Russell W. Belk

Name: Russ Belk
Current Position: York University Distinguished Research Professor and Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing
Institute & Organization: York University, Schulich School of Business
Main Research Interests: Meanings of possessions, collecting, sharing, gift giving, extended self, and materialism
Short Biography: Russ is past president of the International Association of Marketing and Development, and is a fellow, past president, and Film Festival co-founder in the Association for Consumer Research. He also co-initiated the Consumer Behavior Odyssey and the Consumer Culture Theory Conference. He has received the Paul D. Converse Award, the Sheth Foundation/Journal of Consumer Research Award for Long Term Contribution to Consumer Research, and the Society of Marketing Advances Distinguished Marketing Scholar Award. He has over 550 publications and recent books he has co-authored or co-edited include Consumer Culture Theory: Research in Consumer Behavior (2014); Russell Belk, Sage Legends in Consumer Behavior, 10-volumes (2014); Qualitative Consumer and Marketing Research (2013); The Routledge Companion to Identity and Consumption (2013); and The Routledge Companion to the Digital Consumer (2013).
Contact Information: York University, SSB, 4700 Keele St., Toronto, ON, M3J 1P3, Canada
Website: Russ Belk at York University, Schulich School of Business


the interview

(1) How do you define ownership in your research? 

Russ Belk: Ownership can be both a legal status involving rights and obligations with regard to property as well as a proprietary feeling toward some person, place, or thing. I have been interested in possession and possessions, so the latter sense of ownership has been my focus. I have also been interested in sharing possessions without permanent transfer of possession or ownership. With expanding intellectual property rights, the rise of virtual goods, and the expansion of the scope of what we consider to be “ownable,” the concept of ownership continues to evolve.

(2) How does your research relate to ownership?  What are you interested in specifically?

Russ Belk: I have been especially interested in how possessions expand our sense of self; something I have called the extended self. I have also been interested in possessions to which we devote extra attention—gifts, mementos, souvenirs, collections, heirlooms, monuments, and pets, for example. I am less interested in how we come to own things than in the role these objects play after they have entered our lives. And recently I have been interested in alternative forms of possession that do not involve individual ownership—sharing, leasing, communal ownership, and collaborative consumption.

(3) How did you first get involved with the topic and why? Are there any specific events or people from your academic or your personal life that have influenced your interest in ownership research?

Russ Belk: The broad question with which I began was whether having lots of possessions (or at least wanting to have lots of possessions) makes us happy or unhappy in life. Both personally and in their writings, Floyd Rudmin and Lita Furby were influences and we wrote an annotated bibliography on Property, Ownership, and Possessions published in 1986. I also found writings by Sartre, Beaglehole, Fromm, Mauss, and Hyde to be especially inspiring. I was in Romania and missed a conference on materialism that Floyd Rudmin and Marsha Richins put on in 1992, but participated in a symposium on the psychology of property and possessions that Floyd organized at the 1989 European Congress of Psychology, from which a published volume, To Have Possessions: A Handbook on Ownership and Property resulted. For several years I had been going to an unnamed conference with Danny Miller, Colin Campbell, and other anthropologists and sociologists and Colin was also a part of that volume. I did a few papers on materialism, including several with Güliz Ger, and eventually that work ended up shifting into work on the extended self, that I introduced in a 1988 paper. Susan Pearce convinced me to do a book on collecting that was published in 1995. In 2006 I was invited to give a paper at the To Buy or to Hire Seminar in Paris and that got me thinking about sharing, which was the topic I spoke on. I also refined these ideas at a couple of other conferences and finally did a paper simply called “Sharing” in 2010. And I was invited to do a chapter on marketing and envy for a book on Envy edited by Richard Smith and published in 2008. I did a follow-up paper on benign envy that was published in 2011. Finally, being here at York where a number of my colleagues were working on topics related to the Internet, I updated my work on the extended self for the digital age in a paper published in 2013. I also co-edited books on digital consumption and identity and consumption published that year with Rosa Llamas and Ayalla Ruvio.

(4) What surprises you about ownership as a human phenomenon?

Russ Belk: Perhaps the greatest surprise is how extremely proprietary we can be about certain possessions and at the same time how extremely generous we can be with many of our possessions. The boundary between these two opposite practices seems to define family and friends versus strangers, but we can also be generous with strangers sometimes. I also see some things that are different between virtual and material possessions as well as some things that are similar. Contexts where objects are highlighted, such as gift-giving and collecting, are good arenas for examining these similarities and differences.

(5) In Your Opinion:

  • What is the most influential article or piece of writing relevant to the phenomenon of ownership? Ernest Beaglehole, Property: A Study in Social Psychology, 1932
  • What is your favorite personal possession? I am writing a paper about what I’m calling the extended object in which I highlight the coffee mug that I have used daily for the past 20 years. I hadn’t realized how attached to it I was until I began to write about it.
  • Would you share it? No way!
  • Which of your own contributions are you most proud of? Probably my paper “Possessions and the Extended Self”.

(6) What do you think are the most promising avenues of ownership research in the future? Where do you see the field of ownership in the future?

Russ Belk: I noted above that I think virtual possessions pose some interesting challenges. When our books, records, communications, photos, greeting cards, and much of our social lives are now digital as well as able to be copied and sent anywhere in the world instantly, how does this change our feelings about owning such things? Is a digital collection of music, books, or photos regarded differently than their former tangible equivalents? Is a gift of digital music as valued as a CD, DVD, or vinyl record with the same music? What does digitization do to our willingness and propensity to share these things? What do the changing notions of privacy on the Internet do to our sense of private ownership and feelings of privacy generally? At the same time, the Internet is a key factor opening up the so-called sharing economy and collaborative consumption. There is some evidence that we are becoming less interested in owning a car or even having a driver’s license. Are we moving from a society where we ask “Why rent when you can buy?” to a society where we ask “Why own when you can rent by the hour?”?

Editor’s note: For references see Links & Resources

4 thoughts on “Russell W. Belk

  1. Pingback: May we introduce: Russell W. Belk | The Science of Ownership

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