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How possessions become heirlooms

January 07, 2005

A brooch, a cedar chest, an armoire, a set of china, or a crystal vase. Every family has them: family heirlooms. But while there is a long and voluminous body of research into how indigenous societies pass things from generation to generation, little has been studied about possessions that American families just simply cannot give up. Called "inalienable wealth" an article in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research seeks to explain, by looking at middle-class American families, how an object evolves from simply being stuff, alienable, and turns into a sacred, inalienable possession to be passed across generations.

"Our specific purpose is to explore whether and how objects pass from alienable to inalienable status across generations of middle-class families in North America," explains Carolyn Curasi of Georgia State University and her colleagues. "We are interested in the metamorphosis of individuals' cherished possessions into families' inalienable objects--possessions kin believe to be irreplaceable, sacred, and kept from the market."

The authors stress that while the phenomenon of passing items from generation to generation is not a new one and has been studied in some detail, the issue of how this is happening in such a market-driven society has not been approached.

"Our findings raise a provocative question of whether middle-class North American families would be worse off without inalienable wealth. Our informants perceive inalienable wealth as beneficial by keeping family units more cohesive, providing family identity, making status distinctions, and representing moral and religious values," the authors contend.
From: How Individuals' Cherished Possessions Become Families' Inalienable Wealth (CAROLYN FOLKMAN CURASI, LINDA L. PRICE, and ERIC J. ARNOULD).

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