Ella’S Elephants and the Three Blind White Guys


Russell W. Belk (1998) ,"Ella’S Elephants and the Three Blind White Guys", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 109-113.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 109-113


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


I protest. For one thing, trying to understand raw ethnographic text without being a part of the data collection is a bit like the blind men trying to comprehend an elephant while variously focusing on it’s trunk, tusk, leg, tail, ear, or body. In fact, the present situation is worse than this because the blind men can potentially roam around the elephant collecting new data, asking the elephant questions, and even, if they are annoying enough, provoking a response. But Ella only exists for us as fixed text. We cannot ask her questions, probe with follow-ups and projectives, observe her in her normal environments, gather an oral history, triangulate with photographs and other records of her life, or gain any measure of Ella’s trust. Even if the interview with her is brilliantly conducted and reported, those who conduct and transcribe an interview can never put everything they have learned into the transcription. In the present case, we don’t know Ella’s physical appearance, her background, her academic area, the decor of her office (where the interview was conducted) or (despite some description) her home, her posture, body language, hairstyle, vocal pitch, degree of self assurance, or other such details. With history and fiction, fixed text is all we can hope for. But since Ella exists somewhere as a living person, such distance is unnecessary. The interviewer’s transcription is not enough. There will always be tacit knowledge that the interviewer possesses, both consciously and unconsciously that is lost in a secondhand account. Moreover, we knowlittle of the Talia’s (the interviewer’s) personal equation and how the interviews with Ella may have been affected by these characteristics or any relationship the two may have had. I suspect that both Ella and Talia might find a number of our interpretations and mistaken assumptions quite laughable. Mine, in particular, are likely to be seen as outrageous.

What is more, by our interpreting her, Ella is negated, muted, and allowed no voice of her own. Not only does this oppose ethnographic trends toward empowering informants rather than privileging the researcher to tell their story (e.g., Clifford and Marcus 1986; Clifford 1988), given the lack of voice that women and blacks have had historically, this muting is especially ironic. But perhaps the ultimate irony is that this African American woman of color is being interpreted by three (really four) white men of Northern European heritage. However great our ethnic and feminist sympathies, given the distance across which this woman’s experiences must resonate, our reactions are most likely to remain sympathies more than empathies. It is absurd to think that we can effectively give voice to Ella’s perspective under the best of ethnographic circumstances, much less at the distance imposed by ethnicity, color, gender, and secondhand data.

A further and more basic difficulty that I have in this project is with the concept of a canonical body of consumer behavior ethnographic text as advocated by Larsen and Wright (forthcoming). While, in principle, I have no objection to almost any ethnographic experiment, I have several concerns with this proposal. One, as threatened by the term "canon," is that a single consensually validated perspective could potentially be taken to render other perspectives invalid. This is the same narrow thinking that leads some die-hard positivists to foam at the mouth at the mere mention of non-positivist consumer research. There is not and will never be a single best way of doing or interpreting a piece of consumer research. Different researchers with different characteristics, interests, life experiences, abilities, anomalies, and agendas will necessarily interpret the same text in different ways. As Niels Bohr once said, the opposite of a trivial truth is clearly false, whereas the opposite of a great truth is also true. If there is convergence on a certain viewpoint, it is likely to be either a trivial truth and/or a culturally and temporally specific conclusion that will not endure universally or indefinitely. Either way, canonical "Truth" will eventually be forgotten, revised, rejected, or transcended.

Obvious as it seems to me that different interpreters will derive different interpretations, I offer a further interpretation of Ella below in order to help demonstrate this inevitability. My reading of Ella was begun after reading Val Larsen and Newell Wright’s interpretation, and was completed after reading Craig Thompson’s interpretation. I have sought to offer an alternative reading, although I do share some tenuous conclusions with these insightful analyses. In light of the criticisms I have raised above, my interpretation should be regarded as highly tentative, speculative, and oppositional. It is by no means definitive, nor could it hope to be so based on the secondhand nature of the present data and the inevitable influence of my own personal equation, as glossed in the next paragraph.

Briefly, I am at this writing, a 51-year-old Caucasian male of primarily English, Scandinavian, and German-Jewish descent. I am married and have a 26-year-old daughter. I went to an all-white public high school in the suburbs of the Midwest and my first extended contact with blacks was in cooking and washing dishes on a dining car of the Great Northern Railroad "Empire Builder" passenger train between Chicago and Seattle during the summers of 1964, 1965, and 1966. Most of the waiters and porters and a number of the other cooks were black. We shared a dormitory car during the trip, but the railroad put us up in racially segregated hotels in Chicago and Seattle. I was not particularly involved in black or feminist civil rights activities dring these volatile undergraduate university (of Minnesota) years, beyond attending a few college rallies, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, voting for Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver for U.S. President, and forming an enduring love of Mississippi Delta and other acoustic blues. My friends are predominantly white and are at least as likely to be women as men. My daughter dated a black man during her college years (at Rutgers) and they still keep in touch. For the past five Northern Hemisphere summers I have been visiting Australia in order to pursue fieldwork in Aboriginal communities there. And although I was born in North Dakota and live in Utah (two of the whitest states in the nation), I have lived in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Champaign-Urbana, all of which have more diverse populations. I have done some work on materialism and collecting, so Ella’s shopping and collecting activity are the major subjects of my attention in the following interpretation.


One thing both of the other readings seem to neglect is that Ella shows a number of characteristic signs of being a compulsive buyer (Faber, O’Guinn, and Krych 1987). As O’Guinn and Faber (1989) point out:

For compulsive buyers, the inability to control an overpowering impulse to buy pervades their lives.... Compulsive buyers buy not so much to obtain utility or service from a purchased commodity as to achieve gratification through the buying process itself (p. 147).

This description seems to fit Ella very well. She tells Talia that:

R: ...And the thing with me is that ... sometimes I end up buying some of the same things I already have. (Laugh).

I: (Laugh).

R: You know, I might see a blouse that I like, and then I will forget that I’ve had this blouse. And so I have about three blouses just alike.

I: Oh, goodness.

R: (Laughing). So it just might be a problem. You know, I don’t know whether that’s a problem or what.

She goes on to say that she has bought multiples of the same blouse on the same day, that she buys clothes she doesn’t need because they are on saleCeven when they don’t fit, that she puts many clothing and lamp purchases in her closet and never uses them, and that she often wastes her money buying "bargains." She observes,

Well actually, Talia, I think that I really am a bargain shopper. And I think maybe, too, if you think about it, I might buy some things that I don’t need because it’s on sale. And I read once that if you get something that’s on sale and you don’t need it, you’re wasting money.

In this last comment and in several other references to bargains and money (apparently including research or reading she has done relating wearing green to signaling an interest in money), Ella also displays what Edmund Bergler (1947) called "the psychopathology of bargain hunting." Her insistence near the beginning of the first interview that she never pays full price eventually gives way to an admission that in buying as much as she does she is often "wasting money" even though she is discriminating and she buys good things ("quality").. Two of the more common interpretations of conspicuous consumption among blacks attribute such patterns to either compensation for the humiliation of racial discrimination directed against them or resistance through the creation of defiant consumption patterns that opose white domination. Regina Austin (1994) offers an alternative explanation:

Blacks’ tastes for expensive commodities are not solely attributable to the base reasons the critiques cite. The quest for quality is partly a response to a history of being cheated by inferior goods and inflated prices (p. 163).

But in Ella’s case we might question whether she is buying quality at deflated prices or simply being cheated further by buying wastefully. As Bergler (1947) contends:

"A bargain hunter" is a person irresistibly attracted to merchandise which he [sic] does not need at the moment but which can be bought cheaply. Window shopping for a person of this type is more than simply a matter of orientation; it is an alluring situation. The difference between such an individual and the normal person, is that for the former price is more important than usefulness, while for the latter need is of first consideration (p. 323).

In an age of apparent abundance we need not condemn such expenditures. Apparently Ella can afford them and in spite of these expenditures she has managed to nearly complete acquiring and furnishing her "dream house." Her administrative position suggests she is successful and it would be mean and hypocritical to fault her for pursuing the material goods so widely touted as rewards for success. Moreover, despite her reservations that she may have a problem and that she may be wasting her money, securing apparent bargains may provide her with further feelings of success within a system that routinely denies blacks dignity in consumption (see Austin 1994). Thus when Ella says "I like quality" and "Most of the things I do get would be valuable and...and would be of value," I hear her saying "I myself have quality. I am of value." And when she talks about going into a Carol Little outlet in California and buying "everything I could wear," adding that she "did a lot of damage then," I hear her describing shopping as an act of guerilla warfare and pillaging that allows her small victories against the system. Her purchases are the trophies that memorialize these small victories.

But compulsive bargain hunting may be another evidence of the multiple control disorders that O’Guinn and Faber (1989) diagnose as compulsive. For compulsive people it is the repeated performance of a certain behavior and not it’s outcome or effect that brings relief of anxiety. A further area of compulsive behavior for Ella is her housekeeping. As she recounts,

I guess, I might be exceptionally neat. Everything is in order. There are people sometimes who clean up because they have company, but I clean up for me.

This too suggests that it is the compulsive action (like compulsive hand washing) and not the outcome (clean hands or clean house) that brings relief.

The same tension-reducing compulsive buying may be seen in Ella’s collecting china, glasses, lamps, mirrors, candle holders, and elephant replicas (following the destruction of her African mask collection). Although not all or even most collectors are truly compulsive (Belk 1995a,b), Ella’s collecting has been serial, multiple, and, judging by the size of her collections and their overflow ino her closets, extensive. This collecting fits the pattern of her compulsive bargain hunting, as witnessed by Ella’s vigorous defense of the value of the objects she has acquired. Many collectors offer this same sort of defense, but generally only the wealthiest and most astute collectors can ever reclaim the price they have paid for the objects in their collections, much less earn a profit (Belk 1995a). As with the lamps that Ella emphatically states are not used for lighting, collected objects are routinely taken out of their patterns of intended use and thereby ennobled, set apart, or sacralized. They are in this sense inessential luxury goods that are not likely to ever serve their original utilitarian purposes again. This helps to make collecting a quintessentially materialistic type of consumption (Belk 1995a). Like many of the "bargains" she obtains in clothes shopping, the joy and meaning Ella derives from her collecting is unlikely to be adequately understood in terms of either ordinary use value or in terms of ordinary exchange value. While collecting provides multiple pleasures that differ from one person to the next, perhaps Ella’s pleasure in these pursuits derives primarily from the anxiety-reduction afforded by performing the buying ritual, coupled with the fairly ubiquitous sense of accomplishment and worth offered by collecting, and a more unique sense of identity derived from the particular objects she collects.

The identity aspects of collecting are most often based on the type of objects collected. Nevertheless, few collectors purposefully select the types of objects they will collect based on some reasoned judgment of what would best express their ideal or actual perceived selves. In Ella’s interviews we have an account only of the start of her elephant collection and the cessation of her mask collection. She explains the start of the elephant collection as a purposeful choice following the fire that destroyed her mask collection:

And so I decided to collect elephants instead. The elephant, with trunk up, stands for good luck. And after losing everything I had [in the fire], I thought I needed all the luck I could get (laughs). So that’s how I ended up with the elephants. And then I just bought an elephant. And then I said, "Well, you have seven elephants, and that’s a set." And seven is a good luck number, supposedly. And I just started buying elephants so I could have good luck.

Rather than having "decided to collect elephants," if Ella is like most collectors the start of the collection was more fortuitous. She says that she "just bought an elephant" and then had the epiphany: "that’s a set." The reflection on the trunk-up elephant as meaning good luck seems as much a rationalization as her claim that some of the pieces are "very valuable."

But whether or not elephant collecting was purposively chosen, it has nevertheless become an important sign of Ella’s identity, just as the cessation of her mask collecting after the fire (but not her lamp collecting which was apparently reinitiated) seems to mark a turning point in her self concept. In part, I think that Val Larsen, Newell Wright, and Craig Thompson are correct that both collections are important because they represent Africa (assuming that most of Ella’s elephants are African rather than Asian). But I interpret the potential symbolic significance of this link a bit differently. For American blacks no less and perhaps more than whites, African "artifacts" (the distanced academic term Ella now uses to describe the masks), represent links to a "dark," "savage," "sexual," "mysterious," and "primitive" continent (Torgovnick 1990, 1997). As Malcolm X (1964) recalled from his childhood:

I somehow never thought, then, of the black people in Africa. My image of Africa, at that time, was of naked savages, cannibals, monkeys and tigers and staming jungles (p. 9).

More recently this image of exotic otherness was recapitulated in the "Jungle Fever" title of Spike Lee’s film about an adulterous interracial relationship. Here is one place I wish we had more data. Ella says she likes traveling to foreign countries, but we don’t know if this includes extensive visits to Africa. Moreover, apart from being divorced and a grandmother, we know very little of Ella’s personal life. Therefore, I necessarily engage in substantial speculation in the following interpretation of her switch from collecting African masks to collecting elephants and how these changes may relate to issues of her identity.

These two signs of AfricaCthe mask and the elephantCare quite different. The mask hides identity and gives license to behaviorsCritual and otherwiseCthat are normally repressed. The mask can be specifically associated with sexuality (e.g., Castle 1986; Kugelmass 1994). The fact that Ella hung the one mask she describes over her back door also may suggest an additional (possibly and) sexual reference to an illicit lover or a "back door man." Elephants, by contrast, are large, grey, slow, and ponderous. These elephantine characteristics are in many ways the antithesis of the youthful, active, dangerous, transgressive sexuality implied by the mask. During the fire in 1988 Ella would have been approximately 40 years old. It is possible to envision the consuming fire (itself a metaphor of sexuality and desire) and the destruction of her mask collection as signs that her active sexuality had also burned out. Elephants, quite apart from any luck connotations she now attributes to them, may be an implicit sign of a slower, greyer (i.e., older and neither black nor white), blander, larger, and less openly sexual self. At least this is true of her self presentation, since the elephant collection is the largest and most visible of her collections and apparently the only one evident in her office. Perhaps due to its visibility, the collection has attracted elephant gifts from others and these gifts may affirm and reinforce a successful elephantine self presentation.

But this interpretation alone is too simplistic a view of the relation of Ella’s collections to her identity. There are other facets of her collecting that also deserve attention. As Val Larsen and Newell Wright observe, both the lamp and the mirror are indicative of revelations of self. However, whereas lamps are also associated with a search for truth, mirrors can also distort, fractionalize, and multiply images of the self. Besides revealing truth, the light of lamps and candles also "burns" like the metaphorically sexual conflagration that consumed Ella’s mask collection. Significantly perhaps, Ella does not use her lamps and candle holders, but keeps them in the closet. This would suggest that her own fires of passion and truth-seeking have not been extinguished as much as closeted.

Her role as a university administrator may be responsible for both of these repressions as well as her working clothing choices. As Austin (1994) observes,

Many black women feel compelled to conform to white bourgeois female appearance norms in order to combat stereotypes that associate black women with promiscuity, unattractiveness, slovenliness, incompetence, and poverty. Black women convey the message that they are respectable, attractive, professionally adept, and upwardly mobile by how they dress (p. 157).

Certain aspects of this dress-for-success ethos have of course affected the workplace appearance of working and professional white women and men as well, to the extent that business clothes have become a uniform. But less style-conflicted professionals are likely to wear the same clothing whether at home or at work (Nippert-Eng 1996). It would be of interest to learn whether Ella does so in her small town environment. We do know tht she may wear something that is "bright" when she is "going out."

There is another commonality in at least some of Ella’s collections: their fragility. China, glasses, lamps, and mirrors, and probably in some measure candle holders and elephant replicas are all fragile objects that break easily. At the end of the first interview Ella describes them as "pretty things." While sometimes fragility can enhance the symbolic value of heirlooms that have survived numerous breakage opportunities (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981), it can also signal the fragility of the collector, as with Laura in Tennessee Williams (1984) Glass Menagerie. In the character description for the play she is described in this way:

Laura’s situation is even graver [than her paranoid mother’s]. A childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace. This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage. Stemming from this, Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf (Williams 1984, p. 129).

Perhaps, like Laura’s leg, Ella sees her race as a stigma in her professional and university life and she feels fragile as a result. One apparent implication of such potential feelings of stigmatization and fragility may be seen in her references to a unique but secret self.

Ella emphasizes that she seeks "unique" objects, just as she seeks a unique self. Yet both her unique objects and her unique self are kept hidden and secret. Paralleling her warning to Talia that she will never reveal her core personality and must protect it, Ella keeps her secret unique self hidden in conservative suits while she continues to buy "kinda wild" Carol Little clothes in bright colors and bold patterns. The papers by Val Larsen and Newell Wright and by Craig Thompson both do a nice job of analyzing this dual personality and Ella also recognizes it:

I do have a desire to excel in the workplace. And I think I need to be a little more conservative in order to do that. And so ... you still have your personality when you’re shopping. And I think a part of my personality is something like, "Wow, get the Carol Little." Then another part of me says that I need these conservative suits, and I have problems really buying the conservative suits, but I do have some.



In fact, she reveals that she has at least eight navy blue suits alone. In the follow-up interview, she confirms that she is not revealing her "core" self when she buys and wears such conservative clothes.

And so I can only say based on my personality type. I like things with color. And I also, as well ... but I’m kind of opposite, too, because I also like the conservative look, like solid colors. But then I see myself, when I’m going out, I might wear something that’s a little bright. And although I know that’s ... I would like to project another image but there’s still something about me, because I believe that people have cores. And then in their core, the personality is there whether it’s ... whether I put it aside for my job or whatever.

This dilemma is capture well by Craig Thompson’s thematic recognition of Ella’s conflicts between the rational and the emotional and between control/order and loss of control/disorder.

But in my speculative view, Ella is hiding more than her core personality. This black administrator in a largely white university is also hiding her race and her sexuality. Note that she not only puts on an uncomfortable and false representation of herself in wearing conservative rather than "wild" clothing, she also covers almost as much of her dark skin as possible in going from miniskirts to long dresses and in wearing long sleeves even in the summertime.

And so going back to what you asked me about what’s pretty for me, something that’s ... I like long skirts. And I guess, like, when I was in college we had the mini-skirt. I used to wear those, too. But then I can’t ever imagine wearing a mini-skirt now. Or any skirt that’s really short, so pretty to me would be a long skirt. And I feel comfortable in a jacket and long sleeves. Believe it or not, even in July, you’ll find me with the long sleeves. So most of the blouses I wear are long sleeves with good color coordination, with shoes to match, most of the time.

By covering up and wearing conservative clothing in green and navy blue, she both hides her sexuality and literally changes her color. Significantly, along with skin color and hairstyle (Mercer 1979; Rooks 1996) the key features thought to differentiate white women and black women are their clothing and supposed sexuality (Wilson and Russell 1996). We don’t know about her hair style, but Ella apparently seeks to blend into her white university setting through her clothing’s bland colors, patterns, and styles, as well as through her lack of overt sexuality. Her crystal glasses, her cherrywood furniture, and her Queen Anne decor also fit a self-conscious image of sterile gentility which she seemingly associates with the white world of her small Midwest university town.

Thus, drawing together the elements in the preceding interpretation, we can see the consumption contrasts between the two sides of Ella’s personality expressed in Table 1. In terms of imagery, perhaps the contrast between the fire and Ella’s crystal is most indicative, suggesting as it does the contrast between fire and ice. The more hidden or repressed set of images are passionate, wild, and uninhibited, while the other set of images are dispassionate, tame, and inhibited. These two sides of Ella’s personality may reflect a broader tendency toward simultaneous emphasis on racial similarity and racial differentiation, as discussed by Willis (1990). In both cases the tendency is increasingly toward representing race as a matter of consumption style.


If consumption style is increasingly taken not only as symbolic, but also constitutive, of race, class, gender, lifestyle, and other such socially constructed distinctions, Ella is an interesting case study who hints at some of these consciously and unconsciously structured choices. Just as someone moving from a lower to a higher social class in terms of income and status must learn the consumption norms and patterns thought to be a part of their new position (Costa and Belk 1990), changing careers, peers, gender identities, cultures, and other referents may require a similar learning of new consumption patterns and even new self identities. As Craig Thompson points out, this is reflected in Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. But as Ella may illustrate, in this process we never totally unlearn or forget our other or former selves. Both masks and clothing camouflage (together with makeup, hairstyle, and cosmetic surgery) can change dsplayed identity. But Ella has gone from the symbolically liberating power of the mask to the symbolically inhibiting uniform of corporate academia. That she has not totally lost touch with her presumed other self, but merely closeted it, gives us faint hope that her core self may reemerge, at least occasionally and in the right contexts. Then too, this hope is steeped in a modern romantic belief, paralleling Ella’s, that there is a singular inner or core self.

As noted at the outset, this interpretation of Ella is largely speculative and no doubt irresponsible. In a broader sense however, analyzing Ella’s interviews also illustrates the pitfalls of seeking a canonical body of material in order to pursue consensus. I disagree with Larsen and Wright (forthcoming) that "Interpretive research can be fully credible only if it is grounded in the evolving consensus of an informed interpretive community." In interpretive research the researcher remains the instrument and there is no chance (or desirability) of ever standardizing such human instruments. What is true of data collection is all the more true of data interpretation. Presenting multiple points of view is realistic and rewarding. I am pluralistic enough to support the collection of a body of ethnographic work that can be used in training and that can be a target for many possible interpretations. What I object to is holding out any hope that this will lead us in the direction of a singular truth through convergence. Just as a novel is not a good novel because academic interpreters agree about what it means (more likely just the opposite is true), ethnography is not good ethnography because it leads different academic interpreters to a consensus interpretation. If it does so, we can be reasonably certain that we have discovered a trivial truth.


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Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25 | 1998

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