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C O NS I D E RI N G
PL AS T I C I T Y O F
I DE N T I T Y
CONSIDERING PLASTICITY OF
IDENTITY

IS MODERN IDENTITY PLASTIC IDENTITY?

plast’ic a. produced by moulding; easily moulded, giving form to shapeless

matter, as clay, wax, etc.; pliant. – plas’tics n. pl. group of synthetic

products derived from casein, cellulose, etc. which can be readily moulded

into any form and are extremely durable. – plas’tic surgery n. art of

restoring lost or damaged parts of body by grafting on sound tissue. –

plasti’city n. aptness to be moulded ("Collins English Dictionary," p. 390).

In this essay it is considered that modern identity is easily mouldable. The thought of

modern identity being plastic, engages individual aptness at socially and culturally

compliant consuming and reflexive self expression; plasticity thus directing and

allowing individuals to remake and reform themselves. Traditional origins of identity

theory are defined by two distinct perspectives. The viewpoints of identity “being” and

“doing” (Stets & Burke, 2000) are considered as identity “being” as a fixed and given

state of who one is; and identity “doing”, as to what one does. Doing and being,
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perceptions and behaviours is indicated by Stets & Burke (2000) to be central in

understanding agency and reflection in social identity theory and identity theory. The

amalgamation of identity theories is very important to obtain a rich understanding of

individuals in society. In a modern social context, individual identity plasticity is a

socially valuable characteristic. A modern individual is able to change roles, move

through groups, being capable to socially adapt an acceptable performance on each

stage, are key features of living in the modern. There may be cultural, gender and class

strains, possible confusion to which identity where, but this mouldable construction of

identity is undoubtedly valuable in today’s western consumer society.

‘The sociology of identity can fully elucidate the intricate links between the social and

cultural domains’ (Cerulo, 1997, p. 402). In Cerulo’s (1997) essay outlining the

sociological study of identity construction, it conveys the constraints of having rigid and

distinctive theoretical perspectives. Because of these constraints Cerulo (1997, pp. 400

- 402) claims it had limited the benefits that are apparent in synthesising perspectives

into an illuminating path of sociological theory relating to identity construction. By

limiting one’s social perspective to a rigid position of traditional sociological framing, it

is certain that a rich picture is unattainable. A key modern social theorist who has taken

a path of illuminating social perspectives of identity is Bauman. With the created

expression of ‘liquid modernity’, Bauman (2000) discusses cultural regulation of

individual bodies in western capitalist societies. What to eat, what to wear, where to go,

and what to be, are a barrage of identity fragmenting questions for the individual in the

liquid modern society. To critique modern identity doing, we’ll take a look at someone

a little famous, but not too over the top.


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Antonia Kidman is the ANZ Bank women’s money-confident ambassador. Antonia

Kidman is also a mother, television presenter, Australian citizen, Nicole’s sister, etc. In

a recent story written by Kidman, she provides a personal account of a modern

consumer cultural interaction. Walking into a big city clothing store Kidman describes

a consumer experience thusly ‘Classic pants, sexy skirts and cute tops, it soon became

obvious that my wardrobe was in dire need of a makeover. I desperately wanted an

update and my mind was already rationalising it’ (Kidman, May 20th 2009). It is clear

that Bauman’s perspective of the modern can be seen to be compatible with Antonia

Kidman’s story, and also as being an everyday common story for many other

individuals. In the liquid modern less and less is the welfare state the holder of power

over the body and identity of individuals, as capitalist cultural expectations increase and

are individually normalised. Therefore it follows that consumption is now controlling

individuals in the liquid modern. Kidman states (May 20th 2009) that she walked out of

Sydney’s Emporio Armani store with empty hands, but glowing satisfaction in

expressing her identity of being a sensible shopper and saver, therefore complimenting

her social identity with the ANZ bank. However, in this example it brings about to

reflect upon that the poor are essentially excluded from the possibility of making

lifestyle choices (Giddens, 1991, p. 5), let alone if they are to shop in Emporio Armani.

Buying into the lifestyle of global identity doing and being is not an easy everyday

option for those that are poor. Despite the rational understanding of economic

constraints to identity actualisation, it is clear through Foucault’s (1995) extensive work

that the self imposing disciplinary practices by individuals can be just as powerful in the

doing of identity.
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Extending the idea of individual self discipline, according to Bauman (2005) the

individual in the liquid modern society must navigate a stressful journey on the rapid

changing flows of a consuming life; to know when to hold on, and when to let go is

paramount. Being left behind, is the most obstructive influence to the self moulding

individual in being a liquid modern consumer. Being left on the refuse pile, out of date

and out of fashion, can destroy the sense an individual has of social belonging. This

feature of consuming an identity in liquid modern context is referred to by Beck &

Beck-Gernsheim (2009) as an effect of the social condition of individualisation

compulsion, where an important aspect of this individualising process is the demand of

self-motivated contribution by individuals (pp. 15-16). With individuals having an

expediential increase in the ease of identity doing and being through consuming, it is a

valid question that is asked as to whether modern plastic identity is a social evolution

that society ought to continue to journey on. Despite uncertainty it is from inside-out

and out-side in, we connect our sense of ourselves every day. Elliott (2001) discusses

that in everyday routines it is apparent that the nature of self has changed in the

contextualised global environment of late modernity. This change Elliott (2001)

describes is due to the reflexive consuming of global networks and global culture.

Living in a global village an individual is not shaped only by the confines of their

locale, but by a much wider engagement. The global village is accessible to individuals

through the advancement in technology and the global media market. This wider

engagement has significantly affected the understandings of, and the reshaping and

definition of self in the current heightened modern society (Elliott, 2001).

Critical of the technological and mass media effects on identity in the modern global

environment, is the perspective of feminist politics of the body. Bordo (1997) questions
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the self determination and real choice situation of consumer women of body image, due

to the structured institutional normalization of what women should attain to be and look

like. This analysis is also supported by Bordo (1997) who relates the culture of

consumer capitalist society, and consumption of commercial text and imagery that is

directed towards women consumers. Influenced by the writing of Jean Bauldillard,

Bordo situates the hyper-real identities of plastic surgery users. Whereby the changed

image of stars post plastic surgery becomes what we know as a dominant identity

reality. Due to the reflexive agency of modernist social actors there is an increase in

individual anxiety about image and bodies which is played out further afield to society’s

fascination with celebrities’ bodies and image (Lumby, 1999). The use of plastic

surgery is considered controversial, as the use of plastic surgery is now available to

many, at a cheap cost. Lumby states, that reflexive cultural forces are naturalized,

which enhance the changed expectations of what ‘bodies should look like and how they

should perform’ (Lumby, 1999, p. 128). This individual identity expectations relays

further afield than drastic plastic identity considerations and discussion.

‘Rather than planning ahead for the purchase and really enjoying it, I nearly allowed my

feelings about my appearance on the day to override my better judgement and cause a

major budget blowout’ (Kidman, May 20th 2009). Antonia Kidman’s statement

supports the analysis by Lumby (1999) in relation to cultural forces of consumer

identity building, and also on the other hand that prominent people in society feel a need

to be accepted socially as much as the unknown individual. Maintaining social

acceptance of self is indicated by Goffman (1971) as the arrangement of a performance

to others by backstage preparation. This is to ensure that the producing and maintaining

of the self’s character is credited as being acceptable in each given performance.


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Concurrently this preparation is apparently a natural process, and the production of self

is derived from the actors’ unselfconscious daily routine performances. Self production

is to enable actors to put on the appropriate character in the appropriate setting at

different times, places and spaces (Branaman & Lemert, 1997). Goffman’s (1971)

framework uses the language of ‘the stage’ to develop a theoretical report on the

structuring of the ‘construction of self’ through social encounters. It seems clear that

many modern individuals are in a pursuit of identity reflection continuously, which

Giddens (1991) describes as the reflexive project of the self. In negating this project of

the self, there seems to be a driving undercurrent to the self’s direction; to have

happiness.

Bauman (2008) asks ‘What is wrong with happiness?’, and theorises this question in

relation to the risks found in the rising affluence that people of the west strive for in

their pursuit of happiness. Bauman see’s the pursuit of ‘riches-for-happiness’ as an

unreliable life purpose assumption. So then, why do people pursue happiness through

accumulating capital with such vim and vigour? As Bauman (2008, p. 12) states

‘Showing character and having one’s identity recognized, as well as finding and

obtaining the means to assure the achievement of these interrelated purposes, become

central preoccupations in the pursuit of a happy life.’ Ultimately to be a successful

citizen one needs to be an artist, in the sense of creating and living a life that allows

self-determination to remould and remake and transform one’s identity through being

and doing. Within Bauman’s concept of the liquid modern, a time and place of being in

an unreliable era and flowing faster than individuals can stay afloat in. Bauman delivers

a welcoming statement that the human pursuit of happiness has been going on for the

past two millennia, and this pursuit is worthwhile living for. Identity plasticity has a
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positive effect on social lifestyles, by not cornering and holding individuals in strict

social categorisation. The ability to utilise cultural consuming and engagement with

global institutions to facilitate in social mobility is of great benefit to many. Mouldable

identity production, maintenance, being and doing facilitates to break down traditional

social class formations. Through increased access to technology in the modern social

world, individuals can pursue identity actualisation by reflexive processes of social

interaction.
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REFERENCE LIST

Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid Modernity. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bauman, Z. (2005). Liquid Life. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bauman, Z. (2008). The Art of Life (1st ed.): Polity Press.

Beck, U., & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2009). Losing the Traditional: Individualisation and

'Precarious Freedoms'. In A. Elliot & P. du Gay (Eds.), Identity in Question.


London: Sage.

Bordo, S. (1997). Normalisation and Resistance in the Era of the Image. In S. Kemp

(Ed.), Feminisms (pp. 451 - 455). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Branaman, A., & Lemert, C. (1997). Goffman's Social Theory. In The Goffman Reader

(pp. xv - xvii): Blackwell.

Cerulo, K. A. (1997). Identity Construction: New Issues, New Directions. Annual

Review of Sociology, 23, 385-409.

Collins English Dictionary. (1979). London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.

Elliott, A. (2001). Concepts of the Self. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline & Punish; The Birth of the Prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.

Second Vintage Books Edition ed.). New York: Random House.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern

Age. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Goffman, E. (1971). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Allen Lane

The Penguin Press.


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Kidman, A. (May 20th 2009). Confessions of a window-shopper. Retrieved 17

October 2009, from

http://blog.bemoneyconfident.com/antonia_kidman/2009/05/20/confessions-of-

a-window-shopper/#more-

309http://blog.bemoneyconfident.com/antonia_kidman/2009/05/20/confessions-

of-a-window-shopper/#more-309

Lumby, C. (1999). Celestial Bodies. In Gotcha: Life in a Tabloid World (pp. 123 - 129).

St Leonards, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.

Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2000). Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory. Social

Psychology Quarterly, 63(3), 224-237.