Metaphors of Consumer Desire


Russell W. Belk, Gnliz Ger, and S°ren Askegaard (1996) ,"Metaphors of Consumer Desire", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 369-373.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 369-373


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University

S°ren Askegaard, Odense University

The human species is not a species of needs but of desires. (J. Duvignaud)

Desire, in the colloquial sense of the word, refers to a strong longing, to something for which a person intensely yearns, or to the process of fervently wishing for something. Consumption is increasingly seen as being based upon desires, not simply upon needs (Baudrillard 1988; Bocock 1993). Yet desires are seldom mentioned in the consumer behavior literature, where similar phenomena are more often downgraded to mere "wants" or else naturalized as "needs." The neglect of desire within consumer research conceals the passionate feelings that we experience in connection with many consumption activities. Philosophical discussions of the mind also show a relative neglect of desire and a substitution of beliefs as the paradigm of the intentional (Marks 1986; Schueler 1995). Yet, a desire without a belief seems as powerless to move us to action as a belief without a desire (Marks 1986, p. 12). Desire, passion, and bliss remind us of our Dionysonian side: motion, intoxication, eroticism, fertility, mania, animal unconsciousness, as well as death and terror, ecstatic frenzy, and the unity of life and death. Desires are ever changing, infinitely renewable wishes inflamed by imagination, fantasy, and a longing for transcendent pleasure. And the pursuit of individual desire is a source of fear and a target for control. For desires involve powerful emotions and fervent passion. Consumer desires, more even than sexual desires, have spawned revolutions, wars, and crimes.

In this paper we explore the ways in which we speak of desire in several different languages (English, French, Danish, and Turkish) and the metaphorical tropes through which desire is described. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) aptly demonstrate, our understandings are constructed through and highly dependent upon metaphors. By examining the major metaphors through which we express our consumer desires, we believe we learn something about the essence of contemporary consumer motivation. What we discover is something far different from a logical and utilitarian conception of consumer behavior. If the fundamental domains of human existence such as eating, drinking, and mating can evoke strong passions or "desires," what might it mean if we refer to these domains in expressing our longing for other consumption objects? We suggest that the use of such metaphors involves a magical appropriation of deep passions. Furthermore, these metaphors may legitimize desire by allowing us to believe that our wishes are needs; transforming the superfluous into the essential. Hence, such metaphors become excuses for indulging desires by rendering them as uncontrollable, natural, and animalistic needs.


Some social philosophers place "desire" in the center of understanding human societies (Kojsve 1947; Radkowski, 1980). Desire, to Radkowski (1980), is not a human attribute C on the most fundamental level humans do not have desires C but it is an expression of the specific form of being in the human species. Campbell (1987) relates consumer desires to a romantic ethic of fantasizing which he sees as the distinct feature the modern individual. The motivation for this fantasizing of "myself as I could be" is that desire is itself pleasurable. More specifically, the hedonism of this modern "generation of longing" is that "the desiring mode constitutes a state of enjoyable discomfort, and that wanting rather than having is the main focus of pleasure-seeking" (Campbell 1987 p. 86). Since reality cannot live up to the perfect worlds of daydreaming, inspired by advertising as well as by general mythologies of "the good life," the dynamism of the market does not depend on fulfilling desires but rather on their perpetual recreation.

Desire is also culturally constituted and shared (Radkowski 1980; Stewart 1984). Perhaps one of the domains where the link between desire and the social world of objects becomes most visible (or audible), is the language we use to qualify these objects. Words are metaphorical windows to our imaginary world (Williams 1982). While consumer desires are expressed using an array of metaphors including magic, religion, fire, romantic love, dreams, thirst, hunger, sex, and addiction, the last three seem to dominate the languages we consider and we restrict our treatment to these metaphors. Together, they makeup much of what are labeled "appetitive desires" (Davis 1986). Not only is consumer imagination commonly expressed in terms of hungers, sexual longings, and addictions, these desires are also often used interchangeably.

The Eating Metaphor

You are what you eat. This popular phrase indicates the intimate character of eating and its pivotal importance for our being in the biological as well as in the anthropological, sociological, and psychological senses of the word. The domain of eating is of special importance firstly because it refers to a biologically necessary pattern of behavior that has been a fundamental preoccupation for all societies throughout history. Secondly eating implies incorporating foreign elements into our bodies, thus introducing objects into our most intimate sphere C indeed, intimus in Latin is the superlative of interior. Eating is constructing a self, quite literally. Hence, metaphors taken from the domain of eating to describe feelings about objects or experiences other than culinary ones may indicate a high degree of cathexis of this object or experience to the self.

Incorporation, however, is dangerous and may be feared as well as embraced. The short story (and film), 'Babette's Feast' represents a good example of Puritan condemnation of earthly desires. Among the film's 19th century Puritan peasants, no distinction was made between (sinful) bodily appetites such as good food, wine, and sexuality or other bodily "weaknesses." All turn the mind away from the (true) spiritual desire for 'living in Christ'. Thus, when obliged to grant Babette her only wish: to cook the villagers a splendid meal, these villagers fear that it will be "witch's Sabbath". And they take precautions not to get carried away by their sinful behavior. They encourage each other: "Let's pray we don't taste the food" and agree not to praise or even to talk about the food, in order for this ignorance to save their souls from the devilish temptations. Today, however, such ideas do not prevent most people from enjoying earthly pleasures. In Danish, the word for delicious itself ("lµkker") can also be applied for consumer goods. Thus, it is perfectly normal to say for instance "a delicious car", "a delicious blouse" or even a "delicious desk". The only requirement seems to be that there must be some aesthetic aspect to the good in question. Knowledge (a central part of self-construction and a special type of consumer good) can be described in several languages as something for which we thirst. And in Danish colloquial speech and slang a whole menu of applicable food metaphors appear. Most important among them probably is the adjective "fat." In the past several decades, especially among younger people, it has often been applied to consumed experiences, such as a "fat concert" or a "fat voyage," or directly to consumer goods such as a "fat house", a "fat chair" or even a "fat dog," all without implying any degree of obesity. In the United States hip-hop and youth slang, the word is used similarly, sometimes spelled "phat." This metaphor, although of recent origin, reaches back to times when fat in a Western context was seen as a sin of luxury implying liberation from hunger and need. It is the richness of fat or creamy foods that is transferred to the consumer goods by the use of 'fat' as a metaphor. In several languages "cream" indicates the very top of the product quality range (e.g., in English, "the cream of the crop"). In French we might be so lucky as to get "la creme de la creme" of something.

Recent fat-related slang expressions in Denmark include "broad ymer," (ymer is relatively high fat milk product), replacing the word "fat" with sometime synonym "broad." Since ymer is inherently high in fat content, this creates comic redundancy and suggests an even fatter (and, implicitly, better) product or experience. A Danish hyperbole, used in a very similar way, is the expression "knee-high cress" which, by assuming an unnatural height of this herb, alludes to fantasies and desires of unlimited abundance. Again, a humorous effect is obtained, here by selecting a relatively negligible and unimportant food item as a symbol of abundance. This expression and the previous one, while now out of fashion, were used to describe extraordinary (consumer) experiences such as listening to a favorite record or possessing a fine racing bike. They both allude to the ecstasy of plenty and the feeling of a having a "better than real" experience. A more persistent metaphor of a similar kind is that of the 'cornucopia', which can be used in several languages to designate an abundance of consumer goods or possibilities, but which originally referred to a mythical goat's horn overflowing with food delicacies.

Fat is not the only edible metaphor that connotes "good" consumption objects. Biologically humans are born with a preference for the sweet taste among the four universal types of taste (MacClancy 1992). This innate preference is also reflected in metaphors of consumer desire. In Turkish as well as English, the adjective 'sweet' can be used to qualify both an attractive person and an attractive consumer good. Indeed in all the Germanic languages, different types of consumer goods may qualify as "sweet." This metaphor seems to be used most often in connection with goods that have a feminine linkage, either because they are predominantly used by women, such as female clothing, or because they evoke associations of cuteness, softness, roundness, or other traditional connotations of femininity (Coward 1984).

A final Danish metaphor of consumer desire drawn from the realm of eating is the word "krµs". This word is in its strictest sense a common denominator for something good to eat. The sound of it seems to onomatopoietically connote crispiness. However, it can also be used to qualify something of good quality outside of the domain of food products, with a metaphorical effect similar to "cream." In the expression "krµs for kendere" ("for those who know") it adds a further dimension of connoisseurship, implying that only the discerning can enjoy the sublime consumption experience of a particular object. Just as enjoying a single malt Scotch whisky can be a tough experience for beginners, so can a "difficult" piece of music or a finely crafted technical good be troublesome for laymen to appreciate. Such an object thus becomes "krµs for kendere".

Desires can also involve avoiding negative consumption experiences, in which case negative food metaphors may be applied. A general and internationalized disparagement is that something is "not my cup of tea." Also, a specific consumption experience can be qualified as a "thin cup of tea" in Danish, indicating an unsatisfactory level of pleasure or benefit. In Turkish another expression evoking the same disappointing and dissatisfying consumption experience is, "His/her eyes are hungry/starving [although the stomach is full]". Less obviously, perhaps, desires can be expressed by reference to eliminating food by defecating or urinating. Such desires remind us that from a Freudian perspective any bodily excretion is connected to feelings of lust. Thus, paradoxically, something can be "defecatingly" or "urinatingly" good in Danish and, at the same time, the mere word for "shit" is obscene, just as is the case in English or German (in Danish also "pee" applies). The ambiguity of defecation and urination (relief and disgust) is thus reflected in this way Danes can qualify objects: as something "defecatingly good" (referring to the relieving process) or as shit (referring to the disgusting result/object).

The Sexual Metaphor

We sometimes describe our fervent desire for a consumer good as a lust. We intensely yearn for it, burn for it, and ache with desire. In invoking the hot burning passion associated with sex we borrow a further metaphor (heat) used with sexual desire to describe passion as an elemental, uncontrollable reaction, as in being consumed by flame. Thus when sexual metaphors are enlisted to describe our love of products, they imply being consumed by passion. Sexual metaphors for consumer desire also bespeak an animalistic urge that is basic, sensual, instinctual, and uncontrollable. We are inflamed with a carnal lust to possess and merge with anthropomorhized non-carnal objects. The word luxury comes from the Latin for lust, luxuria. As with lust, strong consumer desire pervades our body. Reason, morality, and concern for others are cast aside as every fiber of our being becomes transfixed with an overwhelming and urgent appetite that torments us:

Admit it. You want it. All of us see the stuff C maybe just a slick little red espresso maker, or maybe just a slick little red Saab 900 Turbo C and even though some of us would rather die a horrible disgusting death than admit it, we want it. Some of us want it real bad (Handy 1988, p. 108).

Handy further suggests that advertising like the catalogs of The Sharper Image act as high tech pornography igniting our lust the goods portrayed. We need not accept the Freudian idea of consumer desire as sublimated libidinal desire in order to accept that there is something very akin to the sharp passion of sexual yearning in our intense longing for certain consumer goods.

When we anthropomorphize consumer goods as objects of longing we display a key element of fetishism. Ellen (1988) argues that the sexual fetishism discussed by Freud and the commodity fetishism diagnosed by Marx are in reality a part of a single phenomenon. Fetishistic anthropomorphism is evident in Rook's (1987) finding that impulse purchases are often attributed to the goods that "call out" to us to buy them. It is also apparent in Dreiser's (1981) Sister Carrie, when the former farm girl Carrie encounters Chicago department stores:

Fine clothes to her were a vast persuasion; they spoke tenderly and Jesuitically for themselves. When she came within earshot of their pleading, desire in her bent a willing ear. Ah, ah! the voices of the so-called inanimate (p. 98).

Anthropomorphized merchandise in the early department stores is even more clearly seen in Zola's (1958) description of Denise's visits to Au Bonheur des Dames, modeled on Bon MarchT in Paris:

A crowd was stopped before the shop windows, women pushing and squeezing, devouring the finery with longing, covetous eyes. And the stuffs became animated in this passionate sidewalk atmosphere... awakening new desires in her flesh, an immense temptation to which she would fatally succumb (pp. 17-18).

The sexual metaphor for consumer desire is also seen in Willis' (1991) account of the packaging of certain consumer goods, paralleling the display windows of retail stores:

Of all the attributes of mass-produced commodity packaging today, the most important is the use of plastic. The plastic cover acts as a barrier between the consumer and the product, while at the same time it offers up a naked view of the commodity to the consumer gaze. ... Shaped and naked, but veiled and withheld, the display of commodities is sexualized. Plastic packaging defines a game of cGche C cGche where sexual desire triggers both masculine and feminine fantasies. Strip-tease or veiled phallus C packaging conflates a want for a particular object with a sexualized form of desire (p. 4).

In consumer desire, as in sexual desire, visual senses dominate with the shopper's gaze replacing the male gaze (Urry 1990). As with sexual desire, fantasy and fantasizing play a key role in fueling this desire. Fantastic consumer desires are stimulated by cinema (Friedberg 1993), books and magazines (Davies 1983), and advertising Lears (1994). Beyond their role in creating consumer desires, these media also legitimize, reinforce, and transform even unconscious consumer wishes into imperative needs (Shabad 1991).

Nevertheless, the sexual metaphor of consumer desire also suggests that the state of wanting itself is simultaneously exciting, pleasurable, and frustrating: an exquisite torture. Ackerman (1994) suggests that the origin of this tendency in courtship was with the medieval model of courtly love. It continued into the Renaissance period when it developed among the bourgeoisie as well, who nearly endlessly teased and flirted, all the while delaying the fulfillment of sexual intercourse. While the waiting period may have diminished in the contemporary West, in such rituals as kissing and foreplay we continue to delay sexual consummation and we continue to find the postponement a pleasureable means of protracting the excitement. This is Campbell's (1987) pleasureable frustration or the desire to desire (Doane 1987).

While the sexual metaphor for consumer desire might be applied to both men and women, historically it has been directed more to female consumers. The development of the department store in particular has been characterized as a seduction of women by male store owners (Bowlby 1985, 1993; Reekie 1993; Williams 1982). As Reekie (1993) describes it, courtship, selling entailed a series of negotiations between the sexes premised on the assumption that man was the hunter and woman his legitimate prey. Both selling and courtship scripts of the early twentieth century were structured by clearly demarcated sex roles predicated on the assumption of a man's right of conquest and female passivity. Man was the pursuer, woman the pursued; man the active initiator, woman the pliant respondent (p. xvii).

Through retail display women were tempted and enticed to fondle the merchandise and based on assumed childlike vulnerability to buy or even steal consumer luxuries they could ill-afford (Abelson 1989). Such sex role stereotypes invoke an even older image of women as having uncontrolled and insatiable sexual desires (Halpern 1990), even though this male fear is sometimes repressed by imagining women to be without sexual desire (Jacobus 1990; Kaplan 1983). It is not a long jump from women as insatiable sexual beings to women as insatiable consumers C a long-standing stereotype of the modern age readily seen in Dreiser's Carrie and Zola's Denise. Although department stores were marked as "women's spaces" or "an Adamless Eden" (Benson 1988), department stores and shopping malls have now become de-feminized such that men are no longer marginalized and are increasingly a target of seductive retailers (Reekie 1993).

Laqueur (1992) sees the rise of overt sexuality and the rise of consumer desire as historically interlinked in the creation of consumer culture. Lefebvre (1991, p. 162) extends the sexual metaphor at this more macro level by suggesting that marketers are pimps to our consumer desires, catering to our every whim and weakness. In the marketer-as-pimp sexual metaphor, unlike the department store-as-seducer variant developed by Reekie (1993), the product itself is the attraction and marketers merely tempt us with goods made to appear infinitely desirable. But in both cases, we are impelled as consumers by overwhelming palpable desires that are intensely felt and create longing akin to intense sexual desire. Thus does consumer desire, like sexual desire, continually excite us in an unfulfillable quest.

The Addiction Metaphor

When we refer to our weakness for or dependence upon something we buy repeatedly, we call it addiction, implying both devotion and obsession. Rug collectors in Turkey sometimes refer to themselves as "rug addicts", and praise their devotion, making it seem less negative. Addiction implies a lack of control: "I didn't intend to buy it but I couldn't resist," "I lost myself", "I could not hold myself," "I am hooked", "I have an illness for it" (in Turkish and Danish). Other terms used are duped, seized, captured, enslaved, astounded, dumbfounded, stupefied, bewildered, or mad for something. A true (non-metaphorical) addiction "exists when a person's attachment to a sensation, an object, or another person is such as to lessen his [sic] appreciation of and ability to deal with other things in his environment, or in himself, so that he has become increasingly dependent on that experience as his only source of gratification" (Peele 1985). Addiction, the 'strong appetite', involves devotion, dependence, surrendering control, habit, obsessiveness, and preoccupation with the object to the detriment of well-being (Orford 1985; Peele 1985).

In addition to drugs, stimulant beverages and foods (tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar C luxuries democratized as part of the rise of consumer culture C Mintz 1993, p. 264), gambling, sex and relationships, collecting, and shopping, can also be addictive. If the addiction to drugs is chemical, addiction to "drug foods" is both chemical and social (Mintz 1993), and the social construction of desire attempts to reign in the placebo power of "drug goods".

Many similarities can be detected between the elements of addiction (Orford 1985; West and Kranzler 1990) and the properties of the consumerism, especially among compulsive buyers and some collectors. Consumerism involves desiring more and more goods, having an unquenchable desire for goods, longing for transcendent meanings, and seeking experiences of otherness and unusual states of consciousness (Cross 1993). Compulsive buyers discuss their compulsion using drug analogies: "It's almost like you're on a drunk. You are so intoxicated;...I got this great high. It was like you couldn't have given me more of a rush" (O'Guinn and Faber 1989, p. 153). Like addicts, collectors are comrades, sharing deep ecstatic emotional involvement (Belk, et al. 1991), and forming 'consumption communities' (Boorstin 1968). Among collectors "A sense of longing and met by adding to the collection. But this is a temporary fix, a staving off of withdrawal, followed by a feeling of emptiness and anxiety that is addressed by searching for more" (Belk, et al. 1991, pp. 202-203). Consumption has been called a disease (Porter 1993). A preoccupation with consumption, such that other important activities are neglected, and the persistent involvement in consumption despite clear evidence that it has become problematic, are observed in the work-and-spend ethic that precludes the luxury of free time in a consumer culture (Cross 1993). Among compulsive buyers, shopping becomes a major leisure activity, possessions are valued over friends and other activities, and there is de facto acceptance of Barbara Kruger's neo-Cartesian creed, "I shop therefore I am" (O'Guinn and Faber 1989). As addicts narrow their repertoire of pleasures to routine drug-taking, so do consumers in engaging in certain ritualistic consumption (Rook 1985), in devoting themselves to their collection, or in buying ten $10 shirts (O'Guinn and Faber 1989).

The relaxation, anesthesia, and sleepy happiness, as well as the arousal and thrill created by drugs, can also be created by goods. Goods and shopping soothe us, thrill us, put us in a better mood, and help us forget our problems. And, although we realize that the thrill of shopping and buying does not last long, after a period of abstinence, shopping binges and splurges return. Despite the sleepy happiness, or power and stimulation found in drugs, their dark side is also common knowledge. Breaking drug dependency starts with acknowledging the power of the drug: the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous (adapted by other groups for other addictions, including Shopaholics and Spendermenders, O'Guinn and Faber 1989) is to admit powerlessness over alcohol. The next steps involve turning to another devotion, to God or a "higher power." The loss of control or freedom is a common aspect of the experience of addiction. For example, from a Western perspective drunkenness has been seen as a form of madness in which the will is overcome by passion (Jacobus 1990) or in which self control and reasoned judgment come to be dominated by the pursuit of pleasure. Likewise, in a consumer society, we may feel we are possessed by our possessions (Maffesoli 1993). This is rationalized as an irresistible compulsion or craving C "I simply have to have this" C especially in impulse buying, compulsive buying, and collecting. This admission of inability to resist parallels the self-attribution of addiction among drug addicts to explain and excuse to society the drug use and to remove it from moral censure and responsibility for behavioral change. With the power seen as external, addicts believe that they cannot resist the temptation. So do collectors (Belk et. al 1991). Besides escaping blame and guilt, perceiving power to reside in things allows us to lose ourselves in appetites for art or music and to derive pleasure from a temporary transcendence, a loss of consciousness (Watney 1983, p. 75) like that experienced with addictive drugs.

While addiction involves craving and loss of control, desire is not an automatic response to antecedent cues or physiological states; it is a dynamic motivational process that involves culturally-based anticipations and expectations of pleasure or pleasurable relief. Several decades ago, groups of young people started to smoke banana skins, which are inert. One-third of the users reported psychedelic experiences and thousands were caught up in the craze. Outcome expectancies involving imagination and fantasy underlie drug effects, as with the expectancy that alcohol is a "magic elixir" capable of transforming emotional states (Marlatt 1987). Hence, addiction is not in the drug but in the user. Ceremonial, restrained, or moderate use of "addictive" drugs also attests to this possibility. Historical and cultural context influence views of addiction, as seen in 16th century BC Thebean physicians prescribing opium for crying children, just as, millennia later, Victorian babies were dosed with the opiate Godfrey's Cordial by their nurses to keep them quiet. Today candy bars, ice-cream, or chewing gums are used to placate children.


One consequence of thinking of consumer desire as sexual or addictive, is that especially within Christian cultures, it carries a taint of sin and creates guilt. While this, like guilt from indulgent eating (Bordo 1990; Coward 1984), potentially inhibits spending and consumption, it also serves to make the desire more exciting. As with sex (Parker 1991) and eating (Mintz 1993), the sense of transgression in "sinful" consumer indulgence makes us relish the pleasure all the more. This same pleasure in transgression may help explain the lethal attraction of cigarette smoking which takes on "...poetic qualities of a sacred object or an erotic one, endowed with magical properties and seductive charms, surrounded by taboos and an air of danger C a repository of illicit pleasure, a conduit to the transcendental, and a spur to repression" (Klein 1993, pp. xii-xiii). Like sex, drugs, and smoking, consumer desire relishes transgression and provides only fleeting, but ever-renewable pleasure upon consummation.

The strong acquisitive appetites of collectors (Belk, et al. 1991) and travelers (Cross 1993) have been suggested to involve the power of the objects to magically transform everyday life into a new realm of experience, a fantasy life, and an experience of otherness C other times, places, or people. The drug addict, the collector, and the traveler each pursue an altered state of consciousness. Like drugs, travel and carnival involve experiencing pleasurable differences (Thompson 1983). These differences offer excitation, and the uncertainties and tensions associated with them produce a relaxation of social protocols and taboos. When on holiday or suffering an addiction, normal discipline is relaxed, and restraint gives way to indulgence. Again, pleasure comes from breaking taboos, engaging in the exotic, escaping imposed order, and satisfying suppressed desire for disorder. Parallel arguments suggest that consumer pleasure, as with erotic pleasure, is derived from the knowledge of 'mal', of one's wrongdoing and from transgressive desires (Bataille 1973). Pleasure opposes order as Dionysus opposes the Olympian Gods, especially Apollo. Desire thus pursues the forbidden. Perfumes like Opium, Taboo, and My Sin all appeal to this transgressive aspect of desire.

With sex in particular, but also with pleasures in general, the constructs of sin and evil have also been used in an attempt to control even the most harmless of self-indulgent desires and practices like snacking or masturbation (Foucault 1985; Tiger 1992). We are urged to employ self-control and self-restraint to avoid exercising such desires. Similarly in consumption avoiding giving in to desire is often cast as a battle of will against selfish indulgence (e.g., Bordo 1990; Hoch and Lowenstein 1991). Just as one of the historic opportunities for suspending or subverting control of eating and sex in Western culture has been Carnival (Bakhtin 1968; Parker 1991), Lears (1994) demonstrates that consumer advertising and personal selling are inherently carnivalesque in their appeals for release and indulgence.

But bliss from eating, sex, drugs, or consumption dissipates very quickly. The continued craving and search for renewed bliss may become a pleasureless pursuit of pleasure. Oscillation between bliss and pains of craving and dependency are as much part of consumer culture as is intermittent bliss. If wanting rather than having is the focus of modern pleasure-seeking, and desire is defined in terms of pleasure (Campbell 1987; McCracken 1988), endless desiring turns into a chronic deficiency (Falk 1994). Frustration becomes the permanent state.


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Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University
S°ren Askegaard, Odense University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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