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What is ambiguous about ambiguous goods?


  • Sandy L. Ross

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Sociology, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
    • Correspondence to: Sandy L. Ross, Department of Sociology, Higher School of Economics, Office 421, 3 Kochnovsky Proezd, Moscow, 125319, Russia.


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Ambiguous goods are not a category of things. No goods are ambiguous by default, not even digital virtual ones. Ambiguity may arise in many ways, but this article examines one specific process: ambiguity that occurs when entities appear as objects that blur category boundaries. Ambiguity is created around pre-existing categories through socio-material entanglements. This article explores how a central category in consumer capitalist societies—property—takes on ambiguous forms in distributions and recirculations of prestige items in the massively multi-player online role-playing game Final Fantasy XI. Prestige objects are powerful, sought-after armour and weapons acquired in the game world by completing difficult battlefields or tasks, often in large groups. When discussing these items, respondents are not confused actors trying to make sense of slippery things. Instead, they produce ambiguities around property by blurring distinctions between gifts and commodities. Blurred boundaries help resolve tensions arising from different orderings of people, relations and things. Hybridised property forms allow selective alienation of goods, allowing participants to privilege some relations and connections over others.

With this article, I hope to spark further debate on building a conceptual toolkit to explore ambiguities, and contribute to increasing interest in non-dyadic gift relations in consumer culture research. ‘Ambiguous goods’ is not a viable category for thinking about things, people and relations or digital virtual objects. But ambiguity can be a useful way to think about how people and things—whether they are digital, virtual or neither—are related. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.