Consumption Curtailed: an Exploratory Study of Identity and Exchange in a Penal Environment

ABSTRACT - The purpose of this study is to explore the instrumental and symbolic functioning of possessions when consumers’ social environment is forcibly altered and many possessions are lost. In doing so, it attempts to contribute to our understanding of the social location of consumption processes and the role of possessions in creating, developing and maintaining a sense of identity.


Douglas Brownlie and Suzanne Horne (1999) ,"Consumption Curtailed: an Exploratory Study of Identity and Exchange in a Penal Environment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 231-235.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 231-235


Douglas Brownlie, University of Stirling

Suzanne Horne, University of Stirling


The purpose of this study is to explore the instrumental and symbolic functioning of possessions when consumers’ social environment is forcibly altered and many possessions are lost. In doing so, it attempts to contribute to our understanding of the social location of consumption processes and the role of possessions in creating, developing and maintaining a sense of identity.

The study examines the person-object relationship of those who are removed from society as a result of their criminal behaviour. It is determined that inmates are materialistic even in such an austere environment and seek alternative uses for possessions beyond their functional purpose.


This paper discusses the results of an exploratory study into how objects are made meaningful in the processes and practices of their consumption within a penal enironment. It argues that consumption encompasses many different activities and that different people are situated differently in relation to those activities (Du Gay, Hall, Janes, Mackay, Negus, 1997:96). Consumption not only marks social difference, but represents an important means through which we relate to each other and, as Belk (1995:69) remarks "weave the web of culture". We consider the different ways in which material possessions, as signs and symbols, are used to create and sustain social bonds or distinctions. The opportunity for insight comes from studying a particular group of consumers whose social relations and experiences are mediated (Giddens, 1991:5) by a set of institutional circumstances they have in common, but which are beyond the everyday experience of the consuming community at large. The context for the study is one that has not drawn the interest of consumer researchers. Yet, it is argued that the complex social arrangements both formal and informal that function within the prison environment, offer a fertile grounding for the study of issues of context and identity. The framework chosen for the design and interpretation of the data is Belk’s (1984, 1985) work on materialism and its three dimensions of possessiveness, non-generosity, and envy. Belk’s (1988 ) later work on possessions and the extended self are also employed.

To study consumers as prisoners, as subjects of a penal code, provides an opportunity to investigate those questions and to explore Miller’s suggestion (1995:24) that there is an association between our ability to express relationships through our manipulation of our material worlds and our ability to form close social networks. It also offers access to the bricolage of consumers as prisoners, their everyday practices of self-consciously mixing and matching the disparate elements available to them to create and sustain identities within the structures of a penal environment.

At the core of the study is the idea that everyday consumption practices are socially and culturally defined, that we learn how to be consumers; that we learn how to engage in its constitutive processes and practices: for as Goffman (1971:248) remarks 'almost every activity that the individual easily performs now was at some time for him something that required serious mobilisation of effort. To walk, to cross a road, to utter a complete sentence, to wear long pants, to tie one’s own shoes, to add a column of figuresBall these routines that allow the individual unthinking, competent performance were attained through an acquisition process whose early stages were negotiated in a cold sweat’ (in Giddens, 1991:57)Bto which we could add shopping for sweets, a car, a mortgage, a haircut or any number of consumption activities. Miller (1997:4) observes that consumption is a creative everyday activity that has its own practices, tempo, significance and determination in which consumers shape technological and cultural artefacts and their meaning. Consumption is seen as being the very material out of which we construct our identities : it is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs; we become what we consume (Baudrillard, 1988:22 ; Miller, 1997:2). In this sense, the production of consumption is an everyday accomplishment (de Certeau, 1984) where, as Miller (1997:7) suggests, "consumers can be seen as being endlessly creative in the appropriation and manipulation of consumer goods.....Through everyday practices, goods and services are transformed and identities constituted".

If we then take the view that consumption is itself a form of work and an important mode of self-expression, by constraining access to the processes and practices that constitute it we are in effect curtailing, or even withholding, the privilege of participating in the social relations and identity formation it makes possible. And just as prisoners are given training and counselling in preparing for release and for, among other things, re-entering the world of work, we wonder whether they deserve help in readjusting to the world of consumption in the community? Removal from the wider social context within which consumption occurs may not cmpletely deny prisoners access to processes of exchange and identity construction, for you could argue that people and goods do circulate within a penal environment. However, the institutionalisation of imprisonment does mediate this access and therefore influences the forms that exchange takes and how identities change or suffer when possessions are lost or removed.

It is not the aim of this paper to rehearse the arguments about whether the prospect of incarceration is an effective deterrent, or whether the corrective goal of imprisonment is legitimate. Rather, it is concerned to shed light on the effects of imprisonment on those, who for all their actions are still members of the community of consumers.

The specific question posed herein is not the change in consumption resulting from a prison sentence, but the attitude and behaviour towards consumption practices. This will be investigated through examining the use and meaning of possessions. The following framing concepts are employed to explore how far attitudes and behaviour concerning consumption had changed: firstly, consumption dreaming which is the pre-purchase dreaming of consumption and the resulting production of wish lists; and second self-gifts, personal acquisitions and self-directed consumer behaviour.


Given the exploratory nature of the research, and concerns for privacy and sensitivity, a program of interpretive research was developed. Raw data were collected by means of depth interviews (McCracken 1988:11). After discussion with prison authorities, permission was granted to interview a small sample of 12 male inmates (informants ABL) at one of Her Majesty’s inner city prisons on condition that the Governor would nominate inmates who could then be invited to participate if they so desired. Interviews lasted 30 to 50 minutes and took place in the long-term offenders wing. To avoid the possibility that prison guards would influence discussion, it was agreed with the prison authorities that guards would not be present during the interviews, although they would wait outside the meeting room. This helped to ensure that informants were at their ease as far as possible in such circumstances.

All informants were serving sentences of four years or more. This period was established in consultation with the prison authorities, having two issues in mind: first, to ensure that a sufficient number of 'appropriate’ informants [The prison authorities identified a group of inmates who were deemed 'appropriate' for such an exercise as being interviewed. The researchers were not privy to the criteria which applied, though the dangerous and violent nature of some inmates did exclude them from consideration. The informants were not offered any incentives by the researchers. However, it was commented that, if selected, an opportunity to participate in the study, or to express a willingness to do so, would be seized by inmates sensitive to the politics of recuperation, rehabilitation and reparation within the prison system. In other words, participation would confer symbolic advantage to the inmate which was worth pursuing. In this sense participation was incentivized.] could be located by the prison authorities; and second, to get access to the views and experiences of those undergoing long-term exposure to the institutional environment of imprisonment. Prison officers selected inmates from a group who met those broad criteria, bearing in mind exercise and work-duty commitments. They then approached the inmates to determine if they were willing to participate in the study. Before an interview, a guard would locate the appropriate informant in the wing, then escort him to the interview office and whilst doing so would inform him of the purpose and structure of the interview. Each guard had been briefed by the interviewer. For security reasons, interviews could not be recorded. However, the interviewer was allowed to take notes.

Each interview began with a short introduction, re-stating the purpose of the study and outlining the method being used. Assurances were given about the anonymity of findings. Each interview opened with the collection of information about age, marital status, length of sentence, release date and job status prior to prison.

Discussion opened on the topic of the possessions informants had previously purchased, including items such as houses, cars, hi-fis, televisions, videos, designer clothes and holidays. Further discussion moved around Belk’s (1984) three sub-traits of materialism, i.e. possessiveness, non-generosity and envy although these prior categorisations were not used narrowly.

The theme of possessiveness s explored through discussing the use of possessions and whether they tended to prize any, hold onto any, or hoard them. This helped to raise ideas about the various uses to which goods can be put, especially non-functional uses. This theme was continued through discussions of how informants experienced the loss of possessions and how they reacted to it, raising issues about the disposition of possessions and role transition. Discussion was opened by asking "how did you feel when you had to give up things when you were sent down?"; and "out of everything in your life prior to prison what do you miss the most?". Informants were also asked about their views on borrowing items from friends, and how this differed from owning the items themselves.

The theme of non-generosity was raised through asking "how do you enjoy sharing what you have?". This facet of materialism is supported by Waterman’s (1981) conclusions about materialism being either an egoistic or a sharing trait. The last measure of materialism concerned envy which was prompted by stimulating discussion of attaining items that a friend had, i.e. "when friends have things that you cannot have or afford, does it bother you?". This was taken a step further by discussing how informants reacted when individuals bought on a whim something that they really wanted.

Discussions moved on to consider the possessions the informant currently owned in prison. The theme was developed through asking "what possessions do you have here in prison?" and "are they important to you? In what ways?". Issues were raised about what items meant to informants in terms of their functional use, as reminders of good times, as indicators of status and so on. The theme of consumption dreaming was explored through discussing which goods were owned and not owned and "of the things that you do not have, what do you most want to have?" and "do you ever think about owning any of them?". The words dream and dreaming were used in this context to describe the experiences informants had when thoughts about what it would be like to own or use fantasy goods or services took hold of them. Informants were also asked about how often they had such thoughts and in what situations. Where there were several goods or services that the informant thought or 'dreamt’ about, discussion considered their relative importance and how they had imagined they might achieve their thoughts. In this way the issues of wish lists and consumption daydreaming were raised. The theme of self-gifts was explored through discussing "upon release what’s the first thing you intend to buy or do and why?". The 'why’ component of the question was prompted by our interest in the possible reasons for the purchase, be it self-indulgence or reward. This was put into context by discussing "what was the last thing you bought yourself and why?". More general discussion also took place with the informant at various points during the interview on the topics of life within a prison environment and hopes and aspirations upon release.


The interviews could not be audio-taped for security reasons. Consequently, a bespoke data collection and analysis technique had to be applied that was sensitive to the research environment. This was constructed in three parts and basically employed a content analytic summary of conversational interviews under a set of pre-determined headings following Belk (1984, 1985, 1988). It attempted to reflect the interpretative analysis that seems indispensable to a full understanding of consumption activities in daily life (Levy 1986; Sherry 1991).

Stage one of the analysis took place immediately after each interview, when there was a waiting period between one interview and the next. The interviewer recreated the interview in his mind and recordd his recollections of the direction and content of the encounter, adding them alongside the relevant point in the notes he had made during the interview. McCracken’s (1988:20) technique of imaginative reconstruction was used here. The objective of this stage was to create a detailed record of the interview and to avoid premature evaluation of the content. For reasons of security, the interviewer’s time on the long-term offenders wing was limited and thus the time available for stage one was limited.

The second stage took place after each group of interviews, at which point the interviewer was escorted off the wing to a room where he could work on his notes whilst still within the confines of the prison. Analysis at this stage still concerned each interview in isolation and was undertaken in two parts: first by expanding the content of the interview draft, and by recording the interviewer’s reactions (McCracken 1988:18) to the interview and its context. Once the researcher was confident that the interview was documented as well as possible, the interview notes were further examined to develop observations so that the implications and possibilities were more fully played out. This examination generated further observations, patterns and themes which emerged as the properties of the data were examined. Once themes were identified some of the interrelationships and patterns of association between them were considered with the objective of creating broad parallel networks of association. Clearly the interviewer’s judgment is used at various points during this process. The other researchers were involved in monitoring this. The third and final stage of the research analysis involved a review of all the conclusions of stage two as the encounters were considered in aggregate.


The informants were all male with ages ranging from 21 to 54 years of age. Ten were single or divorced and five were unemployed prior to serving their prison sentence. Of those in employment prior to prison, two were Drivers, the others were a Builder, a Roofer, a Gardener, a Foreman and a Shop Proprietor. All informants had served at least two years of their sentence and five were scheduled for release within two years.


All informants easily recalled an inventory of goods that they owned and had access to prior to imprisonment. The list included a range of widely owned consumer durable products including televisions, videos, hi-fis and radios. The younger inmates, those under thirty years of age, talked about electronic items with a certain degree of pride, adding that the particular goods they owned were in fact top-of-the-range and "kickin" (informant A). In this context, brand names were frequently mentioned as were product performance, e.g. "when that baby was on, the sound was awesome" (informant A). Other notable products included computers and power tool sets. Discussions of valued record collections went hand-in-hand with those about hi-fis and stereos. Other items included mobile phones, pine furniture and holidays. Holidays, although enjoyed by most of the informants were not considered to be possessions as such. For example, informant F commented that, "I used to go to Amsterdam with the lads and it was important to me"; while for informant J a holiday was a chance for "getting high and out your box". These comments suggest that informants value the experiences that holidays provide and value those experiences more than objects. They also miss the freedom to move around that holidays can provide. Only informant D commented that the "holiday thing was not important".

All informants said they had a house. But when asked for clarification it became clear that few were owner occupiers. Those who had lived in rented accommodation freqently interchanged home and house to represent the same thing. Eleven of the informants owned a car. One also had a 125cc motorbike as an alternative mode of transport (informant B). Discussions about cars as possessions were lively and indicated the importance of them to the informants, as suggested by the work of Niederland and Sholevar (1981) and Bloch (1982). It was noticeable that the younger informants (again those under thirty years of age) would volunteer the make, model and performance attributes of the vehicle and its perceived status, e.g. "I had a Mercedes 500SL it used to really get me noticed" (informant K). Also mentioned were the personal touches that informants had added to the vehicle which add value and character to the vehicle, e.g. "I darkened out the windows" (informant D).

Discussion revealed that products were mentioned because they were seen to be valuable in different ways: e.g. "my record collection was special, you can’t get 'em any more, they must have been worth a packet" (informant K). Operational details could also be remembered which seemed to amplify the uniqueness of certain possessions, e.g. "that stereo had a bass boost which had a little light that used to come just before it kicked in" (informant A).

Discussions of designer clothes provided an opportunity for informants to talk of the status and character they conveyed for them in ways that were not obvious in the discussion of consumer durables and cars. It is true to say that the younger informants had most to say about designer clothes as points of reference in socializing. Individual labels (such as Calvin Klein, Armani, Boss etc.) and "looks" were frequently brought into the discussion, revealing the widely held view that designer clothes were important for acceptance within groups, and for communicating messages about status and uniqueness. They were also used to live out the fantasy of being part of the jet-set for a while: e.g. "I had that gear on in a club and nobody knew I was from ~ , I could have been anybody" (informant D). Two clear groups emerged around the idea of designer clothes as possessions, differentiated by age. Those who did mention them clearly understood them in terms of their ability to communicate desired messages about status and style in a specific social context. Those who did not mention them, even after prompting, commented that "I was not into all that....I’m too old" (informant E).

In conclusion, informants showed a high level of detailed recall about their possessions prior to imprisonment. One inmate believed that the possessions he owned were "part and parcel of the lifestyle, especially the clothes" (informant C). One informant explained that he had felt pressure to own essential things and it was this pressure that forced him to commit crime in the first place (informant D). Having said this, another inmate (informant B) believed he did not own any possession besides a television and video. When asked about furniture etc. he was surprised that he had not considered items like this as possessions, in terms of their value or use to him. Informants all discussed their possessions in the past tense suggesting that these possessions were not only symbolically absent, but may also have been re-possessed, or otherwise disposed of. This seems to convey a feeling of the involuntary loss of the status conferred through ownership of certain possessions, suggesting that the prison environment demands that you put aspects of your life 'aside’ for the term of your sentence, or let them go altogether. There is also a strong sense in these discussions that the informants were disconnected from other people.


When asked about the things that they kept and tended to hoard, all of the discussions but one (E) indicated that informants are not hoarders whilst in prison. One possible reason for this was given by informant (K) who commented that "you can only have so many tings in here so you can’t really afford to keep things", suggesting one way in which the prison system impinges on inmates. However, this is not to say that informants did not hold onto anything: most indicated that emotionally charged items such as photographs of family and friends were very important and widely hoarded. Informants were asked if they had ever hoarded things. Although the majority replied that they had not, one informant (E) said that he "had always been .. even in prison". Informant G offered another possible reason why he didn’t hoard, "I left my wife in such a bad situation that I feel guilty when I want things". Interestingly, it was this informant who saw himself as a giver, not a hoarder.

Another perspective on possessiveness is provided through the informants’ reactions to being the victims of theft. This question was posed to the inmates and produced conflicting responses, differentiated between time 'on the outside’ and time 'inside’. The majority of respondents said they were particularly angry when possessions were taken from them on the outside, as reflected by one informant (J) who took it personally and said "I never used to nick so why me". For four informants this attitude had continued into their life in prison. They get very upset if something is stolen from them, be it expensive, sentimental or neither, as the austere prison lifestyle exaggerates the value of everything. As an example, consider the British Telecom phone-cards used to contact family and friends which are greatly prized and even traded. Other informants had responded to prison in a different way in that prison life has made them placid and that "the barriers you put up....means you can take a brush it off" (informant G). Having said this it was apparent from responses that the level of crime in prison is relatively low. However ironic it is, informant G seemed to think that adherence to the moral code of prison is strong, stronger than adherence to any moral code on the outside, and there seems to be some level of respect for other inmates, especially their possessions, which is difficult to find on the 'outside’. In discussing emotions, it was interesting to note that inmates often mentioned how they felt when they lost personal possessions whilst in prison. It seemed to be more intrusive and disturbing for them to be stolen from 'inside’. It was almost as if it was a sign of weakness, as if they were 'losing their marbles’ or their memoryBand it is these, sanity and memory of life outside, which provide an important sense of protection against the 'system’. And perhaps they are informants’ most important possessions within the prison environment.

Informants were asked "how did you feel when you had to give up things when you were sent down?"; and "out of everything in your life prior to prison, what do you miss most?". Inmates were also asked about when they tend to miss them. The most obvious items missed were those mentioned earlier. However, other items were included such as good quality drugs (informant A), television (informant E), work, 'the wife’, sex (informant H), children and other members of the family. The need for television was seen as important to informant E as the television exposure he received in prison did not meet his requirements. Family was included by one informant because they were important to him. It was interesting to note that the most avid user of designer clothes (informant D) no longer missed them as "it doesn’t really matter in here". Informant F echoed this in regards to drugs, but added that it was a good exercise to give them up. The most interesting point in these discussions was that only one informant said he missed his freedom (J). When other informants were prompted about missing freedom, it appeared that this was taken for granted. One informant (I) said "freedom reminds me of my holidays....which were good times for meeting people and friends". Informant A said that although he does still think about his possessions on the outside, "it doesn’t happen very often.....I’ve still four years left to serve and there’s no use thinking about what I can’t get". Informant L replied that he recognized that it was, for him, a means of escape to think about sex with his girlfriend. Informant H said that dreaming about his partner reminded him of good times, especially since he had had a good relationship with her. Most said they thought about loved ones constantly and especially at night. Informant C commented that depression aggravated this sort of thought, whilst informant E said his mind wandered when he was alone.


When discussing non-generosity, informants were asked whether they enjoyed sharing what they had. In the course of this discussion, all informants talked about the invisible barriers they used to protect themselves with whilst serving time. It was generally held that few people were to be trusted within the prison environment and it took time to find out who they were. Typically only a few of the closest friends ever overcame these protective barriers. Yet having said that, one informant (C) also said that he enjoyed sharing what he had, whilst another (D) was quite open about being as helpful as possible, "if I can help someone I will". Informants also discussed going through a learning experience when they entered a new prison or prison wing for the first time. Informant E mentioned how he got 'wise’ to other inmates and how he quickly learnt to seek out genuine people who could be trusted with his possessions and as 'friends’. It was apparent that most inmates tended to recognize a slight change in their behavior regarding sharing when entering prison. Clearly the prison environment impinged a great deal on the ebb and flow of relations and as a result trustworthiness was heightened as a desired personal trait. Although the absolute monetary value of possessions may be low, goods were shared, lent and borrowed among trusting friends as though they were very valuable. A great deal of emotional value was invested in the objects which were shared, and in this sense you could say they were valuable.


The third lens on materialism was that of envy. Informants were asked about their feelings and thoughts about others acquiring products that they themselves wanted. Discussion about this was predominately aimed at life before prison. But some informants also talked of their feelings on this topic whilst in prison. The younger informants seemed to feel pressure to acquire certain products whilst on the outside, but on the inside were inclined to accept that there was little competition or pressure to impress through conspicuous consumption. Informant D pointed out that it was the pressure to impress that forced him towards crime in the first place. One of the older informants (J) commented that he had worked extremely hard for what he had and it did anger him when he saw some inherit wealth and success effortlessly. Informant E believed he wasn’t materialistic and felt little anger or frustration about other people’s material wealth. This informant added that he believed he had always possessed an ability for self-awareness which transcended material possessions.

When pushed further and asked about those individuals who can afford anything they want, there was noticeable change in behavior. It became apparent that mindless spending was difficult for most inmates to comprehend and handle with some informants feeling strongly about the issue, e.g. "to see people show off like that is pathetic" (informant L); and "they think they are better than you" (informant I). One informant’s aggression grew out of his previous lifestyle in which he had spent heavily and it had cost him his freedom. Informants talked about the austere prison environment and how it made them feel low and sometimes frustrated at not having what really they should have. Having said this, informant J seemed to be unaffected by this general consensus as he simply said "ood luck to them". This was the informant who also said he would get frustrated at friends who could afford things he could not. He invested his remark with cunning when adding that if he "saw somebody in that situation he’d wonder how he could 'get in on the act’".


This study reveals that although inmates are materialistic, they do not engage in the level of dreaming that one would expect from the work of Fournier and Guiry (1993). As a result it is not surprising to find that inmates exhibit the traits that McKeage (1992) discusses in that they give themselves self-gifts. Whether they do so primarily as a means to self-restoration, resistance, reward or self-indulgence is unclear from this study. However, what is clear is that this materialism acts as a form of compensation and self-preservation in an environment which both denies the continuity of previous self-understanding, whilst offering the possibility of an institutionalised self-identity. We then argue that identity is contingent and dislocated in the sense that it 'depends upon an outside which both denies that identity and provides its condition of possibility at one and the same time’ (Laclau, 1990).

The study suggests that goods and services are inscribed with meaning through their production and delivery. However, this is not the only meaning that they may come to have, since consumption can be understood as a process by which possessions are used to draw lines of social relations and to reflexively organise self-identities. The study also reveals how consumption dreaming and self-gift giving can be understood as attempts to resist forces of oppression; and that everyday practices of consumption provide forms of exchange through which to accomplish and sustain social relations and identities otherwise unavailable to prison inmates. In this sense it illuminates the mutually constitutive or dislocated nature of consumption and identity. It also reveals that as interviewees in a consumer research study, prison inmates talk about their possessions in terms which are not very different from those used by other consumers. The performative language of talking about possessions and their meaning in the ritualised context of a revelatory interview, may be one that transcends institutional context.


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Douglas Brownlie, University of Stirling
Suzanne Horne, University of Stirling


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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