Identity and Personal Agency: We are not Robots.
Identity is an important subject in cultural studies. As a means of challenging social norms, particularly, western notions of identity, cultural identities such as gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, for example, are explored and contested.
The authors of Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds (Holland, Skinner, Lachicotte and Cain, 1998) research the dichotomy between humans as products of social discipline and the producers of the social worlds in which they live. In this contribution to anthropology, the authors argue that individuals play an active role in re-shaping themselves, their identity and their world.
In a similar way to other cultural studies research, they understand the importance of power in relation to identity construction. They also conceive of individuals as having no fixed identity but rather, as having contradictory identities. However, a distinction is made from exploring identity through social structures such as gender, to the ‘grounding of cultural identities in the specific worlds of which they are a part’ .
The approach draws on the work of Russian scolars Bakhtin and Vygotsky and emphasises the development of identities through social life. The culturally constructed social worlds presented in the authors’ study, include the world of Alcoholics Anonymous, the world of romance and of metal health care. I make a parallel with the world of cultural workers, a socially constructed world which could be defined as a Birmingham based cultural entrepreneurs.
In explorations of identity, such as the work of culturalists, there is a tendency to focus on behaviours which follow cultural principles or norms. Ethnographic research will identify cultural patterns and behaviours in an attempt to reveal the ‘culture’ of a group of people. Problems arise when behaviour is not predictable and exceptions to the ‘rule’ are too frequent. The authors present the idea of ‘improvisation’ as demonstrating behaviour which sits outside the norm or the culturally predictable. It is suggested that specific social circumstances can have a significant impact on an individuals’ actions. Personal agency can override cultural norms to deal with tricky or unexpected circumstances.
My interpretation is that while culturally constructed norms often determine patterns of behaviour, individuals can also ‘improvise’ and adjust their behaviour. The result is a subtle contribution to altering cultural identity – perhaps refining or contravening in unexpected ways? We might be highly influenced by cultural identities with which we identify or which we are identified with, but we are not robots.