Materialism As a Coping Mechanism: an Inquiry Into Family Disruption

ABSTRACT - Materialism is a popular and important topic in consumer research, with the majority of researchers appearing to focus on the dark-side aspects of this issue. This study, in contrast, posits that in certain instances materialism may play a functional role as a coping mechanism during difficult life transitions. In specific, we suggest that material objects may assist children in reducing the stress associated with parental separation or divorce. To examine this hypothesis, we conducted two empirical studies (one quantitative, one qualitative). The results of these studies suggest that materialism moderates the relationship between amily disruption and family stress by helping to restore a sense of identity, permanence, and control in these children’s lives. In addition to furthering a broadened conceptualization of materialism by highlighting its instrumental qualities, this paper also contributes to a deeper understanding of the interplay between family structure and consumption.


James E. Burroughs and Aric Rindfleisch (1997) ,"Materialism As a Coping Mechanism: an Inquiry Into Family Disruption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 89-97.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 89-97


James E. Burroughs, University of Wisconsin

Aric Rindfleisch, University of Wisconsin


Materialism is a popular and important topic in consumer research, with the majority of researchers appearing to focus on the dark-side aspects of this issue. This study, in contrast, posits that in certain instances materialism may play a functional role as a coping mechanism during difficult life transitions. In specific, we suggest that material objects may assist children in reducing the stress associated with parental separation or divorce. To examine this hypothesis, we conducted two empirical studies (one quantitative, one qualitative). The results of these studies suggest that materialism moderates the relationship between amily disruption and family stress by helping to restore a sense of identity, permanence, and control in these children’s lives. In addition to furthering a broadened conceptualization of materialism by highlighting its instrumental qualities, this paper also contributes to a deeper understanding of the interplay between family structure and consumption.


Over the past decade, materialism has been one of the most complex and elusive concepts in consumer behavior. One of the central issues surrounding materialism is its purported effects on both the individual and society. The predominant perspective appears to largely view materialism as an inescapable and undesirable aspect of our consumer culture. As Pollay (1986) carefully documents, a number of prominent social commentators have decried the growth of our consumer culture and its associated emphasis on material possessions. Moreover, recent consumer research has empirically associated materialism with a variety of negative individual traits and orientations including possessiveness, self-centeredness, greed, and general life dissatisfaction (Belk 1985; Richins and Dawson 1992). Thus, on one hand, materialism appears to be at least partially culpable for a host of modern-day social ills.

On the other hand, researchers have also cautioned that the development of materialistic attitudes may hold some normative value under certain conditions. These researchers remind us that material objects often serve functional roles and are an integral part of our daily lives (Belk 1985; Fournier and Richins 1991). Likewise, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) provide a conceptual distinction between the detrimental effects of terminal materialism (i.e., the ownership of material objects simply for the sake of possessing them), and the potentially positive impact of instrumental materialism (i.e., using material objects as a means to a higher end). For example, Holt (1995) adopts an instrumental approach to materialism by noting the potentially functional role of material objects and consumption experiences for creating valued interpersonal interactions (e.g., the consumption of a baseball game as a bonding experience between father and son).

Previous research has found that children from disrupted family backgrounds display higher levels of materialism (Rindfleisch, Burroughs, and Denton 1997). However, this research failed to provide a conclusive explanation of the underlying dynamics behind this relationship. This paper provides one possible explanation. Sociologists consistently find that family disruption is a highly stressful life event for many children and is often characterized by dramatic changes (typically negative in nature) in their social and economic well-being (see Wallerstein and Kelly 1980 for a review). We propose that children and young adults may develop an enhanced level of materialism as a way of coping with these stresses. In this sense, we suggest that materialism may play an instrumental role for these affected individuals, specifically helping to restore a sense of stability, permanence, and identity in their lives. We employ both quantitative and qualitative approaches to examine this possibility.


Materialism and Consumer Behavior

Materialism has been defined as "the importance a person places on possessions and their acquisition as a necessary or desirable form of conduct to reach desired end states, including happiness" (Richins and Dawson 1992, p. 307). As noted earlier, the bulk of previous research appears to have focused on the dark-side of materialism, emphasizing its negative aspects for both society and the individual (see Belk 1985; Pollay 1986; Richins and Dawson 1992). For example, Richins and Dawson (1992) find that people who highly value material objects tend to be more self-centered and have higher levels of dissatisfaction with their lives. Similarly, Belk (1985) suggests that materialism is associated with possessiveness, nongenerosity, and greed. Belk (1985) also found an inverse relationship between materialism and life happiness. However in explaining these results he notes that:

It should be emphasized that the latter finding does not allow one to infer the direction of causality. While it is plausible that materialistic people pursue false sources of happiness, and that therefore such people must be disappointed, it is also possible that those who have for various reasons experienced dissatisfaction in life turn to materialism in their effort to find happiness. Since arguments for and against materialism as a source of satisfaction have been suggested, any such causal interpretations must await future research (p. 274).

Belk goes on to observe, however, that it is impossible to exist completely absent of material possessions. It has also been suggested that extreme forms of material denial (i.e., asceticism) may be equally undesirable, and may be related to anorexia-nervosa, bulimia, masochism, and other self-destructive tendencies (Belk 1985; D’Arcy 1967; Masson 1976).

The mixed discussion suggests that a more refined approach to materialism is needed. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) provide such refinement by reconceptualizing materialism as being of two typesCinstrumental versus terminal (see also Belk and Pollay 1985). Terminal materialism represents a high level of preoccupation with the acquisition and ownership of material objects simply for the sake of possessing them. In this form, materialism is usually considered detrimental in so far as such a preoccupation may reflect a malnourished sense of self and a lack of healthy social relationships. Such a person is, in effect, only a shell of what they own. Conversely, instrumental materialism does not connote such adverse consequences (and may even be necessary) in so far as things are used merely as a means to achieving some higher end(s). For example, unlike terminal materialism, where objects may serve in ieu of meaningful relationships, under instrumental materialism the material objects may actually facilitate the development of healthy relationships and a positive self-image.

In sum, while materialism may be detrimental in many respects, it is clearly a complex construct, perhaps even operating on multiple levelsCboth positive and negativeCsimultaneously. As outlined in the following sections, material values may serve as an important coping mechanism in helping to reduce or alleviate the stress associated with painful life transitions such as the disruption of one’s family through parental divorce or separation.

Family Disruption: Stress and Coping

Family Disruption and Stress. Divorce is widely recognized as a stress-producing event for both parents and children (Amato 1993; Berman and Turk 1981; Wallerstein and Kelly 1980). Family researchers estimate that one out of every two American children will experience the divorce or permanent separation of their parents before reaching the age of eighteen (Cherlin 1992). For most of these children, the disruption of their families is associated with a variety of stressful events including parental conflict, movement to a new place of residence, loss of friends and relatives, and changes in adult caregivers (Amato 1993; Berman and Turk 1981; McLanahan and Booth 1989; Martinson and Wu 1992; Wu and Martinson 1993).

The first two to three years following a family disruption are especially stressful for both parents and children. For example, nearly 40% of divorced mothers change residences within their first year after their divorce (McLanahan and Booth 1989). In general the first couple of years following a family disruption are often emotionally and financially draining, and marked by frequent and often unpredictable change. The children often experience a "chaotic lifestyle" with erratic meals and bedtimes, inconsistent discipline patterns, shifting household routines, and problems with tardiness and truancy at school (Cherlin 1992; McLanahan and Booth 1989; Martinson and Wu 1992). Not surprisingly, parental divorce and separation are generally ranked among the most stressful events in the life of a child, occurring at a time when their self-concept is still formative and vulnerable (Sarason, Johnson, and Siegel 1978; Wallerstein and Kelly 1980).

Developmental psychologists have long stressed the importance of stability in caregivers and resource providers in order to ensure the healthy development of children, who may often lack the emotional or psychological maturity needed to cope with stressful life changes (Craig 1993). The instability and change associated with family disruption frequently results in emotional and behavioral problems that are sometimes severe and long-lasting (see Wallerstein and Kelly 1980 for examples of case histories). Family researchers warn that if the stress associated with family disruption is allowed to build up in an individual and is not vented in a healthy manner it may lead to destructive consequences (Aneshensel 1992; Hodges 1990; Wolchik et al. 1985).

Family Disruption and Coping with Stress. Highly stressful life events, such as the divorce or separation of one’s parents, often serve as significant life transitions, where a person is forced to exit a familiar existing role and face the uncertainties associated with a new set of roles. Young (1991) characterizes parental divorce as an "involuntary dispositional experience," which represents an important life transition for many children. Children seek to reduce the distress of divorce or separation by enacting various coping mchanisms in order to minimize the disharmony in their lives (Anthony 1991; Young 1991). Family researchers have found that children of divorce enact a broad array of coping strategies ranging from direct emotional confrontation to a state of repression in which they pretend that the divorce isn’t really an issue at all (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980). One especially prominent coping mechanism is to divert or refocus their pent-up tensions and anxieties into alternative activities such as sports or work.

Although they do not directly address the issue of materialism per se, McAlexander, Schouten, and colleagues have systematically examined the relationship between consumption and key life transitions such as divorce (cf. McAlexander 1991; Schouten 1991, McAlexander, Schouten, and Roberts 1993). In this research, they suggest that divorce leads to "acts of consumption which function as mechanisms for coping with stress and other negative emotional states" (McAlexander et al. 1993, p. 177). However, these researchers seem to stop short of exploring the specific underlying mechanisms of how materialism may function in this regard.

Additional support for materialism as a stress coping mechanism for children of divorce comes from discussions by Belk (1988) and Richins (1994), who describe the importance of material possessions in fulfilling the symbolic role of maintaining interpersonal ties. Children of disrupted households may come to rely on certain "special" possessions to reduce stress by bridging the physical gap between themselves and an absentee parent (e.g., a son placing special value on a baseball glove in order to induce a recollectionCor perhaps an illusionCof a close relationship with his father). Finally, general evidence of a relationship between material objects and coping with the stresses and difficulties of life comes from related work, including findings of: a reliance on security blankets by infants during times of separation from their mothers (Furby and Wilke 1982); the use of special possessions by the elderly in coming to terms with their advancing years (Sherman and Newman 1977-1978); and a reliance on collections by the mentally retarded to help provide a sense of place and purpose (Carroll 1968).

Based on all of the preceding evidence and discussion, we now formally offer our hypothesis. In conceptual terms, we suggest that materialism serves as a moderator of the relationship between family disruption and family stress. In specific, we expect that young people who have higher levels of materialism will have lower levels of family stress associated with their family disruption. Two empirical studies are utilized to investigate this hypothesis.



Measurement. In order to provide a quantitative test of our hypothesis, we developed a survey instrument which contained multi-item measures of family stress and materialism, a single item measure of family structure, and a standard set of demographic variables including gender and race. The materialism measure was Richins and Dawson’s (1992) Material Values Scale (with its three dimensions of centrality, happiness, and success). Consistent with Richins and Dawson’s results, our application of this scale demonstrated acceptable reliability with an overall coefficient alpha of .86. Family stress was assessed using a Likert-type scale over ten items, whih was adapted from an established stress research instrument, the Life Experiences Survey (Sarason, Johnson, and Siegel 1978). Because this scale is new to consumer research we list its items in Appendix A (along with our measure of family structure). The family stress scale also demonstrated adequate reliability with a coefficient alpha of .74. The summary statistics for these measures are provided in Table 1.

Data Collection. The subjects for this study were 200 young adults (aged 20-32) from a medium-sized midwestern metropolitan area of approximately 200,000. These subjects were initially recruited through a mail survey targeted to include people in their twenties, while excluding zip codes with large student populations. Of 557 mailed questionnaires, 23 were returned as undeliverable, leaving an effective sampling frame of 534 potential respondents. Of these, 138 were returned for a 26% response rate. After eliminating questionnaires due to missing or improperly completed data, we were left with a sample size of 135 respondents (31 of whom were from disrupted families).





Because our initial mail survey resulted in an unacceptable number of respondents from disrupted families, we conducted an over-quota sampling of disrupted individuals drawn from the same geographic area through a targeted newspaper advertisement. This ad, in the Sunday edition of the city’s major newspaper (circulation 168,000), asked for persons aged 20-30 who came from divorced families to participate in an unspecified university research project. As an incentive, readers were informed they would be paid five dollars for their participation. From this ad, we mailed out an additional 70 questionnaires (after which we closed the survey), out of which 67 were returned for a 96% response rate. Problems with two of the surveys reduced the effective number to 65, bringing the total number of usable surveys of 200 (96 disrupted, 104 intact). In order to guard against the possibility of having introduced a method artifact into the study by using two different data collection techniques, we conducted a t-test comparison of the mean scores on the key variables for our disrupted subjects for both the mailer and the newspaper ad. Finding no significant differences in means, these two sampling frames were combined for analysis. Of our 200 subjects 71 were male, 129 were female, 88% were white, and their mean age was 26.


Recall that we predicted that higher levels of materialism would act as a moderator to produce lower levels of stress among children from disrupted family backgrounds. To formally test for this moderating effect, we followed the procedures outlined by Cohen and Cohen (1983). According to Cohen and Cohen, hierarchical regression analysis (HRA) is the most appropriate test for examining moderators which produce differences in the form of the relationship between a predictor and a criterion variable. In HRA, a test of moderation is performed by entering the individual predictor variables first followed by the product term for their interaction. A moderating effect is confirmed by the presence of a statistically significant two-way interaction. The results of this analysis are documented in Table 2. As recommended by Cronbach (1987), te independent variables were mean-centered in order to reduce the collinearity between the predictors and their product terms. These results indicate a significant moderating effect (b=-.16, p-.05) of material values on the relationship between family structure and stress.

In order to better understand the nature of the moderating influence of material values upon the relationship between family disruption and family stress, we examined the interaction of family structure and material values. In specific, we estimated the mean levels of family stress for respondents with low (one standard deviation below the mean materialism score of 2.86) and high (one standard deviation above the mean) levels of material values across both intact and disrupted family structures. As displayed in Figure 1, while material values is positively associated with family stress for subjects from intact families (low material values group mean stress=1.35; high material values group mean stress=1.53), material values and family stress are negatively related among subjects from disrupted families (low material values group mean stress=1.98; high material values group mean stress=1.68). In sum, this analysis suggests that young adults with higher levels of material values experience lower levels of stress related to a family disruption compared to young adults with lower levels of material values. Therefore, our hypothesis is supported.





In order to enrich our understanding of the relationship between materialism and the stress associated with family disruption, we employed semi-structured depth interviews among a set of six students (three male, three female) at a large midwestern public university. All six students had experienced the divorce or separation of their parents prior to their 18th birthday. These informants were recruited from an introductory marketing class and were offered a nominal amount extra credit for their participation. Each interview was conducted by the lead author, with the second author in the room to take field notes. Each interview lasted approximately 30 minutes, and all six interviews were audiotaped for later transcription.

Each interview commenced with the following "grand tour" questions (see McCracken 1988), "What can you tell me about your parents’ divorce/separation?" "How did it come about?" and "How old were you?" These questions were adapted from McAlexander et al.’s (1993) recent study of the relationship between consumer behavior and divorce. After gathering this background data, informants were asked to respond to two additional questions, "How has the divorce/separation changed your life?" and "Are there any special things you did or acquired during your parents’ divorce or separation that you especially remember?" Otherwise, the interview progressed following the guidelines suggested by McCracken (1988) where the questions were for the most part unplanned, the interview ierated between broad and focused issues, and the interviewee was generally allowed to set the direction of the interview. Informants were allowed to decline answering any questions which made them uncomfortable. A summary of informant profiles is provided in Appendix B.


Analysis proceeded using the guidelines provided by Spiggle (1994). First, we briefly conferred after each interview to assess how the research was progressing and noted any interesting issues. Once all of the interviews were completed and transcribed, we independently summarized individual and then collective themes as each of us saw them. After completing this task, we met to discuss our findings, and found a considerable degree of convergence in identifying collective themes. Where discrepancies occurred, they were resolved by iterating back and forth on each issue and by continuously referring back to the transcripts for clarification. Outside input was solicited from an external researcher versed in qualitative interviewing techniques as well as from the interviewee’s themselves. From these efforts, three principle themes emerged in reflection on the role of materialism as a coping mechanism for the stress associated with family disruption. These themes are: permanence, control, and identity. As a caveat, we note that these are not necessarily the only possible themes or even that they are mutually exclusive. We do however feel that they capture a broad range of the phenomenon in question.

Permanence. Family sociologists observe that much of the stress associated with family disruption appears to be due to the instability created by divorce and separation (Berman and Turk 1981). Immediately following a family disruption, virtually everything in the child’s world is in a state of flux, especially the nature of his relationship with his or her parents. Security and permanence are often replaced by insecurity and transience; within a short span of time (a year or two) children of divorce often experience the removal of one parent from the family household, one or more changes in residence, a severe drop in financial well-being, and changes in adult caregivers. These transitions were also noted by our informants, many of who recollected their experiences of facing a noticeable decrease in financial resources and having to move to a smaller residence (typically an apartment) following their parents’ divorce.

In order to compensate for this increased instability and sudden transience, children often seek to establish permanence and stability by forming interpersonal bonds with counselors, teachers, siblings, etc. (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980). Similarly, all of our informants reported a clear desire for permanence, quality, and durability in the material objects they purchased. Several informants explicitly stated that they wanted to purchase items that were going to "last," as they expected to possess the object for a long time. For example, Cindy described her general purchasing orientation in the following manner:

Cindy: I mean I take care of everything I have! You know, its kind of like if you are going to buy something, you shold not necessarily buy the best but buy something that is going to you know, last. Like if you are going to buy a stereo you don’t just go to Kmart and buy the cheapest one you can. You should get something that is going to last.

Thus, having faced impermanence in their relations with others, children of divorce and separation appear to look toward possessions as sources of a needed element of stability in their lives. This desire for permanence was also evident in our informants' discussions of their interpersonal relations. As all four of the respondents who were either married or involved in long term relationships expressed a intense desire to maintain these relationships and avoid the fate of their parents.

Control. For many children, the stress and unpredictability surrounding family disruption are often exacerbated by the fact that the events of their parent’s divorce and separation are largely out of their control (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980). For example, our informants revealed that their parents’ divorce had been caused by such events as marital infidelity, spousal incompatibility, and domestic violence (see Appendix B). In addition to the loss of control of their family lives, children of divorce often go through at least a temporary period of financial hardship in which they witness the loss of control of the ability of their single parent (typically their mother) to provide for their tangible resources such as food, shelter, and clothing (McLanahan and Booth 1989). Several of our informants noted that their families had become at least partially reliant on either relatives or governmental assistance for their basic sustenance following the divorce or separation of their parents. For example, Steve recounts how his single mother often had difficulty providing for her family’s needs following her divorce:

Steve: Basically my father left and took everything and left us in a house with no money. My mother had three children and at the time my mother was a housewife and my dad was, you know, working and supported the family. When he left he left us with nothing and my mom didn’t have a job or any money and so we were pretty much screwed, you know. And it got to the point where our electricity was turned off and we fell on some pretty hard times.

The theme of control was evident in the transcriptions of all six of our informants, several of whom noted that they felt that the disruption of their family left them in a disadvantageous life position compared to their peers from intact families. This theme of control also transcends into their discussions of their buying and consumption habits; as five out of our six informants claimed that they were quite particular and very cautious in terms of buying, owning, and using material objects. Most notably, when asked to describe a recent purchase, these informants recounted several examples of extreme deliberation and extensive cognitive processing in their buying behavior. For example, Vincent recollects the fear of a loss of control which he faced when buying a new motorcycle:

Vincent: For the Harley it was the same thing. [We] drove all the way to Milwaukee and it is a rare deal because you have to wait two-and-a-half years to get a bike. The owner said, 'well here is the bike, do you want to buy it?’ And then I said sure and he said fourteen-five. And I looked and I said I came here and this is not what I had...and my wife she loved the bike, and I loved the bike. And she said, well are you ready to buy it, this is your dream bike, here it is. And I completely got scared again, and I said no, I am not going to buy it. And she said, why. And I go, 'what if something happens?’ That is my biggest know, you lose everything. And I went back, drove all the way back to Madison [over 75 miles each way], and then my wife was getting mad already because this was the second time going down there, and the same thing happened again. And I mean it took three days, going back and forth, back and forth, to finally get the bike. And now that I have the bike, now it is the same process again when I am buying these big [gas] tanks, customizing it.

Vincent also revealed that he engaged in extensive deliberation in order to allay similar fears and anxieties when buying both his new car and his television set. Although Vincent’s case may be extreme, it is by no means unique. As noted, many of our other informants also reported being very deliberate and cautious in their general approach to purchasing objects (which ranged from watches for Ann to kitchenware for Carl). Thus, the purchase and consumption of material objects appears to provide a venue for the reassertion and reestablishment of controlCand thus the alleviation of the stress otherwise associated with their experiences of lack of controlCwhich informants enact through careful and deliberate pre-purchase decision making activities. Indeed, a majority of informants seemed to take both pride and comfort in their purchasing prudence.

Identity. In addition to facing instability and a loss of control, the disruption of one’s family may often damage a child’s self concept and sense of identity (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980). Family sociologists find that children of divorce typically have lower levels of self-esteem compared to children living in intact families (Demo 1993). Much of this decrease in self-esteem and loss of self-identity may be due to the fact that many children feel that they are at least partially to blame for the divorce or separation of their parents (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980).

This theme of self-identity was most clearly manifested by the presence of a strong sense of independence and self-reliance among many of our informants. Having experienced the loss of both tangible resources and intangible parental support, these young adults noted that they felt that they are unable to rely on others and must accept primary responsibility in terms of financing their education, furnishing their residences, and providing for their daily needs. This development of a strong sense of independence is clearly evident in our conversation with Heather:

Interviewer: Is there any other particular ways that this divorce or separation has changed your life?

Heather: I think it made me a lot more independent person. Because I don’t really talk to my mom about anything and neither do my other brothers. It keeps me really separated from my sisters too.

Interviewer: Let me ask you this. You say you are more indepenent. Could you expand on what independence means to you?

Heather: As far as being able to handle things myself. And not needing other people’s opinions. You know like help and assistance. Financially I am independentC100%. And as far as what I think, what I buy, who all I go out with and everything along that line. Because I honestly don’t communicate with my mom on that level. It is more like, O.K., I am going to do this or I am going to do that. Or she asks me, you know, are you going to be home for Christmas? And I’ll say yeah or no. I don’t actually have a heart-to-heart conversation with her and I haven’t since you know this whole thing started.

Interviewer: When you say that you are more independent and you buy things for yourself, what types of things do you buy?

Heather: Well, everything that I need.

Interviewer: Everything?

Heather: Everything that I need; food, clothes...anything.

Also, in discussing their material objects, four of our six informants reported that they had established collections or prized possessions during or immediately following their family disruption. According to Belk (1988), collections provide a sense of self-definition and often serve a role as "transition objects or security blankets" (p. 154). Likewise, the symbolic self completion thesis of Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982) suggests that the addition of objects to a collection helps persons with low self-esteem achieve a more complete sense of self-identity. Thus, where a family disruption assaults a child’s sense of self, material objects appear to help them restore a sense of their identity.

Finally, on a very pragmatic level, investing one’s time, energy, and self into a prized possession or collection might also relieve stress if for no other reason than by serving as a distraction from the realities of the home. Several informants’ self-reports were consistent with this notion. For example, Carl noted that his expansive comic book collection helped take his mind off his parent’s divorce:

Carl: I collect comic books. A lot of them, like several thousand of them. We would trade and focus a lot on it.

Interviewer: Any reflections on why you think you got so into it?

Carl: Later on I think it helped me out with, um, you know keeping myself busy.

In the aggregate then, material objects appear to serve an important role in restoring a sense of self-identity among our informants by (1) providing an outlet through which these young people assert their independence and self-reliance, and (2) enhancing their self-esteem by serving as an outlet for the stress associated with the disruption of their family. In summary, these six interviews revealed that material objects appear to contribute to a reduction in the stress associated with family disruption by providing a mechanism for children and young adults to develop permanent relations, reestablish a sense of control, and enhance their self-identity. We turn now to a consideration of the implications of our findings and suggest possible directions for future research.


In 1985, Russ Belk noted that, "One of the foremost issues involving materialism that needs to be addressed is whether materialism is a positive or a negative trait" (p. 266). Since Belk made this plea, more than a decade has passed and this question remains largely unanswered. Our research effort takes an important step in this direction by combining quantitative and qualitative approaches in exploring the instrumental role that the development of material values may play in helping individuals reduce or alleviate the stress produced by significant life transitions such as family disruption. First, we present quantitative evidence which suggests that materialism acts as moderator of the relationship between family structure and family stress. In specific, while material values is positively related to family stress among children from intact families, material values and family stress are negatively related among children whose parents have divorced or separated. This quantitative evidence is enriched by a set of qualitative depth interviews among young adults who experienced the divorce or separation of their parents while growing up. These interviews suggest that material objects play an important role in providing a sense of permanence, a re-establishment of control, and a bolstering of self-identity among children whose lives have been destabilized by the disruption of their family structure.

Our results present a number of important questions for future research. First of all, although materialism appears to reduce stress in our disrupted group, it is positively related to stress in our intact group. Why this discrepancy? As initial conjecture, what we might be seeing are the differential effects of instrumental versus terminal materialism, as described earlier. Even though researchers have been frustrated in trying to empirically discriminate among these two forms of materialism (Richins and Dawson 1992), this presents an intriguing possibility for future research.

Our results also leave us wondering under what other circumstances might material values similarly play a functional role? Clearly, family disruption is only one of the many stressful life events which confront a person during their life course. In other research, Mehta and Belk (1991), and Hill and Stamey (1990), implicate material objects as important transition mechanisms in helping to alleviate the stress associated with immigration and homelesness respectively. Perhaps materialism might also play an instrumental role in helping people cope with the stress of major life events such as difficulties in school or problems with intimate relationships. Might the death of a family member or close friend produce a similar need for the use of material objects as coping devices? Additionally, to what extent might materialism as a coping mechanism differ across these various life events? As Berman and Turk (1981) note, coping strategies appear to be problem specific. These are important issues, and their assessment stands to enrich the domain of materialism research. It would appear that, at a minimum, we as researchers need a broadened conceptualization of materialism and the role of material objects in people’s lives.

As a couple of final caveats, we do not wish to imply that materialism is the only coping mechanism operant in children who experience parental breakup, or even necessarily the most important one. Given how central possessions are to our everyday lives, however, it is not surprising to find material objects in this role. Moreover, our research relies on retrospective accounts in developing its thesis. This, of course, raises the possibility that individuals’ experiences could be distorted with time. While always a possibility, a broad rading of the literature suggests that children often have an acute awareness of their experiences during a divorce, and that these memories decay quite slowly (Paykel 1983; Wolchik et al. 1985). In closing, we would like to pose a question which somewhat brings us back full-circle: "Is the role of materialism as a coping mechanism the genuine article or only an ersatz solution?" In other words, are individuals who are affected by family disruption trading off the long-term benefits of directly dealing with their problems and experiences for some shorter term "fix" of material relief? Or does materialism indeed provide an instrumental (if only temporary) mechanism, for dealing with life’s traumatic events? We leave the answer to this question to future research.






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James E. Burroughs, University of Wisconsin
Aric Rindfleisch, University of Wisconsin


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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