Identity, Class and Contemporary Contexts

It has been widely noted by many who know me well how binary I can be  – that is, I am prone to extreme moods, fancies, etc. Most of the time I don’t even realise this but it struck me symbolically whilst organising some recent photographs. I could split photographs featuring myself in two distinct categories. I was either wearing ripped jeans, heavy metal hoodies and flannelette shirts with my hair pushed in a messy ponytail. Or I had full makeup, manicured platinum blonde curls and the Marilyn Monroe look with either a fussy frilly structured dress or a neat business casual outfit. It was rather perplexing. Who the hell was I? And if I didn’t know, how were others meant to know? Was this endemic of the fabled late modern identity crises? Or simply, as friends would jokingly point out, an ‘Anoushka problem’?

We live in a world of multiple roles (parent, sister, daughter, wife, friend, boss, colleague etc), confusing messages that identity can be worn and discarded like clothes (the ‘sex kitten’ that one’s partner likes is hidden in the proverbial closet when Mum comes over for tea and cake!) and perhaps most importantly, within an advanced capitalist system with a sophisticated consumer culture that also sends many messages regarding self-authenticity and identity. Social media allows us to carefully construct an ideal self alongside these contradictions, perhaps worsening our crises. Many wring their hands over a supposed explosion in narcissism and self-absorption, which over-simplifies the very human social need to be accepted and liked.

These phenomena do not allow for a straightforward and fluid narrative. However, as I am exploring in my thesis, there are some cultural codes that are becoming embedded in global contexts – and potentially, emerging as a globalized linguistic sign. Such as the luxury symbol. Regardless of language spoken, the luxury brand symbol, some makes/models and styles, are recognizable across linguistic barriers and sociocultural lines. For example, luxury goods are experiencing strong demand in China – and a show of the ‘right’ clothing, watch or bag when doing international business may engender more trust or a display of power/class than carefully chosen translated words. This could explain how ruling classes dominate in civil societies; how power is shown symbolically without the show or suggestion of violence or force. This may even assist us in moving towards understanding why the lower classes fawn over the elites like giddy tweens at a One Direction concert.

Social identity is a shifting construct that moves, often depending on who you want to see it – a ‘conspicuous consumption’. I would not wear my jeans and shirt to get a bank loan or do anything professionally related. This is likely related to class-positioning – or my cultural capital, if you will. My mother was brought up in a upper-middle class home with old-fashioned bourgeois values and manners; which she pushed on to my brother and I. My father was raised by his traditionalist Scottish-British grandparents whilst his radio star mother flitted around the world and his father drank himself stupid. To say I was raised with old-fashioned cultural values is an understatement – and admittedly, this accumulation of cultural capital is something that often benefits me. As I examine my thesis data that shows how wealth keeps compounding at the top of society, despite the quantity of social theories proposed since, I return to Veblen and Bourdieu, because few theorists describe the symbolic power of class and capital better. People can often guess if you are not ‘one of them’, regardless of how well you may imitate them. Masks slip, or prove to never be very good anyway.

Returning to the problem of self-authenticity, it may be debatable whether it is even an issue for sociology to be concerned with. There exists a body of work in philosophy and the psychological sciences that treats the issue rather extensively. It is doubtlessly a bourgeois puzzle – an existential self-query that troubles the caricatured ivory tower academic.  Recently, I have come to realize that I like a lot of ‘stuff’ that I probably should not dedicate my scholarly career to studying. For me, an onus exists for the sociologist to interrogate society, locate it’s problems and legitimize discussion about urgent issues such as socioeconomic inequality – unpacking this to causes, drivers and results. Writing about phantasmagoria and culture is enjoyable; but not particularly socially important. To utilize a Marxian term, it provides little ‘use value’. As what can be considered Australian society extends via technology and markets, the sociologist is pressured to keep up with the reflexive social changes and the constant shifts in winners and losers of this transformation. This is no small challenge…

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2 thoughts on “Identity, Class and Contemporary Contexts”

  1. ‘I like a lot of ‘stuff’ that I probably should not dedicate my scholarly career to studying.’ – yes you should as it is fascinating. Kangol caps were the absolute preserve of conservative golf clubby ex military types and then were embrace by thuggy teens in the UK. They moved on to Burberry after Kangol I think. How that must have choked the Major [Rtd]s.
    The Gucci slip-on with a metal ‘bridle’ bit was the preserve of Riviera playboys and became endemic in 1970’s Hollywood. All these little indicators of what Tribe one is part of.
    How funny that sloppy looking Punks supposedly rejecting [whatever] were all UNIFORMLY wearing quite costly Doc Martens ’14 Up’ or ’16 up’s. the up-er the better.
    After I passed through the ‘brand’ phase, I realised that it indicated social insecurity. I was about 27 [early 70’s and post Hippie] when I was most intensely collecting the Gucci Hermes Burberry ‘look I’m a grown-up with spending power’ things. China is presently insecure as a socialising nation of a new wealth class. probably.

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