Castells :: The Power of Identity :: (Part I)

19 04 2009

It’s been a rich week for thinking about social movements and identity construction.  In addition to my first exposure to the writings of Manual Castells, I spent a good portion of the week with the work of Jason Read, who visited Ohio State for a lecture and seminar.

There is considerable overlap between the two in regards to their fields of inquiry.  Both are interested in identity construction, particularly collective identity, in an age of globalization, a term denoting extreme connectivity in the structures of communication and the nearly unmitigated expansion of capitalism.  In this time of massive restructuring of our social and economic relations, the search is on for an explanation of how people mobilize under shared conditions of belonging.  Castells is writing in the later half of the 1990s, exploring the elements of what he calls the network society, characterized “by the flexibility and instability of work, and the individualization of labor [and] a pervasive, interconnected, and diversified media system” (1).  413mnbjrwbl_sl500_aa240_Read is equally interested in these issues, though he frames the debate through different terms.  He notes in The Micro-Politics of Capital, “Capitalism must simultaneously develop the flexibility, cooperative networks, and potentiality of the subjectivity of labor while at the same time reducing the possibility for conflict and antagonism” (17).  The economic conditions that foster a flexibility and instability of work and individualization of labor is for Read none other than neo-liberalism.

His interest in identity construction, one could say, is focused more on the conditions that allow for its instantiation than any specific, historically contextualized formations, like Castells.  Read is exploring capitalism’s production of subjectivity; in other words, he’s theorizing on how the economy produces a particular logic in its participating subjects and produces certain tastes, 9781405107136 desires, and conceptual modes of problem solving.  While Read’s work is mostly theory, interspersed with powerful examples from everyday practice, Castells first chapter of The Power of Identity is focused on practice, observing social movements and their origins in various contexts as a foundation for theorizing the network society.

Beginning with Islamic fundamentalism, Castells then sketches out its close cousin, American Christian fundamentalism; he follows this with a discussion of the Soviet Union and Catalan, making distinctions between Nation and State and the implications they hold for understanding identity construction through nationalism, finishing with some reflections on ethnicity and localized territory as factors in identity construction.  Castells argues that the cases of fundamentalism are in response to and symptomatic of a network society that is “shaking institutions, transforming cultures” (2), creating the sense of “an increasingly unpredictable and uncontrollable life” (27).  Although he doesn’t use the term postmodern, Castells continually characterizes our age by the fragmentation  of identity, where traditional roots of meaning-making are being “twisted, divided, reprocessed, mixed [and] differentially stigmatized or rewarded, according to a new logic of informationalization/globalization of cultures and economies that makes symbolic composites out of blurred identities” (59).  Sounds like postmodernity to me.

While I have great respect for the methodology of Castells (he is “communicating theory by analyzing practice” (3) and will not allow himself to go down a path of endless abstract theorizing (12)), and I found his historical genealogies impressive, I’m much more interested in the theoretical insights his study has to offer.  To extract some of the conceptual models that seem useful I will outline here some of his terminology and main claims.

First, Castells separates out identity from roles, or role-sets, but acknowledges the obvious connection between the two.  Roles, like “being” a student, a smoker, a bike messenger, or a Freemason, for example, are sources of identity construction, but their “relative weight in influencing people’s behavior depend upon negotiations and arrangements between individuals … institutions and organizations” (7).  Identities, sources of meaning constructed through the process of individuation that are given priority over other sources of meaning, are much “stronger sources of meaning than roles” (7).  By this I take Castells to mean that societal roles do not operate under the “hypodermic needle” theory, where the meanings attached to a certain role are directly and completely injected into a  person’s identity.  As he puts it succinctly, “identities organize the meaning while roles organize the functions” (7).

In a trialectic worth sketching out, Castells proposes three forms and origins of identity building:

  • Legitimizing identity: A set of logic and meaning introduced and propagated by the ruling powers, in order to rationalize, reproduce, and expand existing rule.
  • Resistance identity: Constructed in response to devaluation and stigmatization; where social actors build “trenches of resistance” in opposition to the ruling norm.  This formation leads to communes or communities of resistance.
  • Project identity: the construction of a “new identity that redefines their position in society and, by doing so, seek the transformation of overall social structure” (8).

Obviously, there is traffic across these zones of distinction.  Project identities can be seen as when resistance identities, as Castells puts it, “move out of the trenches.”  I am particularly interested in this movement from resistance to project: where a fundamentally defensive (or resistive) identity, framed largely in terms of dominant system simply by its oppositional stance, becomes fundamentally productive of new values, new meanings.  In modernity, Castells claims, project identities were born out civil society; in contrast, in the network society, they are constituted communal resistance.  Legitimizing identity, he argues, is in a state of crisis.

I’m only 70 pages in to The Power of Identity, but I’m eager to hear more of what he has to say about the movement between resistance and project identities.  This shift, as I see it, is perhaps the most central question of activism of the past ten years.  At the Battle of Seattle the mantra was, “Another world is possible.”  A decade later in London the chant remains; but what that political alternative looks has gained little consensus.

In the next post I’ll attempt a brief sketch of some of Read’s claims against this backdrop of Castells.

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One response

28 08 2011
Gary Fitzwater

Thanks this helped me immensly for a final essay leading to my BA (hons) in religious studies. I have used Castells identities theories for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

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