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Sociology Essays - Postmodernism Identity Formation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5388 words Published: 9th Mar 2016

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Postmodernism Identity Formation

Identity Formation in the Postmodern World


This work shall look at the idea of identity formation in the post modern world. First, at definitions of postmodernism and identity formation, and then moving on to describe how identities are formed. To be discussed in particular, are Giddens’ sense of the “reflexive self” and Hall’s theory of the ‘crisis of the self’, drawing upon examples from recreational drug use and looking at how consumption and globalisation have led to multiple narrative representations of self.

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Chapter 1

Introduction: Postmodernism and Identity Formation

What is post modernity? Postmodernism; a reaction to modernism; is a state (or complex set of states) that lacks a clear organizing principle which embodies complexity, contradiction, ambiguity and interconnectedness. It is, perhaps, essentially, the embodiment of a general dissatisfaction with modernity, reflecting fundamental changes in attitudes towards what has gone in the past and towards long-held beliefs.

Everyone, it seems, has a different view of what post-modernism actually is. Postmodernism has different definitions in different research areas and according to different academics within these different research arenas. Some academics even disagree about the presence of post-modernity, arguing that postmodernism does not exist.

Giddens (1991), for example, prefers to use the term ‘post-traditionalist’ to describe the state of society at the moment. Postmodernism is, to some, a world view, whereas to others, it is little more than a ‘buzz word’ (Hebdige, 2006).

Kirby (2006) builds on this sentiment of Hebdige (2006). He argues that, following the rise of pseudo-modernism, postmodernism is dead, whilst other authors argue that postmodernism was never a movement, rather only “…the rough outline of a set of self-referential ideals than a genuine cultural movement.” (Willis, 2007, p.44). Many have called postmodernism meaningless, in its most profound sense, as the movement as a whole (if, indeed, it can be called a “movement”), adds nothing to our collective knowledge base.

However this phenomenon is labelled, the idea of identity formation in this changing, ‘post modern’ atmosphere is of interest. How do individuals, in this fractured, multi-narrative society, form their identities? This is certainly a topic that continues to grow in sociological significance, as the factors and conditions pertaining to the construction of our identities have changed, diversified, spread and become more dynamic in this ‘post modern’ world.

Identity formation is the process by which a person develops a personality that is distinct from that of other people. This process serves to define an individual, not only to others, but also to the individual them self (see Levine et al., 2002). In terms of how this definition is maintained, the identity is actuated through a process of development of uniqueness, reinforced through continuity and affiliation (see Levine et al., 2002). The process of identity formation ultimately leads to the notion of personal identity, where identity is forged through individualism and an understanding of one’s own self-concept (see Levine et al., 2002).

What is identity in a post modern world? For many, identity is now a fluid concept, an open question, a construct that is built as one moves along, according to one’s environment and one’s interests and interactions, be these physical or virtual. In a post modern sense, the self is shifting, fluid, or as Berzonsky (2005) argues, identity is dynamic, multiplistic, relativistic, context-specific and fragmented (Berzonsky, 2005). Further, Berzonsky (2005) states, ego identity may serve as a way in which individuals reach out from a personal standpoint in this fractured, post-modern world.

As Kellner (1995) and Featherstone (1991) argue, identity, in the post-modern world, is closely identified with the active consumption of products that are offered to individuals by the media and leisure industries (Ott, 2003). Several academics, whilst disagreeing on the mechanism for this, agree that socio – cultural factors and forces, that structure difference and subsequently create the boundaries essential to identity, have changed dramatically in recent decades (Ott, 2003; see Kellner, 1995; Rosenau, 1992 and Van Poecke, 1996).

As Poster states, “…a post-modern society is emerging which nurtures forms of identity different from, or even opposite to, those of modernity.” (Ott, 2003, p.58). As Kellner (1995) argues, “…one is a mother, a son, a Texan, a Scot, a professor, a socialist, a Catholic, a lesbian – or rather a combination of these social roles and possibilities. Identities are thus still relatively fixed and limited, though the boundaries of possible identities, of new identities, are continually expanding.” (Ott, 2003, p.63).

As the mode of economics shifts from goods-based to service-based, from centralized mass-production to a trans-national, globalise and production, individuals are less likely to locate their identities in pre-given categories and ascribed roles, such that “…class, gender and ethnicity decline in social significance” (see Crook et al., 1992, p.84), whilst the active consumption of ideas and styles grows in importance (see Kellner, 1995).Such that, difference – and, through this – identity, is now defined and affirmed through consumer choice, and, ultimately, therefore, through consumption (see Ott, 2003).

As Ott (2003) argues, the culture industry performs two main functions in terms of identity formation: it provides consumers with explicit identity models showing them how to be, and also provides consumers with the symbolic resources with which to (re)construct their identities. Cultural media, such as television, magazines and general advertising, consequently come to shape the nature of identity, by providing identity models and the symbolic resources for the enactment of the chosen identity (Ott, 2003).

As Ott (2003) argues this purchasing of identity can lead to serious problems, such as losing sight of oneself: as Ott (2003, p. 74) states, in his analysis of The Simpson’s as an exemplifier of postmodern identity construction, “Homer eats, Homer drinks, Homer belches, but, in reality, there is nothing called ‘Homer’ beyond the eating, drinking and belching.

There is no being behind the doing. Homer is just the sum of his actions and no more….In this mode, the subject evaporates and all social and political action becomes futile and absurd.”. Similarly, in the postmodern world, where identity formation is so closely linked to consumerism, it is easy to lose sight of ones true self, in the midst of so many identities that, through the media, are thrown at one.

Although, as Berzonsky (2005) contends, ego identity may serve as a way in which individuals reach out from a personal standpoint in a fractured, postmodern world, through which an individual’s sense of self is preserved, as something that is, yes, adapted by consumerism but which is, essentially, the product of one’s own experiences and decisions regarding ‘self’, Further, ego identity can provide a personal standpoint for acting and decision-making in the fractured, fluid, postmodern world.

For Berzonsky (2005), therefore, identity is a fluid concept in the postmodern sense. There can, however, be no multiple identities for, by definition, identity is “…a singularity, fixed on some dimension that is conserved over time and place” (Berzonsky, 2005, p. 133). As Berzonsky (2005) states, then, there cannot be multiple identities, rather only multiple aspects of one’s personality, something that is exposed through consumerism, with different purchases allowing individuals to express different facets of their personalities.

In summary, identity formation in the postmodern age has arisen from, and is dependent on, consumerism as a driving force. In Berzonsky’s opinion, “…the quest to achieve a sense of identity is important because we live in a relativistic, postmodern age of continual social, political, economic and technological change, which requires continually shifting expressions of one’s self.” (Berzonsky, 2005, p.133).

Whilst postmodernism requires fluidity, this fluidity arises as different responses to ever-changing stimuli, through changing expressions in the different facets of an individual’s multi-faceted personality. Berzonsky’s (2005) view of identity formation in the postmodern world is not as pessimistic as that presented by Ott (2003), which suggests that nothing but a vacuum exists at the core of an individual, but both theoretical approaches to identity formation in postmodern times rely on the development of multiple narratives as a way of dealing with the fluidity of concepts that postmodernism presents to individuals. Subsequent sections of the work will concentrate on expanding these ideas further.

Chapter 2

Literature Review & Methodology

This section will describe how the literature review, which forms the basis of this work, was conducted, in terms of the methodology used to search for, and use, the literature that forms the basis of this work. This section explains exactly how the literature review was performed, in terms of what was done practically in order to find the literature that has been used as the basis for this work. This section essentially describes the methodology that was used to provide an analysis of the specific research question of interest in this work, i.e., “How is identity formed in this postmodern world?”

A literature review is, essentially, a classification and a thorough evaluation of the most relevant works that have previously been published on a particular subject. The literature review is usually organized depending on the particular research objective, so that it presents a systematic, comprehensive review of the work that has been previously published on that specific topic of interest.

From this basis, decisions as to what further research needs to be conducted on the specific topic of interest can be made, from the thorough understanding of the previous works on this subject. A full understanding of the existing literature provides not only a comprehensive review of the existing literature but will also enable the researcher to decide what specific sub-topics, for example, need further investigation.

In this way, therefore, a literature review can inform not only the current research plans but also map the way for future research. After due consideration to the human resources and time frame necessary to collect primary empirical evidence that would prove pertinent to this specific study, adopting a completely literature-based library approach was deemed the most efficient and pragmatic method of research.

Within the scope of this work, ‘the literature’ refers not only to literature such as textbooks, and specialist academic books, but also to the relevant research literature, via published journal articles. A review of the literature that is relevant to the research question of interest thus serves many purposes, including, as has been seen, showing how the current research programme fits in with previous research on the topic, presenting alternate views in order to allow an evaluation of how the proposed research should proceed, and, finally, showing that all of the relevant, previous, work on the current research topic has been evaluated and has been fully understood, validating the current research programme through the support of previously published work (see Hart, 1999).

A literature review is usually conducted before starting any new academic research, because, as has been seen, a thorough review of the literature provides a comprehensive overview of what research has been performed, and provides further information, such as how other researchers have analysed or solved similar problems. In this sense, a literature review is a simple review of the existing literature on a subject but is also an evaluation of this work and the relationships between the existing works (Hart, 1999).

The literature review also allows an evaluation of the relationship between the research that is being proposed and the existing research, giving the researcher food for thought, based on what has gone previously. In this sense, reviewing the literature puts the work that is being proposed in to context by asking any number of relevant questions, concerning what is already known about the topic of interest, what the relationships are between the key ideas, what ideas already exist in terms of understanding the topic, what evidence is needed to finally reach a conclusion and contribution the proposed research will make to the literature (see Hart, 1999).

This exercise, whilst it can be thought of as time-consuming, can be valuable in terms of deciding what problems to approach in the course of the research, how to approach these problems, and how to present the literature review once the relevant literature has been searched, evaluated and summarised (Krathwohl, 1988).

Reviewing previous work can, therefore, provide a practical guide as to how the research one is conducting should proceed, from before the research begins in earnest until its final completion (Madsen, 1992).

The main aim of a thorough review of the literature, as outlined in this section, is to search out and locate relevant literature, to read and to analyse the information that has been found, to evaluate the information, through finding the relevant information in the literature, in terms of positioning the previous literature within the framework of the research that is about to be undertaken (Muskal, 2000).

This requires many skills, such as knowing how to retrieve the necessary information, gathering and organizing the information, being able to critically appraise this information and developing further research questions once the information has been gathered and evaluated (Fink, 2004).

Standard bibliographic databases can be used in order to search relevant literature (Hart, 1999). If, for example, one wishes to find out about how identity is formed in the postmodern world, one would first need to know something about identity formation and postmodernism in general and would thus enter these as search terms. One would then wait for the database to return the details of any relevant, existing, literature.

Such general search terms would normally provide millions of unspecific articles, and, if this is the case, the search terms can be narrowed by entering more specific search terms, for example, ‘identity formation and postmodernism’ or ‘Antony Giddens’. The usual procedure is to enter narrower and narrower search terms until such a point that only literature containing specific information, on the specific research topic of interest, are returned.

These would be the articles that would then be looked at in detail, or used as the basis of other searches. For example, a ‘Citation’ search can be performed, which will return other related articles that focuses on the specific topic of interest that have cited the original article as a reference. This type of searching will obviously return more recent work that has referenced the original research article in some way, either through using the article as the basis for their own research or using the results of the article to support some new findings.

The results from searching the bibliographic database(s) should then be collected together, as these will form the basis of the review of the literature in any further academic work on this topic. Bibliographic database searching is an accepted research tool, and, as such, is a well-recognised ethical research tool (Anson and Schwegler, 2000).

In terms of how the literature for this work was sought for, terms such as ‘postmodernist identity’, ‘Giddens’ and ‘identity formation’ were used as search terms, amongst many others. Web of Science was used as the bibliographic database. This database contains references to most articles published in the last century, covering the fields of psychology and philosophy, amongst others. In terms of deciding which literature to following the bibliographic database search, various criteria were used to assess whether the literature should be included or not.

The literature that was returned following the bibliographic database search was read if it was of general interest to the subject i.e., if it contained any information on identity formation and postmodernism, and if the literature was recent (i.e., published within the last fifteen years) because only recent articles would contain up-to-date information.

This literature was useful in contextualizing the research, in terms of providing a general overview of the topic. The literature that was used in this work was selected if it included specific information on identity formation and postmodernism. A list of the literature used in the work is given in the References section, at the end of the work.

In terms of how the work of others can be incorporated in to one’s own research, it is necessary to build upon the work of other researchers in order for knowledge, on a particular subject, to be advanced. Research proceeds in this way; by using the work of others as a starting point; so that research is not repeated and so that research moves in a positive direction, building constructively on the work of others (Krathwohl, 1988).

Using the work of others through the development of a literature-based work is, therefore, entirely ethical, on the condition that the previous work is referenced and cited correctly within the subsequent work (Madsen, 1992). On this basis, then, the bibliographic database searches and the use of literature of interest is a valid protocol for conducting research.

Chapter 3

Examples of Postmodern Identity Formation

Recreational Drug Culture

One example of the formation of identity in the postmodern world is the taking of recreational drugs. The taking of recreational drugs increased with the development of the dance and rave scene in the 1980s, increasing during the development of the ‘clubbing’ scene.

Polls indicate that up to 79% of clubbers have taken recreational drugs at some point in their lives, with ecstasy, cannabis and cocaine being the most widely-used recreational drugs. Although ketamine, heroin and GBH were also mentioned in the responses to the survey (Home Office Survey, 2003).

The same survey (Home Office, 2003) found that the majority of the individuals interviewed felt that drug-taking was an integral part of their lives, which heightened their clubbing experience. Most of the interviewees admitting using recreational drugs and drinking alcohol on the same night every time they go clubbing.

This finding is not to say that drug-taking is as widespread in the general youth population, because many youths are not ‘clubbers’ and are thus perhaps, not involved in the drug scene (see Measham et al., 2001), however, recreational drug-taking is a huge part of many young people’s lives, the way in which they express themselves and identify themselves to others. Why?

What encourages recreational drug use amongst young people? Coggans and McKellar (1994) look at drug use amongst young people, reviewing the importance of ‘peer pressure’ in the onset of illicit drug use; finding that there is little actual evidence for a causal relationship and that, as such, the role of individual choice in drug taking needs to be analysed.

As Coggans and McKellar (1994) suggest, individuals are free to choose to take recreational drugs, whether or not this is bound to social interaction with peers or not, and the choice to do so is not, therefore, necessarily a function of peer pressure.

Novacek et al. (1991) looked at the use of recreational drugs amongst adolescents, finding that there were five main explanations as to why adolescents admit to using recreational drugs: for a sense of belonging, to cope with problems they are having, for pleasure, for enhancing creativity and to cope with the aggression they feel inside themselves. The different reasons corresponding to the frequency with which drugs are used.

In addition, Novacek et al. (1991) found that there were age- and gender-specific relationships between drug use and the reasons behind the drug use, with older males, for example, more likely to admit to using drugs for pleasure, and younger girls more likely to admit to using drugs to foster a sense of belonging.

Dorn (1975) looks at the different functions and varieties of possible explanations for drug use, finding that society has to give a label to drug use (that is usually wholly negative), in order to decide upon how to prosecute drug use. This is affected through the development of policies to achieve social control, and how to treat drug users in need of help.

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As Dorn (1975) argues, there are, however, many and varied reasons why individuals take to drugs, including social and economic perspectives, and personal events which lead to the individual deciding to try drugs. Each of these routes to drug use says something about the identity the individual has fostered for themselves and, as such, represents a distinct route to identity formation.

As Duff (2004) argues, recreational drug use is no more than a ‘practice of the self’, as Foucault would say, an expression of one’s self and, as such, should be dealt with using ‘ethics of moderation’ and not as an illegal blight on society. As Duff (2004) argues, referencing Foucault and his ideas of pleasure gives a different perspective on recreational drug use, helping to understand the changing nature of recreational drug use amongst young people, and thus providing new conceptual frameworks with which to attempt to derive policies for controlling drug use.

Duff (2005) continues this reasoning, looking at recreational drug use amongst what she terms ‘party people’, finding (in common with Home Office, 2003) that, amongst this group of young people, drug use has been ‘normalised’, becoming a normal part of their leisure time, as normal as having a beer, for example, or smoking a cigarette.

As Duff (2005) argues, this normalization has implications for policy development in terms of harm minimization programmes. For the youth sampled by Duff (2005), recreational drugs have passed from being something dangerous and illegal, to something that is normal and acceptable amongst their peer group, and the wider society in which they mingle.

For the young people who take recreational drugs regularly, therefore, drugs are part and parcel of their identity formation in our post-modern times.

There is no question that they should not, for various reasons, be taking these drugs: for them, it is absolutely normal behaviour, with their safety being protected and assured through buying their drugs of choice from friends (see, also, Sherlock and Conner, 1999).

This easy, secure, access to the drugs perhaps explains the ease and comfort with which respondents admit their drug taking and use their drugs: for them, it is a natural, safe, thing to be doing, a natural part of their social lives. Many of them do not question the fact that they take drugs: it is as natural to them as any other part of the lifestyle they have chosen for themselves (Duff, 2005).

Jay (1999) looks at the issue of why young people take recreational drugs, arguing from the traditional medical framework, which suggests that people take drugs because they become addicted to them and from a newer perspective, which suggests that people take drugs for pleasure (see, also, Parker et al., 1998).

The latter hypothesis seems to make sense. It is, after all, the recreational drugs that give pleasure which consequently, give fewer records of abusive behaviour associated with them. The use of recreational drugs for pleasure has even been noted in the animal kingdom (Jay, 1999; see Siegel, 1989).

As Jay (1999) further argues, embellished in this idea of pleasure being the main motivation for recreational drug use is the fact that society has, in general, become more adventurous and accommodating as a whole. This general societal climate has led to the atmosphere in which young people grow up assuming experimentation with recreational drugs is acceptable behaviour, becoming a part of their formative years when they are forming their own identity.

They, of course, realize taking recreational drugs is illegal and potentially dangerous, but, as shown by Duff (2005), they minimize the risks by ensuring supply from trusted peers and pass off the illegality issue through references to greater, unpunished, crimes going on around them and the fact that alcohol – now legal – was also illegal only a few decades ago.

As such, the issues of drug use being illegal is not really a concern for them, as their drug use is considered, by them, to be a normal part of their lives, for which, if they keep it low-profile and at a personal level, they are highly unlikely to be punished.

McCrystal et al. (2006) looks at drug use patterns amongst 11 to 12 year olds, finding that there are high levels of drug use in these ages of children, many of whom appear to be otherwise ‘good’ students. These students use drugs for many and varied reasons, many of which are centred around pleasure seeking and relieving boredom. Very few cases of peer pressure were reported.

Although there were suggestions that drug use had become a normal occurrence amongst this group of children, similar to other studies already discussed (such as Jay, 1999 and Duff, 2005). Similar findings were reported by Bahora et al. (2008), who looked at ecstasy use in the United States, concluding that the use of ecstasy amongst those surveyed was regarded as normal behaviour, as something that ‘everyone does’. Again, recreational drug use is a way of forming one’s identity; of identifying oneself with other recreational drugs users, of being accepted into that section of society.

In conclusion, recreational drugs are used widely by youth across the world, a large proportion of whom are assumed to be connected with the dance scene in some way. That said, it is also known that children as young as 11 or 12 are using cannabis on a regular basis (see McCrystal et al., 2006), the ‘drug problem’ is not just confined to clubbers. Many reasons have been put forward as motivators of drug use in this essay; peer pressure, curiosity about what effects the drugs will have on them, a sense of belonging, to cope with problems youth may be having, for pleasure, for enhancing creativity and to cope with the aggression they feel inside themselves.

The different reasons largely corresponding to the frequency with which drugs are used (see Novacek et al., 1991). It has also been seen that people have stated that they take drugs because it is considered normal to do so, is nothing out of the ordinary, that ‘everyone does it’ and so, therefore, them too (see, for example, Duff, 2005). Thus, there are many and varied reasons as to why people start taking, and continue using recreational drugs, all of which have a basis in forging identity.

Chapter 4

Consumption and Identity

Dunn (1999) argues that postmodernism has led to a shift in the bases for identity formation, something that itself, per se, marks the post-modern era. As Lyon (2000) so eloquently phrases it: “…we are recipients of entertainment, shopping for a self.” (Lyon, 2000, p.75). Developments in information technology and the ability to shop anywhere, any time, have reduced time and space, meaning that we now demand the ability to access information in an instant.

People are on demand “24/7”, leading to reconfigurations of how we view ourselves and our place in the world. We are in a world which we feel we know much better, a world which is virtually available at the touch of a button (or the swish of a mouse), on demand. Information on anything anyone is interested in can be found instantly. Through this open, instantaneous, process, we feel we are part of a much larger culture than our long-established, local selves.

For Lyon (2000), in his book Jesus in Disneyland; Religion in Post-Modern Times,it is a complex social situation in which some of the dynamics inherited from modernism are inherited and in which some are distorted beyond recognition. For Lyon (2000) postmodernism has been defined by the development of information technology and social networking and the rise of consumerism. Information technology has made the world smaller, has made identities more fragmented and consumerism has allowed us to express ourselves like never before.

This process, whilst connecting individuals with more people, information and places than ever before, can mean that people become less connected with real – physical, intimate, face-to-face, relationships, leading to social isolation. McPherson et al. (2001) showed, for example, that Americans have significantly less friends than they did two decades ago, with social isolation increasing as a result of this.

However, McPherson and Smith-Lovin’s (1987) hypothesis of homophily – that friends are similar in character and identity – still holds for ‘virtual’ friends. Members of online forums, for example, who become close over cyberspace: similar people will always band together, with people’s personal networks being homogeneous with regards to many socio-demographic factors and interpersonal characteristics (see McPherson et al., 2001).

“The times they are a-changing” sang Bob Dylan, and nowhere is that truer than now, where children plug themselves in to their iPods, downloading music as they wish, accessing information on the internet as and when they desire. It is possible to now parcel the world into discrete pockets, according to your own desires.

Technology has allowed individuals the choice of how, and when, they want to communicate, closing off from other commuters with an iPod, sharing common musical tastes with cyber-friends, again through the iPod, joining in online forums if that is what they want to do. Choice is everywhere, choice is expected, as a fundamental right of this generation.

Through choice, through the freedom of expression that is around, through blogs, for example, and through online forums that are available for almost any specialist interest, from internet sites like You Tube and My Space, individuals can choose who they want to interact with and when they want to interact with them.

For many young persons, this ‘artificial’, cyber life, is their life. It may not be a life that would be recognizable to their grandparents, nor even understood by their parents, but that is their reality. They choose to live like that, maintaining multiple narratives with individuals they have actively chosen to communicate with.

Social isolation is not a concern for these individuals: they drive their own pathway through their lives, interacting with whom they want to interact, when they want to interact, shunning physical relationships in favour of what they consider to be more meaningful virtual relationships.

Individuals are opting out of physical interactions with people they don’t want to interact with (neighbours, commuters etc) in favour of their own world, through their he


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