Material and Consumer Identities



IT identity (Carter & Grover, 2015) is conceived as a new form of material identity. My studies are taking aim at the way in which software workers’ identification with their product affects risk in their projects. These seem like good reasons to dig into material identities. Carter & Grover reference Dittmar (2001), so I looked to Dittmar’s work which also includes a book on consumer culture, identity, and well-being (Dittmar, 2008a-c).

The Carter & Grover (2015) material, first:

Like role and person identities, material identities focus attention on individual thinking and behavior rather than on group processes and intergroup relations and, as recent work suggests, are constructed in the same way (Dittmar 2011). Therefore, to develop a conceptual definition of IT identity as a new form of material identity, we first outline and then build on general properties of identities at the individual level. (p. 933.)

Material identities are verified when individuals are able to exercise control over, and mastery of, a material object with which they are interacting (Dittmar 2011). (p. 933.)

…as a material object, IT is so bound up in the ways people use identities that, for many, these technologies are an integral part of how they come to know themselves and act (Floridi 2010). In today’s digital world, with its emphasis on immediate access to information, institutions, and people, it seems reasonable to think of IT as a source of reflexivity that gives rise to the question, “Who am I, in relation to this technology?” (p. 334.)

Research points to a fundamental need that people have to expand the self in that “they seek to enhance their potential efficacy by increasing physical and social resources, perspectives, and identities that facilitate achievement of any [personal] goal that might arise” (Aron et al. 2003, p. 478). One way people achieve this is by incorporating capabilities afforded by material objects to which they have become emotionally attached into their individual self-concepts (Belk 1988). (p. 940.)

The individual nature of a material identity is an important factor in my research. Since the self is comprised of multiple identities which may overlap and interrelate, showing that a material identity is the root of behavior should involve illuminating those general properties of identities that exist at the individual level.

Carter & Grover (2015) focus on mastery, but Dittmar (2011) has seven identity-related functions of material identities. Each of these meanings provides insight in the context of the question above: “Who am I, in relation to this technology?” Perhaps more exactly in the case of my research: “Who am I, in relation to this technology I am creating?”

  1. Effectiveness: “The psychological significance of possessions is seen as residing mainly in the control they afford their owner over the physical and social environment, and they are closely linked to identity for precisely that reason.” (p. 750.)
  2. Emotional Regulation: “Although emotional expression or regulation is not necessarily linked to identity, it may have some connection to various of his identity motives: to self-esteem (people strive to feel better about themselves); to belongingness (having a nice car can help to ‘fit in’ in a wealthy social group), or continuity (people who live in the same house for years may be better adjusted than those who move around a lot).” (p. 751.)
  3. Actual Identity: “The motive to be distinct from others also finds expression when people buy new consumer goods.” (p. 750.)
    “Material goods can symbolise, both to self and others, an individual’s unique qualities, values, and personal goals, expressing their personal identity and their differentiation from others.” (p. 751.)
  4. Ideal Identity: “ideal identity motives emerged as a coherent, internally consistent, and conceptually distinct set of buying motives, with ‘makes me feel more like the person I want to be’ as an example item (Dittmar, 2008).” (p. 752.)
  5. Personal History: “This research highlights that symbolic aspects of possessions help people to maintain a general sense of identity, integrity, and self-continuity, providing a symbolic record of their personal history.” (p. 753.)
  6. Symbolic Interrelatedness: “Material goods emerge as important symbols of personal relationships with others in the ‘favourite possessions paradigm’ studies, where photos, heirlooms, and gifts are prominent examples of symbolic interrelatedness, symbolising close relationships with friends and family (Dittmar, 1992a).”  (p. 753.)
  7. Social Identity: “Moving on to material goods as categorical symbols and as signs of social identities, clothes are perhaps the most obvious example of our possessions through which we can signify group affiliations and social standing, including sex-role identification, political orientation, or socio-economic status (Solomon, 1985). Material goods can also serve to signify membership in smaller sub-cultures, such as punks (Hebdige, 1979). (p. 754.)
    “people can identify with other brand admirers as a virtual group in the absence of any social interaction: ‘I’m an Armani man, myself.’” (p. 754.)

While examining these functions, it seems important to acknowledge the distinction between the technology being developed and the classes of existing technology into which it falls. If someone is working on the latest iPhone, are they identifying with their own work product or the line of iPhones that have come before?

Each function seems to apply to software projects.

  1. Effectiveness: An alternate term for control and mastery. While Dittmer mentions physical and social environments, perhaps digital environments are also appropriate. By creating software, is the software allowing control and mastery or is the act of creation showing control and mastery over the software? In the latter, the software used in the development environment (the tools) that seem to provide control and mastery; in the former, it’s the software being developed (product).
  2. Emotional Regulation: Literature certainly tells us that individuals can utilize software for emotional regulation, including digital games. Other software serves as a medium for content that provides emotional regulation (music players allowing one to hear music – the player is the software but the song, which is the emotional regulator, is not). Other software allows expression, which may be linked to the concept of software as a medium for identity.
  3. Actual Identity: Person identities from identity theory (Burke & Stets 2009) are those that distinguish us as individuals. Dittmar indicates that material identities can share functions with person identities. Perhaps, “Who am I, as a unique individual, given my relationship to the technology I’m creating?”
  4. Ideal Identity: Through their project work, are team members attempting to create ideal technology, or technology that will enable them to be their ideal selves? By creating this new technology, will one feel more like the person that one would like to be? This concept of expressing an ideal identity would seem to be a function that would be strongly served by participating in a creative effort.
  5. Personal History: On the other hand, what does creating something new express about one’s personal history? Here, we may see overlap between existing classes of technology and new development within those classes. Certainly, one’s history with a class of technology has some impact on how they identify with new creations within that class.
  6. Symbolic Interrelatedness: When a new technology is delivered, does it function to express relationships among team members? With other software professionals? With consumers? Dittmer’s definition here seems to stick to interpersonal relationships. She describes this material identity function in terms of close relationships with friends and family, in contrast to social identity functions. Who am I, relative to another individual, given this new technology I am creating?
  7. Social Identity: Dittmer expresses social identity in terms that seem to stem from social identity theory (from psychology, her discipline) which are defined similarly to group identities in identity theory (from sociology). There seems to be nothing that would prohibit the inclusion of role identities in the description. The description indicates that material identities are a medium for social and role identities: Who am I, relative to social groups or roles, given this technology I am creating?


Some quotes I pulled that still need processing:

“Consuming passions” are important drivers, where people buy goods in attempts to make themselves feel better and move closer to an ideal identity, which can crowd out “reational” concerns with how much the goods cost and whether they serve a practical purpose (Dittmar, 2008c, p. 4).

A “material self” was identified early on in William James’s Principles of Psychology, first published in 1890, where a person’s identity is extended beyond the physical boundaries of the body to include material goods (Dittmar, 2008c, p. 8).

If the mere ownership effect occurs because of people’s desire to maintain a positive self image, where they enhance what they own in order to enhance themselves, then they should display a stronger mere ownership effect after receiving feedback that they have failed, rather than succeeded in, a particular task. Indeed, when people failed to solve an anagram they evaluated the drink cooler as more attractive when I owned it than when they did not. If an object as trivial as a drink cooler can trigger the mere ownership effect, bolstering self-image for material possessions is bound to be more pronounced with goods of greater symbolic and personal significance (Dittmar, 2008c, p. 30).

If we use positions for defining, extending, and evaluating the self, it would follow that their unintended pass should be experienced as a lessening of self. This would suggest that being a victim of a property crime might involve rather more psychological trauma and is often credited to the loss of “mere things” (Dittmar, 2008c, p. 30-31).

Individuals perceive and experience material possessions as integral parts of their self, which shows that identity has boundaries that extend beyond the physical body. Psychological explanations of this close link between possessions and self fall into two broad camps. On the one hand, there instrumental functions are emphasized, particularly that they help people exert control over their environment and experience a sense of mastery. On the other hand, their symbolic functions are highlighted, where material objects can represent interpersonal relationships, emotional comfort, group belongingness, and a range of personal characteristics, values, and beliefs (Dittmar, 2008c, p. 31).

Typical instrumental possessions include tools or means of transport. Symbolic possessions can be subdivided further into symbols of the historical community of self (e.g. photographs), expressions of artistic or intellectual interests (e.g. book collections), and signs of status or wealth (e.g. yacht) (Dittmar, 2008c, p. 33).

A comparison of elderly women who lived at home, in sheltered apartments that they furnished themselves, or in a traditional nursing home, revealed differences related to their identity depending on the extent to which their possessions symbolised parts of their self, embodying memories of people, times, and places (Cram & Patton, 1993). Wapner, Demick, and Redondo (1990) investigated directly how well elderly people fared in different nursing homes in the US and found that those who kept their cherished possessions coped much better. They felt more in control, less helpless, more supported by staff, and were judged to be better able to resolve conflicts (Dittmar, 2008c, p. 34-35).

Dittmar & Kapur (2011) include confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) of items for four different buying motives, two of which directly relate to my work.  I’m extracting the text of the questions and including an image of the full table with loadings.

  • Projected Identity
    • What others think of me on the basis of the things I buy is very important to me
    • I buy goods based on how I think others will see me when I have them
    • I buy consumer goods that give me prestige
    • I like to buy things which impress other people
    • I want to buy things which make me feel more like the person I want to be
  • Emotion regulation
    • Compared to other things I could do, buying consumer goods is truly enjoyable
    • Shopping trips often feel like an escape to me
    • I often buy things because it puts me in a better mood
    • I get a real buzz from buying things
    • Shopping is fun and exciting
    • I like to shop, not because I have to, but because I want to

Dittmar et al. (2007) also use CFA, with different items.

  • Perceived Identity Gains (On the Internet…)
    • I want to buy things that make me feel more like hte person I want to be
    • I like to buy things that impress other people
    • I buy consumer goods because they give me “prestige”




  • Carter, M., & Grover, V. (2015). Me, My Self, and I(T):  Conceptualizating Information Technology Identity and its Implications. MIS Quarterly, 39(4), 931–957.
  • Dittmar, H. (2008a). Consuming passions? Psychological motives for buying consumer goods. In H. Dittmar (Ed.), Consumer Culture, Identity and Well-Being: The Search for the “Good Life” and the “Body Perfect.” New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  • Dittmar, H. (2008b). To have is to be? Psychological functions of material possessions. In H. Dittmar (Ed.), Consumer Culture, Identity and Well-Being: The Search for the “Good Life” and the “Body Perfect.” New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  • Dittmar, H. (2008c). Understanding the impact of consumer culture. In H. Dittmar (Ed.), Consumer Culture, Identity and Well-Being: The Search for the “Good Life” and the “Body Perfect.” New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  • Dittmar, H. (2011). “Material and Consumer Identities,” in Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, S. J. Schwartz, K. Luyckx, and V. L. Vignoles (eds.), New York: Springer, pp. 745-769.
  • Dittmar, H., & Kapur, P. (2011). Consumerism and Well-Being in India and the UK: Identity Projection and Emotion Regulation as Underlying Psychological Processes. Psychological Studies, 56(1), 71–85.