Tag Archives: social construction

A self-indulgent account of my journey from ‘Vanity’ to the nature of the contemporary self

identity-self-vanity-nikolas-roseI started this blog because I was interested in understanding the history of the self. Based on the reading I’ve done so far, I can see that various academic disciplines (philosophy, sociology, critical and cultural psychology, cultural and intellectual history) have substantially different “explanations” for how and why the self has changed. I can identify explanations that seem compatible with my intuitive preconceptions (not the most objective approach, I know), but it’s clear that the underlying assumptions of any one explanation are open to legitimate criticisms — most of which I’m not even aware of.

As a result, I hesitate. I am a complete novice with respect to this particular subject matter, and my background in these disciplines is the result of an incomplete and haphazard self-education.

Nevertheless, I seem to have arrived at a strong preference for the explanations offered by Nikolas Rose. Many (though certainly not all) of Rose’s fundamental ideas are indebted to Foucault. I am not a student of Foucault, but — thanks to Rose — I have come to appreciate such concepts as problematization, governmentality, responsibilization (an extension by Rose of governmentality), normalization, techniques of the self, and the conduct of conduct.

I would much prefer to avoid using terms such as these in what I write. I appreciate the efficiency of communication that academic terminology provides, but unfortunately it limits one’s audience. The nature of the self is potentially of interest to anyone, not just to those who engage in academic investigation and debate. Fortunately, Rose writes with the intention of being understood by a broad audience. Read more

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And in conclusion …

When I decided to write some introductory posts that explained my personal interest in the subject matter of this blog, I didn’t anticipate that I would write 24 of them and not post them until I’d finished the last one. But once I started down that path, I decided to follow it to the end. This is the end.

damaged-lives

So now I ask: What have I learned by writing these posts?

One thing I was a bit surprised to find was that, when I reread what I’d written over 30 years ago, I still identified strongly with that author. I still have the same questions, the same aspirations, the same intellectual and emotional responses to a certain set of ideas. Given that I lack a ‘motive force’ that tells me what to do next — which means I find myself moving on from one thing to the next without any obvious theme or reason — I would have expected more change in my life than continuity. It seems I’m still attracted to what the sociology of knowledge/social construction can tell me about everyday life and the taken-for-granted, which may mean I’m still trying to understand whay they can tell me about my own life.

Critical psychology and the social determinants of health

I also hadn’t anticipated that I would find a strong connection between the social determinants of health – which I’d been writing about at The Health Culture — and critical psychology. Why is it so difficult to get the medical profession and public policy makers to acknowledge the importance of the social determinants of health and take appropriate action? I know that fundamentally there’s an economic explanation, but I don’t find that sufficient to explain why we care so little about inequality and social disparities. Read more

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Bibliography 1.0: Can I escape the judgment of psychology?

da-vinci-the-selfI decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.

Recurring questions from my Chinese horoscope

The actual process of making the list was probably more valuable for me than the list itself. And the list may not be particularly valuable for anyone else, since I can’t recommend these books the way I recommended books on the history of self-help. That’s because I’m not sufficiently familiar with most of them. Plus, the categories turned out to be imprecise and unsatisfying: Should Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self: Thought and experience in Western Europe since the 17th century go under Self, Philosophy, or History? Read more

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Self-help as psychological healthism

Photo: Paul Ruscha/© Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of Ed Ruscha and Gagosian Gallery (“Me”, 2001)
Photo: Paul Ruscha/© Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of Ed Ruscha and Gagosian Gallery (“Me”, 2001)

[W]e are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world. (Boris Kachka)

I’m interested in self-help for the same reasons I’m interested in healthism. “Self-help is the psychiatric equivalent of healthism,” I once wrote. Healthism is an anxious preoccupation with one’s physical health, encouraged by those who profit financially from inducing anxiety. Self-help is an anxious preoccupation with one’s psychological self, encouraged by an abundance of self-help literature, personal seminars, and tell-all TV shows. (More fundamentally, of course, the proliferation of self-help advice is the result of a profound twentieth century change in how we understand ourselves, which is the subject of this blog.)

Both healthism and self-help assume that individuals are ultimately responsible for their problems, whether medical or psychological. Personal responsibility relieves society of the expense and inconvenience of creating healthier, more equitable lives for its members. Robert Crawford pointed this out in 1980. That early glimmer of a potential trend has done nothing but escalate. Read more

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The philosophical value of a no-self perspective

self-no-selfI went looking for interesting reading material on the Buddhist concept of no-self and found one that sounded promising: Self, No Self?: Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions. When I started reading it, however, my first impression was that the subject matter was over my head. Within the first few pages I was looking up the definitions of soteriological and diachronic (a word I’ve repeatedly looked up (diachronically), maybe now for the last time). A book that assumes I’m familiar with the distinction between thetic and non-thetic awareness – interesting as that may be – suggests I should be more philosophically informed before proceeding.

My interest was piqued, however, by a suggestion in the introductory chapter that the narrative self (the self as the author and central character in one’s life-story) might be – in effect – a cop out. And that it is precisely the no-self philosophical view that allows us to see this. In fact, it appears that the no-self view occupies the rational high ground when it comes to conceptions of the self. Or so the editors of this collection of essays (Mark Siderits, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi) would argue. So I decided to take it more slowly, try a little harder, and give the introductory chapter another read through.

No self vs the narrative self

I had recently read Kenneth Gergen’s An Invitation to Social Construction, which included a discussion of the narrative self. Gergen advocates using a social construction approach to practical life problems, including its use by practitioners of narrative therapy. Narrative therapists, he writes, should help people “escape the imprisoning grasp of the dominant discourses of the culture, to create an ‘insurrection’ against injurious but prevailing assumptions.” Read more

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Can we think outside our culture: My Chinese horoscope

I have been preoccupied with my Chinese horoscope for over a decade. One of its revelations touched on something I instinctively felt was true, but to this day I continue to resist believing it. Why is that?

zodiac-heads-ai-weiwei

The story starts with my sense of being a little different, odd, abnormal (I so dislike that last word). I assume many people feel this way, but since it’s not the first thing they’ll tell you about themselves, we’re left to wonder just how relatively peculiar we are. In my case – as I wrote earlier – it was undoubtedly this feeling that attracted me to the idea that I have a choice about how I see myself. Society may label me odd, but if I see society’s values as temporary and highly contingent, then the problem is society’s, not mine.

But am I really free to choose? I was born and raised in a modern, Western, rational, scientific culture. My ability to think about rationality and the autonomous individual is embedded in the very language I use to think. So ingrained, for example, is my desire to appear rational that, before talking about my Chinese horoscope, I feel a need to defend, justify, or otherwise absolve myself from appearing otherwise. Read more

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You are what you think

quotesWhat follows was originally published in 1981. (You can tell from the sentence “Would it be worth getting an answering machine?” Yes, folks, not only was there a time when not everyone had a cell phone. People actually used to talk to each other on the phone rather than send a text message.) See the posts Something I wrote a long time ago and More thoughts from the past.

For the most part, the events of everyday life appear intelligible. We’re able to deal with almost any situation, no matter how inconvenient or confusing it may seem at first, in a manner that’s sufficient to satisfy our immediate interests. But since socially constructed worlds are inherently unstable, and our knowledge of everyday reality is essentially inadequate, anxiety is inevitable. We don’t experience anxiety as a problem of knowledge, however, but as a problem of who we are. We’re concerned about “me.” What will happen to me? What does this mean to me? What am I doing here? What will I do next?

“Who we are” is not only a matter of the externally obvious job, marriage, address, appearance, and acts of charity, but of the unseen life of the mind. What we think and feel depends on where the mind spends its time, as in “his mind is either in the clouds or the gutter” or “I can’t get it out of my mind.” We are what we think, that is, we are what occupies, invades, crosses, and rests on our minds in the course of a day. Read more

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The flexible self and the inflexible individual

pogo-enemyWhat follows was originally published in 1981 and was called “Meet the Enemy.” See the posts Something I wrote a long time ago and More thoughts from the past.

Identity and self-opinion are acquired through a series of personal relationships. Our impressionable natures come under the influence of others and we respond by adopting new ideas and opinions or by resisting pressures to be more industrious or prompt or truthful. The situations created by personal interactions create facets of our personality that weren’t there before. Gradually we pick and choose which traits to keep and which to reject, sedimenting and consolidating this unpolished gem into an identity we can call our own.

Our need to maintain a belief in the underlying constancy of our identity often blinds us to the process by which we actively and willingly change ourselves. It’s not flexibility itself that we deny as much as those wholesale binges we go on when we incorporate someone else’s viewpoint. We recognize plagiarized traits more readily in others than in ourselves, as when a friend with a new mentor displays novel opinions, vocabulary, and mannerisms that he wears like new clothes before they’ve become his. Read more

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More thoughts from the past

When I was originally thinking of writing this blog, it didn’t occur to me to include chapters from my 1981 book on anxiety. But as I was writing the last post, I saw a connection between my past and this blog. I’m still intensely interested in the things I wrote about over 30 years ago. I hadn’t realized until just now how much I’ve wanted to get back to those ideas. It seems surprising to me, actually, to find that I am still that same person.

television-marquee-moon

The next two posts are additional chapters from that book. The first post, a chapter I’ve renamed The flexible self and the inflexible individual, applies social construction to identity formation, the illusion of self-creation (the belief that who we are comes from within, not without), and the belief that identity persists over time. The point I was trying to make relates to what I find liberating about social construction: that despite socially shared beliefs on what is socially acceptable, there is no one way to live that is correct, permanent, or guaranteed to be satisfying. Our self-concept is more flexible than the scientific studies of research psychologists might lead us to believe. (I discuss this in another chapter of the book, The Problem is You). I also briefly relate all this to anxiety, which, after all, was the subject matter expected by the book’s publisher. Read more

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Why the self?

As I mentioned in the last post, it was my personal experience of healthism that motivated me to start a previous blog. When I now ask myself why I want to start a blog on the self, I find multiple motivations.

I decided to write a few initial posts where I talk about this. I’m admittedly not aware of all that motivates me, but I should at least be able to reveal some of the personal prejudices I bring to the subject matter. As it turned out, the idea of a “few initial posts” got a bit out of hand, and I now have 24 “introductory” posts. To help you locate what might be of interest, I’ve summarized those posts below.

Washing hands

The self-conscious blogger
Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I find interesting. To blog – to participate in social media — is to be a self in a public space. This creates self-consciousness and stimulates reflection on self-presentation. It turns out what I needed to do to alleviate my self-conscious discomfort about blogging was to acknowledge that learning in public is the best way for me to learn new things. That doesn’t make it any more comfortable, but – I tell myself – it’s only a blog.

Learning in public
For me, writing is a way to pursue new interests and incorporate new knowledge – a type of active learning. As an ex-academic, however, am I willing to be seen learning in public — warts, insufficiencies, and all? After considerable initial hesitation, I’ve changed my mind about this. Read more

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