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Anthony Giddens:
Modernity and self-identity

Modernity and the self

In modern societies - by which we mean not 'societies today' but 'societies where modernity is well developed' - self-identity becomes an inescapable issue. Even those who would say that they have never given any thought to questions or anxieties about their own identity will inevitably have been compelled to make significant choices throughout their lives, from everyday questions about clothing, appearance and leisure to high-impact decisions about relationships, beliefs and occupations. Whilst earlier societies with a social order based firmly in tradition would provide individuals with (more or less) clearly defined roles, in post-traditional societies we have to work out our roles for ourselves. As Giddens (1991: 70) puts it:

'What to do? How to act? Who to be? These are focal questions for everyone living in circumstances of late modernity - and ones which, on some level or another, all of us answer, either discursively or through day-to-day social behaviour.'

Change at every level

The prominence of these questions of identity in modern society is both a consequence and a cause of changes at the institutional level. Typically, Giddens sees connections between the most 'micro' aspects of society - individuals' internal sense of self and identity - and the big 'macro' picture of the state, multinational capitalist corporations, and globalisation. These different levels, which have traditionally been treated quite separately by sociology, have influence upon each other, and cannot really be understood in isolation.

Take, for example, the changes in intimate relationships which we have seen in the last sixty years - the much greater levels of divorce and separation as people move from one relationship to another, the substantially increased openness about sexuality, and much more conspicuous sexual diversity. These changes cannot be understood by assuming they were led by social institutions and the state, not least of all because traditional thinking on both left and right has been that both capitalism and the 'moral authorities' of the state would prefer the population to have stable monogamous family lives.

But these changes cannot be explained by looking only at the individual level, either: we couldn't just say that people spontaneously started to change their minds about how to live. A serious explanation must lie somewhere within the network of macro and micro forces. The changes in marriage, relationships and visible sexuality are associated with the decline of religion and the rise of rationality - social changes brought about by changes in how individuals view life, which in turn stem from social influences and observations. These developments are also a product of changes in the laws relating to marriage and sexuality (macro); but the demand for these changes came from the level of everyday lives (micro). These, in turn, had been affected by the social movements of women's liberation and egalitarianism (macro); which themselves had grown out of dissatisfactions within everyday life (micro). So change stems from a mesh of micro and macro forces.

Media and the self

The mass media is also likely to influence individuals' perceptions of their relationships. Whether in serious drama, or celebrity gossip, the need for 'good stories' would always support an emphasis on change in relationships. Since almost nobody on TV remains happily married for a lifetime - whether we're talking about fictional characters or real-life public figures - we inevitably receive a message that monogamous heterosexual stability is, at best, a rare 'ideal', which few can expect to achieve. We are encouraged to reflect on our relationships in magazines and self-help books (explicitly), and in movies, comedy and drama (implicitly). The news and factual media inform us about the findings of lifestyle research, and actual social changes in family life. This knowledge is then 'reappropriated' by ordinary people, often lending support to non-traditional models of living. Information and ideas from the media do not merely reflect the social world, then, but contribute to its shape, and are central to modern reflexivity.


Next on Giddens: The reflexive project of the self.
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This is only an edited and simplified version of material which will appear in this book.

Please don't use this text without this credit.

© David Gauntlett 2002.