If the European Dynamic Identity workshops – conducted by Beata Staszynska and me – show one thing it is that nowadays (young) adolescents do not possess a default biographical narrative on themselves that pours out when prompted. Neither did any of the adults involved in the workshops display such biographic narrative.
In times before the Internet social scientists like Anthony Giddens postulated that we create throughout our lives a story about ourselves that answers the question who we are. The story was supposed to conform to quite a few prerequisites like being not too far detached from reality, being consistent and being the only story that one would tell about one’s self when asked. For Giddens, as for many others, the mission of our human lives was to build the best possible narrative – if needed by means of therapy.
Zygmunt Bauman argued that in these modern times (“liquid times”) in which everything changes so fast that no habits or reflection can emerge, our identities no longer resemble a jigsaw puzzle that we try to create out of the jigsaw pieces that were handed out at birth as constituting elements of our identity. Rather, in these liquid times, we are reconfigurating the given jigsaw puzzle pieces all the time to create temporary identities that respond to external challenges.
In our workshops we defaultly asked the question: “Who are you until now?” The question was to be answered by the workshop participants (N=262) on the spot, being alone in a room with one of the instructors and facing a recording camera. The participants were not aware of the question or the setting before they were taken out of the main workshop space and guided to the room with the camera. The question: “Who are you?” off course is the default question about one’s identity. We chose to add “until now” because we wanted to find out if Bauman’s concept of liquid life in which identities are dynamic could be evoked.
After the recording the participants were familiarized in the remainder of the workshops with theory on identities (mainly Goffman) and with film theory (mainly on frame sizes, backgrounds and the necessity of each object in a frame having a meaning). Then they were confronted with their own recordings that were displayed by means of Augmented Reality. Finally, they were invited to answer the question: “Who are you until now?” again, but this time as the director of the resulting video.
The first thing that is apparent is that very few participants repeated in the second version their original answer, verbatim or in a slightly altered form. This is amazing given the pressure to be consistent that youngsters currently experience.
The second thing that was noticed is that the answers most often provided seem to be culturally determined. In the Netherlands youngsters most often answered the question with their names, in Poland more often with some of the roles that they fulfill (“I’m a student, I’m a sister/ brother”).
The third, and maybe most obvious feature of this workshop element is that almost no participant could watch themselves without emotions of shame and embarassment. The shame and embarrasment were even anticipated by quite a few when they started to realize that the recordings would be shown in the workshop. For some (between 5% and 15%) this went so far that they demanded that the recordings were not shown at all – but only in the Netherlands.
The emotions of shame and embarrassment seem inconsistent with Gidden’s theory of us possessing an ever more trueful narrative – although it could be argued that embarrassment and shame were signs of a realization that the current narrative was still far from satisfactory. In this respect it is interesting to notice that adults experienced very similar levels of visible shame and embarrassment.
Beata Staszynska and I provided in parallel to the Dynamic Identity workshops get-togethers in which we asked the question: “Who are you until now?” in a group setting. Unlike at the workshops the participants (N=118) were asked one-by-one to respond with the others present. What happened now is that the first person to be asked would react puzzled and freigthened. And would, after some contemplation, come up with an answer. The following individuals would then, typically, provided an answer that was framed by the answer of the first participant. So, if the first participant would state their name and age, so would a vast majority of others after them. If the first participant would state their name and a role they play (“I’m a student.”) or a hobby, so would almost all others. Only once a group showed a more varied pattern.
It seems logical to ascribe this result to group pressure. Bruce Hood (2011) would probably go so far as to take this as evidence for our lack of Self and for the existence of a self illusion only. The situation does seem to confirm Bauman’s idea of identity as a reconfigurable, temporary jigsaw puzzle outcome. Given external demands, most (young) adolescents seem to respond flexibly to external challenges.
Once we noticed this we started implementing both elements in the workshop setting, only to find out that the answers given in the group setting prior to the individual setting were completely different from those given later in the individual setting, even though there was only less than an hour between the two events. In the group setting the answer given would resemble the frame as provided by the first person to answer but in the second setting this frame was absent. The answers in the two settings had very little in common. Again, this seems striking given the cultural norm of consistency.
Our interpretation is that the different settings indeed triggered different challenges to define one’s identity, just as Bauman tells us. Rather than possessing one consistent narration (young) adolescents possess identity elements, or labels in the frasing of Stone & Heen, that they use in various combinations depending on the external challenge.
What is unknown is whether this was always the case or whether this is a new phenomenon.