“Oh there are other people just like me? I’m not so weird after all”: the internet, social change and social integration

I’ve been preoccupied recently by parallels I keep observing between common features of asexual biographies and those of other groups who share a common trait. In the case of asexuality this ‘common trait’ is not experiencing sexual attraction. Exactly what this entails about the individual’s experience and what, in turn, this experience has come to mean to them biographically is a more complex issue. But underlying the diversity which exists within the asexual community there does seem to be a common set of experiences. This ‘lack of sexual attraction’, whatever causes it if indeed such a question is meaningful, is rendered problematic through the normative pressures which are enacted with concrete others (peers, friends, family etc) whether directly or indirectly. This brings about an experience of feeling ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ and self-questioning as to why this might be the case i.e. “what’s wrong with me? why aren’t I interested in sex like everyone else?”. The biographical specifics can be very variable from this point onwards and, given this is the starting point of a blog post rather than its main topic, I’m going to sidestep them somewhat. Suffice to say, if someone does come to identify as asexual (at least post 2001/2002) then they probably did so either through stumbling across it in the media or as a result of encountering asexual blogs, forums, videos etc online (with the former in fact often leading to the latter).

What has always fascinated me is the experience that comes next, as something that had been self-interpreted as pathology comes to be reinterpreted as a non-pathological characteristic which is shared with geographically remote others. Exactly what this means is again biographically specific. For some people it’s just a useful label to make sense of oneself and convey that understanding to others. For others it can lead to the emergence of a deep sense of collective identity. But what I think unites the range of responses people have to this discovery is the transformation of a difference into a commonality. Within their local context and existing social networks, this characteristic of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’* has been rendered problematic by the explicit judgements and implicit attitudes encountered in other people. It thus emerges as a difference which interrupts a shared frame of reference. It will intrinsically generate a tendency towards introspection because, given that this recognition of difference is provoked by experience of implicit or explicit censure, it will become decreasingly less attractive to try and talk through this difference (“why am I this way? what’s wrong with me?”) with others who, inductively, can be expected to only confirm the assumption of pathology and thus intensify distress.  Their pool of available interlocutors shrinks dramatically as a result which, in turn, leads them to seek alternative routes towards self-clarification. This might be to consult expert systems (go to a doctor, to a councillor, to a sex therapist) or, more likely, it’ll be to go online. if you go to google and type in ‘does not experience sexual attraction’ then you will immediately find a whole plethora of asexual resources. This allows what was a difference (in relation to the immediate context) to instead be established as a commonality (in relation to this dispersed reference group). To summarise:

  1. The local normative environment rendered P’s experience of X problematic (“Why am I X when everyone else seems to be Y!? What’s wrong with me?”)
  2. This experience of normative censure dramatically reduced the pool of available interlocutors with whom P could talk about X (“I can’t talk about X with anyone. They’ll just think I’m weird”)
  3. P looks beyond the normative environment with the aim of coming to a better understanding of X (“Why am I X? What could be making me this way?”)
  4. P finds others who share the trait X and recognises her own experiences in those she encounters, either directly or indirectly, outside the local normative environment (“Oh there are other people who are X? I’m not so weird after all!”)

What emerges as a difference at (1) becomes a commonality at (4). As well as the application of this biographical model to other forms of experience, I’m interested in how processes of this sort can be understood at the macro-social level. If I’m right that the underlying mechanisms at are at work in other spheres (i.e. the expanded pool of interlocutors offered by the internet allows what would otherwise be a proliferation of differences to instead becomes the emergence of new commonalities) then this is a really interesting route into debates about the internet, social change and social integration. It raises obvious empirical questions about the nature of these ‘new commonalities’ and the similarities and differences which in turn obtain between them. Do they provide a basis for the establishment of ‘new continuities’ as Archer would put it? Or simply represent a fragmentation that exists at the level of groups, self-defined in a particularist and experiential way, rather than of individuals? Is it even meaningful to talk about ‘groups’ in this sense? Subcultural social worlds is a concept I’ve been playing with recently to make sense of this, seeing them as emergent but heterogeneous spaces of meaning and practice which are constituted through biographical interweaving and amenable to the further emergence of networks acting in relation to values and ideas within this ‘social world’.

*I keep writing this in inverted commas because I think it’s a conceptualisation of a difference and that its objective basis varies a lot. The category of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ emerges from the relation between particular constellations of norms about sexuality and an individual who, for whatever reason, does not meet the expectations implied by them. The ‘for whatever reason’ is the objective underpinning of that experience for any particular individual and it needs to be analytically distinguished from the biographical process of coming to understand oneself which it indirectly brings about. It’s a necessary but insufficient condition for the emergence of an asexual identity because the characteristics it is generative of need to be rendered problematic at the social level for them to be in any way significant. This is why I think studying the aetiology of asexuality is conceptually confused – ‘asexuality’ is a deeply socio-cultural phenomenon and it’s too broad a category upon which to base an investigation of what underpins it causally.

7 thoughts on ““Oh there are other people just like me? I’m not so weird after all”: the internet, social change and social integration

  1. Hi Mark,

    Great post. Thanks. I very much agree with your perspective on the development of ‘new commonalities’ in online spaces and I think that this is a good explanation of the possible generative mechanism beyond the empirical realities of what I would describe as ‘turning-inward’ – not in the sense of isolating oneself away from the world but, rather, in terms of seeking commonality in like-minded individuals, who then go on to create new communities.

    What I want to pick apart is the ‘turning-outward’ aspect of this process, as an individual renders problematic the very macro-structures through which these normative pressures are ‘enacted’ – I’ll come onto this towards the end, I don’t actually believe that structures can ‘act’.

    Let me begin by raising one question: what are the conditions of possibility for a local normative environment? Normative pressure do not emerge ex nihilo, so what is it that is being rendered problematic in the first place? Is it an experience – “X tells me that I am not normal because I feel Y”? If so, where does this experience come from in the context of this social interaction.

    I think this question is important if we want to consider how macro sociological structures – like institutions which suggests that sexual attraction is normal – might be reproduced or changed. I’d argue that at some point those normative pressures must themselves be addressed. Individuals will turn around and say, “Well, actually, X, I think that this is perfectly acceptable and this is why”. It is this conceptualisation of resistance that I am interested in and whilst I might call it a ‘turning-outward’ – to face the pressure (and its structures) directly – I don’t think it is separable from the other process you’ve described. Actually, in terms of collective activism, I can see how the two go hand-in-hand, as the creation of new communities leads to a collective problematisation of normative pressures, manifest in institutions, such as, the law.

    Getting back to the point, inter-action suggests that normative pressures come from somewhere, so what I am interested in is how such places are conceptualised but also transformed through the processes of resistance. I say processes because I recognise that individuals and groups resist in different ways, with different impacts, which is made all the more complicated by the internet and social networks. Anyway, how is it that a normative pressure is lessened or removed?

    I would suggest that what needs to be appropriately conceptualised is what happens when a self-pathology comes to be reinterpreted through commonality, as the non-pathological characteristic is shared with geographically remote others, something that then changes their perception of sexual attraction,
    which is then reproduced within their relational networks, making way for a change in the conditions of possibility for future encounters. Thus, the external moment(s) in an inter-action becomes the condition for new norms to be taken on and redistributed. Of course, in dialogue, there are lots of internal moments, where we build on/re-negotiate our understandings/meanings/beliefs but the external moment is the point at which we turn to other people and say “X tells me that it is acceptable and I agree for these reasons”. Thus, in the next cycle of inter-action, the anterior structure no longer provides the conditions of possibility for these normative pressures; the individual is no longer bound by a prescriptive pathologisation of a lack of sexual attraction and this is not reproduced in their subsequent encounters.

    Let me talk more about this anterior structure because I think it is highly problematic in social theory, and I can see why social groups just doesn’t ‘cut it’. Our social groups are important but not in the way that it is often characterised- as if the group acts as we act. This is not the case. Rather, what our social groups provide us with are the conditions of possibility for our intentional actions. Or, more plainly, the groups (or networks) that we belong to provide the normative conditions through which we can conceive of what is appropriate behaviour. Socialisation is what provides the conditions within which we can choose to act.

    Groups don’t act on individuals in the way prescribed in collectivist accounts of socialisation. Rather, I’d suggest that what I conceive of as morally acceptable is shaped through the manifest experiences I have with my networks, which then forms part of the latent normativity, which I access as part of my decision-making processes in any given situation. Latent normativity I’d suggest is stored in memory (but I’m no psychologist) and is accessed when someone falls over and I help them back to their feet. Anyway, I think this is what the social ontology of collectives, and thus the pre-conditions for normative pressures, is missing: a strong indication of what is manifest and what is latent normativity. Once I think we’ve indicated how social groups shape our latent normativity, we are better placed to consider how manifest intentional actions have unintended consequences- another important element in macro-sociological accounts of structure. Indeed, without a view on unintended consequence how is it that an absence becomes a presence (a normative pressure, in this case) when I don’t hold a view that can be considered judgemental in this context. Basically, what I am talking about here is (mis)interpretation as an unintended consequence of inter-action. But more on this to follow.

    In closing, what I’d say is that the transformation of normative pressures are intrinsically bound to understandings of resistance, where that resistance occurs through different generative mechanisms (and maybe on different levels also). But without a clear conception of how those normative pressures come to exist and take place through inter-action, then it is hard to see how anterior structures, the ‘carriers’ of normativity that socialise us and influence our actions, particularly through our conceptions of what we deem appropriate behaviour, can be challenged.

  2. “what are the conditions of possibility for a local normative environment? Normative pressure do not emerge ex nihilo, so what is it that is being rendered problematic in the first place? Is it an experience – “X tells me that I am not normal because I feel Y”? If so, where does this experience come from in the context of this social interaction.”

    Nope I think it’s just a case of having people around… being made to feel ‘not normal’ is a particular form taken by a much more general phenomenon. I don’t think the content (for lack of a better word) of a judgement is something that can be effectively generalised about, by definition it is only meaningful in terms of the descriptions of the people involved – and the congruence/incongruence between these languages is quite an interesting factor in play.

    “I think this question is important if we want to consider how macro sociological structures – like institutions which suggests that sexual attraction is normal – might be reproduced or changed. I’d argue that at some point those normative pressures must themselves be addressed.”

    Well this is where that chapter we’re doing is going to be interesting because I’m sceptical about institutions or collective representations being at work here – but i don’t have anything to offer in their place.

    “Individuals will turn around and say, “Well, actually, X, I think that this is perfectly acceptable and this is why”. It is this conceptualisation of resistance that I am interested in and whilst I might call it a ‘turning-outward’ – to face the pressure (and its structures) directly – I don’t think it is separable from the other process you’ve described.”

    But, as empirical statement, some people *don’t* do this. For instance someone for whom ‘asexual’ is seen as a label they apply introspectively (“huh, so that’s what this is”) but otherwise has no ramifications for their life. Furthermore, when people *do* do this, I’m arguing it has to be understand biographically.

  3. “Anyway, I think this is what the social ontology of collectives, and thus the pre-conditions for normative pressures, is missing: a strong indication of what is manifest and what is latent normativity.”

    I largely agree – I just don’t think that’s it’s a matter of ‘shaping’ or conditioning horizons. I think it’s a question of value (as the flip side of norms) – what you’re calling latent normativity could instead be construed much more agentially as a commitment to certain values which shapes responses to contingent circumstances, rather than social normativity being written into the brain. Reading this book https://markcarrigan.net/2013/08/08/the-genesis-of-value/ has helped me finally get my problem with norm circles into words – it’s entirely social, invoking the person only as a carrier of past normative influences or as a chooser between conflicting influences, ignoring the person who actually believes in things….

  4. “what you’re calling latent normativity could instead be construed much more agentially as a commitment to certain values which shapes responses to contingent circumstances, rather than social normativity being written into the brain”.

    I’m still now sure how you think such values arise? I mean where is this commitment coming from? Why is it that some people are committed to certain values and not others?

    “I largely agree – I just don’t think that’s it’s a matter of ‘shaping’ or conditioning horizons. I think it’s a question of value (as the flip side of norms)”

    I’m not sure I agree that norms and values are two sides of one coin. I would argue that that the normative environments that we are exposed to shape our values. I’m not saying that we don’t believe in or even resist against such values, I just think that what we understand by a ‘value’ is itself contextualised by our individual biographies, which are themselves located within intersectional horizons.

    “Nope I think it’s just a case of having people around… being made to feel ‘not normal’ is a particular form taken by a much more general phenomenon.”

    I’m not sure I understand this point. I don’t think the content of a judgment can be generalised about. What I do think can be generalised about are the mechanisms that give rise to what is being characterised as a normative pressure. If an individual can problematise a normative pressure then is it not different in some way from their day-to-day interactions? Does it not have a particular set of conditions that can be understood within a much more general phenomenon like normativity? Could this be what I mean by hegemony or hegemonic experience? Where the ‘not normal’ is a reflexive consideration of self within the local environment that gives rise to a sense of resistance against ‘this is what people think I should be’.

  5. “I’m still now sure how you think such values arise? I mean where is this commitment coming from? Why is it that some people are committed to certain values and not others?”

    By definition that’s not a question that can be answered in the abstract beyond saying that human beings are capable of practical reasoning and have a capacity to commit themselves to things they deem valuable.

    “I would argue that that the normative environments that we are exposed to shape our values. I’m not saying that we don’t believe in or even resist against such values, I just think that what we understand by a ‘value’ is itself contextualised by our individual biographies, which are themselves located within intersectional horizons.”

    I agree entirely! The only thing we disagree on is what I understand you to mean by ‘shape’.

    “What I do think can be generalised about are the mechanisms that give rise to what is being characterised as a normative pressure.”

    What I’m saying is that I don’t understand how that pressure can be abstracted from the ‘content’ it possesses situationally, beyond simply conceptualising it as a ‘pressure’ which is encountered in a situation directly through the action of others (enforcement) and/or indirectly through the assumed judgements of others (endorsement). I don’t think this is different from their day-to-day interaction in any way – in fact it’s partly constitutive of it. So beyond saying that individuals have a power to endorse norms and networks have a power to enforce norms, which act (tacitly or explicitly) in relation to the properties of other individuals and which have all sorts of interesting emergent effects when interacting with the individual’s power of reflexivity, i don’t think there’s any mechanism at work here which can be generalised. It’s the ‘normative pressure’ is something emergent and relational, which depends on all sorts of factors which are intrinsic to a given situation.

  6. “By definition that’s not a question that can be answered in the abstract beyond saying that human beings are capable of practical reasoning and have a capacity to commit themselves to things they deem valuable.”

    Okay, I can see your perspective now. I’d too argue that values are context-specific but that doesn’t preclude the notion of value systems, which sit in particular societies and in particular geo-historical contexts. You can find yourself in a lot of trouble if you stand in a woman-only passenger cart in India. Indeed, the phenomenon of ‘eve teasing’ is India has given way to a range of normative practices, from which I’d argue values emerge as we relate (exist in relation to, that is, act it but also change within) to them. I don’t see a disagreement in the understanding that values are relational. Where I see a point of discussion is that macro-sciological structures provide the normative conditions within which we act. Normative conditions aren’t far abstracted away from our daily lives, and I’d would argue that they are also in contest with values that we have developed from other aspects of our lives.

    So I might have the value that it is okay to wear pyjamas in public spaces but in walking into Tesco I find myself facing normative sanction – the norm, in Tesco, is not to wear pyjamas – which is realised, empirically, through the standard of behaviour (value) others expect of me – to dress appropriately in public spaces. When someone says to me “That is not an appropriate way to dress in Tesco”, then that person is not just acting on behalf of their own values, they are also acting on behalf of their perception of the normative environment – what Anderson called an ‘imagined community’. Now what I think is interesting is when that appeal to the normative environment becomes reflexive in the sense that an individual acts because they know other people around them, at that moment in time, share to some extent, in the same value. But again, I’d maintain not of this is possible without a concrete idea of what the normative environment is. I’m not saying that values can’t change this environment – this is where resistance emerges, I’d suggest – but that an idea of the macro-sociological construct is necessary to frame (I’ll avoid shape because it implies agency of behalf the structure) value judgments.

    “It’s the ‘normative pressure’ is something emergent and relational, which depends on all sorts of factors which are intrinsic to a given situation.”

    That is part of my point. The situation itself has boundaries that are knowable. So when a smartly-dressed business man reprimands a hooded youth for pushing over an old-lady as he has walked by, the normative boundaries of this situation are knowable when we accept that the business man was making a value judgment in the context of the relations that emerged from the event. But that context is normative and it is what gives the smartly-dressed business man the power to reprimand the youth, because normative contexts are also about hierarchy and positionality. I’d suggest that a twelve-year old boy might not have the same normative influence within that context than the middle-age businessman. But these are all the fascinating contingencies of social life. In my mind, I think we both agree that this context is emergent from the relations in any given moment, where we might continue to disagree is that that emergent is knowable as a normative disposition.

    Hope I’m making a little more sense here.

  7. I don’t think we’re really in disagreement about any of this.

    “When someone says to me “That is not an appropriate way to dress in Tesco”, then that person is not just acting on behalf of their own values, they are also acting on behalf of their perception of the normative environment”

    I think the value/norm distinction helps understand the relationship between endorsement and enforcement which EV unhelpfully conflates. Not that I’ve tried it but I suspect if you did this (a stoner friend of mine used to sometimes leave his house in leafy West London wearing a dressing gown) you wouldn’t actually find that people would stop you – I’m sure they’d find it weird, in a way which there’s lots of interesting Goffmanian (sp?) things that could be said about it, but they’d probably leave you be. They might endorse a norm but probably wouldn’t enforce it – in fact I suspect you’re more likely to get hostility directed at you which could be better understood in terms of the social psychology of deviancy (“I find this weird man in his dressing gown threatening so I’ll lash out”) than in terms of a norm. A security guard might approach you but then they’re acting on behalf of the organisation, though their evaluation of your behavioiur as persons might shape how they personify the expectations inherent in their role. \

    “Now what I think is interesting is when that appeal to the normative environment becomes reflexive in the sense that an individual acts because they know other people around them, at that moment in time, share to some extent, in the same value”

    Yep I’ve finally got my head round the relational reflexivity concept and, as far as I understand it, that’s what Donati is talking about – which I find really interesting as an alternative to ‘collective representations’. Not least of all because it helps me understand this process from the frame of reference I’m uncomfortable with (the internally conversing individual).

    “But again, I’d maintain not of this is possible without a concrete idea of what the normative environment is”

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘normative environment’ – it’s a framing concept, foregrounding a particular aspect of social life in a way which is useful. By ‘normative environment’ I just mean the normative aspects of a given individual’s context.

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