Full text: Ownership as interpersonal dominance

Reinforced by psychoanalytic and semiotic theory, explanations of possessions as 
symbols have flourished. However, Spencer (1879/1893) in the nineteenth century and Blumberg 
(1974) in the twentieth century have argued that the use of possessions as status symbols 
should lose importance in more advanced societies. There is evidence that possessions in fact 
do not function as status symbols. For example, Form and Stone (1957) studied the symbolism 
used by persons in upper, middle, working and marginalized social classes to appraise . 
strangers. They found classification by status to predominate but classification by power to be 
nil. Surprisingly, possessions were less important for middle class subjects’ appraisals of 
others’ status than they were for upper and working class subjects’ appraisals. Status 
indicators judged unimportant or irrelevant for the appraisal of status included household 
furnishings, income, house, and clothing. 
Turner, Foa and Foa (1971) similarly found evidence that possessions did not function as 
status symbols. They studied students’ judgements of equivalence between reinforcers, and 
found status as a reinforcer to be most like love and least like goods or money. They surmised 
that the important difference between status and possessions as reinforcers was that 
possessions represent a zero-sum game, that is, the more one person gets, then the less 
another person has; whereas, love and status both entail simultaneous possession by one’s self 
and others. Thus, the economies of status and possessions are different, making their symbolic 
equivalence doubtful. 
However, Belk (1985a,b) has reviewed arguments that goods are increasingly used as 
status symbols as social mobility requires adaptive means of communicating status (e.g. 
Brooks, 1979; Belk, Bahn & Mayer, 1982; Clark, 1986; Fussell, 1983). The interpretation of 
possessions as status symbols and the acknowledgement of territorial dominance that follows 
from that have been shown by Bouska and Beatty (1978). They observed the frequency with 
which shoppers entering a department store would detour around a student and fellow 
confederate dressed as a student, businessman, or priest. The resuits showed a positive 
relationship between the frequency of detours and the status displayed in the dress of the 
confederate. Status possessions, in this case clothes, led to others acknowledging territorial 
This leads to the fourth tradition of research on the symbolic functions of possessions, 
that of marking territory. Goffman (1971) has suggested a taxonomy of markers:

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