Vol. 9, No. 1, November 2007


by David Ekerdt
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 for dismissal. 

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 with maintenance.

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.