Constructing The Self

Sociologists known as Social Constructionists (1) believe that we construct our sense of self, of self identity from the cultural resources available to us. That is, in order to construct a version of ourselves that is understandable and intelligible to ourselves and others we draw on the representations, roles and social signifiers around us, configuring and modifying them to construct a sense of who we are both for ourselves and those around us. Many of these cultural resources-conventional gender roles, nationalities, etc- are top down products of a nation state capitalist system and these cultural resources will perpetuate roles, identities and social structures that serve the status quo and reactionary relationships. Natasha Walter writes in ‘Living Dolls’ that the mainstream cultural resources available to young girls to construct a self from have narrowed over the last decades (2). Hegemonic femininity and masculinity elevate a version of femininity and masculinity in a particular society (3) as an ideal to be aspired to, some would argue the current hegemonic models in the UK are for many the overtly sexualised woman and the soldier.

0091_cauliflower

Sartre’s Cauliflower

However there are innovative ways of combining cultural resources, as well as resources that lie outside the ‘norm’, available to those who wish to construct themselves in a way other than that proffered by the mainstream. These constructions of self draw on ideas and models that challenge the status quo, that ‘mix and match’ existing representations and performances in customised or novel ways. Often these combinations initially confuse or offend as they appropriate and subvert, re-combine or expose and confront the traditional. An interesting example of this would be Grayson Perry who combines conventional gendered male mannerisms and learnt behaviour with traditionally female clothing. Another interesting example of appropriation is Dave Lee Roth’s performance in the Van Halen video ‘Jump’ where he borrows from traditional female behaviour exposing gender as performed. (In social constructionism the two sex model, gender and the homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy are contested (4 and 5)).
Many people construct a sense of self from that ‘to hand’ rather than that available, unaware of alternatives they use popular cultural resources to construct their self from. Radically new cultural resources are unusual, but punk would be a good example. When punk was constructed in 1976/77 it opened up a possibility, was a resource, that young people could utilise to give expression to themselves. Prior to that time few people would have imagined combining tartan, S&M gear and leather jackets as an expression of self- although mythically  John Lydon had previously worn a ‘Pink Floyd’ t shirt altered to read ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ an example of appropriation and subversion- but punk opened up new possibilities and people took that resource and deployed it in their self construction, transforming their self identity and appearance and consequently others perception of them and relationship to them.
I would argue that a healthy individual is engaged in an ongoing process of reconstruction, that our self identity should be being constantly updated as we find better resources to draw on or find facets of our self that needs upgrading. Anarchism should be an adventure that challenges us to be growing and developing.
John Holloway argues in ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’ (6) that our sense of self should be sourced in our collective efforts to improve situations and circumstances, that who we perceive our self to be should be rooted in acts of collective creativity and community. This is particularly challenging in a society that atomises and encourages the individual to derive their self identity from consumption rather than class consciousness or creative doing.
Tim Forster

(1) Redman, P. (2008), ‘Introduction’ in Redman, P. (ed), (2008), ‘Attachment. Sociology and Social Worlds’, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
(2) Walter, N. (2010), ‘Living Dolls. The Return of Sexism’, Virago Press, London.
(3) Woodward, K. (2008), ‘Boxing masculinities; attachment, embodiment and heroic narratives’ in Redman, P. (ed), (2008), ‘Attachment. Sociology and Social Worlds’, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
(4) Gabb, J. (2008) citing Butler, J. (1990), Laqueur, T. (1990) and Moore, H. (1994) in ‘Affective attachment in families’ in Redman, P. (ed), (2008), ‘Attachment. Sociology and Social Worlds’, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
(5) Spargo, T. (1999) ‘Foucault and Queer Theory’, Icon Books Ltd, Cambridge.
(6) Holloway, J. (2005) ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’, Pluto Press, London and New York.
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Ella Harrison

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