2004-08-24 839 share

On Simmelian identity


Proto-sociologist Georg Simmel was perhaps the first scholar to embark on an in-depth exploration of the nature of self in relation to society and culture. For Simmel, society and culture provide many prototypes which are various social forms appropriate to the characterization of aspects of self; however, such characterizations are ultimately incomplete and there will always exist parts of the self which lie outside definition and social entanglements. This private self is not completely knowable, but craves to be realized and expressed via social and cultural forms. Simmel poses the self as a series of dualities including social-versus-private, objective-versus-subjective, and conformity-versus-individuation. In my interpretation, the spirit of Simmel's theory of self can be collapsed onto a single duality: identity-versus-individuality. Interestingly enough, these two words are often used interchangeably and haphazardly in the literature, but as I will show, these binary opposites endpoint a whole spectrum of nuanced understandings about the self, achieved in the literature.

Simmel's distinguishment of identity-versus-individuality can be understood as follows: The self manifests as identity because identification through fragmentary social prototypes is our primary way of articulating the self; the self manifests as individuality because there are aspects of self which escape identification and differ from social identity, thus making us unique. The process of realizing the self can also be viewed as a duality of craving-identity-versus-craving-individuality -- we crave to identify ourselves with social forms to grant order and consistency to our self-conceptualization, yet we also crave to individuate and differentiate ourselves from others. Utopically, the antithetical goals toward identity and individuality might converge by finding a way to identify ourselves as a singular consistent self which at the same time expresses all the nuances of our individualism, but this is not an easy challenge, and remain a holy grail of philosophy of life.

In this essay, I will first examine Simmel's theory of self more closely. Next, I describe how Simmel's identity-individuality theory of self is echoed, extended, or contradicted by other theories of self in the literature, including Goffman's theatrical model of identity, Davis's ambivalence-driven theory of identity, Csikszentmihalyi & Rocherberg-Halton's examination of the domestic self, Veblen and McCracken's consumption theories of identity, and Grodin et al.'s mediated social construction theory of identity. I conclude by identifying common themes which thread these different understandings of identity and self, and surmise the enduring nature of Simmel's theory, which has foreshadowed all identity theories which followed it.


Aligned in many ways with his structuralist contemporary, Ferdinand de Saussure, Simmel's favorite conceptual-rhetoric device for understanding the self is binary opposition. Simmel's thematic oppositions structuring the self are publicity-versus-privacy, conformity-versus-individuation, antagonism-versus-solidarity, proximal-versus-distant, subjective-culture-versus-objective-culture, and form-versus-contents. For Simmel, identity is a social description of self, although he rarely uses the term "identity." Culture and society provide ample social roles (e.g. police officer, nobility, bureaucrat, beggar) and group memberships (e.g. church members, family members, employees) which are used by others and the self-engaged-in-reflection for understanding the self. Using social prototypes for identity description amounts to generalization, but such activity cannot be escaped in "a highly differentiated society" (Wolff, 1950, p.12) and there is a sense of cognitive inevitability where "The civilian who meets an officer cannot free himself from his knowledge of the fact that this individual is an officer." (p. 11-12) From a cognitive standpoint, generalization and stereotype make sense because humans tend toward defeasible or default reasoning when they are given incomplete information.

Recognizing that social identification through prototypes is an inevitable way that people understand themselves and others, Simmel nonetheless believes that this only represents a fragmentary and incomplete view of the self. There are also "extrasocial nature[s] -- a man's temperament, fate, interests, worth as a personality -- ... [which] intermixes his social picture with non-social imponderables" (p. 13). Simmel believes that this extra-social self, for which he uses the word "individual," is not social and not completely knowable. But it is the lifetime quest of the individual to cultivate and articulate its full self, to express and identify all of her own nuances. This articulation of individual into identified fits well within Simmel's recurrent theme of cultivating form out of raw contents, the teleological realization of nature into culture, and in his own words, there is "an unalterable ratio between individual and social factors that changes only in its form." (p. 257) Persons begin with an unarticulated "personal individuality," which, through personal cultivation and self-discovery, is traded in for "collective individuality." This identification of the individual implies the surrendering of some personal freedom, because "the elements of a circle that is not distinctive are differentiated," whereas "the elements of a distinctive social circle are undifferentiated" (p. 257).

Individualism is not to be surrendered though. As a counter-balance to the society's trend toward creating collective individualities for its members, and the surrendering of personal freedom which it entails, Simmel also proposes that people possess a "differentiation drive" causing them to want to stand out from their social circle. Fashion is one mechanism for differentiating oneself from more massified social circles, but in a narrow circle such as a collective individuality circle, "one can preserve one's individuality, as a rule, in only two ways. Either one leads the circle, ... or one exists in it only externally, being independent of it in all essential matters." (p. 261).

In summary, Simmel's theory of self is that there exists ways to identify the self using social prototypes, but these social identifications give only a fragmentary view of an individual, who is also an extra-social being. The complete self is not fully knowable, but through self-discovery, more and more is known. As the individual becomes articulated into known social forms, personal individuality is traded for collective individuality. However, a person does not willingly surrender his individuality, as he possesses a drive to differentiate himself. In this paper, I suggest that the tension between social self and extra-social self, and the tension between craving identification versus craving individuation, can best be summarized in the duality of the self as identity-versus-individuality. In the next sections of the paper, I will compare and contrast Simmel's theory to other identity theories in the literature.

The Theatrical Self

Erving Goffman's treatise on the self, entitled The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), does not inherently disagree with Simmel's view, but does examine the notion of self at a different granularity. Whereas Simmel examines the self, identity, and individuality macroscopically at a societal level or at the timescale of an individual's lifetime, Goffman is interested in the self as she behaves at the granularity of a single dyadic interaction, with attention to the game-theoretic psychology of negotiating identities in social settings. Goffman's position can be essentialized as follows. People wear different masks or personas when in different social contexts. A mask is chosen for a particular social encounter which benefits the speaker the most, and the identities of the participants in an interaction are further negotiated in the early stages of that interaction, until a "veneer of consensus" regarding each participant's role in the interaction is reached (p. 9).

In order to assess the identity of a person and thus the appropriate role to grant him in an interaction, the perceiver monitors the speaker's non-verbal and verbal cues for signals, and uses the generalizations that can be drawn from each sign to construct a truer picture of the speaker. According to Goffman, the best signs are not the expressions given (and presumably manipulated) by the speaker, but rather the expressions "given off," which are "more theatrical and contextual" and "non-verbal, presumably unintentional" (p. 4). These aspects of Goffman's theatrical self are in the same vein as Simmel's idea that the self can only be understood in fragments, through the cues granted by generalizing to social prototypes. Also, Goffman's notion that there exists some signals such as expressions "given off," which maybe escape the speaker's conscious control and awareness, is sympathetic to Simmel's assertion that the idiosyncratic entirety of an individual is not knowable.

However, Goffman differs from Simmel by portraying the self as much more Machiavellian and adaptable than Simmel suggests. Simmel states that a person's overarching goals are to self-actualize and converge onto a "true" identity expressive of all her individualisms, and to differentiate oneself from others, but these goals seem to be incompatible with Goffman's suggestion that people possess a larger repertoire of selves which they manipulate and adapt to different social settings. The possible contradiction is between one's goal of converging onto a "true identity" and one's goal of maintaining many selves a la a repertoire of masks. Do we want one self, or many selves?

It is not clear, but perhaps this is merely a disagreement of scale. It is possible to reconcile Goffman with Simmel by interpreting Goffman's repertoire of masks as minor variations to a dominant trajectory that is still nevertheless converging onto an individualized identity as Simmel predicts. There is also the sense that a person who is insecure with his identity is likely to fluctuate his presentation of self much more widely than someone who is further along the process of self-realization, and that in realizing the complexities of a mature identity, there is probably less energy to devote to the maintenance of too many facades. We can visualize the reconciliation of Goffman and Simmel as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. One possible scenario in which Goffman's masks theory and Simmel's theory of identity convergence of the individual can be found compatible.

Goffman's notion that identity and roles are negotiated uniquely in different social interactions may also find support in Simmel's "Heuristic Principle" of an individual's "Differentiation Drive." That a person's goal is to present herself in a maximally advantageous light may exist to serve the larger goal of gaining social leverage over others, which is a form of differentiation.

In summary, Goffman's account of the self being negotiated in a social interaction represents a granularity of description different from Simmel's, but the two accounts do not necessarily contradict one another, and in the aforementioned, I have proposed one scenario for the mutual co-existence of the two schemes.

Identity Ambivalences in Fashion

Simmel suggests that fashion provides a vehicle for self-differentiation and individuation (Wolff, 1950, p. 260) and proposed fashion as "the social by-product of the opposition of processes of conformity and individualism, of unity and differentiation, in society" (cited in Davis, 1994, p. 23). In Fashion, Culture, and Identity, Fred Davis extends Simmel's enunciation that fashion facilitates self-differentiation by proposing specific dimensions along which differentiation occurs, and situating these dimensions within a wealth of examples drawn from the fashion world. Davis nominates gender, status, and sexuality as three dimensions of creative tension, or ambivalences as he calls them, along which individuals vary and differentiate themselves in the realm of fashion. These dimensions are some of the fundamental cultural dimensions which structure a person's identity. Anslem Strauss, who Davis cites, proposes that 'in very large part our identities--our sense of who and what we are--take shape in terms of how we balance and attempt to resolve the ambivalences to which our natures, our times, and our culture makes us heir.' (p. 24) Thus, finding individuality can be thought of as a kind of "ambivalence management" (p. 25) and fashion assists in the realization of individuality by providing a means of expression and catharsis along these dimensions.

Davis demonstrates that fashion fulfills the dual drives of the self proposed by Simmel: the craving for identification with a particular social group, and the craving to be different from everyone else. The advent of fashion jeans is an example of the drive to identification with desirable social groups and the garment's potentialities as language is leveraged here. Along Veblenian lines, "the designer jeans speaks most directly to the garment's encoding of status ambivalences" (p. 75) because they are used by the wearer to identify with the social groups of high-status and fashionable. On the other hand, fashion also fulfills the drive toward differentiation from peers of a social group or an escape of social groups altogether. Davis presents one particularly interesting phenomena of "disingenuous mistakes" in which something is done wrong "with one's dress or resorting to some other form of vestmental imperfection for the purpose of enhancing status" (p. 66). This sort of "one-upmanship of subtly" is intended to differentiate oneself from one's peers by feigning authenticity. Anti-fashion is another way toward differentiation of self by seemingly rejecting the language of fashion altogether, although the conscientious objector cannot prevent others from nevertheless projecting their own generalizations implicating the objector as a member of some counter-establishment social group. Sarah Thornton's Club Cultures (1996) gives further consideration to the issue of fashion as an identifier and differentiator in which she proposes subcultural capital and the degree of disparagement of the mainstream as a measure of a young person's "cool."

While Davis's treatise on identity mostly fulfills Simmel's abstract model, Davis points out an interesting paradigmatic shift in the interplay between fashion and identity that is novel and goes beyond Simmel. Contrary to the classical Eurocentric model of fashion, or the "collective selection" model put forth by Davis's mentor Herbert Blumer, Davis sees a contemporary cultural trend toward polycentrism and pluralism, in which all possible fashions co-exist happily within society's subcultural niches. Although this counters Simmel's dated model of fashion, we find that it perhaps parallels another one of his identity theories. Simmel's account of the eventual transformation of personal individuality into collective individuality through the process of realizing oneself's societal niche identity is analogous to Davis's account of fashion's turn toward polycentrism and pluralism. Just as personal individuality becomes articulated and socialized as collective individuality, the dissolution of unicentric mass culture into the polycentric and pluralistic niche culture of the contemporary period represents the cultural articulation of individuality. Market forces have capitalized on individual's craving for self-realization by creating a subculture to suit every individual, and engraved collective individuality into the cultural language. These niches are collective individualities which on the one hand lend identity expression to an individual, but one the other hand, Simmel might predict that reifying identity as social groups will endanger an individual's sense of freedom.

In summary, Davis's identity ambivalences build upon Simmel's theory of identity by proposing gender, status, and sexuality as culturally-originated dimensions of identity, and suggesting that fashion's role is to facilitate the realization of individuality by allowing one to locate herself at various points along these ambivalence dimensions via fashion garments. Fashion lends itself to Simmel's notion that the self desires to identify by behaving as a language which facilitates social identification. An individual's desire to differentiate herself can also be fulfilled if she exploits nuances in the fashion language (e.g. disingenuous mistakes) or ignores the language altogether (e.g. anti-fashion). Finally, Davis's account of the increasing specialization of fashion into subcultural niches can be interpreted as the realization of Simmel's prophecy that personal individualities ultimately seek to be articulated into collective individualities.

The Domestic Self

Just as Davis describes how Simmel's identity-individuality duality manifests in the cultural system of fashion, Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton (C&RH) give an account of how Simmelian identity-individuality plays out in a domestic setting. C&RH report that objects in the home should be understood as an external extension of the self, and are collectively indicative of the state of self and of family. But possessions are not only a passive reflection or echo of the self, they also actively reinforce a person's sense of identity. The reason for their impact on our self-reflection is that objects have presence and permanence, and "the belongings that surround us in the home constitute a symbolic ecology structuring our attention." (p. 94) The role of possessions in echoing and reinforcing identity is not discussed in Simmel's work, but there is a consistency between C&RH's observation and Simmel's writings as both exhibit a Jungian psychoanalytic bent. Both C&RH and Simmel agree that self-cultivation (also a Jungian concept) is good, with Simmel praising "subjective culture" and C&RH praising the "investment of psychic activity" into meaningful activities which bring about "enjoyment" rather than "pleasure" (C&RH, 1981, p. 104).

Simmel's identity-individuality duality is paralleled in C&RH's observation of the integration-differentiation opposition. C&RH state that "People either cultivate their selves by developing signs of individuality or by stressing signs of relatedness" (p. 113). Developing individuality maps to Simmel's "differentiation drive" and the term "individuality," while stressing signs of relatedness maps to Simmel's "collective individuality" and the term "identity." C&RH nominate that objects such as televisions, stereos, books, and musical instruments are differentiators while photos, art, and furniture integrate the self into the collective of the family by providing shared context. They point out that young people and men more often possess differentiators than the elderly and women. Interestingly, C&RH assert their belief that while differentiators are common and acceptable among young people, "differentiation, originality, and individuality [] taken as ultimate goals in themselves, ... ultimately lead to chaos, fragmentation, and nothingness." (p. 240) Simmel is neutral on the virtues and perils of differentiation. On one further point, C&RH contradict Simmel's view of differentiation and integration as a duality: "the data suggests[s] that instead of being in a dialectic relationship, the two processes might be in practice dichotomous." (p. 113)

Simmel's lamentation on the decline of "subjective culture" is complemented by reports of decline of the home and domestic identity by C&RH and David Halle. C&RH link terminal materialism (i.e. addiction to consumption) to "cold" families which are fragmented and whose members focus on differentiation rather than integration. They see terminal materialism as a threat to domestic identity but probably an unstoppable trend: "The prognosis is not very bright, given that our goals and institutions are now geared to maximize each person's drive to consume." (p. 232) Similarly, Halle sees the prominence of domestic identity on the decline and reports that family portraits have declined, at best replaced by casual photographic depictions or abstract artistic depictions of the family (Halle, 1993).

In summary, not only can social prototypes be used to identify a person as Simmel has argued, but C&RH add that possessions and objects in the home also serve to collectively identify a person. Furthermore, objects not only echo an individual's identity, they also play an active role in reinforcing a person's identity by structuring the self's psyche with its presence, and offering continuity and stability to identity. Simmel's identity-individuality opposition is paralleled in C&RH's observation of the integration-differentiation opposition, but whereas differentiation and identification are dual goals in Simmel's theory, C&RH reach a contradictory conclusion that differentiation and integration (with the family) are dichotomous and mutually exclusive. Additionally, C&RH characterize differentiation as a pejorative practice and suggest that it is linked to terminal materialism and the decline of domestic identity.

Consumption-based Theories of Identity

Simmel's early observation of the decline of "subjective culture" and meaningful cultivation of selfhood is a major thematic which has been echoed in Davis and C&RH. Whether it be through fashion, or possessions, the cultural trend of the contemporary period is toward the use of material goods and consumer behavior in the description and manifestation of self. Whereas in subjective culture, privilege is placed on the unknowable and slowly-revealing individual, the present consumer culture privileges a notion of self described through consumer behavior, interests, and tastes. This is paralleled by the demystification, demythification, and commodification trends of modern culture, and the increasing privilege of shallow concepts over deep experience in "the information age" (cf. discussion on cultural shift in (Liu, 2004a)). Two works in the literature, Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, and McCracken's Culture & Consumption, well-address the problem of how modern consumerism has changed the nature of identity in the contemporary period, allowing us to repose theories of identity in terms of consumption.

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen pioneers a socio-psychological study of the self's relationship to objects, setting a foundation for other work to follow (e.g. C&RH, McCracken, Davis). Drawing on his observations of the behavioral patterns of the leisure class, Veblen theorizes that the leisure class was born as a consequence of ownership, and is defined by leisure and conspicuous consumption -- consumption not for survival or necessity, but as an overt demonstration of stature and wealth. Conspicuous consumption is first and foremost an assessment signal of wealth because it is not possible to possess such quantity of valuable goods without money. However, Veblen suggests that within the high class, there is also internal struggle for differentiation, and as a result, it is not enough to simply be able to afford the quantity of valuable goods. "He is no longer simply the successful, aggressive male -- the man of strength, resource, and intrepidity. In order to avoid stultification he must also cultivate his tastes" (Veblen, 1899, p. 74). Furthermore, fashion adds a further reflexivity to the definition of the "high class" by constantly sifting out those who claim to belong to the "high class" but do not demonstrate knowledge of current fashions. Not only does consumption and possession of valuable goods serve to characterize a person's class and stature in the eyes of others, but Veblen also observes that possession and consumption themselves have a transformative effect on a person's image of self: the consumption norms of the high class "will to some extent shape [men's] habits of thought and will exercise a selective surveillance over the development of men's aptitudes and inclinations." (p. 212). Veblen's observation that objects not only signal a person's identity but also feeds back to affect a person's self-image is also seen in C&RH's echo-and-reinforce view of domestic possessions, but this thematic of material influence on identity seems to be absent from Simmel's work. I would speculate that perhaps this is so because Simmel was much more fatalistic in his view of identity, seeing the realization and articulation of the individual as a fulfillment of an apriorian promise, and casting the structuring of contents into suitable social forms as a problem of discovering truth. Despite being absent in Simmel's work, Veblen and C&RH's observation of the transformative effects of objects is nevertheless an important contribution to the understanding of identity.

Although Veblen was the first to implicate material objects and consumptive behavior as participants in identifying and structuring the self, he was only concerned with the cultural category of social class. In a more contemporary work, Culture and Consumption, McCracken examines consumption in a much broader cultural framework beyond mere social class. According to McCracken, goods and consumption are relevant to identity because they are sources of meaning out of which identity can be constructed. Rather than viewing selective consumption as largely a pejorative, wasteful, and empty habit as Veblen does, McCracken poses the consumption cycle as the contemporary cultural vehicle necessary for delivering meaning to individuals in a complex society. McCracken's theory is that meaning lives in three locations: in the culturally constituted world, in the consumer good, and in the individual. Advertising and fashion select meaning from the world and imbue goods with certain cultural and symbolic properties. By consuming these meaningful goods, their meanings are transferred onto the individual, who may exploit the meanings for her own purposes.

There is a sense of empowerment of individuality in McCracken's optimistic portrayal of modern consumption. Individuals are, after all, free to choose what to consume, and presumably this "act of choice" is "an act of identity construction" (McCracken, 1991, p. 50) in which identity is recast as a willful and creative construct. Freedom of choice is a thematic for Simmel, who fears that collective individuality erodes the freedom of the individual, and who believes firmly that people possess a drive to differentiate themselves from others. As McCracken portrays it, consumption satisfies the differentiation drive by enabling an individual to express uniqueness because "goods [] have a genuinely innovative capacity ... allow[ing] individuals to take existing cultural meanings and draw them into novel configurations." (p. xv).

Echoing Simmel's spirit of "subjective culture," McCracken notes that rote consumption alone does not suffice to transfer the meaning from the goods to the individual, thus dispelling the fear that consumerism is a realization of Marx's alienation or Weber's rationalization. Instead, an individual must become acquainted with an object, find and extract meaning from that object, and certain rituals are pivotal in accomplishing this. In "exchange rituals" such as gift-giving, the giver "insinuates certain symbolic properties into the lives of a recipient." (p. 84). Through "possession rituals" such as discussing and showing off a new possession, an individual establishes the idiosyncratic person-object relation necessary for a full sense of ownership, and over the lifetime of the possession, "grooming rituals" such as manicuring an automobile " 'supercharges' the object, [which] might in turn give special heightened properties to its owner" (p. 86).

Finally, McCracken addresses an important aspect of identity which is not fully explored in Simmel's fragmentary portrayal of the self -- the nature of the self's drive toward consistency. What causes and sustains this drive? McCracken believes that the consumption of goods is not purely a creative act of creating novel configurations. Sometimes, consumption falls into regularities and patterns. McCracken calls this the Diderot Effect, and defines it as "a force that encourages the individual to maintain a cultural consistency in his/her complement of consumer goods." (p. 123). The Diderot Effect represents a drive to demonstrate an aesthetic consistency in one's consumptive choices. Because each choice in consumption is a manifestation of aspects of individuality such as tastes, interests, and attitudes, patterns in choice paint a more gestalt picture of the individual, and become one way to identify the individual. Combining the Diderot effect with the idea that objects reinforce our self-ideals (cf. C&RH), the choices we make are not only consistent, but give a consistent shape to our self-identification, or as McCracken poses it, "the Diderot effect contributes, ... indirectly, to continuities of the experience and self-concept of the individual." (p. 124) Lifestyle then, can be thought of as a consistency in consumptive choice, or "Diderot unity" as McCracken calls it, and thus we can add lifestyle to the growing list of ways by which an individual can be identified.

In summary, our understanding of identity based in Simmel's prototype theory should be augmented to account for the role that objects and consumption plays in revelation and transformation of identity. In the literature, Veblen and McCracken offer differing accounts of the relation between consumption and identity. Veblen views (conspicuous) consumption as a pejorative and enslaving phenomenon that is primarily driven by the desire for attaining status, while McCracken views consumption most optimistically as a liberating phenomenon affording an individual the opportunity for self-expression. In Veblen's account, consumption manifests Simmel's spirit of "objective culture" because he argues that the high social class defines a single, objective set of correct consumptive choices for those who ascribe to their ranks to follow. McCracken though, argues that Simmel's "subjective culture" is indeed alive in modern consumption, and this is demonstrated by the fact that consumer goods offers an expressive language for the individual, and demonstrated in the fact that individuals actively personalize the meanings of what they consume through object rituals for divestment, possession, exchange, and grooming. However, there is a point of agreement between Veblen and McCracken, along the same lines as C&RH, that possessing objects has a transformative effect on a person's self-identification. Veblen says that consumption 'shapes men's habits of thought' and McCracken says "Surrounded by our things, we are constantly instructed in who we are and what we aspire to." (p. 124). McCracken gives new articulation to Simmel's under-explored suggestion that individuals crave singular identification with his theory of the Diderot Effect. The Diderot Effect stipulates that individuals tend to maintain a cultural consistency in his possessions and consumptive behavior, and the unity afforded by one's lifestyle helps an individual to converge upon a singular identification of self.

Media and Narrative Social Construction Theories of Identity

Beginning with Simmel's portrayal of the self as not fully knowable and only interpretable through fragmentary views such as the social roles occupied by a self, most theories of identity which have been explored since Simmel have continued along this thematic of fragmented identity. Goffman's masks, fashion garments, possessions in the home, and patterns of consumption are all nuggets of identity. In one of the most contemporary theory of identity known as social construction theory, Simmel's idea of fragmentation is culminated. It states that every social aspect of the self, including all that we possess and consume and all of our social experiences and interactions, reveal some part of the self. Whereas Simmel, Goffman, Davis, Thornton, C&RH, Veblen and McCracken explore in depth how different subdomains of sociality reveal identity, social construction theory embraces the realization that all aspects of our sociality reveal fragments of our identity, and in lieu of a coherent Aristotelian identified self, we have but the integral of all our manifested parts. In other words, social construction theory "emphasizes notions of self as less autonomous and more relational" (Grodin, Lindlof et al., 1996, p.8).

While Simmel himself did not attend much to the transformative power that social roles and possessions have in influencing our development and cultivation of self (instead, he romanticized the notion of a "true self," hidden and waiting to be realized -- slightly fatalistic), C&RH, Veblen, and McCracken all took a step beyond Simmel to recognize the self as actively negotiated by our social context. Continuing with this trend, social construction theory also views the self as a negotiated rather than predestined entity. A great diversity of influences and inspirations contribute to our development of our self-concept. Given the great influence that mass media welds on daily contemporary life, many social construction theorists focus on the influence that media is having on identity construction. In a volume entitled Constructing the Self in a Mediated World (1996), Grodin, Lindlof, et al. (GL&A) explore diverse influences on identity construction from rap, television talk shows, anonymous internet communities, feminist thought, self-help books, and postmodern culture. In addition to social roles (e.g. police officer, nobility, bureaucrat, beggar) and group memberships (e.g. church members, family members, employees), GL&A suggest that cultural media (e.g. music genre, self-help books, portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship in television and film) can also be Simmelian prototypes for identity. To take rap as a example, Simpson (GL&A, 1996) reveals that the genre is not simply constrained by syntactics such as the requirement of a rhythmic vocal, but rather, there is a convergent identity being echoed in all rap songs. The identity unity of rap is "concerned with constituting and referencing an 'authentic' self" (p. 108) by way of rappers echoing common memories and experiences (e.g. drive-by shootings, body searches, and the importance of clothing and cars), and repeating and remixing these memories in order to intensify the listener's experience of identification with the music. Furthermore, all of popular music, television, and film become sources of culturally mediated identity. Lewis, for example, writes about fandom and suggests that fans make "meanings of social identity and social experience from the semiotic resources of the cultural commodity" (cited in GL&A, 1996, p. 7). As to why media has such a profound effect on our identity construction, the field of narrative psychology offers an explanation: media portrayals are given as stories, and all stories which are repeated enough in a culture profoundly influences our psyche and self-perception. Stories are meaningful identifiers because "the nature of [its] closure grants meaning to the narrative" (p. 60). Testifying to narrative's impact on self-identification, Murray takes the position that our notions about love and socializing are acquired to a great degree through our exposure to the narratives of romance and comedy (Murray, 1990).

Of course, social construction theory's conceptualization of the self is not all roses. A major thematic in the essays of GL&A is that postmodern uncertainty threatens the coherence of, and belief in the self. On the surface, this seems to accord with Simmel's fragmented portrayal of self -- that the self is not fully knowable, but at a deeper level, GL&A contradicts Simmel's underlying belief that the individual is largely coherent and predetermined, and simply not fully revealed. Simmel consistently refers to "undetermined contents," "personal nature," "innate character" and other concepts which suggest his belief in a true self. In contrast, the postmodern perspective adopted by GL&A is that past notions of "true self" are mere fiction; the self, they claim, was never centered in any apriorian character. Simmel assumes that cultivation can reveal a univocal individual, but GL&A suggest that in postmodernity, "Self becomes multivocal... Individuals [] may find that they no longer have a central core with which to evaluate and act, but instead, find themselves 'decentered'" (p. 4). As a result, "the ideology of self-determination" replaces Simmel's idea of self-cultivation. Simmel's long-emphasis on the self being revealed in fragments is finally contradicted and being replaced by the notion that the self is being constructed in fragments, and construction itself is problematic. GL&A and others in the postmodern cultural literature have suggested that because the onus of identity construction falls squarely on the shoulders of each individual, there is more risk and more uncertainty concerning the self today than during any previous period in history. Ironically, the freedom of self-determination is proving too heavy a burden for many people in the contemporary period, causing people to not want to individuate, for it is too uncertain; instead, postmodernity is encouraging us to partake of what Turkle articulates as "the relational sublime...As we succeed in losing the self, the security of single rationalities, the fixation on univocal goals, and give way to the fluid and many-streamed forms of relationship by which we are constituted, we may approach a condition of the relational sublime (GL&A, 1996, p. 139). In reaction to the uncertainty of the postmodern self, people are reacting by finding solace in multivocality -- they want to be identified and partake of Simmelian collective individuality. In spite of the incompatibility of Simmel's theories with many of the currently accepted norms of postmodern thought, we remember that Simmel also foresaw this development of people yearning for identification: "the quest of the individual is for his self, for a fixed and unambiguous point of reference. He needs such a fixed point more and more urgently in view of the unprecedented expansion of theoretical and practical perspectives and the complication of life." (Simmel, as translated in (Wolff, 1950, p. 223))


Simmel laid out a nascent understanding of the nature of identity which has since been corroborated and augmented many times over, and rarely contradicted. His basic insight was that the self is not fully knowable, and understanding the self through social roles presents only a fragment of or perspective on the whole individual. Simmel also characterized the self as possessing a certain dichotomous drive -- the drive toward differentiation and freedom from the collective, and on the flipside, a drive toward identification and wanting to converge on social identities and to reveal a true self through cultivation. The journey of the self is end-pointed by waffling between these two endpoints, or as Simmel puts it, "As soon as the ego had become sufficiently strengthened by the feeling of equality and universality, it sought once again inequality." (Wolff, 1950, p. 222)

In this essay, I have drawn on the identity literature to compare and contrast many different perspectives on identity to Simmel's original postulations. Simmel suggested that group memberships and profession are ways to socially identify the self. C&RH's domestic possessions, Davis' sartorial code, Veblen and McCracken's consumptive patterns, and GL&A's cultural media extend the original Simmelian prototypes to include other social manifestations. Simmel's thesis that people drive to differentiate and individuate can be seen in Goffman's Machiavellian identity negotiation; in Veblen and Davis's account of fashion being motivated in part by the need to maintain a moving target for the high class; in C&RH's observation that teenagers, men, and "cold" families possess more differentiating objects than elders, women, and "warm families"; and in McCracken's assertion that consumer goods form an expressive language which leads to uniqueness. Simmel's flipside thesis that people also drive toward collective individuality, craving identification, and the pursuit of singular self can be seen in Davis's observation that the emergence of polycentrism and pluralism is leading to the coalescence of many niche subcultural identities, fulfilling Simmel's predictions for collective individuality; in C&RH's account of domestic possessions like furniture and photos which emphasize family identity over individuality; in McCracken's enunciation of the Diderot effect which encourages coherence among possessions and the convergence of self-concept onto a pattern of consumption called "lifestyle"; and in GL&A suggestion that postmodernity makes people yearn for identification through cultural and media narratives.

If Simmel failed to emphasize any salient aspect of identity in his writings, it is the transformative power of social context which C&RH, Veblen, McCracken, GL&A, and Murray have prominently observed. C&RH noted that possessions not only echo but also reinforce the self because "the belongings that surround us in the home constitute a symbolic ecology structuring our attention." (C&RH, 1981, p. 94) Veblen noted that the consumption norms of the high class "will to some extent shape [men's] habits of thought and will exercise a selective surveillance over the development of men's aptitudes and inclinations" (Veblen, 1899, p. 212). McCracken conceptualized lifestyle as a "Diderot unity" which causes one's self-concept to converge and resist change. GL&A argue that our notion of the self's potential is influenced by the genre of self-help books, that our conceptualization of the mother-daughter relationship is due to media portrayals, and Murray's thesis is that our notions about love and friendship are shaped by our exposure to media narratives in film and television. Why did Simmel not see the transformative effects of social context on identity? I surmise that perhaps it is the fault of the contents-into-forms and nature-into-culture metaphors which underlied all of Simmel's arguments. Such a metaphor entertains the romantic and fatalistic notion that self-realization is always on a trajectory toward a single true self, and rejects that the self can be constructed, crafted, or dictated so profoundly by social context and culture.

The endurance of Simmel's theory of identity may stem from the fact that it is not a coherent theory at all. Like the self, Simmel's theories are themselves full of dualities and dichotomies which illustrate a range of possibility rather than focusing on definition. Like identity, Simmel's theories tell only anecdotal fragments of the self, whose whole will never be fully knowable.

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

David Halle: 1993, Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Hugo Liu: 2004a, Articulation, the Letter, and the Spirit in the Aesthetics of Narrative. Proceedings of the ACM Workshop on Story Representation, Mechanism, and Context. October, New York.

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

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

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

T. Veblen: 1899, The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York: Dover Publications.

Kurt Wolff (ed., trans.): 1950, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Glencoe: Free Press.