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The Self Can Be Understood As 'socially Constructed'.

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The notion of self strikes us all in someway throughout our lives. Whether we are considered by others to be of a particular persuasion or we admire or despair of our own qualities we have ingrained perceptions and beliefs about the nature of the self, of ourselves. The importance of culture and context in understanding the processes by which people come to describe, explain or account for the world and themselves is described as social constructionism. The theory of social constructionism contrasts with theories of psychodynamic perspectives and essentialism that suggest that our representations of ourselves are based on some innate and unconscious propensities. This essay will show that the social constructivist perspective clearly describes the self as we know it through the examination of the self in childhood, working life and throughout the ageing process.

Ian Hacking states that something can be thought to be socially constructed if the following 2 claims are satisfied:

(0) in the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted, X appears to be inevitable

(1) X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.

From this definition, social constructs can be understood to be the by products of countless human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature, however unintended or unconscious they might have been. Thus in order to show that the self is socially constructed, the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the creation of their perceived social reality must be demonstrated. The most simple demonstration of this is varying treatment of societal groups in different communities around the world.


James and James state, in their work, Constructing Children, that childhood as a concept did not exist in mediaeval society. While younger members of society were identified by size or lack of sexual maturity, they were not treated any differently to adults. Each person contributed to society to the extent possible based on their physical and mental capabilities. Over time the rise of compulsory schooling, law and social policy, and specialised health care combined with changing societal perceptions (generally associated with growth of wealth) lead to the concept of childhood that westerners understand today. While physical development patterns have changed little, social and mental development is markedly different in children who have experienced a privileged 'childhood'. Increasingly the effect of an extremely privileged upbringing has lead to the 'Gen-Y' syndrome in which a sense of responsibility has not been instilled, but a sense of 'entitlement' is strong. This is a direct result of a youth-focused society in which rights, entitlements and perceptions grant the youngest members of society special social status. The same beliefs of 'entitlement' are not demonstrated in developing cultures where children are still treated as contributing members to a family unit and respect and responsibility for care of the parents in old age is accepted as the norm.

Following Hacking's 2 claims, we can safely say that in the present state of affairs childhood is taken for granted. The fact that children 'deserve' special rights and privileges is unquestioned and in fact, Labor won the recent election in Australia based partly on more rights for children in terms of education and access to computers. But as we have shown with example from mediaeval societies and developing cultures today, this was not and is not always the case, hence, childhood, the first bracket in which the 'self' develops, can be considered to be socially constructed.

While essentialists may argue that childhood is inherent, there is no evidence to suggest that an innate sense of childhood exists as a self perception. It is clear that childhood is experienced very differently in different cultures and in different periods of history. A current example shows that while previously ageing has partnered increasing responsibility in which the hallmarks of childhood (as we in Australia know it) are replaced with adult concerns, the current Gen-Y'ers are maintaining their dependence on their parents well into their 20s and 30s. The effects of this youth focus of Western society carries on through working life and into old age.

Working Lives

Our working lives are central to our life stories. The work we do identifies us, and marks our social standing and position. Wynhausen, in the book, Dirt Cheap, tells of employee experiences working at Chicken & Egg (C & E) Enterprises, "I had heard people in Greendale say something of the kind about C & E a moment before making it clear that they would as soon pass through the portals of hell as the entrance to the company's chicken processing plant... A real estate agent who asked me what I did for a living failed to ask me another thing Ð'- not even if I was interested in the cheap and nasty flat she had shown me" and "She said the townspeople looked down on C & E employees and showed it. A sales girl in a local dress shop had made a perjorative remark when she tried on something expensive...". In this way the work we do defines us, and determines how we are perceived and classified.

In the past lifetime employment with a particular employer was a significant identifier of the self, however, "in flexible capitalism people labour at short term tasks, and change employers frequently" (Sennett, R). This change in the structure of working life also crosses over to our own self identification. We can no longer claim to be, for example, 'a shoe manufacturer', but nor are we trapped by that definition. The change in working structure has meant that we must search for further identifiers for ourselves. No longer do 'check out chicks' define themselves as such, but see their state as a step to a future goal. Individuals can chose to participate in the construction of themselves or they can allow others to create their identities for them.

The connection between social construction and work is slightly more complex than with childhood. The fact that we need to work to survive is taken for granted (and satisfies the first of Hacking's claims), but the type of work we do is not. There are few employees stuck in alienating or dull positions that do not dream of something better. Perhaps in the future working to survive will no longer be



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