The Reflexive Self and Culture: A Critique by Matthew Adams (2003)

Matthew Adams
The reflexive self and culture: a critique

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
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 construct
British Journal of Sociology Vol. No. 54 Issue No. 2 (June 2003) pp. 221–238
© 2003 London School of Economics and Political Science ISSN 0007-1315 print/1468-4446 online Published by Routledge Journals, Taylor & Francis Ltd on behalf of the LSE
DOI: 10.1080/0007131032000080212

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222 Matthew Adams
self-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
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The reflexive self and culture: a critique 223
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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224 Matthew Adams
problematic. In imagining an unbounded reflexivity, it overlooks many crucial factors in identity formation, and misjudges somewhat the nature of the current age.
In particular reflexivity, when imagined as a rational ‘project’, relies on distinctly modernist assumptions for its clarity and appeal. A ‘project’ implies a centred subject at the helm, overseeing a purposeful future trajectory. Although the number of choices about what to be may prove bewildering at times, or even most of the time, it is not the locus of this choice which seems to be in dispute. Thus Beck, Castells, Giddens, and others seem to be referring to a self which is chronically uncertain about what to be and how to be, but the origin and the reality of the self from which these questions emanate is not in doubt.1 What is important to recognize here is that by their own reasoning, these accounts implicitly draws a line beyond which the process of reflexivity is somehow non- applicable. While on the one hand the world is dissolving into a malleable and ‘open’ backdrop, the rational, choice-making, bounded individual remains, is expanded even, at the core of selfhood. Thus whilst a radical ‘disembedding’ and ‘individualization’ of the self is indicated respectively by Giddens and Beck, which heralds the extension of reflexivity into all realms of experience, this reflexivity, in theory and practice, is embedded and socialized in ways which are all too easily overlooked. A closer look at the nature of this continued social embeddedness is necessary to reflect upon the authenticity of a liberated reflexivity.
A number of critics have pointed to culture more generally as a formidable realm of experience which may constrain reflexive thinking, questioning the extent to which the phenomenon of reflexivity can ever transcend the social and cultural foundations of knowledge (Alexander 1995, 1996; Mestrovic 1998). Alexander takes particular exception to the popular tradi- tional/post-traditional dichotomy, favoured by Giddens and reflected in Beck, Lash and other analyses (Heelas et al. 1994). This division leads to the argument that in the current era we have reflexively transcended the weight of tradition. This is increasingly apparent in the way we construct our sense of self, our self-identity. Reflexivity excavates layers of tradition which once formed the unquestioned, naturalized aspects of the self. Once reflexivity is extended, the self turns back upon its self and becomes aware of the processes which, until that point, made it what it was.
But we return to Alexander’s assertion that reflexivity, in whatever his- torical period, ‘can be understood only within the context of cultural tradition, not outside of it’ (Alexander 1996: 136). Similarly, Mestrovic accuses Giddens of being ‘unaware that the meaning of reflexivity, agency and dialogue vary across cultures’. If reflexivity is a product of a particular culture, then clearly our knowledgeability is shaped and compromised by
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The reflexive self and culture: a critique 225
the ‘limits’ of that culture. The specific connotations of what we understand ‘reflexivity’ to be is inevitably conditioned by the cultural symbols already available to us. I want to argue more specifically that dominant understand- ings of reflexivity are shaped by a ‘neo-modernist’ normative take on culture, which values rationality, teleology, voluntarism and instrumen- talism. This is what we understand reflexivity to be; it is seen to reveal the exposed circuits of experience but is a particular, and thus partial under- standing of identity.
In what sense is the concept of reflexivity ‘neo-modern’? The use of a traditional/post-traditional dichotomy, Alexander argues, revives early theories of modernization in its representation of different cultures; the model ‘rests upon the same simpliste set of binary oppositions as did earlier modernization theory in its most banal form’ (Alexander 1995: 44). Reflexive modernization heralds the end of tradition; the subject is disem- bedded, and gradually develops autonomous control over their selves and their environments (Alexander 1996). According to Alexander these claims are little more than a reassertion of the tenets of modernization theory. Giddens, Beck etc. argue that tradition once structured and determined our lives in our ignorance. Thus, retrospectively in terms of western culture, we were once naive cultural dupes. More ‘traditional’ cultures which still persist today may also be perceived as more naive than the predominately post-traditional west (or ‘global’ society) in this context. In post-traditional society reflexivity has released the subject from such deterministic constraints, allowing her and him to construct their identity and environ- ment with new-found freedom. Similarly, theories of modernization suggested that rationally ordered capitalist economies were the pinnacle of civilization, as they successfully swept away the weight of tradition, which held back ‘development’ if adhered to. ‘Traditional’ societies were similarly conceptualized in anthropology, distance from Europe amounting to heading backwards in space (Fabian 1983: 26).
Criticisms of this kind of approach to development are now familiar. Once Alexander makes the comparison with the traditional/post-tradi- tional model, connections with modernization theory are clearly apparent. They provide, according to Alexander, a ‘historically arbitrary, Western centred, and theoretically tendentious approach to tradition’ (Alexander 1995: 45); all accusations which could equally be made in relation to early modernization theories. Alexander’s’ criticism may seem a little unfair and heavy-handed, glossing over the complexities of Giddens’s and allied posi- tions as it does. Undoubtedly though, it contains at least the seed of a valuable critique. It may be possible to see other ways of being ‘reflexive’ within other cultures and traditions, as well as in the West’s history. It could also be argued that contemporary notions of reflexivity tell us more about the culture and traditions of Western, late modern society than they do about our liberation from them. In this sense, there may be a degree of ethnocentrism in recent accounts of reflexivity.
Considering one example from a recent discussion between Giddens and
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226 Matthew Adams
Christopher Pierson, this susceptibility is subtly apparent: ‘The truth of tradition is given by the codes of practice which it enshrines. This is the crux of the differences between traditional ways of doing things and those based upon rational or scientific enquiry’ (Giddens and Pierson 1998: 128). It could be argued that ‘scientific enquiry’ is itself a ‘code of practice’, involving rituals and traditions which provide their own ‘truth’, an estab- lished critical claim (e.g. Adorno and Horkheimer 1997 [1947]). There is a danger in ignoring the wealth of philosophical and social theory which has relativized the position of science, rationality and Enlightenment theory as messengers of truth (e.g. Latour 1992; Wynne 1996).
Beck is more wary of scientific wisdom, but the cultural origins of reflex- ivity extend beyond ‘science’. In overlooking the cultural origins of the concept and value of self-reflexivity more generally, there is a danger that we might fail to recognize ‘reflexive thinking’ as a related, conceptual product of Western modernity, not a universally accepted cognitive func- tion. To use Giddens’s terminology, he is assuming that reflexivity ‘disem- beds’ the individual from traditions. What he and others neglect to contemplate is that the concept of reflexivity, rationality, and other Enlight- enment terms, are themselves ways of ‘embedding’ the individual in a particular cultural framework
one could argue that modernists are embedded in their own provincial cosmopolitanisms despite the outward appearance of globalization. West- erners gaze at the developing world through the eyes of their Enlighten- ment-based spectacles, thereby remaining provincial and ethnocentric. . . . Modernism is a specific belief system which leads modernists to their own distinctive forms of irrationality. (Mestrovic 1998: 155; emphasis in the original)
These ‘provincial cosmopolitanisms’ might include a unquestionable faith in the separateness of self and surroundings; a teleology of self-mastery; a grasping of a meaningful life as a rationally-induced future-oriented project; a disjunctive relationship between language and reality which progressive reason can overcome, or in a view of the individual as a bounded, cognitive isolate or ‘monad’ (Burkitt 1991) . Reflexivity, as a primary and extended attribute of contemporary society and self, draws on all of these beliefs. I would not want to argue that understandings of modernity roughly grasped together here are in any way exhausted in being compared to more obviously modernist accounts. On the issues of culture and tradition, there is much more depth and difference, and Giddens in particular is conceptually protean. However I would agree that underlying the distinction between traditional and post-traditional, or its equivalents (the network society, the risk society), for all its complexity, there is a danger that ‘the totalizing conceit that gave early modernization theory a bad name’ (Alexander 1995: 46) is partially reproduced.
Prior to the rise of modernization theory, Adorno and Horkheimer pointed out the folly of an uncritical faith in ‘rational consciousness’; ‘the
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The reflexive self and culture: a critique 227
indefatigable self-destructiveness of enlightenment’, whereby the applica- tion of reason itself gains a mythical status and becomes unaware of its own shortcomings, allowing it to be subjected to instrumentalism, dogma, and the distortion of experience (Adorno and Horkheimer 1974 [1944]: xi). Similarly, the modern emphasis upon autonomous self-development apparent in the promulgation of reflexivity lacks both an appreciation of the cultural embeddedness of such a discourse, and an acknowledgement of the cultural determination of self-identity more generally. Furthermore, codes of practice from the past do still persist, and exist alongside competing and contradictory discourses (such as concepts of fate – see unpublished discussion). This is a complex, mutually-reinforcing intersec- tion of knowledge claims: the very conceptualization of reflexivity persua- sively obscures and negates a full account of its own cultural specificity, and of the ubiquity of cultural context more generally; so ‘knowledge’ and obfuscation are enforcing each other.
More simply, the key point is that cultural boundaries are still important, even in supposedly reflexive times, as Tucker argues: ‘[a] strong self which heroically creates narratives of personal development in uncertain times . . . gives short shrift to the structural and cultural factors still at work in fashioning the self’ (Tucker 1998: 208).
These boundaries are as important in modern Western society, as they were in other periods of history.2 There are numerous modern cultural habits which, like the beliefs listed above, ‘impinge’ upon the contemporary agent’s knowledgeability
the cult of rationalism, the cult of mechanization, the cult of conspicuous consumption, the cult of science, and, for Riesman, the cult of being ‘nice’ among others . . . each of these phenomena exerts tremendous constraint on the knowledgeable and skilled agent to conform. (Mestrovic 1998: 150)
Though not aimed specifically at the concept of reflexivity and its popu- larity in sociology and beyond, many authors have sought to elucidate the taken-for-granted assumptions of western culture, which underpin the normative promotion of an increasingly rationalized identity (Blackman and Walkerdine 2001; Rose 1990; Walkerdine 1998). The alternative is to accept that reflexivity, thinking and language cannot be placed above and outside the specific cultural, historical, spatial, temporal and social context in which they are practised. Thus all these factors are still, and always will be, of crucial importance in shaping the self and the social environment. Theorizations of reflexivity do tend to understand its extension in identity- formation as a response to cultural shifts. The problem arises however, in accentuating the ability of reflexivity to transcend its cultural origins. A picture of liberated agency, where self-identity increasingly comes under reflexive control, might be undermined or at least, in need of substantial qualification. The elements of contemporary culture which generate normative claims about reflexivity need to be pursued in more detail, so
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228 Matthew Adams that the culturally-situated nature of reflexivity might be better under-
The relationship between culture, reflexivity and language provides a vital dimension to the sense in which reflexivity is culturally ‘embedded’, as both concept and practice. A good starting point is a recent article by Bronislaw Szerszynski (1996), whose discussion maps informatively on to the problem faced in trying to place reflexive thinking beyond its cultural origins.
On first viewing Szerszynski’s ‘modern problematic’ has much in common with Giddens’s portrayal of contemporary dilemmas. It is ‘concerned with how, in a universe stripped of meaning and purpose, we can still ground behaviour and judgments in something more than mere self-assertion’ (Szerszynski 1996: 105). I think Giddens would agree that the modern world has been ‘stripped of meaning’. His solution though, in the form of radical reflexivity, Szerszynski views as a symptom of modernity and its contradictions, not a way out. This is partly due to how Szerszynski reaches his perception of the modern problematic.
He argues that one of the preconditions for the development of modern science and philosophy was the shift from a conjunctive to a disjunctive view of language (1996: 107). This basically means that at some point in the past, language and objects were seen as part of the same fabric. Thought and the material world were not clearly demarcated in separate spheres; ‘words and objects . . . were thought to have natural sympathies and connections which bound them together in a timeless order’ (op. cit. 107). Referring to philosophical and scientific works over the period, Szerszynski argues that very gradually, between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, such a view was ousted by a disjunctive understanding.3 It is ‘disjunctive in the sense that it posited a distinction between a descriptive language on the one hand an extra-discursive reality on the other’ (op. cit.: 107).
Harmony between language and the world is no longer given, but neither is it abandoned. Rather, it has to be achieved. The modern problematic is precisely the ‘question of how that harmony can be brought about’ (op.cit.: 108). This, according to Szerszynski, is the foundation for modern science and rationality, understood as ‘a collective social practice which generates privileged representations of the world which have a universal validity’ (op. cit.: 109). It might also be seen as a foundational appropriation of social reality for the nascent notion of a sovereign and separate selfhood, and the promise of a liberating reflexivity. Common language only roughly equates to the external reality which it attempts to describe. In the ‘purified’ language of science and reason, the distance between discourse and the reality beyond is closed, harmony once again reinstated in surety of knowl- edge. The self, we might add, originator of these purified understandings, and as arbiter in this reunion, occupies a curious position. It is as if the
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The reflexive self and culture: a critique 229
separation has been displaced, and the self now stands outside of both material reality and language, the abstracted fuser of two worlds, now culturally positioned as distant from both. Thus, as suggested above, such a situation ushers in ideas of a sovereign self, with qualities not unlike the reflexive self so far discussed.
The relevance of Szerszynski’s discussion is also apparent in the problems he associates with attempts to resolve the modern problematic Not just science, but the modernist project in general, with its search for a univer- salised language of reason, ethics and knowledge, faces insurmountable obstacles. Szerszynski sums them up as follows: ‘Our knowledge of the world is always shaped by pre-theoretical social and cultural commitments . . . language completely abstracted from the social and cultural is itself impos- sible to achieve’ (1996: 111–13). Szerszynski may be referring to language here but similar claims could be made about reflexivity. What is reflexivity apart from discourse directed toward the self? The discourses we reflexively use to maintain self-identity, the language of self-awareness, is similarly bound by its cultural situatedness. The association of reflexive ordering of the self with a sense of autonomy which goes beyond cultural and historical ordering may be fundamentally flawed. And this is precisely the association Giddens makes. His position is made apparent in this extract from a discus- sion of personal histories
Tradition provided the stabilizing frameworks which integrated memory traces into a coherent memory. As tradition dissolves . . . ‘trace memory’ is left more nakedly exposed, as well as more problematic in respect of the construction of identity. . . . From then onwards, the reconstruction which tradition provided of the past becomes a more distinctively indi- vidual responsibility – and even exigency. (Giddens 1994: 67–8)
What does more ‘individual responsibility’ really mean in this context? For Giddens it is the liberating yet burdensome autonomy of post-traditional society – ‘no choice but to choose’. On consideration though, however ‘responsible’ the individual is for making sense of their experience, they still rely on common cultural forms – language being the most basic – however much they have altered over history. It is not possible to insert a vacuum in the place of previous traditions, suggested in the metaphor of being ‘nakedly exposed’, a blank slate on which we are free to construct our self anew. This space could never truly exist. Although individuals may have been disembedded from previous cultural norms and traditions, they still, through the use of language, culture and tradition (however we under- stand these terms) rely upon, and contribute to, some kind of cultural formation. Szerszynski’s account of the modern problematic then, can be extended to identify the contradictions at the heart of recent theorizations of the reflexive self.
The analysis of the impact of reflexivity and post-traditionalism, as it is most commonly expounded, amounts to ‘the social arrangement of contemporary society as a world that has superseded its past, as a society
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230 Matthew Adams
that is not bound by the traditions, customs, habits, routines, expectations and beliefs that characterized its history’ (O’Brien 1998: 15). In Giddens’s own words, we live in a world ‘where the past has lost its hold . . . [and] pre- existing habits are only a limited guide to action’ (Giddens 1994: 92–3). Consequently, in such analyses all these things – traditions, customs, beliefs and expectations – have today become ‘adaptable, bendable, ‘plastic’ resources’, bound by an instrumental relationship with a detached reflexive identity (O’Brien 1998: 15–16).
Thus it is arguable that the dominant themes of the extended reflexivity thesis is that cultural situatedness has been transcended, or at least become chronically and exhaustively malleable, in the hands of post-traditional reflexive awareness. While modern cultural formations are undoubtedly flexible to an extent, possibly more so than in the past, it is important to avoid the assumption that culture and traditions have become completely transparent and subject to rationally-oriented, individual control, which ironically, reflect the culturally-specific dimensions of such a claim. Szerszynski’s historical account of cultural approaches to language, strengthen the need for a contextualization of reflexivity.
The extended reflexivity thesis clearly has a normative dimension; reflexivity is championed, though somewhat ambivalently, as capable of transcending tradition, amongst other issues. The faith in continued progress, in the gradual ‘uncovering’ of the reality behind previous cultural formations via rational faculties is a re-engagement with modernist principles, a form of ‘neo-modernism’ (Szerszynski 1996: 112; Mestrovic 1998), at its most excessive, a latter-day modernization theory (Alexander 1995: 11).
What is being heralded is nothing more than the extension of modernist principles; more rationality and reason in more areas of life, eventually understanding and controlling these areas. The extended reflexivity thesis reveals a belief in reflexivity which parallels the modernist faith in reason; in an ‘innate rationality that, in principle, will guarantee that the outcome really is the best outcome – the good’ (Szerszynski 1996: 116). In Szerszynski’s account, such a belief only arose with the arrival of the modernist language – reality dichotomy. With modernism so heavily impli- cated in the origins of this split then, the philosophies it creates have little hope of escaping it.
Szerszynski’s questioning of the modernist project at a general level – for assuming that language, even a purified rational language, could ever reveal the ‘truths’ of an extra-discursive reality; or that it could ever tran- scend the particular milieu of which it forms a part – has a resonance for the theorization of reflexivity specifically which will already be apparent. This theorization maintains and extends the inherently futile disjunctive relationship between language and reality traced by Szerszynski. It maps the disjunction on to self and culture/society, so that the self is a separate bounded entity, pursuing its own teleology against a choice-laden, wholly separate, social backdrop. The self in its neo-modernist guise, stands
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The reflexive self and culture: a critique 231 outside of culture in an illusory disconnectedness. Similar claims are
routinely made in philosophy
The demands we make for philosophical explanations come, seem to come, from a position in which we are, as it were, looking down onto the relation between ourselves and some reality, some kind of fact or real possibility . . . the characteristic form of the illusion is precisely of philosophy as an area of inquiry, in the sense in which we are familiar with it. (Diamond (cited in Thrift) 1996: 35)
Diamond implies that privileged positions from which we view our relation- ship with the world, (including ourselves) are a fallacy, an ‘illusion’. They are part and parcel of the discourse which forms our understanding of everyday life, and which we can never step outside. As Castoriadis succinctly claims here
There exists no place, no point of view outside of history and society, or ‘logically prior’ to them, where one could be placed in order to construct a theory of them – a place from which to inspect them, contemplate them, affirm the determined necessity of their being – thus, constitute them, reflect upon them or reflect them in their totality. (Castoriadis 1987: 3)
In the parallel realm of the sociology of identity, it could be argued that this is exactly the role assigned to reflexivity by those heralding its radical extension. Szerszynski’s story is an attempt to illustrate how our particular cultural heritage, via language, has shaped the way we think about the world in almost imperceptible ways. The ‘reflexive project of the self’ rather than being supremely capable of transcending cultural, social and historical restrictions is a culturally located, politically normative discourse, steeped, as it is, in modernist principles.
In summary reflexive thinking is always bounded, if not exhausted, by the culture and society we are a part of, particularly in terms of the language systems which historically have come to structure our sense of self and the world beyond. Furthermore the very promotion of reflexivity as a trans- forming and necessary capability is itself the normative product of dominant cultural traditions – namely neo-modern. To pursue this critique further, it is important to ask how cultural traditions produce and contain reflexivity.
The work of G. H. Mead can provide the claims made here with a more thorough psychological grounding. Although Mead’s writing well precedes the debate we are engaged in here, his understanding of self-development can make an important contribution. His theory of identity-formation stresses how all forms of self are dependent on social context. Mead argues that the self is a direct product of existing social relations
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The self is something which has a development; it is not initially there at birth but arises in the process of social experience and activity, that is, develops in the given individual as a result of his [sic] relation to that process as a whole and to other individuals within that process. (Mead 1934: 199)
Giddens makes a similar point, situating the origins of reflexivity in this social process: ‘reflexivity is on its most primitive level grounded in the recipricocity of social relations in the interaction of the infant with other members of his [sic] family group’ (Giddens 1976, 116). In a later work he explicitly supports Mead’s claim ‘We can agree with Mead that the infant begins to develop a self in response to the social context of its early experience’ (Giddens 1991: 52).
Mead justifies this claim by enquiring into the nature of self-conscious- ness. For the individual to be self-aware, to have any sense of self, a process of objectification must occur. In a sense the self has to divide, in order to be able to view itself from a distinct position. This is the essence of self- consciousness, self-awareness, self-identity. If we consider these terms we realize that something must become aware of, be conscious of, or identify with, a self. The development of this awareness is a pre-condition for selfhood: ‘the individual is not a self in the reflective sense unless he is an object to himself’ (Mead 1934: 203).
According to Mead, the individual needs somewhere to look from, an ‘outside’ position from which it can perceive of itself, in order to create the self as an object. We turn to significant others around us to initiate and maintain objectification. Thus the formation and continuation of the self is fundamentally social: ‘. . . it is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience’ (1934: 247). Looking from behind their eyes, so to speak, we see our self for the first time. What constitutes the position from which we view our self are the attitudes of others. Such a process makes more sense if imagined practically. When action is required in a situation, unless I act completely spontaneously, a process of objectification occurs. I consider how ‘I’ should act. Such a consideration, the options we draw from, and the choice(s) we make, is all made possible by the individual having taken on board the attitudes of others. As we grow older, we come into contact with more and more ‘others’. We develop a ‘generalized other’ with which to view the self, though it is constantly being modified and reordered, and specific others are still vitally important. We draw from a variety of sources, including others who we have never met, others as social groupings.
Mead’s understanding is more akin to the view that the very nature of selfhood is in fact firmly embedded in its social and cultural context. For in Mead’s account self-development is under-written by interaction with others. ‘The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience’ (Mead 1934: 247). It is how we ‘become aware of ourselves as objects’ and thus how ‘we come to see, assess,
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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
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234 Matthew Adams
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.
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
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The reflexive self and culture: a critique 235
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
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236 Matthew Adams
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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(Date accepted: February 2003)
1. Giddens, for example, acknowledges that previous conventions of selfhood have been uprooted, but discounts the post- modern possibility of self dissolution. Post- modernism, Giddens argues, sees the contemporary self ‘as dissolved or dismem- bered by the fragmenting of experience’. This interpretation fails to acknowledge that the self is ‘more than just a site of intersecting forces’ and in fact, ‘active processes of reflexive self-identity are made possible by modernity’ (Giddens 1990: 150). Giddens’s wholesale dismissal of postmodernism is not always con- vincing, but there is not the space in this discussion to consider Giddens’s relation- ship to postmodernism in detail.
2. Commenting on the factors which constitute one’s own cultural framework, which supposedly curtail reflexivity to an
Matthew Adams Faculty of Humanities Nottingham Trent University
extent, is of course something of a para- doxical effort; for any revelations indicate a level of reflexivity which is being denied. It is not the author’s attention to deny the process of reflexivity however, only to suggest that it is always culturally-loaded, and there may at least be a number of alternative ‘versions’.
3. In his account of this period, Szerszynski is careful to point out that conjunctive and disjunctive perceptions coincided and overlapped. The shift is not clear-cut.
4. This analysis places itself in some- thing of a paradox to develop any further for to suggests any alternatives to a reflex- ivity, either actually existing or projected, suggests a level of reflexivity towards pro- cesses of selfhood, which it has been argued are just not possible. Some level of ‘real’
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The reflexive self and culture: a critique
reflexivity is itself evoked in being able to ‘see through’ existing accounts of reflex- ivity? From what position is one uncov- ering this oversight? There is a danger of endlessregress.WhatIwillsayhereisthat culture provides limits to reflexivity, but there is more to contemporary culture than the hegemonic discourses champi- oningrationality,selfasproject,consumer and atomised individual and an acknowl- edgement of alternative discourses in contemporaryculturecanprovideuswith some alternative understandings of reflex- ivity which are less fashioned on rationality and reason, and may even acknowledge their cultural situatedness. Reflexivity is never a complete process, surveying all before it, it always based on certain cultural frameworks which allow it to interrogate itself in some ways but accepts others.
5. I have discussed the relationship between reflexivity and power in my unpublished PhD thesis (Adams 2001).
6. For a discussion of the relationship between reflexivity and fate, see Adams (2001).
7. For an analysis of ambiguity in relation to selfhood and reflexivity also see Adams (2001).
Adams, M. 2001 The Reflexive Self, Unpub- lished Ph.D. thesis, Nottingham Trent University, UK.
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