"Local ontology" - cultural work in the classroom


Martin Packer
Department of Psychology

Duquesne University (412) 396-4852 packer@duq.edu

Paper presented at the AERA annual meeting, 
San Francisco, April 1995

I'm here not because I have special expertize in the topic of identity, but because I think it is crucial that, as researchers of human learning and development, we study identity and understand what it is. Identity has typically been treated as though it is a property: in both senses of the word - like the properties or characteristics of a physical object; and like property that is owned by an individual. I suggest that both these treatments are severly inadequate, and I shall suggest an alternative.

There's an old chestnut in philosophy: "Is existence a predicate?" In addition to describing in predicate terms the properties of an object - its size, color, taste etc. - do we in addition have to treat the fact of its existence as a predicate: as a property that belongs to it. This lecturn has the properties brown, heavy, wood - and existence? Or isn't existence rather some kind of pre-predicative basis upon which other characteristics depend?

Existence and identity are closely linked, even for non-human entities. To say that something exists requires that we say what it is: its identity. This is a lecturn; it exists as a lecturn. And for humans too, identity is not a property or characteristic, it is the fact of our existence. But human existence is also different in interesting ways from the existence of non-human things - we take a stand on our existence; on what it means to be the kind of human we are.

The second way identity has often been treated is as a concept someone possesses about themself. We talk of people having an identity, and much psychological research equates identity with self-concept.... But who or what is the self that we can say 'has' this identity, this concept? What does its identity consist in? How does it come to exist? Is it simply natural? Is it biological?

A number of people have pointed out that psychology's treatment of the self has been badly misdirected (I think of John Shotter, Rom Harre, Valerie Walkerdine, and others...). Psychologists have tended to assume the existence of an epistemic subject, a core self. Piaget, for instance, describes the epistemic subject as "that cognitive nucleus which is common to all subjects at the same level" (1988/1970, p. 139). It's not "the a priori underpinning of a finished posterior structure; rather, it is a center of activity" (p. 142.) Piaget strongly rejects the notion of building an account of the subject on the level of "lived experience," suggesting instead that "models of 'artificial intelligence'" grounded in cybernetic theory provide "one of the most effective methods for analyzing [the epistemic subject's] actions" (p. 69). The subject must be defined insofar as "a structure must, in a literal sense, be governed from within" (p. 69). Such a subject, mediator amongst structures, will be like "the 'structure of structures,' the transcendental ego of a priorist theories, or, perhaps, more modestly, the 'self' of psychological theories of synthesis" like Janet's earliest work. He insists that the epistemic subject has "no structures at its disposal until it constructs them" (p. 70), so that "it is for our purposes sufficient to define this subject as the center of functional activity" (p. 69).

Such a subject has been reduced to a purely epistemological level. What's lacking here is an appreciation of the distinction between the ontological and the epistemological: between the level of knowledge and knowing, and the level of the beings that know and are known about (Figure 1). I want to suggest that development should be understood not as a purely epistemological process, but as an ontological one. Development is the construction and reconstruction of human subjects. What happens on the epistemological level is learning. This is not to suggest that these two are independent, far from it: learning, for example, has I think to be rethought in terms of a sociology of knowledge: learning is not just logic but also society; what it learned rests upon and presupposes a social distribution of knowledge, and shared ways of acting and living.

Identity in this kind of account is what and who one is, as one becomes constructed and constructs oneself as a subject: an empirical subject. Identity is an answer to the question, who am I? - but this question is posed not epistemologically but ontologically; it's a question posed and answered first at the level of action, and only later, perhaps, in thought.

In one of the schools I've been working in I saw a young African-American woman in a tee-shirt with these words on the back: "The identity I wear the best is my first and last identity: human being."

Identity is constructed...

Okay, but what is this construction process? What does it mean to exist, as a human being? We need an account of what happens on the ontological level. In particular, I want to suggest that it is in cultural work - that is to say, collective practical everyday activity - that a ground is established as the basis for identity. This ground is a local reality, a regional ontology, in which the embodied agencies that are humans are positioned, and position themselves. Who one is, ones identity, is constituted by ones position and stance in these grounds.

Viewed this way, identity is relational (not personal property) and it is contextual, not a matter of fixed characteristics. And it is dynamic, constantly changing or at least changeable.

Zdzislaw Mach (1993) emphasies that identity is 'a product of our action and not a 'natural' intrinsic quality." It is formed in "interaction, in the process of exchange of messages which we send, receive, and interpret until a general, relatively coherent image is achieved" (p. 5), to build up a "conceptual, symbolic model of the world" (p. 6). It is dynmaic, contextual, and relational. The next diagram (Figure 2) lists some of these characteristics of identity: Mach highlights the practical, symbolic, enacted quality of identity

What's constructed? A habitus, a hexus, as Bourdieu (1980/1991) describes it: a bodily style of comporting oneself. The counterpart of practices we can generally call disciplinary: where and when one has to sit, stand, walk, etc. We need to consider the social frameworks in relation to which identity is constructed (or sought)...

...on a social ground; in a social framework

The dynamic construction of identity has been the topic of a large number of texts recently. To pick just one example, Rom Harre and Grant Gillett, in The Discursive Mind (1994), explore the way that self, and identity, is not "something inside the person" but is "a continuous production." Their account helps me explain what a regional ontology is: This "manifold" is the ground, the local, ontology, I'm concerned with. But I think the talk of a quadrupal location in space, time, morality, and society is unnecessarily complicated: space and time are already social and moral. A local ontology is a social framework of space and time, a socially constructed here-&-now that embodied values, goods, and artifacts. Actually, at least three levels need to be considered, (Figure 3): the local and immediate situation, which I'm calling "the here-and-now"; the everyday routines of the small group: "the now-and-then"; and the larger, abstract structures of space and time of the cultural-historical epoch.

Instability and change

Stuart Hall, in his paper "The question of cultural identity" (1992), speaks of the "crisis of identity" in our destablized social world, "undermining the frameworks which gave individuals stable anchorage in the social world" (p. 274). The self- sufficient and autonomous identity of the Enlightenment subject -- the "Individual" with a capital-I -- was replaced, suggests Hall, first by the sociological subject whose identity was defined in relation and interaction with "significant" others (bridging inside and outside, subject and social structure), and then this in turn is being replaced by the post-modern subject, with "no fixed, essential or permanent identity." As the frameworks within which we locate ourselves have become fractured, as their legitimacy and claims to be natural become contested, the basis for identity has become problematic. As subjects we have become de-centered, lost, constantly seeking to find and define ourselves. Any unified identity is itself a comforting fiction, continually reworked - the product of "narratives of the self." Identity is multiple, and contradictory - both 'inside' and 'outside' - so that the distinction between inner and outer becomes questioned.


In summary, then, I've suggested that identity is an ontological construction on a ground, or in a framework, that itself is the product of collective, practical, informal activity. This activity is dynamic and conflictual, and identity is, consequently, in flux and contradiction. Any empirical investigation of identity must consider the cultural work in the immediate circumstances of here-and-now; the everyday routines of the now-and-then of the small group; as well as the ways space and time are structured by more abstract social structures and institutions.

Bourdieu, P. (1980/1991). The logic of practice. (Nice, R., Trans.). Cambridge: Polity.

Hall, S. (1992). The question of cultural identity. In S. Hall, D. Held, & T. McGrew (Eds.), Modernity and its futures, (pp. 274-323). Cambridge: Polity.

Harre, R., & Gillett, G. (1994). The discursive mind. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mach, Z. (1993). Symbols, conflict and identity: Essays in political anthropology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Piaget, J. (1970/1988). Structuralism. (C. Maschler, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.