As I conclude a semester teaching anthropology of technology, one of my favorite themes has to do with how people perform affiliations to technologies, as well as related beliefs, practices, and values. In that spirit, I’d like to repost here, on The CASTAC Blog, a brief summary of some themes I’ve developed and worked with in order to understand the relationship between technology and identity. This post was originally written for Savage Minds, but I’d like to re-post it here to continue the conversation among folks directly researching issues of anthropology and technology. As always, comments welcome!
There’s a new sociological variable in town, one which I call performing technical affiliation. Technically speaking, it is not a new way of thinking about identity. For many years, perhaps millennia, people have enacted aspects of identity by interacting with and through technologized objects, forms of knowledge and related practices and values. Nevertheless, technical affiliation is not recognized on the same level of analytical importance as are traditional variables—such as class, sex, gender, ethnicity, and social race—that are most often cited in anthropological studies of sociality. It is time that technical affiliations are brought more systematically into analyses of identity and negotiations of the self.
Performing technical affiliation means displaying in words or actions, alliances to objects, values, beliefs, or practices that are often assumed to be associated with particular technical cultures (Lange 2003, 2011). A basic example might be someone declaring, “I can’t live without my iPhone!” meaning that they prefer this device and its interactional implications over those offered by other devices or other brands of mobile phone. When people affiliate toward something, they also tend to affiliate away from something else. Performances may be much more subtle and complex. They refer to more than purchasing decisions (which are of course laden with many other beliefs). Performances can indicate how people accomplish being a competent, moral person in the world. For instance, some people believe that learning about technology is best accomplished in a self-directed way, rather than through taking classes in schools. How one should learn to use technical systems, or how one should share information through media are important aspects of everyday identity performance. Performing technical affiliation routinely occurs in offline, as well as online contexts.
The concept draws on Goffman’ (1959) notion of performing the self in everyday life, but does not imply a simple binary that equates performances with being “onstage” versus hiding a more true self “offstage.” Such a notion has often simplistically been applied to studies of computer-mediated communication to dichotomize online (onstage) versus offline (offstage) behavior. But writing many years ago, Goffman (1963: 9) demonstrated that such an assumption over determines how much identity information is actually shared in person. Speaking about in person interaction, he used the term “virtual” identity to refer to incorrect assumptions that people impute onto others, such as assuming they have never been in prison, have never had a depression, or have never harbored other stigmas. A binary application of the performance concept also under determines what identity information is shared online. Studies too numerous to list here have shown how much identity information is given and given off (in Goffman’s sense) in online contexts.
The concept of performing technical affiliation instead emphasizes Goffman’s (1981) work on footing, which acknowledges that people may exhibit different levels of intensity or commitment to beliefs and practices. Some people may be animating someone else’s original statements and technologically-inflected worldviews. Others may be the authors or originators of such beliefs, and hold them to be very influential in their everyday decision making. The concept is purposefully broad to accommodate many levels of affiliation. An analogy may be drawn to the metaphor of affiliation to a club. One person may receive the newsletter and read it now and again; another person may be the club’s president.
Another vignette may illustrate the concept. Years ago, I gave a talk at the American Anthropological Association meeting. At one point, a speaker who was using a laptop PC struggled to get his audio-visuals to display properly. Another person on the panel quipped, “You should have used a Mac.” A few knowing chuckles traveled around the room. Later, after hearing my talk, this panelist told me that his quip was not a good example of performing technical affiliation, because he had no personal affiliation to the Macintosh computer. I assured him that it was an excellent example.
Recall that the concept takes into account different levels of performativity and varying commitments to the affiliations contained therein. His remark performed affiliation to the idea that Macintosh computers are better for manipulating media than are PCs. He was animating a notion that was commonly held (although may or may not be true), among Macintosh supporters, and others who believe it. His was a performance that would not be intelligible if people did not think that this belief was common. The joke would unintelligibly fall flat if everyone “knew” that PCs and Macs were equally effective for working with media. He himself does not have to believe the idea in order for the joke/performance to “work.”
Performing technical affiliation is a part of human life; people cannot get particular jobs or have certain kinds of successful relationships if they do not convincingly display particular orientations to specific technologies or technically-inflected worldviews and values. But sometimes performing technical affiliation can be problematic not only for individuals but society as a whole. For example, in her classic ethnography of physicists, Traweek (1988) noted a competitive tension between the theoretical physicists and the experimental physicists in an advanced research lab. The latter designed experiments to test the theories of the former.
Advances in physics could not proceed without their collaboration, but identity displays often coded in-group members as superior to out-group members. A theoretical physicist told Traweek that it was appropriate for an anthropologist to study such a “primitive tribe” as experimentalists. Each group learned to display a “studied disregard for each other’s judgment” (Traweek 1988: 112). One empirical question is, to what extent do such displays advance or impede the production of human knowledge? How might their collaboration change if their cultural disregard was seen as a performance of technical affiliation that, if changed, could advanced the field much further?
It may be objected that technical affiliations only apply to specialized groups or elite technologists. But such an assumption ignores the anthropological record, and how technologies influence how people conceive of the self and how they choose to be a moral person in the world. For example, consider Gershon’s (2010) book on breaking up on the social network site of Facebook. She argues that people held definite ideas about how one should end a romantic relationship. Using particular media was seen to reflect something important about the morality and sensitivity of the person breaking up. If a person chose to break up over Facebook rather than in person, people used this information to make moral judgments about them. Their media choices often had more salience in determining a person’s social character in those situations than any of the other traditional identity variables. To argue that Facebook is or is not a true “technology” are, in and of themselves, performances of technical affiliation.
Another objection may be that people do not consciously orient toward technical affiliations in everyday life. Yet, the impact of any identity variable such as class, ethnicity, gender, and so forth must be empirically shown to be important in analyses of social behavior. Just because people do not verbalize or understand the impact of their affiliations is not sufficient proof that the variable is unimportant for understanding contemporary self-construction. The same argument may be forwarded with regard to other variables, such as class. Americans often say they are in the “middle class” and do not necessarily orient around class. Yet these elisions do not prove that class is irrelevant for people’s social negotiation of the self, nor that society is “class-blind” with regard to determining socio-economic opportunities.
Perhaps hesitancy about adopting the construct exists because identity variables such as gender and class may influence people’s technical affiliations. But such variables are not predictive of technical affiliations. Knowing that someone is a man of a certain economic class, for instance, does not determine his views on whether computer platforms should all be open source, or whether he should take certain drugs to address health issues, or whether learning the programming language of Python is a good use of his time. Certainly, technical affiliations have interactions with other variables, as is the case with traditional identity variables. For example, in reaction to second wave feminism, which explored universalized experiences of womanhood, third wave feminists convincingly showed that other variables such as ethnicity and class brought much to bear on the experiences of being a woman in particular cultural groups. The same is true of technical affiliations. Important interactions between such affiliations and other identity variables should be empirically studied to broaden understanding of how technologized worldviews impact self-construction.
The time is right to acknowledge what has been discussed for a quite some time. As long-standing cyborgs, people’s technologized identities have historically been part of the human condition (Haraway 1991). Affiliations to technologies and related values and world views speak volumes about who we are as people, as members of cultures, and as individuals. Technical affiliations are crucial aspects of social identity. Scholars should systematically incorporate them in analytical studies of social behavior as routinely as any other traditional sociological variable.
Gershon, Ilana. 2010. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.
Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Lange, Patricia G. 2011. Video-mediated Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Technical Competencies. Visual Communication 10(1): 25-44.
Lange, Patricia G. 2003. Virtual Trouble: Negotiating Access in Online Communities. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Michigan. Available from UMI at: http://disexpress.umi.com/dxweb.
Traweek, Sharon. 1988. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.