The Reflexive Self and Culture by Matthew Adams



page1image744This article appears in: British Journal of Sociology Vol. No. 54 Issue No. 2 (June 2003) pp. 221–238

The reflexive self and culture: a critique
ABSTRACT
This article attempts to engage with a tendency in the theorization of social change and self-identity, evident in the work of a number of contemporary social theorists, to place an extended process of reflexivity at the heart of modern identity. As symptomatic of ‘neo-modern’ accounts of selfhood, critical readings of Giddens, Beck, Castells and some aspects of social theory more generally, and their account of modern reflexivity’s relationship to culture, are assessed. In light of these criticisms, ways in which culture might still play an important part in the shaping of identity are considered. The relationship between language, culture and reflexivity, drawing from philosophy, sociology and G. H. Mead’s own brand of social psychology, are all utilized in establishing a critique of the role Giddens and others designate for culture in the constitution of the contemporary self. By potentially repositioning self-identity in its connection to culture, the overall bearing of reflexivity upon the processes of self-identity is thus questioned. It is argued that a culturally-situated, yet fluid and multifarious account of self-identity is a necessary analytical and normative alternative.
KEYWORDS: Reflexivity; culture; identity; self; neo-modern; post-traditional
SOCIAL CHANGE AND SELF-IDENTITY


This article focuses on an analytical tendency in accounting for the trans- formations that the self has lately undergone, in relation to supposedly radical social changes. These changes, variously imagined, come together to forge a self marked by a heightened, transforming level of reflexivity. This tendency is seen by some to be symptomatic of ‘neo-modernist’ and ‘neo-liberal’ discourses of selfhood (Mestrovic 1998; O’Brien 1999). Giddens’s theorization of identity represents the philosophical core of this tendency. His basic argument is that reflexivity takes on an extended role in processes of self-identity once it comes into contact with the ‘post- traditional’ settings which emerge from modernity’s dynamism. Reflexive self-awareness provides the individual with the opportunity to constructself-identity without the shackles of tradition and culture, which previously created relatively rigid boundaries to the options for one’s self-under- standing.



Similar views of modern society are apparent in Castell’s ‘network society’ (Castells 1996), Beck’s ‘risk society’ (Beck 1992; Beck et al. 1994) and Lash’s ‘reflexive modernity’ (Lash 1994; Heelas et al. 1996). There are also a countless range of recent accounts which share Giddens’s view of the extension of reflexivity and a related individualization, though with varying degrees of optimism (MacDonald 1999; Heelas et al. 1996; Putnam 2000). There also a number of developments in related disciplines and approaches, such as Resource Mobilization Theory and Rational Choice Theory, which place a rational and calculating individual at the heart of their social analysis (Carling 1992; Coleman 1973, 1990; Emerson 1972; Elster 1986). Rational Choice Theory adopts a methodological individualist position and understands all social phenomena in terms of rational-based calculations made by self-interested individuals. I will refer to these approaches collectively as the extended reflexivity thesis.
Giddens’s is perhaps the most detailed account of the psychological dimensions of reflexivity. For Giddens, reflexivity per se is not peculiar to a post-traditional society; it has always formed an integral part of the self and social relations in Giddens’s formulation – ‘nothing is more central to, and distinctive of, human life than the reflexive monitoring of behaviour, which is expected by all ‘competent’ members of society of others’ (Giddens 1976: 114). However, Giddens argues that a different sense of reflexivity can be attributed to post-traditional, societies
The reflexivity of modern social life consists in the fact that social prac- tices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character . . . only in the era of modernity is the revision of convention radicalised to apply (in principle) to all aspects of human life. . . . (Giddens 1990: 38–9)
Not surprisingly then, the self is also implicated in reflexive revision. Tradi- tion loses its salience irretrievably and the self is disembedded, separating the individual from the meaningful, if relatively unquestioned, context it had in previous times been immersed in: ‘The self today is for everyone a reflexive project – a more or less continuous interrogation of past, present and future’ (Giddens 1992: 30); ‘individuals must innovate rules in a brico- lage of their own identities’ (Lash 1999: 3).
Such accounts go beyond a now familiar vision of contemporary society deriving from theories of alienation and psycho-social fragmentation. There is a sense of ambivalence, an attempt to counterpoise the loss of tradition with the possibility of a ‘positive appropriation of life’ (Giddens 1994: 207). No longer bound to fixed, culturally given identity positions, modern subjects, perhaps for the first time, face the burden and the liber- ation of constructing their own identities – ‘we have no choice but to choose
how to be and how to act’ (Giddens 1994: 75). The individual is no longer painting by numbers, so to speak, she is creating her own work of art. Potentially then, spheres of autonomy and control are supposedly opening up for the individual. We can increasingly determine the nature of our identity through conscious choices. Giddens refers to this process as ‘the reflexive project of the self’ (e.g. Giddens 1991: 52–5). This is the double- edged nature of processes transforming self-identity, which in these accounts is understood to be marking the shift from traditional to post- traditional (or equivalent) societies.


Manuel Castells offers an analysis which is very different from Giddens’s, but also belies many points of similarity. The role of agency in the process of self-formation is, in relation to Giddens’s work, dealt with much more briefly in Castell’s work. His work rests on similar assumptions however. Despite the different terminology, in the ‘network society’, as in the post- traditional society, identity is seen to be actively organized by the individual, in a fashion reminiscent of Giddens’s reflexive project: ‘for most social actors, meaning is organized around a primary identity . . . that is self- sustaining across time and space’ (Castells 1997: 7). Castells has a view of identity, which like Giddens emphasizes certain traits: highly rational, calcu- lating and teleological. In fact Castells argues that Giddens’s is a ‘powerful theorization’ of identity, ‘whose main lines I share’ (Castells 1997: 10); he agrees with the Giddens’s ‘characterization of identity-building’.


Ulrich Beck shares many of Giddens’s concerns and though their meta- theories differ in their emphasis, their account of selfhood and the centrality of reflexivity is closely allied. For Beck, detraditionalization removes the navigation points by which the individual historically plotted its course, resulting in ‘individualization’. Individuals are released from rigid, prescribed social positions such as gender roles and have to ‘build up a life of their own’, ordering their own biographies (Beck and Beck- Gernsheim 1995 [1990]: 6).


As with Giddens, the focus here is on a socially initiated extension of personal reflexivity: ‘Individualization of life situations and processes thus means that biographies become self-reflexive; socially prescribed biography is transformed into biography that is self-produced and continues to be produced’ (Beck 1992: 135). Some writing, particularly in populist accounts of the impact of computer-mediated technologies, are even more optimistic about the potential of modern individual reflexivity (e.g. Negroponte 1998); but even in the partially ambivalent positions discussed here, the extension of self-knowledge, and the transparent activity of identity-forma- tion, is accepted.
These are just three brief examples, different versions of an extended reflexivity thesis. In brief, these authors argue that reflexivity is a burgeoning capability of modern subjects, which offers them the opportu- nity to construct self and self-relationships afresh. Whether optimistic or pessimistic about this opportunity, I want to argue in this article that this increasingly common approach to the sociological study of identity is
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approaches to the world, and to one’s self, even in its mundane everyday- ness, which suggest something other than reflexivity.
The persistence of concepts and practices of fate is one example of culturally located practices which curtail or compromise reflexivity;6 discourses of self as experienced ambiguously;7 more immersed in relations with others and shared experiences; as uncalculated, meditative or passive are other examples which might be pursued (Mouzelis 1999). Adorno, well before the particular championing of reflexivity, was similarly critical of dominant formulations of self-liberation which focus upon ‘the conception of unfettered activity, of uninterrupted procreation, chubby insatiability, of freedom as frantic bustle’ (Adorno, 1971 [1951]: 156). He imagines a world where goal-oriented thought processes take a back seat to a more nebulous and contemplative awareness of self; where ‘lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfilment, might take the place of process, act, satisfaction’ (op. cit. 157).
In pursuing alternatives such as those outlined briefly here, a more complex and representative understanding of reflexivity and self-identity may be generated. At the same time, alternative discourses may further illustrate and problematize the one-sidedness of the analysis of the reflexive self depicted in the extended reflexivity thesis, and its relationship to hegemonic social understandings. .......


The Conclusion


The reflexive self and culture: a critique 233
judge self, and create identities’ (Charon 1995: 151). The very act of reflection, from the first instance, is wholly reliant on the beliefs and actions of those around us. Mediated in innumerable forms, this is what makes up the practice of ‘culture’; from family traditions handed down generation to generation, to expected conduct on a busy walkway, to the institutionalized rituals of a sociological conference and so on. Following Mead, all these activities, and of course countless others are forms of interaction which require an objectification of self according to pre-given meanings. Thus culture is undeniably implicated in the ability to be reflexive at all, and in the nature of that reflexivity.
Others have argued that Mead’s theory, whilst acknowledging the social origins of selfhood, fails to accommodate a detailed analysis of the complex- ities of modern forms of social organization, or to consider the impact of social conflict upon the establishment of self-identity (Burkitt 1991: 50–3), and these are valid criticisms. Whatever the shortcomings of the Meadian model of selfhood, it provides a thoroughgoing analysis of the social origins of self-identity: ‘He saw the collectivity of communicating individuals as preceding the self-conscious identity of any singular person’ (Burkitt 1991: 25–6). Thus Mead’s theory of symbolic interactionism ‘offers the basis for a general theory of social identity’ (Jenkins 1996: 44). For our purposes it suggests a complex contextualization of the origins of reflexive awareness, which poses certain problems for the theorization of an extended reflex- ivity.
Giddens actually imports some of Mead’s work in order to develop more of a social understanding of reflexivity, but it does not go far enough. As with his rejection of much of psychoanalysis, Giddens’s partial integration of symbolic interaction clouds contradictions in his own work. Mead’s work, if taken to its conclusion, has a more radical implication which problema- tizes reflexivity and contributes to the claims made in this paper.
Mead’s theory makes a complex case for reflexivity being reducible, in the first instance, to interaction, and by extension, to the specific cultural frameworks which contextualize and give meanings to self-experience. Despite the ambiguity of Mead’s notion of an ‘I’/ ‘me’ separation, there is not necessarily a centred subject at the helm in Mead’s approach, as there is in claims made about an extended reflexivity. There is a dialogue, a persistent interaction in which the self is continuously constructed. Returning to Szerszynski’s terminology, it is possible to interpret Mead’s social philosophy as a radical attempt to reassert a conjunctive account of selfhood and society; however hampered he is by an inherited disjunctive language system and psy-disciplines.


Admittedly the origin of the interacting ‘voices’ is somewhat obscured, but this is a secondary issue here. Even if it is discernible in Mead’s own theorizing, the idea of a centred, rational, teleologically oriented self can be interpreted as a product of this dialogue, thus in the sense I am using here, culturally situated. Nothing beyond ‘self’ as dialogical (re)source needs to be claimed from Mead’s ideas. This is not to deny the forcible
reality of the view of the idea of self as reflexive and disembedded, but it does suggest its partiality, its revisability, and certainly denies it is in anyway fundamental, pre-cultural or post-cultural.
In other words, Mead’s work, via Szerszynski and in the light of this critique, challenges the idea of a culturally disembedded reflexive self. Such an idea suggests a disjunctive account of social reality, a separation of self and social context, the reflexive self dominating a neutered social realm, from which it draws in an individualized, rationalized fashion. Mead’s ideas can be used to deny the existence of a mundanely accessible space ‘outside’ culture and see the very notion of a reflexive and disembedded self as one possible construction (however hegemonic), which constructs and reflects our experience in certain ways. The self is not stripped of cultural meaning and ‘exposed’ to a bleached and malleable terrain.4
It is in interaction or dialogue (including conflict) where both self and culture reside, where it is brought to life, constantly reinforced and rede- fined. Interaction involves, is dependent upon, the emergence of the ability to seeing others as objects, and seeing the self as an object, from the point of view of others. As Mead argues, this is the basis of any meaningful action. What we call culture and society is implicated in the formation of self- identity. It lies at its heart. Notions of reflexivity, and in fact any form of self- consciousness are all a product of culture in this sense. The individual cannot stand aside from her social and cultural origins and use them, transparently, as a variety of options with which to resource an individual- ized reflexive self-identity. The concept of a reflexive project of selfhood is as much a product of social and cultural interactions as any other; it does not transcend them. In fact the construction of the self as an empowered, liberated agent is itself the unreflexive product of a particular cultural tradition; namely Western modernity.
ALTERNATIVE SELVES


There are numerous possibilities for developing the claims made here. What might an alternative version of self-identity look like and what role would reflexivity play in it? It would have to acknowledge the role of the social, as well as numerous other elements of experience which I have detailed elsewhere, such as the role of the unconscious, the irrational, the emotional, and self-ambiguity, as culturally refracted. Alternative theoriza- tions of self-identity would have to stress the dialogical social origins more thoroughly. It is also imperative to study the ways in which people and social groups are located in highly differentiated ways in relation to multiple cultural formations. There is neither a universal culture nor a universal response to it. Considering ‘degrees’ of reflexivity may for example tell us much more about social division and difference than an individual ability.5
Equally importantly though, and more often overlooked, it is necessary to explore alternative versions of self-identity which already and potentially
exist. This is of value in constructing a more comprehensive portrayal of contemporary self-identity and possible alternatives to the overly rational- ized vision of self promulgated in the extended reflexivity thesis. Thus an alternative vision of reflexivity is held by the author to reflect an analytical, but also a normative dimension – challenging hegemonic discourses of self.
What these alternative versions look like, in theory and in practice, is the subject of potential further study, and I will only briefly outline some possibilities here. The relationship between reflexivity and profound existential issues, as experienced by the individual, points up an area of experience which suggests an alternative understanding of processes of self-identity may be necessary. In dealing with death, for example, a reflexive, rational, choice-oriented approach may simply be inappropriate or inadequate. From both a psychoanalytical and an existential perspec- tive, the search for personal meaning is indelibly moulded by anxieties about death; it is the prime example of existential concerns which shape us as selves.
Social and cultural meanings provide essential points of navigation to deal with anxiety and uncertainty. We can be reflexive about death, and can make many choices relating to it – attempts to prolong or shorten life, chosen beliefs concerning an after-life, types of funeral service, coffins, locations for spreading one’s ashes and so on. We can undoubtedly reflect upon the inevitability of our own deaths, consider how we feel about it, decide on ways of rationalizing it etc. Death is more than ‘its logical properties’ however, and particularly when faced personally, its psycho- logical consequences are hard to grasp reflexively (Vandenberg 1991).
Death points to the limitations of reflexive thinking in that it cannot make sense of it phenomenologically – as it matters to the individual. If one of the primary activities of self is ‘the ongoing effort to cope with the anxiety associated with death and annihilation’ (Vandenberg 1991: 1279), which an existentialist perspective might suggest, reflexivity is an insufficient strategy in itself. Reflexivity cannot provide solutions to such a fundamen- tally non-rational (though highly reasonable) issue and anxiety. It is not simply about choosing the solution which most fits our sense of self, our reflexive project. Individuals rely on non-rational, partially reflexive under- standings of the world to make sense of death, particularly in a personal context. Death is an aspect of life too profound and unknowable to be contained within a reflexive understanding. And if death-anxiety is as important as existentialists suggest in self-identity, then it cannot be over- looked.
Death is an extreme example, but the same applies to understandings of life, which too contain ambiguity and mystery, which seems to be over- looked, or at least inappropriately apprehended, in a ceaselessly appropri- ating reflexivity. As Wittgenstein succinctly claims, ‘it is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists’ (cited in Vandenberg 1991: 1283). People do not wander around in moods of contemplative appre- hension of the mysteriousness of life routinely. There might though be
approaches to the world, and to one’s self, even in its mundane everyday- ness, which suggest something other than reflexivity.
The persistence of concepts and practices of fate is one example of culturally located practices which curtail or compromise reflexivity;6 discourses of self as experienced ambiguously;7 more immersed in relations with others and shared experiences; as uncalculated, meditative or passive are other examples which might be pursued (Mouzelis 1999). Adorno, well before the particular championing of reflexivity, was similarly critical of dominant formulations of self-liberation which focus upon ‘the conception of unfettered activity, of uninterrupted procreation, chubby insatiability, of freedom as frantic bustle’ (Adorno, 1971 [1951]: 156). He imagines a world where goal-oriented thought processes take a back seat to a more nebulous and contemplative awareness of self; where ‘lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfilment, might take the place of process, act, satisfaction’ (op. cit. 157).
In pursuing alternatives such as those outlined briefly here, a more complex and representative understanding of reflexivity and self-identity may be generated. At the same time, alternative discourses may further illustrate and problematize the one-sidedness of the analysis of the reflexive self depicted in the extended reflexivity thesis, and its relationship to hegemonic social understandings.

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