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Giddens – The Trajectory of the Self

A Summary of chapter three of Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity

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 indivdual 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 disolve 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-atualisation is one of authenticity… Personal growth depends on conquering emotional blocks and tensions that prevent us from understanding ourself – recover or repeat old habits is the mantra

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

  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.

    The next question Giddens asks is how can we connect up these ten features of self-identity to the institutional transformations characteristic of the late-modern world? (Well, he is a sociologist, after all!)

Lifestyle and Life Plans

Therapy 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

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

All of this has resulted in the primacy of lifestyle – 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.) (NBB – If you’re an A level sociology student, a recent podcast by the AQA criticises Giddens for not saying what I’ve he’s just said in this book that he wrote, thus that particular podcast is wrong.)

The plurality of choices which confronts the individual in this derives from several influences:

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

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

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

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

Life planning becomes essential in the above social context – life planning is an attempt to ‘colonise the future’ under conditions of social uncertainty – teenagers who ‘drift around’ today are increasingly going against the norm!

Two things in particular change in this context – (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 – both become attempts by the individual to sustain a ‘narrative of the self‘.

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Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity – in 14 bullet points

A brief post covering the relationship between self and society in late-modernity according to Anthony Giddens, covering concepts such as Globalisation, abstract systems, ontological security, manufactured risks, narcissism and fundamentalism.

This is very much my own reading of Giddens’ text – Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age.

Giddens Self Identity and Society

Gidden’s Key Ideas about Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Taken from Modernity and Self Identity – And Against Post Modernism)

  1. There is a global structure – e.g. it’s Capitalist and Nation States remain powerful, but it’s dynamic, constantly changing, and not predictable.

  2. Institutions (political and economic) are ‘reflexive’ – they try to ‘steer’ events in the future in the light of existing and continually updating (imperfect) knowledge.

  3. There are significant global problems (manufactured risks) which we all face and none of us can escape – e.g. Global Warming. These are real, objectively existing problems, not hyperreal, and they bind us together, even if many of us fail to accept this.

  4. The increased pace of change and Uncertainty are a fundamental part of late-modernity.

  5. Globalisation penetrates our lifeworlds through abstract Systems (money, clock time, expert systems, especially science).

  6. The media is more important and influential in late-modern society, but Giddens rejects the concept of hyperreality – the main significance of the media is that it makes us more aware of diversity and of the fact that there are many different ways of living.

  7. In Late Modern (not Post-modern) Society, there is what Giddens calls a ‘duality of structure’ – social structures both empower us and constrain us (differentially, and broadly along the lines of class, gender and ethnicity, although not perfectly) – people are not just ‘free’ to do whatever they want – their freedom comes from existing structures – think of your typicaly fashion blogger on YouTube for example – you may think of them as ‘free’, but they are fundamentally dependent on global capitalism, a monetary system, and the infrastructure of media technology.

  8. In terms of the self – Identity is no longer a given – we no longer have a pre-existing identity based on our gender, class, family or locality, everything is open to questionand we are forced to contunally look at ourselves and continuously ask the question ‘who am I’ – identity becomes a task, something we must do for ourselves, and nearly every aspect of our lives becomes something we need to reflect on as a result.

  9. It is for this reason that we become concerned with constructing a ‘Narrative of Self’ – A coherent life story, so that we can convince ourselves that we have a stable identity through time. Constructing a self-identity takes a lot of time and effort.

  10. Therapy emerges as a new expert system to help people in the process of continual identity reconstruction – especially useful at epochal moments like divorce.

  11. The construction and expression of the self becomes the new norm – there are many ways we can do this – mainly through consumption (buying and doing stuff), through relationships, and through developing bodily regimes (health regimes).

  12. An unfortunate consequence of this focus on the self is the rise of Narcissism, with very few people asking moral and existential questions about existence.

  13. However, this process is dialectical and New Social Movements (e.g. the Green Movement) which do consider moral and existential issues – in which people attempt to incorporate moral and existential questions into the construction of their ‘political’ identities.

  14. Late Modernity produces various ‘Generic’ Types of Identity – The Narcissist, the Fundamentalist, both are extreme expressions of the same social system.

Related Posts

Giddens – Modernity and Self Identity – A summary of the introduction and chapter 1.

What is the purpose of Sociology according to Giddens? – A very brief summary