Perhaps it has happened to you. You come home from a long trip, bag full of essentials—toothbrush, computer, some tactically chosen items of clothing. You walk into your house, look around and see all the “important” things you survived without for weeks or months, and think, “who bought all this crap?”
Likely, you’ve felt the heft of a move. The material manifestation of your identity all packed up into a neat U-Haul package.
But what would happen if someone put a quota on your material intake—say only as much as you could fit in large backpack? Believe it or not, researchers have asked that same question.
“Material possessions as an expression and extension of self-hood have been a consumer research staple for over 25 years,” said a 2012 article, “Liquid Relationship to Possessions,” in the Journal of Consumer Research. “This tradition argues that material possessions are crucial in maintaining, displaying, and transforming the self because of the symbolic connections between possessions and one’s personal history, values, relationships, and ethnic or national culture,” summarized the study.
Perhaps one of the most interesting reasons we own things is to support our “identity projects” (because there’s nothing like a power suit to make you feel like you’ll ace an interview and nothing like a messenger bag made of used tires to help you feel like you’re saving the environment). Stuff carries our past into our present, maintains our current identity perceptions, and prepares us for our future self, said the article.
If stuff anchors us to our cultural and societal selves, what happens when someone gives up their culture, nation, or locational identity? Increasing globalization has allowed for a new lifestyle—one where people can work remotely, travel serially, and be world citizens. When you can buy stuff from anywhere and pledge allegiance to no where, what becomes important then?
“Liquid Relationship to Possessions” may have some answers. The paper examines elite contemporary global nomads, “deterritorialized consumers who engage in serial relocation and frequent short-term international mobility.” Global nomads are not necessarily aimless travelers. They have higher educational degrees, often speak multiple languages, work as consultants or for world-wide organizations such as the UN, take up residence in multiple countries, hold passports to countries other than that of their origin, and perhaps have homes in several locations. For these nomads, it is their mobility, and not necessarily any particular place, with which they most identify.
“Because of the uncertainty and unpredictability that characterizes nomadic lifestyles, global nomads resist solid relationships to the material world and do not find identity-linking value in possessions.” Not surprisingly, their possessions are utilized primarily to support mobility. Researchers found, via in-depth interviews with the sixteen nomads, a view of “detachment and flexibility,” when it came to possessions, dubbed “liquid relationships”. Possessions were defined by three characteristics: temporary situational value, use-value, and immateriality.
Global nomads often have to re-territorialize, to “re-establish the ability and the authority to act in an unfamiliar sociocultural milieu by adapting one’s consumption habits.” Objects must support that cause, or they will not make the cut. As one interviewee noted, a high-tech phone is useless in a move from Manhattan to Azerbaijan. It has no temporary situational value in its new location.
Much research has focused on the symbolic value of the things we buy, says the study. In the opposite manner that migrants keep items to maintain attachment, global nomads shed them except those that retain their value across territories. The study found that while expats and business travelers often seek out home “comfort foods” in their new location, “global nomads eat locally except for functional foods.” One interviewee stocked up with high-energy bars before traveling in parts of Africa where food was not always guaranteed, ‘not for a nostalgic reason; it’s just convenience and survival,’ she said.
Immateriality, the last characteristic of global nomad possessions, is essentially the idea of bang for your buck. Is it light? Is it portable? Technology, as the study points out, has enabled the global nomad lifestyle considerably, allowing nomads to gain the use of a product with the least amount of “obligations and transport and storage costs associated with ownership.”
It’s unlikely we’ll all become global nomads, but in a world of car-sharing programs, palm-sized phone-camera-computers, quickening modes of transport, Skype, decreasing natural resources and maybe increasingly internalized environmental costs, at some point everyone may want to channel their nomadic consumer.
I’ll leave you with the words of the comic sage George Carlin, ‘Your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much goddamn stuff you wouldn’t need a house….That’s all your house is. It’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it…It’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” Reductionist, perhaps, but not entirely untrue.
Want to find you’re inner nomad? Take the 100 Things Challenge—can you reduce all your stuff to 100 things? It’s interesting, even as a hypothetical pen and paper exercise.
The Study: Bardhi, F., Eckhardt, G. M. and Arnould, E. J., 2012. Liquid relationship to possessions. Journal of Consumer Research, 39 (3), pp. 510-529.
LESLIE BAEHR is an aspiring global nomad based out of nowhere. For more of her work see here.