The messy social lives of objects: Inter-personal borrowing and the ambiguity of possession and ownership



In this paper, we position inter-personal borrowing as a form of non-market mediated access-based consumption, a distinct form of exchange that is complex and inherently ambiguous, and a form of consumption that is under researched. We argue that the temporary transfer of possession is a defining feature of borrowing, which causes ambiguity to arise out of an object being simultaneously active in more than one network; a good can often be different things to different people at the same time. From our empirical data, we establish two emergent themes or forms of ambiguity inherent in borrowing. First, we consider the ambiguity of relationships with goods and people. We note that borrowing is significant in forming and maintaining relationships, but also that relationships to goods are significant in determining lending and borrowing practices. Second, we consider the ambiguity of ownership and find that borrowers make appropriation attempts, such that borrowed items may be temporarily treated as profane, before being re-sacralised by the borrower and then re-incorporated by the lender into their active network of possessions. The unique characteristics of borrowing identified in our study offer an opportunity to better understand the ambiguity, or ‘messiness’, within an object's social life that is not contained within existing work on the biography of goods. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.