time in our lives.

The pictures of her children serve several purposes. Raising a family and being a graduate student was obviusly difficult, but the accomplishment of doing it still inspires Jocelyn. The pictures remind her of this and symbolize her joint career and family. She has a special place for family items and symbols that is always in sight from her desk chair. She says about this shrine to the family: "that’s my wall of family things that I like and I like it right here. I don’t want to put things here that remind me of my job." These are sacred symbols of her family life, displayed such that when she looks at them she can meditate on her family and nothing else. This meditation seems to be a source of great inspiration and strength to her. But at the same time she must keep job -related objects out of this frame in order to allow her to bracket her thoughts.

Besides the attempt to integrate the duality of work and family in her office, Jocelyn attempts to integrate work and home, as well as inside and outside. The first thing she added to her office was a cordless phone. She explained, "I hated being tied to a chord." She values the freedom of movement the ability to have her work space extended past its physical boundaries. In this way the office becomes a larger space-as far as the cordless signal can reach. The theme of freedom and enlarging space is reinforced with her choice of a laptop computer on which she does most of her work. It has a space on her desk but it is not a permanent space. It travels home and elsewhere with her and makes her work environment mobile. A key office feature is the window which takes up her entire front wall. Jocelyn faced her desk to the window so while sitting at her desk she has the illusion that her space extends all the way to the mountains in the distance.

Her profession and hobby however, are only marginally integrated within her office. Her first love outside her job is making ceramic tiles. There are only two symbolic representations of this love in the office. The first is a Mondrian print: "I rent space in a ceramic studio and do tiles and Mondrian is a big influence on the kind of work that I like and the kind of work I do. That’s one of my favorites, probably." The other evidence of this part of her life, and the fact that her husband is an architect, is a metal Frank Lloyd Wright bookmark that hangs in the window. "You can see the sort of Mondrian-that geometric arrangement and again some of the tiles I do are geometric in theory, and it catches the sunlight!!" She attributed the lack of any tiles or drawings of her work to avoiding commingling that part of her life with her work at school:

That’s really-that’s very personal-and I don’t-you know the difference in power in this position-I don’t want to have my work here and have people think they have to like it. 'Oh! Jocelyn that’s really good’. You know because that’s not part of this job and I don’t want the feedback I’d get about that confused with my job.

Evidently, she does not feel the need to segregate her children and her job as sharply.

Jocelyn explained that she also separates activities by her choice of music in the office:

If I’m really concentrating I have music in the background, sort of groovy stuff. And if I’m cleaning my office or just straightening up I have some mixed tapes I’ve made through the years that I put on. My neighbors know when they hear certain songs what I’m doing.

She also has a "third place" besides home and her university office: a private clinic where she works with children who are in therapy. Because this work cannot be fully separated from her university office, she uses another method of segregation that she calls the bucket system:

I workin private practice. I have children in therapy, so this [bucket] is my clinic stuff and I keep it there because I need it. I don’t work out of this office, but a lot of the coordinating is done here. This is a current grant that I am working on. I work on a bucket system because I’m not very organized.

By the end of the interview, Jocelyn retracted this last statement, realizing she is highly organized.

There is one more area of segregation of life spheres evident in Jocelyn’s office. Unlike her public children’s pictures, Jocelyn has a second "shrine" in her office that is private. She calls it, "my secret corner." In this secret corner are two pictures of Santa Barbara (where she went to graduate school) and four sayings (e.g., "Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues"). She says,

I love it because that is totally Santa Barbara: bikes, palm trees, and clear skies. ...Those are little incident kind of stickers and quotes and things, but I like them because I can turn around and look at it and get something out of it, but don’t really care to have to explain it to everybody who walks in.

And she did not explain them to us. Although there are many symbols in Jocelyn’s office, giving the impression that her personality is expressed throughout, there are also major parts of her life that she wishes not to share and keeps private.

Nippert-Eng (1996) has explored the boundaries that people keep between home and work, finding that professionals are more likely to integrate the two spaces, while blue collar workers are more likely to keep them separate. In Jocelyn’s case we see something midway between integration and segregation. She partitions time and space more rigidly in some of her dual spheres than others. It is noteworthy that, even more than Ron, she most fully integrates her children and her career. She seems to see this as both more socially acceptable and as more conceptually appropriate given her focus on counseling and educational psychology.


Marco is Hispanic and came to the University since 1973 from Berkeley. His specialty is native American languages, and he teaches Spanish and Portuguese also. Marco’s museum-like office is crowded with things directly or indirectly related to his research and teaching as well as a number other objects like his pig collection. As he spoke about the things in his office he took the role of museum curator, giving us detailed serious but loving explanations of almost everything the office contained. It is clear that this curatorial role is a major life project. Marco seemed highly interested in telling us about all the things he had collected over the years. Many involved his family and heritage. He is married to a Mexican-American woman who is an avid collector and sells small collectibles at a local antique mall. She has given him many of the objects in his office; others "are things I have picked up on travels - adventures and so forth."

Like Ron’s lesser office collection, each of these objects is suffused with symbolic meanings for Marco. He says about his things and one particular collection:

I’ve always had posters and small memorabilia like pieces of stone that mean something to me because they evoke memories, but I think since 1986 or so when we returned from a year in Germany there was a particular focus that started in that I had collected these little rubber pigs. ...I went to the toy store because I had a third grader at the time and saw the little pigs on the counter and said I would collect one pig per week that we spent in Germany because we had a lot of negative experiences in Germany and so the pigs were not only cute, but the also evoked a kind of ironic sensation of having lived in Germany as third-world people.

Because of their skin color he and his family were perceived by the Germans to be Turks and were the focus of racism. Initially the pigs represented this swinish behavior. But when he returned to the U.S., this seed collection of pigs started to attract other pig gifts. These pigs accordingly changed in meaning and there are no longer any of the original pigs left.

Marco also keeps his heritage and his family alive in his work space. Besides gifts from his wife, there are pictures of family members, and objects that represent their lives. For example his children gave him a toy bus that resembles the buses in El Salvador. They painted the name of the town from which his family took its name on the front of the bus. This piece connects him to his current family, his family heritage and to a way of life in his country of origin. His ethnic heritage is a critical part of the decor comprising his extended self. It is also represented in a replica of a Mayan "calendar" stone that his son brought back from a trip to Mexico:

It isn’t really a calendar. What it does represent though are the cycles of creation and destruction of the universe five times. ...So we are living in the 5th sun and that’s a common theme in Mexican Meso American cosmology and they perceive the universe as being cyclically created and destroyed. ...So it’s a very important symbol that connects me to my origins which are Meso American-there are Mayan-they’re various types of Mexican cultures which also extend into Central America, which is the area I was born in and that connects us to that big sacrificial knife you see on the shelf there, that’s the knife that was used by the Aztec priests.

Of another object he explains,

[It’s] a little street map of a bakery in my native town, my hometown. And, apparently, I was baptized in this church. My sister tells me I was baptized in this church, and the bakery is just three blocks down, so...I like that. I was recently there for my father’s last days in October. ...This bakery makes, um, the pastry that I most enjoyed when I was a four-year old, three-year old, and still evokes a lot of memories-the taste of that pastry.

For Marco his linguistic work seems to radiate form inside him and is important because of its link to his family and heritage. He told us that the one possession that he feels he could not replace is a picture of his chief informant, a man whom he describes as, "almost my protector and my mentor in Baja." He goes on to say, "he taught me a lot of things about surviving in his land and his culture." For Marco this picture is emblematic of his not only his research career, but of the connectedness of all things in his life. As he describes the picture:

I think it is a beautiful portrait of a man, and it tells you, and explains so much about his people. I mean, if you look at that face. He’s a man, for example, in the 1911 revolution ...the Indians were on the wrong side in Baja, and the Mexican Federal troops basically massacred almost all the members...all the male members of his family. And he watched that from a bush that he had hidden in when he was about eight. That’s the kind of life, you know behind the face. ....He was like-You’ve heard of the figure of coyote, a creator and destroyer, a trickster-he was both of those things.

There is a depth of feeling evident here that was lacking in other offices. After spending some time with Marco listening to the stories associated with each of his thins, we left feeling that we had been given a great insight into his life. Of all the spaces we encountered, his was the most personal, the one that best linked life, work, family, and heritage, into a cohesive unit. His self was not only extended here, but pervaded each lovingly chosen object. Here, we agreed, is a life.


With the partial exception of Walter, there are several overlapping goals evident in the offices studied. Shared themes include freedom, conservation, self creation, working out issues of authority and status, separating and integrating parts of life, connections, roots, humor, and mood management. At the same time we believe that organizing this interpretation by informant rather than by theme has helped to preserve the more individual manner in which these concerns are felt, worked through, and expressed by each individual. While space precludes including our visual evidence here, our interpretations have also been greatly aided by these images.

As we move into the next phase of our work in more constrained office settings, we expect that the importance of material culture may be even stronger due to the smaller range of actual or perceived decorating options. That is, with fewer elements of choice in expressing or shaping self, each may be perceived as more critical. It may also be that there will be a greater affect of the office environment in shaping our subsequent informants’ sense of self rather than the reverse case in which the environment is more shaped by actual or desired self image. Both possibilities are envisioned in the concept of extended self (Belk 1988).

Since the role of the office or factory environment seems to be increasing rather than decreasing in importance in our lives (Hochschild 1997), the affects of self on office environment and of office environment on self are of increasing concern. Such considerations on the job interact with the remainder of our lives off the job. Administrative policies toward types of offices (e.g., cubicles versus private offices) as well as toward creating a more family-like work environment are other considerations that are closely tied to the study of office decor. Understanding the extended self in the workplace therefore promises to bridge the gaps between consumer and producer behavior. We use possessions in both roles and the boundary between them may be more blurred than these labels suggest.


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Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
Joel C. Watson, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25 | 1998

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