Reading Guide to: Giddens, A (1991) Modernity and Self - Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge: Polity Press

Dave Harris


Modernity is dynamic and it intrudes into the personal as well as the global dimensions. It is both a self determined and determining movement. It features reflexivity in its maximum, with a substantial development of social science and the growth of life style manuals and guides. A process of disembedding leads to both time and space transformations, and this has produced widespread doubt and relativism. This is place new emphasis on concepts such as trust and risk.

Trust can be generic to the personality, and offers a way to screen out uncertainties, but it is also a 'medium of interaction with abstract systems', which require a necessary leap into faith in order to engage in practice. Risk takes a distinctive modern form because projects cannot easily be closed or finished. There are new big risks such as nuclear war or international economic collapse. The media have also created a sense of a single world, although the notion of hyperreality is denied [the reasons are not terribly clear -- page five].

Self-identity must therefore be reflexively organised [that is, cannot be assumed to be natural or unproblematic?]. It takes place through a process of the sustaining of coherent yet continuously revised biographical narratives (5). Lifestyle becomes a matter of negotiated choice. There may indeed be some standardisation, such as produced by commodification, but there is also pluralisation and diversity of authorities.

Social inequalities also remain, but no take the form of differences in terms of exclusion or marginalisation. However, individuals always have a choice, even 'under conditions of severe material constraint' (6). .'Expropriation and loss' is mixed with 'reappropriations and empowerment', as in processes of reskilling.

Intimacy has also been transformed. One goal is the 'pure relationship', which needs commitment , controlled disclosure and much more management generally, quite differently from the old patterns of kinship. Intimate personal relations are still 'permeated by mediated influences coming from large scale social systems', however (7). Relationships may also feature general mixtures of 'trust... more pragmatic acceptance, scepticism, rejection and withdrawal' (7). The body is also at the centre of personal relations, such as in the pursuit of bodily regimes as a lifestyle, and as a focus of new engineering and technology.

There is now considerable autonomy of life and action from 'original' nature, which leads to the absence of 'direct contact with events and situations which link the individual... to broad issues of morality and finitude' (8). This arises both through institutional repression and the development of shame rather than guilt. The growth of personal meaninglessness also increases as separation from moral resources increases, leading to 'authenticity'both as a pre-eminent value and framework for self actualisation and as a 'morally stunted process' (9). There are also processes of remoralisation too through the pursuit of lifestyles and emancipatory life politics.

Chapter one

Giddens cites a study of divorce and remarriage (Wallerstein and Blake (1989 ) Second Chances, London: Bantam). Divorce both liberates and threatens, and can produce long-lasting 'mourning' effects. People feel the need to recapture some sense of self and try and avoid getting discouraged or pessimistic about the future. There are specific problems in modernity though. Divorce can be seen as an 'acute version'of a more general process (12). Changes in families, for example, have generated large numbers of books and writings which indicate the greater reflexivity of modernity. They provide the individual with feedback to help them constitute what is going on. There is also a notion of a considerable change in pace here as well, leading to a perception of the need for daily decisions on how to live (14). [just for those who have been divorced?].

Modernity describes the process of the emergence of institutions and behaviour which were first established in post feudal Europe. They came to characterise the industrial order -- the growth of capitalism (markets and commodification); the processes of surveillance and co-ordination; the industrialisation of war and the growth of total war. The nation state was produced as a natural form of society. Modern organisations came to be seen as actors themselves, doing reflexive monitoring. The dynamism of the system led to an experience of the pace and profundity of social change.

Change arose and the ability to separate space and time, and to develop abstract measures of both, removing the effects of situatedness of place (16). The disconnections lead to a need for new forms of co-ordination without reference to place, culminating in a standardised past and some notion of a universal future (17). Processes of disembedding were also important, more important than the processes of differentiation in other social theories, which imply some progressive specialism. Disembedded social institutions had to be rearticulated, and the mechanisms here were abstract systems, offering some co-ordination through 'symbolic tokens of standard value', such as money. Money 'brackets time... [through credit systems, for example]... and space' (18). Another articulating mechanism is the 'expert system' -- the growth of independent expert technical knowledge is no crucial, even to manage intimate relationships.

Both money and expert systems depend on trust and that 'leap to commitment' which permits action. There are special forms in modernity where no face-to-face meetings may be possible. Trust can be based on a conscious decision, or generalised attitude of mind. The latter depends on the psychological security of individuals and groups.

The general effort to disembed institutions and to permit reflexivity takes place on a much wider scale than ever before, and becomes constitutive of social life, leading to a considerable undermining of the certainties attached to knowledge from previous eras. This produces problems for philosophers, but also for 'ordinary individuals' (21) [but mostly for philosophers!]

Globalisation is a broader process than just a matter of increased contacts between nation states. Rather it is 'an intersection of presence and absence, the interlacing of social events and social relations "at a distance" with local contextualities' (21). It can feature a dialectic between events at a distance and more contradictory events locally. They can be no opting out, however double - for example, a nuclear war would involve all of us. Local social relations can be disembedded by a multitude of abstract systems, and the details of their operation can be unknowable. As a result 'Trust often merges with pragmatic acceptance' (23). Some compromise is inevitable though, for example to reject additives in food from the global industry means trusting 'natural' food providers locally.

Our experience is necessarily mediated. The new forms of media clearly have a social impact in their own right, as Innis and McLuhan argued. For example, print conquers time and space and leads to changes in the notion of 'news'. Generally, the media produce a 'collage effect', producing an end of narrative and the floating signifiers of French theory double - although there are still referents and narratives within them. The media can work so vividly as to produce possible 'reality inversions', where distant events become more real the local ones, but this is still not hyperreality [asserted rather than argued here, page 27]. Thus the present system is best described as late modernity rather than as a post-modern era, because unity still predominates over fragmentation.

There is considerable scepticism especially towards science and 'providential reason' (28). Experience greater levels of risk, and therefore calculativeness becomes important: there is an almost 'routine contemplation of counterfactuals'as part of new patterns of choice. Future calculations were always important, but take on specific characteristics of risk in modernity. For example, we all have a greater involvement in abstract systems, and can all see the importance of codified technical knowledge, although this is still rather specialist and opaque, and likely to lead to unintended general consequences. Thus the new types of risk and risk assessments can only be provisional.

There are new connections between the personal and the global, and different sorts of anxieties rather than simply higher levels of the old ones. The self is now a reflexive project (32). The need to manage the self leads to the development of further abstract systems, such as those in therapy and counselling: these offer more than just coping, but promise much more positive reflexivity.

Chapter 2

The self is best seen as a reflexive core, monitoring our actions and giving us reasons for action. It tends to operate not at the unconscious level, but more at a more practical 'non- conscious' level. This is a similar process to the 'bracketings' in Phenomenology. Practical reason is easily disrupted, as Garfinkel has indicated. This kind of insecurity has had a much greater impact than the formal questioning of foundations described in post-modernism: it is actually lived, it gives a sense of 'dread'. Cognitive frameworks are needed to offer a rationalisation this experience, but emotional engagements are also needed to develop trust.

The roots of 'basic trust' are described in the social psychology of Erikson and others (38). They develop when self-identity is linked to the positive appraisals of 'early caretakers', for example the faith that the carer will return, the regulation of the emergence of the 'reality principle'. Early habits and routines are emotionally underpinned, but they are also 'tensionful', since they must involve some reality testing. A protective cocoon can be developed leading to a sense of relative invulnerability, but this can produce later compulsions. Anxiety arises for the individual following a sense of potential loss [of this kind of primary care?] and individuals are forced to engage in creative efforts to rebuild trust.

The problem of managing relations of self-identity and external reality leads to a focus on language in use, rather than language as an attempt to completely describe the external world [a clear reference to Wittgenstein here]. The real world is constructed via mediations. Thus anxiety is a general ontological matter, which can be attached to several specific events. It can be affected by our competence at managing our own security, rooted in [some primal scene] involving 'sensing of a caretaker's disapproval'. This threatens our self-identity. We manage it through deploying day-to-day rituals, such as organising our relations with strangers as 'civil indifference' (Goffman).

Our sense of trust affects our coping with 'existential questions'. Tradition manages this in pre-modern societies, but we have problems, for example in approaching our own 'subjective death', or in facing the problem of others [Giddens wants to pursue the connection between these every day dilemmas and the academic philosophy of Wittgenstein or Husserl]. There are practical problems in learning the qualities of others, especially if we are to engender trust, thus the 'orderliness of social life is a miraculous occurrence' (52), and it is vulnerable.

Self-identity also needs to be maintained. Mead's conception of the 'I/me'relation is too simple, because there is a linguistic relation within the individual. Biography is the key to self double - the 'capacity to use "I" in shifting contexts' (53). However, self-scrutiny can become excessive or even obsessional. There is the need to keep the narratives going, to integrate reality. Narrative mechanisms can vary. Our names and our bodies provide some way to embed our biographies. Bodies can communicate, provided we have the necessary level of detailed control -- and Goffman provides some interesting studies. To Foucault pointed to the need for docile bodies in modernity, but this is not the same as agency, which requires deliberate bodily control too. 'Normal appearances'are important to develop cocoons and to permit bracketing, although there can be severe dislocations when these are seen as mere 'fronts': the self feels false, it seems detached from the body. Sometimes, people can cope with temporary dissociation, but as Laing's work shows, it can become chronic. Even the pleasures of the body are subject to certain regimes such as feeding or sex, and management of these pleasures can vary and even stray into pathology. Garfinkel's study of Agnes shows that 'Nothing is clearer than that gender is a matter of learning and continuous "work"... [rather than]... a simple extension of a biologically given sexual experience' (63).

Personal motives can be partly unconscious and general, but they always involve cognitive anticipation, and this in turn is connected to trust and risk and emotional involvements in them can produce feelings of guilt and shame (the latter arises when the self or the performance of it is seen as inadequate). Shame corrodes trust.

Chapter 3

Giddens here develops analysis based on Rainwater (Self Therapy) on self therapy/self realisation. This shows a maximum reflexivity based on continuous self observation, and the development of a definite trajectory or plan based on advanced autobiographical thinking: one revisits the child that one was, for example. It denies fatalism, and urges people to be constantly open to change, and excepting, even of death. Apparently, Rainwater also can be seen as discussing trust and so on.

The concept of lifestyle involves the notion of a social routine which is also reflexive and adaptable. It is an answer to the question or choice about who to be, and thus is at the 'core of self-identity'. It is clearly connected to consumption, and there are still variations according to social stratification, as Bordieu indicates. The diversity of choices reflects the pluralism of lifeworlds, which offer at segmentation and possibly different 'lifestyle sectors' (83). Methodical doubt is an important part of the process of developing lifestyles, and they show the impact of mediated experience. Lifestyles have now become institutionalised, as most people develop life plans, hence their influence is 'more or less universal' (85): even the poor are affected, even though their life plans might have not be 'discursively articulated' [what a weasel!].

Thus a personal relations are very different from those of pre-modern societies, in that we have far more choice. The key evidence seems to be the popularity of the 'lonely hearts column, computer dating, and other forms of introduction service... [which]... demonstrate well enough that plural choice is easy to achieve' (87).

'Pure relationships' refer to work based on a report by S. Hite. Relationships are now relatively disembedded, friendships are temporary and localised, but pure relationships exist for their own sake how to learn that. These need constant reflexive monitoring, however. Many books have now been written on this concept. Commitment anchors the pure relationship rather than any set of external factors, and commitments are chosen: 'A person only becomes committed to another when... she or he decides to be so'. Pure relationships require each person to be autonomous and secure. They display a drive to achieve intimacy, but again indicate that this need psychological work, some commitment to quality [this sounds like some kind of ultimate connoisseur consumerism. An awful lot of banal advice from various manuals are cited in evidence, page 96].

Bodies are important, their appearance, demeanour, sensualities and regimes. Dress codes vary these days, however. It is role splitting, rather than role conflict, which produces a constant attention to demeanour (100). Lifestyle guides indicate this again. Responsibility for the condition of around bodies is not just enforced, for example by disciplinary technology, but is desired. A case study of anorexia follows (102 f) -- basically it is a complex response to social and cultural pressures, although it does seem to be affected by the emphasis on bodily regimes too [later Giddens was to argue that anorexia and addiction are both symptoms of the pressures of modernity].

Chapter 4

Belief in fate and destiny is universal. Fate persists as an awareness of cosmic forces rather than as any kind of fatalistic acceptance of the status quo, however. There is a history to the concept of 'fortune', for example, Machiavelli saw an emphasis on fortune as an attempt to colonise the future, to be replaced by a more accurate calculations of risk and benefit. The greater reflexive monitoring of modernity has been directed towards fate and fatal moments.

The emergence of universal risks, such as major health risks leads to an obsession with fortune, and thinking about risk that is 'ever-present' and which 'no one escapes ' (124). Some risk is inevitable, and people even volunteer to take additional risks: 'All individuals establish a portfolio of risk assessment' (125) [yet another example of the universalising of the trained accountant]. A certain level of skilled watchfulness develops, together with the need to develop a 'viable umwelt' [a world of normalcy where one is at ease]. Risks are managed, occasionally denied or deferred, or overwhelmed by optimism or fatalism, pragmatism or cynicism (130). Sometimes risk is sought out deliberately and cultivated, producing greater possibilities of encountering and managing it: exponents become 'experts with trust... [developing]... a courage to be' (134).

There are certainly good sides to the 'socialisation of nature' in modernity (134), but danger of runaway affects too. Socialised nature is more unreliable than nature, and brings greater risk. Abstract expert systems deskill, especially those with local knowledges. Specialisation can also be seen as a kind of de skilling (138), but summaries killing can take place as local people decide how to choose between experts. This can often be combined with a pragmatic or fatalistic stance.

Chapter 6

'Radical doubt filters into most aspects of day-to-day life, at least as a background phenomenon' (181), and especially during fateful moments. Much depends on early socialisation [with its effects on the nature of trust]. Normal life is possible if we can calculate the risks as low, adhere to a faith, or simply rely on fate [and there is some extraordinary evidence about the persistence of fear of nuclear weapons in the dreams of children, page 183]. Crisis has become routine. Nowhere is safe. Dilemmas constantly arise from unification or fragmentation of the self, from a sense of powerlessness battling with a sense of re appropriation of one's life, from authority versus uncertainty, and from personalised versus can modified experience. The 'return of the repressed'constantly threatens with the periodic intrusion of death or sex into areas that have been 'sequestrated' by institutions. Institutions attempt to develop more and more surveillance, a reworking of the public and private spheres, the emergence of a separate scientific world view separate from morality, the growth of asylums and hospitals, and the attempt to privatise sex [these themes are the ones that are developed, with lots of references to Foucault and Elias, in Chapter 5, which I have not summarised].

Chapter 7

The self becomes the centre of politics, as in life politics. This interest is found in: (a) emancipate three politics, such as those aimed at ending traditional constraints and hierarchies, and heading towards greater autonomy; a (b) life politics, which turns on what happens once emancipation from constraint is achieved, what are the choices would be appropriate, and how one would proceed towards self naturalisation. These matters are clearly linked to the whole reflexive project described above

The best examples of these movements cite the claim that 'the personal as the political', and new politics centred on the body as an active medium, including struggles over the ownership of the body, and the politics of reproduction. These span the gap between the personal and the global, as do politics devoted to ecology or the ending of nuclear power. Politics like this shows the continuing centrality of moral questions, unlike the predictions of post-modernists (224) [these issues are assumed to be universal through the classic use of slippery pronouns -- they raise 'questions of how we should live our lives -- my emphasis, page 224]. They also raise important rights of personhood and individuality, and link back to the classic emancipatory concerns anyway, especially with feminism or Third World Activism. However, they raise the old dilemmas of pluralism and social order .


I am baffled by the strange oscillations in this book and the curious strategic arguments which underpin them. You may have picked this up by the strangely fragmented nature of the notes above. It just seemed such a strange collection of arguments, almost impossible to predict. There is also a great deal of repetition, circularity, and self reference. For example the apparent universal findings of child psychology are somehow joined to the existential dilemmas identified by philosophers, and to the apparently universal every day dilemmas are of choice and life politics experienced in modernity. Then we see a shift towards Goffman and Garfinkel, and analysis of very marginal cases, such as those of Laing and schizophrenics. Along the way, we pick up notions of the mortified self, anorexia and increased global surveillance.

Specifically, I still have serious doubts about whether there is a universal interest in self therapy, or whether this does not merely represent the obsession of middle-class life stylists. I'm not convinced that somehow the growth of therapy expresses social change (page 80), nor that life plans are universal. I worry about the use of slippery pronouns to make these connections, and the considerable weasels and imprecision in the use of terms. I just do not know what to make of statements about the real choices open even to mythical, fictionalised, certainly horribly over generalised (stereotyped?) 'black poor woman' on page 86.

The you whole approach just seems very uncritical, with no comment on the absurdities of psychotherapy or psychobabble for that matter. Giddens seems blind to the use of these devices to maintain social distance or pursue connoisseur consumerism. Finally, I think there is a fair chance that Giddens is trying to patrol a few academic boundaries here, using post modernist arguments (and their poetic style) to chastise traditional sociology, so he can talk about his new concepts , but then having to largely assert differences between his analysis of late modernity and full-blown post-modernism.

more notes on Giddens and other social theorists