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Daily RC Article 172

Identity in Late Modernity: Giddens vs. Foucault's Perspectives


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Anthony Giddens is probably the best-known exponent of a broader argument about the changing nature of identity in what he terms “late modern” societies. Giddens argues that many of the beliefs and customary practices that used to define identities in traditional societies (such as those of organized religion) are now less and less influential. In this “post-traditional” society, people have to make a whole range of choices, not just about aspects such as appearance and lifestyle, but more broadly about their life destinations and relationships. They are offered a plethora of guidance on such matters by experts of various kinds and by the popular media (lifestyle news, makeover shows, and self-help books), although ultimately the individuals are required to make these choices on their own behalf.

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As a result, Giddens suggests, modern individuals have to be constantly “self-reflexive,” making decisions about what they should do and who they should be. The self becomes a kind of “project” that individuals have to work on: they have to create biographical “narratives” that will explain themselves to themselves, and hence sustain a coherent and consistent identity. Giddens sees identity as fluid and malleable, rather than fixed. He recognizes that this new freedom places new burdens and responsibilities on people; particularly in a world of increasing risk and insecurity, the individual is placed under greater emotional stress. Yet in general, he regards this as a positive development and as part of a broader process of democratization; modern consumer culture has offered individuals multiple possibilities to construct and fashion their own identities, and they are now able to do this in increasingly creative and diverse ways.

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There are several problems with Giddens’s argument, but the most significant one has to do with his evidence. It is by no means clear that the processes he is describing are distinctive to the “late-modern” era, and, more significantly, that they actually apply to the majority of the population. Some of the difficulties here become apparent when we contrast Giddens’s approach with that of Michel Foucault. What Giddens appears to regard as a form of liberation is seen by Foucault as simply another means of exercising disciplinary power. Foucault argues that who we are – or who we perceive ourselves to be – is far from a matter of individual choice; on the contrary, it is the product of powerful and subtle forms of “governmentality” that are characteristic of modern liberal democracies.

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Foucault asserts that there has been a shift in the ways in which power is exercised in the modern world, which is apparent in a whole range of social domains. Rather than being held by sovereign authorities, power is now diffused through social relationships; rather than being regulated by external agencies (the government or the church), individuals are now encouraged to regulate themselves and to ensure that their own behaviour falls within acceptable norms. What Giddens describes as self-reflexivity is seen by Foucault in much more sinister terms, as a process of self-monitoring and self-surveillance.

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Giddens’ “project of the self” is recast here as a matter of individuals policing themselves, and the forms of self-help and therapy that Giddens seems to regard in quite positive terms are redefined as modern forms of confession, in which individuals are constantly required to account for themselves and “speak the truth” about their identities.

The passage explores Anthony Giddens's concept of identity in "late modern" societies, emphasizing individual choice and self-reflexivity. Giddens sees identity as a creative project, shaped by personal decisions in a post-traditional society. However, the passage criticizes Giddens's perspective, contrasting it with Michel Foucault's view. Foucault sees the apparent liberation of identity as a form of disciplinary power, where individuals are encouraged to self-regulate within societal norms. The debate centers on whether identity is a product of individual choice or a result of broader societal power dynamics.
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