9, No. 1, November 2007
by David Ekerdt
University of Kansas
No, this is
not a sequel to The Exorcist.
Dispossession is about the parting of people and their things,
something that happens at the end of the consumption cycle. At
a February 2007 conference at the University of London on “Consumption
and Generational Change,” I attempted to map the problem
of dispossession, a brief summary of which follows.
Some of these observations flow from my research on “household
disbandment” in later life, being the activities that people
undertake to reduce the volume of their possessions in the course
of a residential move to smaller quarters, a process with practical,
cognitive, emotional, and social dimensions.
Amid the flow of goods through our lives, the items that become
possessions are those that stay long enough to require the “labor” of
possession. More than inert lumps of matter, kept things
must be placed, stored, arranged, contained, maintained, cleaned,
insured, emotionally invested, or even “animated” in
the sense that the possessor attributes to them an inner life. Basically,
I make the thing over as mine.
Things thus cultivated as possessions number far beyond the
few items that are typically showcased in research on the meaning
of possessions. Such studies tend to focus on “special
things”—belongings such as antiques, curios, and
collections. Rather, think about the thousands of things
that fill the buildings and rooms we live in, attics, garages,
storage sheds, basements, automobiles, and gardens. We
also keep things at our places of employment. Possessions
themselves contain possessions that contain possessions back
to the deepest recesses of the household.
To say that possessions are objects that are attended to and
cared for doesn’t necessarily mean they are cherished. They
could be merely tolerated, or resented, or hated. And if
one lives with others, there are items about the place whose
possession is shared, or even mysterious. The essential
point is that possession entrains labor on behalf of the things
and their environs.
Why do we keep all these things?
Our research on older people and their belongings at the University
of Kansas has disclosed nine reasons to keep things. These
motives may shift over time, and multiple motives can enclose
the possession of a single thing.
The nine reasons are: things seem useful; things are worth money;
things give pleasure; things represent us; things conjure
possible selves; social reciprocity to gift givers; responsibility
to forbears; and the virtue of conservation. Finally, we
keep because we can, dwelling in ever larger containers where
the convenience of storage outweighs the inconvenience of disposition.
This list could be subdivided or condensed; the two most generic
motives appear to be utility and symbolization of self and others. Jean-Paul
Sartre argued that even these two could be collapsed into one,
that having is essentially a way of being in the world: “I
am what I have.” If possessions are so basic to a
sense of identity, then dispossession is going to entail more
than the physical removal of material objects.
It next seems straightforward to predict that people will release
a thing from their stores when all motives for its possession
have been extinguished, in which case the labor of possession
is not worth the effort. So, possessions endure (as such)
so long as motives for possession match or exceed the labor of
possession. When the balance tips, the thing is a candidate
But only a candidate. The suddenly problematic status
of not-worth-keeping may lead to a re-imagination of motive or
a search for more possession resources—more space, help
What might upset the relation between motive and labor, and
so set off the prospect of dispossession? I suggest three
circumstances. First, some deterioration of the thing
may make functionally unavailable. Theft and removal are
likewise exogenous threats to possession. A second circumstance
that puts possessions in doubt is some sort of failure with their
capacity for social mediation. For example, when anxious
about their cluttered households, people undertake voluntary
downsizing campaigns. (Hilariously, an entire industry
has arisen to assist this, becoming yet another form of consumption.)
A third circumstance is life course change that either renders
one’s material support obsolete or makes the labor of possession
unsustainable. Such changes might include a job change,
the successive stages of child rearing, disability, or the narrowing
of the life world that occurs in later life.
The unbalanced relation between possession motive and labor
is only the occasion for the dispossession of material. Next
comes the act itself—what might be called the labor of
dis-possession. The work of keeping is now weighed against
the work of not keeping.
The principal disposal or outplacement strategies—gift,
sale, donation, and discard—all entail some planning, some
know-how, some negotiation, some effort at presentation, and
even expense. There is also risk: that gifts will be refused,
that salables will be treated cruelly in the marketplace. For
all the talk of a throwaway society, throwing things away still
involves sorting and conformity to municipal procedure.
Considering the various labors (not to mention the emotions)
of dispossession, it is small wonder that possessions accumulate.
In summary, possessions are consumption items that stay long
enough to merit some care, if only to be merely placed somewhere
for later consideration. Across time, mixed and shifting
motives for possession must match or exceed the labor of keeping
them. When the balance tips, there is still labor in the
outplacement effort. Keeping or releasing, there is
always work to do. This is the responsibility of consumption,
and it sometimes seems a curse.
Ekerdt, D.J., Sergeant, J.F., Dingel, M., & Bowen, M.E.
(2004). Household disbandment in later life. Journal
of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 59B, S265-273.
Ekerdt, D.J. & Sergeant, J.F. (2006) Family
things: Attending the household disbandment of elders. Journal
of Aging Studies 20: 193-205.
>>> back to Consumers,
Comodities & Consumption, Vol. 9(1) November 2007.