Becoming Who We Are: Social Relations and Personal Morphogenesis

At any given moment I exist in relation to a we. But I also bring to those relations a ‘me’ made up of things which have happened to me and things which I have made happen. Many aspects of the past ‘me’ deposited in any present moment belong to the domain of psychology. Beyond this I also bring with me dispositions, concerns and projects which shape how I approach the ‘we’: the things I tend to do habitually, the things that matter to me and those activities which I deliberately strive to engage in because they actualise my concerns. It is through this interaction with a ‘we’ that my personhood is either reproduced (personal morphostasis) or elaborated (personal morphogenesis).  Charles Taylor’s notion of ‘webs of interlocution’ nicely conveys what I’m getting at there:

One cannot be a self on one’s own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who were essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now crucial to my continuing grasp of languages of self-understanding – and, of course, these classes may overlap. A self exists only within what I call ‘webs of interlocution’. It is this original situation which gives its sense to our concept of ‘identity’, offering an answer to the question of who i am through a definition of where I am speaking from and to whom. The full definition of someone’s identity thus usually involves not only his stand on moral and spiritual matters but also some reference to a defining community. (Taylor 1989: 36).

We are born into a ‘we’ and our identity as ‘I’ emerges in relation to it. Throughout are lives, we are continually entangled in relations with others – some chosen, others not – which contribute to shaping the people we become. But this process of becoming who we are emerges in interaction, as what we bring to the interaction (me), conditions how we act (I) in relation to our reference group (we) and, through this interaction, our present characteristics are often elaborated as we become our future self (you). The notion of ‘you’ I’m invoking here relates to our sense of our possible selves: 

Possible selves are future representations of the self including those that are desired and those that are not. They can be experience singly or multiply, and may be highly elaborated or unelaborated. They may relate to those selves we desire to become or those we wish to avoid. Possible selves play both a cognitive and an affective role in motivation, influencing expectations by facilitating a belief that some selves are possible whereas others are not and, by functioning as incentive for future behaviour, providing clear goals to facilitate the achievement of a desired future self, or the avoidance of a negative one. More significantly the possible selves construct holds that individuals actively manage their actions in order to attain desirable selves and evade less-desirable selves. As representations of the self in possible future states, possible selves give form, specificity and direction to an individual’s goals, aspirations or fears. In other words, elaborated possible selves influence the development of specific strategies for action, focus an individual’s activities, give direction in the pursuit of these goals and energise the person to achieve them. Not unsurprisingly research has shown that those with highly developed career-possible selves are more motivated, goal orientated and energetic than those with less or unelaborated ones. These individuals are a lot more likely, when confronted with a threat to the possibility of achieving a desired career-possible selve, to their persist with their goals and strategies or develop new career-possible selves. (Stevenson and Clegg 2012: 3)

So the ‘me’ conditions how ‘I’ act in relation to ‘we’ and this in turn shapes the ‘you’ that I become. However the ‘we’ is not some preconstituted collectivity. Firstly, we often have more than one ‘we’ in our lives – something I can conceptualise but have no idea how to represent visually. More importantly though, our ‘we’ is constituted of other I’s and I am part of their ‘we’ . So in the process of our interaction through which I change, those in relation to whom I act are also themselves changing through that interaction. Here Px stands for any number of people and the T1-T4 represent the same moments of ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ for each and every one of these individuals:

So understanding biography cannot be divorced from understanding relations. On this view, relations represent a form of biographical entanglement in which, using Nick Crossley’s phrase, two actors “have a history of past and an expectation of future interaction and that this shapes their current interaction” (Crossley 2011: 28). But this interaction is always situated – the dotted enclosure below represents the social milieux in which this interaction tends to occur and this will, in turn, constrain and enable the interaction which takes place within it:

The patterning of the interaction over time between ‘I’ and ‘we’ generates emergent properties which shape future interaction:

Where the receipt of ‘relational goods’ is concerned, this has the generative tendency to create bonds and interdependencies at the empirical level amongst the persons involved that denote more than ’good interpersonal relations’. They indicate something in excess of a degree of warmth and some regularity of contact. That ‘something’ refers to emergent properties, namely ‘internal goods’ (such as love, reliance, caring and trust) that cannot be produced by aggregation are also deemed highly worthwhile in themselves (Archer 2012: 99)

So even if I acquire my reference group contingently and externally (as the vast majority of my research participants did when the university accommodation office placed them in a halls of residence) this biographical convergence leads to entanglement if and only if the various parties value these relations and seek to sustain them over time.

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