Georg Simmel was perhaps the first scholar to embark on an in-depth
exploration of the nature of self in relation to society
and culture. For Simmel, society and culture provide many prototypes
which are various social forms appropriate to the characterization
of aspects of self; however, such characterizations are ultimately
incomplete and there will always exist parts of the self which lie
outside definition and social entanglements. This private self is
not completely knowable, but craves to be realized and expressed
via social and cultural forms. Simmel poses the self as a series
of dualities including social-versus-private, objective-versus-subjective,
and conformity-versus-individuation. In my interpretation, the spirit
of Simmel's theory of self can be collapsed onto a single duality:
identity-versus-individuality. Interestingly enough, these two words
are often used interchangeably and haphazardly in the literature,
but as I will show, these binary opposites endpoint a whole spectrum
of nuanced understandings about the self, achieved in the literature.
distinguishment of identity-versus-individuality can be understood
as follows: The self manifests as identity because identification
through fragmentary social prototypes is our primary way of articulating
the self; the self manifests as individuality because there are
aspects of self which escape identification and differ from social
identity, thus making us unique. The process of realizing the self
can also be viewed as a duality of craving-identity-versus-craving-individuality
-- we crave to identify ourselves with social forms to grant order
and consistency to our self-conceptualization, yet we also crave
to individuate and differentiate ourselves from others. Utopically,
the antithetical goals toward identity and individuality might converge
by finding a way to identify ourselves as a singular consistent
self which at the same time expresses all the nuances of our individualism,
but this is not an easy challenge, and remain a holy grail of philosophy
this essay, I will first examine Simmel's theory of self more closely.
Next, I describe how Simmel's identity-individuality theory of self
is echoed, extended, or contradicted by other theories of self in
the literature, including Goffman's theatrical model of identity,
Davis's ambivalence-driven theory of identity, Csikszentmihalyi
& Rocherberg-Halton's examination of the domestic self, Veblen
and McCracken's consumption theories of identity, and Grodin et
al.'s mediated social construction theory of identity. I conclude
by identifying common themes which thread these different understandings
of identity and self, and surmise the enduring nature of Simmel's
theory, which has foreshadowed all identity theories which followed
in many ways with his structuralist contemporary, Ferdinand de Saussure,
Simmel's favorite conceptual-rhetoric device for understanding the
self is binary opposition. Simmel's thematic oppositions structuring
the self are publicity-versus-privacy, conformity-versus-individuation,
antagonism-versus-solidarity, proximal-versus-distant, subjective-culture-versus-objective-culture,
and form-versus-contents. For Simmel, identity is a social
description of self, although he rarely uses the term "identity."
Culture and society provide ample social roles (e.g. police
officer, nobility, bureaucrat, beggar) and group memberships (e.g.
church members, family members, employees) which are used by
others and the self-engaged-in-reflection for understanding the
self. Using social prototypes for identity description amounts to
generalization, but such activity cannot be escaped in "a highly
differentiated society" (Wolff, 1950, p.12) and there is a
sense of cognitive inevitability where "The civilian who meets
an officer cannot free himself from his knowledge of the fact that
this individual is an officer." (p. 11-12) From a cognitive
standpoint, generalization and stereotype make sense because humans
tend toward defeasible or default reasoning when they are given
that social identification through prototypes is an inevitable way
that people understand themselves and others, Simmel nonetheless
believes that this only represents a fragmentary and incomplete
view of the self. There are also "extrasocial nature[s] --
a man's temperament, fate, interests, worth as a personality --
... [which] intermixes his social picture with non-social imponderables"
(p. 13). Simmel believes that this extra-social self, for which
he uses the word "individual," is not social and not completely
knowable. But it is the lifetime quest of the individual to cultivate
and articulate its full self, to express and identify all of her
own nuances. This articulation of individual into identified fits
well within Simmel's recurrent theme of cultivating form
out of raw contents, the teleological realization of nature
into culture, and in his own words, there is "an unalterable
ratio between individual and social factors that changes only in
its form." (p. 257) Persons begin with an unarticulated "personal
individuality," which, through personal cultivation and self-discovery,
is traded in for "collective individuality." This identification
of the individual implies the surrendering of some personal freedom,
because "the elements of a circle that is not distinctive are
differentiated," whereas "the elements of a distinctive
social circle are undifferentiated" (p. 257).
is not to be surrendered though. As a counter-balance to the society's
trend toward creating collective individualities for its members,
and the surrendering of personal freedom which it entails, Simmel
also proposes that people possess a "differentiation drive"
causing them to want to stand out from their social circle. Fashion
is one mechanism for differentiating oneself from more massified
social circles, but in a narrow circle such as a collective individuality
circle, "one can preserve one's individuality, as a rule, in
only two ways. Either one leads the circle, ... or one exists in
it only externally, being independent of it in all essential matters."
summary, Simmel's theory of self is that there exists ways to identify
the self using social prototypes, but these social identifications
give only a fragmentary view of an individual, who is also an extra-social
being. The complete self is not fully knowable, but through self-discovery,
more and more is known. As the individual becomes articulated into
known social forms, personal individuality is traded for collective
individuality. However, a person does not willingly surrender his
individuality, as he possesses a drive to differentiate himself.
In this paper, I suggest that the tension between social self and
extra-social self, and the tension between craving identification
versus craving individuation, can best be summarized in the duality
of the self as identity-versus-individuality. In the next sections
of the paper, I will compare and contrast Simmel's theory to other
identity theories in the literature.
Goffman's treatise on the self, entitled The Presentation of
Self in Everyday Life (1959), does not inherently disagree
with Simmel's view, but does examine the notion of self at a different
granularity. Whereas Simmel examines the self, identity, and individuality
macroscopically at a societal level or at the timescale of an individual's
lifetime, Goffman is interested in the self as she behaves at the
granularity of a single dyadic interaction, with attention to the
game-theoretic psychology of negotiating identities in social settings.
Goffman's position can be essentialized as follows. People wear
different masks or personas when in different social contexts. A
mask is chosen for a particular social encounter which benefits
the speaker the most, and the identities of the participants in
an interaction are further negotiated in the early stages of that
interaction, until a "veneer of consensus" regarding each
participant's role in the interaction is reached (p. 9).
order to assess the identity of a person and thus the appropriate
role to grant him in an interaction, the perceiver monitors the
speaker's non-verbal and verbal cues for signals, and uses the generalizations
that can be drawn from each sign to construct a truer picture of
the speaker. According to Goffman, the best signs are not the expressions
given (and presumably manipulated) by the speaker, but rather the
expressions "given off," which are "more theatrical
and contextual" and "non-verbal, presumably unintentional"
(p. 4). These aspects of Goffman's theatrical self are in the same
vein as Simmel's idea that the self can only be understood in fragments,
through the cues granted by generalizing to social prototypes. Also,
Goffman's notion that there exists some signals such as expressions
"given off," which maybe escape the speaker's conscious
control and awareness, is sympathetic to Simmel's assertion that
the idiosyncratic entirety of an individual is not knowable.
Goffman differs from Simmel by portraying the self as much more
Machiavellian and adaptable than Simmel suggests. Simmel states
that a person's overarching goals are to self-actualize and converge
onto a "true" identity expressive of all her individualisms,
and to differentiate oneself from others, but these goals seem to
be incompatible with Goffman's suggestion that people possess a
larger repertoire of selves which they manipulate and adapt to different
social settings. The possible contradiction is between one's goal
of converging onto a "true identity" and one's goal of
maintaining many selves a la a repertoire of masks. Do we want one
self, or many selves?
is not clear, but perhaps this is merely a disagreement of scale.
It is possible to reconcile Goffman with Simmel by interpreting
Goffman's repertoire of masks as minor variations to a dominant
trajectory that is still nevertheless converging onto an individualized
identity as Simmel predicts. There is also the sense that a person
who is insecure with his identity is likely to fluctuate his presentation
of self much more widely than someone who is further along the process
of self-realization, and that in realizing the complexities of a
mature identity, there is probably less energy to devote to the
maintenance of too many facades. We can visualize the reconciliation
of Goffman and Simmel as illustrated in Figure 1.
1. One possible scenario in which Goffman's masks theory and Simmel's
theory of identity convergence of the individual can be found compatible.
notion that identity and roles are negotiated uniquely in different
social interactions may also find support in Simmel's "Heuristic
Principle" of an individual's "Differentiation Drive."
That a person's goal is to present herself in a maximally advantageous
light may exist to serve the larger goal of gaining social leverage
over others, which is a form of differentiation.
summary, Goffman's account of the self being negotiated in a social
interaction represents a granularity of description different from
Simmel's, but the two accounts do not necessarily contradict one
another, and in the aforementioned, I have proposed one scenario
for the mutual co-existence of the two schemes.
Ambivalences in Fashion
suggests that fashion provides a vehicle for self-differentiation
and individuation (Wolff, 1950, p. 260) and proposed fashion as
"the social by-product of the opposition of processes of conformity
and individualism, of unity and differentiation, in society"
(cited in Davis, 1994, p. 23). In Fashion, Culture, and Identity,
Fred Davis extends Simmel's enunciation that fashion facilitates
self-differentiation by proposing specific dimensions along which
differentiation occurs, and situating these dimensions within a
wealth of examples drawn from the fashion world. Davis nominates
gender, status, and sexuality as three dimensions of creative tension,
or ambivalences as he calls them, along which individuals vary and
differentiate themselves in the realm of fashion. These dimensions
are some of the fundamental cultural dimensions which structure
a person's identity. Anslem Strauss, who Davis cites, proposes that
'in very large part our identities--our sense of who and what we
are--take shape in terms of how we balance and attempt to resolve
the ambivalences to which our natures, our times, and our culture
makes us heir.' (p. 24) Thus, finding individuality can be thought
of as a kind of "ambivalence management" (p. 25) and fashion
assists in the realization of individuality by providing a means
of expression and catharsis along these dimensions.
demonstrates that fashion fulfills the dual drives of the self proposed
by Simmel: the craving for identification with a particular social
group, and the craving to be different from everyone else. The advent
of fashion jeans is an example of the drive to identification with
desirable social groups and the garment's potentialities as language
is leveraged here. Along Veblenian lines, "the designer jeans
speaks most directly to the garment's encoding of status ambivalences"
(p. 75) because they are used by the wearer to identify with the
social groups of high-status and fashionable. On the other hand,
fashion also fulfills the drive toward differentiation from peers
of a social group or an escape of social groups altogether. Davis
presents one particularly interesting phenomena of "disingenuous
mistakes" in which something is done wrong "with one's
dress or resorting to some other form of vestmental imperfection
for the purpose of enhancing status" (p. 66). This sort of
"one-upmanship of subtly" is intended to differentiate
oneself from one's peers by feigning authenticity. Anti-fashion
is another way toward differentiation of self by seemingly rejecting
the language of fashion altogether, although the conscientious objector
cannot prevent others from nevertheless projecting their own generalizations
implicating the objector as a member of some counter-establishment
social group. Sarah Thornton's Club Cultures (1996) gives
further consideration to the issue of fashion as an identifier and
differentiator in which she proposes subcultural capital and
the degree of disparagement of the mainstream as a measure of a
young person's "cool."
Davis's treatise on identity mostly fulfills Simmel's abstract model,
Davis points out an interesting paradigmatic shift in the interplay
between fashion and identity that is novel and goes beyond Simmel.
Contrary to the classical Eurocentric model of fashion, or the "collective
selection" model put forth by Davis's mentor Herbert Blumer,
Davis sees a contemporary cultural trend toward polycentrism and
pluralism, in which all possible fashions co-exist happily within
society's subcultural niches. Although this counters Simmel's dated
model of fashion, we find that it perhaps parallels another one
of his identity theories. Simmel's account of the eventual transformation
of personal individuality into collective individuality through
the process of realizing oneself's societal niche identity is analogous
to Davis's account of fashion's turn toward polycentrism and pluralism.
Just as personal individuality becomes articulated and socialized
as collective individuality, the dissolution of unicentric mass
culture into the polycentric and pluralistic niche culture of the
contemporary period represents the cultural articulation of individuality.
Market forces have capitalized on individual's craving for self-realization
by creating a subculture to suit every individual, and engraved
collective individuality into the cultural language. These niches
are collective individualities which on the one hand lend identity
expression to an individual, but one the other hand, Simmel might
predict that reifying identity as social groups will endanger an
individual's sense of freedom.
summary, Davis's identity ambivalences build upon Simmel's theory
of identity by proposing gender, status, and sexuality as culturally-originated
dimensions of identity, and suggesting that fashion's role is to
facilitate the realization of individuality by allowing one to locate
herself at various points along these ambivalence dimensions via
fashion garments. Fashion lends itself to Simmel's notion that the
self desires to identify by behaving as a language which facilitates
social identification. An individual's desire to differentiate herself
can also be fulfilled if she exploits nuances in the fashion language
(e.g. disingenuous mistakes) or ignores the language altogether
(e.g. anti-fashion). Finally, Davis's account of the increasing
specialization of fashion into subcultural niches can be interpreted
as the realization of Simmel's prophecy that personal individualities
ultimately seek to be articulated into collective individualities.
as Davis describes how Simmel's identity-individuality duality manifests
in the cultural system of fashion, Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton
(C&RH) give an account of how Simmelian identity-individuality
plays out in a domestic setting. C&RH report that objects in
the home should be understood as an external extension of the self,
and are collectively indicative of the state of self and of family.
But possessions are not only a passive reflection or echo
of the self, they also actively reinforce a person's sense
of identity. The reason for their impact on our self-reflection
is that objects have presence and permanence, and "the belongings
that surround us in the home constitute a symbolic ecology structuring
our attention." (p. 94) The role of possessions in echoing
and reinforcing identity is not discussed in Simmel's work, but
there is a consistency between C&RH's observation and Simmel's
writings as both exhibit a Jungian psychoanalytic bent. Both C&RH
and Simmel agree that self-cultivation (also a Jungian concept)
is good, with Simmel praising "subjective culture" and
C&RH praising the "investment of psychic activity"
into meaningful activities which bring about "enjoyment"
rather than "pleasure" (C&RH, 1981, p. 104).
identity-individuality duality is paralleled in C&RH's observation
of the integration-differentiation opposition. C&RH state that
"People either cultivate their selves by developing signs of
individuality or by stressing signs of relatedness" (p. 113).
Developing individuality maps to Simmel's "differentiation
drive" and the term "individuality," while stressing
signs of relatedness maps to Simmel's "collective individuality"
and the term "identity." C&RH nominate that objects
such as televisions, stereos, books, and musical instruments are
differentiators while photos, art, and furniture integrate the self
into the collective of the family by providing shared context. They
point out that young people and men more often possess differentiators
than the elderly and women. Interestingly, C&RH assert their
belief that while differentiators are common and acceptable among
young people, "differentiation, originality, and individuality
 taken as ultimate goals in themselves, ... ultimately lead to
chaos, fragmentation, and nothingness." (p. 240) Simmel is
neutral on the virtues and perils of differentiation. On one further
point, C&RH contradict Simmel's view of differentiation and
integration as a duality: "the data suggests[s] that instead
of being in a dialectic relationship, the two processes might be
in practice dichotomous." (p. 113)
lamentation on the decline of "subjective culture" is
complemented by reports of decline of the home and domestic identity
by C&RH and David Halle. C&RH link terminal materialism
(i.e. addiction to consumption) to "cold" families
which are fragmented and whose members focus on differentiation
rather than integration. They see terminal materialism as a threat
to domestic identity but probably an unstoppable trend: "The
prognosis is not very bright, given that our goals and institutions
are now geared to maximize each person's drive to consume."
(p. 232) Similarly, Halle sees the prominence of domestic identity
on the decline and reports that family portraits have declined,
at best replaced by casual photographic depictions or abstract artistic
depictions of the family (Halle, 1993).
summary, not only can social prototypes be used to identify a person
as Simmel has argued, but C&RH add that possessions and objects
in the home also serve to collectively identify a person. Furthermore,
objects not only echo an individual's identity, they also play an
active role in reinforcing a person's identity by structuring the
self's psyche with its presence, and offering continuity and stability
to identity. Simmel's identity-individuality opposition is paralleled
in C&RH's observation of the integration-differentiation opposition,
but whereas differentiation and identification are dual goals in
Simmel's theory, C&RH reach a contradictory conclusion that
differentiation and integration (with the family) are dichotomous
and mutually exclusive. Additionally, C&RH characterize differentiation
as a pejorative practice and suggest that it is linked to terminal
materialism and the decline of domestic identity.
Theories of Identity
early observation of the decline of "subjective culture"
and meaningful cultivation of selfhood is a major thematic which
has been echoed in Davis and C&RH. Whether it be through fashion,
or possessions, the cultural trend of the contemporary period is
toward the use of material goods and consumer behavior in the description
and manifestation of self. Whereas in subjective culture, privilege
is placed on the unknowable and slowly-revealing individual, the
present consumer culture privileges a notion of self described through
consumer behavior, interests, and tastes. This is paralleled by
the demystification, demythification, and commodification trends
of modern culture, and the increasing privilege of shallow concepts
over deep experience in "the information age" (cf. discussion
on cultural shift in (Liu, 2004a)). Two works in the literature,
Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, and McCracken's
Culture & Consumption, well-address the problem of
how modern consumerism has changed the nature of identity in the
contemporary period, allowing us to repose theories of identity
in terms of consumption.
The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen pioneers a socio-psychological
study of the self's relationship to objects, setting a foundation
for other work to follow (e.g. C&RH, McCracken, Davis).
Drawing on his observations of the behavioral patterns of the leisure
class, Veblen theorizes that the leisure class was born as a consequence
of ownership, and is defined by leisure and conspicuous consumption
-- consumption not for survival or necessity, but as an overt demonstration
of stature and wealth. Conspicuous consumption is first and foremost
an assessment signal of wealth because it is not possible to possess
such quantity of valuable goods without money. However, Veblen suggests
that within the high class, there is also internal struggle for
differentiation, and as a result, it is not enough to simply be
able to afford the quantity of valuable goods. "He is no longer
simply the successful, aggressive male -- the man of strength, resource,
and intrepidity. In order to avoid stultification he must also cultivate
his tastes" (Veblen, 1899, p. 74). Furthermore, fashion adds
a further reflexivity to the definition of the "high class"
by constantly sifting out those who claim to belong to the "high
class" but do not demonstrate knowledge of current fashions.
Not only does consumption and possession of valuable goods serve
to characterize a person's class and stature in the eyes of others,
but Veblen also observes that possession and consumption themselves
have a transformative effect on a person's image of self: the consumption
norms of the high class "will to some extent shape [men's]
habits of thought and will exercise a selective surveillance over
the development of men's aptitudes and inclinations." (p. 212).
Veblen's observation that objects not only signal a person's identity
but also feeds back to affect a person's self-image is also seen
in C&RH's echo-and-reinforce view of domestic possessions, but
this thematic of material influence on identity seems to be absent
from Simmel's work. I would speculate that perhaps this is so because
Simmel was much more fatalistic in his view of identity, seeing
the realization and articulation of the individual as a fulfillment
of an apriorian promise, and casting the structuring of contents
into suitable social forms as a problem of discovering truth. Despite
being absent in Simmel's work, Veblen and C&RH's observation
of the transformative effects of objects is nevertheless an important
contribution to the understanding of identity.
Veblen was the first to implicate material objects and consumptive
behavior as participants in identifying and structuring the self,
he was only concerned with the cultural category of social class.
In a more contemporary work, Culture and Consumption, McCracken
examines consumption in a much broader cultural framework beyond
mere social class. According to McCracken, goods and consumption
are relevant to identity because they are sources of meaning out
of which identity can be constructed. Rather than viewing selective
consumption as largely a pejorative, wasteful, and empty habit as
Veblen does, McCracken poses the consumption cycle as the contemporary
cultural vehicle necessary for delivering meaning to individuals
in a complex society. McCracken's theory is that meaning lives in
three locations: in the culturally constituted world, in the consumer
good, and in the individual. Advertising and fashion select meaning
from the world and imbue goods with certain cultural and symbolic
properties. By consuming these meaningful goods, their meanings
are transferred onto the individual, who may exploit the meanings
for her own purposes.
is a sense of empowerment of individuality in McCracken's optimistic
portrayal of modern consumption. Individuals are, after all, free
to choose what to consume, and presumably this "act of choice"
is "an act of identity construction" (McCracken, 1991,
p. 50) in which identity is recast as a willful and creative construct.
Freedom of choice is a thematic for Simmel, who fears that collective
individuality erodes the freedom of the individual, and who believes
firmly that people possess a drive to differentiate themselves from
others. As McCracken portrays it, consumption satisfies the differentiation
drive by enabling an individual to express uniqueness because "goods
 have a genuinely innovative capacity ... allow[ing] individuals
to take existing cultural meanings and draw them into novel configurations."
Simmel's spirit of "subjective culture," McCracken notes
that rote consumption alone does not suffice to transfer the meaning
from the goods to the individual, thus dispelling the fear that
consumerism is a realization of Marx's alienation or Weber's rationalization.
Instead, an individual must become acquainted with an object, find
and extract meaning from that object, and certain rituals are pivotal
in accomplishing this. In "exchange rituals" such as gift-giving,
the giver "insinuates certain symbolic properties into the
lives of a recipient." (p. 84). Through "possession rituals"
such as discussing and showing off a new possession, an individual
establishes the idiosyncratic person-object relation necessary for
a full sense of ownership, and over the lifetime of the possession,
"grooming rituals" such as manicuring an automobile "
'supercharges' the object, [which] might in turn give special heightened
properties to its owner" (p. 86).
McCracken addresses an important aspect of identity which is not
fully explored in Simmel's fragmentary portrayal of the self --
the nature of the self's drive toward consistency. What causes and
sustains this drive? McCracken believes that the consumption of
goods is not purely a creative act of creating novel configurations.
Sometimes, consumption falls into regularities and patterns. McCracken
calls this the Diderot Effect, and defines it as "a force that
encourages the individual to maintain a cultural consistency in
his/her complement of consumer goods." (p. 123). The Diderot
Effect represents a drive to demonstrate an aesthetic consistency
in one's consumptive choices. Because each choice in consumption
is a manifestation of aspects of individuality such as tastes, interests,
and attitudes, patterns in choice paint a more gestalt picture of
the individual, and become one way to identify the individual. Combining
the Diderot effect with the idea that objects reinforce our self-ideals
(cf. C&RH), the choices we make are not only consistent, but
give a consistent shape to our self-identification, or as McCracken
poses it, "the Diderot effect contributes, ... indirectly,
to continuities of the experience and self-concept of the individual."
(p. 124) Lifestyle then, can be thought of as a consistency in consumptive
choice, or "Diderot unity" as McCracken calls it, and
thus we can add lifestyle to the growing list of ways by which an
individual can be identified.
summary, our understanding of identity based in Simmel's prototype
theory should be augmented to account for the role that objects
and consumption plays in revelation and transformation of identity.
In the literature, Veblen and McCracken offer differing accounts
of the relation between consumption and identity. Veblen views (conspicuous)
consumption as a pejorative and enslaving phenomenon that is primarily
driven by the desire for attaining status, while McCracken views
consumption most optimistically as a liberating phenomenon affording
an individual the opportunity for self-expression. In Veblen's account,
consumption manifests Simmel's spirit of "objective culture"
because he argues that the high social class defines a single, objective
set of correct consumptive choices for those who ascribe to their
ranks to follow. McCracken though, argues that Simmel's "subjective
culture" is indeed alive in modern consumption, and this is
demonstrated by the fact that consumer goods offers an expressive
language for the individual, and demonstrated in the fact that individuals
actively personalize the meanings of what they consume through object
rituals for divestment, possession, exchange, and grooming. However,
there is a point of agreement between Veblen and McCracken, along
the same lines as C&RH, that possessing objects has a transformative
effect on a person's self-identification. Veblen says that consumption
'shapes men's habits of thought' and McCracken says "Surrounded
by our things, we are constantly instructed in who we are and what
we aspire to." (p. 124). McCracken gives new articulation to
Simmel's under-explored suggestion that individuals crave singular
identification with his theory of the Diderot Effect. The Diderot
Effect stipulates that individuals tend to maintain a cultural consistency
in his possessions and consumptive behavior, and the unity afforded
by one's lifestyle helps an individual to converge upon a singular
identification of self.
and Narrative Social Construction Theories of Identity
with Simmel's portrayal of the self as not fully knowable and only
interpretable through fragmentary views such as the social roles
occupied by a self, most theories of identity which have been explored
since Simmel have continued along this thematic of fragmented identity.
Goffman's masks, fashion garments, possessions in the home, and
patterns of consumption are all nuggets of identity. In one of the
most contemporary theory of identity known as social construction
theory, Simmel's idea of fragmentation is culminated. It states
that every social aspect of the self, including all that we possess
and consume and all of our social experiences and interactions,
reveal some part of the self. Whereas Simmel, Goffman, Davis, Thornton,
C&RH, Veblen and McCracken explore in depth how different subdomains
of sociality reveal identity, social construction theory embraces
the realization that all aspects of our sociality reveal
fragments of our identity, and in lieu of a coherent Aristotelian
identified self, we have but the integral of all our manifested
parts. In other words, social construction theory "emphasizes
notions of self as less autonomous and more relational" (Grodin,
Lindlof et al., 1996, p.8).
Simmel himself did not attend much to the transformative power that
social roles and possessions have in influencing our development
and cultivation of self (instead, he romanticized the notion of
a "true self," hidden and waiting to be realized -- slightly
fatalistic), C&RH, Veblen, and McCracken all took a step beyond
Simmel to recognize the self as actively negotiated by our social
context. Continuing with this trend, social construction theory
also views the self as a negotiated rather than predestined entity.
A great diversity of influences and inspirations contribute to our
development of our self-concept. Given the great influence that
mass media welds on daily contemporary life, many social construction
theorists focus on the influence that media is having on identity
construction. In a volume entitled Constructing the Self in
a Mediated World (1996), Grodin, Lindlof, et al.
(GL&A) explore diverse influences on identity construction
from rap, television talk shows, anonymous internet communities,
feminist thought, self-help books, and postmodern culture. In addition
to social roles (e.g. police officer, nobility, bureaucrat,
beggar) and group memberships (e.g. church members, family
members, employees), GL&A suggest that cultural media (e.g.
music genre, self-help books, portrayal of the mother-daughter
relationship in television and film) can also be Simmelian prototypes
for identity. To take rap as a example, Simpson (GL&A, 1996)
reveals that the genre is not simply constrained by syntactics such
as the requirement of a rhythmic vocal, but rather, there is a convergent
identity being echoed in all rap songs. The identity unity of rap
is "concerned with constituting and referencing an 'authentic'
self" (p. 108) by way of rappers echoing common memories and
experiences (e.g. drive-by shootings, body searches, and
the importance of clothing and cars), and repeating and remixing
these memories in order to intensify the listener's experience of
identification with the music. Furthermore, all of popular music,
television, and film become sources of culturally mediated identity.
Lewis, for example, writes about fandom and suggests that fans make
"meanings of social identity and social experience from the
semiotic resources of the cultural commodity" (cited in GL&A,
1996, p. 7). As to why media has such a profound effect on our identity
construction, the field of narrative psychology offers an explanation:
media portrayals are given as stories, and all stories which are
repeated enough in a culture profoundly influences our psyche and
self-perception. Stories are meaningful identifiers because "the
nature of [its] closure grants meaning to the narrative" (p.
60). Testifying to narrative's impact on self-identification, Murray
takes the position that our notions about love and socializing are
acquired to a great degree through our exposure to the narratives
of romance and comedy (Murray, 1990).
course, social construction theory's conceptualization of the self
is not all roses. A major thematic in the essays of GL&A is
that postmodern uncertainty threatens the coherence of, and belief
in the self. On the surface, this seems to accord with Simmel's
fragmented portrayal of self -- that the self is not fully knowable,
but at a deeper level, GL&A contradicts Simmel's underlying
belief that the individual is largely coherent and predetermined,
and simply not fully revealed. Simmel consistently refers to "undetermined
contents," "personal nature," "innate character"
and other concepts which suggest his belief in a true self. In contrast,
the postmodern perspective adopted by GL&A is that past notions
of "true self" are mere fiction; the self, they claim,
was never centered in any apriorian character. Simmel assumes that
cultivation can reveal a univocal individual, but GL&A suggest
that in postmodernity, "Self becomes multivocal... Individuals
 may find that they no longer have a central core with which to
evaluate and act, but instead, find themselves 'decentered'"
(p. 4). As a result, "the ideology of self-determination"
replaces Simmel's idea of self-cultivation. Simmel's long-emphasis
on the self being revealed in fragments is finally contradicted
and being replaced by the notion that the self is being constructed
in fragments, and construction itself is problematic. GL&A
and others in the postmodern cultural literature have suggested
that because the onus of identity construction falls squarely on
the shoulders of each individual, there is more risk and more uncertainty
concerning the self today than during any previous period in history.
Ironically, the freedom of self-determination is proving too heavy
a burden for many people in the contemporary period, causing people
to not want to individuate, for it is too uncertain; instead, postmodernity
is encouraging us to partake of what Turkle articulates as "the
relational sublime...As we succeed in losing the self, the security
of single rationalities, the fixation on univocal goals, and give
way to the fluid and many-streamed forms of relationship by which
we are constituted, we may approach a condition of the relational
sublime (GL&A, 1996, p. 139). In reaction to the uncertainty
of the postmodern self, people are reacting by finding solace in
multivocality -- they want to be identified and partake of Simmelian
collective individuality. In spite of the incompatibility of Simmel's
theories with many of the currently accepted norms of postmodern
thought, we remember that Simmel also foresaw this development of
people yearning for identification: "the quest of the individual
is for his self, for a fixed and unambiguous point of reference.
He needs such a fixed point more and more urgently in view of the
unprecedented expansion of theoretical and practical perspectives
and the complication of life." (Simmel, as translated in (Wolff,
1950, p. 223))
laid out a nascent understanding of the nature of identity which
has since been corroborated and augmented many times over, and rarely
contradicted. His basic insight was that the self is not fully knowable,
and understanding the self through social roles presents only a
fragment of or perspective on the whole individual. Simmel also
characterized the self as possessing a certain dichotomous drive
-- the drive toward differentiation and freedom from the collective,
and on the flipside, a drive toward identification and wanting to
converge on social identities and to reveal a true self through
cultivation. The journey of the self is end-pointed by waffling
between these two endpoints, or as Simmel puts it, "As soon
as the ego had become sufficiently strengthened by the feeling of
equality and universality, it sought once again inequality."
(Wolff, 1950, p. 222)
this essay, I have drawn on the identity literature to compare and
contrast many different perspectives on identity to Simmel's original
postulations. Simmel suggested that group memberships and profession
are ways to socially identify the self. C&RH's domestic possessions,
Davis' sartorial code, Veblen and McCracken's consumptive patterns,
and GL&A's cultural media extend the original Simmelian prototypes
to include other social manifestations. Simmel's thesis that people
drive to differentiate and individuate can be seen in Goffman's
Machiavellian identity negotiation; in Veblen and Davis's account
of fashion being motivated in part by the need to maintain a moving
target for the high class; in C&RH's observation that teenagers,
men, and "cold" families possess more differentiating
objects than elders, women, and "warm families"; and in
McCracken's assertion that consumer goods form an expressive language
which leads to uniqueness. Simmel's flipside thesis that people
also drive toward collective individuality, craving identification,
and the pursuit of singular self can be seen in Davis's observation
that the emergence of polycentrism and pluralism is leading to the
coalescence of many niche subcultural identities, fulfilling Simmel's
predictions for collective individuality; in C&RH's account
of domestic possessions like furniture and photos which emphasize
family identity over individuality; in McCracken's enunciation of
the Diderot effect which encourages coherence among possessions
and the convergence of self-concept onto a pattern of consumption
called "lifestyle"; and in GL&A suggestion that postmodernity
makes people yearn for identification through cultural and media
Simmel failed to emphasize any salient aspect of identity in his
writings, it is the transformative power of social context which
C&RH, Veblen, McCracken, GL&A, and Murray have prominently
observed. C&RH noted that possessions not only echo but also
reinforce the self because "the belongings that surround us
in the home constitute a symbolic ecology structuring our attention."
(C&RH, 1981, p. 94) Veblen noted that the consumption norms
of the high class "will to some extent shape [men's] habits
of thought and will exercise a selective surveillance over the development
of men's aptitudes and inclinations" (Veblen, 1899, p. 212).
McCracken conceptualized lifestyle as a "Diderot unity"
which causes one's self-concept to converge and resist change. GL&A
argue that our notion of the self's potential is influenced by the
genre of self-help books, that our conceptualization of the mother-daughter
relationship is due to media portrayals, and Murray's thesis is
that our notions about love and friendship are shaped by our exposure
to media narratives in film and television. Why did Simmel not see
the transformative effects of social context on identity? I surmise
that perhaps it is the fault of the contents-into-forms and nature-into-culture
metaphors which underlied all of Simmel's arguments. Such a metaphor
entertains the romantic and fatalistic notion that self-realization
is always on a trajectory toward a single true self, and rejects
that the self can be constructed, crafted, or dictated so profoundly
by social context and culture.
endurance of Simmel's theory of identity may stem from the fact
that it is not a coherent theory at all. Like the self, Simmel's
theories are themselves full of dualities and dichotomies which
illustrate a range of possibility rather than focusing on definition.
Like identity, Simmel's theories tell only anecdotal fragments of
the self, whose whole will never be fully knowable.
Csikszentmihalyi, Eugene Rochberg-Halton: 1981, The Meaning
of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, Cambridge University
Davis: 1994, Fashion, Culture, and Identity, University
of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Goffman: 1959, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday:
Garden City, New York.
Grodin, Thomas Lindlof (eds.): 1996, Constructing the Self in
a Mediated World, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Halle: 1993, Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home,
University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Liu: 2004a, Articulation, the Letter, and the Spirit in the Aesthetics
of Narrative. Proceedings of the ACM Workshop on Story Representation,
Mechanism, and Context. October, New York.
McCracken: 1991, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the
Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, Indiana
University Press, Indiana.
Murray: 1990, Life as fiction, Ph.D. Dissertation, Department
of Psychology, University of Melbourne.
Thornton: 1996, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural
Capital, Wesleyan University Press.
Veblen: 1899, The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York:
Wolff (ed., trans.): 1950, The Sociology of Georg Simmel,
Glencoe: Free Press.
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