Sunday, November 23, 2008

Are Possessions an Extension of Self?

In his 1988 article, Belk addresses this question as a topic of interest to marketing research. He starts (1988, p 139) with a summary of the three states of self: 1.) Being; 2.) Doing; and 3.) Having. He goes on to do a detailed review of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (p 145), a work that fully explored the relationships between these three states. In Sartre’s existential view, doing is a transitional state leading to the two more stable states to have or to be. Sartre argues that the only reason we want to have something is to enlarge our sense of self and so having is an extension of being.

This existential viewpoint is consistent with John Locke (see ) the philosophical father of the old United States (see ). In both philosophical systems, private property is recognized as a fundamental state of mankind and in the western world purchases are given legal status as an extension of self. In this culture, there is the opportunity for purchases to be an extension of self.

This is not the case in all cultures. Belk goes on (p 146) to discuss the Marxist viewpoint, which stresses doing as the stable state and the having state as creating ‘corrupt fetishes’ in the self. Furthermore, the collective state of being rather than the individual is emphasized. In such a culture it is very unlikely that purchases could be a reflection of self.

Another possible permutation is that of Erich Fromm, who wrote The Sane Society, a popular analysis of American social decay. Unlike Marx, Fromm (see Belk, 1988, p 146) holds that being rather than doing is the “preeminent form of existence.” However, like Marxists he holds that having is a fountain of social ills. Again, in a culture like that Fromm recommends, possessions would probably not be an extension of self.

Even in John Locke’s world, which to some extent still exists today, private property may only have a utilitarian role. Not in the Dionysian ethos that pervades the modern west but in its Apollonian past according to the Canadian anthropologist Anthony Wallace (1963, pp 101-11). In such times, Neumeier (2006, p 38) tells us that product features were the focus of the advertising. I don't think this is because people were simple and dull but because that was the cultural milieu.

The dichotomy of Dionysian and Apollonian ethos was contrived by the Greeks and an inherent part of their drama and written arts. A dim view is given the motivations that drive a culture during periods of intemperance. William Blake captured the sense of overindulgence, especially in his third proverb (see ).

In the growing prosperity of Victorian times, the economist Veblen postulated that property can be a decorative extension of self (see Belk, 1988, p 157). Belk also reviews analyses of grave goods as further support for this contention that property is an extension of self. The existence of grave goods may however wax and wane according to the presiding ethos or other cultural factors. Our modern American society is certainly a good prospect for viewing property as an extension of self, but we don’t bury goods with the dead.

As noted, I think that Belk’s argument is most persuasive in the context of the modern west. He suggests (p 140) that the more control one has over an object the more it becomes part of self. I disagree with this because we would not have spent the time and energy to master an object if it was not already in our concept of self. In either case, though, the object becomes a reflection of self because it has salience with us, imagery, feelings and resonance - the ladder of brand equity.

Keller (2008, p 72) observes that a strong personal attachment can be established between a brand and a person. Brand’s convey a sense of community, a self larger than the individual, similar to nationalism. The brand imagery like patriotism defines a larger self for those who own the brand. They have become part of such a community. Neumeier (2006, p 40) proposes that brands are advancing into the vacuum left by subsiding national boundaries to avoid homogenized globalism.

In sum, I think Belk’s contention has application today as our Dionysian ethos has gone global. On the other hand, the Marxist interpretation of self has not completely disappeared, with China, Russia, Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Vietnam still having such inclinations. What is more interesting is that yet another movement in the west may be growing, the caring conserver social movement identified by Lessinger (1991, pp 148-160). It reflects Fromm’s interpretation of self in society. Lessinger argued skillfully about the inevitability of this movement’s success and the economic demolition of the existing order it will ignite.

Depending on your choice of first cause, goods may not reflect an extension of self.

Belk, R (1988). Possesions and the Extended Self. Journal of Consumer Research. Retrieved on November 13, 2008 from WVU IMC Week 5 readings.

Keller, K (2008). Strategic Brand management. Pearson/Prentice-Hall.

Lessignger, Jack (1991). Penturbia. SocioEconomics Press.

Neumeier, M (2006). The Brand gap. New Riders.

Wallace, Anthony FC (1963). Culture and Personality. Random House.

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