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Somers - The Narrative Construction of Identity

Somers - The Narrative Construction of Identity

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The Narrative Constitution of Identity: A Relational and Network ApproachAuthor(s): Margaret R. SomersSource:
Theory and Society,
Vol. 23, No. 5 (Oct., 1994), pp. 605-649Published by: SpringerStable URL:
Accessed: 15/10/2009 08:17
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The narrative constitutionofidentity:Arelationalandnetworkapproach
MARGARETR.SOMERS
University ofMichigan
This articlearguesforreconfiguringhestudyofidentityformationthroughtheconceptof narrative. t is motivatedbytwo recentbutseeminglyunrelateddevelopmentsnsocialtheoryandsociety.Oneistheemergenceof awide-spread"identitypolitics"and aconcomitantscholarlyocusonthe "socialconstructionofidentity."he other is thereconfiguredapproachto theconceptofnarrativethat researchersfrommany disciplineshave beenformulatingnrecentyears.Bothareimportantdevelopmentsnottobe overlookedbysocial scientists andsocialtheorists;both,however,haveproblemsand limitationsastheynow stand.Iarguenthis articlethatthe limitationsof eachpotentiallycanbe overcomebybringinghe twothematicsogether.Thekeycon-ceptIproposeto achievehisreconfigurations thatof narrativedentity.Studiesofidentityformation havemademajorcontributionsoourunderstandingofsocialagency.Arecurringproblem,however,hasbeenaperhapsinadvertentendencyto conflate identitieswith whatcan often slide into fixed"essentialist"pre-political) ingular ategories,such as thoseofrace, sex,orgender-adirection hathas characterizeda numberoffeministtheories intheir effortsto restore thepreviouslymarginalizedemale other.1Anthropologicalstudiesofdifferentcul-tures havebeenbeenused toavoid thisdanger.2But,lawprofessorPatriciaWilliamsremindsus that wedo nothave to resort to culturalotherstorecognizethe falsecertaintiesimposed bycategorical ap-proachesoidentity:
Whilebeingblack hasbeen thepowerfulsocial attributioninmylife,it isonlyone of anumber ofgoverningnarratives orpresidingfictions bywhichI amconstantlyreconfiguring myselfinthe world.Gender isanother,alongwithecology, pacifism,my peculiarbrand ofcolloquial English,andRoxbury,Massachusetts. Thecomplexityofroleidentification,thepoliticsofsexuality,theinflections ofprofessionalizeddiscourse-all describe andimposeTheoryandSociety23:605-649,1994.?1994 KluwerAcademicPublishers.Printed inthe Netherlands.
 
606
boundarynmylife,even astheyconfoundone another nunfoldingspiralsofconfrontation,eflection,and dream....3
Onewayto avoidthe hazardsofrigidifyingaspectsofidentityinto amisleadingcategoricalentitys toincorporatento the coreconceptionofidentitythecategoricallydestabilizingdimensions oftime,space,andrelationality.We can do thisby bringingothestudyofidentityor-mationtheepistemologicalandontologicalchallengesofrelationalandnetworkanalysis.Itisthis effort tohistoricize ourunderstandingofidentityhatmotivatesmy attempto combinestudiesofidentitywith a
conceptualnarrativity.
Thestudyofnarrative,n the face ofit,hasitsownseriouslimitations.Mostprominently,arrativenalysissnotsomethingeasilyassimilatedintothe social-science researchagenda.Withitslongassociationwiththehumanitiesand the"story-telling"methods ofhistorians,he con-ceptofnarrative,fterall,haslongfulfilledthe role ofsocial science's
"epistemologicalother"-amodeofrepresentationthatwas,apparent-
ly,discursive,rather thanquantitative;non-explanatory,ather thanconditionallypropositional;ndnon-theoretical,ather han one of thetheoretically-drivenocialsciences.4nthe 1960s and1970s, however,social sciencehistoryhademergedas a serious contenderto the tradi-tionalhistorians'narrativeapproachand thesedecadeswere notableforthedegreetowhichhistoriansdebated andincreasinglycornedthevalue ofnarrativeas arepresentationalorm.5Atthesametime,how-ever,disciplinesother thanhistory (political philosophers,psycholo-gists,legaltheorists,feministtheorists,socialworkers,organizationaltheorists,anthropologists,and medicalsociologists)werequietlyappropriatingandreconceptualizinghe narrativeconcept.6In sodoing, theywerereconfiguringnradicalwaysthe narrativeconcept.While the olderinterpretationof narrativewas limitedtothatofarepresentationalorm,thenewapproachesdefinenarrativeand narra-
tivityasconceptsofsocialepistemologyandsocialontology.These con-
ceptspositthatit isthroughnarrativityhatwecome toknow,under-stand,and makesenseof thesocialworld,and itisthroughnarrativesandnarrativityhatwe constituteour socialidentities.Theyarguethatit mattersnotwhetherweare socialscientistsorsubjectsof historicalresearch,but that allof uscome tobe who we are(howeverephemeral,multiple,andchanging)bybeinglocatedorlocatingourselves(usuallyunconsciously)nsocialnarrativesrarelyofourownmaking.7Socialtheoristsandsociologistsneed tobecomecognizantof thesenew for-mulationsof narrativenalysis.

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