Part 2 - Identity and the Internet



Up until this point, discussion has followed a predominantly sociological bent. However, to understand the establishment of meaning that is attached to identity in symbolic interaction, a more individual-based, psychological analysis will be helpful in understanding both sides of the subject-object condition of cyberspace. But first a more clear conceptual basis should be formed regarding the notion of identity.

The idea of self and others and their "reflexivity" has been widely recognized in the past century, whether it be explicitly through "symbolic interactionist" concepts or by some other rubric. Likewise has identity come to be a very widely used concept. "During the past forty years there has been an explosion of writings, both scientific and nonscientific, about the question of ‘identity’ and what it means to be an individual in today’s society" (Weigert, Teitge and Teitge: 1986). Thoits (1989) points out several different ways in which identity has been generally considered. First, the positivist orientation toward identity generally posits that selves stem from the invariant, automatic, patterned responses to biological and environmental stimuli. The weakness here lay in the insistence upon a universal framework under which all identities become innate characteristics. In the respect that we are "pre-programmed" with these innate characteristics, the analogy of the human to the machine applies here. Second, the "strong" version of a social constructionist idea of identity generally posits that every possible awareness of identity is fabricated through sociocultural means and that there are no universally patterned links among physiological, expressive and situational components of identity. The weakness in this perspective is its deeply relativistic foundation. We are vessels, tabula rasa, empty of any shared characteristics, waiting to be filled by ambrosial social relations. The positivist and social constructionist perspectives each go off to battle on either end of the nature/culture duality so often posited by sociologists.

A third conceptual option, the symbolic interactionist stance, allows for a kind of synthesis within this debate. Our identities are created through our symbolic understanding of the world (as fostered through our particular historically social contexts/biographies); but our symbolic understanding, although limited, is based upon some empirical reality, some recognition of an objective condition, a non-reflexive realm of existence.


Furthermore, as far as symbolic understanding creates meaning for us, it is the central condition to which our identities are tied. Among Blumer’s (1969; in Lauer & Handel, 1977) basic premises was the necessity of meaning in relation to behavior. Meaning, which is not inherent, but rises out of interaction, guides behavior. However, this guidance is not direct, but occurs through a process of learned interpretation (thus allowing for creativity, imagination and, eventually, social change). Weigert, Teitge and Teitge (1986) call this process of the creation of meaning for an individual (within sociohistorical contexts), "ontogenesis."


Again, it should be emphasized that this "ontogenesis" is processual and dynamic, always changing, yet subject to certain locational parameters and interpretive movements. Relevant to the cyberspace issue is the notion that these locational parameters are not restricted by physical proximity but rather by mental proximity. The communicative gesture is not limited by hand’s reach, nor eye’s, but by mind’s. As Charles Horton Cooley wrote,

"Society, in its immediate aspect, is a relation among personal ideas. In order to have a society it is evidently necessary that persons should get together somewhere; and they get together only as personal ideas in the mind. Where else? What other possible locus can be assigned for the real contacts of persons, or in what other form can they come in contact except as impressions or ideas formed in this common locus? Society exists in my mind as the contact and reciprocal influence of certain ideas" 1964:119).


Ideas are not tails wagging at the end of society; they inspire and inform, create and destroy.16 Any field in which the idea can germinate and be shared is a field of potential meaning to the individual, and therefore a locus of the elements of identity. New institutions that allow for and guide the exploration of ideas will have a profound impact on the construction of personal identities.17 Cyberspace has only recently become a field of exploration, a "frontier," and the rules and roles of this fresh institution, although still being rapidly constructed and almost as rapidly reformed, help to shape the possibilities for attachment and idea-sharing between people in all facets of experience, from emotionally remote to personally intimate, from business relation to personal friend to sex partner.


What has become of interest to some social psychologists in the past few decades has been precisely this process of the construction and maintenance of the structure of identity within the individual. To identity theorists such as Stryker (1968), identity is not singular, but plural because it has only a semi-permanence and is multifaceted. This is due to the symbolic nature of the construction of identity; identity is the social object that is a result of the constant process of subjectivation and objectivation that informs the sense of self (Hogg et al, 1995). The degree to which such identities are constructed within the individual is the degree to which an individual commits to any given identity.


While this might lead to the notion of identity accumulation is, the identity-accumulation hypothesis adopted in Thoits’ early work has been pushed aside. "Not surprisingly," writes Thoits, "this idea is too simple and has been disconfirmed" (Thoits 1991:105). Identity accumulation was replaced by the more elaborate notion of identity salience. Salience refers to the idea that some identities have more self-relevance than others. Thus, the total identity structure of an individual can be organized hierarchically. Identity salience is conceptualized (and operationalized) as the likelihood that the identity will be invoked in diverse situations. The symbolic interactionist foundation of this concept is clear: it is different from other psychological concepts regarding identity, for example, the role-person merger (Turner, 1978), psychological centrality18 (Rosenberg, 1979) and identity prominence (McCall and Simmons, 1979) because it is defined behaviorally (Hogg et al, 1995).


The behaviors that are important to a symbolic construction of identity are related to the roles or positions within the social structure into which individuals fall. This is particularly relevant to an interactionist perspective because the positions into which we fall (and their behavioral expectations, or roles) are reinforced not only by our own conceptions of "who I am," but also by the perceived conceptions of "who I ought to be" or a reflection upon what social positions others put us into (Mead’s classic "taking the role of the other"). Says Thoits (1982:5), insomuch as "the individual assigns to him/herself positional designations and behaves as expected in role relationships with others, he/she can be said to have taken on a set of identities." Role relationships, which can vary in their stability over time, define ones identity set as well as the "hierarchy of salience" (Stryker, 1968; in Thoits 1982) within that set (where salience is defined as "the probability that a given identity will be invoked in a variety of situations." What determines the salience of a particular identity is one’s commitment to that identity (Thoits, 1982).


Given that the number and importance of social relationships premised upon a particular role identity may influence the salience of that identity, commitment is defined as "the degree to which individual’s relationships to particular others are dependent on being a given kind of person" (Stryker and Stratham, 1985). Maintaining an ongoing role relationship that delivers meaning and purpose to the individual leads to a commitment to maintaining the specific identity associated with that role. An important corollary of identity theory is that this "maintenance of meaning" is fundamental to psychological well-being. Thoits (1979; 1982; 1991), among others, has done a large amount of work in this area. Thoits’ work on identity, following the tradition of Stryker, has focused largely upon the intersection of identity and stressors that affect psychological well-being. Thoits introduces a number of ways in which to understand the correspondence of this congruence.


With the establishment of identity being "a typified self at a stage in the life course situated in a context of organized social relationships" (Weigert et al, 1986: 53), an examination of the nature of these social relationships will help to reveal the relevance of certain of a person’s identities compared to others. Thoits uses the concept of identity-relevance to help explain psychological distress. "Identity-relevant experiences may be more powerful predictors of psychological distress (and well-being) than identity-irrelevant experiences and may be more powerful than the summary measures typically used in stress research - for example, the number of negative events experiences in a given period, or the sum of reported strains weighted by their frequency or intensity" (1991: 106). Importantly, the identity-relevance concept is useful in measuring the link between stress and identity.


Thoits’ empirical work helps in scientifically understanding identity and psychological well-being also by acknowledging the importance of social status. Status differences (as Gergen has been criticized for not recognizing) "can be extrapolated quite straightforwardly [from identity-relevant experiences]" (Thoits, 1991). Because of differential resources (both financial and, perhaps more importantly, psychosocial), both identity-threatening stressors can be expected to be found more frequently among lower-status individuals and identity-enhancing experiences should be found more frequently among higher-status individuals. "Commitment to an identity should vary with the value or importance of the position upon which the identity is based" (Thoits, 1982). This importance of social position is basically a difference in social status. The class issue within identity theory can be illuminated by examining what social positions and skills are valued in terms of the institution of economic production, probably the most important institution in American society. "In the new, informational mode of [societal] development," writes Castells (1996:17), "the source of productivity lies in the technology of knowledge generation, information processing, and symbol communication," all elements intrinsically tied to computers.19 The relationship of this production value of technology, specifically knowledge of computers, to identity is the value (meaning) that is placed on it.


Another way in which identity and psychological well-being are tied together is through the social support inherent in emotional socialization. Thoits has addressed this substantive topic in detail (1989), a topic which is pertinent to both identity and psychological well-being. Commitment or salience of an identity is often not only reinforced by strong emotions regarding the value of such an identity; it also comes to be defined in terms of the emotions that coincide with the role or position one is filling. Thus, Stryker (1980; see Hogg et al, 1995) "identified two types of commitment: 1) interactional commitment, reflecting the number of roles associated with a particular identity (the extensivity of commitment), and 2) affective commitment, referring to the importance of the relationship associated with identity (the intensivity of commitment). "


Despite this rather obvious relationship of "intensivity," or emotion, to identity, the sociological study of emotions has been quite scarce. Thoits notes (1989:317) that "emotion is a relatively new substantive topic within sociology. Increasing attention to the topic is likely due to the recognition that humans are not motivated solely by rational-economic concerns." While I find this explanation perfectly valid, another part of the explication here might have to do with recent epistemological challenges to traditional scientific methods. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the study of emotions is an attempt to understand a non-rational phenomenon using the wholly rational methods of science. Perhaps it is due to the fact that science has been codified as an activity of pure objectivity or to the notion that a social scientist should be impartial, detached, value-free, impersonal unbiased, unprejudiced in one’s work. Emotions are the negation of such impartiality, the giveaway that the scientist may have "gone native." Thus, despite their importance to social action, they were avoided as a subject of study. This was particularly evident in mid-century; take, for example, this note from Nelson Foote (1953; in Stone and Farberman: 319) regarding a paper he wrote, entitled Love:

"The title of this paper has provoked comments from friends and acquaintances ever since it was publicly announced. If those comments are classified according to the attitudes they express, they appear to fall into four rough categories: cynical, joking, sentimental, and matter-of-fact. Two [colleagues] pointed out to me that love is not considered a proper subject for academic discourse: one claimed that the title would draw only a group of moralistic or sentimental listeners, lacking in scientific motive; the other claimed that the regular academics would be scornful unless I devised a more pompous and wordy title. This paper is aimed at drawing scientific attention to a matter-of-fact attitude toward love. Serious matter-of-factness toward love is a minority point of view even among professed social scientist."


Forty years later, serious attention to love is still a minority point of view. Too bad, because, for example, love can be a crucial dimension to relationships of social support. The meaning of love is related, dialectically, to power (May 1972: 250). "The empirical relationship of power and love is illustrated in the closeness of the two in the problem of violence, the converse of power. Violence is most apt to occur between persons who are closely tied emotionally and, therefore, vulnerable to each other" (115). Given that love relationships have been known to sprout on-line, attention to such details of the meaning of emotion in the research phase will help to empirically illustrate the construction of identity.


Since emotion, identity and meaning are so closely tied, a relationship clearly exists between emotion and self. Whereas reason is an internalization or self-justification for an event or circumstance that is created by the subject/object condition of agreement or understanding, emotion is often the outlet for a dearth in the subject/object condition (the lack of an understanding of a situation or circumstance one is confronted with; the lack of a socially constructed meaning). The subject/object condition is ultimately an attempt at learning and understanding. When we lack understanding, we must engage this circumstance of the subject/object condition and attempt to gain an understanding of our situation. Sometimes this is quite impossible. For example, most people do not have a scientific understanding of their very own bodies. Given the advanced state of our collective (scientific) understanding of the body, it would be quite implausible for any one person to possess every one of them. And even if there were such a person, it is nearly impossible that said person could have an equally fine understanding of quantum physics.20 Our identities are created not only by our understandings of the world that we perceive through communication with others, but equally (if not more so) by our inability to understand the world around us, and the communications we exchange with others in order to facilitate the impression of taking an epistemological stance.21

The point here is that there are innumerable encounters that we deal with in our everyday life in which we must take certain understandings on faith. And whenever we engage faith in trusting an explanation or understanding given by another, or whenever that subject/object epistemological condition (that "not knowing") is missing in an aspect of our lives, we engage emotion as a possible defense of , if needed.


On a personal note, a good friend of mine from my childhood died while I was writing this paper. He was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago and prior to his first bone marrow transplant he wrote a powerful essay regarding his desperate situation, which he did not fully understand. Although he was not a sociologist per se, he was familiar with the implications of symbolic interactionism as a human being, and thanks to his talent with storytelling, he was able to communicate this familiarity very well. I feel compelled to reproduce some of his essay in this rather lengthy endnote.22


In the light of self-reference, I must acknowledge the symbolic interactionist implications of my reproducing this piece in the paper. This has allowed me to confirm my commitment to a mourning identity (as did my weeping). However, this identity is salient only for a time: as Strauss (1959:129) notes, "Even in grief and deep mourning you only temporarily lay aside your other temporal identities. Life consists not merely in adjudicating between the demands of stable kinds of status, but also in juggling differential temporal placement."


What can we glean from Josh Webb’s profound oratory regarding the engagement of emotions when confronted with a situation that we consciously cannot comprehend? And why does this engagement apparently increase when the lack of understanding is linked to a situation that threatens ones very existence? It seems that a basic belief in the search for happiness, purposefulness and meaning exists within us; if there is a core self, it is this survival instinct driven by a search for meaning and purposefulness; a project, to use Sartre’s language.


But what of suicide (cf. Durkheim)? Clearly, this "core belief" of survival is no instinct at all if one takes into account the ability we have to voluntarily deny it. If anything, it is a requirement of the more important search for meaning and creation of a social reality. When that reality is removed or vacant from a person and there is no basis for role position or clear identity formation, suicide may ensue (this aspect of Durkheim’s writing was quite precognizant of the emergence of symbolic interactionism.23



Slowly now I have moved back to a more symbolic interactionist stance on meaning, self, identity, well-being and emotion. To further expand this social psychological approach to these concepts, it would be fruitful to understand the relationships between individuals, the relationships that combine to create community. This will help to facilitate an understanding of how identities merge and how the subject/object condition is fulfilled.


As previously mentioned, the arguments regarding the state of community over roughly the past hundred years have been a staple of sociological analysis since its inception as a discipline. For a large part of the 20th century, community has been thought to be in decline; this trait of society is most often linked to the rapid modernization, urbanization and technologization of the industrial period (cf. Tonnies, Simmel or Wirth). Changes in the technology and economy of the period of post-industrialism has fostered new theories, however, whereby these forces have not been so vigorously excoriated, and, again, community has been conceived of as saved or liberated.


These distinctions have important implications for the prospect of identity in contemporary life. Since one’s sense of identity is intimately tied up with the process of symbolic interaction, the community (or lack thereof) with which one interacts is a vital component of the creation of self. Furthermore, the connection between the state or condition of community and the focus upon the impact of technology on it is of paramount importance to a study of identities that take shape in cyberspace. It is these connections which I will elaborate upon in the next part of this paper.


To Next Section - Social Networks

To Previous Section - Symbolic Interaction
Back to Title Page


Back to the Infospace Page