MIT Media Lab
Thesis document [pdf]
Chapter 2: Negotiating Identity in Social Interactions
During social interaction, people regularly present themselves while simultaneously reading the presentations of others. Depending on one's personality, an individual will adjust aspects of their presentation according to the reactions and presentations of those around them. Fundamentally, social interaction is a negotiation between individuals performing within a particular social context to convey aspects of their identity. This negotiation often occurs with little conscious thought; people comfortably interact with one another, revealing what is appropriate while assessing what information is being given. Although these interactions happen at an unconscious level, it is important to understand exactly what is happening, particularly since the goal of this research is to create digital systems that give equivalent social structures for sociable people.
In this chapter, i articulate some of the underlying motivations and actions that occur as people interact, focusing on face-to-face communication. In particular, i emphasize a multi-faceted approach to identity, Goffman's notions of performance/perception, and the importance of and mechanisms for context awareness and regulation. I have chosen to explicitly consider these four aspects of social interaction for their relevance to the design of digital spaces. These characteristics are affected by the underlying architecture; thus, i feel as though their subtleties require closer examination. In discussing them, i also relate psychological notions of self-monitoring, postmodern concepts of the fragmentation of self and the relevance of fashion. Although these concepts operate in tandem, by teasing them apart, i hope to more adequately prepare the reader for understanding the impact of digital architectures on social behavior.
Multiple notions of identity: the internal vs. the social
Self-awareness allows individuals to have a sense of who they are in relation to society and culture. By reflexively adjusting one's perception of self in reaction to society, people construct their individual identity. Approaches to identity abound, and they refer to many different ideas about the self, much of which is grounded in contemporary Western cultural values. Frequently, identity refers to at least two different aspects of the individual - that which is an internalized notion of the self, and that which is the projected version of one's internalized self. Researchers have constructed this distinction in various ways. Adam Smith (1976/1790) separates identity into the object versus acting self, while Mead (1934) refers to me versus I. Most controversially, Freud (1974/1923) distinguishes between a public ego, an internal selfish id, and an internal conscience or super-ego. While these approaches are vastly different, they all recognize that the self is complicated, in part because of a separation between internal notions and external ones. In other words, what people produce or convey to others is not necessarily the same as their internal perception of self. Lacan (1980/1968) presents an alternative to this approach, suggesting that there is no internal self, only an external one. As i disagree with this analysis, my approach will consider a duality of identity, where i collapse competing notions of the self into two categories - one's internal identity and one's social identity.
To clarify, my notion of internal identity refers to an individual's self-perception in relation to their experiences and the world. As it is reflective in nature, self-perception cannot be purely manifested internally. Without society and experience as a basis for reflexivity, there can be no internalized evaluation (Giddens 1991: 52-53). As such, history, experience and interaction provide the model by which individuals can give meaning to the physical, psychological, philosophical, and moral aspects of their identity. One's identity is not simply based on the characteristics that are written on the body or the circumstances in which one is born, but on how the individual reacts to and internalized these experiences.
Alternatively, when people interact with others, they convey aspects of themselves through a set of signals that others must learn to read and evaluate. As will be discussed in more detail in the next section, the negotiation between self-presentation and external evaluation can be viewed as a performance, which helps construct an individual's social identity. While internal identity is entirely constructed and maintained by the individual, social identity is perceived externally, relying not on the intention, but the effective expression and perception of an individual's presentation. While one's social identity emerges from one's internal identity, its manifestation is read in light of body conveying it and the situation in which it is being conveyed. The environment plays a crucial role in the production and perception of one's social identity.
These two formations of the self do not operate alone; instead, the social identity and the internal identity are in constant interplay. The public version of one's self is impacted by the internalized version, which in turn evolves based on one's experiences. The more that an experience challenges an individual's notion of self in relation to society, the more it impacts their identity. People notice who they are in relation to the people around them, particularly noting that which is different. It is because of this that people are quite conscious of their position in relation to societal norms.
The social identity is what individuals use to interact with and relate to others. Yet, it is the internal identity that one is constantly comparing to others' in a social environment. In order to socialize, people take specific aspects of their internal identity, project it into their social identity and use this to construct a performance that will allow them to negotiate social situations.
Performing and monitoring one's social presentation
While interacting socially, people are aware of and react to the feedback that they receive by the other people in an environment. They adjust their body posture, their facial expressions, and their general presentation. These adjustments are made not to be artificial but to convey appropriate social information for the situation. As articulated best by Goffman (1956), all social interactions can be seen as a series of interactive performances, where the actors are constantly altering their presentation based on their assumptions about what is acceptable in this situation and the reactions that they receive from others. People perform aspects of themselves in order to generate specific impressions, often so that others will perceive them in a positive light.
Furthermore, people not only perform their ideas, but all aspects of themselves. For example, while sex may be a biological trait, Butler (1990: 25) suggests that people perform their gender. Read in tandem with one's perceived sex, one's gender performance is used to create assumptions about their sexuality, their values and their personality. For example, the notion of a butch woman is derived from a masculine performance coming from a female body. From this perspective, gender and other identity concepts are entirely constructed; normative ideas vary across cultures. What an individual presents is read in response to the cultural norms and reflects on the identity of the individual in a given context.
Drawing from Goffman's performance theory, there are three fundamental components to the passage of social information between individuals. When information is to be conveyed explicitly, it is given, but these messages are also impacted by the subtle, and perhaps unconscious messages that are given off by the actors, as well as the intention that the observer might infer (Goffman 1956: 2). Thus, any social message is not simply a set of factual data, but a negotiation in communication relying on both the signals presented by the actor as well as the signs perceived by the observer. The observer's impressions of a situation are based on inference, which results from mental models derived from previous interactions. As such, a viewer does not always perceive the intentions of an actor.
While interaction operates on impressions, people are often naturally (or neurotically) motivated to suppress their own desires in order to please others (Rank 1932; Moustakas 1972). In other words, they seek to create a good impression. Social conformity, or collective action, relies on this behavior. The internal need to conform and the fear of perceived social gatekeepers creates a mechanism for society to be regulated by social norms. Yet, while there is a general desire to follow the social order, individual personality characteristics determine how important and relevant conformity is.
In his theories of self-monitoring, Snyder (1974) suggests that personality determines the level at which people regulate their performance in relation to others' reactions. As such, an individual's reaction to socially normative pressures is dependent on where they are situated along an axis of self-monitoring. High self-monitors are highly attuned to the expectations and reactions of others, and are therefore extremely conscious of presenting themselves in a way that creates the desired impressions, either positive or negative. Conversely, low self-monitors fail to incorporate social feedback when constructing their presentation. Self-monitoring is important for considering how people negotiate their identity in social situations.
Additionally, people's previous experiences affect their perception. When reading an actor's performance, the observer is constantly integrating the portrayed information with all previous knowledge, experience, and relevant communicative situations (Saville-Troike 1982: 22). In evaluating an actor's presentation, people categorize and stereotype the interactions in order to position the actor within their mental model of human behavior (Simmel 1971: 9-10). While categorization provides an observer with a mechanism to quickly understand the information that they are being given, it also makes it difficult for an individual to overcome their initial impressions. Unfortunately, people are more likely to reinterpret future presentations to fit their early mental models then they are to adjust their initial classification of others (Aronson 1995). Recognizing this, people are motivated to make that first impression count.
When developing a presentation to create a desired impression, people assess what is appropriate and expected, while trying to determine how their presentation is going to be perceived. In other words, people constantly adjust for context.
The value of situational and interpersonal context
With little conscious effort, people assess the interrelated conditions of the environment in which they are presenting themselves. Contextual information provides performers with vital cues with which to determine what is appropriate behavior in a particular situation. Likewise, context provides readers with a model for evaluating one's behavior. In particular, two context cues provide the majority of the information that people actively integrate - situational and interpersonal context information.
Situational context refers to the aspects of the architecture and environment that suggest what activities normally take place here and now. Situational knowledge requires an understanding of the social qualities of the environment including the location, the time period, the particular occasion, and the general politics and values of the society. Based on previous experiences in a given context, people start developing mental models of these situations, just as they build mental models of people. These models allow people to associate particular architectural forms with functions and behaviors, allowing people to more rapidly process the situation. People have learned to understand particular design forms and they can quickly separate a fast food restaurant from a pub. Likewise, they understand the meaning of specific situations, thereby realizing that a solemn funeral is an inappropriate place to scream the latest football scores.
In addition to situational cues, people adjust for interpersonal context information. When an individual enters a room, they reflect on the others in that space. Even without conversing, people evaluate each other's performances, develop mental categories and get a sense of the people in relation to the space. In such situations, people recognize that they are being observed as well as observing and thus present themselves to be read. Interpersonal contextual information allows the observer to determine what are the appropriate roles in this environment, what types of social identities are acceptable and whether or not they will have anything in common with the other people. Not only does one evaluate the type of people around, but also each individual's presentation.
When assessing situational and interpersonal contexts, people also evaluate the level of porousness. In other words, what is the likelihood that the information presented in this situation to these people will reappear elsewhere? When unexpected recording devices or gossip replicates one's performance in an external context, there can be significant social consequences. Thus, one must evaluate the likelihood that recording devices exist or the probability of information being spread by word of mouth. In some situations, this is perfectly acceptable, if not desired. Yet, even in public environments, porousness is not typically assumed. For example, when one presents oneself at a pub, most likely they do not expect that their presentation will reappear at work to be considered out-of-context. When evaluating for potential gossip, people also evaluate the trust of others. In environments where information is not to be spread, trust of those present is necessary.
When assessing contextual information, people rely on previous experiences and categorization. They compare the current environment to their mental model to determine what assumptions can be made. While these assumptions may be inaccurate, they provide the necessary framework for people to quickly determine how to best present themselves. By understanding the context of the environment, people know which aspects of their social identity to perform.
Reconsidering identity in relation to fragmentation, facets and faces
As previously discussed, there are two components to an individual's identity - the internal and the social. This social component is constantly being adjusted depending on the context of a particular environment. People present themselves differently in particular situations, not because they are hiding aspects of themselves, but because some behaviors are more appropriate in one context than another. A working mother does not act like a mother in a boardroom meeting; the language that one uses at a pub is not appropriate for church; while leather skirts meant one thing in 1985, they mean something very different in 2002. Based on contextual cues, an individual determines what is acceptable behavior and what aspects of their identity they should perform.
Because a variety of contexts affect individuals differently, one's social identity appears to regularly change in relation to the social situation. As such, an individual may appear to have many different and conflicting social identities. This realization appears to be philosophically contradictory to the humanist notions of a complete, manageable "Cartesian" self (Descartes 1641). Starting with Freud's divergent opinion (1974/1923), postmodern theorists began to think of the self as incorrigibly fragmented:
We can no longer conceive of the 'individual' in terms of a whole, centered, stable and completed Ego or autonomous, rational 'self'. The 'self' is conceptualized as more fragmented and incomplete, composed of multiple 'selves' or identities in relation to the different social worlds we inhabit, something with a history, 'produced', in process. The 'subject' is differently placed or positioned by different discourses and practices. (Hall 1996: 226)
Seeing the unconscious as a product of culture, not individuality, Lacan (1980/1968) suggests that the self is the product of imagination. Thus, their presentations reflect multiple subject positions, where people can be viewed an aspect of the text of a given situation; the subject is not separated from the situation. Given this take on the individual, it is not surprising that postmodern theorists view the modern individual as undergoing an identity crisis (Harvey 1990).
Such an approach appropriately reacts to the needs of the contemporary individual to lead a plurality of lifeworlds (Giddens 1991: 83), where they must negotiate diverse social situations, each of which has its own norms and values. Yet, these theories fail to recognize the agency of the individual to separate their internal and social identities, fragmenting only the latter without creating a crisis for the former. Suggesting that an individual is inherently fragmented and undergoing an identity crises is problematic. In a society where people play many different roles and must constantly adjust for different social contexts, their presentation may appear to be fragmented, but this does not imply that they are. Instead, such adjustments suggest that the individual is maintaining and presenting multiple facets of their identity as appropriate.
In any given situation, an individual presents a face (Goffman 1972), which is the social presentation of one facet of their identity. I believe that an individual has a coherent sense of self, but in presenting only facets of their identity, they are perceived as fragmented. People maintain many different social facets and often associate particular facets, and therefore faces, with particular contexts. These multitudes of faces and facets do not indicate a collapse of the individual, but instead represent the control with which an individual manages their presentation in everyday life. With little consciousness, people quickly evaluate the context of a given situation, determine which facet of their identity they wish to convey, and construct a face from which to perform this identity.
Thus, in managing multiple facets, people are simply fragmenting their social identities. This form of fragmentation is not necessarily problematic, although it does require more flexibility in identity management. As Simmel (1971: xliii) recognizes, social fragmentation can be liberating because it allows for individuality, where people have the ability to portray a wide variety of the different aspects of themselves in different, yet appropriate situations. Maintaining multiple facets can offer relief and empowerment for marginalized individuals, as they can find acceptance and support in certain communities while being shunned by society as a whole.
As people negotiate multiple facets, they unconsciously associate different facets of their identity with particular contexts. For example, one may maintain a work-based facet that only appears when one enters the workspace. Such archetypes aid users in properly negotiating their presentation, knowing which facet to show given a situation.
Fashion as an example of the convergence of identity, context and facets
In post-industrial Western fashion, people are able to choose clothing to represent aspects of their identity and their relationship with the culture. The meaning of the fashion is contextually dependent such that the place, the time, and the viewers all determine the meaning of one's fashion presentation (Davis 1992: 5). Fashion indicates ones societal role and participation within various (sub)cultures. By evaluating fashion markers in relation to the context, the viewer makes assumptions about the performer's identity. Likewise, the performer often chooses clothing to represent the facet of their identity that is being performed. Thus, one might choose to wear different clothes to work and the pub. By understanding the situational context and the subtleties of fashion markers, performers can present subversive messages, such as retro. Without the subtle nuances, the same articles of clothing are seen as outdated. Fashion is constantly changing and the values associated with it are different across different (sub)cultures. The ways in which people choose to adorn themselves indicates much about their values, their interests and their relationship to fashion.
Conflicting contextual cues; collapsed contexts
Situations that present conflicting, misleading or inaccurate contextual cues can be disconcerting. For example, it is embarrassing to arrive at a formal cocktail party in a risqué costume having understood the invite to be for a masquerade ball. Misunderstood contextual cues can lead individuals to present inappropriate faces, thereby giving off the wrong impression. When an individual wants to contextualize their presentation, such experiences can be perplexing. This is particularly true when segregated contexts are collapsed.
When an individual is placed into a social situation where they relate to different people through different roles, they must reassess what is an appropriate face to present. Situations where multiple contexts collide encourage individuals to react in one of two ways - either aim to present a face that is universally acceptable or risk the social consequences of conveying inappropriate information to some of those observing your presentation. While people seek to present themselves appropriately, they do not necessarily have control over what others reveal about their identity. When two worlds are bridged, information that may have been shared in one context can be shared in the other, potentially creating an awkward social situation. For example, introducing mom to all of one's friends can be a recipe for disaster.
In order to avoid such discomfort, when individuals maintain separate identity facets, they tend to segregate the associated contexts so that there is no collision of identity information. Individuals who present the same identity information across multiple contexts tend to be less concerned with explicitly separating their social contexts. Again, one's self-monitoring habits indicate the importance of maintaining separate contexts (Kilduff 1992). Given their intense focus on socially approval, high self-monitors might be more likely to separate facets along contextual lines and are probably more fearful of the social embarrassment of collapsed contexts.
Maintaining segregated social facets is advantageous for those whose identity strays from the norm, as it allows them to associate with other societal outcasts while still being able to maintain a public life. For example, many sexual minorities tend not to present their sexuality in every social occasion; thus, they are more inclined to separate contexts where this is shared from those where it is not. As society tends to assume normative viewpoints unless shown otherwise, there is a certain level of safety in socially driven "don't ask; don't tell" policies, yet such politics also weaken the power of marginalized individuals through obscurity.
In maintaining and adjusting their identity, people tend to be cognizant of their social surroundings. People control social presentations to meet their needs, including the desire for privacy, perceived social acceptability, fear of disgrace or harm, or perhaps an internal need to control different aspects of one's life through separation.
Crowd behavior and social regulation
Social regulation is effective when people feel the need to conform to social norms. Through fear of disapproval, social sanctions or other consequences, people will self-regulate their own behavior. While social pressure operates in almost any type of social interaction, its impact on crowd behavior takes on an entirely different form. The norms of a crowd are quite different than the average of the individuals' values, as they are fundamentally impacted by the opportunity for anonymity and deindividualization (Le Bon 1952/1985). At the same time, the collective pressure to conform in crowds is dramatically increased. By asserting one's individuality, one is no longer a part of the crowd. As the power of the crowd is quite effective, such nonconformity puts the individual at greater risk.
Just as the crowd alters the mental state of an individual, so does perceived authority. As Milgram (1974) showed in his seminal work, people will complete otherwise unthinkable tasks simply because of social pressure and fear of punishment from an authority. Both crowd behavior and obedience to authority indicate the magnitude of social regulatory forces. As people avoid social embarrassment, they are quite likely to behave according to the social norms laid out by the collective.
In order for these forces to function, certain social structures must be operational. First, people must be able to observe or otherwise understand the socially acceptable behaviors. Second, others must be able to observe when an individual is acting out of line and signal their disapproval or suggest punitive possibilities. Third, there must be a mechanism by which people can publicly admonish an individual in an environment where people dread the effects of the potential punishment. Minsky argues that people need to have a sense of the other individual, of their existence, since "without the concept of an individual, we could have no sense of responsibility" (1985: 51). Thus, in anonymous situations, people's lack of fear of retribution or sense of other people undermines the effectiveness of social regulation.
In the crowd environment, it is not a sense of the individual that matters, but the sense of the group as a substitute for the individual. As such, it is more apparent to an individual that they will be punished for acting against the crowd than for acting with the crowd against a broader social norm. Thus, they are more likely to go along with the crowd, as individuality is what is punished in such an environment.
Social regulation helps create the norms that people use when they are determining how to properly act. By creating a set of social standards, regulation helps people properly assess the context of a situation. Social regulation also acts as a motivating force for people to perform their identity in a meaningful manner. Without the social pressures of inappropriateness, it is difficult for people to evaluate others and adjust their performance according to the social values, context and perception of others.
While social interaction requires little conscious effort, there are complex processes continually at play. People must process a situation, read the contextual cues, present their internal sense of self in a meaningful way, adjust their presentation depending on others' reactions, and constantly negotiate what is socially acceptable. In all interactions, identity, performance, context and regulation are constantly operating and interacting.
Although understanding these behaviors may appear to be a futile academic exercise, it is necessary for designing digital environments. While these processes occur unconsciously in the physical world, the underlying structure that motivates them is drastically altered by the digital architecture. Such structural changes result in subtle but significant differences in social interaction.