On the symbolic meanings of souvenirs for children

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9 Stacey Menzel Baker, Susan Schultz Kleine and 11 Heather E. Bowen



15 This paper explores the symbolic meanings that children of elementary

17 school age attach to souvenirs from different types of vacation destinations. Data from interviews and pictorial projectives illustrate the mean-

19 ing of souvenirs for children, including how children skillfully use souvenirs in their everyday lives and how they interpret souvenirs as

21 symbols of people, places, and experiences. More specifically, the interview data reveal the meanings attached to souvenirs which are possessed,

23 including how souvenirs are clearly distinguished from other objects which are possessed and how they are used for their contemplation and action

25 value, for their communicative properties, and to provide continuity across time and place. In addition, the data from pictorial projectives reveal the

27 latent motives of souvenir acquisition as well as how different types of places lead to different types of souvenir choices. Thus, the paper dem-

29 onstrates the many layers of meaning associated with souvenirs in both acquisition and consumption processes and provides evidence that the

31 meanings between children, places, and objects are inextricably linked.




Research in Consumer Behavior, Volume 10, 213?252 Copyright r 2006 by Elsevier Ltd.

All rights of reproduction in any form reserved

39 ISSN: 0885-2111/doi:10.1016/S0885-2111(06)10009-5




1 When people travel to the Grand Canyon, Paris, the Bahamas, Disneyland, or anywhere in between, they are likely to seek tangible reminders of their

3 interactions with these places. Tourists want to ``put their hands on'' something that gives the travel experience realism and proves that the bearer has

5 been there (Graburn, 1977; Stewart, 1984). Gordon (1986, p. 135) explains: QA :1


As an actual object, it [the souvenir] concretizes or makes tangible what was otherwise

only an intangible state. Its physical presence helps locate, define, and freeze in time a


fleeting, transitory experience, and bring back into ordinary experience something of the quality of an extraordinary experience.

11 Thus, the function of a souvenir is to capture the essence of this extraor-

13 dinary experience and bring sacred qualities of the tourist place back to the tourist's home. The souvenir provides the narrative for an individual's ex-

15 perience (Stewart, 1984). Like the Star Trek transporter, the souvenir mentally beams the tourist from one location to another; it helps the tourist

17 cross the boundary from the extraordinary back to the ordinary and vice versa. It is the re-entry fee into everyday life (Belk, 1997; Gordon, 1986; van

19 Gennep, 1960). Souvenirs, like other possessions, may become special and significant to a

21 person via self-extension (Belk, 1988), or when they help tell a part of a person's life story (Kleine, Kleine, & Allen, 1995). However, souvenirs may

23 carry additional sources of meaning. One additional source of souvenir meaning may be the emotions and self-meanings associated with a particular

25 place (Belk, 1992; Low & Altman, 1992). Yet another source of meaning stems from collective cultural meaning; a particular souvenir (e.g., miniature

27 Statue of Liberty or Mickey Mouse ears) may be culturally understood to represent its associated place. All of these sources of symbolic meaning give

29 rise to the many-layered meanings of a souvenir. What about children who acquire souvenirs? Because of the person/ob-

31 ject, person/place, and place/object meanings captured by souvenirs, they offer a potent opportunity for a child to attach individual and/or collective

33 meanings to a material object. Souvenirs offer researchers the opportunity to observe why children acquire, and how they relate to, this kind of sym-

35 bolic good. For example, to a child, is a souvenir something to acquire and have? Something to use and play with? Or do children also associate sym-

37 bolic, self-related meanings with souvenirs, similar to how an adult might? Do children attribute contemplative value to souvenirs? Do children un-

39 derstand, for example, that something acquired today may evoke nostalgia years from now?

On the Symbolic Meanings of Souvenirs for Children


1 The purpose of this research is to discover the symbolic meanings children assign to acquired souvenir objects and to explore their understanding and

3 knowledge underlying souvenir acquisition. Our focus is on children's souvenir choices for three primary reasons. First, and most importantly, we

5 want to begin to understand the basis of the meanings that children attach to souvenirs and determine if souvenirs are a special class of possession with

7 distinctive features. Second, we want to understand what motivates children to acquire objects on their vacations. And, finally, we want to understand

9 the role that these objects play in the everyday lives of these child consumers.

11 The paper begins by reviewing relevant theoretical frameworks. After the research methodology used to discover the nature of the relationship be-

13 tween children, souvenirs, and vacation destinations is explained, the results of interviews and pictorial projectives from a sample of 22 children (ages 8?

15 13 years old) are presented. The discussion includes conclusions about children's symbolic use of souvenir possessions and offers some ideas for future

17 research.






The symbolic meaning of a good is not inherent in the material object itself; 25 such meaning is a perception held by a particular person for a particular

contextualized object (Kleine & Kernan, 1991). A person may perceive a 27 symbolic meaning for any particular object (e.g., souvenirs, places, expe-

riences, events). Individuals' object meanings are socially constructed 29 through shared meanings, personal or vicarious experiences, and rituals

associated with particular places and/or goods. 31

33 Layers of Meaning for Souvenirs

35 The complexity of meanings which child tourists assign to souvenirs can be

37 understood in terms of a triad of three theoretical frameworks: the person/ object relationship, the person/place relationship, and the object/place re-

39 lationship. Together these three connections form the basis for the meaning of a souvenir.



1 Person/Object Relationships Similar to other material goods, the souvenir often achieves sacred impor-

3 tance to an individual owing to its potency for recalling memorable travel and vacation events and experiences (Belk, 1992). MacCannell (1976, p. 147)

5 calls souvenirs status signs, marks of group affiliation, identity badges, and mementos of rites of passage, ``found in every corner of daily life and em-

7 bedded in every system of information.'' As noted by Littrell et al. (1994, p. 3), ``Tourists use their souvenirs to reminisce, differentiate the self from or

9 integrate with others, bolster feelings of confidence, express creativity, and enhance aesthetic pleasure,'' all personal projects of identity development

11 and maintenance. Thus, souvenirs, like other special possession objects, are used to help construct personal identity, not simply to preserve it (Belk,

13 1992). Souvenirs are often selected because of what they say about the person.

15 Tourists at the same site may select different objects, depending upon the meanings with which they wish to identify themselves (Gordon, 1986).

17 Graburn (1989) notes that it is the tourist's chosen style of tourism (historical, ethnic, ecological, recreational, environmental, or hunting and gath-

19 ering environmental), which determines the type of souvenir which will be brought home. For example, the ``ecological'' tourist will bring home pic-

21 tures and postcards; the ``hunting and gathering'' tourist will bring home rocks and seashells; and the ``ethnic'' tourist will bring arts and crafts. The

23 implication is that these particular souvenirs reflect and define the tourist him/herself, rather than simply the place she/he visited.

25 Adults also routinely use certain possessions symbolically to preserve a sense of self-continuity via a possession's meanings that are connected to

27 people and events in a person's past (Belk, 1990; Kleine et al., 1995). Possessions provide physical evidence of prior experiences and meanings

29 (Grayson & Shulman, 2000). In essence, some souvenir purchases reflect a kind of anticipatory nostalgia, a feeling that someday in the future the sou-

31 venir object will be useful as a meaningful symbol of a past trip or event. What about children and souvenirs? We know of no research that ex-

33 amines this particular issue. However, we may infer some things based on what has been established about children, possessions, and the development

35 of an understanding of symbolic meaning. The behavior of children as young as toddlers shows that possessions are

37 not just utilitarian devices. In general, possessions provide the child with an emerging sense of control and self-effectance over his or her environment

39 (Furby, 1978, 1980) and helps him or her secure a sense of identity (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Furby, 1980). In addition, the

On the Symbolic Meanings of Souvenirs for Children


1 ability to recognize symbolic meanings for material objects forms in childhood. Even very young children form symbolic attachments to favorite ob-

3 jects (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Furby, 1978, 1980). The 7?12 year old age period is particularly interesting with regard to the

5 development of material values and symbolic meaning (John, 1999). Children as young as elementary school age have the ability to recognize and

7 decode abstract consumption symbolism (Belk, Bahn, & Mayer, 1982; Belk, Mayer, & Driscoll, 1984). As children move through the elementary years,

9 they move into the stage of abstract reasoning (John, 1999) and develop a greater variety of meanings for their possessions (Furby, 1978). At least by

11 fifth grade, they recognize the social meaning of possessions, for example, by displaying one's achievement to others (Baker & Gentry, 1996). Presumably,

13 these same inferences apply to souvenirs. During the elementary school years children also develop role-taking

15 ability (John, 1999). This ability to see one's behavior the way another person does suggests that a child may have the ability to picture how he or

17 she will view a souvenir in the future, tying in with the idea of anticipatory nostalgia mentioned above.

19 Through what mechanism might children learn about souvenir purchasing? Parents are the primary socializing agent influencing a child's learning

21 about consumption (John, 1999). Moreover, parents socialize children via various family rituals. For example, Belk (1979) observed that parents act as

23 socialization agents via gift giving to their children. Other family rituals, such as birthday parties, teach children ritual how-to's, including the use of

25 specific goods and services for use in a ritual setting (Otnes & McGrath, 1994). Applying these observations to souvenirs, we note that family va-

27 cations and trips often include ritual behaviors that may include souvenir purchasing.

29 Person/Place Relationships

31 A well-rounded representation of the meaning of souvenirs includes the connection between the person and the place a souvenir represents. Ac-

33 cording to Low and Altman (1992, p. 5), place is ``space that has been given meaning through personal, group, or cultural processes.'' The symbolic

35 meaning of place is often based on a person having actually visited a location, but also an individual may possess a special shared meaning learned

37 from others for a place before going there. Thus, the meaning of a particular place is layered with personal and collective associations.

39 Familiar places are satisfying because they permit control, mastery, creativity, serenity, or security and provide opportunities for defining one's self



1 and connecting the self with others (Low & Altman, 1992). On another, larger level, public places draw attention to community or cultural symbols

3 and meanings and permit us to link with one another and to create cultural meanings, leading to individual, group, or cultural esteem and pride (Mill-

5 igan, 1998). To children, special, familiar places afford security, social affiliation, cre-

7 ative expression, and exploration opportunities; thus, places support healthy self-development in children (Chawla, 1992). Children form healthy attach-

9 ments to places as they learn to balance the maintenance of the familiar with the developmental pull to expand their world outside of the home, into the

11 neighboring community and beyond. Identification with special places offers children a sense of continuity with places of the past or people, past and

13 present; such opportunities are critical to emotional well-being (Cooper Marcus, 1992). Natural places are especially potent environments for place

15 identification to occur (Cooper Marcus, 1992). Place attachment typically has been examined by evaluating the relationship of a person to a particular,

17 intimately familiar place. It is an empirical question as to whether tourist places would elicit similar types of attachment.

19 Object/Place Relationships

21 The object/place relationship is one in which a particular souvenir (object) represents, symbolizes, and/or makes tangible a particular place. For ex-

23 ample, O'Guinn and Belk (1989) found that souvenirs acquired at Heritage Village, home of the PTL ministry, were symbols of the site and its leaders.

25 Several other studies document the importance of souvenirs as representations of places visited (e.g., Gordon, 1986; Graburn, 1989; MacCannell,

27 1976; Stewart, 1984). The perception of what a souvenir stands for may be shared with others.

29 We share culturally based perceptions that certain objects are typical souvenirs from particular places (e.g., you bring home a shell or sand from a

31 beach, a t-shirt from one of the Hard Rock cafe? s, or a teddy bear from an amusement park). People visiting some travel destinations have more

33 choices than others. For example, a visitor to the Grand Canyon National Park can choose from a wide variety of items ranging from inexpensive

35 souvenirs to costly Native American style pottery or artwork. The perceived connection between a place and an object may be personal,

37 as well. A visitor to San Francisco could bring home a piece of pottery and another could bring home a Christmas ornament. In addition, visitors to

39 Heritage Village bought handbags, cosmetics, and items they could have purchased anywhere, but they bought them because of their origin in this

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