Book Review by Pallavi Mittra
Concepts of the Self (3rd edition) by Professor Anthony Elliott, is as the title suggests a comprehensive presentation of the varied perspectives on the formation of selfhood. The author has structured the book in accordance with the disciplines. In the introduction the author classifies this book as an attempt to “make various social, cultural, political and psychological aspects of the self in our changing world intelligible to a wide readership” (pp.4). The book does that and significantly more by integrating these theoretical positions on subjectivity with a common sense understanding of the self.
The first chapter presents a sociologically informed discussion of the self by drawing on Mead’s symbolic interactionism, Gidden’s reflexivity and Goffman’s varied presentation of the self. This is followed by a psychoanalytical perspective of the repressed self, drawing largely on Freud, Lacan and Winnicott. The other chapters focus on Foucault’s concept of power and bureaucracy and on the deconstruction of the self with the emergence of feminism and homosexuality.
Towards a perspective of selfhood: The discussions of these varied theories are far from descriptive and are critically appraised in relation to other schools of thought. This is instrumental in outlining the similarities between these traditions. For instance, in the course of discussing Butler’s concept of performativity in relation to gender, the author aptly refers back to Foucault, Lacan and even Goffman. Though it could be difficult for a layman reader to go back and forth, an understanding of where these traditions come together and at what points they diverge is pivotal. It is for this reason that a preliminary understanding of these theories will help the reader make the most of the discussion and critique.
The book ties the discussion into a reinvention of the concept of self in the new-age lifestyles. It is in this penultimate section that the book shifts from a theoretical discussion to a somewhat simplified application of the popularly identifiable concepts with the commonly found prototypes of identity in the present generation. Furthermore, the chapters are intercepted with brief sketches of characters that one can identify with in today’s world, in the act of getting on with life. This is primarily done with the objective of positioning this theoretically driven discussion in the context of our everyday lives surrounded by a fast paced and dynamic world of social media, which is a catalyst to the formation of self. This also serves to emphasise the split of the self into the private and the social. Such illustrations of common place instances are characteristic of Elliott’s style and are applied more extensively in Contemporary Social Theory (2009). The impact of this style for a wide readership is that it would be almost impossible to get on with work, write emails, follow up on world affairs or even listen to music without being reminded of and reflecting on how this shapes one’s identity. It is due to these factors that the book goes beyond introducing the concepts of self and identity to developing a perspective towards selfhood.
Discipline over paradigm: In structuring the book according to disciplines, the book relegates the importance of structuralist and post-structuralist traditions in the formation of self. As a result the significance of semiotics and language in subjectivity is barely included in the text. Moreover, missing here is the argument that identity is too stable a concept to represent the self and hence present an alternative view of identification (cf. Bracher et al., 1994; Lacan, 2006). A few other concepts that are treated as footnotes in the discussion are deconstructionism and object relations theory. Since both of these theoretical traditions relate closely to the postmodern conceptions of self in the debates on feminism (cf. Kristeva, 1986), it can be argued that these needed to be set up before delving into a discussion of gender, homosexuality and feminism. These exclusions are an outcome of the tough choice of discipline over philosophical paradigm in structuring the book and are understandable to an extent.
On the whole, the depth and extent of discussion in the book deserves the description of a critical introduction to the concept of self, with an inclination towards identity theories. It is a good book to start with if the reader is looking to get a critically presented overview of the theoretical traditions and could further deepen the reading by exploring the extensive citations made by the author.