Cheetham, Fiona (2003) Totally Teapots: The Material Culture of Novelty Teapot Collecting. In: European Advances in Consumer Research. Association for Consumer Research, pp. 176-180.

This paper addresses shortcomings in consumer behaviour research on collecting, contributing critical insights to research on collecting material objects specifically, and material consumption generally. This is achieved through two specific and interrelated means: first by employing an ethnographic research methodology to situate collecting within the material and social environment within which it is embedded and second by treating collecting as an incidence of material culture rather than a form of consumer behaviour. Fieldwork undertaken with a novelty teapot collectors’ club has comprised mainly participant observation. This has involved listening to and observing collectors, dealers and manufacturers as they interact with each other, through the handling, buying, selling, bidding, admiring and swapping of novelty teapots.

The relationship between collectors and their collections has received particular attention in the literature. However these analyses have tended to coalesce in a functional approach, which identifies the potential for a collection to serve as an extension of the self. This notion s most clearly articulated by Belk in his early research on collecting (see Belk 1988; Belk et al. 1988 and 1991), but is widely acknowledged across the literature (see Formanek 1991; Smith and Apter 1977; Storr 1983). Nonetheless, the self-extension thesis has been subject to criticism. Indeed, Olmsted (1991) argues that the reason consumer behaviour researchers have failed to analyse fully the relationship between non-human objects and the social self is precisely because the self-extension thesis is based theoretically on the functional approach of Talcott Parsons (1991: 293). I would argue, furthermore, that in reducing their analyses to individual psychology consumer researchers have tended to abstract collecting from the material and social environment within which it is embedded.

Focusing on material culture rather than consumer behaviour is helpful because it "implies that the material and the cultural are always combined in specific relationships and that these relationships can be subjected to study" (Lury, 1996: 1). As Lury suggests, a material culture perspective highlights the significance of "objects-in-use", while simultaneously reminding us that "this attention to the materials of everyday life is not at the expense of a concern with the meaningful, the symbolic or the moral" (1996: 1). Thus in a more recent study of collecting, Belk and Wallendorf (1997) adopt a material culture perspective, in favour of their earlier preference for a functional approach, to provide an excellent analysis of how gender is "expressed, shaped and marked" through the process of collecting (1997: 16-23). Indeed, their case study of the interaction between Brent and his collection of Barbie Dolls provides a theoretical precursor to this study. Moreover, Lury (1996) argues that consumer culture constitutes a particular form of material culture, suggesting, furthermore, that viewing consumer culture from this perspective is helpful because it provides for a "critical distance from our everyday understandings of consumption" (1996: 1) which often serve to distinguish consumption from production. Indeed, Lury urges us to consider that the use or appropriation of objects often comprises elements of both consumption and production. This is consistent with Belk et al. who argue that "collecting is perhaps the purest example of a consumption activity that it also a form of production. At its best, collecting creates and produces a unique, valuable and lasting contribution to the world" (1991a: 180).

That consumer behaviour researchers frequently ignore the mutually constitutive relationships among people and things is a consequence both of the theoretical frameworks which inform their analyses and the research methodologies that privilege surveys and interviews with collectors, over ethnographies and participant observation within various fields of collecting. Exceptions can be found and in a psychological study of fine art collecting, Baekeland (1981) asks us to consider the notion that "if the collector stopped buying works of art, the rationale for his (sic) network of personal art relationships and activities would begin to disintegrate. It would then lose much of its raison d’etre and the future its aura of anticipation. He would still have a collection, but he would no longer be a collector" (1981: 50). Thus Baekeland (1981) encourages us to question the assumption that the identity 'collector’ resides exclusively within an individual, externalised only in the accomplishment of a collection of material objects, as psychologistic perspectives would suggest. Instead he intimates that the identity of an art collector and the act of collecting art reside somewhere between the two: within a network of personal art relationships and activities. A network which, for Baekeland’s art collectors at least, includes regular contacts with other collectors, with artists, dealers and museum staff as well as making "regular rounds" of the auction houses, antique shops and art galleries (1981: 50). This paper builds on the ideas laid out in Baekeland (1981) by employing a theoretical perspective based on 'process sociology’ to illuminate the processes within which novelty teapot collectors and the novelty teapots that they collect are produced in a network of relationships, which are materially and socially contingent.

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