Social and Personal Identity: Understanding YourSelf

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Derek Layder

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  • Afterword

    What prompted me to write this book? Having been an academic sociologist for around 30 years, I have always been interested in the self (personal identity) and the associated problem of the relationship between the individual and society. When I first became a sociologist this was a rather ‘undeveloped’ area but progress was modest, steady and promising – especially as it was influenced by the pioneering work of Mead. However since then the early promise has all but disappeared.

    I think the reasons for can be traced back to the emergence of certain perspectives that questioned the very existence of the self (and the individual) and their place in social analysis. One of the earliest claims in this respect was that the notion of an individual self was necessary to maintain the illusion that we (as individuals) have some control over our own destinies. This supposed ideological trick hides ‘the fact’ that we are simply bit-players and that the social system (society) really determines our thoughts and behaviour.

    Subsequently those who call themselves poststructuralists have insisted that individual selves only ‘appear’ in language and discourse and that they have no real existence outside these parameters. According to these authors the idea that we have thoughts, feelings and desires that are ours as unique individuals is a mistaken and rather naive assumption. Instead we are ‘created’ by the discourses which assign us ‘subject’ positions and allow us to think in various ways about the world.

    What has become known as ‘discourse analysis’ has established footholds in many areas of social analysis including sociology, social psychology and cultural studies spreading its core idea that individuals with their own intentions, purposes, personalities, desires and thoughts do not exist independently of the social discourses that ‘speak for them’. Those who call themselves social constructionists also share this idea although they place less emphasis on the importance of language. For social con-structionists, emotions, motives, reasons and intentions are not interior states of selves but exterior properties of contexts and actions. Such radical approaches suggest that practices, actions, activities and interactions rather than persons should be at the centre of analytic attention. More broadly, social constructionism endorses the view that emotions, desires, intentions and so on, are social constructs rather than aspects of individual experience and subjective mental states.

    Closely allied with social constructionism is the perpective known as postmodernism which insists that the self is ephemeral, fragmented and discontinuous. We constantly recreate ourselves according to our desires and the situations into which we are placed. This is because the modern world itself has changed, having become more complex, shifting and ambiguous through the multiplication of lifestyles and life sectors. The idea that there is a coherent, core or continuous self is rejected in favour of a view of the endless recreation and revisability of the self and the narratives through which we choose to live our lives.

    Of course, not everyone endorses these ideas about the self. Nevertheless, students and others new to the study of the self are often uncritically presented with such views as if they were indisputable or established fact, which is far from the case. It is also true that there have been strong criticisms of these views from noted scholars (Craib 1998, Porpora 1997) and such technical, academic argument is an important avenue for challenging their adequacy. In this book, however, I have chosen a rather different way to expose the weaknesses of these ideas and perspectives on the self.

    Instead of discussing the nature of different perpectives and presenting the reader with a rather abstract and academic discussion, I have chosen to describe and flesh out in a positive and constructive manner, what I take to be an adequate alternative view of the self and self-identity. Thus I develop a view of the self as having a measure of freedom from the grip of language and discourse, while also recognizing the importance and influence of such factors. This ‘realistic’ view of personal identity stresses that it is not simply a social construct, but has a definite, individual and subjective existence partly independent of social forces.

    A focus on personal identity can never be replaced or substituted by the analysis of social activities or practices. The individual person with a vibrant subjective interior must have a central place in social analysis alongside and in conjunction with social forces and factors. To imagine otherwise is a form of intellectual laziness, not to say explanatory suicide. Similarly to view self-identity as an endless self-creation or revisable narrative is both naive and misplaced. Such a view does considerable disservice to individual capabilities while at the same time, and with considerable irony, it drastically underestimates the formative influence of social forces.

    There is certainly nothing fixed, static or essentialist about self-identity. A person's identity may change in accordance with social situations and circumstances (particularly their current life situation) as well as their own choices and decisions. However, this is not an endless recreation or revision of identity nor is it achieved unhindered by social forces. Important transformations in self-identity, when and if they occur, tend to be gradual rather than total, while minor changes are more frequent but essentially cosmetic. It is also possible to have a core self that underpins and co-ordinates the performances of several other social personae. But these are not different selves they are simply different facets of the same individual.

    Emotion and desire are important features of personal identity, but again they are never purely social constructs. To grasp their importance for self-identity – and the way social forces are reshaped and re-channelled in the process – it is crucial to understand emotions as expressions of a person's psyche – of their unique, subjective view of their world and experience. But many approaches to the self persist in treating it as primarily cognitive (an information processing unit) and thus minimize the importance of emotion or treat it as an unusual or non-routine feature of behaviour. This view needs to be turned on its head. Self-identity is suffused with feeling and emotion even if individuals attempt to supress or stifle their expression. Emotion is the foundation on which every facet of human behaviour ultimately rests. All our intentions and purposes are coloured by it, especially our attempts to control and influence others. As I outline it in this book, self-identity, emotion and desire are delicately interwoven with interpersonal control as the means through which our desires, purposes and interests are secured. In particular, I argue that much of our behaviour relies on the benign control of others as a way of satifying emotional needs in ourselves as well as other people.

    Here the whole thrust of my view of self-identity goes against the postmodern (‘radical’, constructionist) currents of thought which see it as an offshoot and reflection of wider discourses and other social forces. Contrary to these constructionist currents, individual private worlds and personal feelings must be grasped as central to our social experience. They must be incorporated into our understanding of the way in which self-identity and personal agency help to form and inform our social relationships and experiences.

    The extensive current literature on self-help, self-development and tranformation are sensitive barometers of the age in which we live and yet the ideas to which it gives expression cannot be understood in terms of social constructionism or postmodernism. The idea of a spiritual side to the self and that inner power is a crucial ingredient in self-development needs to be registered and counterposed to postmodern currents of thought.

    Existential questions about personal and social experience and the problems and dilemmas we experience as part of our everyday relationships are conspicuously absent from postmodern and constructionist analyses. The practical dynamics of encounters and relationships and the personal experiences and feelings they generate (love, hate, admiration, shame, pity, euphoria, depression and so on), are impossible to grasp if we view self-identity as some kind of behaviouristic outcome of social processes. The very essence of personal experience is obliterated by understanding it exclusively in terms of social discourses.

    I first began thinking and formulating the ideas about personal identity offered in the rest of this book while I was writing a book entitled Modern Social Theory (1997) in which I outline what I call ‘the theory of social domains’. The book develops the idea that social reality is made up of several interconnecting but partly independent domains that have their own characteristics and properties but which also intimately influence each other. One of these domains, psychobiography, portrays the self as partly independent of social forces while at the same time subject to a good deal of social influence. In one sense this present work can be understood as an extended reflection on, and elaboration of, the psychobiographical domain but without all the technical theoretical discussion in the previous book.

    The theory of social domains lies in the deep background of this present work affirming rather than denying individual subjectivity and the ‘inner life’ of human desire and emotion. In fact, the theory of social domains celebrates the reality of this inner psychic experience and treats it as indispensable to an adequate account of modern existence. As a backdrop domain theory is also present in the idea of a dialectical interplay between real, relatively independent individuals and the social activities, settings and contexts which form their social environment. In short it understands social forces not as determiners of personal identity or individual experience, but as conditioning influences on the intentions, purposes desires and ambitions of real individuals with real self-identities.

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