The Quantified Self by Deborah Lupton: A Brief Summary

‘This book is about contemporary self-tracking cultures, analysed from a critical sociological perspective. It explores how the practices meanings, discourse, and technologies associated with self-tracking are the product of broader social cultural and political processes.’

This summary is really just some extended notes I took on the book as self-tracking and the quantified self are concepts which interest me.

It’s an academic book, written for an academic audience, and probably way beyond most A-level sociology students, but it’s still fascinating, and relevant as the practice of self-tracking is a growing trend.

Definition of self-tracking: ‘monitoring, measuring and recording elements of one’s body and life as a form of self-improvement and self-reflection’. Commonly using digital technologies.

Chapter 1 – Know Thyself: Self-Tracking Technologies and Practices

The emergence of self-tracking

Covers the pre-digital origins of the practice, a few examples of some self-tracking obsessives, outlines the self-tracking movement and charts the recent growth and ‘mainstreaming’ of the practice.

Contemporary self-tracking technologies

Provides an overview of the most common areas of social life to which self-tracking is applied – everything from education to emotions and from individual health to the home.

Research on self-tracking

  • A brief overview of research on self-tracking (going up to 2013-15): most of the studies are conducted by market research companies, there are few academic studies and focus on health.
  • From this research we find that in 2014, fitness bands were the most popular, and white middle class men with high levels of education and technological know how seem to be the most involved.
  • Academic research has revealed strong positive views about self-tracking among most self-trackers, with a measure of scepticism about how their personal data might be used. There is also evidence of strong ethos of self-responsibility (the neoliberal subject).

Chapter 2 – New Hybrid Beings: Theoretical Perspectives

Because self-tracking is a complex process, we should seek to understand it from multiple perspectives. This chapter outlines theoretical perspectives (in bold below) on self-tracking

Sociomaterial perspectives:

  • Datafication via digital devices is a fundamental aspect of selfhood today.
  • People invest digital technologies with meaning, and we need to understand these meanings to understand people’s identities.
  • Individual human actors should be understood as part of an assemblage that consists of (besides humans), digital devices, software and networks.
  • Code/ space is another concept that’s been developed to capture the hybridity of human-technological networks
  • G. our objects may govern our access to space (e-tickets)
  • Draws on actor-network theory.

‘Knowing capitalism’

  • A concept developed by Nigel Thrift to denote the way that capitalism has shifted from commodifying workers’ physical labour to profiting from the data they generate and upload.
  • This is in the context of a big data economy, there is a lot of money to be made from data-driven insights.
  • In the age of prosumumption, people upload this information for free, why social media sites are generally free, because it is the data that has value.
  • The four big tech companies need to be taken into consideration, due to the sheer amount of data they have access to, they have power.
  • Fluidity is key to metaphors used to describe the digital data economy.
  • HOWEVER, data can become frozen, stuck if people do not know how to use it.
  • Data can have a determining influence on people’s life chances
  • When data is rendered 2D it is frozen.
  • When data is represented, it is a result of social processes, we need to ask about who has made the decision to represent data in particular ways.

Self-tracking and the neo-liberal subject

  • Foucault’s concepts of selfhood, governmentality via biopolitics and surveillance are especially relevant to understanding the social significance of self-tracking.
  • In contemporary western societies, the dominant idea is that ‘care of the self’ is an ethical project that the individual is responsible for – the ‘good citizen’ sees the self as a project to worked on, they don’t expect much from the state or other people in society.
  • Giddens, Beck and Bauman have focused on how the self has become individualised – society is full of uncertainties, and lots of choices, and it is down to the individual to do the work to make those choices (and take responsibility for making the right choices).
  • The ‘self’ in today’s society is one which must be constantly re-invented – improved in order to be a success.
  • There is a dominant discourse of morality surrounding self-improvement – people are expected to do it!
  • The psy disciplines have become increasingly popular today because they fit this era of self-responsibility.
  • Despite the focus on the individual, power is still at work through these practices and discourses of the self. They fit in well with neoliberalism, which depends on soft modes of governing rather than hard – the former basically being everyone controlling themselves because they have taken responsibility for themselves and themselves only.
  • Discourses of self-improvement and the focus on the individual ignore the role of structural factors (class, gender, ethnicity) in shaping people’s lives and the problems they may face during their lives.
  • Self-tracking fits in with this neoliberal discourse of self-responsibilization.

Cultures of Embodiment

  • The way we understand our bodies is culturally, socially and historically contingent.
  • Digital devices offer people numerous ways for people to ‘digitise’ their bodies, and thus we are changing the way we think of our bodies.
  • Digital technologies mean people are starting to think of their bodies visually (the screen body) rather than haptically (to do with touch). Rather than rely on their ‘fleshy’ feelings they rely on the more ‘real’ visually represented data.
  • Self-tracking practices may be viewed simply as another set of technologies through which individuals seek to control their bodies.
  • Foucault’s concept of biopower is a useful analytical tool to explore digitised bodies: it emphasises how the body is a site of struggle.
  • Biopower is subtler than traditional forms of power and control – it focuses on the disciplines of self-management and control.
  • In the discourse of self-tracking, those who can control their bodies are ‘moral’, those who cannot are deficient.
  • Theories of boundary maintenance and purity (a la Mary Douglas) are also relevant: and we need to keep in mind that the boundary between the body and the social in digital space is less clear than ever.
  • Data tracking technologies render what was previously hidden about our bodies much more visible, and subject to greater control (but by whom>?).
  • NB – much of the way the body is visually represented is quantitatively – biometrics are largely quantitative, and this data can be used as a basis for inclusion and exclusion.

Datafication

  • ‘Critical data studies’ have emerged to challenge the claims of big data being ‘all positive’
  • The process of datatification = rendering complex human feelings and relationships into digital data. This typically involves metricization, which involves numbers
  • This makes complex and diverse humans ‘easily comparable’ and this formed the basis of control through normalization in the 19th century, it seems to be even more central to contemporary strategies of biopower.
  • Data collected is often quite narrow (e.g. think about education) and is often used by powerful agencies to control and manipulate people. However this is not a neutral process: value judgements lie behind what data is collected and how it is used.
  • We are entering into a world in which biopower and the knowledges which underpin them are increasingly digitised. Such data are frequently presented as neutral, more reliable than individual subjective data, and thus forming a more robust basis for ‘truth claims’.
  • Datafication offers a late modern promise of rendering messy populations understandable and controllable.
  • Algorithmic authority is increasingly important in identity construction and governing inclusion to areas of social life.
  • It is also sometimes difficult to challenge, given that the algorithms are often black-boxed.
  • Dataveillance = veillance which uses digital technology.

Dataveillance and Privacy

  • The generation of more data increases the opportunities for monitoring.
  • Veillance is Lupton’s preferred term – because there are multiple types of watching in society.
  • Some obvious forms of surveillance include CCTV and Passports, but Foucault’s idea of the panopticon is probably the most relevant to understanding veilance today – where people take on responsibility for controlling their own actions because they ‘might’ be being watched.
  • Veillance is extremely pervasive and works across multiple sites simultaneously and can be purposed and repurposed in multiple ways.
  • It is increasingly used as a means of categorising – often based on risk.
  • Sousveillance is increasingly important.
  • There is no longer a clear spatial boundary between public and private…. Some commentators have even suggested that the internet = the end of privacy.
  • We need to ask lots of questions about data ownership and usage rights.

 

Chapter 3 – ‘An Optimal Human Being’:  The Body and Self in Self-Tracking Cultures

The reflexive monitoring of the self

  • analysis of interviews with two self-trackers reveals a discourse of self-awareness and self-improvement facilitated by self-tracking technology.
  • The data used is mainly quantitative and individuals seek greater understanding by finding patterns in their lives.
  • There is always a focus on ‘becoming’ – present data is interpreted in light of a desired future (very goal-oriented).
  • There is a focus on individual self-knowledge within the movement, which some have viewed as narcissistic.
  • There is a strong ethic of self-responsibility, and an implication that those who don’t seek to improve their lives through self-tracking are morally incomplete.
  • Self-tracking selves thus seem to be neoliberal subjects.
  • The concept of the self fits well with digital entrepreneurialism, especially where the tracking of productivity is concerned.

Representations of embodiment

  • Metaphors of the body as a machine and specifically as an information processing machine are often employed in self-tracking cultures.
  • Inputs/ outputs/ performance are all parts of the discourse.
  • ‘I can therefor I am’ is also part of the discourse of selfhood (Lury 1997)
  • Digital wearable devices are viewed as ‘prosthetics’ (data prosthetics) – enhancing the capacity to act in a similar way to prosthetic limbs. E.g. videos of life loggers expand the human capacity to remember.
  • The prosthetics also extend the body into a network of other bodies…. E.g. through the representation of data in social networks.
  • It becomes increasingly unclear where the body ends and environmental space (‘out there’) begins (code/space is a new concept to describe this).

The affective dimensions of self-tracking

  • Self-tracking devices and software and the data they generate are invested with a high degree of personal meaning.
  • Obviously, the devices themselves, especially phones, matter to us, and the data collected through these devices is part of our lives, part of our biography: it is ‘my data’.
  • We use these data (images, stats etc to ‘present ourselves’ and engage in ‘algorithmic self-promotion’.
  • NB Even the way we organise our apps has personal meaning.
  • A more over affective dimension is where apps actually track our emotions.
  • The data generated by self-tracking and the responses this gets when presented also generates emotions – from satisfaction to frustration.
  • Those who do not self-track may be perceived as immoral because of not taking the responsibility to control their lives. (There is a barely hidden discourse of morality in the movement)
  • Emotions also come into the fact that devices sometimes measure what they are supposed to effectively, and sometimes don’t work at all – they tie people’s emotional states into the robustness of the material devices.
  • Wearable devices also affect people’s emotional states differently – if they make them feel more self-conscious, this may not be in a good way: some may feel ‘fitter’, others may feel fatter.
  • There are also design and fashion to consider – many people won’t wear devices if they don’t look good.

Taking and losing control

  • Part of the discourse of self-tracking is one of using data to gain greater control over one’s life.
  • This fits in well with the uncertainty of late modern society – data collection and using it is a means of reducing risk: in terms of poor health or broken relationships for example.
  • This is most advanced in the sphere of medicine and health where the concept of the ‘participatory patient’ is well established – many patients are expected to engage in a routine of data collection and monitoring, along with their Doctors.
  • However, this effectively brings the body under surveillance as never before: the technologies used may be talked about as ‘inobtrusive, but the effects are to foreground the body through the data collected.
  • Some ex self-trackers report they gave up because data ‘took over’ their lives, drowning out their intuition.
  • Others reported they gave it up as they found they were only happy when their numbers were trending upwards.
  • And if you don’t have your device, you might regret it…
  • Some people also change their habits because of their devices, not necessarily in good ways – eating foods because it fits your diet regime and not actually enjoying the food!
  • Self-tracking may be a terrible idea for those with OCD or anorexia.

 

Self-Tracking and Surveillance

  • Self-tracking and the data generated by it blur the boundary between the public and the private.
  • Especially when we publish our data on networking sites, our private data becomes public.
  • The practice of self-tracking is typically done as part of an assemblage – tracking of ‘intimate’ information, displayed in public.
  • There is a positive side to all of this – gamifying one’s data can be motivational, as can messages of support from others.
  • We need to consider that some forms of tracking may be imposed from above, and users have little choice over engaging in the practice
  • Finally, there are the political implications of how our data is stored and used!

 

Chapter 4 – You Are Your Data: Personal Data, Meanings, Practices and Materialisations

Covers the ways in which self-trackers seek to make sense of, materialise and use their personal information.

The meaning and value of personal digital data

  • Self-tracking is not only about controlling one’s body and one’s self, but controlling the data generated by self-tracking.
  • Data assemblages are constantly shifting, and the data drawn upon is context dependent. They are also reflexive and recursive – people may act on the data, and those changes in action change the data.
  • Even though certain data assemblages may provide a snap shot, frozen, the data are liquid entities, constantly shifting, and this requires self-trackers to engage in constant meaning negotiation to make sense of the data and the selves those data represent.
  • The Quantified Self Movement says this is one of its primary purposes – to help people make better sense of the data – as they see it, collecting it is easy, making sense of it a life skill which needs practice/ training.
  • There is a sense in which the data is more reliable than gut feeling or memory.
  • Personal Analytics (according to QS) will help us develop optimal selves often defined as us becoming more efficient/ productive.
  • There is a ‘big data mind set’ – we can get new insights from this data that was not previously available – e.g. I can look at my phone and see how stressed I am.
  • Self-trackers often present themselves as scientists, collecting their own data, the digitized an information processing system
  • The data is often presented as trustworthy, and the body’s perceptions as untrustworthy.
  • This fits in with a long held medicalized view of the body, the only difference now is that we are visual not haptic and data is available to the layman, not just the expert.
  • The data is seen as emblematic of their ‘true selves’.

Metricization and the Lure of Numbers…

  • Quantification is central to the quantified self discourse.
  • More and more areas of social life have become quantified in recent years (obviously?)
  • Although data is presented as neutral, there is a ‘politics’ to quantification.
  • The rationales of both commerce and government are supported by datafication – publics are rendered manageable by data: BIG DATA allows for people to be managed algorithmically.
  • ‘Comensuration’ is a result of metricization…. This is the process whereby a broader range of previously different social phenomena are brought together under one metric – thus the process favours homogeneity over heterogeneity – – e.g. the Klout score.
  • Such metrics create ‘climates of futurity’.
  • These metrics invariably favour some qualities over others.
  • Viewing the self through such data/ metrics encourages one to take a scientific/ comparable, and reductionist view of life…
  • This cuts out the experience of (real?) life as messy/ complex/ contradictory.

Data Spectacles: Materializations of Personal Data

  • Visualising data is an integral part of the Quantified self-movement. A lot of these data visualizations are very ‘neat’.
  • Most self-trackers derive pleasure and motivation from seeing their data visualised
  • They also see the data as ‘more real’ than their own subjective feelings.

Artistic and Design Interventions

  • Artists/ designers have tried to enhance/ challenge the way self-trackers visualize their data.
  • FRICKBITS – invited self-trackers to turn their data into art
  • The ‘Dear Data’ projected invited women to physically draw an aspect of their ‘data lives’ once a week.
  • Lucy Kimbell’s LIX index took data from various aspects of her life, and turned them into one index to criticise self-tracking
  • Critical making and design fiction aim to combine critical theory and art/ fiction. Their purpose is to envisage alternative futures (that are not necessarily either utopian or dystopian) – to challenge dominant power/ knowledge regimes/ discourses.
  • These may be messier/ more ambiguous than many of the representations of current data and imagined futures made by self-tracking communities.
  • Outlines a few projects which have sort to get us thinking about the boundaries between self/machine, and how these are shifting in assemblages.
  • 3D Printers are also being used to visualise data.
  • Data is also being used to produce things, based on data.

The Importance of Context

  • There is growing cynicism about the use of numbers in self-tracking, because it is often not clear what numbers mean (e.g. a high heart rate can mean different thing) – we thus need to know the context in which the data is collected.
  • ‘Morris’ (blog) is a good example of how context and quality may be more useful – he took thousands of photos of his daily routine, on reviewing them he said he started to recognise more people on his daily commute, feeling more connected to them.
  • Presenting self-data is an important aspect, this is context, emotional.
  • Data collected and then presented back might conjure up uncomfortable emotions… e.g Eric Myer’s Facebook Year in Review experience.
  • Self-trackers are also self-qualifiers… they use the data to tell stories about themselves.

Chapter 5 – Data’s Capacity for Betrayal: Personal Data Politics

Covers the political dimension of self-tracking data (who stores the data, what they do with that data and how they benefit).

Exploited self-tracking

  • Self-tracking practices generate digital biocapital (value derived from a combination of bodies and data)
  • The generation and storage of this data is now beyond the consensual and the personal and this raises all sorts of questions pertaining to who should have access to this data and its use…. Much of which has been highlighted by the recent Facebook scandal.
  • Digital biocapital also raises the spectre of governments and corporations being able to algorithmically manipulate people.
  • Prosumption is a form of work… the value people derive from generating the data not monetary, but the data is commodified and then has a monetary value… this is exploitation.
  • Employers data trawl prospective employers
  • Insurance companies are already using predictive algorithms to set premiums
  • Data is being used in some legal cases.

Pushed and imposed self-tracking

  • Although self-tracking is usually presented as something voluntary, there are some fields where the practice is used ‘coercively’ – where institutions use self-tracking to ‘nudge’ (often unwilling) participants’ behaviour in a ‘desirable’ direction.
  • It is mostly in the sphere of health that we find this.
  • This fits in well with soft power in neoliberal regimes.
  • One example is insurance companies getting people to upload their health data (also driving).
  • Another is Corporations offering reduced health insurance packages for employees who enrol in their wellness programmes.
  • There is a fine line between consensual, pushed and imposed self-tracking.

Personal data security and privacy

  • Written before GDPR – ‘many companies fail to tell customers how their data will be used’.
  • Personal information is very sort after by criminal gangs who can gain access to it at two main points – data transfer, and when data is stored on online databases.
  • Survey data show that people are generally OK with their data being used for beneficial purposes but are suspicious of and worried about the use of data by governments and corporations to manipulate people, and of the fact that their data may be used to exclude them.

Communal self-tracking and taking control of personal data

  • Some in the quantified self movement talk of ‘pooling’ their small data so as to gain big data insights.
  • (Small data is personal and identifiable, big data as impersonal and anonymous).
  • Nafus and Sherman (2014) have theorised that this can be a form of resistance against control of big data by large companies.
  • A very small pool of experts can create their own means of dealing with their data, most people are dependent on commercial products.
  • Some self-tracking initiatives encourage collective positive projects – e.g. environmental, collective steps, hours meditated. This could be a new form of digital citizenship moving forwards.

Responses and resistances to dataveillance

Outlines three counter responses…

  • Selectively recording information (the power of forgetting)
  • Obfuscation – deliberately generating false data or digital noise.
  • Making people aware of the sheer amount of data being collected.

Final Reflections

More detailed summary: chapter 1 (NB – find points of interest and think of the questions I can ask, to then find further research on (reorganising this!)

Self-tracking cultures have emerged in a sociocultural and political context in which various rationales, discourses, practices and technologies are converging… these include the following:

  • A self-concept that values self-knowledge and entrepreneurialism
  • The privileging of quantitative scientific knowledges seen as neutral
  • A moral imperative to take responsibility for the regulation and tight control of one’s body
  • Digital technologies which allow the recording of more aspects of life in ever greater detail
  • A digital data economy which commodifies personal data
  • Governments and commercial agencies seeking to use data to manipulate behaviours.

The notion of autonomous individualism is central to many self-tracking cultures – the individual is seen as being morally responsible for rationally improving their own well-being. Little account is taken of the role of structural factors (poverty, discrimination) in affecting life chances.

Technologies tend to have been designed by white middle class men in the global North, and the decisions about what to measure through tech reflects their bias – for example the Apple Watch does not track menstrual cycles.

At the same time as being reductive, the process of generating self-knowledge is also productive – it is an active process which gives rise to new knowledges, and people use them to ‘improve the self’.

How self-tracking knowledge changes power relations is not clear – presumption means lay people can track and present data, which challenges the role of the big tech companies. However, producers of data have little control over it once it has been generated and uploaded to social media sites.

Self-tracking practices are now mainstream, and way beyond just in the realms of health and fitness.

Lupton has identified five ‘modes’ of self-tracking:

  • Private
  • Pushed
  • Imposed
  • Exploited

The differences are to do with the extent of consent and the purposes for which data is used.

Data devices are learning more about humans. Some of them already tell us what to do. This makes future assemblages more complex – once the world of the Internet of Things really kicks into gear!

Data Literacy is a common thing today, but we need to focus more on getting people to think about the power relations between the users of tech and the designers who make them, and commercial and governmental agencies involved.

There are many new positive uses to which self-tracking might be put, and the penultimate few paragraphs outline some of these – such as ‘empathy’ projects and creative projects.

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Man Disconnected #2: Why are young men in crisis?

Man Disconnected by Zimbardo and Coulombe is about the challenges young men face in our technological age. This post summarizes chapters 8-10. 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might also like…

  1. Man Disconnected summary part 1: which deals with the evidence of the problems faced by young men today.
  2. Man Disconnected summary part 3: why are young men in crisis #2 (chapter 11) – technology enchantment and arousal addiction
  3. Man Disconnected summary part 4: why are young men in crisis? #3 (chapters 12-15)
  4. Man Disconnected summary part 5: solutions to the crisis of masculinity (chapters 16-21)

Chapter 8: Rudderless Families, Absent Dads

Today, children are brought up with much less contact with adults: they used to be surrounded by extended families, but today the average household size is just below 3 in the US and 2.4 in the UK, and on top of this, the typically teacher pupil ratio at school is 1:20.

It’s not just quantity of contacts, but quality: something like 50% of households feel the ‘time pinch’ to the extent that they cannot find time to sit down to meals together on most days of the week.

Zimbardo also cites the tired evidence on the increasing number of children being brought up in cohabiting households, which have twice the break up rate of married households, and the fact that today about 1/3rd of US children and ¼ of UK children are brought up in single parent (mainly mother) households.

Declining trust

In the US trust in the general public has declined so much that we no longer even trust the nannies we employ to look after our kids – as evidenced by the increasing sales of ‘nanny cams’.

The percentage of people reporting that most people can be trusted has fallen from 55% in 1960 to  32% in 2009.

Zimbardo now seems to link declining trust to divorce, citing evidence that divorced people have lower immune systems than married people (yes, there are measurable physiological effects!)

He focuses first on the effects of divorce on separated mums and their children: arguing that only around 25% of single mums report that they are happy, half the number of married women. He also argues that girls brought up in single parent households are given mixed messages – that they should put their kids first, and get a career, but there are hardly any examples of people who successfully do both!

He then turns the effects on the separated dads: who have a suicide rate 10 times higher than divorced women, suggesting that the typical experience is for them to spend time working for someone else, who is now distanced from them, and basically having to ‘suck this up’ because they are conditioned to not seek help from anyone.

High divorce rates makes children who experience them think differently about relationships – he cites Vaillant’s famous Longitudinal Harvard Study as an example of the negative effects….suggesting that such children are suspicious of relationships (they are less likely to trust adults!) yet they are still caught up thinking that stable monogamous relationships are for everyone (thanks to Disney).  

Zimbardo finishes off with the usual trawl through the ‘problems’ which the decline of the nuclear family create for society – arguing that countries with more stable families (basically a prosperous society is based on the nuclear family seems to be his argument) are correlated with higher employment rates, more wealth generation, better qualifications and lower obesity levels. Although he cites Charles Murray as part of his evidence.

Boys are affected relatively more than girls by family break up

The USA leads the way in fatherlessness, and for those who do have fathers, the  average school boy spends just 30 minutes a week in conversation with his father, compared to around 44 hours in front of screens.

Zimbardo basically goes on to make the argument that boys need father figures – but that way too many of the current generation are missing out on this – boys are growing up thinking that ‘being male’ effectively means avoiding parenting (this is something mothers do); he cites further evidence that men are basically afraid of hanging out with teenage boys.

Boys need men to offer reassurance and guidance, but they are less likely to get it now than in the past.

This is further compounded by the fact that girls have been taught how to evolve into both traditionally male and female roles, but boys have no role models to teach them how to evolve into both roles either: and when they fail at the traditional male role, as they increasingly go, they are left in the shit.

This problem is further compounded by the lack of positive male role models in the media, and especially porn, which offers teenage boys instant gratification with no need to learn how to communicate.

Chapter 9: Failing schools

Education systems are failing our boys.

The general gist here is that schools focus on ‘academics’ which require children to sit still and focus for longer periods of time, and they require this from a younger and younger age. This disadvantages boys because boys mature later than girls, and they are thus turned of learning, which explains why boys end up with worse GCSE results than girls and for the dramatic increase in female graduates compared to males since the 1960s.

Then there’s the fact that school play times have been cut and that hardly any teachers are male, all of which has resulted in a gynocentric education system which is increasingly shaped in the interests females, and works against male achievement.

Zimbardo offers up Montessori style education as an alternative.

Finally, Zimbardo suggests that we need to start educating our children about sex properly from the ages of 10-11, rather than leaving it to the porn industry!

Environmental Changes

In this chapter Zimbardo makes the argument that toxic chemicals in a whole range of day to day products (such as tins) are causing endocrinal (hormonal) disruption, resulting in increasing health problems for men: such as higher rates of testicular cancer and a lower sperm counts.

In order to back up his claims, Zimbardo cites a range of evidence from studies on animals who have been exposed to toxic chemicals over the long term, and admits the effects of chemicals on human biology remain inconclusive.

He rounds off the chapter by suggesting that many harmful chemicals are built up in body fat tissues, and we don’t really know what the effects of the release of these when (if?) fat cells get broken down will be.

All in all this is something of a speculative chapter.

 

 

What is Socialization?

A Basic Definition:

The social processes through which new members of society develop awareness of social norms and values and help them achieve a distinct sense of self. It is the process which transforms a helpless infant into a self-aware, knowledgeable person who is skilled in the ways of a society’s culture.

Socialization is normally discussed in terms of primary socialization, which is particularly intense and takes place in the early years o life, and secondary socialization, which continues throughout the life course.

Stages of Socialization 

Socialization takes place through various agencies, such as the family, peer groups, schools and the media.

The family is the main agent during primary socialization, but increasingly children attend some kind of nursery schooling from a very young age. It is in the family that children learn the ‘basic norms’ of social interaction – in Britain such norms include learning how to walk, speak, dress in clothes, and a whole range of ‘social manners’, which a taught through the process of positive and negative sanctions, or rewarding good and punishing bad behaviour.

In modern societies, class gender and ethnic differences start to affect the child from a very young age and these influence patterns of socialization. Where gender is concerned, for example, children unconsciously pick up on a range of gendered stereotypes which inform the actions of their parents, and they typically adjust their behaviour accordingly.

In adulthood, socialization continues as people learn how to behave in relation to new areas of social life, such as work environments and political beliefs. Mass media and the internet are also seen as playing an increasing role in socialization, helping to shape opinions, attitudes and behaviour. This is especially the case with the advent of new media, which enable virtual interactions via chatrooms, blogs and so on.

Taken together, agencies of socialization form a complex range of contrary social influences and opportunities for interaction and it can never be an entirely directed or determined process: humans are self-aware beings capable of forming their own interpretations of the messages with which they are presented.

Criticisms of the Concept

The main criticism of theories of socialization is that they tend to exaggerate its influence. This is particularly true of functionalism which tended to see individuals as cultural dopes, at the mercy of socializing agencies.

Dennis Wrong (1961) took issue with what he saw as the ‘oversocialized concept of man’ in sociology, arguing that it treats people as mere role-players, simply following scripts.

Today, theories of society and cultural reproduction are much more likely to recognize that individuals are active players and that socialization is a conflict-ridden and emotionally charged affair, and the results of it are much less predictable than functionalist theories suggested in the 1950s.

An Introduction to Ethnicity

While the idea of race implies something fixed and biological, ethnicity is a source of identity which lies in society and culture. Ethnicity refers to a type of social identity related to ancestry (perceived or real) and cultural differences which become active in particular social contexts.

For comparative purposes you might like to read this post: an introduction to the concept of race for sociology students

The concept of ethnicity has a longer history than ‘race’ and is closely related to the concepts of ‘race’ and nation. Like nations, ethnic groups are ‘imagined communities’ whose existence depends on the self-identification of their members. Members of ethnic groups may see themselves as culturally distinct from other groups, and are seen, in turn, as different. In this sense, ethnic groups always co-exist with other ethnic groups.

Several characteristics may serve to distinguish ethnic groups, but most usual are language, a sense of shared history or ancestry, religion and styles of dress.

dress islamic identity.jpg
clothing can be an important aspect of ethnic identity to some people

Ethnicity is learned, there is nothing innate about it, it has to be actively passed down through the generations by the process of socialisation. It follows that for some people, ethnicity is a very important source of identity, for others it means nothing at all, and for some it only becomes important at certain points in their lives – maybe when they get married or during religious festivals, or maybe during a period of conflict in a country.

Problems with the concept of ethnicity

Majority ethnic groups are still ‘ethnic groups’. However, there is often a tendency to label the majority ethnic group, e.g. the ‘white-British’ group as non-ethnic, and all other minority ethnic groups as ‘ethnic minorities’. This results in the majority group regarding themselves as ‘the norm’ from which all other minority ethnic groups diverge.

There is also a tendency to oversimplify the concept of ethnicity – a good example of this is when job application forms ask for your ethnic identity (ironically to track equality of opportunity) and offer a limited range of categories such as Asian, African, Caribbean, White and so on, which fails to recognize that there are a number of different ethnic identities within each of these broader (misleading?) categories.

Sources use to write this post

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

An Introduction to Sex, Gender and Gender Identity

The aim of this post is to provide a very brief introduction to the very complex topic of sex, gender and gender identity. 

Sex, gender and gender identity: basic definitions

  • Sex refers to the biological differences between men and women
  • Gender refers to the cultural differences between – it is to do with social norms surrounding masculinity and femininity.
  • Gender Identity is an individual’s own sense of their own gender. Their private sense of whether they feel masculine, feminine, both or neither, irrespective of their biological sex.

Biological differences between men and women

At first glance, there appears to be some fairly obvious biological differences between men and women – most obviously:

  • Reproductive organs – women have eggs and wombs and men produce sperm which fertilizes eggs – no need to go into the joys of exactly how this is done at this stage, suffice to say that in terms of the physical reproduction of the species men have a fairly easy time of it, women are the ones who have to carry the babies inside of them, and suffer the physical trauma of childbirth.
  • Women can lactate, men can’t, meaning women are the only sex who can produce food for their young offspring.
  • On average men are physically stronger, and can run faster than women.
  • Women typically cannot reproduce over the age of 50, while men can perform the reproductive function until much later on in their lives.
  • On average, women live longer than men
  • There are also hormonal differences – most obviously men have higher testosterone levels – which some scientific studies have linked to their higher levels of aggression.

Traditional Gender Roles and Norms

In the 1950s Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons argued that these biological differences meant there were ‘natural’ social roles that men and women should fulfill in society –

  • women should perform the expressive role, or caring and nurturing role.
  • men should perform the instrumental role, or the ‘breadwinner’ role – going out and earning money.

Such ideas formed part of the common sense’ way of viewing relations through much of the 20th century, with most people seeing maleness and masculinity and femaleness and femininity as a binary relationship – with men being seen as the opposite of women.

Criticisms of the male-female gender divide

Successive Feminists movements have spearheaded criticisms of traditional gender roles in society, arguing that stereotypical ideas about the roles men and women should occupy, and the norms they should subscribe to, have systematically disadvantaged women.

One of the key Feminist ideas is that gender is socially constructed, that gender roles and norms are not determined by biology, but are shaped by society, and some of the best evidence of this fact lies in the enormous variation in gender roles between different cultures – simply put, if you can find just a handful of examples of men and women occupying different roles, having different amounts of power, and acting differently in different cultures, then this disproves the theory that there is some kind of ‘natural’ link between biological sex and gender.

Feminists have effectively spearheaded campaigns for greater gender equality and diversity of gender roles, and the last century has seen a blurring of boundaries between male and female roles and norms surrounding masculinity and femininity.

And, of course, the fact that gender roles and norms have changed so much so rapidly adds further weight to the fact that gender is socially constructed rather than biologically determined.

Criticisms of the binary opposition between male/ masculine and female/ feminine

Contemporary Feminism has criticized the binary opposition between male and female, arguing that every aspect of sex and gender are in fact sliding scales rather than opposites – as illustrated by the Genderbread person:

Genderbread-Person.jpg

The genderbread person was developed by Sam Killerman, who argues that gender identity incorporates not only one’s biological sex, but also one’s sexuality, one’s sense of social-identity and how one feels about one’s self – gender identity is thus fluid and complex, rather than static and binary binary, as explored further by Sam Killerman in the TED talk below.

Hegemonic masculinity and femininity in contemporary society  

Of course just because we are more accepting of gender diversity in contemporary society, this doesn’t mean that the old stereotypes have disappeared –  biological males are still ‘called upon’ to act in a typically masculine way, and biological females are still called upon to act in typically feminine ways, which at least in part explains why there are still clear gender inequalities in society today.

 

 

From Pilgrim to Tourist – Or A Short History of Identity, Zygmunt Bauman

If the modern problem of identity was how to construct an identity, the postmodern problem of identity is how to avoid fixation and keep the options open. If the catchword of modernity was creation, the catchword of postmodernity is recycling.

The main identity-bound anxiety of modern times was the worry about durability; it is concern with commitment-avoidance today.

The photograph was the medium of modernity, all set in bound books with yellowing pages, the video-tape the medium of postmodernity – today’s recording only exists until something deemed more significant emerges to replace it.

Modernity built in steel and concrete, postmodernity in biodegradable plastic.

Identity as such is a modern invention – it is the name given to the escape sought from uncertainty, from the modern ‘problem’ of freedom of choice which arises with social change, and of not knowing for certain where one fits in to the order of things; the modern ‘quest’ for identity is a response to the inability of people to clearly project who they are to others so that we may all ‘go on’.

Identity is always a process, a critical projection (typically?) into the future  – it is an assertive attempt to escape from the experience of under-determination, or free-floatingness , of disembeddnsess, which is the ‘natural’ condition of modernity.

Identity in modernity is presented as an individual task, but there are experts to guide us as to what identities are possible to achieve – experts such as teachers and counsellors, who are supposed to be more knowledgeable about the task of identity construction.

Modern life as pilgrimage

Modernity gave the pilgrim a new prominence and a novel twist.

For pilgrims through time,  the truth is elsewhere, always some distance away. Wherever the pilgrim is now is not where he ought to be, not where he dreams of being. The glory of the future debases the present.

The pilgrim is not interested in the city, the houses tempt him to rest, he is happier on the streets, for they lead him to his destination. However, even these are perceived as a series of traps which may lead him from his path. The pilgrim feels homeless in the city.

The desert is the place for the pilgrim, who seeks a hermetic way of life away from the distractions of city life, away from duties and obligations. The desert, unlike the city, was a land not yet sliced into places, a place of self-creation, which is not possible when one is ‘in place’ in the city, which calls upon the individual to be certain ways (through the commitments of family and polis).

You do not go into the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to become ‘god like’.

The Protestants changed this by becoming ‘inner-worldly pilgrims’ – they invented the way of embarking on pilgrimage without leaving home and of leaving home without becoming homeless. In the post-Reformation city of modernity, the desert started on the other side of the door.

The protestant worked hard to make the dessert come to him – through impersonality, coldness, emptiness – protestants expressed a desire to see the outside world as null, lacking in value, of nothingness waiting to become something.

In such a land, commonly called modern society, pilgrimage is no longer a choice, pilgrimage is no longer heroic or saintly, it is what one does of necessity, to avoid being lost in the desert; to invest in walking with a purpose while wandering the land with no destination.

The desert world of modernity is meaningless, the bringing-in of meaning is ‘identity builiding’ – the pilgrim and the dessert-like world he walks acquire their meaning together. Both processes must go on because there is a distance between the goal (the meaning of the world and the future identity of the pilgrim) and the present moment (the station of the walking and the identity of the wanderer.)

Both meaning and identity can exist only as projects. Dissatisfaction with the present compared to the ideal-future and delaying gratification to realise greater pleasure in that future are fundamental features of the modern-identity building project, as is marking and measuring one’s progress towards one’s goal through time.

Time is generally perceived as something through which one progress, in a linear fashion, and modern pilgrims generally had trust in a clearly identified future state (however fantastical) – and saving for the future was  a central strategy of future oriented identity-building.

Pilgrims had a stake in the solidity of the world they walked, a kind of world in which one can tell life as a continuous story – moving towards fulfilment – The world of pilgrims, of identity-builders must be orderly, determined, predictable, but most of all it must be one in which one can make engravings in the sand so that past travels are kept and preserved.

The world inhospitable to pilgrims

The world is not hospitable to pilgrims any more. The pilgrims lost their battle by winning it: by turning the social into a dessert, ultimately a windy place where it is as easy to erase footprints as it is to make them.

It soon transpired that the real problem was not how to make identity, but how to preserve it – in a dessert, it is easy to blaze a trail, but difficult to make it stick.

As Cristopher Lasch points out identity refers to both persons and to things, and we now live in a world of disposable objects, and in such a world identities can be adopted and discarded like a change of clothes.

In the life-game of postmodern consumers the rules of the game keep changing in the course of playing. The sensible strategy is to keep each game short, and ‘live one day at a time’, depicting each day as a series of emergencies.

To keep the game short means to be wary of long term commitments, not to control the future, but to refuse to mortgage it. In short, to cut the present off at both ends, to abolish time and live in a continuous present. Fitness takes over from health – the capacity to move where the action is rather than coming up to a standard and remaining ‘unscathed’; and the snag is to no longer construct an identity, but to stop it from becoming fixed.

The hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity building, but avoidance of fixation.

There are no hooks on which we can hang our identity – jobs for life have gone, and we live in the era of personal relationships. Values become cherished for maximal impact, and this means short and sharp, because attention has become a scarce commodity.

The overall result is the fragmentation of time into episodes. In this world, saving and delaying gratification make no sense, getting pleasure now is rational.

In this world, the stroller, the tourist, the vagabond and the player become the key identities, all of these have their origins before postmodernity, but each comes to be practiced by the mainstream rather than being marginal in postmodernity.

In the postmodern chorus they all sing, sometimes in harmony, but more often with cacophony the result.

The stroller

In modernity this is Walter Benjamin’s flaneur – strolling among crowds of strangers in a city, and being in the crowd, but not of the crowd, taking in those strangers as ‘surfaces’ so that what one sees exhausts what they are, and above all seeing and knowing them episodically – each episode having no past and no consequence. The distinction between appearance and reality matter not. The stroller had all the pleasures of modern life, without all the torments.

In the postmodern world, the stroller is the playful consumer, who doesn’t need to deal with ‘reality’. Shopping malls are the domain of the stroller – while you can shop while you stroll. Here people believe they are making decisions, but in fact they are being manipulated by the mall-designers. Malls are also safe-spaces, where undesirables are screened out.

Originally malls were merely physical, now all of this is intensified in teleshopping, in the private domain.

The vagabond

The vagabond was the bane of early modernity, being master-less, out of control. Modernity could not bear the vagabond because he had no set destination, each place he stops, he knows not how long he will stay. It is easy to control the pilgrim because of his self-determination, but not the vagabond.

Wherever the vagabond goes he is a stranger, he can never be native, he is always out of place.

In modernity the settled were many, the vagabonds few, postmodernity reverses the ratio as now there are few ‘settled places’ left – jobs, skills, relationships, all offer no chance of being rooted.

The tourist

Like the vagabond, the tourist is always on the move and always in the place but never of it, but there are seminal differences.

Firstly, the tourist moves on purpose, to seek new experiences. They want to immerse themselves in the strange and the bizarre, but they do so in a safe way, in a package-deal sort of way. The tourists world is structured by aesthetic criteria. Unlike the vagabond, who has a rougher ride.

Secondly, the tourist has a home, the vagabond does not. The problem, however, for the tourist, is that as the touristic mode of life becomes dominant, it becomes less and less clear where home actually is, and homesickness sets in – home lingers both as an uncanny mix of shelter and prison.

The player

In play there is neither inevitability nor accident, nothing is fully predictable or controllable, and yet nothing is totally immutable or irrevocable either.

In play there is nothing but a series of moves, and time in the world-as-play is divided into a succession of games, each self-enclosed. For the player, each game must have an end, it must be possible to leave it with no consequences once it has been completed, leave no mental scars.

The point of the game is to win, and this leaves no room for compassion, commiseration .or cooperation.

The mark of a postmodern adult is to embrace the game wholeheartedly, like children do.

Related Posts 

Modernity and Postmodernity

Postmodernity and Postmodernism

What is Individualisation?

Individualisation is ‘compulsory’ rather than being about genuine personal freedom, and is an integral part of self-hood in the neoliberal (dis) order.

As Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (2001/2002) have argued, individuals are compelled now to make agonistic choices throughout their life-course – there may be no guidance – and they are required to take sole responsibility for the consequences of choices made or, indeed, not made.

Individualisation is a contradictory phenomenon, both exhilarating and terrifying. It really does feel like freedom, especially for women liberated from patriarchal control. But, when things go wrong there is no excuse for anyone. The individual is penalised harshly not only for personal failure but also for sheer bad luck in a highly competitive and relentlessly harsh social environment. Although the Becks deny it, such a self – condemned to freedom and lonely responsibility – is exactly the kind of self cultivated by neoliberalism, combining freewheeling consumer sovereignty with enterprising business acumen.

Source:

The Neoliberal Self by Jim McGuigan

What is the Neoliberal Subject?

What are the key aspects of the neoliberal subject?

Below is a brief summary of some of the key theorizing around and indicators of the successful neoliberal subject, drawn from Verdouw 2016 (1)

  1. They are an entrepreneurial, competitive creature, forming a ‘company of one’ (Read 2009)
  2. Freedom is defined as the freedom to choose market strategies (Browne 2005)
  3. Practices are presented as freely chosen, responsibility is taken regardless of constraint (Brown 2005, Gill 2008)
  4. They subscribe to a cultural trope of individual moral responsibility (Wacquant 2010)
  5. They close off alternative moral possibilities (Whitehead and Crashaw 2014, Read 2009)
  6. Their main goal is economic entrepreneurial freedom, more specifically independence, self-reliance, choice (to be realised through markets) and (financial) security
  7. They tend to be materialistic
  8. They perceive the self as a project, and themselves as a rational economic actors
  9. problems are construed as ones with market solutions
  10. They focus on profit and productivity
  11. They emphasize self-responsibility, agency and initiative.
  12. They value money generation. comfort, leisure and success
  13. In terms of money boundaries they emphasise privatisation, dispersion and isolation
  14. They define citizenship as self-care
  15. If they Living in the shadow of financialised norm
  16. They subscribe to the implausibility of social transformation
  17. They only take Responsibility for family and small groups of friends
  18. They are confident in self-identification with the future
  19. They are never in the moment, they are future oriented
  20. They have a clear, linear view of the future.

NB – There may well be some overlap with the points above, this is a starting point post to be refined over the long term.

According to McGuigan (2014, see 2 below) – the neoliberal self is comprised of the following characteristics:

  1. A self which is subjected to compulsory individualisation and combines a freewheeling consumer sovereignty with enterprising business acumen; a self condemned to freedom and lonely responsibility. The individual is penalised harshly not only for personal failure but also for sheer bad luck in a highly competitive and relentlessly harsh social environment
  2. A cool-capitalist way of life that does not appear to insist upon conformity and even permits a limited measure of bohemian posturing, personal experimentation and geographical exploration (‘the year out’, for instance).
  3. Generational tension is a distinct feature of the neoliberal imaginary, including the rejection of ‘dinosaur’ attitudes concerning all sorts of matters cherished by an older generation. In this sense, the neoliberal self is connected to a generational structure of feeling, a selfhood counter-posed to the old social-democratic self. Concretely this will typically involve enthusiasm for the latest communications gadget.
  4. The consumption aspect of the neoliberal self is the most obvious, involving the subjectivity cultivated by the cool seduction of promotional culture and acutely brand-aware commodity fetishism. Naomi Klein (2000) said most of what needs to be said about it at the turn of the Millennium.
  5. ‘Generation Debt’ – he doesn’t say much about this, but I’m guessing the neoliberal self is comfortable with debt. NB to my mind this contradicts fundamentally with ‘capital accumulation’.
  6. Significant numbers work in the ‘creative industries’ in wealthier countries are caught in a ‘neoliberal trap’. The paradoxical life conditions of such professional-managerial groups have been written about by Andrew Ross (2009). Personal initiative and frantic networking in the precarious labour market of short-term contracts, where enterprising ‘creativity’ is at a premium
  7. As Boltanski and Chiapello (1999/2005: 199) put it, for cadres instilled with ‘the new spirit of capitalism’, in effect, ‘Autonomy exchanged for security’.
  8. People subjected to uncertainty and unpredictability especially in so called ‘creative’ and allied careers, though not only there, must fashion the kind of self that can cope where trade-union representation has been eliminated or severely restricted. This kind of self is a neoliberal self, figuring a competitive individual who is exceptionally self-reliant and rather indifferent to the fact that his or her predicament is shared with others – and, therefore, incapable of organising as a group to do anything about it. Such a person must be ‘cool’ in the circumstances, selfishly resourceful and fit in order to survive under social-Darwinian conditions. Many simply fall by the wayside, exterminated by the croak-voiced Daleks of neoliberalism. However, the mass-media of communication hardly ever report upon the down-side of the neoliberal experience
  9. Today, it is impossible to talk of an ideal self without mentioning the role of the celebrity, larger-than-life figures to be admired and maybe even emulated, in an old-fashioned term functional as role models of aspiration – ‘dressed-down cool capitalists like Bill Gates or “Ben and Jerry”’ (Budgen, 2000: 151), Steve Jobbs, and today Mark Zuckerberg.

Specific examples of neoliberal subjectivities?

If you struggle a bit with this sort of thing, then you might like my more simplified version: ‘What is Neoliberalism‘?

Sources 

(1) The subject who thinks economically? Comparative money subjectivities in neoliberal context, Julia Joanne Verdouw. Journal of Sociology – August 29, 2016.

(2) McGuigan, J (2014) ‘The Neoliberal Self’, Culture Unbound, Volume 6, 2014: 223–240.

 

Mobile Phones and Digital Nomadism

Mobile phones seem to be having a profound impact on the way we interact with each other and on how we understand ourselves and our relation to place. Their increased usage has mean that many of us have moved away from ‘chance socialness’ to ‘chosen socialness’; they encourage us to not be nostalgic about physical spaces, but rather to construct our identities in virtual spaces while being mobile in physical space; and they also make communication more democratic and open, as more people are connected than ever before and communication has become more visible rather than invisible (via land-lines).

Below is a summary of Leopoldina Fortunati’s theorising about how mobile phones are changing the way some of us think about our identities in relation to our sense of place. It’s a very positive take on the impact of mobile phones on these aspects of social life.

Fortunati uses the term “nomadic intimacy” to describe how people in public situations use their mobile phones to interact with people they already know (“chosen socialness”) rather than interacting with strangers who are physically present (“chance socialness”) (Fortunati, 2002: 515-516)

mobile-phone-zombies
They’re not zombies, they’re just rejecting ‘chance socialness’ in favour of ‘chosen socialness’

Our sense of being part of social groups is no longer based on belonging to fixed
places but increasingly about belonging to communicative networks. As a consequence,
people tend to suffer less from nostalgia, the sense of loss of one’s own relationship with
‘sacred’ places like home, and familiar territory. “So, the use of the mobile phone ends up by reinforcing profane space, constructing a space without addresses, without precise
localizations, playing down the specifically geographical and anagraphical aspect….to the point that the mobile phone in itself becomes a true mobile home” (Fortunati, 2002: 520).

The mobile phone’s phatic function, that is being in touch rather than the actual content of the conversation or message, enables us to rapidly regain stability. “It is the possibility of contacting its own communicative network at any moment that has the powerful effect of reducing the uncertainty that mobility brings with it.” (Fortunati, 2002: 523).

Finally, she argues that the mobile phone favors the development of a democratic society, because “the mobile has granted the same communicative rights to nomadic persons and those that are sedentary or immobile” and in addition “it has extended individual access to mobile communication also to members of the family up to yesterday ‘invisible’ with the fixed phone” (Fortunati, 2002: 525, my addition in brackets).

For Fortunati, the digital nomad is no longer dependent on fixed places but feels at home anywhere and is always in control.

Source:

Michiel De Lange (2009) Draft of Dissertation

 

Erving Goffman and Judith Butler’s Perspectives on Identity

A summary of one chapter from Steph Lawler’s Book – ‘Identity: Sociological Perspectives’ – Masquerading as ourselves: Self-Impersonation and Social Life

In this chapter Lawler deals with the work of Erving Goffman and Judith Butler – for both identity is always something that is done, it is achieved rather than innate – it is part of a collective endeavour, not an individual odyssey and it is not a matter of individual choice. The world of agency and interaction takes place in a wider social order than permits some actions and disallows others.

She deals with the differences between the two too, but more of that later.

Introduction: between semblance and substance

People in the west conventionally counter-pose being an (authentic) identity against doing an identity (performing). When contestants leave the big brother house for example, they often claim that the other contestants were acting, or wearing masks, rather than being themselves.

The distinction rests on the assumption that it is possible – and indeed desirable – for one’s true self to simply emerge – when a gap is seen to exist between doing and being – or semblance and substance – then the person is liable to be accused of pretension, inauthenticity, or acting a role.

We have a social and cultural preoccupation with authenticity – illustrated through the popularity of the Cinderella story – which is acted out today in various make-over programmes – here the fairy godmother is taken by a series of experts – who help the person to match their bodily appearance to the real person trapped inside. In other words the woman (typically) becomes who she is by changing her exterior self.

However, for Goffman this idea that there is a ‘true self’ which needs to be drawn out (if it’s a ‘nic’ self) or that can be hidden (with good or evil intent) is, in reality all there is is the performance.

(At this point Lawler also notes that what we should really be asking ourselves is why we are so concerned with authenticity, when in reality there is no such thing.)

Dramas and lives (Goffman)

For Goffman, to be a person is to perform being a person. To put it simply, it is no good doing something if no one recognises we are doing it – this is ‘dramatic realisation‘. This is not to say that we are being fraudulent, rather it indicates the importance of the social group – because so much of what we act out, we act out for their benefit.

Instead of focusing on authentic and inauthentic performances, Goffman suggests we should focus on what constitutes convincing and unconvincing performances.

For Goffman, there is no essence of the self waiting to be given expression to, the self is not the cause of a social situation, it is the result of the social situation. The self is not the mask, it is the mask, there is no aspect of the self which is not touched by the social world.

Even character – the background self or the ethical self reflecting backstage on what one does front stage is a performance.

Finally for Goffman the performances we give are fundamentally shaped by social norms – there are correct ways to act, and if someone acts out of character, we try and save them, and we feel horror or embarrassment when someone acts entirely inappropriately – social norms embedded deep within our psyche – also, where gender is concerned, so constraining are norms surrounding this that gender norms take on the hue of being natural – which is something Judith Butler picks up on…

Performative identities (Butler)

The idea that there is no essential or foundational identity also characterises Judith Butler’s work. Butler focus on gender and wants to go beyond Goffman to explore why the social world creates gendered identities at all.

Butler challenges the orthodox view that we have a physical, biological sex onto which a social gender is then added, arguing that there is no physical sexed-identity which precedes the social.

There is no natural sex onto which gender is added, because our bodies are so infused with sociality.

For Butler, identities are not just expressions of some inner nature, identities are performed – they are repeatedly ‘done’ and they bring into effect what they ‘name’.

It is not inevitable that sex distinctions should exist at all – but we live in a society where most people go along with idea that sex matters and invest a lot of time in it, this creates a dominant discourse surrounding sex and gender identity which it is hard to break free from – but Butler argues that all of this social stuff calls into being the idea that sex divisions exist, and these divisions do not have to be seen as significant.

Girling the Girl: The Performativity of Gender

Boys and girls are ‘boyed’ and ‘girled’ even while in the womb – and even though they have different sets of genitals, there is no necessary reason why we need to distinguish them along the lines of these genital differences.

As the child grows up this process of girling and boying occurs continuously, they are hailed by society to ‘become’ a boy or a girl, and by and large the child-subjects generally accept how they are hailed, and in doing so come to recognise themselves as a boy or a girl, and thus actively participate in the construction of their own sexed and gendered identity.

Moreover, this process of interpellation takes place in a wider institutionalised context of a sexed and gender divided society, and in this way sex differences come to be seen as natural, and derive much of their power because of this (mis) perception.

Along with the sex-divide, Adrienne Rich (1980) coined the term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ to emphasise the way in which heterosexuality is also largely perceived as the norm.

Butler recognises the fact that interpellation does not always work – people can disrupt the process by not agreeing to go along with pre-existing categorisations.

Compelling Performance

The idea of the sex divide and heterosexuality reinforce each other to provide a discourse on sex/ gender.

To illustrate this discourse at work Butler draws on the example of ‘you make me feel like a natural woman’ by Aretha Franklin — in this song, the natural woman’ status is established through heterosexuality – the song is presumably directed at a heterosexual man, who is able to generate feelings of natural womanhood through his desirability and desire for the woman who is the subject of the song – ‘femininity and masculinity are consecrated in the heterosexual sexual encounter’.

However, the idea that a woman needs a man to feel natural at all proves the fact that all of this is a social construct. If something was natural, it would just be natural, you wouldn’t feel anything at all – and Butler also recognises that there is a possibility to re-imagine the song in order to subvert such traditional sex-gender norms.

We might also ask why, if gender is natural, people put so much effort into being masculine and feminine – through hair removal and the like.

So in short, normal masculinity and femininity work through normal heterosexuality.

Melancholy, Sexual Identification

‘there are no direct expressive of causal lines between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice, fantasy and sexuality.

For Butler, heterosexual identification is a response to melancholic loss. Here she draws on Freud to explain how heterosexual identification emerges basically because we hate ourselves – the woman becomes the woman she never loved and the man becomes the man he never loved – and because we cannot love ourselves, we look to the opposite for love and companionship.

If we just learned to love ourselves, the men could love other men, and women could love other women.

Related Posts 

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life – Extended Summary

Sociological Perspectives on Identity: Summary of Chapter on Focuault