, Pages 50-56
, University of California, Irvine
Significant scholarship in consumer research, sociology and anthropology purports to study the relationship between consumption and identity, assuming a direct translation, or that consumers are what they consume. This paper asserts that previous inquiries in consumption and identity are more precisely studies in consumer self-expression, which is a manifesation of abstract consumer identities. Drawing on philosophy, this research contends that the relationship between consumption and identity involves the process of imagination, where imagination is the site of knowledge creation, the genesis of the frameworks known as reality and identity, and is conceptually useful for the study of consumption.
This research provides a brief genealogy of the concept of imagination as a fundamental everyday intellectual practice, applies it to the study of consumption, and conceptually situates imagination in the discourse of consumer research. The principal contributions of this paper are: 1) to demonstrate that consumer self-expression is a tangibilized subset of abstract consumer identity, 2) to provide an exegesis, or critical historical tracing, of the philosophical term imagination, where imagination is the site of knowledge creation and the genesis of the frameworks known as reality and identity, and 3) to explore the conceptual utility of imagination to the study of consumption.
IDENTITY AND CONSUMPTION
A considerable amount of solid scholarship in consumer research (cf. Arnould and Wilk 1984; Belk 1988, 1990, and 1992; McCracken 1986 and 1988; Mehta and Belk 1991; Tomlinson 1990), sociology (cf. Corrigan 1997; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Goffman 1959), and anthropology/cultural studies (cf. Douglas & Isherwood 1979; Friedman 1994; Sahlins 1976) has been conducted under the rubric of identity and consumption. The central tenets of this body of work rest on the assumption that consumers are what they consume, and conversely that consumers consume what they are. As Belk states, "this may be the most basic and powerful fact of consumer behavior" (Belk 1988, p. 160). The relationship implicit in the above statement is that identity directly translates into consumption, and that consumption is capable of revealing identity.
Identities are described in consumer research, sociology and anthropology as complex frameworks that are context specific and dynamic. The past literature on consumption and identity has yielded significant insights into consumption motives and practices, however identity per se may not be precisely the subject of these studies. Identities often consist of abstractions left untangibilized, by intention (we are what we choose not to have as in voluntary consumption abstention), as a result of lack of resources (we cannot afford to consume what would potentially tangibilize our identities), through denial (we choose not to tangibilize aspects of identity to obscure their presence), or because the identities are not prone to tangibilization (we cannot locate strategies to express complex facets of our identities). As such, the previous studies of identity and consumption have generated considerable knowledge of consumer self-expression, a manifestation or tangibilized subset of larger abstract identities. In other words, we may indeed be what we have (self-expressed), but we are also a lot more (our identities exceed what it is expressed). Possession sets and consumption practices are manifestations of intangible consumer identities, where consumers selectively express aspects of identity. To understand the relationship between identity and consumption it is useful to draw upon the rich tradition in philosophy of contemplating the individuals position with respect to the material and social worlds.
GENERAL THEORIES OF IMAGINATION
Imagination and its various conceptualizations have long been associated with the quest to understand wat is humanly knowable. People throughout time have contemplated their existence, their biological configuration, their nature, their intellect, and their position within and impact on the material and social worlds (cf., Metaphysics; Bundy 1928; Chambliss 1974). Theories of imagination have been central to the critical questioning and subsequent understanding of the material world, social organization, and the individual as part of these contexts. Although the term imagination has many colloquial and academic connotations, the particular signification utilized in this analysis can be traced from Platos notion of phantasia as a synthesis of sensory perception and rational thought resulting in knowledge (Theaetetus), through Kants assertion that imagination defines and shapes human experience (Kant 1965), to Andersons theory of the commodified imagination via print capitalism as an integral component of identity and community formation (Anderson 1983). Specifically, the concept of imagination yields two primary themes salient to the study of consumption: 1) imagination links corporeality and abstract thought to yield knowledge, and 2) imagination is central to the construction and expression of identities and realities.
Although there is considerable debate regarding the translation of Platos work and the nuances of meanings embedded in the translations (Cocking 1991; White 1990), it is generally agreed that the genealogy of the term imagination begins with Plato (Bundy 1928; Chambliss 1974; Brann 1991) and his attempt to combine sensory perception with interpretation, or thought (Cocking 1991; White 1990; Chambliss 1974). Indeed, "[u]p to the time of Plato there was no comprehensive view of the relation of matter to spirit," or the relation of the external world to the internal mental practices of people (Bundy 1928, p. 18). Brann posits Plato "pre-figures Kant" by linking corporeal experience to pure, abstract thought through the process of imagination (Brann 1991, p. 40). For Plato, "[k]nowing is an activity in which men make use of the possibilities imagined" (Chambliss 1974, p. 13), and the result of imaginations synthesis of ideas and sensory experience (White 1990). In short, imagination is the way people make sense of sensation. From Platos perspective, the mind cannot apprehend sensory stimuli as it is presented to the senses; the mind must attach meanings to the perceptions that can then be ordered by rational thought into understanding (Philebus, 39b; Theaetetus, 195d, 193b). Therefore, all knowledge is filtered through imagination. Imagination is "a power necessary to the knowledge of the material world" (Bundy 1928, p. 48). Nothing can be humanly known that cannot first be imagined (Bundy 1928). In Platos view, imagination is the only vehicle of Truths interpretation, and the only medium of human understanding.
Where Plato considers imagination a prime faculty responsible for combining sensation and thought to produce knowledge (Theaetus, 195 d), Aristotle contends imagination is "an activity of sensation" (Brann 1991, p. 40) thats "function is to present to the intellect that interpreted sensation without which there is no thought" (Brann 1991, p. 40). In contrast to Platos conception where the material world is an image of the ideal abstract reality, Aristotle holds the converse is true, "sensation is activated by a world of individual, physical substances which require some function that will properly present them to the intellect" (Brann 1991, p. 41).
According to Aristotle, the imagination is not distinguishable from sensation, "[t]he phantasia-faculty is the same with the sense faculty" (On Dreams, 459a). Yet, as Brann points out, phantasia cannot be sensation, since Aristotle demonstrates that "it can occur when there is no actual sensation" (Brann 1991, p. 41); imagination "takes place in the physical absence of the thing" (Brann 1991, p. 42). Indeed, "sensations and imaginations are present in the sense organs even in the absence of the sense-object" (Aristotle, On the Soul, 425b). As White states, "pantasia can occur at a time when there is no perception, as when ones eyes are shut or when one is dreaming" (White 1990, p. 11). Brann argues that Aristotle makes a subtle distinction between sensation and imagination: "in sensing, the object itself is present to the senses," while imagination "is sensation prolonged past the presence of the object, a motion of the soul set in train by the activity of sensation" (Brann 1991, p. 42). As such, sensation is the process of sensing, and imagination is abstracted sensation. In any case, Aristotle does not give imagination the status of a faculty separate from sensation as Plato does, nor does he place imagination within the intellect above sensation. For Aristotle, imagination is at once indispensable to the task of understanding materiality, but not the synthesis of sensation and thought as Plato asserts. Imagination, in Aristotles framework, is the omnipresent mental project of translating sense-data into mental representations, images, which the intellect adheres to meaning.
Similarly, imagination, for Vico, is the intelligent manipulation of sense-data, the combination of "vivid sensation in perceiving particulars" with intellect to apprehend and enlarge the perception information (Vico, New Science, par. 819). Vico, like Plato situates the imagination within human intellect, but concedes with Aristotle it has its "roots in the body" and gains strength from corporeality (New Science, para 819). Vicos notion of imagination ups the stakes of the corporeal versus intellect debate by being the first to claim the imagination is bound by corporeal experience. For this reason and despite Vicos alignment alternately with Plato and Aristotle, he is a prelude to Descartes.
Descartes addresses imagination, but in contrast to Plato, Aristotle and Vico, he positions the imagination solely in the corporeal realm, and renders it inessential to the self (Descartes 1955). Descartes argues in Meditation II that "to imagine is ... to contemplate a figure or image of a corporeal thing" (p. 152). The contemplated image, "is not merely of a corporeal thingBit is itself corporeal" (Hanson 1986, p.2). The mind simply "applies itself" to the physical, depending on "the presence or semblance which is truly corporeal (Descartes 1955, p. 231). As such, the imagination is disassociated with the essential self (located in Cartesian terms in the abstract/intellectual realm) because the abstraction created by the imagination originates within the physical realm (is tainted by corporeality). In Meditation VI, Descartes definitively states,
I remark that this power of imagination which is in one, inasmuch as it differs from the power of understanding, is in no way a necessary element in my nature, or in [my essence, that is to say, in] the essence of the mind (Descartes 1955, p. 186).
Even as Aristotle places imagination within sensation as the medium responsible for transmitting sense-data to the intellect, he concludes that imagination is still an essential mental project. In contrast, Descartes states, "imagination is nothing but a certain application of the faculty of knowledge to the body which is immediately present to it" (Descartes, 1955, p.233). Because the imagination is in Descartes terms completely reliant on, and tainted by corporeal experience, White notes, "the imagination cannot comprehend the infinite, or indeed, anything beyond a very restricted range" of perceived or previously perceived material phenomena (White 1990, p. 20).
Hume rejects the status of imagination in the Cartesian perspective and places imagination within the essential self as Plato and Aristotle had before him. Humes main contribution to the imagination literature, is his assertion that imagination is a heightened form of visualization as ideas and images are intimately connected; "to imagine is to have images" (Hume, Treatise, p.16). For Hume, magination is once removed from raw sensory perception. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, Hume identifies imagination as the key mental process that creates visual representations from sense-data, which are then presented to the intellect for ordering and manipulation into relatively coherent thought projects (ideas) that yield understanding. Much like Plato, imagination becomes, in Humes conception, the central intellectual endeavor:
If imagination is the act of the mind by which it entertains representations with sensory qualities, then one may infer that of Hume the imagination is the minds sole function (Brann 1991, p.83).
For Hume, the specifics of how the imagination works are omitted, or taken for granted, and given a mystical or magical nature within the proverbial black box of the mindscape (Treatise). Despite the supernatural quality of the imagination, it is grounded in sensation and therefore, as Hume states, "nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible" (Hume, Treatise, I, ii, 2). Because the imagination 1) represents material phenomena and 2) acts upon sensory representations, it cannot create inherently impossible ideas. As a mental process "imagination in Humes view, is the forming, uniting and separating of ideas" which are based on corporeal experience (Wilbanks, 1968, p.72).
Kant distills imagination into two primary forms: 1) reproductive (a priori intuition summoned spontaneously), and 2) productive (site of knowledge construction) where transcendental syntheses take place and understanding results (Kant 1965). Kant states,
By synthesis, in its most general sense, I understand the act of putting different representations together, and of grasping what is manifold in them in one knowledge (Kant Metaphysical Deductions, B 103).
Synthesis is the process whereby people apply concepts to sense-data, yielding understanding (Gibbons 1994). Furthermore, "Kant attributes synthesis to the power of imagination" (Gibbons 1994, p. 18). Imagination is dependent upon sensible objects, the intellect, and their interrelationship. Conversely and very similar to Platos conception, Kant argues "all perception requires the synthesis of imagination" (Gibbons 1994, p. 26). Unlike Hume, who considered imagination as the linking of "discrete perceptions of objects which are not themselves products of this imaginative activity; [for Kant] no such discrete perceptions of objects exist without the imaginative synthesis" (Gibbons 1994, p. 26). Kantian theory does not allow people to perceive separate from imagination.
For Kant, a priori knowledge is based on intuition and "can never extend beyond objects of the senses; they are valid only for objects of possible experience" (Kant 1965 p.91). Therefore "we can know a priori of things only what we ourselves put into them" (Kant 1965, p.88). As for Plato, Aristotle, Vico and Hume, Kant believes material reality is dependent upon human imagination and the subsequent understanding that links sensation with intellect. Kant states,
We must assume a pure transcendental synthesis of imagination as conditioning the very possibility of experience (Kant, Transcendental Deduction, A101).
Brann asserts that for Kant,
What the imagination makes possible is a judgement in which the sensible appearance are subsumed, or grasped in concepts (Brann 1991, p.93).
Furthermore, for Kant, understanding and imagination are not sovereign powers (Furlong 1961; Gibbons 1994), rther they are interdependent and together produce realities that can be empirically experienced (Furlong 1961; Gibbons 1994). Corporeal experience is mitigated by the imagination in the attempt to understand what is presented to the senses. Each persons interpretation of experience is a product of their individual mental faculties and the socio-cultural system in which the experience and the individual are embedded (Gibbons 1994).
Coleridge also posits that imagination is a "factor in all human knowing" (Sherwood 1975, p.17) and is "continuous with understanding" (Muirhead 1930, p.201). Coleridge makes a distinction between primary and secondary imagination stating:
The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal action creation in the infinite I am. The secondary I consider a an echo of the former, co-existing with conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation (Coleridge in Coburn, ed. I, 304)
Primary imagination "belongs to us all" (Barth 1987, p. 3) and "is the faculty by which we perceive the world as ordered" (Barth 1987, p.3), and that which shapes our experience into meaningful patterns. Furthermore, it is the site of identity as demonstrated by the use of the phrase "I am" above. Secondary imagination is the domain of the artist, which differs from the primary only in medium, or mode of expression. As Barth argues, in Coleridge, "both the ordinary citizen and the artist share in the divine creative power, not indeed in the same degree" (Barth 1987, p.5)
Coleridge distinguishes between imagination and reason and identifies imagination as higher order intelligence (Willey 1967). Wheeler asserts that according to Coleridge,
Reason can only enumerate, divide and analyze. It is confined to the realm of what is already known, or perceived, or experienced, while imagination is the agent of innovation, novelty, originality and genius, in it capacity to unite into new wholes previously unrelated elements (Wheeler 1989, p. 99).
According to Coleridge, imagination is the process of creating new ideas and thought structures not by addition (simple association), but rather exponentially by interrelating intellectual products. Imagination has at its disposal "the senses, emotions, intuition, intellect, willBall human powers brought into harmonious action" (Sherwood 1975, p.26).
Anderson (1983) identifies imagination as an integral component of community formation, specifically nations as a social category: "All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined" (Anderson 1983, p. 6). He is the first theorist to directly apply imagination to consumption by depicting the inaugural commodification of imagination through the rise of print capitalism and its impact on identity and social relations (Anderson 1983). In Andersons account, the emergence of print technology allowing large-scale dissemination of written material fostered a sense of national community not previously experienced. Print capitalism gave national citizens consumable tools to imagine and build shard experience. Through reading, people became united in language communities roughly contiguous with geographic boundaries. For Anderson, ideas, images and ideologies became the building blocks of imagined identities. Andersons notion of imagination is premised on the act of consuming (buying and deciphering written texts) which led to new identity configurations, new industries, new markets, and new social realities (Anderson 1983).
Continuing on Andersons premise, Appadurai (1996) considersimagination the facility that envisions and articulates human potential and limitations through the manipulation of signs, symbols, commercial products, and their respective meanings. From Appadurais perspective, imagination belongs to all people and is an everyday practice and social process. Appadurai is concerned with imagination as the way in which ordinary people derive meaning and create identity and community.
Appadurai finds, "imagination has become a collective social fact." It has now become, "the quotidian mental work of ordinary people" (Appadurai 1996, p. 5). Further, "ordinary people have begun to deploy their imaginations in the practice of their everyday lives." (Appadurai 1996, p. 5). Appadurai argues that the advent of globalization through electronic mediation has significant impact on the imagination:
Because of the sheer multiplicity of the forms in which they appear (cinema, television, computers, and telephones) and because of the rapid way in which they move through daily life routines, electronic media provide resources for self-imagining as an everyday social project. (Appadurai 1996, p. 4).
While Appadurai, identifies "the work of imagination" (Appadurai 1996, p. 4), he does not addressed how imagination works. Perhaps theories of consumption can help explicate how imagination works.
While the above discussion is not intended to be exhaustive, it does briefly survey the Western discourse on the concept of imagination. Although the precise nature of imagination (body or mind) and process detail are contested among theorists, imagination is at least informed perception (Descartes) and at most the central intellectual endeavor (Hume), which is integral to the construction and expression of identities. Because consumption is a sensory practice, or is embedded in sensation, the way in which people make sense of corporeal perception is useful in understanding and explaining consumption motivations, techniques, and strategies. As such, imagination can be argued to have conceptual utility to the study of consumption (Figure 1).
IMAGINATION AND THE SOCIO-CULTURAL THEORIES OF CONSUMPTION
Recently, social theorists have turned their attention to consumption "as playing a central role in the way the social world is constructed" (Elliot 1997, p. 285). Interpretive consumer researchers have begun to critically appraise consumption as a productive, social, and communicative endeavor. Unhinged from utilitarian, economic determinism, consumption becomes
not just a personal act of destruction [of economic value] by the consumer, but very much a social act where symbolic meanings, social codes and relationships, in effect, the consumers identity and self are produced and reproduced (Firat and Venkatesh 1993, p. 235).
All consumption can be considered the consumption of symbolic signs, where signs are not limited by pre-existing, or pre-fabricated sets of meanings. The signs are generated and negotiated by consumers (and producers) within a system of signs that serves as a "more or less coherent discourse" (Baudrillard in Poster ed. 1988, p. 22). Consumers are social actors who use ideas, images, symbols, and commercial products to (re)configure into meaningful identity projects. Every consumer, alone and/or in conjunction with reference groups, aspires to locate the self(ves) within the socio-material world by aligning their identity(ies) with certain objects and practices, while simultaneously distancing their identity(ies) from others. As Fiske contends, "commodities are not just objects of economic exchange; they are goods to think with, goods to speak wth" (Fiske 1989, p. 31). Consumers are active participants in socio-semiotic systems (Gottdiener 1995) and creators and perpetuators of personal and communal identities and social orders (Bocock 1993).
Furthermore, consumption is central to the construction of the social world (Baudrillard in Poster 1988; Elliot 1997) and integral to the expression of individual and collective identities (Belk 1988; Bocock 1993). As Belk states, "[p]eople seek, express, confirm, and ascertain a sense of being through what they have" (Belk 1988, p. 146). In essence, consumers deliberately acquire things and engage in consumption practices to achieve a pre-conceived notion of their essential self(ves). Conversely, consumers derive a sense of being from what they have; people create identities from those things pre-existing in their socio-material context. Consumption is a dynamic process and creative endeavor which ordinary people engage in daily. Material items are infused with meaning(s) that extend(s) far beyond the producers intent (McCracken 1986; Richins 1994 a and b; Belk 1988 and 1987). At most, producers create an initial base of value that is enhanced and modified by the dynamic force of consumer imagination. While producers consume raw materials and transform them into goods, consumers act upon goods to produce possessions. Consumption is the process of procuring, appreciating, and using things as utilitarian objects, signs, and enablers of the self. It extends over a products useful life, the life of the individual or group that acquired it, or the infinitum of successive possessors.
Consumption is communicative, as possessions provide a way of conveying multi-layered meaning among consumers (Belk 1988). Consumers communicate who they imagine themselves to be (Bocock 1993) through a process of socio-semiotic signification (Gottdiener 1995) that links their intangible cultural belief structures and individual value systems to material holdings, or possession sets (Belk 1988 and 1992) and symbols (Levy 1959).
In short, consumer research has taken up the task of theorizing how consumers make sense of things and communicate socially relevant meanings. Given this paradigm of consumption, it is easy to see how imagination can be a useful concept in consumer research. If consumers are actively engaged in signifying systems utilizing material and symbolic tools, which in turn configure consumer identities and realities, then a resilient theory linking perception and abstract thought to meaning creation would be highly relevant. In essence, imagination may indeed be an underlying construct of consumption, and an integral aspect of socio-semiotic signification and self-articulation. In this context, a concept of consumer imagination emerges as the transformation of goods, symbols and services into knowledge and consumer identities. It is where consumers make sense of consumption objects and practices. Consumer identities are created within consumer imagination as consumers situate themselves with respect to consumer goods, symbols and services. Consumer self-expression is the manipulation of goods, symbols and services to communicate consumer identities generated within the imagination. Consumer self-expression contains strategies for articulating the intangible consumer identities.
While imagination has a long history in the humanities, there has been little work in consumer research addressing the notion of imagination per se. Consumer researchers have used the term imagination and its derivatives (imagine and imaginative) in articles and texts (c.f. Havlena and Holbrook 1986; Murray and Ozanne 1991; Bocock 1993, Elliot 1997). They have also employed concepts related to consumer imagination (e.g., "reality engineering"BSolomon and Englis 1994, "magical experience"BArnould and Price 1993). However, despite the use of the term and its conjugates, prior consumer reseach does not begin to tap the concept of imagination and its potential utility in the understanding of consumption. One notable exception exists. Zaltman (1995) citing Johnson (1987) acknowledges imagination as the underlying construct of meaning creation and knowledge, which Zaltman utilizes to justify the importance of metaphor in consumption practices. Zaltman enters the discussion of imagination as a key intellectual endeavor, but stops short of capturing the role of imagination in consumption. The assertion that imagination is the genesis of knowledge is as old as Plato, but has yet to be applied to the study of consumption.
Many articles within the consumer research literature discuss theories closely related to imagination, or use the term imagination in colloquial manner. The following are some examples of related concepts and/or cases where the notion of imagination would have contributed to the analysis.
Belk (1988) demonstrates that material items act as extensions of the self and communicate personal and group level identity. Belk asserts that consumers seek to make tangible their intangible beliefs and values, in order to signify and communicate their affiliation to these abstractions. He shows that possessions assist in self-perception and actually become, usually figuratively, or symbolically, but less often literally, or physically, part of the consumer body (Belk 1988). Moreover, consumers imagine constructions of the self through material items as a powerful form of identification. Belk describes how the incorporation of self and object is real to the consumers and how the loss of possessions becomes so personal as to be compared to physical violation and a loss of self (Belk 1988). Belk argues,
It seems an inescapable fact of modern life that we learn, define, and remind ourselves of who we are by our possessions (Belk 1988, p. 160).
Consumers imagine themselves and their relationship to groups and social institutions individually and in concert with other consumers, and subsequently choose symbols, artifacts and possessions to express the imagined selves. Echoing Anderson, Belk states,
Communities, nations, and other group levels of self are similarly constituted via monuments, buildings, books, music, and other created works. The association of these artifacts with various group levels of self provides a sense of community essential to group harmony, spirit, and cooperation" (Belk 1988, p.160).
This notion is similar to Levitts concepts of core and augmented products (Levitt 1960). There is a core self and a set of augmentations, which together are the composite self. Objects, like houses, act as vestibules of identity which can be aids in the balancing of many sometimes competing selves and their relationship to the social world (Belk 1988): "we exist not only as individuals, but also as collectivities. We often define family, group, subculture, nation and human selves through various consumption objects" (Belk 1988, p. 152).
Similarly, two papers by Richins (1994a and 1994b) describe how consumers express their value system through the objects they possess. Both Belk and Richins assume a process of signification, a linking of the perceptible and the abstract, which they do not name, but which appears to be consistent with the notion of consumer imagination.
Belk (1992) discusses the meanings Mormon migrants ascribed to the possessions they brought west, and how the ascribed symbolism worked to imagine community and familial bonds in accordance with their religious faith. During the Mormon migration, the uprooted believers gained strength from sacrificing certain material things and used possessions to recreate their fractured identities and fom a new community in the promised land. Along the same thread, Mehta and Belk (1991) discuss how Indian immigrants use objects to imagine affinity with India and to stand in for the geographic locale of India. Totemic objects within American households were designated signifiers of socio-cultural and physical India, while shrines representing emigrated family members were found in Indian homes. In both sets of households physical proximity was imagined through material objects.
Wallendorf and Arnould (1991) describe Thanksgiving consumption rituals and how consumers imagine identity through the celebration of material surplus. Wallendorf and Arnould demonstrate how consumers imagine tradition and family through overt material excess and how this identity is reinvigorated through annual ritual observation.
In Arnould and Price (1993), a river rafting expedition is said to yield magical experience. A rock is transformed into a spiritual object with signification obtained through the rafting adventure. In essence, it may be said the translation is the work of imagination.
Thompson and Hirschman (1995) examine consumers body images, and the way individuals choose to present themselves, based on imagined ideals. The degree to which the respondents felt that their body image was in line with an imagined ideal was found to be a moralistic measure of success, tied to Western/Christian ideals of asceticism, resisting temptation and being in control of your life. The ideals imagined reflect the merger of socio-cultural ideology and personal identity with sensory perception (the evaluation of the physical body primarily through sight).
Solomon and Englis (1994) question the "reality" seen or imagined by consumers of mass media, using the term "reality engineering" to describe the efforts of public relations or advertising agencies to influence consumers perceptions of popular culture. The authors believe that corporate interests are reflected in the mass media and alter the manner in which consumers envision social and material reality. Social reality is not only constructed, but furthermore is manipulated by the elites within the capitalist economy.
Some literature also exists on consumption experiences where identity expression is the product being sold (OGuinn and Belk 1989). This article describes a Christian fundamentalist theme park, where the attendees see their consumption of the park experience as a pilgrimage and a tangible affirmation of their commitment to their religious identity. Items acquired at the theme park (cosmetics, handbags, statuettes) are accorded the status of sacred due to an imagined proximity to the consumers deity by virtue of their availability in theme park stores.
Similarly, Belk (1996) describes the escapism, or fantasy, consumed in the casinos of Las Vegas, termed "apocalyptic consumption." These consumption conditions are not natural, but rather are learned and structured.
Lastly, Belk, Ger and Askegaard (1997) accesses the notion of desire which is closely related to imagination in the literature. Aristotle links imagination to desire, where imagination precedes desire and passions as a necessary condition of desire (Aristotle, Movement of Animals, 702a) and inspires pleasure (Aristotle, Rhetoric II, 2). While humans have the capacity to desire, imagination is a catalyst setting desire in motion (Aristotle, on the Soul, 433b). Brann argues, "[f]or Aristotle, to desire is to desire something" (Brann 1991, p. 45) and all things are presented to the intellect through imagination. Desire then, according to Aristotle, is triggered be imagination: "whenever the mind is active, in waking life, in thought or in any other mode, in calm or in desire, phantasia is all-pervasive (White 1990). Imagination, for Aristotle, is the omnipresent mental project of translating sense-data into mental representations, images, which the intellect adheres to meaning.
CONCLUSION: THE CONCEPTUAL UTILITY OF IMAGINATION TO CONSUMPTION
Despite cogent, ongoing efforts to define consumption as a means of creating and expressing identity (Belk 1988; Firat and Venkatesh 1993; Elliot 1997; Grafton Small 1997; Firat and Shultz II 1997), and of ordering social and material phenomena (Solomon and Englis 1994; Elliot 1997; Grafton Small 1997), there is need for additional research on the way consumers derive meanings from objects and communicate these meanings within the social world. Using this socio-cultural notion of consumption and applying the general theories of imagination discussed above, it is reasonable to propose that imagination provides a critical link between identity and consumption. Furthermore, through the dynamic force of imagination consumers: 1) make sense of sensation, 2) construct and express individual and group level identities and realities by manipulating signs, accumulating possessions, and developing consumption practices.
By critically interrogating the literature and theories associated with imagination in general, it is possible to reveal imagination as a fundamental construct in consumption. People consume as a result of imagined relationships between objects, between objects and humans, and between humans individually and collectively. As Bocock states,
People try to become the being they desire to be by consuming the items they imagine will help create and sustain their ideas of themsleves, their image, their identity (Bocock 1993, p. 68).
The process of consumer imagination positions consumers within the socio-material world and helps develop strategies to communicate abstract identities among consumers and between consumers and producers. Unlike existing consumer research, which grapples with whether meanings are invested in objects of consumption and assumes a direct translation from identity to consumption, this paper distills the concept of imagination in an effort to map the manner in which consumers attach meanings to objects and signs, and the way they manipulate goods, services and symbols to express abstract identities.
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Douglas, Mary and B. Isherwood (1979), The World of Goods, New York: Norton.
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Hanson, Karen (1986), The Self Imagined, New York; Routledge & Kegan Paul.
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Updated, March 2, 2017 | We published an updated version of this list, “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing,” as well as a companion piece, “401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing.”
Every school day since 2009 we’ve asked students a question based on an article in The New York Times. Now, five years later, we’ve collected 500 of them that invite narrative and personal writing and pulled them all together in one place (available here as a PDF).
The categorized list below touches on everything from sports to travel, education, gender roles, video games, fashion, family, pop culture, social media and more, and, like all our Student Opinion questions, each links to a related Times article and includes a series of follow-up questions. What’s more, all these questions are still open for comment by any student 13 or older.
So dive into this admittedly overwhelming list and pick the questions that most inspire you to tell an interesting story, describe a memorable event, observe the details in your world, imagine a possibility, or reflect on who you are and what you believe.
- What Was Your Most Precious Childhood Possession?
- What Were Your Favorite Childhood Shows and Characters?
- What Were Your Favorite Picture Books When You Were Little?
- What Things Did You Create When You Were a Child?
- What Places Do You Remember Fondly From Childhood?
- Have You Ever Felt Embarrassed by Things You Used to Like?
- Do You Wish You Could Return to Moments From Your Past?
- Was There a Toy You Wanted as a Child but Never Got?
- What Objects Tell the Story of Your Life?
- What Are Your Best Sleepover Memories?
- What’s the Best Gift You’ve Ever Given or Received?
- What’s the Most Memorable Thing You Ever Got in the Mail?
- What Nicknames Have You Ever Gotten or Given?
- What Have You Learned in Your Teens?
- What Personal Achievements Make You Proud?
- What Are Some Recent Moments of Happiness in Your Life?
- What Are You Grateful For?
- What Rites of Passage Have You Participated In?
- What Advice Would You Give Younger Kids About Middle or High School?
- What Can Older People Learn From Your Generation?
- What Do Older Generations Misunderstand About Yours?
- Who Is Your Family?
- What Have You and Your Family Accomplished Together?
- What Events Have Brought You Closer to Your Family?
- What’s Your Role in Your Family?
- Have You Ever Changed a Family Member’s Mind?
- How Do You Define ‘Family’?
- What Are Your Family Stories of Sacrifice?
- What Possessions Does Your Family Treasure?
- What Hobbies Have Been Passed Down in Your Family?
- How Much Do You Know About Your Family’s History?
- Did Your Parents Have a Life Before They Had Kids?
- How Close Are You to Your Parents?
- How Are You and Your Parents Alike and Different?
- Do Your Parents Support Your Learning?
- What Have Your Parents Taught You About Money?
- Do You Expect Your Parents to Give You Money?
- How Permissive Are Your Parents?
- Do You Have Helicopter Parents?
- How Do Your Parents Teach You to Behave?
- How Do You Make Parenting Difficult for Your Parents?
- If You Drink or Use Drugs, Do Your Parents Know?
- Do You Talk About Report Cards With Your Parents?
- Would You Mind if Your Parents Blogged About You?
- How Well Do You Get Along With Your Siblings?
- How Well Do You Know Your Pet?
- What Role Do Pets Play in Your Family?
- What Is Your Racial and Ethnic Identity?
- Have You Ever Tried to Hide Your Racial or Ethnic Identity?
- How Do You Feel About Your Last Name?
- What’s the Story Behind Your Name?
- What Are Your Favorite Names?
- How Have You Paid Tribute to Loved Ones?
- Would You Most Want to Live in a City, a Suburb or the Country?
- How Much Does Your Neighborhood Define Who You Are?
- What’s Special About Your Hometown?
- What Would You Name Your Neighborhood?
- Who Is the ‘Mayor’ of Your School or Neighborhood?
- Who Are the ‘Characters’ That Make Your Town Interesting?
- What Would a TV Show About Your Town Spoof?
- What ‘Urban Legends’ Are There About Places in Your Area?
- What Local Problems Do You Think Your Mayor Should Try to Solve?
- Do You Know Your Way Around Your City or Town?
- Have You Ever Interacted With the Police?
- How Often Do You Interact With People of Another Race or Ethnicity?
- Who Would Be the Ideal Celebrity Neighbor?
- What Is Your Favorite Place?
- How Much Time Do You Spend in Nature?
- What Small Things Have You Seen and Taken Note Of Today?
- What Would Your Dream Home Be Like?
- What is Your Favorite Place in Your House?
- How Important Is Keeping a Clean House?
- Is Your Bedroom a Nightmare?
- Do You Plan on Saving Any of Your Belongings for the Future?
- With Your Home in Danger, What Would You Try to Save?
- What Would You Put in Your Emergency ‘Go-Bag’?
- Have You Ever Lost (or Found) Something Valuable?
- What Is Your Personal Credo?
- What Motivates You?
- What Makes You Happy?
- What Are You Good At?
- How Much Self-Control Do You Have?
- How Good Are You at Waiting for What You Really Want?
- What Role Does Procrastination Play in Your Life?
- When in Your Life Have You Been a Leader?
- How Well Do You Perform Under Pressure?
- How Well Do You Take Criticism?
- Are You Hard or Easy on Yourself?
- How Full Is Your Glass?
- Do You Have a Hard Time Making Decisions?
- How Good Are You at Time Management?
- How Productive and Organized Are You?
- How Would Your Life Be Different if You Had Better Listening Skills?
- How Competitive Are You?
- Do You Perform Better When You’re Competing or When You’re Collaborating?
- Do You Take More Risks When You Are Around Your Friends?
- Do You Unknowingly Submit to Peer Pressure?
- How Much of a Daredevil Are You?
- What Pranks, Jokes, Hoaxes or Tricks Have You Ever Fallen For or Perpetrated?
- How Do You React When Provoked?
- How Often Do You Cry?
- Do You Think You’re Brave?
- What Are You Afraid Of?
- What Are Your Fears and Phobias?
- What Are Your Personal Superstitions?
- Do You Like Being Alone?
- How Impulsive Are You?
- Are You a Novelty-Seeker?
- What Annoys You?
- Do You Apologize Too Much?
- Do You Have Good Manners?
- Are You a Saver or a Tosser?
- Are You More Introvert or Extrovert?
- Are You Popular, Quirky or Conformist?
- Are You a Nerd or a Geek?
- What Would Your Personal Mascot Be?
- What Assumptions Do People Make About You?
- What Challenges Have You Overcome?
- What Do You Do When You Encounter Obstacles to Success?
- What Are Your Secret Survival Strategies?
- How Do You Find Peace in Your Life?
- How Have You Handled Being the ‘New Kid’?
- Do You Ever Feel Overlooked and Underappreciated?
- How Stressed Are You?
- How Do You Relieve Stress?
- Does Stress Affect Your Ability to Make Good Decisions?
- What Challenges Have You Set for Yourself?
- How Often Do You Leave Your ‘Comfort Zone’?
- What Did You Once Hate but Now Like?
- Does Your Life Leave You Enough Time to Relax?
- Do You Set Rules for Yourself About How You Use Your Time?
- Is ‘Doing Nothing’ a Good Use of Your Time?
- What’s Cluttering Up Your Life?
- What Work Went Into Reaching Your Most Difficult Goals?
- When Have You Ever Failed at Something? What Happened as a Result?
- When Have You Ever Succeeded When You Thought You Might Fail?
- What Life Lessons Has Adversity Taught You?
- What’s the Most Challenging Assignment You’ve Ever Had?
- What Kind of Feedback Helps You Improve?
- Is Trying Too Hard to Be Happy Making You Sad?
- Do Adults Who Are ‘Only Trying to Help’ Sometimes Make Things Worse?
- What Are Five Everyday Problems That Bother You, and What Can You Do About Them?
- How Do Male and Female Roles Differ in Your Family?
- Do Parents Have Different Hopes and Standards for Their Sons Than for Their Daughters?
- Is There Too Much Pressure on Girls to Have ‘Perfect’ Bodies?
- How Much Pressure Do Boys Face to Have the Perfect Body?
- How Did You Learn About Sex?
- How Should Parents Address Internet Pornography?
- What Experiences Have You Had With Gender Bias in School?
- What Have Been Your Experiences With Catcalling or Other Kinds of Street Harassment?
- Do You Know Boys Who Regard Girls as ‘Prey’?
- Do You Consider Yourself a Feminist?
- How Do You Help?
- What Ethical Dilemmas Have You Faced?
- Would You Help an Injured Stranger?
- When Is the Last Time You Did Something Nice for a Stranger?
- Have You Ever ‘Paid It Forward’?
- How Much Do You Gossip?
- How Comfortable Are You With Lying?
- Have You Ever Taken Something You Weren’t Supposed To?
- What Could You Live Without?
- Do You Ever Feel Guilty About What, or How Much, You Throw Away?
- Do You Ever Eavesdrop?
- How Important Is Your Spiritual Life?
- Do You Believe That Everything Happens for a Reason?
- Can You Be Good Without God?
- Are You Less Religious Than Your Parents?
- Can You Pass a Basic Religion Test?
- What Can You Learn From Other Religions?
- Who Is Your Role Model?
- Who Are Your Heroes?
- Who Inspires You?
- What’s the Best Advice You’ve Gotten?
- Who Outside Your Family Has Made a Difference in Your Life?
- If You Had Your Own Talk Show, Whom Would You Want to Interview?
- To Whom, or What, Would You Like to Write a Thank-You Note?
- What Leader Would You Invite to Speak at Your School?
- What Six People, Living or Dead, Would You Invite to Dinner?
- Are You Distracted by Technology?
- Do You Always Have Your Phone or Tablet at Your Side?
- What Tech Tools Play the Biggest Role in Your Life?
- What New Technologies or Tech Toys Are You Most Excited About?
- To What Piece of Technology Would You Write a ‘Love Letter’?
- Does Your Digital Life Have Side Effects?
- Do Apps Help You or Just Waste Your Time?
- Do You Spend Too Much Time on Smart Phones Playing ‘Stupid Games’?
- When Do You Choose Making a Phone Call Over Sending a Text?
- Do You Know How to Code? Would You Like to Learn?
- Whom Would You Share Your Passwords With?
- What Are Your Favorite Video Games?
- What Have You Learned Playing Video Games?
- Do You Play Violent Video Games?
- When Should You Feel Guilty for Killing Zombies?
- Who Are Your Opponents in Online Gaming?
- Do You Like Watching Other People Play Video Games?
- How Careful Are You Online?
- Do You Ever Seek Advice on the Internet?
- How Do You Know if What You Read Online Is True?
- How Much Do You Trust Online Reviews?
- How Do You Use Wikipedia?
- What Are Your Favorite Internet Spoofs?
- What Are Your Favorite Viral Videos?
- What Would You Teach the World in an Online Video?
- What Are Your Experiences With Internet-Based Urban Legends?
- What Story Does Your Personal Data Tell?
- Do You Worry About the Lack of Anonymity in the Digital Age?
- Do You Wish You Had More Privacy Online?
- Have You Ever Been Scammed?
- How Do You Use Facebook?
- What Is Your Facebook Persona?
- What Memorable Experiences Have You Had on Facebook?
- Does Facebook Ever Make You Feel Bad?
- Would You Consider Deleting Your Facebook Account?
- Do You Have ‘Instagram Envy’?
- Do You Use Twitter?
- Why Do You Share Photos?
- How Do You Archive Your Life?
- Have You Ever Posted, Emailed or Texted Something You Wish You Could Take Back?
- Have You Ever Sent an Odd Message Because of Auto-Correct?
- Would You Want Your Photo or Video to Go Viral?
- Do You Worry Colleges or Employers Might Read Your Social Media Posts Someday?
- What Are You Listening To?
- Who in Your Life Introduces You to New Music?
- How Much Is Your Taste in Music Based on What Your Friends Like?
- What Music Inspires You?
- How Closely Do You Listen to Lyrics?
- Which Pop Music Stars Fascinate You?
- Who Is Your Favorite Pop Diva?
- What’s Your Karaoke Song?
- What Song/Artist Pairings Would You Like to Hear?
- What Were the Best Movies You Saw in the Past Year?
- What Movies Do You Watch, or Reference, Over and Over?
- What Movies, Shows or Books Do You Wish Had Sequels, Spinoffs or New Episodes?
- Do You Like Horror Movies?
- Who Are Your Favorite Movie Stars?
- Would You Pay Extra for a 3-D Movie?
- What Is Your Favorite Comedy?
- What Are the Best Live Theatrical Performances You’ve Ever Seen?
- Have You Ever Stumbled Upon a Cool Public Performance?
- What Role Does Television Play in Your Life and the Life of Your Family?
- What Television Shows Have Mattered to You?
- Do Your Television Viewing Habits Include ‘Binge-Watching’?
- How Often Do You Watch a Television Show When It Originally Airs?
- What Old Television Shows Would You Bring Back?
- Why Do We Like Reality Shows So Much?
- What Ideas Do You Have for a Reality Show?
- What Are Your Favorite Commercials?
- How Much Are You Influenced by Advertising?
- Read Any Good Books Lately?
- Do You Read for Pleasure?
- What Are Your Favorite Books and Authors?
- What Are the Best Things You’ve Read, Watched, Heard or Played This Year?
- What Are Your Favorite Young Adult Novels?
- What’s on Your Summer Reading List?
- What Memorable Poetry Have You Ever Read or Heard?
- What Are Your Favorite Cartoons?
- What Magazines Do You Read, and How Do You Read Them?
- Do You Enjoy Reading Tabloid Gossip?
- When Have You Seen Yourself and Your Life Reflected in a Book or Other Media?
- Do You Prefer Your Children’s Book Characters Obedient or Contrary?
- Do You Read E-Books?
- Would You Trade Your Paper Books for Digital Versions?
- To What Writer Would You Award a Prize?
- Why Do You Write?
- Do You Keep a Diary or Journal?
- Do You Have a Blog?
- Do You Want to Write a Book?
- When Do You Write by Hand?
- Do You Write in Cursive?
- Do You Write in Your Books?
- What ‘Mundane Moments’ From Your Life Might Make Great Essay Material?
- What’s the Coolest Thing You’ve Ever Seen in a Museum?
- What Are the Most Memorable Works of Visual Art You Have Seen?
- What Are Your Favorite Works of Art?
- What Are Your Favorite and Least Favorite Words?
- What Words or Phrases Do You Think Are Overused?
- How Much Slang Do You Use? What Are Your Favorite (Printable) Words?
- How Much Do You Curse? Why?
- Why Do So Many People Say ‘Like’ and ‘Totally’ All the Time?
- Do You Sometimes ‘Hide’ Behind Irony?
- How Good Is Your Grammar?
- What New Emoticons Does the World Need?
- Are You Fluent in Vocal Fry, Creaky Voice or Uptalk?
- How Much Information Is ‘Too Much Information’?
- When Did You Last Have a Great Conversation?
- Do You Speak a Second, or Third, Language?
- When Do You Remember Learning a New Word?
- Do You Like School?
- What Are You Really Learning at School?
- What Are You Looking Forward To, or Dreading, This School Year?
- Would You Want to Be Home-Schooled?
- Would You Like to Take a Class Online?
- Would You Rather Attend a Public or a Private High School?
- How Would You Grade Your School?
- What Can Other Schools Learn — and Copy — From Your School?
- Is Your School Day Too Short?
- What Do You Hope to Get Out of High School?
- Do You Have Too Much Homework?
- Does Your Homework Help You Learn?
- What Is Your Best Subject?
- What Memorable Experiences Have You Had in Learning Science or Math?
- Are You Afraid of Math?
- Do We Need a New Way to Teach Math?
- What Are the Best Ways to Learn About History?
- How Would You Do on a Civics Test?
- How Important Is Arts Education?
- What Is Your Most Memorable Writing Assignment?
- What Would You Like to Have Memorized?
- Does Your School Value Students’ Digital Skills?
- What Was Your Favorite Field Trip?
- Do You Participate in Class?
- What Are Your Best Tips for Studying?
- Do You Use Study Guides?
- Is Everything You’ve Been Taught About Study Habits Wrong?
- How Well Do You Think Standardized Tests Measure Your Abilities?
- Do You Have a Tutor?
- Are Your Grades Inflated?
- When Has a Teacher Inspired You?
- What Teacher Do You Appreciate?
- What Teacher Would You Like to Thank?
- What Do You Wish Your Teachers Knew About You?
- Do Your Test Scores Reflect How Good Your Teachers Are?
- Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?
- What Role Do School Clubs and Teams Play in Your Life?
- Who Has the Power in School Social Life?
- How Big a Problem Is Bullying or Cyberbullying in Your School or Community?
- Does Your School Seem Integrated?
- What’s the Racial Makeup of Your School?
- Do You Ever ‘Mix It Up’ and Socialize With Different People at School?
- Can Students at Your School Talk Openly About Their Mental Health Issues?
- Is Your School a ‘Party School’?
- How Common Is Drug Use in Your School?
- Do You Know People Who Cheat on High-Stakes Tests?
- How Does Your School Deal With Students Who Misbehave?
- How Much Does Your Life in School Intersect With Your Life Outside School?
- Would You Ever Go Through Hazing to Be Part of a Group?
- Where Do You Want to Go to College?
- What Are Your Sources for Information About Colleges and Universities?
- Is College Overrated?
- How Much Does the SAT or ACT Matter in Your Life?
- What Personal Essay Topic Would You Assign to College Applicants?
- What Qualities Would You Look For in a College Roommate?
- What Would You Do With a Gap Year?
- What Makes a Graduation Ceremony Memorable?
- How Do You Feel About Proms?
- What Are Your Longtime Interests or Passions?
- Do You Have a Life Calling?
- What Do You Want to Do With Your Life?
- Do You Think You Will Have a Career That You Love?
- What Investment Are You Willing to Make to Get Your Dream Job?
- Would You Consider a Nontraditional Occupation?
- Would You Want to Be a Teacher?
- What Hidden Talents Might You Have?
- What Do You Hope to Be Doing the Year After You Graduate From College?
- Would You Rather Work From Home or in an Office?
- What Career or Technical Classes Do You Wish Your School Offered?
- What ‘Back-to-the-Land’ Skills Do You Have, or Wish You Had?
- What Have You Made Yourself?
- What Would You Create if You Had Funding?
- How Did You Start Doing Something You Love?
- Did You Ever Take a Break From Doing Something You Love?
- What Have You Done to Earn Money?
- Do You Have a Job?
- Would You Quit if Your Values Did Not Match Your Employer’s?
- What Are Your Attitudes Toward Money?
- Can Money Buy You Happiness?
- Where Do You See Yourself in 10 Years?
- What Do You Want to Be Doing When You’re 80?
- Do You Want to Live to 100?
- What Do You Want Your Obituary to Say?
- Have You Ever Been in Love?
- What Are the Most Meaningful Relationships in Your Life?
- What Advice Would You Give to Somebody Who Just Started Dating?
- What Are the Basic ‘Rules’ for Handling Breakups?
- What Are Your Beliefs About Marriage?
- Are You Allowed to Date?
- Is Dating a Thing of the Past?
- Do You Have a Best Friend?
- How Do You Feel About Introducing Friends from Different Parts of Your Life?
- How Should You Handle the End of a Friendship?
- How Often Do You Have ‘Deep Discussions’?
- Do You Like to Exercise?
- How Has Exercise Changed Your Health, Your Body or Your Life?
- Why Do You Play Sports?
- What Is the Most Memorable Sporting Event You’ve Ever Watched or Played In?
- What’s the Most Impressive Sports Moment You’ve Seen?
- When Has a Sports Team Most Disappointed You?
- What Sports Teams Do You Root For?
- Does Being a Fan Help Define Who You Are?
- How Far Would You Go to Express Loyalty to Your Favorite Teams?
- What Fan Memorabilia Would You Pay Big Bucks For?
- What Rules Would You Like to See Changed in Your Favorite Sports?
- What Game Would You Like to Redesign?
- What Are Your Favorite Games?
- Where in the World Would You Travel if You Could?
- What Is Your Fantasy Vacation?
- What Would Your Fantasy Road Trip Be Like?
- What Crazy Adventure Would You Want to Take?
- How Has Travel Affected You?
- What Famous Landmarks Have You Visited?
- What’s the Coolest Thing You’ve Ever Seen in Nature?
- What Are the Best Souvenirs You’ve Ever Collected While Traveling?
- Would You Like to Live in Another Country?
- Would You Want to Be a Space Tourist?
Coming of Age
Community and Home
Gender and Sexuality
Morality and Religion
Technology and Video Games
Movies, Theater and Television
Reading, Writing and Fine Arts
Language and Speech
School and Teachers
School Social Environment
Senior Year, College and Applications
Work and Careers
Dating and Friendship
Sports, Exercise and Games
Looks, Fashion and Health