How do we make the connection between social identity, community, objects and the self?And more importantly why is that important to anyone outside of a university professor? Well it seems to me because our current ongoing communications revolution, all these things play an important role and affect us all in our daily lives.
So if you are interested then read on – this is a note that a PHD student mailed to me after overhearing a conversation I had in Cambridge recently….
“I was sitting in Grad’s cafewhen I accidentally overheard yourself talking to someone about networking and SMLXL.
Now, I have absolutely no knowledge of networking in the modern context and how it relates to businesses; however, what did strike me in the small snippet of conversation that I heard, was that much of what you seem to be talking about runs in parallel to much of the social theory being used within archaeological theory today. Basically, many archaeologists are now beginning to realise that the behaviour of people (I am referring to stuff that was going one about 20,000 years ago when mobile art, figurines and parietal – cave – art largely first appeared in Europe) had much to do with building and maintaining networks, not just with people but also with other elements of the world). Of particular interest is that some archaeologists are now discussing the role of possessing and interacting with mobile (e.g. animal) figurines as a means of creating and maintaining human identity. (This is something explored in Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World)
Much of the ethnographic data suggests that these people actually thought of these objects, and other things in the world, asÂ being part of them in a very real way. Thus, when objects such as these are exchanged, it is not simply that they represent the identity of a person (e.g. relative): they actually are part of the person. Archaeologists are also beginning to employ social theories such as Actor-Network Theory to explore such concepts.
What I have now realised is that the way that people engage with objects and media (e.g. mobile phones) in the Western’ world today is not so different to 20,000 years ago. I am not saying that people thought about the world in the same way. But what seems to be apparent, especially with the enormous rise of social networking today, is that human identity is embodied with in the very objects (real and virtual) that people use, and when people communicate with each other it is not simply a matter of communication, but it is in a very real way part of themselves that is being sent/communicated. This is very interesting, because human identity then becomes something which is not confined to the immediacy of the person and the immediate surrounding world, but is distributed throughout the world in the form of pictures, emails etc.
Interaction with these things (both real and virtual) then becomes a matter of necessity, as it did during the Palaeolithic, as their identity or personhood is embodied within these things. No longer can be people be socially secure (i.e. interact with important elements of the known world on a regular basis) through normal modes of communication: in order to maintain a sense of social cohesion people must now continually interact with elements of their identity that are distributed throughout the globe via objects (e.g. phones). Social cohesion becomes a matter of remote rather than direct interaction.
Anyway, to cut a long story a bit shorter, I think that much of the theoretical knowledge that I have in understanding how people interact, and relate to the world around them could be directly transposed and used within a modern-day context. Not only that, I think that much of the archaeological/anthropological/ethnographic data/discourse might actually be very useful in providing new insights and directions in the ways that companies today think about how their product relates to the people that are using it.”
After reading this I was a bit gobsmacked â€“ partly because a stranger had overheard a conversation, in Cambridge and was prepared to make such a bold introduction and that it resonated so profoundly with me. I wonder aloud, that as this communication I+We revolution continues, we start to revert to some of this stuff that Patrick our PHD student explains – where objects virtual or not, take on meaning for communities of people? Some communities might be localised, or tight in a geographic area, but equally they might be distributed flung across the globe and connected by passion? I as someone who built their first career in creating meaning and context for 20th Century branded products/services, and saw often, though not always, the vacuity of this exercise, and in a world where 25% of all media will be made by us by 2012 – I suggest there are implications.
As we find and create bonds to things that mean more to us, that could inspire and motivate passionate action, this leaves those that fail to create meaning in a dilemma – it could be a brand (who cares?), or a school, or an organisation, even a government – at least food for thought!