Draft Outline for a Course

Identity and Self

'The question of 'identity' is being vigorously debated in social theory. In essence, the argument is that the old identities which stabilized the social world for so long are in decline, giving rise to new identities and fragmenting the modern individual as a unified subject. This so-called 'crisis of identity' is seen as part of a wider process of change which is dislocating the central structures and processes of modern societies and undermining the frameworks which gave individuals stable anchorage in the social world'. Hall (1992: 274)

The intention in this course is to provide you with a set of 'tools for thinking' about how people variously conceive of themselves; how the fact of these varieties of conceiving ourselves is raising questions about the nature of psychology; and how various psychologists are changing their ways of working in the face of these questions. What this means in practice is that there will be a lot of 'groundwork' to be covered in the course before we get to grapple with material that explicitly addresses 'identity'. But it is important to keep this issue of 'identity' clearly in view. Consequently, you are asked to do the general reading listed in the first weeks of the course.

General Reading

C. Bell (1996) Inventing New Zealand: Everyday Myths of Pakeha Identity. Penguin.

Web Material

A major web-based set of resources for this course are the Research Sources on Concepts of person and Self maintained by Prof. Shaun Gallagher of the Department of Philosophy, Cansius College, Buffalo, NEW YORK.

Course Assessment

In a similar vein, course assessment will involve four pieces of work that contribute 'tools for thought' and work skills as well as building up your knowledge of the particular focus of the course.

Assignment 1

This is going to be hard work! You are going to learn how to create material for the WorldWideWeb. That means acquiring new technical skills, grappling with the demands of writing for a new medium, and dealing with a substantive project at the same time. The project you are tackling is to 'explain' what the Russian psychologist Vygotsky meant when he claimed that 'the most important thing about our psychology is the fact that it is mediated' by creating an interlinked set of web-documents.

Assignment 2

Your mission here, should you choose to accept it, is to develop a short class presentation of one example of the 'everyday myths of identity' that are the focus of Bell's book. You might, for example, take a TV advert; newspaper reports of Barry Crump's funeral or the eruption of Mt. Ruapehu; a 'coffee-table' book about New Zealand....

Assignment 3

Assessment 1 will give you a good insight into the mechanics of this new electronic medium. But at the same time, this medium is a site where a lot of people are actively exploring many aspects of 'identity'. This second exercise asks that you go and find out something about those forms of exploration, and thereby construct a set of resources that will convey your findings to another reader. Here are some names, etc., that you might start a search with:

Roseanne Stone Allucquere; Dale Spender; Sherry Turkle; The Palace; WorldsAway; V-Chat; IATH; jefferson village....

Assignment 4

Essay: My hope is that the material you encounter during this course will not only provide you with some 'tools for thought' but also spark off your thinking on a number of topics. The intention of including an essay in the assessment is to try and get you to focus some of these thoughts to a particular goal, that of formulating questions in a way that makes it possible to gather some information that might help provide some answers to them. So, formulate any three questions that are sparked off by what we cover in the course, and outline why these are interesting questions - that is, what issues and debates would you be able to contribute to if you were to attempt to find answers to them. Don't worry too much about the exact way you would structure any possible studies you might want to conduct - 'methods' for research are quite a difficult issue in this general area - but do give some thought to articulating the problems you see as involved in trying to address the questions you have formulated.

1. The problem

There is a consensus emerging as to the implications of the human archaeological record over the past 100,000 years. At the start of that period anatomically modern humans existed; ie, people indistinguishable from us. But the patterning of what these people did - their behaviour, if you like - does not show any modern characteristics until around 40,000 years ago.


Gamble (1993) Figure 8.2

Lock http:/www.massey.ac.nz/~ALock/virtual/webdck.htm

This difference in the time of emergence of the 'biology' to support modern activities and the actual emergence of such activities recasts much of the old 'nature-nurture' debate. In the old debate, the dichotomy between nature and nurture is often recast as between 'innate' and 'learned', and often as an interaction between the two. Thus, take 'language' for example: modern-day children are held to bring innate characteristics and mental structures to the task of 'cracking the code' or 'learning' of their language. What we get are theories of 'language socialisation': children growing up to master what is there for them to learn. And then the position can shift to: 'children are adapted to learn language'. Now, this is the language of the evolutionary metaphor.

But, this way of thinking doesn't fit the evolutionary evidence any more. What children were 'adapted' to do was probably fixed in their biological constitution well before people invented languages with modern characteristics. 'Modern languages' did not exist as environmental things to adapt to until after the biological substrates that they eventually use were put in place. OK, so I've made a jump here by equating lack of evidence for modern behaviour with a lack of language: we can go into this in another context. A very important paper at this point, however, is:

Hallowell, A. I. (1955) The self and its behavioral environment. Chapter 4, Pp 75-110 In A. I. Hallowell, Culture and Experience.

A 'potted' version can be found in A. Lock (1981) Universals in human conception, Chapter 2, pp 19-36 in P. Heelas and A. Lock (Eds.) Indigenous Psychologies: The Anthropology of the Self.

Hallowell spells out in a very organized fashion a set of 'ground rules' and concepts for considering the way that 'culture' provides a set of resources that allow individuals to act as human beings.

A majority of the current views as to how the change from pre-modern to modern abilities came about claim that these abilities are predicated on changes in the way human societies were organized - or the way of life of people, if you like. A very brief summary of the evidence and arguments on this issue can be found at the end of the Lock and Symes reading (see below under Bernstein).

This perspective poses a BIG question: how could changes in ways of life lead to changes in what humans can do? Or, how has it been possible for people to 'invent' the abilities they have? There is now a huge literature on the social nature of individual abilities. It crops up under the names of various 'isms' etc.: social constructionism; symbolic interactionism; joint action; dialogicality; distributed cognition; the socio-cultural mediation of activity. We will take a look at these notions to try and tease out their common themes.

2. Development

A number of the views that are relevant here have been developed with respect to human development, rather than the even grander themes of cultural invention, transmission and reproduction. These serve to give us a first handle on the theoretical apparatus needed to get an adequate grasp of how interactions between people can lead to the elaboration of new abilities.


Shotter, J (1984) Social Accountability and Selfhood

Chapter 4, The development of personal powers. Pp 53-72

Chapter 5, Developmental practices. Pp 73-89

Lock, A., et al (1989) The social structuring of infant cognition. In A. Slater and G. Bremner (Eds) Infant Development Chapter 10. Pp 243-72

3. Broadening this perspective

A very important concept for getting to grips with this line of thinking has been introduced into psychology by the Russian psychologist Vygotsky (1896-1934): cultural resources as 'psychological tools'. Think of it this way: would you rather do mathematical calculations using the Roman or Arabic numeral systems (LXVI + MCXII = ? versus 387 + 1163 = ?)? Or would you rather do it on an abacus? There thus arises the view that the symbol systems we use constitute a number of the abilities we have. How, though, do we get to have symbol systems in the first place?


For Vygotsky:

Wertsch, J (1991) Voices of the Mind

Chapter 2: A sociocultural approach to mind, Pp 18-45

Chapter 3: Beyond Vygotsky: Bakhtin's contribution, Pp 46-66

These two chapters are commentaries on Vygotsky's work. A more thorough exposition by Wertsch is in his 1985 The Social Formation of Mind. One source paper you should look at is 'Internalisation of higher mental functions', Pp 52-7. In L.S. Vygotsky (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes.

For Mead:

Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society.

Chapter 11: Meaning. Pp 75-82

Chapter 17: The relation of mind to response and environment. Pp125-34

4. Social Change

The above ideas provide a link between social interaction, symbol systems and developmental change. In this next bit of the course we will turn to look at how they might be applied to the wider issue of how larger social groups than the dyads and triads that are involved in the primary literature on children's development. These leads us toward an answer to the questions of how symbol systems may have been put together; and how they 'constitute' objects to think about and the ways to think about them.


Fischer, J. L. (1973) Communication in primitive systems. In W. Schram et al (Eds) Handbook of Communication. Pp 313-36

Lock, A (1983) Communicative contexts and communicative competence. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 2: 253-266

For Bernstein:

Atkinson, P (1985) Language, Structure and Reproduction

Chapter 3: Structure and community, Pp 38-60

Chapter 4: The power of code and the coding of power, Pp 61-81

Lock, A. and Symes, K (1996) Social relations, communication, and cognition. Sections 8.7-end.

For Elias:

Elias, N (1978) The Civilizing Process: Volume 1, The History of Manners

Elias, N. (1982) The Civilizing Process: Volume 2, Power and Civility

Summaries and Interpretations of Elias:

Dreitzel, H. (1981) The socialization of nature: Western attitudes towards body and emotions. In P. Heelas and A. Lock (Eds.) Indigenous Psychologies: The Anthropology of the Self

Lock, A. http:/www.massey.ac.nz/~ALock/virtual/webdck.htm

For Shotter:

Shotter, J (1993) The Cultural Politics of Everyday Life. Chapter 6, Vygotsky, Volosinov and Bakhtin: 'Thinking' as a boundary phenomenon. Pp 107-25

See also above under 'Development'.

The work covered up to this point gives us a view of how symbol systems can be established and elaborated. Now, this puts us in a new 'ball-park'. It can be argued that a lot of things we 'believe' in and talk about are products of the symbol systems we use rather than anything in a pre-given natural world. This last point has become a serious issue lately, under the guise of what is termed 'post-modernism'. Within this general framework a number of psychologists have begun to elaborate an approach termed 'social constructionism'.

5. Social Constructionism


V. Barr (1995) An Introduction to Social Constructionism. Routledge

J. Freedman and G. Combs (1996) Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities. Norton. Chapter 2: The narrative metaphor and social constructionism: a postmodern worldview. Pp 19-41

Now, as you will discover, while this approach is in some ways compatible with the work we have already covered, in another way it is often held to destroy it! For example, Gergen argues that psychologists who adopt this approach have different goals from those who do not:

The [critical social psychologist] is little likely to ask about the truth, validity, or objectivity of a given account, what predictions follow from a theory, how well a statement reflects the true intentions or emotions of a speaker, or how an utterance is made possible by cognitive processing. Rather, for the [critical social psychologist], samples of language are integers within patterns of relationship. They are not maps or mirrors of other domains - referential worlds or interior impulses - but outgrowths of specific modes of life, rituals of exchange, relations of control and domination, and so on. The chief questions to be asked of generalized truth claims are thus, how do they function, in which rituals are they essential, what activities are facilitated and what impeded, who is harmed and who gains by such claims? (Gergen, 1995: p.53)

The relations between this view of psychology and the more traditional one are addressed in:

Shotter, J (1993) The Cultural Politics of Everyday Life. Chapter 8: Rhetoric and the social construction of cognitivism. Pp 147-166

Edwards, D. and Potter, J (1992) Discursive Psychology. Chapter 7, Pp 153-177

Harre, R. and Gillet, G. (1994) The Discursive Mind Chapters 1 & 2. Pp 1-36

6. Individuality and Identity

A major site of inquiry is that encapsulated in the notion of 'individual'. This is a central concept in the project of psychology as it is generally presented to people, for it is the 'individual' who is the object of the scientific scrutiny of the subject or discipline. The way in which much contemporary thought is headed questions the existence and nature of the individual, both as a theoretical object open to study by traditional means and as it concerns ourselves and who we think we are in the course of our everyday lives.

Consider this piece from the writings of Frederick Jameson on 'The Death of the Subject'

[From Jameson, F. (1988) Postmodernism and Consumer Society. In E. A. Caplin (Ed.) Postmodernism and its Discontents. London: Verso. Pp. 13-29. See also by the same author 'Postmodernism and Consumer Society', in The Anti-Aesthetic (1983) Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, and 'Postmodernism: the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', (1984) New Left Review, 146]:

But now we need to introduce a new piece into this puzzle, which may help to explain why classical modernism is a thing of the past and why postmodernism should have taken its place. This new component is what is generally called the 'death of the subject' or, to say it in more conventional language, the end of individualism as such. The great modernisms were, as we have said, predicated on the invention of a personal, private style, as unmistakable as your fingerprint, as incomparable as your own body. But this means that the modernist aesthetic is in some way organically linked to the conception of a unique self and private identity, a unique personality and individuality, which can be expected to generate its own unique vision of the world and to forge its own unique, unmistakable style.

Yet today, from any number of distinct perspectives, the social theorists, the psychoanalysts, even the linguists, not to speak of those of us who work in the area of culture and cultural and formal change, are all exploring the notion that that kind of individualism and personal identity is a thing of the past; that the old individual or individualist subject is 'dead'; and that one might even describe the concept of the unique individual and the theoretical basis of individualism as ideological. There are in fact two positions on all this, one of which is more radical than the other. The first one is content to say: yes, once upon a time, in the classic age of competitive capitalism, in the heyday of the nuclear family and the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic social class, there was such a thing as individualism, as individual subjects. But today, in the age of corporate capitalism, of the so-called organization man, of bureaucracies in business as well as in the state, of demographic explosion - today, that older bourgeois individual subject no longer exists.

Then there is a second position, the more radical of the two, what one might call the poststructuralist position. It adds: not only is the bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is also a myth; it never really existed in the first place; there have never been autonomous subjects of that type. Rather, this construct is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people that they 'had' individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity.


Hall, S (1992) The question of cultural identity. In S. Hall, D. Held and A. McGrew (eds.) Modernity and its Futures. Polity Press. Pp 273-325.

[And for an overview of the cultural context that led to the establishment and adoption of those views which have come to be termed 'the tradition of modernity' - the 'rationalist' project of the 'Enlightenment' - along with the breakdown of that tradition, you might want to look at S. Toulmin (1990) Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Free Press, which is a readable 'history of ideas'. A more thorough treatment with a focus on notions of individuality and personhood can be found in C. Taylor (1989) ] Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Harvard University Press.]

It is worth bearing Elias's points in mind when reading Hall's outline of the 'histories' of cultural identities. What we come out with from these two readings in conjunction is both a grasp of the changes that have taken place and an inkling as to the processes whereby those changes were accomplished.

Essentially, the societies we live in have become more complex in the number of possible roles they make available for us. For example, think of the number of possible jobs you can now grow up to do as opposed to just a hundred years ago. At the same time, think of the number of different 'roles' you can take on in the course of a day. Things have gotten that complex that the very notion of people having definitive 'roles' has been replaced by a view that says people are able to partake in a number of different discourses that 'position' them as different speaking subjects.


Davies, B and Harre, R (1990) Positioning: The discursive production of selves. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 20: 43-63.

Secondly, these complicated societies allow people to live lives that are exceptionally buffered from ecological concerns and the need for a mastery of 'survival skills' of a basic sort. Think of what you eat, for example. Do you grow your own vegetables? Do you raise, kill and butcher your own animals. These 'jobs' are now done by others for a large proportion of the populations of 'modern' societies. And increasingly, one doesn't need to be able to cook, as pre-prepared foods come to dominate in retail outlets at the expense of unprocessed ingredients: if you can open a can and turn on the stove, you can eat like a Lord of previous times.

One of the consequences of these two points has been the claim at the heart of post-modernist theorizing that the symbols we use have become increasingly divorced from 'referents' in the real world' so as to gain more of their meaning in relation to other symbols. And the complexity of the modern social system provides that buffering from subsistence requirements, and an economic milieu, in which a myriad of alternate ways of life can be sustained. Your 'real' identity can be a purely arbitrary, symbolic one.


Billig, M. (1994) Sod Baudrillard! Or Ideology Critique in Disney World. In H. Simons and M. Billig (Eds) After Postmodernism: Reconstructing Ideology Critique. Sage. Pp 150-171

7. Symbols and Discourse

Hall outlines a number of the key theoretical resources drawn on in contemporary thought about identity. One of these is discourse. Here we need to do a bit of grappling with this notion. What appears to have happened over the past few decades is that our understanding of 'language' has shifted from the idealised pole of Saussure's distinction - langue - to the reality of performance - parole (and this needs some unpacking). And the term 'language' has been gradually replaced by that of 'discourse'. And we find that

'discourse is not the possession of a single individual. Meaningful language is the product of social interdependence. It requires the coordinated actions of at least two persons, and until there is mutual agreement on the meaningful character of words, they fail to constitute language. If we follow this line of argument to its ineluctable conclusion, we find that it is not the mind of the single individual that provides whatever certitude we possess, but relationships of interdependency. If there were no interdependence - the joint creation of meaningful discourse - there would be no "objects" or "actions" or means of rendering them doubtful. We may rightfully replace Descartes's [sic] dictum ['Cogito ergo sum'] with communicamus ergo sum.' (Gergen, 1994, viii)

We communicate, therefore I am: and

'I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another, and with the help of another . . . every internal experience ends up on the boundary . . . The very being of man (both internal and external) is a profound communication. To be means to communicate . . . To be means to be for the other; and through him, for oneself. Man has no internal sovereign territory; he is all and always on the boundary . . .' (Bakhtin, 1984:287)

[Your previous readings of Mead and Vygotsky help illuminate the concerns being addressed here.] In this communicational view of ourselves, then, the 'individual' is an illusion, maintained by the institution between us of certain special forms of communication [and from your reading of Hall and Friedman and Combs above, you should be able now to unpack what is signalled by this term 'institution']. An implication of this change in perspective is that there has emerged a major shift, in some quarters of psychology at least, in claiming that: human reality is a conversational one: For example:

The primary human reality is persons in conversation. (Harre, 1983: 58)

Conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general. (MacIntyre, 1981: 197 )

If we see knowing not as having an essence, to be described by scientists or philosophers, but rather as a right, by current standards, to believe, then we are well on the way to seeing conversation as the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood. (Rorty, 1980: 389)

The actual reality of language-speech is not the abstract system of linguistic forms, not the isolated monologic utterance, and not the psychophysiological act of its implementation, but the social event of verbal interaction implemented in an utterance or utterances. Thus, verbal interaction is the basic reality of language. (Volosinov, 1973: 94)

At this point, we can connect back to reading you have done about developmental psychology and language codes to get half of the contemporary perspective on language and how it is constituted as one of what Vygotsky has termed our 'higher mental functions'. But to get the other half of the 'picture' we need to turn away from these 'rationalist-inspired' paradigms to ones that consider issues of power in discourse.


Fairclough, N (1989) Language and Power. Longman. Chapter 3: Discourse and power. Pp 43-76

Foucault, M (1970) The order of discourse. Inaugural Lecture at the College de France, 2 December 1970.

Weedon, C (1987) Feminist Practice and Postructuralist Theory. Chapter 4: Language and subjectivity Pp 74-106

8. Applications: Narrative and Discursive Therapies


White, M. (1995) The narrative perspective in therapy. In M. White (1995) Re-Authoring Lives: Interviews and Essays. Chapter 1, Pp 11-40

Epston, D., White, M. and Murray, K. (1992) A proposal for a re-authoring therapy: Rose's revisioning of her life and a commentary. In S. McNamee and K. Gergen (Eds) Therapy as Social Construction. Chapter 7, Pp 96-115

'White's is the first approach to family therapy to begin to embrace the postmodern experience of, in effect, many selves; these selves are viewed, moreover, not as problematic, but as a means of liberation from constraining definitions. White is also the first to view people as custodians of several stories and to see the dominant story as not necessarily in a person's interest - although perhaps in the interests of a more compliant populace. Michael White's friend and colleague David Epston has added to the postmodern direction of current family therapy through his innovation of the 'therapeutic letter', in which, in effect, the therapist enters the clients story as a correspondent. The therapist uses the power of carefully crafted language to bring a hitherto subjugated story into the forefront of the client's life; this story replaces a story that is not the client's own, but into which he/she has been recruited.' Parry and Doan, 1994: 18

For a more detailed overview of this approach, see

White, M and Epston, D. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. Norton


This is a one-semester course. We will schedule 2 meetings each week, using one of these sessions to deal primarily with assignment work, and the other with substantive course material (although some overlap is inevitable).

Week 1: Introduction and Assignment skills

Week 2: Human evolution and sociality

Week 3: The social nature of human development

Week 4: Vygotsky and Mead

Week 5: Social change I

Week 6: Social change II

Week 7: Mid-semester break

Week 8: Social constructionism I. Presentation of Assignment 1

Week 9: Social constructionism II

Week 10: Identity

Week 11: Symbols and discourse I. Presentation of Assignment 2

Week 12: Symbols and discourse II

Week 13: Narrative applications.

Week 14: Overview. Presentation of Assignment 3. Assignment 4 due.

Comments to A.J.Lock@massey.ac.nz
Department of Psychology, Massey University , New Zealand
URL: http://www.massey.ac.nz/~ALock
last changed Monday, 11 August 1997