The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self

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Cambridge University Press, Oct 30, 1981 - Psychology - 304 pages
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The meaning of things is a study of the significance of material possessions in contemporary urban life, and of the ways people carve meaning out of their domestic environment. Drawing on a survey of eighty families in Chicago who were interviewed on the subject of their feelings about common household objects, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton provide a unique perspective on materialism, American culture, and the self. They begin by reviewing what social scientists and philosophers have said about the transactions between people and things. In the model of 'personhood' that the authors develop, goal-directed action and the cultivation of meaning through signs assume central importance. They then relate theoretical issues to the results of their survey. An important finding is the distinction between objects valued for action and those valued for contemplation. The authors compare families who have warm emotional attachments to their homes with those in which a common set of positive meanings is lacking, and interpret the different patterns of involvement. They then trace the cultivation of meaning in case studies of four families. Finally, the authors address what they describe as the current crisis of environmental and material exploitation, and suggest that human capacities for the creation and redirection of meaning offer the only hope for survival. A wide range of scholars - urban and family sociologists, clinical, developmental and environmental psychologists, cultural anthropologists and philosophers, and many general readers - will find this book stimulating and compelling.

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People and things
What things are for
The most cherished objects in the home
Object relations and the development of the self
The home as symbolic environment
Characteristics of happy homes
The transactions between persons and things
Signs of family life
Meaning and survival
Procedures and interview notes
Interview schedules
Coding categories and definitions
Additional tables
Name index
Subject index

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About the author (1981)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "ME-high CHICK-sent-me-high-ee) is a professor and former chairman of the Department of English at the University of Chicago. His writings have focused on models of enjoyment and how various people access their creative potential. The idea of creative potential, which Csikszentmihalyi terms "flow" has become increasingly popular in the public sector. His 1993 book, Flow, inspired Jimmy Johnson then coach of the World Champion Dallas Cowboys, and was the subject of a feature story during that year's Super Bowl television broadcast. His ideas have also been touted by President Clinton, who called Csikszentmihalyi one of his favorite authors, Newt Gingrich, who put his work on the reading list for a political planning committee, and corporations and cultural institutions, such as Volvo in Sweden and the Chicago Park District. He has published articles in a variety of magazines, including Psychology Today, The New York Times, Omni, and Wired and has made appearances on television in the U.S. and Europe. Csikszentmihalyi currently serves on boards and commissions for the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education, and the Social Science Research Council. He has held visiting professorships at universities in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Italy, and Finland. He received the1990 NRPA National Research (Roosevelt) Award, in addition to two Senior Fulbright Fellowships. Besides Flow, he has also written Beyond Boredom and Anxiety and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, in which he applies his "flow" theory to various inventors, scientists, and artists to determine how and why they achieve "flow.

Eugene Halton is Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In addition to being coauthor of The Meaning of Things, he is author of Bereft of Reason (1995, 1997), Meaning and Modernity (1986), and a forthcoming book on American culture.

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