Consumer Imagination, Identity and Self-Expression

ABSTRACT - 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.


Hope Jensen Schau (2000) ,"Consumer Imagination, Identity and Self-Expression", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 50-56.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 50-56


Hope Jensen Schau, 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.


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 individual’s position with respect to the material and social worlds.


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 Plato’s notion of phantasia as a synthesis of sensory perception and rational thought resulting in knowledge (Theaetetus), through Kant’s assertion that imagination defines and shapes human experience (Kant 1965), to Anderson’s 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 Plato’s 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 imagination’s synthesis of ideas and sensory experience (White 1990). In short, imagination is the way people make sense of sensation. From Plato’s 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 Plato’s view, imagination is the only vehicle of Truth’s 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) that’s "function is to present to the intellect that interpreted sensation without which there is no thought" (Brann 1991, p. 40). In contrast to Plato’s 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 one’s 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 Aristotle’s 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). Vico’s 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 Vico’s 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. Hume’s 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 Hume’s 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 mind’s 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 Hume’s 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 Plato’s 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 person’s 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 Anderson’s 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. Anderson’s 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 Anderson’s 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 Appadurai’s 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).



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 consumer’s 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 product’s 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 Levitt’s 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 consumer’s 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 (O’Guinn 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.


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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Hope Jensen Schau, University of California, Irvine


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

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