Reframing the ‘self’: personal identity, social identity, self-concept and self-presentation

In his book about Richard Rorty Neil Gross makes interesting use of the notion of self-concept, understanding it as the totality of things an individual thinks and feels to be true about themselves. Our investment in a self-concept shapes our interaction by engendering tendencies towards its preservation:

Beyond suggesting that actors are motivated to protect the integrity of their self-concepts against efforts to “spoil” their identities and lower their self-esteem, social psychologists argue that there is a “motive to act in accordance with the self-concept and to maintain it intact in the face of potentially challenging evidence. People behave in a fashion consistent with the pictures they hold of themselves and interpret any experience contradictory to this self-picture as a threat […] David Demo reports that “people selectively interact with others who see them as they see themselves . . ., actively choose roles . . . and social environments . . . that are consistent with their self-conceptions . . ., selectively attend to self-confirmatory feedback . . ., and reinterpret, devalue, or dismiss discrepant feedback.

Neil Gross, Richard Rorty: The making of an American philosopher

However I think it is important to draw an analytical distinction between self-concept and the self-presentational strategies which may emerge from a concern to preserve this in particular situated contexts. In analysing the relationship between the former and the latter, we encounter three distinct elements: the self-concept, the situation and the self-presentational strategies arising from the former in the context of the latter. Unless we draw this distinction, we run the risk of conflating what is a response to the situation from what is an impulse emerging from the self-concept. To use an academic example, I tend to avoid talking about critical realism when I’m in a sexuality studies context whereas I talk about critical realism a lot when I’m in a social theory context. Being a critical realist is part of my academic self-concept but this divergent self-presentation is much more a response to divergent situational dynamics than it is an expression of the self-concept itself. How I see myself doesn’t change in the two settings but how I orientate myself towards interaction with others in particular settings does – by distinguishing between self-concept and self-presentation, it becomes much easier to get a grip on what is making the difference here.

The notion of self-concept helps anchor that of self-presentation, foregrounding how a personal property (the totality of beliefs about the self) plays itself out in relation to a social property (the characteristics of the situation in question). It helps avoid the temptation to think in terms of serial reinvention, which Craib ably critiques:

it is important to consider under what conditions one might be able to prescribe, erase and rewrite one’s identity. It is a way of thinking perfectly appropriate to short communication on the Internet. Once I am seen my ability to revise my identity is limited: I cannot become a blonde teenage girl or a man who is 120 years old; I cannot become a muscular giant or a dwarf. And contact must be short-lived. With regularity of contact comes a recognition of the patterns in characteristics, languages, ideas, etc. It is a way of being that is only possible within the imagination, can bear little contact with an external reality, and cannot outlast anything but the most cursory human contact.

Ian Craib, Experiencing Identity, Pg 7

What Craib identifies here are the social constraints/enablements upon self-presentation. I’m suggesting that ‘self-concept’ is a useful way to theorise the personal constraints/enablements upon self-presentation. My self-presentation is always enacted within a social context (with the limitations Craib elucidates) and within a personal context (with the affective restrictions emergent from my past history) but is also shaped by the interaction between the two. In this sense self-presentation should be seen as a personal power, exercised in relation to personal constraints/enablements and social constraints/enablements, which can bring about a change in the person themselves. Part of what conditions our self-concept now is how past trajectories* of self-presentation and our negotiation of the responses of others to them. These in turn will contribute, in part, towards our future self-concept.

In my next post I want to consider how personal identity and social identity fit into this picture. In Margaret Archer’s account of identity, drawing on Harry Frankfurt and Charles Taylor, my personal identity is constituted by my elaborated constellation of personal concerns: we are what we love. Our social identity is constituted by the social roles in which we invest ourselves, which we deem to be worthwhile or not in virtue of our personal concerns. In this sense, personal identity shapes the acquisition of social identity but also conditions how we personify the roles in which we invest ourselves.

I think self-concept and self-presentation are useful in helping to flesh out this account. The former provides a psychological grounding and the latter an interactive grounding to her account of identity acquisition. I think this evaluative understanding of personal identity in turn helps flesh out the notion of self-concept. Rather than ascribing a uniform impulse towards the preservation of self-concept to human beings as such, we instead start to crack open the intra-active dynamics and get a sense of the variable motivations underlying threats and affirmations to self-concept. Not all aspects of our self-concept matter to us equally – I don’t think I’d care less if someone argued I wasn’t really a critical realist whereas I think it would provoke me (to say the least) if someone said I wasn’t really an animal lover (as my internalised vegan sometimes say when berating myself for continuing to eat dairy out of expediency and a hatred of soy milk). Both are aspects of my self-concept (critical realist + animal lover) but gaining traction upon how one matters to me but the other doesn’t necessitates the concept of personal identity in Archer’s sense.

*In the sense that self-presentation is not something that can be seen as an ‘act’. Though I think there are nodal points, ‘fateful moments’ though we need to be careful with that idea, which shape our self-presentation. Particular situations which changed our self-concept (positively or negatively) and shaped future trajectories of self-presentation.

14 responses to “Reframing the ‘self’: personal identity, social identity, self-concept and self-presentation”

  1. Reinvention of Identity….being a dynamic or a concept that plays directly into the value valences of self-awareness, I gather. Not many agree with what is meant by ‘self’ in various ideational contexts, ‘identity’ probably even less so. Who’s to say anyone ever did more than Invention by what their Person persisted in or habituated, except perhaps the droning and complex web of determinations informing experience? Another salacious read. More honey, please! (I recently met a women of similar experience in many and deep respects to my own, and as a former bee keeper and current hedge witch (woodland nymph type, Celtic), said: the way forward is through the comb.) Somethings simply cannot be parted, I’m thinking.

  2. The “Troubling Narratives: Identity Matters” conference look to address good distinction along this terrain. Always interesting.

  3. Just early morning -pre-coffee thoughts…;)

    The issue I have with terms such as ‘self-preservation’ or even ‘self-concept’ is that it implies at some level there is a ‘true’ self, as Gross goes further to imply – That somehow we are consciously regulating towards a pure state – that I an consciously adjust my actions to maintain. The ‘self’, when used like this, always assumes a essentialist position that we are adjusting to or calibrating from.

    Although you say that you do not change in particular settings I would argue that we change how we feel about ourselves all the time, do we not? Moods and emotions greatly affect the perception of the world and of our place in it. You call it ‘self-presentation’ to demonstrate how you reflect (is that acceptable?) a particular aspect of yourself in a given setting but you want to show how that does not change you, the ‘inner’ you?.

    Instead I would propose that the ‘you’ are just as much of the strategy (a much better notion) you adopt in any situation as you are on your perception of the strategy that you use. When you state that these two terms ‘flesh out the notion’ I agree that they certainly add further terms that attempt to describe an very complex interactions, yet they are ‘extensions of entities’ that I am constantly, after Dennett, wary of. Do they actually help, functionally, us understand this or are they mere elaborations of theories, built on little foundations. I would be tentative before stepping on them.

    It is very possible to create many different phrases as there are aspects of a single person’s ‘self’ and any invariant set of interactions could provide ‘flesh’ to the the process. The problem here is that they act as bracketing sets of interactions by stating that one is distinct from the other when really these labels are not actually ascribed to anything set, or constant.

    Social Theories of the self require a much more broader, more complex, framework that encompasses the process, the ‘how’, of identity rather than the labelling of the ‘what’ or ‘why’. I believe systems theory already provides frameworks for these interactions that do not require further terminologies and avoid essentialist ideas completely. In fact I think Elder-Vass, a great follower of Archer, helps us with the casual significance of such ’emergent systems’, in keeping with the Critical Realist stance of your writing.

    Anyway… cofffee!

  4. I do see what you mean but I don’t accept that the notion of ‘self-concept’ implies essentialism. It just suggests that there is a finite set of beliefs we hold about ourselves and that these factor into interactions in various ways. What I guess Im trying to get at is how we can replace ‘self’ talk with talk of:

    i) Personal identity
    ii) Social identity
    iii) Self-concept
    iv) Self-presentation

    So we don’t abandon the concept of self. But we equally don’t reify it as a ‘thing’ that we ‘have’.

    “Do they actually help, functionally, us understand this”

    It depends on what you mean by ‘functional’! I’m arguing that these are analytically useful because they open up, rather than close down, our analysis of interactions. Drawing these distinctions helps us elucidate dynamics that would otherwise remain obscure. I guess the only answer to your (interesting) line of scepticism but would be to argue that their capacity to do this rests on ontology – these concepts fallibly map onto real processes and it is only in virtue of this that we possess any utility when deployed analytically. But I think the way to demonstrate this would be to write at length about some particular cases.

    I completely share your concern about discursive elaboration without any practical foundation (assuming I’ve understood you correctly) and this is actually why I don’t like Elder-Vass! It’s a very taxonomic approach to social theory. Though I perhaps slip into doing this myself sometimes so this is a useful reminder! And thanks for thought provoking comments.

  5. “Social Theories of the self require a much more broader, more complex, framework that encompasses the process, the ‘how’, of identity rather than the labelling of the ‘what’ or ‘why’.”

    That’s precisely the gap I’m interested in trying to bridge. I’m planning a paper I’ll be writing over the summer in which I’m effectively trying to combine Archer with Goffman – I’m convinced by her arguments on the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ but I think her account of the ‘how’ is overly monological and insufficiently interactive and embodied.

    What would you recommend in terms of reading more on systems theory? I didn’t realise these sorts of questions were actually really addressed at all.

  6. I agree that, to some extent, breaking down the set interactions into reflecting certain engagements or aspects (i -iv above) provides some analytical benefit – but, as you state, it is taxonomic – it labels situated (abstracted) events that often only have relational structure in that exact moment. You can use them to analysis in this way, yet you would not be able to generalise/ extend to any other moment; unless you assume a stable self that all these terms are hovering around?

    Elder-Vass and Sawyer both use extensions of Systems Theory to explore social identity and emergent forms. Which I absolutely agree with you that Elder-Vass is far too taxonomic (a phrase I will be using in my thesis… now) his theoretical arguments around dual causation and social/ structural forms is sound – in my ‘umble opinion. 😉

    Archer and Goffman is interesting. I have never really gotten on with Archers requirement to resort to analytical dualism although some have said my reader of her is not right. As for Goffman, there is more to be done with his reflexive engagement with the world, as you suggest, but his work is peppered with assumed levels of ‘true’ ‘inner’ ‘behind the scene’ notions of identity that I simply do not find helpful. I have read (was it Lawler? I forget) some arguments against this idea, but I am afraid they seem like ‘work arounds’ to me.

    I am confused as by you would not be interested in the how (of identity?) that was not interactive and embodied… I would say this is a better understanding that Goffman’s purely cognitive work. I look forward to hearing how you go about this.

    On the subject of Systems theory, identity and the self… I guess I would look to Luhmann as I feel that he solves many of the concerns/ contradictions that I find difficult and Bruce Clarke for a contemporary use of this work. In particular Clarke uses Luhmann to demonstrate how it is his work that highlights the interaction between a system and an environment and it is, by this extension, that I think a more holistic understanding can be gained – one that encompasses psychic, social, technological, and all autopoietic systems.

    Interestingly, and after Clarke’s chapter in Addressing Modernity, the body of work that deals with multiple systems within an environment is Ecology – A thought that echoes Bateson’s Ecology of the Mind.

  7. *Systems Theory”…I’d be curious to hear how any ‘system’ can be discrete from any other ‘system’ in a clock-work of systems, all having ontological veracity, integrity, telic and persuasive force, while not in full agreement or shared historical genesis (aetiology). I might just conclude that every system has an essentiality, perhaps at odds with other equivalent systems within larger systems, competing perhaps to organize the EF to its preferences; where one places themselves along these existential lay-lines will inform Personal Identity for all intents and purposes. But what if there is no System for systems, but only several Systems with no arch-system or regulatory function as to a shared essentiality? What’s ‘realistic’ may be to posit alternatives or allow for the spontaneous, punctuated intrusion of Chaos as a better arbiter of morphology. Determinism qua Realism? Not buying it.

  8. I think one of the important aspects of systems theory and general ecology theory, is that there are multiple layers of systems that are both highly connected, discreet and maintain ontology. You only need to look at ‘natural’ systems for millions of examples of this. MY argument would be to question why we are any different. A psychic system (as Luhmann discusses) would be both connected to it’s environment (social systems) whilst maintaining casual power. There is not requirement to run from determinism in this case. It is possible to be influenced by our environment, have contingent effects upon us and around us, whilst still maintaining agency. I would see Daniel Dennett here – there is no reason to battle for just one or the other.

    “But what if there is no System for systems, but only several Systems with no arch-system or regulatory function as to a shared essentiality? ”

    It would be a very unusual dynamic to attempt to understand a system that is either not connected to other systems, not be part of a higher-order ‘arch-system’ (I dislike this term). But regularity is harking back to the General Systems of the 50s, and I think things have moved on since then.

    Its ok… you don’t have to buy it. I’m not trying to sell anything. 😉

  9. “there are multiple layers of systems that are both highly connected, discreet and maintain ontology”

    I couldn’t agree more! That’s exactly what I’m trying to explore, though using a different language I guess.

  10. I think we differ on reading Goffman! My problem is precisely that he doesn’t have (from my point of view) an adequate notion of identity…

    Surely Luhman rejects subjectivity outright? At least that’s the impression I’d got from secondary literature. He’d never seemed interesting to me for these reasons. Whereas Bateson has seemed very interesting to me – I’ve had Ecology of the Mind on my shelf for ages, you’ve given me the push to finally get round to reading it 🙂

  11. I agree, Goffman is lacking – it is a product of the time and I think helpful to understand what he was doing. Luhmann has been criticised for being almost anti-humanist, and I see why. De decenters the human from his ‘social systems’ as part of using acts of communication (meaning events) as the primary unit of analysis – rather than event or action.

    Ultimately, Luhmann does this to overcome the problem with bounded social forms (with ontological significance) but ones that are open to the environment, which is ultimately continuity and change issue, or structure and agency from another angle. He does this on a functional line – social systems facilitate fast understanding of an inherently complex social world. I agree with this and elsewhere have argued that identity fits into this schema – as a psychic system.

    Let me know what you think of Bateson – Clarke’s commentary on him is respectful and takes us further, I think.

  12. Thanks, dave. A fine first paragraph above, the makings of confident agreeableness.

    More than a little amused here at the ‘shop talk’, myself not so gingerly employed in shared texts as you and Mark; but your Report with his is positively notable. I hope you may stimulate our blog host to more of the same.

    I get your ‘systems’ premise and wonder at your askance for dual systems’ compliments, such as a dichotomous logic may conduct where there is a quanta of mutual exclusivity…as two objects NOT being able to inhabit the same ‘space’. Something about Angels on the head of a pin, as I recall, offered as a negative logical proof for ‘objects’ of your ‘psychic’ system…so I’m thinking. Not sure the analogy holds, though among ‘systems’, whether ecological to social as compared with social to psychic, seems like a ladder to heaven and a certain, proverbial, castle in the Air for Agency.

    Please define a psychic system, as a reference to consider whether it constitutes analogous causality, in what ways, to systems ‘natural’ or determined. No AI analogies required. Thanks.

  13. @Being Quest

    Is that a compliment, I can’t tell 😉 – and which first para?

    “I get your ‘systems’ premise and wonder at your askance for dual systems’ compliments, such as a dichotomous logic may conduct where there is a quanta of mutual exclusivity…as two objects NOT being able to inhabit the same ‘space’”

    I am not exactly sure what you are saying here. Dual systems – as in mind:body? And systems are not exactly objects, but made up heterogeneous parts – social, meaning, material, etc. I think I may be a little confused but it sounds like an important point – regardless of the angels analogy.

    “Castle in Air for Agency” – I love this title, I suspect someone will use it as a critique against Luhmann – But I would disagree. The assumed hierarchy of systems is not linear (like a ladder) but scalar (having magnitude but no direction).

    To define a psychic system it is probably best to describe a system and then ask you to apply that to consciousness. I am guessing you know what a system is (a collection of parts that are interrelated and form some sort of whole). so using the term psychic system (apart from aligning myself with Luhmann) I am stating that human beings behave as systems (biologically) and that our consciousness, which is ultimately born through information provided by our bodies, behaves systemically as well. Further, that they are autopoietic, self-reproducing, systems in that their very operation works to construct and reconstruct itself.

    Consciousness, in this view, is a process of understanding the whole – a sort of natural bi-product of ‘being-in-the-world Ismael said it best:

    “Sometime between the time of the primordial sludge and the present, the world separated itself into little pockets of functionally integrated structure, enclosing them in packages of skin and putting internal subsystems – minds – in control of certain gross behaviours. At first, the subsystems effectively encapsulated information-processing units that served as loci for informational pathways converging from across the landscape. The outer surfaces of the pockets intercepted signals sent from their surroundings that were sent through a system that brought them to bear on behaviour. Eventually, the pockets grew legs. Mobility provided potential advantage in exploiting resources, but disturbed the natural informational pathways. The pockets no longer bore perceptually links to particular places or properties. Signals carried information about different places on different occasions, and a type of signal that indicated one property in one content indicated something else in another. One solution to this problem is to allow systems some mobility, but confine them to an ecological niche within which the properties of interest have relatively stable sensory representations. Another is to have systems construct an internal model of the world, on which their positions and changing sensory states can be plotted and explicitly related to places and properties of interest. The internal model can serve as an effective storehouse for information about places and properties with which the pockets are not in continuous sensory contact, allowing them to track objects across changes in position, and properties across changes in sensory representation” (Ismael 2007):4

    As to the question of determinism – well as someone one said ‘determinism is provably un-provable’ but, again, I would say Dennett argues quite clearly here that you can both be have true causality (agency) and not be fully determined. And actually, I would have to say that there is a good chance that a holistic appreciation of systems theory provides a framework for that to be better understood.

    If we extend social and psychic systems into the world of meaning and material we can envisage how systemic process facilitate cultural wide expectation on behaviour that allow increases in complexity and keeping stability. In that world reasons for behaviour are bound up within the complexity of ones environment (and this is where the determinism argument sits) AND the systemic process of the individual. But it only works when you see them together. Unfortunately, ecology reminds us that stable systems are not always resilient (our society is far from resilient) so stability is a problem, but it is what the human mind likes as it is simply less ‘effort’ to understand.

    Does this make sense? I really should be better at explaining myself by now. 🙂

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