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::: Grounding Frameworks in Sociological Theories :::


What makes one theory more or less persuasive than another? Is it simply that one possesses a weightier body of evidence or does the nature of a theory's rhetoric factor in? In this essay, I will argue that the persuasiveness of a theory is dependent on both these things equally. Together, evidence and rhetoric form the essence of the concept of "grounding," but rather than acting independently, true grounding requires that they work synergistically, achieving a weaved fluidity and emerging as a framework of intuition on top of which a theory can comfortably be articulated. The goal of this essay, however, is not simply to characterize the nature of "grounding"; we wish to understand how the various theories in the identity literature are grounded. Some theories make it quite explicit how they are grounded, while others require more interpretation. In all cases, exposing the foundations of a theory is always an exercise which bears much fruit of insight.

This essay is structured as follows. First we examine the notion of "grounding" more closely and sketch out a working definition. Second, we discuss the theories in the literature whose grounding is clear, and explore how they meet our working definition for grounding. Third, the less clearly-cut and more-interpretive cases of grounding are examined. We conclude by reflecting on some common themes of grounding which pervade the literature.

On Grounding

A theory's grounding directly dictates its persuasiveness. Of persuasiveness, there are two major components: the evidentiary foundation of a theory, and the system of rhetoric used to describe the theory. While the doctrine of Science clearly illustrates the need for evidence which supports a theory's claims, coming in the form of previous work or an appeal to axiomatic assumptions (such as an ontological argument), the contribution of rhetoric to grounding is only tenuously understood. In this section, I first expose the value of rhetoric to grounding; second, I attempt to describe how evidence and rhetoric synthesize to form a "grounding system." The goal is to distill out some criteria for assessing the successfulness of any grounding system, and to carry forth these criteria into our case study of the various identity theories in the literature.

Rhetorical systematicity. Rhetoric is more than words, it also encompasses the conceptual framework, the subtext, which structures and motivates the text. Rhetoric is the way of going about something. Thus, effective rhetoric must necessarily have a systematicity, consistency, and coherency. That rhetoric and the human thought process are inherently metaphorical is argued by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (1980). According to these theorists, all linguistic constructions build upon an existing complex hierarchical and structural framework of metaphors. At the very bottom of this meaning pyramid are the most fundamental layers of human experience, such as orientation: up, down, front, back; and movement: forward, backward, inside, outside. These axiomatic metaphors are good foundations because they are completely intuitive in that they are possessed and existentially trusted by all people. In layer after careful layer, cultural truths are built on top of this foundation, always staying consistent with the fundamental systems of meaning inherent in orientation and movement.

So here, language presents itself as our first example of grounding. Language is grounded in the common human experiences of orientation and movement. However, just because all of language is expressed in these experiential frameworks does not mean that "up," "down," "inside," and "outside" provide evidentiary value. They don't. Rather, appealing to common basic human experience is a rhetorical device to generate an intuitive feeling in the listener. Without the systematicity of thought that rhetoric furnishes, a theory will not feel coherent or intuitive, or in the worst case, will not be understood at all; thus the rhetorical component of grounding is key.

Rhetorical impact on interpretation. Lakoff and Johnson also suggest that rhetoric has the power to shape the way that a theory is interpreted by highlighting certain aspects and hiding other aspects. For instance, consider that a theory about an argument between two people can be posed using two rhetorics. First, by speaking in terms like: "I demolished his argument," and "if you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out," one is invoking the structure of war as a framework for understanding, and thus invoking an affect of intensity, focusing on things like plan, strategy, hits, and misses, victory and defeat. If instead, one used rhetoric like "I used careful footwork to maneuver my arguments," then instead, the structure of a dance is invoked as a framework for understanding, and the listener shifts to a completely different interpretation of the argument as a cooperative act. Depending on what theory is being put forth about this hypothetical argument, one rhetorical system may provide a more effective grounding than the other.

Grounding systems. Having motivated the importance of the rhetorical component to grounding, it is vital to understand that rhetoric and evidence must work together in coherent fashion to produce a good grounding for a theory; together these two factors form a grounding system. A good way to think of the relationship between evidence and rhetoric is that evidence are isolated facts, and rhetoric is the glue system which weaves together all the points of fact into a tapestry called theory. To take Metaphors We Live By once again as example, Lakoff and Johnson have evidence that certain English constructions have certain other metaphors in them. Then, using the rhetoric and concept of structural hierarchy to connect the dots, the coherence of their theory finally emerges. Without the vivid imagery of metaphors laying on top of one another, of metaphors fitting together like puzzle pieces, of metaphors constituting a vast hierarchy of understanding, the various facts about English have no meaning. Theory only emerges when all the evidence is fitted together by a rhetorical systematicity, and together, this constitutes a grounding system.

"Goodness" of a ground. There is a clear sense about what qualifies a system to be a good grounding system. A good grounding system must itself be intuitive and profound, and it must demonstrate a good analogical fit with the target domain addressed by the theory. First, there exists a handful of systems which emerge repeatedly as favorite choices for grounding many scientific theories, such as folk economics, life cycle, ecology, construction, movement, the body, and evolution. These systems seem inherently good for grounding because of their intuitiveness and profundity; intuitive because we are familiar with the system having directly experienced them (e.g. "the body," "movement") or they are governed by elegant rules (e.g. "evolution") which thoroughly account for all aspects of their behavior (thus these systems are always analog rather than discrete); and profound because they are almost mythical in the scope of their explanatory power and in their applicability by analogy to different phenomena of our reality. All good grounding systems must be intuitive and profound, because only then do they possess the solidity and vastness that even the word "ground" itself implies.

A third criteria for assessing the goodness of a grounding system is the quality of the analogical fit between the native or prototypical domain of the grounding system (e.g. life on earth, for evolution) and the target domain addressed by a theory (e.g. genetic algorithms). In an ideal fit, every new event in the target domain is explainable within the framework of the native domain; thus, the act of binding a target domain to a grounding system allows the target domain to inherit the grounding system's intuitiveness. Incidentally, the symbol grounding problem in the philosophical literature is concerned with precisely this problem of finding an intuitive system which can ground the meanings of formal symbol systems. In The Symbol Grounding Problem, Harnad defines the goal of symbol grounding as making "the semantic interpretation of a formal symbol system [] intrinsic to the system, rather than just parasitic on the meanings in our heads" (Harnad, 1990, p. 1). The solution that Harnad articulates is to select the connectionist representation of sensory experience as the grounding system for formal symbolics. This proposal is consistent with our aforementioned characterization of a good grounding system as being experientially intuitive and analog. The formal symbolic system needs grounding precisely because it is not analog, thus there are unexplainable gaps. Harnad calls these types of systems "semantically extrinsic" and "arbitrary."

In summary, rhetorical systematicity helps to weave evidence together into a grounding system. A good grounding system is itself intuitive (analog, intrinsic meaning, connected-to-common-human-experience) and profound (great explanatory power, wide-scoping, mythical). A well-grounded theory also requires that there be a natural fit between the native domain of the grounding system and the target domain addressed by a theory, and there is a sense that the theoretical postulation of explanation in the target domain is purely an analogical extension of the grounding system. In short, a theory is simply a projection of a grounding system onto some new domain. Having arrived at this working definition of grounding, we now invoke it as an analytical framework with which we examine the various theories in the identity literature.

Clear instances of grounding

Signalling theory grounded in evolutionary theory, game theory, and economics. Signalling theory is a sociological theory about how animals (including humans) convey information about themselves (such as identity) to others and how they receive information from others. The grounding system for signalling theory is primarily evolutionary theory, as evolution is used as a framework which is used to weave together the evidence of animal traits. Some additional grounding comes from economics, and game theory.

There is a substantial literature around animal signalling theory including Zahavi's Handicap Principle (Bergstrom, 2002); Grafen's evolutionarily stable signalling equilibrium (1990); evolutionary arms-race hypothesis (Krebs & Dawkins, 1984), and Guilford & Dawkins's receiver psychology (1993). The purpose of all these accounts is to explain the mechanisms and dynamics of animal communication. The chief corpus of hard evidence which fuels theories about signalling are biological traits possessed by animals past and present, and accounts of animal behavior such as predation and mating. Of course, isolated anecdotes alone do not constitute a grounding system; something more is required. Evolutionary theory, game theory, and economics are the animating and motivating systems which tie together isolated evidences into a compelling story.

Zahavi, for example, pointed to the fact that female peacocks are drawn to the male with the most flashy tail to conclude that costly behaviors or physical features make for inherently reliable signals (Bergstrom, 2002). To see how this argument was made and why it is successful, we must refer to two grounding systems: economics and evolution. In the peacock's tail example, evolution informs us that evolution selects for the traits which are most beneficial to an organism's survival and reproduction. Assuming that peacocks have achieved some measure of evolutionary equilibrium or stability, the truth of evolution would imply that having a flashy tail is an advantageous trait. However, this finding seems to contradict our economic sensibilities because a flashy tail is quite costly relative to a modest tail, requiring more food to grow and maintain and increasing vulnerability to predation; also, the flashy tail seems to have no utility except as a signal to prospective mates. From an economy-theoretic point-of-view, the only way to justify costly behaviors like the peacock's plumage, is for the cost to be outweighed by a reward, which in this case is that more elaborate plumage attracts mates. So by combining evolutionary intuition with economic intuition, it is concluded that costly traits make for better signals, and this is the heart of Zahavi's Handicap Principle.

Grafen added nuance to Zahavi's theory by adding another grounding system to the mix: game theory. The intuition behind game theory is that each player in a game has the goal to win, formulates a strategy to win, and often incorporates models of the other players into this winning-strategy. Applying game theory to the Handicap Principle, Grafen recasts the handicap scenario as a communication game, and costly signalling as an equilibrium strategy in the game (1990). The addition of game theory to the grounding of costly signalling theory allows Grafen to intuitively project the dimension of choice onto the signaller and receivers. Peacock plumage for example, lacks choice (Grafen calls this "condition-dependent" handicap) because it is genetic, while the relative amount of salary a person dedicates to fashion garments involves more choice and consideration of strategy (what Grafen calls "strategic choice" and the "amplifier" handicap apply here). Adopting game theory as a grounding system adds natural motivation for exploring "deception" in signalling systems because it is so salient to our prototypical understanding of strategy in games (deception is often manifested as buffing and trapping). Krebs and Dawkins also uses game theory (in conjunction with some evolutionary history of animal behavior) as grounds for their evolutionary arms-race hypothesis. They argue that the signalling game can be segregated into cooperative and competitive contexts; as a competitive game, manipulative signallers and skeptical receivers will lead to an evolutionary arms race resulting in signalling which is progressively more costly; but as a cooperative game, common interests will lead to cheaper signals or "conspiratorial whispers." Again, the nativeness of dimensions like choice, deception, cooperation, and competition to the basic workings of the game-theory grounding system allow for these dimensions to be projected rather intuitively onto the target domain of animal communication.

Having established that signalling theory is grounded in evolutionary history, game theory, and economics, we also want to discuss the fitness of these grounding systems with respect to our working definition of grounding. The first criterion of a good grounding system is that it should be intuitive: analog, possesses intrinsic meaning, and has experiential bases. Evolution, game theory, and economics are all analog representations because they are integration rather than logically based; meaning is intrinsic in these systems because they all have a continuous notion of fitness (fitness of traits, fitness of strategy, fitness of economic equilibrium) and thus pointing to anywhere all that spectrum is associated with a particular meaning or set of consequences in the system; these systems have no exceptions, they are only governed by rules and the absence of rules. On experientiality, people experience naive economics and naive game theory in everyday life, and may experience evolution theory in everyday life through analogous proxies such as any competitive social situation. On the second criteria, all three grounding systems are profound. Evolution has been widely verified and its principles applicable to other domains too, such as business competition. Game theory is profound because every interaction between conspecifics can be understood as a game. Economics is profound because it is applicable to a domain afflicted with demand and limited resources.

The final criterion is that there be a natural alignment between these three systems and signalling theory's target domain of animal communication. Animal communication involves animal subjects and there is a sense that these systems change over time, so evolutionary theory (whose native domain is animal evolution) immediately fits; in animal communication, conspecifics exhibit competition and strategy so game theory fits; furthermore animals occupy an environment characterized by limited resources, so economics fits. It is really quite unsurprising that evolution, economics, and game theory so readily meet the criteria as good ground systems for animal communication because these systems are so wide-scoping that they apply to many more domains outside of animal communication. As a final observation, signalling theories, which take advantage of many grounding systems, seem to have stronger ground. Bergstrom's Theory of Honest Signalling (2002) for example, is discussed under and justified by three grounding frameworks: biology, economics, and mathematics.

Goffman's theatrical self grounded in theatre metaphor and game theory. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Goffman's idea about the self is that it is composed of a repertoire of masks -- fronts or personas that we are each capable of; our choice of which mask to wear depends on the social situation that we are in. Goffman see the self as capable of strategy, choosing to express the version of self which is most beneficial to us, and in doing so, takes a Machiavellian position on identity. Each act of presentation of self is a "performance" and results in expressions given and expressions given off. Finally, there is strategy involved in the signalling and reception of identity. From this rough outline of Goffman's theory, two grounding systems can be seen: theatre, and game theory.

The whole rhetoric is structured by the theatre metaphor, which Goffman makes quite explicit. Perhaps defying this reader's initial expectation, the theatre metaphor is actually quite the elegant metaphor for social life. Two reasons for this are theatre's profundity in western history, and its historical relationship with sociality. Theatre has been a paternal institution in Western culture ever since the Greeks and continuing with the Romans. In a sense, Western theatre began with Greek mythology, the drama of the Greek gods refined to timeless perfection in pagan lore. Because the myth of the Gods served as a guiding light for men, the drama of the Gods was also a very real part of Greek life. The Greeks, known for their perfection of tragedy and comedy, possessed a tragic culture, and as Nietzsche remarked in The Birth of Tragedy, the psychological milieu of these ancients was deeply affective and dramatic. Thus, beginning with the Greeks, theatre was already a structuring metaphor for social life. Our English word for "person" is itself very revealing of ancient understandings of social behavior. Person derives from the Latin word "persona" which means "role," and that is in turn derived from the Etruscan word "phersu" which means "mask" (the Etruscans had great influence on Roman culture). Our rhetoric about social life is also heavily structured by theatre, as in the expression, "We all play many roles in life, such as parent or teacher." Even the word "role," as in "social role," historically meant "a roll of parchment" and referred to the text scroll from which an actor learned a part (source: American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.) If Lakoff and Johnson's hypothesis about metaphorical structuring of thought is correct, then the presence of the concept of theatre in the discourse of social life is evidence that we understand much of social life in terms of the theatrical framework. For its mythical profundity and for its established relationship with sociality, theatre should be judged a strong grounding system.

While theatre is the explicit and dominating grounding system, theatre only partially structures Goffman's theory. The discrepancy between theatre and social interaction is that while theatre is pre-scripted, social agents in real life have to make choices. Thus, the Machiavellian strategic interaction which Goffman postulates between two social agents is not well-explained by theatre (improvisation is the closest notion), but is well-explained by game theory. Of course, Goffman did not know about game theory with the formality and rigor that we understand the system now, and for the most part, the notion of game is not used as a rhetorical framework; nonetheless, Goffman's view of social agents vying for social standing in a given interaction is best seen as a game. Goffman's vocabulary of concepts like concealment, strategy, deception, discipline, goals, and teams is consistent with this conclusion. With the addition of a naive or folk game theory helping to fill in some of the weaknesses of the theatrical metaphor (e.g. no account of strategy and free will), Goffman's theoretical grounding is stabilized.

Interpretive cases of grounding

Domestic object theory grounded in Jungian psychoanalysis and eastern elemental philosophy reminiscent of Feng-shui. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton's (C&RH) theory of domestic objects (1981) reports that the nature of the object-milieu in the home echoes and reinforces individual's and family's identity. They describe contrasting archetypes of "warm families" and "cool families" -- warm corresponding to happy families who cultivate "shared context" and possess "integrating objects"; cool families corresponding to fragmented families who cultivate personal rather than family identity and possess "differentiating objects." In my interpretation, two grounding systems structure C&RH's theory: Jungian psychoanalysis on the evidentiary side, and eastern elemental philosophy (cf. Feng-shui) on the rhetorical and affective side.

Firstly, Jungian psychoanalytic ideas form the evidentiary core of many of C&RH's arguments. C&RH quite readily acknowledge that many of their ideas are rooted in Jung. They embrace Jung's view that "A symbol is charged with psychic energy and transformative power" (p. 24) and share Jung's view that both the personal unconscious and familial collective unconscious are psychically structured by many externalities, such as objects in the home. While C&RH's terminological adoption of the word "sign" is somewhat confusing, as it may also refer to Structuralism and Semiology a la Barthes, C&RH's conceptualization of "sign" is purely Jungian; both C&RH and Jung define the sign as something whose meaning "must be rediscovered by each person in a different way," (p. 25) while for structuralists, the sign is a socio-ideological unit. In the peripherality of domestic object theory, Jung's archetypal psychology is also evident, although discreet. When articulating the characteristic differences between individuals and families, C&RH always use the rhetoric of archetypes. For example, their analysis of families is given in terms of the archetypes of "Defendence," "Impulsivity," "Nurturance," "Order," etc. (p. 160). To be fair, C&RH do reach out in their citations from the literature to structuralists and behaviorists, but the gestalt philosophy that drives their interpretation has a distinct, new-agey, Jungian feel.

Secondly, although Jung seems to be the dominant evidentiary ground motivating C&RH's theory, there is a recognition that psychoanalysis is not intuitive or profound enough a system to serve as a grounding system. Psychoanalysis itself does not impart any intuitiveness to any theory that builds upon it. If we look more closely at Jung and C&RH's text, we can identify that there is a deeper and more profound grounding system that underlies both rhetorically. This is the influence of eastern elemental philosophy, as manifested in the eastern theory of Chi (energy), and the system of Feng-shui (wind-water flow); this philosophical system is eminently qualified to serve as a grounding system because it is deeply experiential and spatial and profoundly refined and mythified over many thousands of years. Jung's psychoanalysis differs from Freud's primarily in that Jung shifted grounding to Chi and Feng-shui, causing the new psychoanalytical system to feel more holistic than Freud's. In The Secret of the Golden Flower (1929), Jung himself credits the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism and eastern meditation in influencing his work. The Jungian conception of the unconscious is built upon the principle of flow: The course of events in life shape memories, dispositions, and identity just as flowing water shapes a riverbank. Jungian archetypes are spiritful icons closely resembling Eastern philosophy's idea of elementals (e.g. Fire, Water, Wind, Water, Earth).

C&RH also inherits conspicuously from the structuring metaphors of eastern philosophy (particularly because Jung's philosophy is so holistic it is nearly impossible to embrace it without also embracing the east). One example in found in C&RH embrace of nature and the cosmos, a page no doubt taken from eastern meditations of Zen Buddhists: "The objects that people use... appear to be signs on a blueprint that represent the relation of man to himself, to his fellows, and to the universe." (p. 38) C&RH also indulges in the eastern metaphor of shifting energies and employs the Yin-Yang energy metaphor to explain happy versus unhappy families: "Warm families channel the psychic energy of their members toward the broader intentions of the community." (p. 157) Furthermore, C&RH's employment of the energy metaphor to explain the transfer of meaning ("psychic energy") from objects to individuals, and their suggestion that the energetic constitution of objects in the home affects the fortunes of a family begin to resemble the ancient eastern art of Feng Shui.

In summary, C&RH's domestic object theory is evidentiarily grounded in Jungian psychoanalysis, the source of C&RH's conception of meaning as psychic energy, of a self structured by the unconscious psyche, and of the interactionist notion that not only do objects echo the psyche of the individual, but the objects also reinforce and structure the psyche of the individual. We must also recognize that Jungian psychoanalysis itself is grounded in eastern philosophies of meditation, Feng Shui, Zen Buddhism, and it is these systems where true ground can be found. Metaphors of energy, of flow, of inner sanctum versus outside flow, are based in nature and in human experience and therefore are capable of being intuitively intelligible. The intuition from these metaphors find their way into C&RH's rhetoric and are the reason why domestic object theory is capable of seeming fluid and natural.

Simmel's individuality-identity duality grounded in contents-into-forms metaphor. On the sociology of identity, Simmel is prolific and broad but seems to lack an explicit coherence; perhaps this is because Simmel lacks a single explicit grounding system which encompasses all of this theories; also, he rarely cites the literature so we are at a loss for clues about what work (other than his own keen observations) he is building on. Such a singular grounding system does seem to exist, but it is often quite subtle: it is the single metaphor of contents-into-forms. To be sure, it is a powerful metaphor. The idea is that contents are the raw materials of reality, but because they are in the realm of nature and not human culture, their meaning is amorphous (for meaning is a human notion). These raw contents are molded and given shape by the teleology of human society and manifest sociologically as forms. For Simmel, the individual is the raw content of the self, and social roles by which the individual gains identification are his forms. Just as the amorphous contents can never be fully captured into forms, Simmel states that "This extrasocial nature--a man's temperament, fate, interests, worth as a personality--gives a certain nuance to the picture formed by all who meet him. It intermixes his social picture with non-social imponderables" (Levine, 1971, p. 13). The notion that sociality is a system of forms which can only partially capture the nature of individualism is at the heart of Simmel's identity theory; the self is duality between individuality and identity.

The contents-into-forms metaphor is elaborated into a larger grounding system. Simmel treats contents with mysticism and adds the idea of nurturance to the contents-into-forms transformation, arguing that an individual must try to cultivate his contents into the best forms; this is the idea of self-realization or self-actualization. Simmel writes that "all cultivation is not merely the development of a being ... but development in the direction of an original inner core, a fulfillment of this being according to the law of its own meaning, its deepest dispositions." (p. 229) The contents-into-forms metaphor also supports a host of other dualities, including publicity-versus-privacy (private because totality is unknowable), conformity-versus-individuation (individuation privileges contents while conformity privileges existing forms), proximal-versus-distant (proximal is close to form, distant is away), nature-versus-culture (nature is content, culture is perfect form), and subjective-culture-versus-objective-culture (subjective culture is the glorification of cultivating contents into perfect forms). Also inherent in the contents-into-forms metaphor is the notion of a good form versus an ill-fitting form. Simmel leverages this to explain through analogy the homogeneous-heterogeneous nature of groups: "the elements of a distinctive social circle are undifferentiated, and the elements of a circle that is not distinctive are differentiated." (p. 257).

In summary, although Simmel's ideas about the sociological self lack an explicit coherence, one plausible source of grounding is the contents-into-forms metaphor. Simmel develops this very fundamental spatial metaphor into a more elaborated grounding system consisting of many other metaphors which are all variations on a theme. Armed with this army of metaphors, and anecdotal quasi-evidence about people and society, Simmel spins his sociological stories.

Davis' theory of fashion and identity grounded in structuralism and theory of markets. To Davis's credit, the theory of fashion and identity he puts forth in Fashion, Culture, and Identity (1994) is true intellectual bricolage; it is multivocal and draws from many different voices from the literatures of sociology, popular fashion, psychology, culture, and philosophy. However, two fundamental analytical frameworks seem to underlie and provide grounding for his theory: structuralism, and only toward the end of the book, the theory of markets.

Structuralist ideas underlie much of the classical sociological work of Veblen and Simmel, who were two of the first to characterize the fashion system using a hierarchical, class-based trickle-down model; thus it comes as no surprise that this framework is Davis's point-of-departure. Structuralism was the first to embrace the notion that cultural systems could be analyzed in terms of signs, significations, oppositions, languages, and hierarchies. Because all these notions can be visualized and conceptualized as structures and machinery in space, they make for an intuitive grounding system.

The structuralist idea of binary opposition championed by Saussure inspires Davis to propose that the creative fuel of fashion are the culturally-dictated identity ambivalences of gender, status, and sexuality; these ambivalences are each understood as a tension of opposites. Davis also follows the analytical playbook of Barthes (1967) in his regard of garments as governed by a "sartorial code"; for Davis as well as for Barthes, clothing can be "read" like language, and it is the inducement of misreading and misinterpretation which opens up an opportunity for play and creativity. Davis applies structuralist discourse of sign, signifier, signification, and signified to his analysis of fashion. He states that new fashions in their infancy are "undercoded" and governed by an "aesthetic code;" he writes of clothing communication as symbolic manipulation, as in "it is characteristic, therefore, for cross-gender clothing signals, ... to be accompanied by some symbolic qualification" (Davis, 1994, p. 42); he uses the structuralist lens of "shifting signification chains" to explain that it is the "ever-shifting ambivalences ... that affords dress and fashion endless opportunity for innovation and variation" (p. 57).

Davis continues to structuralize fashion until his theory takes a breathtaking turn toward the end of the work. He supplants the familiar structuralist ground with a more postmodern, late-capitalist theory of ideal markets: "What appears to be emerging in place of the classic, three- to five-year, bell-shaped cycle is a plethora of microcycles, each oriented toward a different identity segment of the apparel market ... there is not likely to be a single reigning fashion at any moment in time" (p. 157). Davis is apparently motivated to switch grounds because the more idealized structuralist view of fashion, which has had a long history in sociology and whose neatness affords "scientific" dissection, is unable to account for the latest contemporary events in fashion. The successful function of structuralism has relied on the fact that culture is dominant and univocal, and signs have clear meaning that pervades the whole of the culture. However, in a fragmented market scenario, signs are no longer known to the whole of a culture; also, because fashions no longer die off completely, it is hard to argue that fashion still works by shifting signification. Therefore, contemporary circumstances have broken down the explanatory power of the structuralist theory of fashion, and so Davis seeks new ground in markets.

The theory of markets is particularly qualified to explain and ground the contemporary pluralism and polycentrism of fashion. The workings of markets can be visualized very simply in spatial and experiential terms, a prerequisite for an intuitive grounding system: a market is what connects the many points of supply to the many points of demand; the more efficient the market, the more fine-grained and complete the connections. In a market where the demand is quite diverse, the supply tends to mirror the demand's diversity as the market becomes more and more efficient. This is precisely why Davis proposes that the univocal fashion macrocycles of yesteryear are being supplanted by a system of more finely tuned niche markets which tap into the desires of the heterogeneous populous. It is interesting to note that in shifting the grounding system from structuralism to markets, the corresponding shift of our understanding of fashion is breathtaking and dramatic; such is the influence of grounding on our understanding of theories.

McCracken's theory of modern consumption grounded in (Marxist?) containment and movement metaphors. In Culture and Consumption (1991), McCracken puts forth a theory of modern consumption that focuses on the manufacture and distribution of meaning. In this work, containment and movement metaphors are the dominant frameworks of representation and rhetoric; they serve as a largely rhetorical grounding, allowing McCracken to create more intuitive argumentation, although there is precedent for this grounding. Marx's analysis of commodification also uses containment-and-movement to describe how rich, complex and liminal phenomena are packaged as sellable commodities with a single univocal value. Because McCracken uses the same spatial metaphorical ground as Marx, there will be at least subconsciously some transference of spirit from Marx onto McCracken.

In "Meaning Manufacture and Movement in the World of Goods," McCracken narrates the process of consumption as the containment of world meaning into goods, the transfer of goods to consumers, and the extraction of meaning from the goods through meaning-transfer rituals. In "The Evocative Power of Things," the containment-and-movement metaphor reoccurs in McCracken's idea of "displaced meaning" - that is, the packaging of certain ideals and displacement into some other place and time in order to ensure the preservation of said ideals. In "Diderot Unities and the Diderot Effect," McCracken conceptualizes lifestyle as the coherency of consumptive patterns induced by a consumer desire for consistency and harmony; in posing this consistency as a unity and in placing certain purchasing decisions as "outside" this unity, McCracken is once again invoking the containment metaphor. In "Ever Dearer in Our Thoughts," McCracken's theory of patina conceptualizes patina as the physical embodiment of status which is passed down through time. Finally, in "Consumption, Change, and Continuity," objects are posed as concrete snapshots of current cultural principles and their continued existence gives continuity to culture. Again, cultural principles are contained, and these principles give continuity by moving through time. In summary, the containment and movement metaphors pervade McCracken's theory of modern consumption, and like energy-flow in C&RH's theory of domestic objects, the main function of these metaphors is a rhetorical grounding system; a system of argumentation which is intuitive and fluid.

Social construction theory grounded in bricolage. Grodin, Lindlof, et al.'s volume entitled Constructing the Self in a Mediated World (1996) portrays the postmodern self as nomadic, transient, and self-concept is influenced by many cultural media genres such as self-help books, talk shows, rap, feminist literature, etc. Murray's Life as Fiction (1990) theorizes that we construct notions about love by watching romantic comedies, and notions about adolescent by watching teenage sitcoms. The common grounding shared by all these works is that in postmodern times, the self is constructed out of a multitude of diverse social influences, and this construction is motivated by one’s own underlying tastes; this closely resembles Levi-Strauss and Derrida's notion of bricolage. Bricolage is the art of pragmatic eclecticism; assemble together what you need from a diversity of sources. Because meaning in the present late-capitalist period is all but commodified and available primarily through consumption, self-concept is no longer discovered through subjective experience, self-concept gets redefined as parameters of taste and of choice. The self is the meta-entity revealed in the bricoleur's patterns of consumption. In Club Cultures (1996), Thornton takes a similar view of the self as bricolage. Thornton characterizes the underground culture of clubs as "taste cultures" where membership in the "cool" niche is determined by the caliber and authenticity of an individual's tastes.

Bricolage actually makes a lot of sense as a grounding metaphor for postmodern identity and the fitness of this mapping is supported in the philosophy and psychoanalysis literatures. Jameson's intertextuality (1998) and Bhabha's notion of "beyond" (1994) suggest that it is in the interspaces of forms in which the deepest meaning lives. Simmel argued that the whole of an individual is not-so-subtly captured by social forms. However, in measuring identity as a taste function which makes certain consumptive choices, we can get more at the heart of the extra-social individual. In the psychoanalysis of Freud, Jung, and Lacan, the subconscious is a key part of the self, as each person's subconscious psyche holds intuition and repression and is formed through experiences and memories. The subconscious is not well-measured by a few social forms, but if we view the self as bricolage, then the subconscious can be revealed in the gestalt of all a person's choices and tastes.


We have visited many sociological theories about objects, identity, fashion, consumption, and signalling and tried to expose the grounding of each. In some of the theories, such as signalling, fashion, and social construction, the grounding frameworks are dually the source of evidence as well as rhetoric. In other theories, such as Goffman's theatrical self, domestic object theory, Simmelian identity and McCracken's theory of consumption, grounding metaphors were primarily rhetoric in nature. As it turns out, rhetoric is key. Rhetoric lends systematicity to a theory, connecting the dots of isolated evidence into a more fluid narrative. Rhetorical grounds such as theatrical performance, bricolage, and games have a real experiential basis, thereby allowing them to be understood by projecting past experiences onto the current reading of a theory. Other rhetorical grounds such as containment-and-movement, contents-into-forms, structuralism, energy-flow, and markets appeal to our spatial intuition. People are so good at envisioning objects moving through space that to explain a theory in these terms is to make the theory more intuitive.

The purpose of "grounding" is arguably to present a theory in terms of unalienables and unshakables; not certainties in terms of scientific certainties, but rather, certainties known and possessed in each reader's own intuition. Thus, a theory is not truly grounded by facts which cannot be intuited by a reader; true grounding happens when a theory is rhetorically structured in the vocabulary of human experience. This is just as Lakoff and Johnson have long suggested in Metaphors We Live By -- nothing can be understood intuitively or systematically without being grounded in fundamental human experience.

Works Cited

Roland Barthes: 1967, The Fashion System. Transl. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard. New York: Hill, 1983.

Carl Bergstrom: 2002, An Introduction to the Theory of Honest Signalling. Retrieved from / handicap / handicap_intro_1.html

Homi K. Bhabha: 1994, The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Eugene Rochberg-Halton: 1981, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Fred Davis: 1994, Fashion, Culture, and Identity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Erving Goffman: 1959, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday: Garden City, New York.

A. Grafen: 1990, Biological signals as handicaps. J. Theor. Biol. 144. 517-546.

Debra Grodin, Thomas Lindlof (eds.): 1996, Constructing the Self in a Mediated World, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Tim Guilford, and Marian Stamp Dawkins: 1993, Receiver psychology and the design of animal signals. Trends in the Neurosciences 16:430-436.

Stevan Harnad: 1990, The Symbol Grounding Problem. Physica D 42: 335-346.

Fredric Jameson: 1998, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in: The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998. Verso.

Carl Gustav Jung: 1929: "The Secret of the Golden Flower" In Collected Works of CG Jung 13. Alchemical Studies.

J.R. Krebs & R. Dawkins: 1984, Animal signals: Mind-reading and manipulation. In: Behavioural ecology. An evolutionary approach. (Ed. by J.R. Krebs & N.B. Davies), pp. 380-402. Sunderland, Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates Inc.

George Lakoff, Mark Johnson: 1980, Metaphors We Live by. University of Chicago Press.

D. N. Levine (ed.): 1971, On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Grant McCracken: 1991, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, Indiana University Press, Indiana

Kevin Murray: 1990, Life as fiction, Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne.

Sarah Thornton: 1996, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, Wesleyan University Press.






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