Wants Versus Needs
"Wants versus Needs" is a two-part assignment given to students to encourage reflection on the materialism/consumption inherent in today's American society. It could be used in any class considering environmental issues. Students track their own desires and purchases and then write a reflection paper exploring the pull that material goods exert in their own lives and what this demonstrates about the way that consumerism shapes one's sense of identity.
Context for Use
It is a part of a course in social problems but could potentially be appropriate for courses such as Introduction to Sociology, American Society and Culture, or Social Psychology.
TimeframeThe assignment is given in the first of four class sessions devoted to this topic. The assignment is due one week later. At that point an in-class debriefing is conducted lasting up to one hour. However, the assignment could be placed at any point in a course dealing with these issues.
Description and Teaching Materials
The Learning ActivitiesPreliminary Activities
This assignment is anchored in a section of the class examining materialism in American society and specifically its impact on children. This is the second of four topics covered in the course - challenges to young adults in getting ahead today, materialism and identity, environmental sustainability, and community in the 21st century. Each section is approximately two weeks in length delivered over a quarter.
The assignment is given in the first class of the two-week period. It is due one week later. In the week while students are carrying out the assignment several preliminary and concurrent activities are conducted.
Preliminary Reading and Lecture (on the first day)
Students read chapter one of Juliet Schor's Born to Buy, which introduces the concept of the commercialization of childhood.
Students watch and discuss Juliet Schor's DVD, "The Overspent American" - particularly the section on needs versus wants.
Main Learning ActivitiesAn Experiment in Monitoring Desires
Students are directed to prepare 3X5 cards with two columns. One column is entitled "Want", the other "Trigger". They are to carry the cards with them at all times for a three-day period. Each time they become aware that they thinking about a material want, they are to note it on the card. Each thought is a separate notation, even if the desire is for the same item. If they are aware of a specific trigger for the want (such as seeing a great pair of shoes on another student, seeing an advertisement, et cetera), they are to note it in the second column. However, they are instructed that the trigger is not always obvious and the most import thing to do is to be conscious of their desires. They are also asked to note with an asterisk any items they actually acquired.
To try to avoid a social desirability bias in record keeping, students are assured that having wants and desires is perfectly normal and that everyone has them. In our culture it is also perfectly normal to want material items. They are also assured that analyzing these desires will help us uncover the messages our society and culture is sending us about what it means to be a person in our society.
Following the data collection phase, students are then asked to write a one page single-spaced reflection paper on what this experience has shown them. In the paper they should address the following questions:
What desires stand out to you as the most important to you - the ones you wanted the most?
- Did you actually acquire the item(s) (by purchasing, trading, borrowing, et cetera)?
- What did it feel like to acquire or not acquire the item(s)?
- What would other people think about you if you had this/these?
- What would you think about yourself?
The purpose of the class debriefing is to help students relate the data they have collected and reflected upon in order to understand what is meant by the social construction of identity - to unpack the linkage between consumption and self-identity. The debriefing is done in two stages. First, students share their own personal experiences with the exercise in a smaller, more intimate group setting. Second, the class re-gathers as a large group to unpack how
consumption shapes self-identity in America today.
Students are directed to choose a group of no more than three students. One member should take on the role of recorder to be prepared to bring back highlights of their conversation to the larger group. In the small group students are instructed to share their findings from this experiment noting similarities and differences.
Sample questions to shape the class discussion:
- Were there any common themes in the groups? (Groups report back.)
- What socio-cultural factors might influence what we want?
- What does this tell us about how we form a sense of what is valued in a person in our society?
- How do we internalize these messages?
- Schor's comments, "More children here than anywhere else believe that their clothes and brands describe who they are and define their social status." (Born to Buy, p. 13) Is this true only of children? Why or why not?
Teaching Notes and Tips
Grading Rubric for AssignmentThe Superior Paper (A/A-)
- Excellent record keeping; detailed; has all required components
- Excellent summary of the data - logical conclusions; Answers all questions.
- Reflection demonstrates depth and personal insight regarding consumption/identity.
- Ideas flow logically.
- Excellent sentence structure, grammar, diction; correct use of punctuation; minimal to no spelling errors; absolutely no run-on sentences or comma splices.
- Good record keeping; lacking some detail; Answers all questions.
- Summary of data promising but logical conclusions seem somewhat tenuous.
- Reflection may lack depth of insight.
- Sentence structure, grammar, and diction strong despite occasional. lapses; punctuation often used correctly. Some (minor) spelling errors; may have one run-on sentence or comma splice.
- Record keeping is somewhat messy; unclear; Answers all questions.
- Summary of data and conclusions are weak.
- Reflection appears superficial.
- Problems in sentence structure, grammar, and diction (usually not major). Some errors in punctuation, and spelling. May have some run-on sentences or comma splices.
- Record keeping is messy; Answers most questions but not all, causing summary and conclusions to be incomplete.
- Reflection is superficial.
- Big problems in sentence structure, grammar, and diction. Frequent major errors in punctuation, and spelling. May have many run-on sentences and comma splices.
- Like the above paper but the problems are even more serious
- Shows obviously minimal lack of effort or comprehension of the assignment. Very difficult to understand owing to major problems in writing, structure, and analysis. Does not follow paper guidelines. Plagiarizes.
References and Resources
- The Merchants of Cool
- Century of the Self
- Affluenza (Facts are dated at this point in time but selected segments can be useful.)
- What is the Good Life? Yes! Magazine, Summer 2004 Issue.
- Sustainable Happiness, Yes! Magazine, Winter 2009 Issue.
- Kaplan, J. (2008). The Gospel of Consumption, Orion, May/June. (Can be accessed at http://www.orionmagazine.org).