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Homeless children: coping with material losses.

The problem of homelessness has become one of the most compelling social dilemmas of the last decade (King et al. 1989). This sub-population has become increasingly diverse (Hill and Stamey 1990), with homeless families the fastest growing segment (Edelman and Mihaly 1989). The effect on these families is often quite devastating, resulting in significant interpersonal strain and potentially the collapse of traditional familial bonds and relationships (Neiman 1988).

Berger and Tremblay (1989) found that many homeless families are composed of single mothers with children who suffer from the combined effects of divorce, desertion, and abuse (see Bassuk 1986 for additional details). Further, most of these children spend their critical physical and psychological development years without the security of a permanent home (Wright and Weber 1987). The consequences of this lifestyle on the children may include developmental delays, severe depression and anxiety, and low self-esteem (Bassuk and Rubin 1987). While estimates vary, research suggests that between 20 and 33 percent of homeless persons are members of family units, and approximately two-thirds of these individuals are children (Berger and Tremblay 1989; Hawks 1989; Journal of Home Economics 1989; Sullivan and Damrosch 1987).

This negative portrait notwithstanding, recent research by Neiman (1988) suggests that some children may cope moderately well under these enormously difficult circumstances. Her study involving pre-schoolers who lived in the welfare hotels of New York City found that some of the children are "resilient" defined as enduring hardships and emerging as effectively functioning individuals. These more resilient children seem to be drawn to positive role models within their living environments, frequently the remaining parent.

This finding has been duplicated within a consumer context by Hill (1991). In this investigation, Hill found that homeless women cope with shelter living by developing strong attachments to the Roman Catholic sisters that run the facility. However, consistent with the work of Wallendorf and Arnould (1988), he also found that object attachments go beyond personal relationships to include possessions that hold symbolic value regarding past or future better circumstances.

The purpose of this inquiry is to examine the impact of possessions and fantasies of homeless children on their ability to cope with a lack of the most basic of consumer goods--a stable home. First, the method is described as an ethnographic experience. Second, the results are presented focusing attention on the background characteristics of the children, maintained and lost possessions, life at the shelter, and fantasies. Finally, a discussion is provided that interprets these results, and social policy implications are delineated.


This study used an ethnographic approach, which has been applied with increasing frequency to the investigation of consumer issues in the last few years (Wallendorf and Belk 1989). Employing this method, data collection as well as the ultimate interpretation are guided by emergent design; where the researcher builds an understanding of the phenomenon as it exists in its natural environment (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; Denzin 1988). Typically, participant observation and both nondirective and directive interviewing are the primary techniques utilized (Sherry 1990). Also, consistent with Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf (1988) and Sherry (1990), the names of the shelter and the informants have been changed to preserve anonymity.

This investigation of homeless children was embedded in a larger ethnography of the Sisters of Mercy Shelter, a facility for homeless women run by Roman Catholic nuns (see Hill 1991 for more details). The shelter is located in a suburban area of a major northeastern city, allowing relatively easy access from several adjacent communities. It is situated at the intersection of two busy streets and is across from a church that has title to the building. The five square blocks around the shelter is composed primarily of row housing and small retail establishments. The local residents are primarily black, living at or near the poverty level, and view the shelter as a resource for food, clothing, and (occasionally) a home.

A majority of the residents are adult women. However, a minority come to the shelter accompanied by their young children. These children are allowed to sleep in the same rooms as their mothers and are given the basic necessities including food, clothing, and hygiene products. While the children roam the facility freely, they are encouraged to spend time in a playroom containing a variety of toys and games.

Consistent with research using an interpretive approach, the following procedures recommended by Wallendorf and Belk (1989) were used to guide this investigation. The only criteria not met involves transferability, where the researcher looks across sites. However, the depth of data provided through long-term contact with a single location tends to balance this deficit (see Fetterman 1989).

Prolonged Engagement/Persistent Observation

In order to fulfill these conditions, the author acted as a volunteer at the shelter during the course of one calendar year. The sisters and the guests rely heavily on such support from the community, and the volunteers blend easily into the activities at the shelter. After an initial period, he volunteered one day a week for the remainder of the year and performed a regular job. The author usually arrived in the early afternoon and left in the early evening (three to five hours per visit). This time period was the most active part of the day. Guests would be returning to the shelter, and the author often greeted them as they arrived, talking to them briefly about their daily activities. While the focus of the interviews evolved during the time spent at the shelter, topics with the children included previous home lives, important possessions maintained or lost, life at the shelter, and fantasies that helped them cope with their world.

Interactions with the children required several refinements in thinking as well as actions. As one might expect, the ethnographer's task in formulating questions and conducting interviews becomes even more complex when informants are children (Tammivaara and Enright 1986). For example, adults typically view the child's world in terms of their own prejudices and perspectives, a form of "adult-centrism." Another problem stems from the traditional authority dimension in most adult-child relationships (Fine and Glassner 1979). Because this relationship allows for the possibility of punishment, trust and openness between an adult researcher and a child informant are difficult to achieve (Fine and Sandstrom 1988).

To reduce the likelihood that these factors would influence interactions with these homeless youths, the author took three precautions. First, he allowed the children a certain amount of control over the topics and progress of the interviews to ensure that their perspectives rather than his attitudes were uncovered (Tammivaara and Enright 1986). Second, he began the formal portion of the investigation of the children after spending many months at the shelter in the role of volunteer. This tactic allowed the children to interact with the researcher on several occasions and to begin to view him as a regular member of the shelter community. Third, the author avoided the role of disciplinarian with the children. Instead, he helped several "sneak" cookies or pieces of fruit prior to dinner while in the kitchen (this sharing was done with the consent of the sisters) and played games with them during the slack times when little work needed to be done. These last two procedures placed the researcher in the role of "friend" rather than "adult" and increased the children's trust (see Fine and Glassner (1979) for more details on this role).

Triangulation and Negative Case Analysis

To fulfill these requirements, the author met, had casual conversations, or conducted interviews with over 50 children at the shelter and had multiple contacts with many of them. As his perspective evolved, interactions became more focused and directed toward particular issues and informational needs.

To achieve triangulation across methods, multiple forms of primary data collection were employed, including field notes, still photography, and audio recordings of formal interviews with 15 children lasting approximately one hour per meeting. All information pertaining to a specific informant was evaluated weekly, and all information on a particular theme was evaluated monthly. The purpose of these comparisons was to search for new insights as well as consistencies and inconsistencies in the findings. Also, to meet the need for negative case analysis, the author probed informants regularly during the later stages of the data collection to determine the extent to which current interpretations captured their experiences and perceptions of the field. The goal of such interactions was to uncover information that did not support prevailing beliefs regarding the shelter environment. Therefore, he regularly developed questions that were designed to uncover "exceptions to the rule."

Debriefing by Peers and Member Checks

To this end, the author assembled a team of professionals that included a social worker, a clinical psychologist, an anthropologist, and a consumer behavior researcher. At regular intervals during this project, these social scientists were asked to review information on a particular informant or theme and provide their own interpretations given their fields of expertise. These reactions provided a wealth of new directions and insights and were used to guide additional data gathering. For example, discussions with the social worker of preliminary findings involving the uncertainty and fear in these children's lives led to the investigation of fantasies as a possible coping mechanism. Further, several volunteers and the sisters were asked to provide responses to various themes as they unfolded. Occasionally, the author would distort this portrait greatly to see their reactions. In virtually every case, they were willing to offer their opinions and to disagree with what they believed to be misrepresentations. This feedback satisfied the need for member checks.


Background Characteristics of the Children

Over the course of the study year, the number of children at the shelter varied from a low of five to a high of 22. They ranged in age from six months to 11 years. Interviews, but not interactions, were limited to children at least five years old. Approximately three-fourths were black, with the remaining white or Hispanic. Total time of residency at the shelter varied considerably, with some remaining only a few days due to minor domestic disputes to children who lived at the shelter for almost a full year. However, typical tenure was approximately two months.

Visually, the children appeared disheveled and dirty as a group, due in part, to wearing donated clothing and restricted access to personal and laundry washing facilities. However, they typically seemed happy and enjoyed the other children and their ability to move freely within the shelter. Further, during the interviews, informants were open, inquisitive, enthusiastic about talking, and thoughtful in their responses. Most believed that the author was "writing a book" and provided personal details that he was to make sure to include. Fine and Sandstrom (1988) stated that such interest suggests trust between researcher and informants.

Nonetheless, inquiry into their home lives revealed a first look at the fear and instability associated with their existences. The vast majority of informants had spent the last several years in impermanent homes, moving between relatives, friends, and welfare hotels before finally arriving at the shelter. These transitions made the security of possessions virtually impossible, and all had favorite items that they had lost or had to store elsewhere. Further, the transitions themselves were often unsettling, particularly when they were the result of serious domestic problems. Consider the case of Tommy (age 6), an abused child who could only describe his previous home life with his father using the following analogy:

One time, there was this dog named Satan, and this person named Al--he had this pit bull, and they was fighting outside my door window. You know like where the door is? The dogs was pushing against the door and the bottom was coming out like that. Al's dog bit Satan's ear off, and he crunched down on his face!

Maintained and Lost Possessions

Given that most of the children moved frequently or were forced out of their homes due to domestic violence, they were typically unable to bring more than one special possession to the shelter. These possessions appeared similar to those of "housed" children and consisted of dolls, cars and trucks, and toy soldiers or other figures such as the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. However, their play with these items revealed an interesting insight. Children often used these toys to engage in contests against the "forces of evil" who were trying to destroy them. After "vanquishing" these "bad guys," they would gain control over their destinies and leave for a better place. The play of Jimmy provides a good description of such games:

They |my four karate men~ have weapons and stuff. They do flips in the sky ... because the bad guys are trying to find them and kill them. They battle the "bad guys" and then leave for far away Japan.

However, it was the special objects that the children were not able to maintain that captured most of their attention and our discussions. From television sets to bikes to racing cars, conversations always seemed to return to these items. Typically, they were more expensive and/or bulky products that their mothers were unable to transport to or store at the shelter. The children often held strong beliefs that these cherished items were with friends or relatives (e.g., "They are at my grandmother's house in Virginia.") and hoped that they would remain safe until they could be retrieved. The underlying anxiety in their voices suggested that they feared these possessions might be lost permanently.

Life at the Shelter

Unlike the women at the shelter, the children took for granted the necessities of life provided by the sisters. None of the informants expressed any appreciation for the food, clothing, or beds given them, except for an occasional reference to the sweets donated by a local supermarket chain (e.g., "I like the desserts!"). Instead, these children valued the relationships they established at the shelter, particularly their friendships with the other children as well as the sisters and volunteers who often acted as additional parental figures. All informants mentioned that they had developed an important connection with at least one other child (e.g., "I enjoy playing with my new friend Alex. We play checkers together in the room upstairs!"). Further, they often expressed a deep interest in and admiration for the spiritual due to their constant interactions with the sisters (e.g., "I love God!" or "I like the sisters and Jesus!").

Along with these important and stabilizing relationships there existed an underlying fear of losing this home and being cast out into the streets. All of the informants expressed apprehension about the consequences of the fighting and violence that occurred regularly among the adult women. One six year old boy named Davis told the researcher that his greatest concern was "Someone starting a fight and getting kicked out in the cold." Interestingly, their involvement or the involvement of their mothers or siblings in these conflicts was immaterial--they believed that such problems could lead to their arbitrary removal from the shelter.

Violence was not the only source of fear in these children's lives at the shelter. Because approximately half of the women at the facility suffered from major physical or psychological problems, ambulances and health care workers came regularly to the shelter and took guests away. This often had a devastating effect on the youngsters, who were left feeling uncertain and frightened by these events. Consider the comments of Tanya, a five year old girl who recently witnessed such an occurrence:

|I was scared when~ somebody hurted their back. They went to the hospital. I saw the hospital truck. I don't want anybody to get hurted, but they did.


Description of their possessions and home lives at the shelter suggest that there is an underlying fear among the children regarding their futures. One common coping technique employed by these youths is fantasy. While fantasies take many forms, they can be categorized as involving "rich kids," future homes, and dreams.

Rich kids

Their fantasies concerning rich children portrayed wealthy youths as having unlimited affluence and buying power, something clearly lacking in their lives. For example, Jerry (age told the researcher that "|Rich kids~ get everything they want. . . . They get a lot of money, |and~ they spend it quick!" However, these fantasies were not limited to general needs. They often included prosperous children who had an abundance of the special possessions that the homeless youngsters were forced to leave behind when they came to the shelter.

Consider the case of Tony (age 10), who was unable to bring his television set with him:

|Rich kids have~ everything! Rooms with gold on it, gold helicopters and stuff. . . . They get to spend money everyday |and~ they get 14 TVs every year!

Future homes

Fantasies involving future homes concentrated entirely upon their "own rooms." These homeless children wanted a private retreat that they could personalize and which contained possessions that were their own property. For example, Jimmy (age 9) told the researcher that:

It |my own room~ would have different wallpaper with different people on it. From different shows |I like~--cartoons and stuff |with~ people like Alf, Bart Simpson, Who's the Boss, The Wonder Years.

Also, Debbie (age 8) stated that "|My room would have~ my own things--my own bed, my own clothes, and stuff like that." Additionally, the children wished to place lost but cherished possessions in these rooms, typically toys that they were unable to keep with them such as "my doctor toys and doctor jacket," "my merry-go-round," and "the stroller for my Barbie doll."


The dreams of these homeless children revolved around two central themes of lost possessions and fear regarding their unstable home lives. Concerning belongings, these youngsters dreamed of using cherished items during times when their lives were happier. Tommy (age 11) provided a vivid description of a dream involving the bike that he no longer had with him:

I was dreaming about my bike last night. It was like all the old times when I be riding it and stuff like that. I had a whole lot of friends that I was riding my bike with. Everybody had their own bike and they was following me. I was the fastest one!

Other dreams may represent their underlying fears about life at the shelter and often contained some magical way out of their morass. Consider the dream of Debbie (age 5):

|I love~ the American eagle, because he can fly higher than any other bird! |I had a dream that~ alligators chased me. An American eagle picked me up, and put me on his back, and took me away from the alligators and the water!


"Billy" the Typical Homeless Child at the Shelter

In order to summarize experiences with these homeless children, the following composite portrait of "Billy," a fictional youth who represents the typical youngster I came in contact with at the shelter, was developed. Billy is eight years of age, male, and black. After his mother left his father four years ago, he lived in seven different homes including with his grandmother, his aunt, a man he called Jimmy, the Salvation Army, and a home for abused women. He is unsure why they moved each time, but knows that his grandmother is ill and that Jimmy turned out to be a "bad man who talked junk."

Billy watched television regularly in his last home and misses seeing his favorite programs here at the shelter (no television is allowed). He also misses his fire truck that has a siren and his collection of fighting men that his grandmother gave him on his last birthday. While he is uncertain why he could not bring these things with him to the shelter, his mother told him they had to leave in a hurry and did not have time to pack his belongings. Thus, he arrived at the shelter with the clothes on his back and one special possession he could carry with him easily.

Billy likes many of the other children; during his two months at the shelter he has made several close friends. However, he is constantly fearful that he and his mother will be told to leave or that one of them will take ill and be removed to a hospital. Lately, he has taken to daydreaming about his lost possessions and better times, and he occasionally has dreams while sleeping that frighten him. Sometimes, if he is lucky, these dreams end with him being saved from the source of his fear by an almost magical creature.

Table 1 summarizes the role of possessions in the lives of children like Billy. In reality, they are able to maintain a few mundane possessions but were required to leave behind important items that are difficult to store, transport, or safeguard. Through fantasy, however, play with these limited number of possessions empowers them and helps them cope with the fear and uncertainty in their lives. They dream of the day when lost but cherished things will be returned to them.

TABLE 1 Children's Cherised Possessions
 Maintained Lost
Reality Typically, mundane items such Larger items that are
 as dolls, toy cars, and difficult to store,
 figurines of soldiers. transport, or are
 forbidden at the
 shelter including
 bikes, television
 sets, and doll houses
Fantasy These items serve to protect These items will be
 the children from their fears returned to the owner
 within the shelter environment intact or in abundance
 by fantasy play such as upon leaving the
 soldiers vanquishing the shelter.
 "forces of evil."


Research by Belk (1985) suggests that the desire to control one's environment through "possessiveness" appears to be a culturally approved trait (also see White 1959). For example, children develop a sense of competence by controlling their surroundings. In our society, gaining authority over objects by making them possessions is a way of acquiring this characteristic (Furby 1978; Swayze 1980). Thus, possessions may be important in the development of self-definition and as a way of enhancing self-esteem (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981).

However, Belk (1984) also raises concern over the loss of possessions. From his perspective, if possessions are a part of our extended selves, then their unintentional or involuntary loss may act to reduce us, creating the fear and instability uncovered in this investigation (see Belk 1988, 1989). While individuals may react to this loss in a number of ways, one of the primary reactions may be an attempt at self-restoration, where individuals search for means to restore the self to wholeness.

The underlying emotion that permeates the lives of these children is fear. The cause of this negative feeling, consistent with the research of Belk, is their loss of cherished possessions, especially a permanent home, and their placement in an unstable environment that neither they nor their mothers are able to control. Thus, the children are forced to find alternative ways of achieving security in their insecure world.

Fortunately, attempts at self-restoration appear to be common among these homeless children. They typically integrate quickly into the shelter environment, make close friends with the other children, and develop parent-child relationships with the sisters and volunteers. Further, the children often use fantasy to help them cope with losses. In their dreams/reveries they conquer or are saved from sources of terror in their make-believe surroundings, are reunited with lost but cherished possessions, and acquire homes with their own rooms that contain items under their direct control.

Social Policy Implications

This portrait of homeless children suggests a resiliency on the part of these youngsters in their coping patterns with the shelter environment. Sadly, many homeless children are without any shelter or are living in facilities that provide few of the benefits of private quarters such as the Sisters of Mercy home. O'Connor describes life in a shelter for homeless children as follows:

Life in a private shelter--even a caring place like Covenant House--is not easy. And a public shelter is as bad as the street.

In New York City, for example, thousands of children are housed in family shelters. In the Bronx, New York, homeless families set up camp in a city-run shelter that is little more than an enormous gymnasium. Eight rows of 210 cots and cribs are spread across the bare floors. (1989, 35)

Thus, many homeless children are living under conditions that may continuously erode their self-esteem. For example, consider the impact upon their school lives. The lack of a permanent and private home keeps them from typical after school contact with peers ("Come over to my house and play!"), and the lack of privacy provides a poor environment for study. Further, their clothing, which is usually donated, is neither new nor fashionable and marks them as different or out of touch. Additionally, the lack of sufficient income on the part of parents means that they must attend school without necessary supplies like paper and pencils and must rely on the school system for these items, which can result in embarrassment for the child.

One possible solution based upon this study involves a reinterpretation of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act signed into law by President Reagan in 1987. This legislation was designed to "provide urgently needed assistance to protect and improve the lives and safety of the homeless" (Berger and Tremblay 1989, 30). Under this Act, transitional housing for homeless families is to be provided to reduce the immediate physical threat to children as well as adults (see Berger and Tremblay (1989) for more details).

While the provision of such housing is clearly helpful, the results of this investigation suggest it is far from optimal. Transitional housing may satisfy physical needs in the short term, but also may act to increase the fear homeless children have of losing the roof over their heads. Further, it ignores a host of other material possessions these children have lost or need in order to conduct their social and educational lives in a manner that enhances rather than detracts from their self-images. Important recommendations in order to better fulfill the requirements of the McKinney Act are that Congress provide support for stable, long-term living arrangements for homeless families as well as discretionary funds dedicated to providing needed possessions for homeless children that replace lost, cherished, and (to some extent) desired items.

While these suggestions do not eliminate the underlying causes of homelessness, they do address the need to provide an environment that fosters resiliency among children. Policymakers must look beyond the physical requirements of food, clothing, and shelter and ensure that psychological needs also are satisfied.

Ronald Paul Hill is Associate Professor and Chairperson, Marketing, College of Commerce and Finance, Villanova University, Villanova, PA.

The partial financial support of the Faculty Research Fund, College of Commerce and Finance, Villanova University, is greatly appreciated. The author would like to thank Linda Hill, Phillip Hill, and Debra Stephens for their assistance during various stages of this project and two anonymous JCA reviewers for their constructive comments.


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Author:Hill, Ronald Paul
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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