Archive for Thinking about people and society

Public and Private Issues

As with a number of other articles on this site, this is meant to be in the spirit of an exploration, bringing together a number of different aspects of a broad topic and seeing if any sense can be made of it all.

At one level, this is a matter of simple semantics: whatever one understands words like ‘private’ and ‘public’ to mean – but language matters as words shape an understanding of things, even things as tenuous as ideas – and those understandings can have everyday impacts on how people operate in the world – which, themselves, if repeated, begin to act as structurings within which things become taken as normal.

There are a number of elements around which understandings of public/private can be organised:

  • People designing things or doing things – in public/ in private
  • Things belonging to; consumed by people – as individuals (private); as society (public)
  • Organisational structures … private company/ public company … private/in common
  • Management of services to people – arranged as privately-purchased/ arranged as publicly funded
  • Different political conceptions around privatisation and nationalisation – the amount of control attributed to State processes or to market processes

It is the last two of these that will be taken as the starting point, if only because political debates around public/private still occur with some vigour.

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How did all this come about and where might it be taking us?

There are a large number of things happening that seem unusual, unsettling and unpredictable – and it all appears to be taking place more rapidly and in more widespread ways.

It seems that a set of disconnected events come rushing at us. This can simply be accepted as the way things are in contemporary society, part of the world we live in these days, but all these things can be traced backwards (uncertainly ie not in the sense that A caused B – just in the sense of the social world changing shape over time). The roots of these fast-moving current events lie somewhere in things that have been building up over time.

Attempting to understand what is going on, at the macro- and the micro-scale, is not straightforward. There are at least a couple of dozen shifting influences that feed into the changes in current society and these are interdependent and uncertain.

Thinking about recent events in UK politics and US politics throws up a number of things. Different people will have their own views about what has brought us to this point, and where it might be leading.

What follows are some simple musings to see if I can explain any of it to myself. These are a somewhat-disjointed (and no doubt over-simplified) surface skim over a few influences on the world I grew up in, and a loose application of these in order to try to get an understanding of recent political events in the UK. Read more

Some thoughts on identity and place

‘There are places, just as there are people and objects, whose relationship of parts creates a mystery’ – Paul Nash

Introductions: some puzzles

The previous article on Identity focused on a personal exploration of the identity of individuals in a social context. This article explores some ideas around Identity and Place. This has two aspects: The possible impact of place on the identity of residents, and the potential for specific locations to have identities of their own.

On the first of these aspects it has been suggested that Place is one of a number of constituents of identity for residents of that location; and that there are interconnections between histories, geographies and social structures that play out as a form of identity.

This raises the puzzle: If place can be thought of as an influence on identities of the individuals who live there, that there are spatialised subjectivities, how does this happen?

On the second aspect (Can places have their own identities?), at a simple level, identity can be seen in terms of a set of place-related bureaucratic statistics. From this perspective, metrics and indicators might define the identity of a place. When a locality is allocated an identity in this way, there may be consequences for that place.

Beyond that, if (as suggested in the previous article) individual identity can be seen as constructed in on-going ways from fragments, coming into existence and being sustained through structured social practices of residents, can we see places in the same ways? Do localities develop and sustain identities that are whole entities constructed from kaleidoscopic aspects; and do places develop their identities through distinct stages?

The same puzzle arises, again: If this is so then how does it happen?

Place, itself, can be thought of in varied ways. A place can be bounded by lines on maps, even if the map is not the place. Birmingham (UK) has its mapped boundaries and divisions but can also be represented as a set of populations; a set of institutions with the City Council holding centre-place; a set of relationships and networks; and as one relative in the regional West Midlands family of places; or as a brand image.

An urban entity can also be, for some, more than a population, or a geographical size, or a collection of buildings, or a centre of production – it can be viewed as a place where various aspects of capitalism intersect in space. From this perspective, it is the process of gathering and dispersal of information and goods and people centred on some specific locus.

Whatever view one takes, a place like Birmingham can be referred to as a single, unique identity. It can also be characterised more as blocs of internal conflicts, or can just as easily be perceived as a complex set of fragmented sites of social-contested meanings.

Sometimes places may even be thought of as having multiple identities.

Much has been written about the ways global influences may be changing the nature of places, with trends towards globalisation threatening local identities and cultures, and threatening to eradicate differences between places.

Places might once have been identified largely in terms of single-communities but are increasingly being analysed in terms of superdiversities of population as higher volumes of people are increasingly mobile in very different ways and for very different purposes. Is this expanding the range of ways by which people locate themselves as members of place-based communities; and the ways the places promote their particular identity?

The identity of a place can become something narrowly-restricted as city-brand or, at the other extreme, can be open to so many interpretations as to be almost useless as an idea.

Within such complexities there will be those who seek to simplify: to create (and promote) a particular normalised identity associated with the place. This can be particularly true at the national level when, in the face of large-scale movements of peoples and cultures, there are calls for a fixed sense of national identity. Place-identity, then, becomes open to exploitation for political purposes

These aspects of identity and place are explored, predominantly in a UK context, in more detail below. Read more

Contemporary Identity of Individuals: a personal exploration

Why is the idea of identity worth exploring? Is contemporary identity any different from any past or common-sense understandings of identity?

What follows is a summary gained from reflecting on my own experiences and studies, up to and including the transition to retirement.

Identity is a complex and strategic notion that sits at the centre of many current events and discussions. Identity appears to be crucial, yet is contentious. Identity defines, differentiates and distinguishes. It is central to our individual being yet, for many people, identity is seen as structured by social processes beyond the individual.

In recent decades, it appears that identity has become more central, as accounts seek to explain events as culturally rooted in individual concerns. Identities, and processes of identifications, have become important again.

Contemporary views of identity sustain a number of puzzles that are worth exploring.

This is the first of a pair of linked articles on identity. It focuses on identity and people, whilst the next article focuses on identity and place. Read more