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Beyond the Extended Self: Loved Objects and Consumers’ Identity Narratives

 

In all probability, the word “love” is used as often with objects and activities as with people. We hear it all the time, from “I love skiing” to “I love your new dress.” In Sherry and McGrath’s (1989, 163) study of a gift store, they note that “not only do our respondents ‘love to shop’ . . .but they also ‘fall in love’ with the items they select.” In the use of products, Richins (1997) finds that love is a common consumption-related emotion. Love is so prevalent in consumption that when Schultz, Kleine, and Kernan (1989) asked participants to list feelings that they experienced when they thought about objects with which they had an emotional attachment, love was the second most commonly listed emotion, superseded only by happiness.

The people, and things, we love have a strong influence on our sense of who we are, on our self. Using response time studies, Aron et al. (1991) have shown that interpersonal love involves a fusion of identities in which one’s sense of self grows to include the loved other. In the consumer behavior literature, consumer identity has frequently been linked to constructs related more or less directly to love, including special possessions (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981), involvement (e.g., Celsi and Olson 1988), cathexis (e.g., Rook 1985), and consumerbrand relationships (e.g., Fournier 1998). Love differs fromthese constructs in the specific items discussed by informants.

Whereas special possessions are limited to privately owned physical objects and cathexis is usually applied to one’s own body, clothing, and grooming products, the things people love are a broader category that includes public objects like nature as well as consumption activities. Involvement also differs from love. People can be very involved with things they detest and can love things that they are not currently involved with, as in the case of the informants who loved books they hadn’t read in years. Consumer-brand relationships are at once broader than love, since love is only one type of relationship, and narrower than love, since they focus exclusively on brands. Nonetheless, all of these constructs share a strong focus on the way people use consumption to maintain their sense of identity through time and define themselves in relationship to other people.

The publication of Belk’s (1988) “Possessions and the Extended Self” solidified and accelerated an interest by consumer researchers in the ways consumption helps define people’s sense of who they are. Since that time, issues related to how consumers use products to construct their identity have permeated interpretive consumer research and become major topics in experimental and survey-based work as well. Belk (1988) brought together a large body of literature to support the thesis that consumers use key possessions to extend, expand, and strengthen their sense of self. Belk also elaborated on how this occurs and explored some special cases, like collections, where this phenomenon is particularly prevalent. The current article will present an empirical study on love in consumption contexts that highlights identity issues and use these findings to reflect back on Belk’s major propositions. The primary research question of the current study is how these case studies of love in
consumption can support, challenge, and update the perspective put forward in Belk (1988).

Belk (1988) uses the terms “self,” “sense of self,” and “identity” as synonyms for how a person subjectively perceives who he or she is. Belk rejects any definition of what is included in the self that can apply uniformly across individuals and cultures because he believes that what constitutes the self is a subjective assessment that changes between people and over time. Nonetheless, Belk suggests a consistent structure for the self, at least in Western individualistic cultures. Belk sees consumers as possessing a core self that is expanded to include items that then become part of the extended self. For example, summarizing earlier research,Belk concluded that for those particular respondents the “body, internal processes, ideas, and experiences” are likely to be part of their core self, whereas “persons, places,and things to which one feels attached” are more likely tobe seen as part of their extended self, and items to which they do not feel attached are not part of the self (141). The self also includes various levels of group affiliation, specifically individual, family, community, and group, that become further from the core self as they become larger and more impersonal. Items that are part of these group identities,such as a national flag, are also part of the extended self to the extent that the individual identifies with the group in question and the item is important to the group identity.

When using the current case studies to reflect back on Belk (1988), the interviews will be read in light of research on identity conducted since the publication of that seminal article. Post Belk (1988), two of the major developments in consumer research on identity have been a conceptualization of self as narrative and a concern with the complexities,conflicts, and challenges of identity construction.

It has become common to view a consumer’s sense of identity as structured in terms of a narrative (Escalas and Bettman 2000; Fournier 1998; Giddens 1991; Thompson 1996, 1997; Thompson and Tambyah 1999). This means that in addition to seeing one’s identity as a list of attributes (e.g., I am tall, I value achievement), these attributes are linked in memory to key episodes in one’s life, which in turn are strung together to form a story. This story line allows people to make sense of who they are and provides a connected identity from past, to present, and into possible imagined futures. This narrative also explains one’s affiliations with certain people and rejection of others based on their roles as other characters in the narrative. This narrative view is consistent with metaphors that see identity as a kind of performance in which consumers use goods to enact personalized versions of cultural scripts (Murray 2002).

Current research has also focused on the difficulties consumers face in developing and maintaining a coherent sense of self. Today we have a great deal of choice about who we want to be and the kind of life we want to lead. Therefore discovering one’s true preferences, navigating choice, and representing the self—both to oneself and to others—has become an overwhelming concern and a primary driving force in consumption (Gergen 1991; Giddens 1991; Lasch 1979, 1984; Sennett 1977). This general orientation, in which much contemporary consumption is a process of identity construction, gives rise to two major discourses: postmodern fragmented multiple selves and the empty self.

Postmodernist researchers such as Firat and Venkatesh (1995) see the contemporary consumer as possessing a fragmented and multiple sense of self with no need to reconcile identity contradictions to produce a unified experience(260). Firat and Venkatesh (1995) see this as a positive development because it represents “freedom from . . . having to seek centered connections or an authentic self” (233).

However, Gould and Lerman (1998), Thompson and Hirschman(1995), and Murray (2002) have not found many examples of consumers abandoning the desire for a coherent identity narrative, and their research explores the ways people use consumption to cobble together a coherent identity within the context of a fragmented society.
In contrast to the postmodernist view of contemporary consumers as possessing a sense of self that is overflowing with a cornucopia of different identities, Cushman’s (1990) empty-self critique sees identity as a black hole into which the consumer relentlessly feeds objects but which never fills up. Cushman argues that the problem arises owing to a poor fit between consumers’ continued desire for a coherent identity narrative and a lack of social and cultural support for this project because of a “significant absence of community,tradition, and shared meaning. [The individual] experiences these social absences and their consequences ‘interiorly’ as a lack of personal conviction and worth, and it embodies the absences as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger”(600). Thus people are provoked to engage in serial(and potentially endless) rounds of lifestyle consumption—attempting to identify and master the lifestyle and accoutrements that will bring fulfillment.
METHOD
The relationship between loved possessions and identity construction suggests that a hermeneutic approach is appropriate here (Arnold and Fischer 1994; Thompson 1997;Thompson, Pollio, and Locander 1994). The two cases reported here were selected from a set of 10 depth interviews,which in turn followed up on 70 phone interviews asking informants what, if anything, they loved and discussing these loved items. Depth interviews lasted 2 to 5 hr. and were conducted in the informants’ homes. Questions covered the informants’ life history, things other than people that they loved, their history with these loved items, people that they loved, and objects that they felt neutral about. Over the review process it was determined that detailed case studies were needed, and space allowed for reporting only two interviews. Two cases were selected that were representative of the interviews as a whole and that provided good illustrations of major findings.