Home > Reflection, Vagaries > On Performing Social Identity

On Performing Social Identity

In a moment of winded loopiness, after a hard run, I thought to myself: “Who is —?”

The next thought that came to mind: “Who are —’s friends?”

The idea that identity is performed, perhaps out of a library of mini-scripts, is one I find useful. We take our cues from our environment (the physical situation, the social situation), and select our scripts accordingly1.

Turning back the clock about five years, I think I had developed some idea about what my peer group was, who I wanted to be friends with, &c. Time, naturally, changes things, and people drift together or apart. I’ve seen and done quite a bit in five years, and I think the rate at which I’ve made acquaintances has only increased.

Which brings us back to the questions above. As much as identity is something we think about in our moments alone, with our selected mental audience, identity is equally something we play out in front of other people. In fact, for most (if not all) of us, we often re-create Other People as members of our mental audience.

It is true that not all of these Other People are friends, necessarily, and depending on your temperament or where you are in life, friends may be more or less important an audience than other possible groups.


For me the question reduces to (a) whose opinions I am prepared to regard seriously, and (b) who I interact with meaningfully or regularly. In the past year or two I’ve narrowed down (a), while (b) has narrowed itself down.

Common cultural references are a contributing factor, but I’d add that (1) this will be true for many people, (2) the choice of cultural references will powerfully influence your results, and that therefore, employing a range of references well is the meta-heuristic.

General intelligence (is there a non-general kind?) is also a contributing factor, but for both this factor and for common cultural references, it’s not a strictly applied rule. I guess this would be some basis for saying that the heuristic for determining membership is multi-dimensional, a result which I would be quite pleased with – the caveat being that I’m probably blind to the action of some factors as well.

Moving on from thinking about common factors to changes over time, recent trends indicate that more weight is given to philosophy and social orientation, than factors like intelligence or achievement in given areas. This sometimes leads me to judge harshly people who’ve suspended reflection on these things for more-or-less legitimate reasons like the stress of great demands on energy and time. Another reason I think I might be being harsh is that, I believe maintaining a particular philosophy or social orientation is a conscious act, one we’re not always able to perform.

Another thing that comes to mind: manipulation is not something I necessarily view negatively; I tend to judge the outlook or goals of the manipulator more than the act of manipulating. The impact on people still matters to me, however.

Social media and other forms of technologically facilitated communication are media I frequently use to perform identity. Here my instinct has been towards a kind of catholicism, though the caveat I applied above about blindness would also apply here. There is an instinct towards the outré, but it’s very selectively applied; there might even be the opposite tendency, to find things with unexpectedly broad acceptance.

That’s all I’ll set down for now.

1. And sometimes we don’t.

Categories: Reflection, Vagaries
  1. 2 February 2016 at 11:16 pm

    Re. non-general intelligences, people like Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman, etc. would say yes. Not sure if this is the direction you were aiming at.

    • Derek Lim
      3 February 2016 at 2:11 am

      Indeed I was. I think we both know someone who regularly denounces Gardner’s theories in public, however…

      • 4 February 2016 at 10:39 pm

        Yes, I thought of him too. Always felt that ‘intelligences’ was not the best descriptor of what these theories are trying to get at. Something like ‘aptitudes’ or or ‘capacities’ or even ‘capabilities’ might be more like it, though still unsatisfactory.

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