Full text: Ownership as interpersonal dominance

There is not wanting a form of tender sentiment towards inanimate things. A man comes 
to look upon his house, his fields, his wealth, the implements of his trade, his collections 
of art and curiosity, his local environment, with something of the associated emotion shown 
to his family or his friends. His regard for these things assumes the character of affection; 
when he is deprived of them, the pain is a kind of sorrow....It is, doubtless, from their 
original power to give pleasure that such things instigate the tender passion, but as they 
are unsuited to its proper consummation, the indulgence is imaginary or fictitious, like the 
love felt towards a person beyond our reach. (Bain, 1880, p. 145) 
The feeling of possession and the exercise of power, without immediate reference to other 
ands, is a first-rank pleasure....power is the name for many things besides the pleasure of 
rampant cruelty. It has much in common with the aggregate named Property and Wealth; 
it signifies the means of gaining the agreeables of sense and warding off the disagreeables. 
This may be done by the direct control of others, as when a man has at his beck servants 
to do whatever he wants; or it may be done indirectly by laying hold of property or 
possessions, like a freebooter. Again, power brings adulation and submission, which is 
only a more refined form of the primary sentiment. (Bain, 1880, p. 194-185) 
The utilitarian principle was to become Thorndike’s Law of Effect (Murray, 1983), which was to 
become one of the foundations of behaviorism and of modern economic, consumer psychology 
(Small, 1924). 
James’ discussion of self and possessions resulted in traditions of psychological 
research in child development and in the social psychology of the self. Research on how 
children develop and express their sense of self was particularly linked to interpersonal 
dominance and to children’s conflicts over possessions. James (1890) himself began this: 
The beginnings of acquisitiveness are seen in the impulse which very young children 
display, to snatch at, or beg for, any object which pleases their attention. Later, when they 
begin to speak, among the first words they emphasize are ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Their earliest 
guarrels with each other are about questions of ownership. (James, 1890, vol. 2, p. 422) 
Charles Cooley, an economist and founder of sociology, was the first to provide empirical 
support for James’ claims (Rudmin, 1985). In a chapter on “The social self”, Cooley (1902) 
argued that the emergence of the self is fundamentally a matter of interpersonal dominance 
expressed and habituated through appropriation and possession. Cooley describes how he 
came to these ideas through observational research on the uses of self-referent language by 
his two children. His two-year-old daughter had learned to use possessive pronouns ata 
younger age than her elder brother and without his errors of pronoun reversal: 
How should a little girl of two, not particularly reflective, have discovered that “my” was not 
the sign of a definite object like other words, but meant something different with each 
person who used it? And, still more surprising, how should she have achieved the correct 
Jse of it with reference to herself which, it would seem, could not be copied from anyone 
else, simply because no one else used it to describe what belonged to her?...Watching her 
use of the first person, | was at once struck with the fact that she employed it almost wholly 
in a possessive sense, and that, too, when in an aggressive, self-assertive, mood. It was 
extremely common to see R. tugging at one end of a plaything and M. at the other. 
screaming, “My, my.” (Cooley, 1902, p. 158)

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