Sociological Perspectives on Identity (1)

A brief summary of Steph Lawler’s ‘Identity’ – Chapter One – Stories, Memories, Identities

Introduction: living lives and telling stories

‘We endlessly tell stories, both about ourselves and others, and it is through these stories that we make sense of ourselves.’

This chapter explores the perspective which sees people engaged in a creative process of producing identities through assembling various memories, experiences and episodes within narrative. From this perspective, identities are not seen as ‘fake’ in any way, but as creatively produced by selecting from an enormous range of raw materials.

Paul Ricouer identifies three things as crucial to narrative – characters, action and plot. The plot is what brings together everything into a meaningful whole, and both narrator and audience take part in emplotment – through a shared cultural understanding that these events have a place in this narrative.

A sense of time is crucial to understanding our identities – narratives link events in sequence through time – thus we come to understand ourselves as developing from a certain point and moving forwards to a future point, this is crucially a process which involves interpretation, and thus is creative.

However, the narrative cannot stand alone, in order for it to make sense it must stand in relation to broader cultural frames of reference.

Sociological thinking about narratives

Stanley and Morgan (1993) identify five trends which have led to an increasing focus on narrative within sociology –

1. A turn to textuality – where texts are increasingly seen as products rather than reflecting reality

2. A questioning of the distinction between structure and agency

3. An examination of referentiality and lives – attention to the relationship between representations of lives and the lives themselves

4. An increasing attention to time

5. A turn to intertextuality – we increasingly draw on other texts to tell our stories

What is a narrative?

A narrative is a synthesis of heterogeneous elements brought together through the interpretive process of emplotment.

According to Paul Ricouer, there are three main forms of synthesis at work in emplotment:

– between many events and one story

– between dissonance and concordance

– between open time and time as something which is over with.

Through the process of emplotment, we turn events into episodes, but this is an interpretive processes, because by looking back at the past self, we have no more direct access to that person than any one else.

Narrative and identity

Emplotment configures a self which appears as the inevitable outcome and actualisation of the episodes which constitute a life. The self is understood as unfolding through episodes which both express and constitute that self. Identity is constituted over time and through narrative, and the whole processes is profoundly social.

Identity is not something foundational, but it is something produced through all of the above processes.

In narrating stories, we interpret memories, but these memories are themselves interpretations.

Evidence for this lies in an experiment carried out by Frederic Bartlett in 1932: white north American college students were asked to read a Native American legend and then recall the events as accurately as possible. Bartlett found that students tended to forget those parts of the story which did not fit their cultural framework or expectations.

We engage in what Ian Hacking calls ‘memero-politics’ – we reinterpret past events in light of present knowledge. Thus (according to Ricouer) the process of constructing a narrative is teleological – the story we tell is that we are who we are because of past events, but in ‘reality’ the events we select to explain how we got here are selected because they seam meaningful now.

As Kiekergaard said ‘live is lived forwards, but understood backwards’ – but it might be better to understand life as being both lived and understood both forward and backward – in a spiral movement of constant interpretation and reinterpretation.

Self and other

A focus on narrative challenges the concept of the atomised individual and replaces it with a concept of a person enmeshed in and produced within webs of social relations – this is for two major reasons – first because life stories must always contain the stories of others and second because the social world can itself be seen as storied.

Two early ways this happens are through the teaching of literature and history in school – the former encourages us to identify with characters and reflect on our inner selves, and the later offers us a way to understand our own personal history in relation to the social world.

Identifying with the subjects of pain

Carol Steedman argues that identifying with the pain and suffering of others is a common way of developing self-understanding. This has been the case since the 18th century, identification with someone worse off than we are is common place.

This may go some way to helping us understand the current fascination with trauma narratives – such as those who suffered abusive childhoods.

Identifying with victims of suffering is one way in which those in power can obtain authority – however, this can only ever be imagined and it can backfire dramatically. There are limits on the stories we can borrow from.

Nb – I’m not convinced that this is that significant – the powerful only choose to identify with certain types of suffering others (not the poor, disabled or refugees for example) and I’m sure there’s more of an identification with those who are self-made despite social disadvantage?

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