Monday, 3 January 2011

"identity" as dynamic, relational and emergent.

Like many part time PhD students, I wish I had (spent?) a little more time reading this Christmas, but at least I've made some progress. I've just read a book recommended by my supervisor: "Making Identity Matter" by Robin Williams. Of course, my 'reading' of this text is my own and I'm sure does not fully reflect the authors perspectives - that's the disclaimer. As I'm in the foothills of my literature review, I find texts like these helpful in orientating me to major perspectives and issues - in this case, in relation to the huge subject of 'identity'.

If you are one of the three people who has read previous posts (joking) then you might remember that I'm looking at narratives of professional identity in 'emergent' forms of UK children's services - such as Sure Start Children's Centres. I'm interested in how individuals reshape their own professional identities in these contexts, and their relation to and use of other people and social objects, including symbol systems, rules and so on. It's less of a meta theory of identity creation in these contexts and more of an examination of the detail of the 'micro' level dynamics - working with participants to understand the 'black box' of identity reshaping and 'learning' to be in these new contexts. So; an introduction and orientation to issues of identity is required as you can imagine.

For anyone who has read around the issue of identity you will know you could do this for years and still not appreciate the nuances and arguments. Thank goodness I'm not studying to be an encyclopedia. Having taken my first journey through identity land, I've found a number of useful perspectives I'll note here, if only for my own future reference and deeper digging! I'm leaving out the angles which I found just too pretentious / abstract / cerebral for practical use. See how quickly my prejudices have crept in? Not really, but I may as well be honest that my 'reading' of this text was of course influenced by my own interactionist / pragmatic perspective on human and professional identity. My own view is also that researchers need to give up the idea of pure objectivity and to recognise how their own perspectives may shape their 'readings' and locate them in particular dialogues. Of course, being aware of this is also healthy, so we all can remain challenged by 'other' perspectives. On to some useful headlines, then.

In summary, a review of identity allows us to consider identity as things such as:
  • a 'role'
  • a performance
  • a product of stories well tell
  • a result of interaction
  • an 'ascription' to social categories
  • an illusion 
  • ...and so on!

Let's look at some examples of perspectives I think have some use for my study...

As they often do, this book started off by charting 'foundational' philosophies and perspectives. Simplistically 'jumping' past some of these major voices (Descartes, Locke, Hume, Nietzsche and others) I'll briefly point to Hegel. For my purposes (and apologies for the terrible simplification and editing), I'll just say that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831) addressed the issue of properties of individuals as things which are constituted in subjective relationships. In addition, he argued that 'consiousness' is bound up with 'others'. His work on the phenomenology of spirit looks to account for the development of human consciousness and self consciousness and gives us some useful leads about the struggle for recognition amongst other things. 

Another 'snapshot' in my random review of ideas I think are useful are those of Antony Giddens and others in relation to the human state in late modernity. Bringing our search into (literally) 'modern' territory, Giddens discusses the complex and contested nature of social life in late modern life. I like his discussion of how, in the light of multiple, complex and contradictory 'versions' of modern life (as opposed to relatively stable and homogeneous pre-industrial society) individuals become 'attuned' to a range of 'incoming information' to enable the reflexive self. He sees relationships ('pure relationships') being used as a mechanism for self disclosure - also as part of this effort to attain 'sense' and reflexivity. Another shockingly simplistic summary.

Moving on, I wasn't surprised to find I 'resonated' with pragmatic perspectives of James, Mead and Dewey who argued that individuals are both 'acting subject' and also both the subjects and objects of their own and others attention. The ability to be an 'object' of ones' own attention for pragmatists enables reflexivity. In this context, 'identity' 'conciousness' or 'self' emerges from an ongoing stream of interaction.

Erving Goffman's famous work on identity features in the review of the subject, and although I found I liked aspects of his work, I found others rather cynical and pessimistic. I'll focus on a snapshot of what I found useful, which was the insight he gave us that 'becoming' a person is also about finding a space provided by local social arrangements, that identity is to one extent or another 'presented' to others with consideration of the audience / stage and so on. His work on the exchange of mutually understood symbols in common rituals also helps contextualise the expression of identity. 

What else looks hopeful? It would be difficult to look at narrative identity without considering the contributions of Ricoeur. Paul Ricoeur is another distinguished philosopher whose work on narrative will no doubt be a subject of much more study for me. In short, Ricoeur discusses identity as a narrative production, arrived at in the telling / re telling of stories about ourselves. His view that narrative expressions of identity draws on culturally available plots, which in turn inform individuals' actions and implies the role / presence of 'others' who are 'told' the story.

Broadly influenced by Nietzsche (as far as I can see), Michel Foucault certainly is important (influential) in terms of contemporary identity studies. His postmodern perspective almost seems a cliche nowadays (I would suggest it's uncritically adopted, ironically). There's lots I question here, but I think Foucault pioneered some important territory in discussing identity as a 'discursive product', a product necessarily seen in historical context, and that identity, amongst other things, is something produced by individuals as they 'make themselves subjects' in a number of ways. His work is helpful in pointing out the 'use' made of external systems and (perhaps) domination's to form identity, and shows the limitations of Cartesian views of identity as something entirely 'internal'.

Of course, any review of one book is partial - but it has helped me make sense of other material I've read so far. It's also been very useful in identifying some potentially important implications for my PhD, which include things like:
  • I need to pay attention to the occasioning and patterning of interaction and 'telling' of stories about identity.
  • I need to examine the use of categorisation by individuals in positioning and referencing.
  • I need to evaluate the nature of rituals and symbolic elements that shape the narrative 'self'.
  • I need to understand the changing object of people's narratives, which affects the sort of narrative gets produced.
That's enough for now - but I'd welcome comments where you'd like to add your own views!