Full text: Ownership as interpersonal dominance

to trace the origins of psychological research to fictional literature, there is argument that the 
goals of novelists are closer to those of social psychologists than the latter might wish to think 
(Litwinski, 1944; Ichheiser in Rudmin, Trimpop, Kryl & Boski, 1987). 
Henry James’ (1852) essay on “Property as Symbol” is a clear instance in which a novelist 
addressed the symbolic function of property. He argued that “the domineering nature of the 
sentiment of personal property” (p. 55) cannot be explained by its utility, nor could property be 
considered a good in its own right since men are ashamed of the deference they pay to it and 
since great possessions come to possess the possessor. Rather, property serves a symbolic 
function, that of representing man’s power and sovereignty. The protection of property is the 
protection of sovereignty over nature. James (1852) went on to elaborate a quasi-Scholastic, 
quasi-Hegelian argument that man realizes his representation of God's perfection in sovereign 
acts made possible in the social order. Private property is the imperfect representation of 
man’s God-given sovereignty, and as such can both elevate man in the perfection it signifies 
and belittle him in the imperfection of that representation. One’s selfhood Is a gift from God and 
as such should not be denigrated by comparing its imperfect representation to that of others: 
...external property of any sort is sacred in itself, is otherwise than representatively sacred. 
It is not merely my material possessions which belittle my manhood, it is my moral ones 
also, the moment | begin to claim a property in them. The moment | begin to prize my moral 
attainments, or felicitate myself on my benevolence, my honesty, my candor, etc., and to 
feel a superiority in these respects to others, | begin to retrograde from the divine kingdom, 
and decline from the perfect hope of man. (James, 1852, p. 72) 
The link between literature and psychology is also explicit in the case of Csikszentimihalyi 
and Rochberg-Halton's (1381) work on The Meaning of Things: 
The earliest discernible roots of our concern with the meaning of things go back to a set 
of ideas that had a brief flowering in France about 30 years ago. In Paris, in 1965, George 
Perec published his novel, Les Choses, and thus inaugurated an ephemeral genre that was 
called chosisme. The goal of this all but stillborn literary movement was to portray human 
life mainly in terms of the characters’ acquisition, use, and disposal of objects....As a 
literary school, chosisme was doomed by the narrowness of its chosen limitations. But it 
did raise an important issue, which seemed ripe for more systematic investigation. 
(Csikszentimihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981, p. xi.) 
They also mention depth psychology and the philosophies of Gusdorf (1948), Marcel (1949), and 
Sartre (1943/1956) as other direct antecedents to their work. Although they lament that 
possessions as status symbols have overwhelmed other self-referential symbolic uses of 
possessions, Csikszentimihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) do emphasize the importance of 
interpersonal control as both a basis for, and a use of, status symbols: 
...status -or the ability to control meaning in one’s community- has become, to a certain 
extent, independent of other sources of control and has taken on a life of its own. Wealth,

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