Examining The Kinds Of Things People Collect Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Although classes of objects people collect can differ immensely, the social-psychological behaviour that underlies their behaviour does not. This behaviour is supposed to involve eight stages (Mcintosh and Schmeichel, 2004). Firstly, people make the decision to collect something. Second, they research the object which they have decided to collect, gathering information. Thirdly they "court" one or more of the objects they have chosen to pursue, causing a bond to be formed between them and thus, plot a plan to get them. Then, they pursue the object(s), followed by them obtaining the object(s), then comes their reaction to their acquisition of the object, and finally they display and catalogue the item whilst moving on to other objects which are deemed eligible to belong to their collection.

Pearce (1992) offered 17 far-ranging motivations for collecting; reaffirming the body, producing gender identity, the pleasing rhythm of sameness and difference, domination, sensual gratification, sexual foreplay, risk, aesthetics, leisure, fantasy, a sense of community, prestige, desire to reframe object, ambition to achieve perfection, and finally to obtain immortality. It's interesting to note, that almost all of these motivations reflect the enhancing and progression of self.

According to Martin's ID compensation theory (1999) people will prefer frequent feedback of how they are doing, and most importantly they will seek out situations where frequent feedback is available. If people often have lives where they receive little feedback as to how they are doing. Collecting is a good method to set up tangible goals that are attainable, providing the collector with a solid feedback of progress. This goal striving progress relates well to the eight steps mentioned earlier.

The first step, the collecting process requires that collectors must first decide to collect something. This is not always a well thought out process but is more commonly a spontaneous, passionate act, and is sometimes an accident. Such as you receiving a gift from a friend, or an inherited childhood possession, even an impulse buy (Belk, 1991). Those who give a collection a great deal of forethought, are more likely to be after objects that are undervalued, and are collecting with the ultimate intention of making a profit. However Belk (1991) also notes that regardless of the intention behind starting a collection, it often turns into an emotional pursuit, and they always set a goal.

The setting of a goal serves as a moderator of tension within the self-system. A goal that is not met creates tension by showing discrepancy between the desired and the actual self. (Carver & Sheier, 1981) Whilst successfully completing the goals, acts to release the tension acquired in the goal-setting and striving process. Collections allow easy management of goals, and consequently tension.

The ugly side to being focused on materialistic goals is that as they can become more central to the collector than other social and self-relevant goals, they become less positive and self-actualized and start to produce depression and anxiety, than if this were not the case. One of the clearest examples of this is seen in Sir Thomas Phillips (Muensterberger, 1994) a nineteenth century book collector. When his beloved wife died, he happily carried on his vast collection of books, until he was bankrupt. He then remarried, only as a means to gain more money, to buy more books.

The next three stages are often considered the most important. The first of which is the gathering of information. In order to hunt down their collection, they must become knowledgeable, they must answer questions such as; what are the items worth? Who are the current experts in this category? What influences their condition and therefore value? Upon answering these questions they become more and more knowledgeable to attain their desired "expert" status, and begin the journey to building an identity as a "collector of…"

This provides benefits for the self, other collectors may find a more experienced collector for information, affirming their status. Experts will be able to better identify good and bad sales, gaining an advantage in the marketplace and boosting self-esteem. Also, the new relationships formed between collectors may facilitate the birth of a new group identity. Formanek's (1991) survey of collectors indicated that collector's relationships with others who had mutual interests were a significant factor in their motivation to continue their collection. Belongingness needs are well known to be an important factor for wellbeing (Baumeister, 1995).

Next is the courting stage, where collectors will target one or more objects to add to their collection and begin the search for them, creating a plan to possess them. This plan is largely a cognitive pursuit, it may involve attending auctions, searching the internet and looking at specialist dealer magazines. This stage is where the collector becomes more attached to the idea of owning the object, and the benefit it will bring. The object of desire is now almost within the collector's possession, this is reported to be an invigorating and anxious time.

The formation of this attachment can explain why people collect objects that are linked to positive emotions (e.g. people tend to collect comic books rather than textbooks, and more collect wine bottles than medicine bottles). Which suggests that classical conditioning can increase the power of the bond to the courtship process, by blending the notion of owning the item with an extra positive affect.

In this phase, collectors will often think and meditate on the items they wish to attain, unattained goals lead people to ruminate. One example of this is Sigmund Freud, who was an avid collector of antiques; he reported that he would often misread signs above shops and in their windows as "antiques" (Freud, 1914). Rumination primes people to pursue their collecting goals with an unrelenting passion. This rumination leads people to imagine their "ideal collector self", what they will look like after they obtain an impressive collection and how this will further their identity as a collector. This ideal self is used as a comparison while they pursue other items belonging to their collection. If they feel there is lack, it will lead to feelings of discrepancy between their actual and ideal self, causing them to try and reduce this feeling by collecting more and more (involving the next phase, the "hunt"). For people collecting a finite collection rather than an infinite collection, this discrepancy is easy to manage. For example a collector of 1966 football cards has a clearer picture of what his or her ideal self looks like, as opposed to a collector of classical music. This rumination and the promise of greater self-esteem helps to explain why collectors are willing to pay such high prices for certain items. The rarer the collectible, the greater the increase of tension and rumination when pursuing that item, and the greater the anticipated payoff (Belk, 1995, p. 74). This is not a fully unconscious process. Belk (1995) notes that the top motive for people collecting, is to gain feelings of mastery, competence, or success.

Rumination is not always beneficial, and is most aversive, when it becomes excessive and the goal becomes extremely important (and therefore hard to let go) but may be too difficult or even impossible to attain. However this one of the reasons Mcintosh and Schmeichel (2004) suggest as to why collecting being so popular. Collecting goals are tangible, and are set and managed by the collector, therefore they are often obtainable. Collecting therefore allows what many other activities do not, the likelihood of being able to attain the goal, with little to no ambiguous feedback as to whether their goal has been reached.

The "hunt" phase is reported as being the most enjoyable aspect of collecting by collectors (Belk et al, 1991). At this stage, the tension has built and is approaching its climax. The goal has been stated, the plan to achieve the goal has been negotiated, the drive to obtain the item and benefits the ownership of that item will bring acts as a motivator, all that is now required is for them to find and buy the object. The desire to acquire the object does require motivation but collectors report that hunting for the object is its own reward in itself. For example Danet and Katriel (1989) suggest that collecting is a culturally acceptable form of adult play. Whilst there are internal processes connected with the hunt, there are some external struggles too. The reason for the high prices collectors pay is mainly to fierce competition within the group for scarce items. This helps to explain why price wars almost always occur at auctions; face-to-face bidding wars, increase the adversarial atmosphere. As was mentioned before, the scarcer an item, the more distinction and payoff one gets for owning it, and thus the greater people will struggle to own it.

The next stage, "acquisition" is where the tension that has been built up till this point finally finds its relief in the ownership of the object. Obtaining this goal will inevitably result in a "rush", a wave of positive affect that is one of the prime motivations to collecting, and has also been the impetus for label collecting as addicting behaviour (Formanek, 1991). The collector's actual self is now one step closer to becoming his/her ideal collecting self.

Going back to the quote at the beginning of the paper by James (1890), the physical objects that they now own helps the collector to express his or her self-identity. Especially for those individuals who own classical music, or fine art work, which is often seen by the collector as a reflection of their own exquisite taste or appreciation for culturally valuable objects. As the acquisition of the object is incorporated into the self of the collector, it is given a sense of sacredness. Belk (1995) describes this as the collector inferring a magical connection to the collectible's previous owner or creator through ownership and handling of the object. The example given was a book that is normally worth $25 but because it was previously owned by the actor Marlon Brando it was sold for $400. Owning a set of golf clubs previously owned by a prime minister or a print signed by Cabianca boosts the owner's self-esteem by allowing them to claim a connection to an important figure and in turn, feel important themselves.

Next is the post-acquisition phase, imagine that you have come out of store with an original rare piece of artwork. You do not know why you bought it, but you have it. "...When you arrive home with it, you creep off to some secluded room to examine it. Then occurs the first little burning exaltation. Just a little glow to begin with, then by infinite gradations a consuming fire. (Rigby & Rigby, 1944, p317)

It is at this point that the object is clearly moulded with their self-concept and the fine line between "mine" and "me" becomes blurred. This object they now own allows them to attain membership to a group of collectors of a given category of objects. According to Tajfel (1982) it does not matter if the club or organization is made up of formal or informal collectors, as people tend to whatever they can to find some common element that binds them. Within these social networks, collectors form friendships, showing the positivity bias that commonly characterizes in-group out-group behaviour. Interestingly, accompanying the cooperation that characterizes most in-groups is competition. Collectors within the group may and often do, compare their collections, and consequently their collecting self. Tafjel (1982) self-evaluation maintenance model suggests that the comparison to other collectors will yield varying results depending on the situation. For instance, if the collector compares themselves to another collecter who collects the same objects, and has a better collection, this threatens their collector's self-esteem, especially given the clear, concrete measures that collecting provides. Following this discrepancy, collectors will often attempt to differentiate themselves (Belk, 1995). If one collector has more vinyls than the other, the one with less may then focus on vinyl music from a specific era or with ones with animals pictured on the cover. This in turn, leads to both collectors appreciating each other's collection, boosting each other's self-esteem.

In this way collecting aids both group membership and individual needs. Collectors often report that the friendship of other collectors is one of the most rewarding aspects of collecting, but a collection also gives clear evidence that you unique and autonomous. This entire process for this object now also acts as a story to tell, which collectors frequently relish retelling (Belk, 1995)

Now that they own the object, they have the ability to exercise control over it, including restoring and displaying the object. Collectors often participate in what Belk (1995) calls "possession rituals" after they own the item. Freud for example, would bring his newly acquired objects to the dining room table, to appreciate whilst he had his meal. After this he took them to his office and would hold them as he counselled patients (Belk, 1995). The other aspect of this is cataloguing, collectors keep a record of what they have and usually what they want. If someone is trying to collect first editions of a particular author, he/she may write out all the books that author has published, and mark the ones they have collect and the ones they still need. This process can also take on the trappings of a ritual, providing the collector with much pleasure. McCracken (1988) suggests this is highly fulfilling of their self-needs which often lacking in the regular full-time employment. It is interesting to note then, that many collectibles are naturally serialized to promote easy goal-setting and cataloguing.

The last stage, is often returning to stage 3 (courtship) or stage 1 (deciding to collect something, as collecting is on-going process. Collectors may also revaluate their goals if they feel they are unattainable. For instance if somebody was collecting autographs of primeministers, but found that the earlier ones were just too expensive, resulting in a negative affect on self, they may change their collection to only twentieth century primeministers. Once it has been redefined, the whole process begins again and may continue for months, years, or even a lifetime.

It was mentioned earlier that collecting is common human social behaviour, but it has seen little psychological research. On the surface, it seems to be an inexplicable human behaviour, people spend lots of money, on items they will never use. In this manner people may collect thousands of spoons, or items with Garfield on them. The main conclusion of this paper is that this behaviour is all an attempt to benefit self, and meet self needs. Collecting involves different processes and each process has its own unique way of doing meeting these needs.