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«Gabriella V. Smith and David J. Ekerdt, University of Kansas We adapt a metaphor from life course studies to designate the whole of one’s possessions, ...»

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Self-help books about possession reduction, especially those addressed to family members, appear to trample on the value that older people may place on their things. The significance and meaningfulness of possessions in later life have been confirmed in numerous studies (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Kroger and Adair 2008; Price, Arnould, and Curasi 2000). Older people prize possessions that symbolize their selves and their ties to others. Widows, for example, will maintain a bond with the deceased partner through certain possessions (Gentry et al. 1995; Shenk, Kuwahara, and Zablotsky 2004). Our view is that these possession reduction books actually affirm the significance of the material convoy even as they contend with it.

These authors do appreciate ‘‘the comfort of things’’ (Miller 2008), which is why they are keen to objectify the convoy as a batch of ‘‘stuff’’ and urge family members to recognize its threat to welfare and family harmony. And, in addressing elders, these authors tread more carefully and with explicit deference toward the meaning of possessions. If it were easy to part people and their things, these authors could be less resolute and imperative.

The tone of the literature analyzed here is one that is simultaneously upbeat about the benefits of possession reduction as well as deferential to the value of prized possessions. In this, the authors demonstrate qualities that have been identified by critics of self-help media, namely emotionality and a certain amount of ‘‘dumbing down’’ (Gauntlett 2008; Squire 2001;


Zimmerman et al. 2001). The complexities of downsizing in later life are often glossed over while the benefits are highlighted in the ‘‘pursuit of a happy identity’’ (Gauntlett 2008). The somewhat patronizing tone of some of the works analyzed does not so much signal a denigration of older adults, but rather a soothing condescension that is found throughout the self-help genre.

The works analyzed here demonstrate the complex relationship that people have with their belongings and how the problems of possession reflect broader cultural anxieties (McGee 2005). This matter of the material convoy and its disposition is the intersection of anxieties about aging, aging ‘‘well,’’ family roles and responsibilities, and consumption. Family members are warned not to take on the burden of elders’ stuff, even though research shows that families play a valuable role as conduits for disposition (Curasi, Price, and Arnould 2004; Hunter and Rowles 2005; Marx, Solomon, and Miller 2004). By contrast, elders are advised toward family solutions and how the disposition of their convoys can be a significant material and symbolic benefit to others. Thus, an assembly of personal belongings, tended for years and conveyed to later life, becomes at this life stage a collective and transgenerational matter.


*This research was supported in part by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, R01 AG30477. The authors gratefully acknowledge Aislinn Addington and Ben Hayter for their assistance and advice. Please direct correspondence to Gabriella V. Smith, Department of Sociology and Gerontology Center, University of Kansas, 1000 Sunnyside Ave, Room 3090, Lawrence, KS 66045, USA. e-mail: bellagvs@gmail.com.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Belk, Russell W. 1988. ‘‘Possessions and the Extended Self.’’ Journal of Consumer Research 15:


Carstensen, Laura L. 2006. ‘‘The Influence of a Sense of Time on Human Development.’’ Science 312:1913–1915.

Coleman, Marilyn, Lawrence H. Ganong, and Ronald Gingrich. 1985. ‘‘Stepfamily Strengths: A Review of Popular Literature.’’ Family Relations 34:583–589.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Eugene Rochberg-Halton. 1981. The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. New York: Cambridge University Press.

390 GABRIELLA V. SMITH AND DAVID J. EKERDT Culbertson, Judi, and Marj Decker. 2005. Scaling Down: Living Large in a Smaller Space. New York: Rodale.

Curasi, Carolyn F., Linda L. Price, and Eric J. Arnould. 2004. ‘‘How Individuals’ Cherished Possessions Become Families’ Inalienable Wealth.’’ Journal of Consumer Research 31:609– 622.

Cwerner, Saulo B., and Alan Metcalfe. 2003. ‘‘Storage and Clutter: Discourses and Practices of Order in the Domestic World.’’ Journal of Design History 16:229–239.

Ekerdt, David J. 2009. ‘‘Dispossession: The Tenacity of Things.’’ Pp. 63–78 in Consumption and Generational Change: The Rise of Consumer Lifestyles and the Transformation of Later Life, edited by Ian R. Jones, Paul Higgs and David J. Ekerdt. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books.

Ekerdt, David J., and Julie F. Sergeant. 2006. ‘‘Family Things: Attending the Household Disbandment of Older Adults.’’ Journal of Aging Studies 20:193–205.

———. 2004. ‘‘Household Disbandment in Later Life.’’ Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 59B:S265–S273.

Elder, Glen H. Jr, Monica K. Johnson, and Robert Crosnoe. 2004. ‘‘The Emergence and Development of Life Course Theory.’’ Pp. 3–19 in Handbook of the Life Course, edited by Jeylan T. Mortimer and Michael J. Shanahan. New York: Springer.

Fingerman, Karen, and Elizabeth Hay. 2004. ‘‘Intergenerational Ambivalence in the Context of the Larger Social Network,’’ Pp. 133–151 in Intergenerational Ambivalences: New Perspectives ¨

on Parent-child Relations in Later Life, edited by Karl Pillemer, Karl Luscher. New York:

Elsevier ⁄ JAI Press.

Gauntlett, David. 2008. ‘‘Self-Help Books and the Pursuit of a Happy Identity’’ extended version of material from Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction (Routledge).

Gentry, James W., Patricia F. Kennedy, Catherine Paul, and Ronald Paul Hill. 1995. ‘‘Family Transitions during Grief: Discontinuities in Household Consumption Patterns.’’ Journal of Business Research 34:67–79.

Gilleard, Chris, and Paul Higgs. 2005. Contexts of Ageing: Class, Cohort and Community.

Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Gore, Wilma Willis. 2002. Just Pencil Me In: A Guide to Moving and Settling in After 60. Fresno, CA: Quill Driver Books.

Gregson, Nicky, Alan Metcalfe, and Louise Crewe. 2007. ‘‘Moving Things Along: The Conduits and Practices of Divestment in Consumption.’’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 32:187–200.

Hall, Julie. 2008. The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff.

Nashville, TN: Quill Thomas Nelson.

Hazleden, Rebecca. 2003. ‘‘Love Yourself: The Relationship of the Self with Itself in Popular Self-Help Texts.’’ Journal of Sociology 39:413–428.

Hochschild, Arlie. 1994. ‘‘The Commercial Spirit of Intimate Life and the Abduction of Feminism: Signs from Women’s Advice Books.’’ Theory, Culture & Society 11(2):1–24.

Hsieh, Hsuh-Fang, and Sarah E. Shannon. 2005. ‘‘Three Approaches to Qualitative Content Analysis.’’ Qualitative Health Research 15(9):1277–1288.

Hunter, Elizabeth G., and Graham D. Rowles 2005. ‘‘Leaving a Legacy: Toward a Typology.’’ Journal of Aging Studies 19:327–347.

Kahn, Robert L., and Toni C. Antonucci. 1980. ‘‘Convoys over the Life Course: Attachment, Roles, and Social Support.’’ Pp. 253–286 in Life-Span Development and Behavior, edited by Paul B. Baltes, Orville G. Brim Jr. New York: Academic Press.

Katz, Stephen. 2005. Cultural Aging: Life Course, Lifestyle, and Senior Worlds. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press.


Kauffman, Robert J., and Dongwon Lee. 2004. ‘‘Price Rigidity on the Internet: New Evidence from the Online Bookselling Industry.’’ Proceedings of the 25th Annual Conference on Information Systems. Washington DC: ICIS.

Kleine, Susan Schultz, and Stacey M. Baker. 2004. ‘‘An Integrative Review of Material Possession Attachment.’’ Academy of Marketing Science Review 4(1):1–35.

Kroger, Jane, and Vivienne Adair. 2008. ‘‘Symbolic Meanings of Valued Personal Objects in Identity Transitions of Late Adulthood.’’ Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research 8:5–24.

Lastovicka, John L., and Karen V. Fernandez. 2005. ‘‘Three Paths to Disposition: The Movement of Meaningful Possessions to Strangers.’’ Journal of Consumer Research 31:813–823.

Lunt, Peter K., and Sonia M. Livingstone. 1992. Mass Consumption and Personal Identity:

Everyday Economic Experience. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.

Marx, Jonathan I., Jennifer C. Solomon, and Lee Q. Miller. 2004. ‘‘Gift Wrapping Ourselves: The Final Gift Exchange.’’ Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 59B:S274–S280.

McGee, Micki. 2005. Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life. Oxford, England:

Oxford University Press.

Miller, Daniel. 2008. The Comfort of Things. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Morse, Sarah C., and Donna Quinn Robbins. 1998. Moving Mom and Dad: Why, Where, How and When to Help Your Parents Relocate. Petaluma, CA: Lanier Publishing.

Perman, Barbara Z., and Jim Ballard. 2007. No Ordinary Move: Relocating Your Aging Parents.

Bloomington, IN: Author House.

Price, Linda L., Eric J. Arnould, and Carolyn F. Curasi. 2000. ‘‘Older Consumers’ Disposition of Special Possessions.’’ Journal of Consumer Research 27:179–201.

Roster, Catherine A. 2001. ‘‘Letting Go: The Process and Meaning of Dispossession in the Lives of Consumers.’’ Pp. 425–430 in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 28, edited by M.C.

Gilley, J. Meyers-Levy. Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Saukko, Paula. 2003. Doing Research in Cultural Studies: An Introduction to Classical and New Methodological Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Shenk, Dena, Kazumi Kuwahara, and Diane Zablotsky. 2004. ‘‘Older Women’s Attachments to their Home and Possessions.’’ Journal of Aging Studies 18:157–169.

Simonds, Wendy. 1992. Women and Self-Help Culture: Reading between the Lines. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Singleton, Andrew. 2003. ‘‘Men’s Bodies, Men’s Selves: Men’s Health Self-Help Books and the Promotion of Health Care.’’ International Journal of Men’s Health 2(1):57–72.

Squire, Corinne. 2001. ‘‘The Public Life of Emotions.’’ International Journal of Critical Psychology 1:27–38.

Stevenson, Gail J., and Steven M. Kates. 1999. ‘‘The Last Gift: The Meanings of Gift-giving in the Context of Dying of AIDS.’’ Advances in Consumer Research 26:113–118.

Tabb, Mark. 2006. Living with Less: The Upside of Downsizing Your Life. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishers.

Unruh, David R. 1983. ‘‘Death and Personal History: Strategies of Identity Preservation.’’ Social Problems 30:340–351.

Walsh, Peter. 2007. It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff.

New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ward, Lauri. 2007. Downsizing Your Home with Style: Living Well in as Smaller Space. New York: Harper Collins.

Zimmerman, Toni S., Kristen E. Holm, and Shelley A. Haddock. 2001. ‘‘A Decade of Advice for Women and Men in the Best-Selling Self-Help Literature.’’ Family Relations 50:122–133.

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