When I was a student in Japanese language and culture, I was invited to many classmates's room for drinks and games. And I remember that, in every one of these rooms, there was what I came to call a "Geek Shelf". This made me think about the relationship between our collection of items and our identity.
What is the "Geek Shelf"? You have to understand that most Japanese language students were manga or video game fans who wanted to learn Japanese and go to Japan. In every one of their homes, mine included, there was a special shelf. A bookshelf for some, a tiny little space for others, a full wall of bookshelves for the ones with the biggest appartments.
In other words, these items were on display. Why were these on the Geek Shelf and not in the cupboard with the rest of the DVDs and games? Because these were the ones I wanted to show off to my guests. I'm talking retrospectively here, at the time, most of it was unconscious. But the selection I made was a reflection of my taste - or, to be more precise, the part of my taste I wanted to be defined by. It was a way to say "hey guys, here is what I like". Here is what I am a connoisseur on.
I think this Geek Shelf is an example of using material items to define one's identity. The same phenomenon can be observed with any item on display in one's appartment, on the desk, or the car, the clothes... Why having these specific books in the living room's shelves? Why paying 500€ for a pair or very recognizable red-soled Louboutin? Why driving an Audi rather than a Fiat?
A lot of our consumer's choices, consciously or not, are linked to the image we want to show, the identity we want to carve. And, as a person working in marketing, I can tell you brands know this, and this is why they use advertising, design, shop decorations etc. to create a brand identity we consumers want to identify with by buying their items.
On Social Groups and Belonging
We would praise the host's taste or tease him about owning bad stuff, but in any case, we were recognizing his "geek expertise" by seeing he owned (and, presumably, liked) that type of specific items, and we would show off our expertise by noting that we knew them too. It was a way to acknowledge our belonging to the "geek" community, to recognize each other as "members" and create discussions.
Again, I think this is something that can apply to any type of item and community. I went for a drink in a musician's appartment a few weeks ago and he had CDs and instruments on display in his living room. At work, women would recognize each other's bag or clothes brand and discuss about where they got them and what upcoming private sales they were aware of.
In light of this observation, I wonder if our consumer choices aren't also based on which social or cultural group we want to belong to. I remember a colleague at my former job who would buy all sorts of video game related accessories (T-Shirts, jewelry) and proudly call herself a geek, as if these purchases were a way to help her belong to that community.
Besides, there are many other ways to define our own identity that don't require to acquire new material items and clutter our shelves and closets. And I am wondering, is defining our identity through a collection of material items hiding a low self confidence? Like, we'd need items to reassure us that it's who we are? Like I said, open for discussion!