Part 1 - Identity and the Internet

Symbolic Interaction


Some of the most long withstanding social theories of communication of our time are the ideas that are categorized under the title symbolic interaction. Although variations have emerged (for example, Kuhn’s theoretical ideas and practical application, as compared to Farberman’s), certain basic tenets are found in any writings that take the name "symbolic interaction." Perhaps most basic to this understanding is the notion that reality, as we perceive and conceive it, is a process, an unending dynamic relationship between subjects and objects, not a stable and wholly objective state of nature, that can be deduced point-by-point (Strauss 1959). The location of this relationship between subjects and objects, furthermore, is in the "self." The dialectic between individual and society is a generic feature of human life (Berger and Luckmann 1966). The idea of this dialectic is that it is a "process by which an immediately experienced sense of individual self is realized in the context of an a priori institutional order" (Weigert, Teitge and Teitge 1986: 55).


This process is driven by the communicative gestures and symbols that we exchange with our selves and with others. As Mead said, "We do not discover others as individuals like ourselves. The mind is not first individual and then social. The mind itself in the individual arises through communication" (in forward to Cooley 1909). The exchange of symbols is a recognition and negotiation of meaning made by conscious minds (as opposed to a smooth, mechanical repetition of responses to stimuli). And, although Mead typified himself as a "social behaviorist," his notion of behaviorism is far removed from that variety that became well established about fifty years ago, in which a strict stimulus-response relationship was posited.4


Again, these elements of meaning being exchanged are not static and inflexible; rather, "they are looked upon as the product of a continuous interpretive process which is at least as interesting to study as the meanings it produces" (Lauer and Handel, 1977). The perceivable social aspect of the process is behavior. As I will argue throughout this paper, a study of the behavior of individuals using computer-mediated communication will reveal the new ways in which this "interpretive process" takes place and the impact this may have upon the dialectic of the individual self and the institutional order.


It is important to note that this dialectic (or the "subject-object condition" of symbolic interaction) has a taken-for-granted aspect,5 in that we do not implicitly recognize it until it is somehow brought to our attention such as in the case of an individual being put in a state of "situational dis-ease", or being uncomfortable with a social "performance" (Weigert, Teitge and Teitge 1986: 59). In such situations, which may involve embarrassment, fear or other powerful (and potentially psychosomatic) emotions, communication becomes painfully oblique (analyses along these lines often employ the dramaturgical analogy of actor, stage and audience to, respectively, individual, life-world, and society, and following the analogy they conceptualize the "situational dis-ease" as "stage fright." 6


Outside of these generally isolated opportunities for self-reflection, however, the uniquely human symbols we exchange that are laden with meaning often fall by the wayside of conscious reflection and are simply accepted as being natural, taken for granted, or "fact." This lack of consistently conscious reflexivity upon the symbols we exchange leads to an established (yet not entirely stable) framework of "social facts," or ideas that are perpetuated and shared as an objective reality amongst most of the members of a society. This is not to say that a singular objective reality does not exist - we just don’t know it yet (we may never be able to), or at best we know only fragments, pieces of it. Despite the many discoveries that have been made since the Renaissance regarding the objective physical reality of the world we live in, most of our individual understandings of the world and actions toward the world are founded upon opinion, not fact.7 And even the state of those objective physical realities may change over time so that what we think is "real" is only an illusion, a mask.


Take, for example, the "grand narrative"8 of the shape of the earth. Long ago, it was nearly universally thought that the Earth was flat. Today, as we have accumulated centuries of evidence to the contrary, the Earth is considered to be a sphere. But is this an ultimate, unchanging Truth? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Perhaps centuries from now, when humans have a much firmer grasp on the alleged 12 dimensions of the universe that surround us according to the latest physics phenomenon, string theory, the understanding of the "shape" of the earth may be significantly different, by virtue of the creation of new concepts and new symbols used to express those concepts. While it will still "be" "round" (spherical), it may not be conceived as such. Our descendants will likely think us equally as naive as we might think our past ancestors regarding the shape of the Earth. Yet we continue to admire the pictures that we have painted for ourselves,9 despite the fact that they are masks, because they are "greater" truths than what came before. As Wilson (1995) warns, "Don’t fool around with the masks of reality until you can handle the reality of masks."


However, despite this continued epistemological "non-recognition" of the "masking" nature of understanding on the part of many individuals,10 I would argue that the understanding of self-reflexivity and the subject-object condition that we are reaching toward (as a society) has increasingly been changing over the course of the past century. The conception of the seat of self-consciousness increasingly has (philosophically) been moving from the individual body itself to the relationship between the individual and the society within which one exists and to which one relates. With the turn of postmodernism, the "essence"11 that once inhabited the individual and its behavior, initiating a belief that our existence stems solely from within, has turned more into a self that is a constituent of and is contingent upon society (cf. Arendt, 1958; Mills, 1959; Habermas, 1981; Jones 1995; Mulgan 1997). Slowly, with the emergence of a large discourse of the subject-object condition of reflexivity, more and more people have engaged in the process of self-reflection both within and outside of the formal field of symbolic interaction.12 Such a "radical reflexivity" on the part of so many ponderers of human nature seems to exemplify a change in the thought of the society as a whole. Perhaps as a reflection of this, self-reference is increasingly seen in the popular media too, in TV shows and movies.13 Interestingly, it is often masked under the guise of comedy.14 This acknowledgment presents a change in the contemporary meaning of "truth" and, since "self" and "truth" are inextricably linked in the dialectic of meaning which becomes the subject-object condition, consequently a change in the contemporary meaning of "self" has come about. One of these contemporary meanings has been articulated by social psychologist Kenneth Gergen. To Gergen, the self in the contemporary world is "saturated."


Gergen recognizes the element of essentialism inherent in a modernist or romanticist perspective. As he says, "beliefs in a holy spirit, profound love, a core self, rational decision making, and objective truth remain robust mainstays of Western culture" (1991: 199). And, like myself, Gergen also argues that such an "essentialist" conception is fraught with difficulty as the meaning of the relationship between self and "truth" or "reality" has changed over the course of the past century. Taking a symbolic interactionist stance, he speaks of the articulation of Mead’s "I" with respect to the communicative impulse:

Individuals themselves cannot mean anything; their actions are nonsensical until coordinated with the actions of others. My words don’t become "communication" until they are treated by others as intelligible. When postmodern arguments are extended, we find it possible to replace an individualistic worldview - in which individual minds are critical to human functioning - with a relational reality. We can replace the Cartesian dictum cogito ergo sum with communicamus ergo sum, for without coordinated acts of communication, there is simply no "I" to be articulated. The postmodern turn thus not only de-objectifies the individual self but points the way to a new vocabulary of being" (1991: 242).


The reasons for these changes in the "vocabularies" of contemporary self understanding are many, but generally Gergen points the finger at the expansion of communication technologies, which for him are "technologies of social saturation." He outlines a very brief history of these technologies and relates their rising omnipresence to the "multiphrenic" condition of the overpopulated self. This emergent self-identity has no core, no true foundation, but rather "swims in ever-shifting, concatenating, and contentious currents of being. The possibility for committed romanticism or strong and single-minded modernism recedes, and the way is opened for the postmodern being" (1991: 80).


In a substantial way, Gergen departs from the pragmatism of the early symbolic interactionists. First of all, a basic recognition of the relationship between the physical, empirical body and one’s consciousness seems to be missing in the self that is disfranchised from solid being. For example, some who argue that a dilemma exists with the idea of the postmodern self go so far as to deconstruct the language of the science of biology in order to discount any theory of genetic inheritance. "[There is] a trend - in anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and other departments across the nation - to dismiss the possibility that there are any biologically based commonalties that cut across cultural differences" (Ehrenreich and McIntosh 1997). For instance, social theorist Judith Butler (1990) asserts that there is nothing that is prediscursive (nothing that comes before the meaning given to things through the necessary use of language).

Such extreme negations of any objective reality beyond that which is constructed by language presents difficulties when adopting a symbolic interactionist perspective. This is one of the juxtapositions of Gergen’s ideas - the curious blend of postmodern relativism with the recognition of objective interaction. One problem with extreme retreats into relativism is that notions such as "social justice" or "human rights," for example, are often lost in the depoliticization that may accompany such retreats. The negotiation of meaning is, at least until this point in history,15 inherently political. In their critique of Gergen, Snow and Heirling note that the tendency to believe that "all selves are equally beset by the winds of change…ignores variation in exposure to the so-called technologies of saturation across different social categories and cultural groups." In other words, important elements of status and power are notably absent. The sense that symbolic interaction and the construction of the self are not somehow bound within hierarchies (or categorizations) is missing from Gergen’s (and some other postmodernist’s) frameworks.


To breach this negation, a middle position might be that, although truth may be subject to the laws of relativity, this should not "depoliticize" the construction of our understandings of the world and the meanings which make them up. It is by virtue of the acceptance of these "truths" as true that meanings need to be negotiated, symbolically. On this political negotiation within the new media, Castells (1996) writes,

"Because information and communication circulate primarily through the diversified, yet comprehensive media system, politics becomes increasingly played out in the space of media. But whoever the political actors and whatever their orientations, they exist in the power game through and by the media, that includes computer-mediated communication networks. The fact that politics has to be framed in the language of electronically based media has profound consequences on the characteristics, organization, and goals of political processes, political actors, and political institutions. Ultimately, the powers that are in the media networks take second place to the power of flows embodied in the structure and language of these networks" (476).


Furthermore, I would add, the structure and language of these networks come into existence through the specific relations of selves that both enter into and emerge from the constant process of the communicative experience. Cyberspace, as a communications network, holds certain implications for the dialectical construction of people’s individual realities as they are seated in the self and in the sense of self that is identity. Therefore, a focus on the construction of identity (the negotiation) within the environment of computer-mediated communication could reveal the "power of flows" embodied there.

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