The Sociological Imagination

Post-sociology module for the MA Education in Virtual Worlds, I’m neck deep in the next modules and conscious that I haven’t posted in a while. Study; this term Philosophy (fascinating) and AI, Bots and NPCs (I get to play with the toys *smiles); teaching commitments, upcoming projects etc., have all been keeping me busy. Blog posting has suffered but I do want to keep the conversation moving here too as there has been lots going on for me in the educational space that is the MA. Plenty to share was the conclusion and some things already written up too.

With that in mind I’ve titled this post The Sociological Imagination as an indication of the context of the following extracts. They are from a paper I wrote for the sociology module; the brief to write an experiential narrative informed by application of the sociological imagination. It was not an easy module to get through, for me personally one of those learning experiences where I could grasp the possibilities of what the module could be, but felt it, and I, never quite achieved that potential. For me an indication that there is still much to learn of the pedagogical art in these virtual spaces. Still… the paper is written.

It was an interesting write in many ways; to stand back and scrutinise myself from a sociological perspective. At times it felt quite illuminating but it was also quite personal too. Hence the extracts. Hopefully they say something that is worth considering in the larger topic of education in virtual worlds; possibly they just say things about me.

An Experiential Narrative:
Informed by Application of the Sociological Imagination

A Narrative of Space

I had arrived (and I notice my present language refers to going somewhere; to a place) with a strong sense of what Boellstorff (2008) labels techne, those human actions that engage with the world and through their crafting, create a new world. This was derived from the outlet of my artistic expression, the 3D modelling program Bryce 3D. With the fantasy novel genre as my leisure reading of choice, I would create scenes inspired by such works, imagining my own fantastical worlds, and bring them into being with this technology. Though the shared result was only ever a 2D rendered image of the scene, the modelling process involved moving a camera through the creation and in that way gave a sense of the world existing, if only for me. When I reflect on that concept, the existence of my own worlds, I can see that there are narratives of space that run through my life and are particularly tied to my identity. In my fantasy readings I would not only visualise the spaces that I read about, but in my imaginings occupy them. I sympathised with characters who were integral to the spaces, who were their creators and protectors, and when I consider further, the more enigmatic characters; Beorn in The Hobbit (Tolkien, 1979) and Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1991) for example. I have always had a uncomfortable relationship with the world around me … … and the narratives I constructed around these spaces were fundamental to supporting the constitution of my own identity (Massey, 2005), seeming to provide a place in which I could be at peace with the more enigmatic parts of myself. Just in relating this I can feel those spaces and the me in them, the narrative identity, situated in the past-present as Ricoeur (1988) describes it.

So, I take my first steps as a resident of Second Life, quickly avoiding the avatars at the landing site, embracing newbie-ness as the justification for not engaging. I wander deserted tarmac streets, passing clunky buildings, simple trees, flat bare ground and of all things, advertising hoardings, and do so with a certain sense of disappointment. There is a crudeness to the structures I encounter, a naivety of construction that I had not expected and a question hanging over it all; why would I spend time in a very badly made recreation of the actual world. … … I can see the decision I made; the good man, the honourable man, the enigmatic man will save the day and become an expert and build wonderful spaces and people will love him for it. And the underlying tale; he can hide behind these works and avoid engagement.

A Narrative of Expertise

Giddens (1990) talks of the expert systems that influence the material and social environments that we live in and the trust associated with these systems. In this discussion Giddens (1990, p.34) includes in his definition of trust, “confidence in the reliability of a person” expressed as “a faith in the probity or love of another”. While his discussion on trust here is more fully associated with systems of expertise, Giddens (1991, p.3) also talks of trust as a “crucial generic phenomenon of personality development” and as a “’protective cocoon’ which stands guard over the self in its dealings with everyday reality”. I can recognise from these discussions two threads that are interwoven into my identifying narrative. The first of these I see as being in part, a lack of trust that compels me to gain expertise, so that I can perform the task myself and consequentially avoid the leap of faith required to engage with the world around me. This is not the whole story, as I can weave into this thread a culture of valuing self-sufficiency (Hall, 2004); a do-it-yourself attitude using the resources at hand, colloquially known as the Kiwi No.8 wire mentality. Nonetheless I can recognise the dis-engagement that is a part of the narrative. The second thread that resonates is one around the use of trust to find social acceptability, where the sharing or volunteering of my expertise builds a social capital that grants me relationships in the community. Not only does this provide me with access to further information which I can use to increase my expertise, but provides me with a sense of community and belonging (Putnam, 1993). I recognise the effort to be looked upon as reliable, considered honourable within the expert system and in this manner loved. My very deliberate choice of name, that moniker of identity that will follow me wherever I go in this virtual world and label me even from afar, titles this particular narrative; Isa Goodman – Is a Good man. And others do engage with me, as the expert; the reliable, knowledgeable, good man. But I can see also that I use that expertise as my protective cocoon, outwardly exhibiting the signs of being engaged, but hiding behind that expertise as well, because in my own view of self, to be exposed is to be vulnerable.

The Techne

During this learning period I did little in terms of developing my avatar’s appearance other than to recreate my actual world appearance as accurately as I could; essentially a learning exercise with regards to the Appearance tools. I wore the same clothes that I had chosen on Orientation Island with the one exception that I did make a jacket for myself, more to investigate the technicalities of making clothes than to attempt any form of identity play. My focus was on mastery of the system as that would provide the integration of events into a familiar self-story, giving me a background to minimise risk and manage my survival in an unfamiliar space (Giddens, 1990). And it was a successful strategy. Because I worked in the educational sector my engagement acquired an educational focus and as my skills increased I volunteered my time to educational builds. A year in and I had administration rights on HealthInfo Island and license to build and program experimental spaces within that simulated environment (sim). I would spend hours on end there and slowly, over time, developed and applied my techne.

Social Narratives

I can also see that I was reclaiming some form of identity through my builds. There was an empathy with the spaces that I had previously imagined, borne out of the fantasy novels I had read and my builds, though structured around health information services, always had a hint of the fantastical to them. As Boellstorf (2008, p.57) notes, Tolkien emphasied “a special skill, a kind of elvish craft…that produces a Secondary World into which designer and spectator can enter.” This aspect became a draw card for many visitors and alongside the social capital engendered through the sharing of expertise, a community formed. I found myself creating, through the community that used the spaces and the constructed narratives of the spaces themselves, forms of social narrative in which I could locate myself and in doing so claim back some of who I saw myself to be; the enigmatic creator, the protector of place, the source of knowledge, dis-engaged but nonetheless loved. Somers (1994) talks of being located in social narratives that are rarely of our own making. In this instance I can recognise a deliberate attempt on my part, to create a narrative such that I could locate myself within it.

Craft and Self

Then the day came; a chance meeting that was to generate a new narrative that would radically alter my life-world and become a foundation point for the development of my in-world identity. Attending a technical demonstration of an off-world modelling tool another participant quizzed me as to my newbie look. Two years in and I still have system hair, default skin, default jeans, default boots, yet in my conversations and ease with which I manipulate my avatar, the expertise I display in the conversations on scripting and building and the group memberships that are evident in my profile, I am definitely not a newbie. I respond, as I had commonly done with the few friends who tried to take me shopping, that it didn’t matter to me what I looked like. The expertise narrative in play; love what I know not what I look like. The tone of the response back was that it may not matter to me but it mattered to those who had to look at me. I had never really understood, till this moment, why that response affected me, but I can now fully appreciate the sentiment in the context of my articulation of my first experiences in Second Life. The crudeness of my avatar was causal of a similar reaction, an affront to what was possible. The next day I allowed myself to be led out into the world of Second Life shopping. Skin, hair, eyes, clothes, tattoos and boots anew; in my view this was the day Isa Goodman was first made real in the world.

I threw myself into this new techne, this of crafting myself, and discovered something I had not expected. Pearce (2009, p.22) lists multiple researchers as “finding that inhabiting an avatar can often be seen by players as a transformational inner journey” and yet I had ‘inhabited’ an avatar for two years without such an experience. This crafting of Isa though occurred as instantaneously transformational, almost overwhelmingly so. In attempting to understand the enormity of the experience I’m inclined to look at Goffman’s (1956) idea of a performance based dramaturgical culture. In the narratives that Aaron told; assumed as his identity; back stage in-world was almost the constant. Isa however was a totally new performer, fully front stage, made up and costumed to steal the show. The transformation was as if Isa had been liberated from the constraints of Aaron’s narratives, enabled to begin a totally new performance. Not only was Aaron’s narrative inclined to dis-engagement from others, but prior to the crafting event there was a notable dis-engagement with the avatar Isa. How I would describe Isa is indicative of this; Isa was Aaron’s avatar. After the event Isa was Isa.

Aspects of Identity

I consider this initial period as Isa to be akin to the psychosocial moratorium of identity development in adolescence, as described by Erikson (1997). Not a moratorium in the sense that it signified a cessation of experience but more, as Turkle (1999) describes it, a time during which the consequences of one’s experimentation is put on hold. As she states “Relatively consequence free experimentation facilitates the development of a core self, a personal sense of what gives life meaning” (Turkle, 1999, p.644), that which Erikson referred to as identity. At this stage I did not assume alts, alternative avatars; that came later. But I did continue to craft Isa and explore possible selves. This freedom to experiment had Isa … … testing different aspects of identity with the objective of finding out whether they would fit into my concept of self. Over time however, there emerged the Isa … … that I relate to most as being an extension of my physical self in the virtual world; the identity that best belongs to the narrative spaces that Isa has created as his world.

Concluding Quote
Giddens (2009, p.295) from his reflections on Goffman’s The Presentation of Self:

“The mystery of the social world is how it can be the case that all (‘competent’) human actors are highly skilled and knowledgeable about what they do and why, but are at the same time driven by social forces far larger than themselves. Goffman was completely correct how extraordinarily complex human action and interaction are, and that they have to be actively and continuously monitored by those who produce them.”

References:

Boellstorff, A. (2008) Coming of Age in Second Life. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.

Erikson, E.H. (1977) Childhood and society. St Albans: Triad Paladin.

Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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

Giddens, A. (2009) On rereading The Presentation of Self: Some reflections. Social Psychology Quarterly [online]. 72 (4), pp. 290-295. [Accessed 04 January 2014].

Goffman. E. (1956) The presentation of self in everyday life. London: Penguin.

Hall, D. T. (2004) The protean career: A quarter-century journey. Journal of Vocational Behaviour [online]. 65, pp. 1-13. [Accessed 04 January 2014].

Massey, D.B. (2005) For space. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Pearce, C. (2009) Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds [online]. Cambridge: MIT Press. [Accessed 05 January 2014].

Putnam, R.D. (1993) The prosperous community: Social capital and public life. The American Prospect [online]. 4 (13), pp. 35-42. [Accessed 05 January 2014].

Ricoeur, P. (1988) Time and Narrative Volume 3. translated by K. Mc Laughlin and D. Pellauer. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.

Somers, M. (1994) The narrative constitution of identity: A relational and network approach. Theory and Society [online]. 23 (5), pp 605-649. [Accessed 05 January 2014].

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1979) The hobbit: or there and back again. London: The Folio Society.

Tolkien J. R.R. (1991) The Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the ring. London: Harper Collins.

Turkle, S. (1999) Cyberspace and identity. Contemporary Sociology [online]. 28 (6), pp. 643-648. [Accessed 05 January 2014].

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