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Contextual Formation of Identity

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: July 17, 1999
E-Mail Faculty on the Site.

Identity and Recognition Issues in the Academy
Craig Calhoun's treatment of the politics of identity and recognition
applied in the present dy academic setting. Link added July 17, 1999.
Consistency and Restraint:
What Theory is Good For in the Narrative of Learning Identity
Link added July 3, 1999.
Forgiveness and Narrative
How It Matters, Even Though We Didn't Mean It
Link added July 5, 1999.
The Measurement of Learning and Its Link to Identity
Link added June 27, 1999.
Trying on Narratives for Size and Fit: Shaping Them to Us
Added June 13, 1999.
Theory Construction and the Narrative of Learning
Link added late July 1, 1999.

Grade Inflation and CorporatismA different perspective on grades

Quotes and Discussion Lists
offer scholastic references with links.
Link added July 13, 1999.
Criminal Profiles as Ignorant Bad Faith
Link added late July 1, 1999.

Identity and Discourse within a Relational Context
Working Paper by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Link added in Spring 1999.
Rejecting the Image They Made of Us
Link added June 26, 1999.
"They ain't us."

"Narrative, Moral Identity and Historical Consciousness:
a Social Constructionist Account"

Draft by Kenneth Gergen. External Site

Research Sources on Concepts of Person and Self

Andy Lock's Piece on Identity

New Site Joining Virtual Faculty on Narrative Psychology



Identity and Discourse within a Relational Context

by Jeanne Curran and Susan Takata

Paper to be Presented at annual criminal justice meetings, 1998.

This is not a complete version of the paper. We made a mess in reconstructing the site, and are just now trying to put things back together again. The focus of this paper is a report of our experiences over a two-year period in establishing dialogue, its relation to identity, especially as that identity relates to the dialogue, and how that fits the overall relational context of the institutional setting in which the dialogue must occur, including the power relationships that are supported and those that are emergent despite the supported position..

The pieces here have been gathered from our own on-going dialogues about the process. We uploaded the work at this stage so that our students can follow the process of creating the text, and so that they can enter critically into the process. So welcome:


Foucault says its all about power. And Covaleskie divides that power into sovereign and disciplinary. Then Covaleskie notes that Foucault has a perspective - power, and there is more.

Lock says its all about discourse. And he portrays language from its developing symbolic origins. Then lock notes that knowledge and narrative are shaped by the social learning through which they evolve.

Then Duncan Kennedy complains that the students (we're talking Harvard Law, here) are shaped by the arrogant hierarchy of control and manipulation. And they come to accept this!

Then Alfie Kohn says that rewards punish as much as do punishments for they externalize control and destroy intrinsic motivation. And even Thorndike knew that punishment didn't work. He revoked his second law of learning.

Then we turn to the hard scientists, trying to push back the frontiers of knowledge, and we discover with Steve Epstein that science is itself , even medical science and its foundational bacteriology, virology are impure. Of course, we knew that. Barbara McClintock wouldn't trust anyone with her organisms because she knew the magic of her own intense openness to whatever her genomes might do.

And then we look up and ask ourselves what on earth Dear Habermas is doing in the middle of all this. Well, some would call it synthesis. Bruner would say that if we understand it all competently we could then teach it to fourth graders, and he's right. Vygotsky, unlike Piaget, had faith in our ability, in our hunger to grow and understand.

Dear Habermas is a forum for all of us at an undergraduate institution. We have graduates, who go on into specialized professional areas, but our mission is the undergraduate. All of the above affect and are affected by that mission.

Teaching, learning, research are about as contextual as you can get. The teaching and learning can't take place without students, though faculty and administrators are wont to forget that. Just ask any student. Research can't go on without subjects, and guess how many of those are college sophomores. We are context.

  1. Our business is competence and expertise.

  2. Like everyone else, we have a range of skills.

  3. To the extent, and it is a large extent, that we are run "like a business" we are subject to the carrot and stick philosophy so popular in the management of this "administered" society.

  4. This is the world in which Peter's Principle evolved. Supervision conflicts with the cooperative team approach that most thinking creatures prefer.

  5. When rewards form the basis of performance, then political maneuvering, not competence tends to prevail, especially in the local scene if it is dominated by a supervisor(s) of the carrot and stick persuasion..

  6. What happens in such an environment to the worker who cares about the virus, or about the student, or about the narrative?

  7. The context will operate differently at the local and the cosmopolitan levels.

  8. At both levels disciplinary power will assert itself. Hard to see, hard to fight, hard to overcome. This is much like Feagin's discrimination without a perpetrator. The institutional rules, once in place, perpetuate the auto-poietic non-learning subsystem.

  9. Such effects can occur without malice either before or after the damage is done. Many are the good guys who know it's wrong but just can't figure out what they can do about it.

  10. And we usually stop, like Duncan Kennedy, short of tackling the real issues, and simply carp at those who succumb to what appear to us such egregiously obvious power plays.

    To resist the power plays would take considerably more than intelligence, willingness, and good will on the part of our students. They know they're being bullied. They know they're being treated badly. But they know also that to take on the hierarchy at this point is to succumb to a local battle, soon lost in local history, and with little or no effect on the overall structure.

    The arrogant hierarchical structure, the unstated assumption that there is a right answer, there is a reality, and that we either know it, or may some day come to that holy state, is cosmopolitan, not local. So it is foolish to blame our students for lack of candor or brilliance when they fail to challenge the system. It does matter that we provide such theory as this, so that they can learn to see the system and understand their frustrations, not just at the behest of our approval, for Kohn would shudder that they seek "our approval." It matters because only through such critical distancing can they develop the tools and skills that will free them. But then we cannot seek rewards ourselves from them - rewards of praise or good fellowship. We do this not for rewards, but because the social discourse from which our community grows and to which our interdependence is subject is the life stuff of our world. We are not "enlightening" them. We share shoulder to shoulder a battle with them for the dignity of every human to realize his motivation to achieve as she must for her own sake and for that of the community from which she sprang and of which she is an integral part.

    I need to say right here that I have no quarrel with Duncan Kennedy's analysis. For ten years I have been using his article to bring my students to awareness. But he needs the mother's understanding that sometimes the child cannot fight the battle waged by the parents. I know that "in loco parentis" is pooh-poohed in college these days. But we ask too much that our students see clearly when this is far from a clear day. ‘Twould suit better to speak openly and frequently of Foucault's concern with power, and of Covaleskie's recognition of "disciplinary" vs. sovereign power. ‘Tis theory they need, not our approval, and not we theirs.

    In the present work and learning place, arrogant hierarchy and the "administered" society being what they are, we need to identify ways of maintaining our integrity and our dignity, while maintaining a viable and acceptable position in the hierarchy that simple "is." Revolution is not the business of the young who would build for the future. It is the business of all of us, together, to be undertaken with due critical distancing, sheltering and respect for the young, and continual reflexive introspection.

    The system in which we presently find ourselves is permitting critical theory. Forums like Dear Habermas provide for texts as they form, through learning experiences, through teaching experiences, through shared discourse. That permission is essential, for there are those who have suffered grievously when such freedoms were denied.

    We suggest that permission for a critical theory approach will vary across both local and cosmopolitan settings. We believe that stories will help us recognize how the differing social settings shape different stories.

    We want to tell a few details here to illustrate what we hope Dear Habermas can do.

    Local community largely homogeneous. Aging. Less and less receptive over time to personal identities that do not fit the "normalized" patterns that have developed. See Andy Lock's Against Cognitivism.

    Attitude and persuasion theory suggests, as did happen, that group members will approach deviates to persuade them to "normalize" their identities to the group. We have noted that they will do this even without the group's formal approval, and we suspect that most such persuasion efforts are undertaken by self-appointed members uncomfortable with the emerging diversity. (Pat Acone asked me to emphasize that we refer here to diversity in its broadest sense, not exclusively to color and race.)

    Here we have an identity issue. Ernest Gaines dealt with this in Three Black Men, when he had the older Black man say to the younger to whom the police were offering escape, that he should not go. That it was his very presence that disturbed the White man. The White man needs the Black man, in that scene to define himself by what he is not: black. Identity can arise as a "Not I" issue rather than an "I" issue.

    When members of a group share a discomfort with the diversity of new identities forming within the groups, as will happen, say, when neighborhoods grow and go through their own life cycles, their identities are often disturbed by the emerging diversity. The diversity challenges by its very existence some of the unstated assumptions of privilege on which their identity is based. Thus, there is considerable affect in confrontations to pressure the younger members into aspiration toward the old privileged identities.

    Because this discourse arises more out of the self-protective move to guard what is "rightfully one's own" in a world where such assumptions have never been stated, let alone argued on the merits, there is little coherence to any of the arguments and little real argument with any appeal to factual evidence. Rhetoric prevails. (Hirschman, Rhetoric of Reaction) On both sides. I strongly suspect that "disciplinary" power as part of the social context in which this occurs has something to do with making it even harder to break out of this rhetorical bind. One effect of this is that the mature do not find their hands or mouths stayed by respect for the young or any other factor which might indicate that the scales are unfairly balanced in the confrontation. But there is more going on than just rudeness, and fear. There may be a parallel with lynchings, and we should look for it. I just know that the normal restraints seem to give way to a "no holds barred" atmosphere, that bears little correspondence to the actual comparative strengths of the individuals involved.

    Refusal by the deviant to comply with the proposed identity "normalization" is met with major affect, negative. This is especially the case because the self-appointed group has rarely planned any strategy beyond simple display of "sovereign" authority. Deviants conform. Research has shown that. When they do not conform, and continue to display their deviant nature, the rhetorical confrontation tends to escalate.

    At this point, narrative learning would suggest that there are some steps the deviant identity can take:

    1. Retreat from confrontation - people take sides for the most unpredictable of reasons - and usually ends up in rhetoric

    2. From whatever local space is available to the one asserting the diverse identity, build links to a more cosmopolitan group where such diversity is not threatening

    3. As the links and external cosmopolitan support grow, disengage from the local setting to whatever extent is compatible with the social context, unless it is a separate goal to force acceptance of the diversity - nota bene, that is a revolutionary goal, not survival

      This would seem to indicate that Dear Habermas' role is to provide access in a format Bruner would approve to all this theory. Provide stories. Invite those on Dear Habermas to share stories. Be sure the history is recorded, as Cornel West assures us is our role in times like these.



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