Self and Social Change


Matthew Adams

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    For the one on the way, as yet unnamed


    What do you think are the most significant social changes of the last fifty years? Here are a selection of answers offered by friends and colleagues: the introduction of the contraceptive pill; the proliferation of television ownership; the globalization of capitalism; communications and information technology developments; prolonged dependency of offspring on parents; post-modern pessimism; a shift from production to consumption; reproductive technologies (e.g. IVF); gay visibility; increased opportunities for women and the end of apartheid.

    You may or may not have come up with similar answers. In fact what we perceive to be important social changes will vary depending on our personal histories and relationships as well our current context. A social change, such as the fall of the Berlin wall, may have been experienced as tremendously significant for some, but irrelevant to others. Generalizing is difficult from the outset. But they are fascinating examples and invite us to explore the idea of social change further.

    How can we make sense of these far-reaching changes? Social theory often attempts to find more general categories of social change to which more specific changes can be allotted. Whilst not losing touch completely with a micro-approach to social change – concern for the specific, localized perception of significant change – we will now turn to macro-approaches to social change. In one of the few existing overviews, Jordan and Pile describe the sociology of social change as ‘the investigation of the times and places when and where society becomes different… [as] necessarily dealing with situations when things are strange, when the new and the old rub up against each other or evolve into another social form’ (Jordan and Pile, 2002: xiv). This is a suitably broad description for a phenomenon as nebulous as social change, and it will serve as a working definition for the purposes of this book.

    An overview of sociological accounts of social change is an intimidating prospect. So much sociology attempts to indicate what is new, emerging, or soon-to-be-common. Of course at the same time the light of the new casts a descriptive glow over what is lost; the soon to be distant memories of established patterns, the unravelling of once-familiar social habits, the now-you-mention-it obsolescence of formerly taken-for-granted practices and institutions. The process is rarely envisaged as simply one of the new replacing the old however. Social theorizing often posits a more subtle and sophisticated co-existence of old and new patterns in the social fabric (e.g. Heelas et al., 1996; Rojek, 1995; Beck and Willms, 2004), from which social change emerges as a dynamic force.

    In the sociological imagination a key dimension of significant social change is often argued to be its contemporariness. It is often argued that our current period is one of substantial social change against which the claims for change of previous eras fade by comparison. Hence Giddens argues that modernity was another form of traditional society until it finally shed its chrysalis and emerged as late modernity or post-traditional society: ‘For most of its history, modernity has rebuilt tradition as it has dissolved it…the persistence and recreation of tradition was central….’ (Giddens, 1994: 56). Despite this theoretical tendency radical upheaval has long been seen to be an inherent dynamism of society, now so often the point of crescendo. In the West, announcements of social discontinuity have coalesced to some extent around fin de siecle theorizing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Alexander, 1995), additionally punctuated by the aftermath of two world wars. Hence others are far more cautious in perceiving social transformation, emphasizing instead continuity, in terms of traditions, inequalities and broader social relations.

    Amidst such breadth the scope of this book is modest, and will largely limit itself to more recent accounts of social change as utilized by prominent sociological theories of identity. The focus is the general mechanisms of the relationship between social change and self-identity and what they can reveal about their mutual nature, rather than the details of specific changes. More specifically, one of a number of dominant tropes will be the focus of each chapter. These tropes can be broadly defined in terms of the psychosocial processes they place at the heart of their analysis: psychosocial fragmentation in chapter two, extended reflexivity in chapter three, discursive regulation in chapter four, and cultural pathology in chapter five. Chapter six is an attempt to draw together some of the main critical points from the preceding chapters and develop a socially situated analysis of selfhood.

    Book Structure

    Before engaging with these specific tropes in detail, an attempt will be made in the first chapter to broadly portray some of the kinds of transformations which tend to be assumed in any discussion of social change. Such a rudimentary sketch does not attempt to do justice to the many differences between key theorists of social change. The accounts of self in relation to social change tackled in subsequent chapters differ in important respects: in the kinds of social change they emphasize over others, the positive or negative value attributed to them, and the extent to which they signify a break from the past. These differences will be pursued as they become relevant. With these caveats in mind, it is possible to consider a number of social changes which have been argued to shape the recent and emerging history of the globe.

    The theories of psychosocial fragmentation discussed in chapter two are perhaps the furthest removed from an explicit account of self-reflexivity, though they provide an important starting point. The key claim made there is that the self has become severed from its meaningful points of anchorage and ends up drifting in a sea of uncertainty and alienation. Accounts of psychosocial fragmentation have provided us with abundant accounts of social changes we are supposedly encountering, often with a polemical eloquence which is convincingly damning. Its influence is felt in almost all sociological accounts of self-identity. As illustrated in chapter two, as a trope on the sociological landscape the significance of theses of fragmentation has not waned, invigorated as it has been by the impact of post-modern perspectives. Nonetheless in its unreconstructed forms it rests on a one-dimensional understanding of agency and the social-psychological inter-relationship: social order fragments, the self fragments, alienating itself from itself in the process. Critical difficulties lie here in the dangers of conservatism and essentialism amongst others. Thus the formation of new communities, perhaps along different lines to those of more ‘traditional’ times are missed or marginalized; opportunities for more relational, less individualistic constructions of self-identity are unnecessarily denigrated; and creative and varied responses are portrayed as homogenous and passive. Such criticism forms the backdrop for a discussion of the extended reflexivity thesis in chapter three.

    The extended reflexivity thesis is an attempt to flesh out a more dilemmatic approach to the psychological dynamics of psychosocial fragmentation. Giddens's work in particular, taken as a whole, is a sophisticated attempt to conceptualize a tripartite model of self (unconscious, practical consciousness, reflexivity) and the ways in which it is intertwined with changing social structures – structuration. Extended self-reflexivity is argued to be the ambivalent fruit of social change overlooked by standard accounts of psychosocial fragmentation. Whilst it may contain the potentially self-ruinous seeds of excessive uncertainty, meaninglessness, addiction, obsessiveness and narcissism, it also holds out hope for day-to-day reconstitution of institutions and the reappropriation of spheres of meaning, along reflexively organized lines rather than the ascribed doxa of previous socio-cultural eras. The thesis is summarized before moving on to a survey of its critical reception.

    The extended reflexivity thesis is thought by some to have neglected the reality of relational, embodied selves with complex psychic structures. Giddens's version of unconscious and emotional life was claimed to be excessively ‘tidy’ and individualized, possibly in order to more easily accommodate his vision of extended reflexivity. The self-reflexive process is thus claimed to be a more partial, ambiguous and contradictory phenomenon than the extended reflexivity thesis tends to allow for. A more complex and multivious account of psychic life can arguably be found in psychoanalysis and this critical point is expanded upon here and underpins the later discussions in chapter five.

    Critical commentary has also focused upon the extent to which the extended reflexivity thesis utilizes an unduly weakened concept of social structure. According to this counter-argument, social structures still differentially shape the ability of different social groups to be reflexive, and to connect reflexivity with genuine choices. This is an important argument pursued in some detail in chapter three and throughout this book. Finally, critical voices have suggested the analysis of reflexivity as an emerging process of self-identity transcending cultural boundaries masks its origins in, and perpetuation of, normative discourses of rationality, individualization and autonomy which now elide smoothly with the neoliberal politics and policies of contemporary capitalism. This interpretation forms the basis for a critical dialogue between the extended reflexivity thesis and Foucaultian analyses of self-identity in the context of social change, discussed in chapter four.

    Discursive accounts of regulation which draw on Foucault at first appear to have little in common with the extended reflexivity thesis. Theirs is a very different portrayal of social change and the subject, emphasizing the primacy of language, the ways in which discourses intermesh to form reality and the subsequent construction of socially differentiated subjects. Out of discursive formations emerges the particular shape of an embodied subjectivity, folding discourses into the reality of its own constitution through the techniques made available to it, always pre-existing it. However, Foucaultian accounts of governmentality have pointed to the emergence of self-surveillance as a historically contingent technology for regulating people in contemporary societies. According to this understanding individuals are increasingly invited to scrutinize themselves, according to principles of autonomy, self-realisation and self-mastery. It is such an invitation that brings a Foucaultian analysis into contact with the extended reflexivity thesis, for the phenomena of self-scrutiny and self-reflexivity overlap a great deal. The important critical difference is that for Foucaultian analyses, the reflexive process is embedded in the dominant discourses of a particular social order, rather than being capable of standing apart from and reworking them. As the examples of employee-identity illustrates there is argued to be a hijacking of self-reflexivity by state and corporate powers with the aim of ensuring a docile and compliant consumer-worker-citizen.

    Criticisms of Foucault's over-determinism lead to a re-emergence of questions of agency and the possibility of reflexive autonomy. Despite offering a compelling critical inversion of the extended reflexivity thesis, modernist assumptions concerning the ‘self’ as origin of an awareness which transcends cultural constructions and interpolations resurface. Foucaultian analyses tend to do one of two contradictory things: either they deny the subject any interiority at all, frustrating a meaningful examination of the psychic power people invest in, and form attachments, to particular regimes of truth, forms of governmentality or techniques of self over another, which presumably play a key part in social differentiation; or they offer the hope of a critical self-reflexivity as an implicit or explicit ideal, whilst critical of present manifestations of it as historically contingent discursive constructions. Furthermore, this invitation to self-mastery is as in danger of slipping into gendered and class-based notions of the bounded subject as those at the fore of the extended reflexivity thesis. The search for a model of selfhood which acknowledges and theorizes the investments and attachments which mutually bind self-identity and social structure, without valorizing processes of self-reflexivity, leads to an exploration of the concept of narcissism from a psychodynamic perspective.

    Sociological accounts of narcissism parallel a Foucaultian emphasis upon the appropriation of intimate processes of subjectivity by dominant socio-cultural processes. A psychoanalytic framework brings a different inflection to the psychological processes involved however. According to this approach, early interactions with significant others forms the basis for one's psychological make-up amidst complex process of psychical interpenetration. The unconscious internalization of these early relations forms the basis of a self and continues to shape those relations across the life-span. The particular relational dynamics involved in the aetiology of narcissistic disorders have long been highlighted and continue to be refined in clinical literature.

    Christopher Lasch and others have argued that the social changes we are now familiar with reproduce these dynamics at the level of individual families. They undermine the relations necessary to develop an individuated sense of self, ‘fixing’ the psyche in a narcissistic nexus into which the demands and seductions of late capitalist society steps, consolidating narcissistic disorders and initiating a cycle of narcissism as narcissistic adults go on to bring up narcissistic children. The characteristics of narcissism are thus argued to be familiar aspects of contemporary consumer culture: fear of death and old age, constant solicitation of the admiration of others, fear of dependence and so on. Some aspects of narcissism seem closely allied to what is elsewhere referred to as the reflexive project of selfhood such as pervasive self-scrutiny, a concern with self-actualisation, and a contractual approach to relationships. It is at this point of conjuncture that a Laschian analysis appears to invert self-reflexivity by portraying it as a pathological, disempowered response to a dominant social structure, draining the concept of the balanced ambivalence with which it is invested by Giddens and others.

    The wedding of psychoanalysis and critical theory in Lasch's analysis, though by no means novel, serves as an example of the possibility of conceptualizing psychic life as it interpenetrates changing social structures without losing sight of either. Despite the potential of a creative use of object relations theory however, Lasch, like earlier theorists of psychosocial fragmentation, has been criticized for an excessively nostalgic view of the past and an excessively pessimistic view of the present in his broader cultural analyses. Consequently it is argued that he does not give adequate ground to the spaces for agency opened up by individuals and groups in the fissures of an eroding order, nor to the differential impact of the culture he decimates so thoroughly. Furthermore, in the denigration of the psychodynamics of narcissism, he has been perceived to have reproduced the normative ideal of masculine individualism at the expense of the psychological value of relatedness. Lasch's account leads us to a more specific affirmation of what should be valued in the struggle for selfhood perhaps more explicitly and more thoroughly than most accounts covered in this book, but it is uncertain whether the problems which accompany such an affirmation outweigh its benefits.

    While certain elements of all of the approaches discussed are of value, none of them alone capture the complexity of modern identity, and all of them contain some vital absences. The final chapter takes up the analysis of selfhood in terms of the notion of extended reflexivity again. It is an attempt to explore in more detail the social structuring and cultural situatedness of self-reflexive processes to create a more particularized account of the nature of contemporary identities. The importance of a global economic and employment structure is discussed, with an accompanying return to the issue of polarization, and the relationship between identity and the social allocation of resources is reassessed. What emerges in this final chapter is a heavily qualified version of the ‘reflexive project of selfhood’. The specific limitations argued to be inseparable from that conceptualization draw to some degree on the arguments and critiques raised in the previous chapters, but the account of identity outlined here also reiterates some of their limitations, and attempts to move beyond them.


    Thanks to all my colleagues in the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Brighton for providing a convivial and dialogical environment in which to work; and to my old colleagues at Nottingham Trent who offered guidance, passion and inspiration stretching back to my undergraduate days. Thanks to my old friends, particularly Mat, Steve, Rik, Bobby, Fraser and John who still know how to get by in good faith and get together in good spirits. And in memory of Darren Cossou and all that he was in that short time. Thanks for the support of Viv and Steve Adams, and Sam and Eve along the way, who through an abundance of love; care; humility; good faith and healthy scepticism have provided living examples of the best kind of situated selfhood I can only aspire to. Thanks especially to Clare, Amelie and Dylan, whose love makes it all happen day in, day out. All this taken together is the guiding light behind everything that goes into this book; its shortcomings however, are all my own.


    Only through the accounts of others have we come to know of our unity. On the thread of our history as told by the others, year by year, we end up resembling ourselves.

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