Discourse of Possessions: the Metatheory of Russell W. Belk


Hope J. Schau (1998) ,"Discourse of Possessions: the Metatheory of Russell W. Belk", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 37-44.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 37-44


Hope J. Schau, University of California, Irvine

"we are what we have... this may be the most basic and powerful fact of consumer behavior" (Belk 1988, p. 160).


Russell W. Belk’s published work has significantly influenced the substantive domain and altered the intellectual purview of consumer research by developing five theoretical themes, or narratives, of consumption: 1) consumption is a continuous process, 2) goods are meaning receptacles, 3) material holdings reflect personal and communal value structures, 4) identities are constructed and expressed through consumption, and 5) consumption is a productive function. Taken together these five narratives weave a cohesive metatheory of consumption as a discourse of possessions that pervades everyday life. Belk treats consumption as a process of interdependent practices which do not privilege the purchase, or moment of exchange, but rather comprise a continuous process of self and group articulation and a source of consumer communication akin to Gottdiener’s version of socio-semiotics (Gottdiener 1995). In Belk’s research, consumers are shown to create ad express cultural, multicultural, and personal identities through the accumulation of material sets (Belk 1988, p. 140). Consumers communicate who they are through a process of socio-semiotic signification that links their intangible personal and cultural belief structures and value systems to material holdings.

As rationale for examining an individual contributor, i.e. Belk, I offer the need for consumer research to introspectively reflect on a major contributor as a critical means of assessing the state of the discipline. While scholarship is not an independent activity, but rather a socially produced body of knowledge, individual participants play an important role in the course of inquiry and the types of phenomena examined. The academy is premised on the research of individual scholars coupled with the existence of an intellectual community that creates and perpetuates a corpus of knowledge, via the publication process and the system of peer review. The system ultimately reflects both individual and communal authorship (Kuhn 1970; Van Maanen 1996). Belk as a single researcher has pro-duced seminal pieces in the consumer research corpus, and as Hirschman notes, exemplifies a particular scientific style, conceptual theorist (Hirschman 1985). As a member of the intellectual community, Belk has been an active participant in the reconstitution of the field of marketing and an integral part of the effort to establish the domain of consumer research. Belk as subject of research is a means to examine the manner in which the field of consumer research has developed and expanded during his career and as a result of his published research and intellectual presence.


Belk’s stream of research provides an opportunity to examine the way the field has changed in the last 23 years since his first major publication, and critically interrogate the nature and impact of these developments on future consumer research. His early work is clearly derived from cognitive psychology and emphasizes prediction of purchase based on situational elements (Belk 1974 and 1975). As Hirschman notes, Belk, began his career with a dissertation that "utilize[d] the analytical research style" which dominates the field of consumer research and is characterized in much the same manner as the positivist quantitative approach to phenomena (Hirschman 1985, p. 238). Despite the personal preferences and talents of individual students and their eventual research careers Hirschman contends, "almost all doctoral students in the field appear to be expected to develop competence in the analytical scientific style (as demonstrated in their dissertation) and then, after establishing themselves in this style, may deviate, if they desire, and move to a different style more compatible with their own tendencies" (Hirschman 1985, p. 238). In this way, Belk’s research has evolved into an interpretive paradigm (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Belk 1989 and 1992; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989; O’Guinn and Belk 1989; Mehta and Belk 1991) addressing issues of materialism (Belk 1989), identity construction and expression (Belk 1988), abstract pre-acquisition states (i.e. desire) (Belk 1988; Belk and Coon 1993), and culture’s impact on all of these. His recent work incorporates functional analysis (Belk and Coon 1993; Belk 1992; Mehta and Belk 1991), symbolic representation and signification (Belk 1988 and 1992; O’Guinn and Belk 1989; Belk and Wallendorf 1990; Mehta and Belk 1991; Belk and Coon 1993), and cultural influences (Belk 1984a, 1989 and 1992; Belk and Pollay 1985; O’Guinn and Belk 1989; Mehta and Belk 1991) with interpretive qualitative techniques (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1989; O’Guinn and Belk 1989; Belk 1992) to arrive at a comprehensive, yet not exhaustive, understanding of the multifaceted process of consumption. This understanding is a self-conscious attempt to situate consumer research within a broader socio-cultural fraework without sacrificing the need to understand behavior at the individual consumer level.

Belk’s intellectual growth mirrors the philosophical debates in marketing from the dominant consumer decision making paradigm (Venkatesh 1985, p. 57) to the relativism of social construction and the interpretivist perspective. This evolution, as demonstrated by his published work, is a theoretical and methodological transition from psychological, causal, predictive examination of an economic behavior (purchase) (Belk 1974 and 1975) to a socio-cultural understanding of a complex social phenomenon known as consumption which includes, but is not limited to, the substantive questions of marketplace activities (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989), human-object relationships (Belk 1982, 1983, 1984b, 1985, 1992), cultural material signification (Belk, Bahn and Mayer 1982; Belk, Mayer and Driscoll 1984; Belk 1988, 1989, and 1992; O’Guinn and Belk 1989; Belk and Wallendorf 1990; Mehta and Belk 1991; Belk and Coon 1993), and identity construction and expression (Belk 1988 and 1992; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989; O’Guinn and Belk 1989; Mehta and Belk 1991). Embedded in his examination of consumer behavior is an emphasis on how consumption is lived and practiced in the "real" world of consumers in a variety of particular in situ locales.

It should be noted that while his dissertation work was clearly within the folds of the analytical science style, he was from the onset of his research stream challenging the assumptions of the field. By focusing on the situational context of buyer, and subsequently consumer, behavior, Belk was seriously undermining the tenets of the previous research on consumer behavior as an individual cognitive phenomenon motivated by the principles of economics. Interestingly, his work on extended self (Belk 1988), was, and still is, considered by many as radical, unscientific, and not coterminous with the dominant conception of marketing (Cohen 1989), despite the fact that it is based largely on the work of Erich Fromm (Fromm 1976) an influential and respected scholar of psychology and Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) renowned scholars of sociological phenomena.

Throughout his research career, Belk has drawn upon a diverse array of intellectual material including anthropology, psychology, economics, humanities and sociology, interweaving the discourses to create a rich metatheory that acknowledges the existence of multiple truths, yet provides a rich conceptual framework to apply to the study of consumption. As a conceptual theorist, Belk "views paradigms only as alternative representations of reality and not as truth, per se" (Hirschman 1985, p. 230). Furthermore paradigms are valued for "their ability to stimulate the imagination" (Hirschman 1985, p. 230). For Belk, the scholarly discourses he engages are food for thought which he can reconstitute into a metatheory of consumption.


Belk studies materialism as a mode of consumption from two vantages: 1) possessions as meaning receptacles (Belk 1988 and 1992; Mehta and Belk 1991; O’Guinn and Belk 1989), and 2) the propensity to invest material items with deep meaning (Belk 1984b and 1985). Both approaches to materialism have generated considerable scholarly discourse within the field of marketing and the domain of consumer research. Possessions as meaning receptacles has spawned considerable research into the nature of goods as repositories of meaning and as extensions of the self (cf. Cohen 1989; Richins 1994a & 1994b; Gentry, Baker and Kraft 1995; and others). The propensity to invest things with meaning and the testing of Belk’s materialism scales are equally flourishing lines of inquiry (cf. Micken 1995; Cole and Sherrell 1995; and a host of others). For this analysis, I have chosen to define materialism as the practice of people investing, albet in varying degrees, meaning in things and to examine the manner in which Belk addresses the communicative, expressive nature of possessions and possession sets. As such, materialism is a multifaceted social phenomenon that overlaps and underscores most of Belk’s work.


Consumption is a Continuous Process

In his 1974 Journal of Marketing Research piece entitled, "An Exploratory Investigation of Situational Effects in Buyer Behavior," Belk examines the dominant trend in the marketing literature where purchase is the crescendo of the marketer’s efforts (Belk 1974). While definitely within the folds of the dominant marketing paradigm’s reverence for the moment of exchange, the 1974 piece does disrupt the accepted notions of buyer behavior as premised on economic considerations and personal characteristics. This article signals Belk’s later interest in social phenomena beyond the act of purchase because it examines the situational context associated with buying. In essence, it amounts to an effort to contextualize buying behavior within the larger social framework. While the premise of the study is producer oriented in that it privileges the moment of exchange where the producer reigns supreme, it does not examine the producer per se. Belk considers contextual motivation associated with the act of buying, but offers a glimpse of the buyer perspective that is atypical for marketing research at that time.

Belk’s seminal 1975 piece, "Situational Variables and Consumer Behavior" (Belk 1975) in the new Journal of Consumer Research demonstrates a critical break from the traditional approach to marketing research. While it can be said that the difference between the term buyer and consumer is a matter of semantics, the change in terms, which Belk helped solidify, amounts to a redefinition of the field and a new concept of the academic domain of the discipline. Examining very similar phenomena as the 1974 JMR piece, the 1975 JCR article identifies situational variables that impact the purchase decision; however, the focus shifts from buyer to consumer behavior which vastly expands the academic domain. Buyer behavior is marketplace, exchange centered phenomena. Those who study buyer behavior accept the traditional separation of production and consumption functions, the primacy of production over consumption, and the over simplified value exchange relationship characterized by the emphasis on the purchase and the producer’s subsequent profit. They limit their inquiries to the exchange which include corporate product oriented communications, promotional activities, McCarthy’s four P’s, buyer’s needs assessment, buyer’s evaluation of competing products, the final act of purchase, and post purchase behavior’s impact on current/future purchases.

Consumer behavior expands the domain of inquiry to include the process of consumption. The term consumer behavior is indicative of a perspective, or philosophical paradigm, that does not center buying, or the act of purchase, as its privileged phenomena, but rather includes the process of consuming (pre-acquisition, acquisition and post-acquisition). Acquisition is not limited to a marketplace activity, but includes giving, inheriting, and chance contact. Consumption can extend over a product’s useful life, the life of the individual or group that acquired it, or the infinitum of successive possessors. Consumer behavior is social in nature and involves more participants than merely those directly engaged in the transaction. It is communicative, as possessions provide a shorthand for conveying multilayered meaning among consumers (Belk 1988, p. 152). It is culturally specific in that it is embedded in a specific society, culture and/or microculture (Belk 1988, p. 152).

In 1982, Belk ublished a chapter in Bush and Hunt’s Marketing Theory: Philosophy of Science Perspectives entitled, "Acquiring, Possessing and Collecting: Fundamental Processes in Consumer Research," which proved to be the definitive point of Belk’s departure from a perspective of privileging the purchase over other stages in the human-object relationship and acknowledging consumption as a socio-semiotic process (Belk 1982). It is a treatise of sorts that actively expands the domain of consumer research and invites future inquiries regarding the continuous consumption process. By examining an open form of acquisition not bound by exchange models, the state of having, and the notion of dynamic material sets, Belk throws the door open for subsequent research endeavors that favor a socio-cultural perspective of consumption (Belk 1982). He reinvigorates the notion of consumption beyond the act of exchange to encompass the dynamic forces of micro and macro lived experience and liberates the concept of the consumer from the passive role in the producer driven marketplace to an active participant in the socio-semiotic signification of the consumption function. "Acquiring, Possessing and Collecting" amounts to a radical departure from the dominant marketing research paradigm and an influential step toward understanding consumption as a complex social phenomenon (Belk 1982).

Using Csikszentmahalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981, Belk (1985) asserts that human-object relationships change throughout the human life cycle (Belk 1985, p. 268). The changing, cyclical nature of consumption during the consumer’s life time is indicative of a process, or industrious enterprise, which is resilient enough to withstand different behavioral manifestations of human-object relationships. The consuming of value (use, economic, or symbolic) and the creation of meaning are not objective, nor static, but rather are at the whim of consumer imagination, which can be influenced by nationality, ideology, and age (Belk 1985, p. 265). The fluid nature of meaning that is given material sets throughout the life span and the meaning’s dependence on context reveal consumption to be an evolving process that certainly is not contained in the moment of acquisition.

Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf (1988) is an exemplar study that does not focus on corporate marketing efforts and the commercial marketplace, but rather depicts a swap meet where noncorporate individuals resell used goods within a secondary market which the market participants locally construct and maintain. In this tertiary marketplace, the value of goods is openly fixed by the local participants, who haggle and dicker without an industry imposed standard to control the market (as exists in most retail environments). In this venue, buyers are also sellers; consumers are simultaneously producers. The moment of purchase is merely one aspect in the process, not the privileged state.

O’Guinn and Belk (1989) address the ability to consume heaven on earth and suggest that Heritage Village, the amusement park, is a place to reinvigorate the soul. Heritage Village is the physical site of the Biblical heaven, or the hyperreality (Eco 1983; Baudrillard 1988, p. 187; Baudrillard 1994, p. 1; Poster 1988, p. 6) of the essence of God. It is sacred simulacrum (Baudrillard 1994, p. 4) invested with the aura (Benjamin 1969, p. 221) of the real. Items for sale at Heritage Village range from cosmetics and purses to plastic crowns of thorns and miniature statues of praying Santas and are sacred and imbued with significance that lasts indefinitely, which the possessors can consume over extended periods of time. The commodities, i.e. Tammy Faye cosmetics and Liz Claiborne purses, at Heritage Village gain value beyond their functional utility as expressions of faith.

In the above articles, acquisition is actually only a small concern as compared to the animated state of possession and eventual divestment. All of the above articles emphasize the existence and importance of the state of possession as an evolving experience, which informs the consumers’ social reality far beyond the future purchase behavior. All show how possessions are ore than the sum of their use values and can be signifiers, or signs, of intangible value systems (see section entitled "Material Holdings Reflect Individual and Communal Value Structures"). Consumption is then the process of procuring, appreciating and using things as utilitarian objects, signs, and enablers of the self. Belk’s research in lived consumer experience supports the assertion that "production never ceases, that it is a continual process, that at every moment of consumption something is produced: an object, the person, or in general, the signifier [meaning], the image, and the symbol" (Firat and Venkatesh 1995, p. 251).

Goods as Meaning Receptacles

"We cannot hope to understand consumer behavior without first gaining some understanding of the meanings that consumers attach to possessions" (Belk 1988, p. 139).

As the above quote demonstrates, consumers use things as meaning receptacles, or repositories, and things have multi-layered meaning, significance and use. There are two basic premises of materialism in general and specifically in Belk’s work (Belk 1985, 1987 and 1988) that are highly relevant to the study of consumer behavior: 1) there is meaning in possessions and 2) this meaning exists long after acquisition. Materialism in consumer research has been used to define consumption as different from buyer behavior because the relationship between person and object does not revolve around purchase, or acquisition, but rather is a complicated, involved relationship between human and object that extends prior to, and long after, purchase. In his examinations of materialism, Belk recognizes that consumers embed deep meaning and enduring social and symbolic messages in things (Belk 1985). Material items are infused with meaning, that is not limited to that fashioned by the producer. Belk is part of a trajectory of research that seeks to articulate consumption as something more than buying behavior, and affords consumption the status of a socially relevant, contextualized experience critical to understanding macro social processes.

Buying is merely one in many stages of human-object relationships. In his 1985 article, Belk identifies traits positively related to materialism which provide consumer researchers with a better understanding of which people are most likely to imbue material objects with considerable meaning (see section entitled, "Material Holdings Reflect Individual and Communal Value Structures") (Belk 1985).

The 1987 piece on material values in comics assumes that material objects have the capacity to be receptacles of deep meaning beyond use value and that this meaning can be transmitted through story lines in comic books (Belk 1987). Belk examined four American comics (Archie, The Fox and the Crow, Uncle Scrooge, and Richie Rich) and identified themes of wealth that he argues reflect and shape American concepts of human-object relationships and consumption practices (Belk 1987, p. 26). In Belk’s conception, consumers are socialized into consumption practices or consumption fantasies through their exposure to the comics, i.e. Richie Rich depicts extreme wealth and possession of advanced technologies which may inspire readers to attempt to acquire these symbols of wealth or at least socialize readers to value technology (Belk 1987, p. 34).

Goods as meaning receptacles is one of the central tenets of Belk’s work on extended self (Belk 1988). If goods cannot embody consumer driven meanings than they cannot become part of the consumer’s self. For Belk, the goods consumers buy and attach meaning and significance to are qualitatively different from the objects for sale in the marketplace. Once owned and imagined as part of the consumer’s self, the objects become repositories of the intangible aspects of self, or material archives of our fleeting life experiences (Belk 1988, p. 159).

In Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989), consumers are shown to sacralize some items and revere them as significantly mportant to warrant ritualized care, concern over maintenance after the owners’ death, and a reluctance to place a monetary value on an item once in the common marketplace, i.e. a the example of a young girl’s Mickey Mouse collection (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989, p. 20). In essence, consumers are shown to create treasured possessions out of common goods. The material object is enhanced through ownership and becomes something more than it was, and something more than the producer intended (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989).

Belk (1992) identifies five categories of meanings (sacred, material, personal, familial, and communal) associated with things during the Mormon migration (Belk 1992, p. 342). Through examining historical personal documents, Belk constructed a compelling story of the role of possessions in the lives of Mormon migrants from 1847 to 1869 (Belk 1992). He demonstrated that the possessions are layered in their proximity to the self and the collective identity akin to that which he theorized in his extended self work (Belk 1988). People were consuming the meaning of their possessions long after acquisition and were forced to divest the items on the journey (liminal state) to the promised land. Mormon migrants had to choose among their possession sets a limited subset of objects to transport via covered wagon to the promised land. Belk found that they did so in a manner that was very deliberate and thoughtful and represented a system of values and beliefs. He found that the divestment was revealing as to the symbolic significance of the possessions to the individuals and the Mormon religion as a collective. The objects that survived the trek to Utah were crucial in establishing the society in the new land and reminding the owners of their past (Belk 1992). Items from each of the five categories were used to reconstruct identities battered along the journey. Also important was the divestment process or the sacrifices that made the trek worthy of the term heroic. Mormon tales of sacrifice and hardship fortified their identity as a religious community and were testament of their extreme faith in their god (Belk 1992, pp. 343-344). The material loss and the goods the Mormons sacrificed served an important role in communicating their conspicuous faith in their god, their community, and their family (Belk 1992, p 343).

Similarly, in Mehta and Belk (1991), Indian immigrants to the United States demonstrated a need to refer back to their homeland through treasured possessions that were made to stand in for the physical, social and cultural place of India. Mehta and Belk showed that material items from India signified the homeland to Indian immigrants and became qualitatively different, indeed more significant over all, to the immigrants than the same items to Indians in India (Mehta and Belk 1991). In India there was no need to have among your possessions a material referent to Indian landmarks, however for Indian immigrants in the U.S. signifiers of the physical, geographic India were of great importance (Mehta and Belk 1991, p. 405).

In O’Guinn and Belk 1989, patrons of Heritage Village are actively seeking religious experience through consumption. Followers of the Praise the Lord (PTL) teleministry made pilgrimages to the amusement park in order to achieve proximity to their god and purchased objects to retain the closeness after they departed the park (O’Guinn and Belk 1989). Again, the material objects represent, or make tangible, intangible beliefs and values of the patrons and furthermore, are expressive of and communicate these beliefs and values to other consumers. For one woman, the purchase of a Liz Claiborne purse signified, if only to herself, her proximity to her god and her membership in the Christian fellowship of Heritage Village (O’Guinn and Belk 1989, p. 234). Another woman deliberately left the store labels on items she was giving as gifts to signify their "special" connection to her god (O’Guinn and Belk 1989, p. 234).

In all of the above, objects were accorded importance based on meaning bestowed upon otherwise insignificant, or undistinguished things. The notion that meaning is embeded in material items by macro and micro culture, and individuals is not new to more traditional disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, and history, but its appearance in marketing and consumer research is fairly recent (McCracken 1986; Richins 1994 a and b; Belk 1985 and 1987). Belk has gone a long way toward demonstrating the social, cultural, and semiotic nature of material acquisition and possession that are part of the consumption process. Through the investigation of materialism, Belk acknowledges that materialism, defined as meaning in things, is a central tenet of consumption. By necessity, marketers and consumer researchers must be cognizant of the relationship between human and objects because other than perishables, possessions have the ability to provide meaning that potentially outlasts the human life span, e.g. McCracken’s example of patina (McCracken 1988, p. 32).

Material Holdings Reflect Personal and Communal Value Structures

"Consumers accord sacred status to a variety of objects, places, and times that are value expressive. By expressing these values through their consumption, they participate in a celebration of their connection to the society as a whole and to particular individuals" (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989, p. 31).

As demonstrated above, Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989) assert that consumption is an expression of consumers’ internal, intangible values. If goods are repositories of meaning, then it can be said that material holdings reveal something about their owners. The material holdings of a person, or group of people, can be used to discern individual, social, and cultural priorities and practices (Belk 1988, p. 152 and p. 244; Belk 1992, p. 341-342). In this vein, Belk examines consumers’ propensity toward materialism, or likelihood that they will instill meaning and significance in material objects, and specific empirical examples of the consumers’ process of signification.

Belk’s 1984b and 1985 pieces demonstrate that producers create products and services, which consumers respond to according to the universal human cognitive structures and normally distributed personality traits and constellations of traits. Specifically, Belk identifies three traits positively related to materialism: 1) possessiveness, 2) nongenerosity, and 3) envy (Belk 1985, p. 267-268). All findings support the inherent assumptions that consumers invest, to varying degrees, meaning in goods, this meaning extends beyond acquisition and furthermore that the propensity toward materialism, as well as the meaning consumers embed in goods, accesses the owners’ intangible, internal value structures (Belk, 1985, p.266).

Belk’s work on extended self (Belk 1988) is premised on the ideas that material items are invested with meaning and signify values present or revered within the self. The relationship between self and the material world is shown to be that of tangible representation of intangible beliefs and value structures and assurance of physical permanence not afforded to organic beings, i.e. people (Belk 1988). The objects in a consumer’s material set are reflections of their identity(ies) and at the same time help create the identity(ies) (Belk 1988). When taken together, the possession sets have the power to reveal the owner’s intangible value structures (Belk 1988, p. 140).

In "Materialism and the Modern US Christmas," Belk examines the Christmas holiday and how the modern American manifestation reveals a value structure endorsed by mainstream American consumers (Belk 1989). Through studying the Santa Claus figure and comparing him to the Christian ideal of Jesus Christ, Belk exposes salient aspects of the larger cultural context and behavioral expectations of mainstream consumers. Consumers are driven to articulate their religious or secular faith, their affinity toward the mainstream ideals, and their affection toward other people by the socially endorsed, media perpetuated incarnations of good conduct and beneficent intnt (Belk 1989).

Similarly, Belk (1992) provides empirical evidence of not only the individual value structure of migrants, but also demonstrates the larger cultural value system operating in the Mormon religion at the time of the migration. The aggregation of individual consumers retention and divestment of material objects exposes larger systemic trends in human-object relationships that are endemic to the values of the Mormon religion (Belk 1992).

All the articles discussed above demonstrate that the material choices consumers make are purposeful and indicative of their belief systems. For the study of consumption, these articles underscore the complexity of human-object relationships, the inherent and constructed meanings embedded in objects, the ability of material holdings to reveal the owners’ value systems, and ultimately the reconfiguration of consumption as a process (Belk 1985).

Identities are Constructed and Expressed through Consumption

"It seems an inescapable fact of modern life that we learn, define, and remind ourselves of who we are by our possessions" (Belk 1988, p. 160).

Belk identifies consumption as a critical human endeavor that enables individuals to construct and reflect their identity through material objects: "[p]eople seek, express, confirm, and ascertain a sense of being through what they have" (Belk 1988, p. 146). Building on the premise that goods have meaning, Belk moves away from purchase as the climax of consumption and makes a strong argument for how material things reflect intangible value systems operating in human behavior and are the building blocks of self identity. Consumers are empowered to be more than buyers. They are indeed constructing themselves and their relationship to groups and social institutions individually and in concert with other consumers:

"Communities, nations, and other group levels of self are similarly constituted via monuments, buildings, books, music, and other created works. The association of these artifacts with various group levels of self provides a sense of community essential to group harmony, spirit, and cooperation" (Belk 1988, p.160).

Belk identifies (via Sartre and Fromm) the basic states of human existence as having, doing and being and links consumption, the process, to all three states; buying, using and creating identity. He defines four stages of possession in human development: 1) distinguishing self from environment, 2) distinguishing self from others, 3) constructing and managing identities and 4) achieving continuity and preparing for death (Belk 1988, p. 139). In all stages human-object relationships are significant. In his 1988 article, Belk relies on the literature depicting past research into developmental psychology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy to argue possessions’ role in self definition.

Belk demonstrates that possessions assist in self-perception and actually become, usually figuratively, or symbolically, but less often literally, or physically, part of the consumer body (Belk 1988, p. 144). Belk shows that consumers’ constructions of the self through material items is a powerful form of identification. He describes how the incorporation is real to the consumers and how the loss of possessions becomes so personal as to be compared to physical violation and a loss of self (Belk 1988, p. 142). In a small scale test, Belk shows that in 20 interviews with burglary victims, a recurring metaphor of violence is present. People associated material loss with physical damage or loss (Belk 1988).

Belk uses anthropological sources to bolster his point that material attachments are a universal phenomenon, and equally universal is the notion that if someone creates an object, or reconfigures it, it becomes a part of them. This is deemed so because people are assumed to be autonomous and therefore own their laor and its fruits ß lß Marx. The extension of the self through material objects can take two main forms: literary (tools) and symbolic (symbols of difference) (McCracken 1988). Both types assume that a person is altered by their association with things and that this association reflects a self that can create both physically and mentally (Belk 1988).

Through his discussion of mastery of possessions and human development, Belk describes how human development alters the nature of human-object attachment. Basically, people are thought to traverse through stages: 1) self from environment (where the primary impetus of material-human relationships is to distinguish the self from the physical environment ß lß Lacan’s Mirror Stage and discussed in Fromm 1976), 2) self versus others (the difference between organic beings), 3) adolescence and adulthood (mastery of the environment through things), and old age (objects as reservoirs of the past) (Belk 1988, p. 139). Again, the existence of stages implies process and asserts the dynamic nature of human-object relationships.

One can incorporate possessions into the self by: 1) mastering, 2) creating, 3) knowing things (Belk 1988, p. 150). The incorporated items are then invested with the power to communicate the self to the social world. Because humans are complex creatures who belong to several groups at once, there are multiple layers of the self which must be negotiated and maintained:

"The possessions central to the self may be visualized in concentric layers around the core self [assumed to be intangible], and will differ over individuals, over time, and over cultures that create shared symbolic meanings for different goods" (Belk 1988, p. 152).

This notion is similar to Levitt’s concepts of core and augmented products (Levitt 1960, pp. 45-56). There is a core self and a set of augmentations which together compose the self. Objects, like houses, act as vestibules of identity which can be aids in the balancing of many sometimes competing selves and their relationship to the social world (Belk 1988): "we exist not only as individuals, but also as collectivities. We often define family, group, subculture, nation and human selves through various consumption objects" (Belk 1988, p. 152).

Belk continues the project of demonstrating consumption as a critical human endeavor and a significant lifelong activity. Materialism links goods to intangible value structures and is mediated by cultural ideologies and individual psychic structures. Belk links traits influenced by culture and expressed on an individual level to materialism which can be seen as the transformation of goods, or commodities, into possessions. He begins to show the import of consumption as a point of self definition and an essentially productive function.

Consumption as a Productive Function

By asserting that consumers create and recognize meaning in things, Belk advances the perspective that consumers are at once productive and consumptive. In this manner, he indirectly addresses the false dichotomy of production and consumption, and the dominant notion in marketing research of production’s supremacy over consumption. As discussed previously consumers consume the objects in various capacities and produce meaning, identities and social relations that add value to the objects (Belk 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, and 1992; Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989; O’Guinn and Belk 1989; Mehta and Belk 1991). As such, production and consumption do not occur sequentially, but rather in tandem. If certain objects are treasured for nonutilitarian attributes and these attributes are not determined, or specified, by the producer, than the division of production and consumption into pristine realms cannot hold. Production is the reconfiguring of resources into "finished"products which in turn the consumer reconfigures into possessions. Furthermore, producers create value from raw materials which they consume, and consumers consume value and create meaning from the raw materials of the producers’ end product, thus collapsing the separation of production and consumption into discrete spheres. He reveals that values (use, economic and symbolic) are generated by con-sumers, as well as producers, and that meanings and values change over time, which seriously undermines the notion of a finished product.

The four previous themes, 1) consumption as a continuous process, 2) meaning in goods, 3) material holdings and value structures and 4) identity construction and expression, build to the crescendo of the fifth that consumption is a productive function that creates while utilizing value. If consumption is a process, and meaning exists in goods, then material holdings reveal information about their possessors, who can create and express their individual and collective identity through manipulating objects in a social, semiotic manner. Consumers are active in meaning construction and add value beyond the producer’s efforts. If producers are not the only ones adding value to objects, and consumers are not merely depleting resources through consumption, then economic models of marketing are seriously questioned. Producers cannot maintain their privileged status as value creators if consumers produce meaning which enhances the value of objects. Firat and Venkatesh argue (via Breen 1993) that consumption is "a very social act wherein symbolic meaning, social codes, political ideologies and relationships are produced and reproduced" (Firat and Venkatesh 1995, p. 251). Belk’s research provides empirical evidence that the modernist dichotomy does not hold.

Belk and Coon show that gifts exchanged between people intimately connected with one another take on meaning to the receiver based on their association with the giver (Belk and Coon 1993). Belk and Coon resist the temptation to model all gift giving as a transaction premised on economic models of exchange. Instead, Belk and Coon explore the social symbolic aspects of giving that focus on meaning construction and building intimate relationships over time. Gifts tangibilize relationships and contain significance not envisioned by the producers. Producers create at most an initial base of value that is enhanced and modified by consumer imagination. Where producers consume raw materials and transform them into goods, consumers consume goods and transform them into possessions.


Through the themes explicated above, Belk weaves a theory of consumption as a process of interdependent practices which do not focus on the purchase or exchange, but rather treat consumption as a continuous process of self and group articulation and source of consumer communication. On examining Belk’s research it becomes apparent that he has located decidedly nonmodernist consumption practices. He provides fuel for the epistemological, ontological and methodological debates in the marketing disciplines, by showing consumption as a process and consumers creating meaning, adding value, and expressing individual and group identities through goods. In this manner, consumers use products and possession sets to communicate in everyday life. As Gottdiener notes socio-semiotics "accounts for the articulation of mental and exo-semiotic, the articulation between the material context of daily life and the signifying practices within a social context" (Gottdiener 1995, p. 26). For Gottdiener, as in Belk, "[m]eanings are themselves grounded in everyday life experience. Experience is the encounter with the material world that gives rise to and supports the value systems of codes of culture" (Gottdiener 1995, p. 26). Belk demonstrates that the lived consumer experience is not adequately theorized, or modeled, using the dominant modernist marketing paraigm. The empirics he reveals support an emergent theory of consumption that collects the five themes into a cohesive understanding of consumption as a social communicative process akin to, but not identical to McCracken’s meaning transfer (McCracken 1988, p. 72). Belk shows that producers create goods which consumers transform into possessions that become socio-semiotic signs. In this case, "signs are not only symbolic expressions but also expressive symbols that are utilized as tools to facilitate social process [communication]" (Gottdiener 1995, p. 27). Furthermore, "the premise of socio-semiotics [like Belk’s work] is that any cultural object [or good] is both an object of use in a social system with a generative history and social context, and also a component in a system of signification" (Gottdiener 1995, p. 29).


Through the five narratives and the metatheory they construct, Belk has ventured into the relativism of social construction and its powerful implication for consumer emancipation. In Belk’s work consumers are shown to construct at will meanings and to create identities unimpeded by the intent of producers and limited only by the consumers’ imagination. He has unearthed through consumer experience a theory of consumption similar to that discussed by Firat and Venkatesh (1995). In the fashion of a true conceptual theorist Belk’s contribution lies not in a self conscious negation of the economic nature of materialism and the supremacy of production over consumption, but in the bolstering of alternative explanations and simultaneous competing theories. If, as Belk asserts, gift giving is more than economic exchange and that consumers construct social systems and semiotic meaning structures through consumption, then the economic positivist assertions of economic theories and rational economic man’s dominance are called into question (Belk and Coon 1993).

Furthermore, it is not even that the theoretical positions exhibited in his work are novel, for all have appeared across disciplines, but Belk melds intellectual material across disciplines and offers empirical evidence of the existence and validity of these narratives to consumption. Where Baudrillard theorizes simulacra (Baudrillard 1994), Belk provides empirical evidence that material objects and physical places can become simulacra that are invested with the aura of real (Benjamin 1969). Materialism is a vehicle of an identity creation and self expression. Money itself can be fetishized and is itself a receptacle of meaning (Belk and Wallendorf 1990). Similar to MacLuhan’s the medium is the message (MacLuhan 1968), Belk and Wallendorf contend that money is more than a medium of exchange, but rather can be the content (message) itself (Belk and Wallendorf 1990).

Through Belk’s research career, the trajectory of consumer research over the past 23 years is revealed. He has managed to help broaden the domain of consumer research in social and cultural terms without sacrificing our need to understand individual behavior. While Belk does not readily offer managerial relevance for his research, I argue that understanding the five narratives present in his articles and their interconnection as a metatheory of consumption, reveal insights that can be quite useful to marketing managers who may want to better understand consumers’ use of products and the possible meanings that may be invested in the possessions after acquisition. Expanding consumer behavior beyond the moment of acquisition may help producers understand that they are not alone in manufacturing meanings and uses and to consider the ways the products become possessions and exist in the realm of consumer experience.


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Hope J. Schau, University of California, Irvine


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25 | 1998

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