Giddens – Modernity and Self-Identity

A brief summary of Anthony Giddens’ work on the relationship between the self and society in late-modern age.

Self-identity, history, modernity.

Drawing on a therapeutic text – ‘Self-Therapy’ by Janette Rainwater – Giddens selects ten features which are distinctive about the search for self-identity in the late modern age:

  1. The self is seen as a reflexive project for which the individual is responsible. Self-understanding is relegated to the more inclusive and fundamental aim of rebuilding a more rewarding sense of identity.

  2. The self forms a trajectory of development from the the past to the anticipated future. The lifespan rather than external events is in the foreground, the later are cast as either fortuitous or throwing up barriers which need to be overcome.

  3. Reflexivity becomes continuous – the individual continuously asks the question ‘what am I doing in this moment, and what can I do to change?’ In this, reflexivity belongs to the reflexive historicity of modernity.

  4. The narrative of the self is made explicit – in the keeping of an autobiography – which requires continual creative input.

  5. Self-actualisation implies the control of time – essentially, the establishing of zones of time which have only remote connections with external temporal orders. Holding a dialogue with time is the very basis of self-realisation, and using the ever-present moment to direct one’s future life course is essential.

  6. The reflexivity of the self extends to the body. Awareness of the body is central to the grasping of the moment. The point here is to establish a differentiated self, not to dissolve the ego.

  7. Self-actualisation is understood as a balance between opportunity and risk. The individual has to be prepared to take on greater levels of risk than is normal – to change is to risk things getting worse.

  8. The moral thread of self-actualisation is one of authenticity… Personal growth depends on conquering emotional blocks and tensions that prevent us from understanding ourselves – recover or repeat old habits is the mantra.

  9. The life course is seen as a series of ‘passages’. All such transitions involve loss.

  10. The line of development of the self is internally referential – it is the creation of a personal belief system by which someone changes – one’s first loyalty is to oneself.

    Giddens now asks how can we connect up these ten features of self-identity to the institutional transformations characteristic of the late-modern world?

Lifestyle and Life Plans

Therapy (and it’s focus on self-identity reconstruction) is a response to the backdrop to the existential terrain of late modern life which consists of the following features:

  • it is reflexively organised

  • it is permeated by abstract systems (money/ time)

  • the reordering of time and space has realigned the global and the local.

This has resulted in the following societal level changes 

  1. We live in a post-traditional order, the signposts offered by tradition are now blank

  2. We have a pluralisation of lifeworlds – the milieu which we are exposed to are much more diverse.

  3. Experts do not agree, so there is no longer a certain source of knowledge.

  4. The prevalence of mediated experiences – the collage effect of the media – we have new communities and shed loads of new possibilities.

All of this has results in the primacy of lifestyle (and thus lifestyle planning and therapy)

A lifestyle may be defined as a more or less integrated set of practices which an individual embraces because they give material form to a particular narrative of self-identity. A lifestyle implies a plurality of choices – it is something which is adopted rather than handed down (and should not merely be conflated with consumerism in this instance).

(NB Giddens also says that we do not all have complete freedom of choice over our lifestyles – we are restricted by work, and by class etc… and moreover, the lifestyle pattern we choose limits what we can do if we wish to maintain an authentic narrative of the self.

Life planning becomes essential in the above social context – life planning is an attempt to ‘colonise the future’.in conditions of social uncertainty – which is precisely what modern institutions do at the societal level.

Thus life-planning and therapy kind of ‘mirror’ a broader (globalised) social context which is itself reflexive.

Two things in particular become central to ‘life planning’– (1) The Pure Relationship comes to be crucial to the reflexive project of the self and (2) the body becomes subject of ever greater levels of personal control, which I’ll cover in the next blog post or two.

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