Identity Negotiation and Communities

Identity defines who you are as an individual. Yet, just as signs within a semiotic system take on meaning through their relationship with other signs, so individual identities are shaped by their social interrelations with others. The social and psychological reality of who you are or who other people are is continually displayed, negotiated, asserted, denied, and modified in social situations and through social interaction. Moreover, the identities individuals claim for themselves may vary from one context to another in accordance with the social-relation potential of a situation. At an academic conference, a presenter will play out the role of a researcher closely associated with a particular research project. At home, after the conference, quite different identities may be uppermost, such as parent or spouse, or one based on some personal interest. It is just such a personal interest that is the focal concern for the community whose identity negotiation is explored here, a community of cyclists.

It may sound odd to noncyclists that people who ride bicycles can be seen as a community at all, as people who ride the train, drive a car or walk seem to have no such community. Although riding bicycles is a common form of transportation in Japan, as elsewhere, a cyclist, by definition, is someone who rides a bicycle for its own sake rather than simply as a means of transportation. More importantly, cycling evokes a passion among enthusiasts. As Bella Bathurst writing in The Bicycle Book put it, sometimes it ‘obsesses people’ (2011, p. x); consequently, cycling communities are rich sites for observing identity work. The obsessive nature of cycling among enthusiasts is nicely captured in books such as Roadie (Smith 2008), On Bicycles (Walker 2011) and Bike Snob (BikeSnobNYC 2010).

Such books help to define cyclists as a community but also highlight subcultural communities within the larger cycling community, including road racers, track racers, triathletes, commuters, touring cyclists and fixed-gear street riders. Besides shared passions, these subcultural communities are defined through shared values and a shared body of knowledge. This is not to say that every member will have the same knowledge and values, though among core members one would expect considerable overlap. The way individuals are positioned or position themselves in relation to the community defines their individual identities. Moreover, the way identities are negotiated through positioning has been extensively described by Harre and colleagues (Davies and Harre 1990; Harre and Moghaddam 2003; Harre and van Langenhove 1999). As Harre and Langenhove explain, ‘The concept of positioning can be seen as a dynamic alternative to the more static concept of role’ (Harre and Langenhove 2010, p. 106). Although my focus will be specifically on cyclists, much of what I observe about identity and community will hopefully have relevance to other online communities.

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