Consumption and Collections: the impact of collecting on the construction of identity

Nia Hughes, 2008

Studies of collectors traditionally position the collector as an agentic, autonomous individual, in a socially-fluid world, free to use objects to create identity. I problematise this assumption, not on the basis of the socio-economics and demographics of the collecting population, but on the basis of the differing levels of social and cultural capital that are available to individuals due to their social class positions and inheritedcultural values. 

This is an interpretivist study with multiple contributions to knowledge. Empirically, the contribution is the analytical insights emerging from the dyadic interview data, which illustrate the ways in which the collector is circumscribed by dyad membership, by membership of social groupings, and by the cultural taste of others. The conceptual contribution is to offer a study of family consumption in a new context, underpinned by a methodology that uses the dyad as the initial unit of analysis.

Eleven themes emerged from the data, linked to four different types of analysis (dyadic/familial, the micro-social level, the macro-cultural level, and material culture). Each theme demonstrates ways in which the collectors adjust their collecting practices to fit in with the familial, social and/or cultural milieu. The eleven themes are combined to build up an original conceptual framework, shaped by the dyadic data. The framework is thus able to capture elements of an overarching socio-cultural analysis of collectors, embedding the analysis into a familial, social and cultural milieu. The framework yields three interfaces: (1) the Social Interface between collectors and other people in their world; (2) the Material Interface between objects, which act as social markers, and collectors; and (3) the Legitimising Interface, that occurs when the collecting system - made up of collectors (en masse), collecting clubs, cultural institutions, and other cultural intermediaries - interacts with material objects, to create a market underpinned by exchange.

Using the interfaces to structure the discussion, I then constructed a conceptual re-narrative of collecting, exploring more fully the range of constraints that impact upon the consumption of collected objects, such as family, class, education - the under-explored forces that underpin collecting experience and practice. The collector is thus positioned in terms of access to social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1984), and this leads to a discussion of the concept of legitimacy and collectability of objects. To summarise, my thesis explores the ways in which collectors experience mediated lives, buffeted by very subtle socio-cultural and market forces that are usually glossed over by accounts of the agentic, autonomous, postmodern collector.