Giddens – Modernity and Self Identity Chapter Two

A brief summary of Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity – chapter two – in which he focuses on the psychological aspects of identity

Chapter 2 – The Self – Ontological Security and Existential Anxiety.

An account of self-identity should be based on a stratified model of the psychological make-up of the individual.

(Following Wittgenstein) to be human is to know what one is doing. Reflexive awareness is characteristic of all human action, and most people when asked can give a discursive account of why they are doing what they are doing.

The social conventions which are produced and reproduced through social interaction are reflexively monitored by individuals. However, much of what allows us to ‘go on’ with our daily lives is carried on at the level of practical consciousness – this is non-conscious, bound up with the taken-for-granted routines of daily life. We do not ‘keep in mind’ most of what we do most of the time, we just act in ways because they are conventional, we do not question many of our social conventions.

Ontological Security and Trust

Following Garfinkel, we interact in accordance with a number of conventions which essentially bracket out existential questions and allow us to ‘go on’ – we bracket out questions about the nature of time, space, continuity, identity and the self, which are fragile constructs, because if we were to subject the premises of our day to day assumptions about our attitudes to such things to philosophical enquiry, we would find that such ideas lack stable foundation.

Practical consciousness, with its day to day routines, help bracket out existential questions so that we are freed from a level of anxiety and so that we may ‘go on’ with life. We need to invest a level of trust in these routines so that we may be free from anxiety and are actually capable of living in the world. Trust involves both an emotional as well as a cognitive commitment to certain forms of practical consciousness.

Following Kierkegaard – dread and anxiety are a fundamental part of the human condition, and we need to develop a sense of trust in something in order to ‘go on’. Developing trust in routines is fundamentally tied up with the interpersonal organisation of time and space.

Giddens now switches to the development of personality in infants – he seems to be arguing that infants need to develop a ‘protective cocoon’ which is basically a bracketing out of all the things that could harm the security of the individual, which is provided by the caregiver in the early stages of life – in this sense the protective cocoon is an unreality. As well as needing the security of the protective cocoon, infants also need to be creative enough to develop an independent sense of self, a sense of space between themselves and caregiver.

Anxiety and Social Organisation

Acquiring routines and learning how to act are constitutive of an emotional acceptance of the reality of the external world, and are a pre-requisite of developing self-identity. We all develop routines for the sake of our ontological security.

Anxiety has to be understood in relation to the overall security system the individual develops. Its roots lie in the separation of the infant from the caregiver. Anxiety is a natural part of life and much of what we do can be seen as developing coping mechanisms to overcome anxiety – such as civil indifference in public spaces, and the various rituals associated with day to day life in public spaces.

Existential Questions

To be ontologically secure is to possess, on the level of the unconscious and practical consciousness, ‘answers’ to fundamental existential questions.

Anxiety stems from human liberty. Freedom is not a given characteristic of the human individual, but derives from the acquisition of of an ontological understanding of external reality and personal identity. The autonomy which human beings acquire derives from their capacity to be familiar with events outside of their immediate settings – anxiety (following Kierkegaard) is ‘the possibility of freedom’.

There are four existential questions which the individual must answer (not cognitively, but through being in the world, at the level of practical consciousness and the unconscious). These are questions to do with:

  • Existence and being

  • Finitude and human life

  • The experience of others

  • the continuity of self-identity.

It is the later which I’ll go into here:

What exactly is self-identity? It is not something that is just given, but something that has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual…. Self-Identity is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography.

It is easiest to analyse SI by looking at cases where an individual’s identity has been fractured (following Laing) – where individuals either lack a consistent feeling of biographical continuity, or are paralysed in terms of practical action because of an external environment full of changes (experiencing an inner deadness) or feel a lack of trust in their own self integrity.

A normal sense of self-identity has all three of the above – a sense of biographical continuity, a protective cocoon of practical consciousness which ‘filters out’ several options of how to be in the world and finally there is sufficient self-regard to sustain a sense of the self as ‘alive’ –a feeling of being in control of things in the object-world, at least to a certain extent.

Self-identity is reliant upon the capacity to keep a particular narrative going, and presupposes the other elements of ontological security. Self-Identity is both fragile and robust and the form and content of keeping a narrative going differs enormously in late modern society.

Body and Self

The self is embodied, and in contemporary society the body is of particular importance in keeping a self-narrative going – such that we have developed regimes of control, most notably diets.

Motivation (Shame)

Shame is anxiety about the integrity of the narrative through which one sustains a coherent biography. Shame (or rather its avoidance) takes over from guilt as the primary ‘motivator’ in late-modern society – Shame is to do with integrity of the self, guilt is to do with wrong doing.

Shame derives when we cannot live up to the vision of the ideal self – when we fail to achieve our goals, but also when trust is violated and we have to go back to those fundamental questions such as ‘where do I belong’ or ‘who am I’?

Pride (of which narcissism is the extreme expression) is the opposite of shame, and derives when we have a lack of worthwhile ideals to pursue.

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5 Responses to Giddens – Modernity and Self Identity Chapter Two

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