11 September 2006

What are we when we have nothing?

Possessions can be extensions of the self (see my previous posts). According to a ground-breaking paper on consumer behaviour by Russell W Belk, “The functions that possessions play in the extended self involve creation, enhancement, and preservation of a sense of identity.” In his paper, Professor Belk cites William James, who laid the foundations for modern conceptions of self, as having said that we are the sum of our possessions. He, then, goes on to review the basic states of our existence – having, doing, and being – following streams of thought more famously identified with Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism.

Since Professor Belk’s work is on consumer behaviour, we must be fair to him and grant him that his construct of ‘possessions and the extended self’ (that’s the title of his ground-breaking paper) works perfectly well on consumers – i.e. on people who have the ability to create, or express, demand for products and services in the marketplace. And that, we know, is a function of our ability not just to desire a product or a service, preferably in a branded form, but also the money to back up that desire. It’s certainly a good case for capitalism – if not existentialism.

Does that, then, mean that our identity is really an economic entity? That, it’s really a matter of our purchasing power? And, if so, does that also mean that economically weak persons have weaker identities than those with more purchasing power? If, according to William James and Russell W Belk, we are what we have, what are we when we have nothing?

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