Thursday, February 25, 2016

Psychological insights into "collecting" - taxonomic and aesthetic collections

As I have mentioned a few times recently, I am doing a MSc in Business Psychology. A recent module, about marketing and advertising has been really interesting, particularly a tangent in a recent assignment about collecting. I find this particularly interesting as both Cathy and I have the collecting 'bug', and as a result we have a lot of stuff in our house.

The main psychological research into collecting I've read has been by Russell Belk. He distinguishes 'collecting' from 'hoarding' and 'accumulating', although I reckon they can look quite similar. But for the record, 'collecting' is "the process of actively, selectively, and passionately acquiring and possessing things removed from ordinary use and perceived as part of a set of non-identical objects or experiences". Hoarding, meanwhile, is defined as collecting several things that are exactly the same, while accumulating is the gathering of things without the idea of completing a 'set', e.g. when a person doesn't throw out newspapers and they just start to pile up.

Collecting experiences: My collection of commemorative scarfs 

That note about experiences is true, I 'collect' football grounds that I have been to and I know several other football fans who do the same thing. It's the motivation behind buying mementoes like half and half scarfs or keeping ticket stubs.

There are different ways of ‘collecting’. Belk distinguishes between taxonomic and aesthetic collecting. Taxanomic collecting is working on the basis that you can complete a set - whether that set is stamps from Zanzibar, or one of each type of Roman coin, or the complete range of original Kenner Star Wars figures from the 80s. I'd say football stickers are a very good example of this - you even get an album showing which ones you need to complete the collection. Taxonomic collectors don't tend to give up when they complete the set. They usually move on to a new set or keep trying to improve their collection with better examples of the objects in it.

Football stickers are an example of taxonomic collecting

Aesthetic collecting is open-ended. It's when you collect a particular type of art, for example, where there is no finite limit. Of the two, taxonomic collecting is more active, with collectors deliberately seeking out the objects they need to complete their collection, while aesthetic collecting is more passive - people add to their collections as they see objects they want with less 'urgency'.

I'd say the Tsum-Tsums are taxonomic and the Groots are aesthetic

I think there is also a middle ground. I'm a member of the British Thematic Association, which is the aesthetic side of stamp collecting. While I have gone out and made my own 'list' of stamps that fit my theme, I also buy things that it simply wouldn't be possible to list. That is very much a case of 'If I see it, I'll decide whether I want it in my exhibition.' There's no way of knowing if my collection is complete because it's not as simple as 'have I got every stamp featuring the Statue of Liberty?' - there are all the envelopes with those stamps on, many of which are interesting in their own right.

My stamp collection on display for a stamp society
Having said that, there are attempts all the time to turn aesthetic collecting into taxonomic collecting - the Boba Fett Fan Club has tried to list absolutely every toy and other piece of merchandise featuring the galaxy's most feared bounty hunter. It's a nigh on impossible job. My collection is pretty much aesthetic in that I buy stuff when I see it but don't go actively looking. (Although I do always check out the Star Wars toys in toy shops and other shops that sell toys.)

My Boba Fett collection
Belk notes one of the more unusual aspects of collecting, in that once a thing is in a collection, it becomes special, precious, and 'sacred'. A collector can't just get rid of it, unless replacing it with a better item. The collector needs to look after the collection. It's kind of like the old saying that what you own can end up owning you because I admit sometimes all this stuff is inconvenient.

But I can't just get rid of it, it's my collection...

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