Constructing the Self

To examine what critical approaches can contribute to understanding the self, we turn to consider some examples of how people do construct and utilise selves in everyday talk. In these examples, we see speakers construct versions of self intrinsic to them, versions that draw also upon perceptions of them held by other people, and an instance of divergence between the two. We start by considering instances in which the speakers are presenting versions of the self based on inner dispositions and reflections.

Constructing an Inner Self

The extract below comes from a study conducted with older (aged 50 years+) non-employed people who were signing on at jobcentres as looking for employment (McVittie, McKinlay, & Widdicombe, 2008). The study aimed to examine possible age discrimination against jobseekers and how jobseekers constructed their identities in that context. This extract begins with a question to one interviewee, FV, about the possible consequences of age for gaining employment.

  • 1 INT Have you found age to be a factor in looking for employment?
  • 2 FV I think it really depends what uh what kind of brain you’ve got (.)
  • (Int: mm
  • 3 hm) There are two kin- kinds of brains, there there are the (.) eh work is
  • 4 separated from life (.) and you’ve already found out life is separated from
  • 5 work and there’s the attitude that the damn thing is the bit that you fill in
  • 6 from being born to die (.) E::h personally I can split the two, (.) I know
  • 7 what I like I know what I don’t like, if I find I don’t like something in work
  • 8 (.) I create a situation where I’m out of it (.) If I find there’s something I
  • 9 like in work I create a situation where I’m even further into it1
  • (McVittie et al., 2008, p. 252)

Here, the question put to FV introduces the possibility that perceptions of age might be operating against his efforts to find employment. As seen, though, FV does not take up the question in this way. Instead of referring to age, or to his efforts to find employment, FV develops a description of two kinds of people based upon different ‘kinds of brains’. He also sets out the relevance of each kind of brain for its orientation to work, either by splitting work and life or by working ‘from being born to die’. This description thereby depicts two different kinds of self: rooted in biology and associated inner disposition to work. Having constructed these possibilities, FV continues by claiming that he has the kind of brain that ‘can split the two’. This claim is then linked to his reflexive actions towards work, in seeking to be ‘out of it’ or ‘further into it’ depending on whether or not there is ‘something I like’.

In these terms, FV’s descriptions construct for him a self that is rooted within his brain and in an accompanying disposition towards work. This self however is not the end of the matter. To see what action this self is performing,

For details of the transcription notation used in extracts in this chapter, see Chapter 15 p. 397.

we need to examine his description in this specific context. And here, for FV, what it achieves is to account for his current status as being non-employed. Whereas the question put to him invited a response involving age as a work- related factor, FV responds by producing an account for being out of work on the basis of his inner self.

In the extract below, we see self being deployed to similar effect. This extract comes from an analysis of interviews conducted on evangelical television programmes (Xanthopoulou, 2010). A main focus for these interviews was that of ‘defectiveness’, with interviewees being invited to discuss personal shortcomings or failings in not living up to the standards required by allegiance to a higher entity (God). One interviewee, Jessie, describes how she ceased singing in the church choir to form a band and pursue a musical career. Elsewhere the ability to write and perform songs, and choice of career based on this ability, might be evaluated positively. In this instance, however, that is less likely to be the case: withdrawal from the church choir to pursue individual desires and financial reward might be criticised for being just the sort of failing that the programme is discussing. Here we see how Jessie describes her actions:

Jessie: >I had wrfitten< (.) a whole album worth of

so:ngs (0.4) e:rm (.) Jnon Christian songs but just kinda like out of my own experience and they were just slitting in (0.2) in a- (.) a b:oo:k (0.4) a:nd JGod really said to me J Jessie? you’ve been that wicked lazy ((pointing with hands)) servant (0.3) who: is just playing it safe Ja:nd I’m: I’m not having it (.) Jso I guess right then I had a decJision (0.3) whether (0.2) to: (0.2) Jstay cJomfortable and keep singing in the church (0.2) and you know doing the ou and a:r (.) o:r (0.2)

Jpush myself forward (.) as a singer song wri:ter‘

(adapted from Xanthopoulou, 2010, p. 686)

Above we see Jessie describing actions that she took previously in writing songs and more recently in deciding to leave the church choir and ‘get a band together and start rec[o:rding]’. This action might well be criticisable in any case but is rendered more so by her description of the songs as ‘non Christian’ which sharpens the contrast between previous church-related activities and subsequent non-church-based career choices. What we also see in this extract, however, is how Jessie accounts for her actions. To do so, she constructs her former self in highly negative terms, describing herself as a ‘wicked lazy ... servant’ who was ‘just playing it safe’. The attribution of negative qualities makes this previous self highly criticisable. Moreover, the effect of this construction is emphasised through Jessie’s attribution of criticism to God as the source.

The effect of this construction of previous self is that Jessie’s current self becomes laudable in that she has attended to what was previously criticisable. It is this contrast and the resulting current self that works to justify her actions in leaving the church to pursue a musical career.

In these examples, we see how speakers construct versions of self based upon references to inner dispositions, qualities, and reflection. FV’s and Jessie’s selves are, at the same time, intrinsically bound up with social actions, in seeking or not seeking employment and in making music, respectively. These selves, therefore, are not mere descriptions of what is going on internally for FV and Jessie but rather are discursive constructions that are used to accomplish specific outcomes, here accounting for and justifying to others the actions of the individual in each case.

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