The Caterpillar’s Question: Cultural Resources and Identity

After the initial section of my first round of PhD interviews (discussion of different deliberative mental activities) I asked participants what Porpora (2003) calls ‘the caterpillar’s question’: “who are you?” I had two intentions in asking the question. Firstly I hoped that it would frame the subsequent discussion (centring around their life in university) in at least somewhat existential terms. Secondly the answer to the question potentially offers insight into how an individual orientates themselves towards questions of identity. As Porpora (2000) puts it “most people approach identity entirely in terms of social space, the space of personal relations and social categories”. However rather than focusing on the underlying existential aspects of the question my intention was to unpack the elements Porpora identifies (social space, personal relations and social categories) in order to explore the tacit concepts of individuality, identity and sociality drawn upon by participants in answering the question.

The following elements were drawn upon by participants in answering the question:

  1. Biographical facts and personal attributes
  2. Relationships with others (normative and descriptive)
  3. Demographic categories
  4. Position within socially defined trajectories
  5. Concerns
  6. Theorising about the question

The three communicative reflexives in the group all answered the question in terms of biographical facts and personal attribute. The two fractured reflexives in the group were the only participants to draw on demographic categories and socially defined trajectories in answering the question. Three of the four participants who theorised about the question were meta reflexives. The only two participants who invoked their concerns when answering the question were meta reflexive.

It seems plausible that the practice of different modes of reflexivity leaves subjects tending to orientate themselves towards the question in different ways; both in terms of their active deliberations about issues of identity and “ideas that have been questioned or actively reflected on but which then become familiar and lapse into the taken for granted” (Abbey 2004: 3).

I asked the question again at the start of the third round of interviews (a year later) though I haven’t yet collated the responses and analysed them. This isn’t exactly a precise instrument (to say the least) but I do think it is getting at something interesting and important. The transcripts of the responses to the question are very interesting but, as is rather fresh in my mind given I transcribed it relatively recently, the audio itself is even richer: “who are you?” is a strange question, which we’re infrequently asked, but it is meaningful and provokes a very specific form of reflection.

I’m not really sure if this really actually end up in my thesis. It doesn’t really sit anywhere in my structure as it stands. But I wanted to preserve the line of thought – although I’m unwilling to post the data on my blog – because I’ve been fascinated by this ever since I read Porpora’s book. There’s definitely a starting point in my data for a theoretical sociology of identity paper somewhere down the line.

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About Mark