Representation, Identity & Self

This post looks at the key concept of REPRESENTATION from the perspective of IDENTITY. Ultimately, identity is about the idea of KNOWING and UNDERSTANDING – particularly knowing and understanding THE SELF in relation to OTHERS. One way to think about representation therefore is to consider ideas around identity or ‘the self‘.

EARLY IDEAS ABOUT IDENTITY & THE SELF

Many academics have written extensively about this, for example Erving Goffman raised the concept of The Presentation of The Self in Everyday Life (1956) which proposed an idea of ‘the self’ as divided between the ‘front’ and ‘back’ regions, in essence this means that individuals present an idea of themselves in different moments of interaction. This is useful in terms of Media Studies, because media representations of the self – think for example of ‘the selfie’ alongside a whole host of social media platforms – provide spaces to play out and perform representations of the self.

From this perspective it identity could be thought of as composing both a ‘FRONT REGION’ which could be argued to be that presentation of the self that we all want people to see as an identity presented of ourselves. As set against, or perhaps working with a representation of a ‘BACK REGION’ which is a representation that we might want to keep hidden. How we keep it hidden may be another discussion, but for now think about images that we edit, or delete – in other words, images that we don’t want to recognise or present as a representation of our ‘self’.

WHAT DOES THIS TELL US ABOUT THE MEDIA?

That different media forms look at different presentations of the self? (think tabloid/broadsheet)?

That different media forms deliberately focus on the division between the front and back regions (think advertising/marketing, but also film, television, the internet, music . . . in fact all media forms offer the opportunity to engage with ideas of the self ‘front’ & ‘back’)

That particular media platforms (technologies) allow us to create our own sense of self ‘front’ and ‘back’ (think social media)

Why we form different representations of the/our ‘self’ may be explained by the theory of the Johari Window, students like this kind of enquiry because it makes us think about ourselves, which is arguably more significant when you are just forming your ‘adult’ or ‘professional’ identity, as opposed to the identity which is placed upon you by family and relations, school and so on

Johari Window

The ‘Johari Window‘ developed by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955, presents a grid model of four distinct elements that form a representation and identity of  ‘the self’, which suggests that we form multiple understandings of our ‘selfs’ primarily in four main contexts:

  1. ideas about our/the ‘self’ that are known, recognised and understood
  2. ideas that are presented to others about our/the ‘self’
  3. ideas that we want to keep hidden from others about our/the ‘self’
  4. ideas that we do not know, recognise or understand as relating to our/the ‘self’ – that perhaps others do

The model (illustrated above & below) is a useful tool to examine identities and representations, particularly those that are found on social media which usually show identity as ‘fluid’ – that is open to change, through: contradiction, juxtaposition, distinction, difference, alteration, anomaly and so on.

As a small task – create a Johari Window and choose a well know celebrity. Cut and paste a range of images (20+) and arrange them in your Johari Window. It is a short creative exercise that should show the multi-dimensional modes of personal identity.

A useful classroom exercise is to get students to populate this grid model with images of themselves, or of well known media celebrities that show images of them in different contexts that could be identified and placed as: how they like to present themselves; how they perhaps don’t see themselves; how others see them etc. Overall, the picture should become complicated, messy, overlapping, confusing, contradictory etc. Which in essence is how identity can be seen – AS A FLUID, DYNAMIC, CONTESTED AND CHANGING CONCEPT THAT IS POSSIBLE OF MULTIPLE INTERPRETATIONS.

GIDDENS AND THE IDEA OF THE SELF

Anthony Giddens in his Modernity and Self-Identity (1997) reasserts the idea that the ‘self’ is ‘fluid’ and often contradictory and suggests that this is a illustration of how the modern world (MODERNITY) “radically alters the nature of day-to-day social life and affects the most personal aspects of our experience” (p1).

In other words, we now live in a very different world where, because of changes in society, ‘conditions of life become transformed’ (p. 138). This period of social existence is often termed ‘modernity’ -and presents “new mechanisms of self-identity” (p2) – think for example, of how new personalised forms of technology can be used:

  • mobile phones (hardware),
  • social media platforms (connectivity),
  • image editors (software)

When you think about this it shows how our modern world is very different from ‘pre-modern’ times. It also points to the way in which our identity can be made, developed, altered, re-imagined, deleted, contradicted, reinforced at any moment that we wish. It shows how much power we have in terms of how we are able to re-present ourselves to the world and overall, it recognises that identity or ‘the presentation of the self’ is no longer a fixed concept and that our identity is no longer just subject to the forces of others.

Giddens is recognised as developing STRUCTURATION THEORY this basically recognises the way in which STRUCTURES in society – the family, school, companies, the government etc – exist and operate alongside individual AGENTS – people, like you and me! Important for this topic is the way in which AGENTS are able to exert and maintain power, particularly in terms of their own lives. In some ways this is a positive aspect of this type of thinking, the idea that we are able to exist and ‘be’ without interference or pressure from external structures – family, work, advertising etc (although this may not always be the case!)

As Giddens puts forward, the purpose allows individuals to secure increasing social control over their life circumstances, a moment where ‘individuals will be free to make informed choices about their activities’ (p214)

MODERNITY & THE REFLEXIVE SELF

For Giddens, ‘the self, like the broader institutional contexts in which it exists, has to be reflexively made’ a task ‘accomplished amid a puzzling diversity of options and possibilities’ (p.3) In this sense living in a time of modernity (in contrast to what Giddens terms ‘pre-modern times’) reflexivity is generally orientated towards continual improvement or effectiveness. In other words, we present a representation of ourselves but we are then able to reflect and evaluate upon it and then perhaps change it in light of new understandings, aims or demands.

“The reflexive project of the self, which consists of the sustaining of consistent, yet continuously revised, biographical narratives, takes place in the context of multiple choice as filtered through abstract systems. In modern social life, the notion of lifestyle takes on a particular significance. The more tradition loses it hold, and the more daily life is reconstituted . . . the more individuals are forced to negotiate lifestyle choices among a diversity of options. Of course there are standardising influences . . . Yet because of the ‘openess’ of social life today, the pluralisation of contexts of action and the diversity of ‘authorities’, lifestyle choice is increasingly important in the constitution of self-identity and daily activity.”

Overall, this means that it is much more difficult to think about society as a number of dissected and clear categories – male/female, young/old, gay/straight, black/white, religious/non-religious, rich/poor, eductated/not-educated and so on. This is because we are now able to take up a range of individual and interconnected (plural) identities, so individuality itself is broken up like “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms” Virginia Woolf (On Fiction)

In summary, this presents a theoretical framework for understanding how we can discuss isses of representation and raises big questions when trying to talk about traditional ideas of the audience, which can be distilled into the following series of bullet points that may help revision or for students to re-cap (alternatively feel free to take this information and adapt into your own work?)


In the first instance, you need to recognise the relationship between the media (which we can call symbolic representation ie the use of symbols to represent things – like movies, adverts, TV programmes, social media, newspapers etc) and individual identity. Ok? Have a re-read . . .

From this perspective, what is really important is identity.

So therefore the arguments would be:

  • Is our identity constructed by others (eg the media) Constructed Identity
  • Do we construct our own identity? Individual identity
  • Does our identity fit into a wider pattern that holds similarities? Collective Identity
  • Is it a process of all of these? Negotiated Identity
  • Is identity constantly open to change? Reflexive Identity

 The theory that we have looked at mostly is provided by Anthony Giddens.

His theory is called structuration theory which basically runs like this . . .

  1. We have an objective world
    • ie we are born into a set community, let’s say Jersey, which is in the UK, which is in Western Europe, which in itself is going to have a direct impact on our identity
    • ie we are born into a western style nuclear family
    • ie we are born into a type of religious belief
    • ie we are born into a set of beliefs around gender, sexuality, class and status
  2. The objective world is seen by Giddens as a set of structures and can be seen as creating sets of collective identities – ie Jersey people, British people, males/females, Christians/Muslims, Rich/Poor etc etc.
  3. We can see how the media is used to do this, because it is usually speaking to masses ie huge number of people, so it has to create what Benedict Andersen would call imagine communities – communities that aren’t real, but are Think about any of our media products and you can see how this works: ideas of male/female (Tomb Raider/Men’s Health/Maybeline/Hidden Agenda), Black/White (Letter to the Free/Hidden Agenda), Christian/Muslin (The Missing), Left Wing/Right Wing Politics (The i)
  4. Overall, this is the concept of representation and you can use the tools of semiotics to seek to discover how signs around representation (and therefore identity) are put together to construct a set of collective identities. However . . .
  5. The individual in this world (ie us) is seen as subjective and Giddens calls the individuals: agents
  6. Giddens suggests that our individual identities are actually constructed through a process of negotiation in which the subjective agent works against and within the objective structures of society.
  7. This is a process of reflexivity whereby individuals construct their own identities. Think therefore about the role of social media (Teen Vogue) or the way in which audiences construct their own meaning from particular texts (War of the Worlds). In other words, the idea of the individual agent constructing their own identity and meaning in a reflexive process suggests that we do not have to act as a mass, but rather act as individuals . . . but
  8. You cannot ignore the objective structures that inform the construction of our own identity. In other words, being male/female, white/black, straight/gay, old/young, first world/third world etc etc
  9. This process where the individual agent engages with the object structure to find their own meaning and identity is Giddens theory of structuration.
  10. Reflexivity is in this sense the act of making sense of the world, your own identity and the choices you want to make.

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