Tag Archives: sociology of knowledge

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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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 sociology of knowledge

In the late 1970s, an acquaintance to whom I am forever grateful (Peter Gruen) recommended two books: Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia: An introduction to the sociology of knowledge and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge.

looking-outside-known-universe

The sociology of knowledge – the idea that our ability to know the world is influenced by the social and cultural context in which we have conceptualized the world – was very appealing to me. I was already open to the idea that reality was not something I should take for granted. The sociology of knowledge provided me with another clue as to the nature of reality.

Social construction, at least as presented by Berger and Luckmann, is the application of the sociology of knowledge to everyday life, including how we come to have a sense of our selves. To say that something is socially constructed simply means that it’s not set in stone for eternity, but depends on shared social attitudes that prevail at a particular location in time and space. To say that normality or marriage, for example, are socially constructed means that being normal or placing a certain value on marriage is subject to change and thus open to question. Read more

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Reality shock

DerealizationWhen I was eleven, I had what I later decided to call a “reality shock.” The world suddenly seemed unreal, as if I were having a dream. I remember going up the street to the home of a friend and standing with her in the backyard by the swing set. I kept asking her: Is this a dream?

Today psychiatrists call this derealization. Evidently it’s frequently accompanied by depersonalization, a sense of detachment from the self. But I wasn’t dissociating. I still knew who I was. I just couldn’t understand how the world could all of sudden become unreal. It was particularly difficult for me, I suspect, because none of the adults in my environment recognized or acknowledged I was experiencing something gone terribly wrong.

This altered state of mind, triggered by a profoundly disturbing event, lasted from early-afternoon until I fell asleep that night. I have no recollection of the next day. In retrospect, I thought of this experience as waking up from the daily dream of childhood into the reality of adult life. While the world resumed its quality of being real, there’s a sense in which my life was never the same. 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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