When we turn the sociological focus away from social effects and social construction towards the social condition, it becomes clear that our everyday life is structured around thousands of decisions that are influenced by an underlying social condition: the self as subject and object, as a distinctive being on its own course, and a conforming agent, meeting role expectations of a variety of sorts. This dimension of the social condition, I believe typifies the modern condition. Modern everyday life is a dilemma in itself — in that individual life is highly structured through this dilemma. Although the incorporation of values and norms during socialization lead to different dilemmas for each society member, all of us have to face them. This leads me to a specific field of observation.
When recognizing the social condition, we see identity itself as an ongoing process of negotiating dilemmas and integrating the ways of dealing with them into one’s self-image. Identity negotiation in the modern social world is characterized by a pervasive ambivalence toward self and society (Keniston 1971). In particular, I am interested in examining what Bell/Hartmann have investigated for diversity discourses in America: the “tensions between idealized conceptions and complicated realities of difference in social life, as well as the challenge of balancing group-based commitments against traditional individualist values” (Bell/Hartmann 2007: 895) for modern identity negotiation of individuals in their young adulthood. Focusing on this cohort is particularly interesting because of their proneness to uncertainties on the job market, their exposure to multiple options for creating their identity and in particular the emerging imperative for responsibility for one’s life.
The modern young adult self constantly needs to work toward a proper self-definition in a world characterized by uncertainties. Against Simmel’s idea that “[t]he life of society takes its course as if each of its elements were predestined for its particular place in it” (Simmel 1908: 20), modern selves need to find their place in an increasingly complex society, which emphasizes the notion of emerging self-control and self-observation. Moreover, young adults to my mind have the obligation to anticipate their future trajectories, their “meaningful goals and ends — the “telos” they construct” (Tavory/Eliasoph 2013: 915) during their presentation of self. Yet, the imperative of self-responsibility, in the presentation of self in everyday life, which is real in its consequences, often is in tension with the structural influences. There is an appearance of the autonomy of individual decisions, but a social world which makes the appearance difficult, if not impossible to sustain. There seems to exist a high cultural recognition for persons that can impress through merit — rewarded through economic capital as well — but at the same time this pressure and the fact that failure is all too often traced back to individual faults. Intense pressure adumbrates fulfillment of oneself. As Arendt already described in 1958:
“There is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance — poverty and misery where exhaustion is followed by wretched-ness instead of regeneration, or great riches and an entirely effort-less life where boredom takes the place of exhaustion and where the mills of necessity, of consumption and digestion, grind an impotent human body mercilessly and barrenly to death — ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive.” (Arendt 1998: 108)
From a sociological stance this observation leads back to Simmel’s description on individualism as a consequence of the capitalistic transformation and the invasion of the monetary economy into private life, leading also to objectified social relations (Simmel 1908). The expression of individuality hence is a crucial aspect of modern world, although, as Simmel (1908) demonstrated, humans have a need of union as well as of isolation. What Simmel exemplifies for the cultural form of fashion, the propensity to conform and to individuate, we can examine for the presentation of self in everyday life as well. In order to be part of our modern meritocratic society young adults need to present an achieving self that at the same time can be set apart from the mass. Thus, what follows are individuals addressing this dilemma through presenting the most valuable self, meeting the expectations of others, although this might not correspond with their self regard. At the same time, the prevalent therapeutic culture “represents a formidably powerful and quintessentially modern way to institutionalize the self” as Eva Illouz has described this. (Illouz 2008: 9). This leads to a contradiction between achieving and taking care for oneself.
Modern individuals learn to manage their identities in social interactions as the presentation of self towards others gains ever more importance. A self that is not stable but an ongoing process is presented to others as an already finished project (Tavory/Eliasoph 2013). One important feature of this modern social identity is that emotional self-control belies a socially successful self. Thus, in social interactions individuals seek to present a socially desirable self in order to protect their face and in Durkheimian terms their “sacred self” (Goffman 1969). With reference to the texts we have already read in class, this not only can be explained with the help of Goffman, but refers back to Merton’s considerations on role ambivalence because during face-to-face interactions individuals try to present the self that most likely corresponds to the cultural value of a high-achieving individual and play their role aside from their person doubts, i.e. their role of being a caretaker for themselves.
Role ambiguity thus is a consistent factor of identity negotiation in everyday interactions and may provoke identity crisis, especially among young as they enter the unstable world, seeking a place for themselves.
Arendt, H. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Bell, J. and Douglas Hartmann. 2007. “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The Cultural Ambiguities and Consequences of “Happy Talk””. American Sociological Review, 72, pp. 895-914.
Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.
Illouz, Eva. 2008. Saving the Mordern Soul. Therapy, Emotions, And The Culture of Self-Help. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Keniston, K. (1971). Youth and dissent: The rise of a new opposition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Simmel, Georg, 1992 (1908): On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.