Privacy as Social Mechanism for Preserving Identity Inconsistency

Theory of Social Representations: The Individual is the Social

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Theory of Social Representations: The Individual is the Social

The term ‘social representations’, which was proposed by Moscovici (1961, 1993a, 1984), describes social representation as systems of values, ideas, and work methods whose aim is to create order that enables people to find their way in the social world. The individual perceives social reality by classifying people, constructing entire ‘theories’ about the world (overt and covert), and explanations for the behavior he sees around him. Implementing this intuitive knowledge as though it were part of the laws of reality, influences social occurrences within interpersonal relationships (Moscovici, 1984).

According to Social Representations Theory, the boundaries between the ‘I’ and the ‘other’ are defined through a series of beliefs, practices, and a pragmatic and symbolic discourse, and each representation is dependent upon dynamic social interactions, and changes in a social process. Since social representations are shared by individuals living in the same society, they enable them to communicate with one another on the basis of a uniform code of values, norms, social concepts, and a similar view of the world and the events taking place in it, and serve as a kind of ‘practical guide’ for members of the group. Social representations shared by group members are therefore the basis and foundation that construct the social identity of each group (Ben-Asher, Wagner, & Orr, 2006).

What happens when an individual is simultaneously a member of several social groups? How do the social representations of one identity behave in an encounter with the social representations of another? This question takes us back to an early discussion Moscovici (1988) conducted on the concept of ‘collective representations’ coined by Durkheim (1989) in the early twentieth century. According to Moscovici, this concept is too static and does not allow reference to the tension and conflict typifying modern life. He claims that the word ‘collective’ was abandoned in favor of describing representations as social, due to the diverse forms of social representations in a group, which are sometimes incompatible.

Rose, Efraim, Jovchelovitch, and Morant (1995) contend that social consensus is the product of struggles between the social representations of several identities, usually when faced with the need to decide on a mode of action that is consistent with one identity and inconsistent with another. According to the researchers, social consensus is always dynamic, and its stability is threatened since it is suitable for a particular reality, and new action representation decisions will be required when it changes, in terms of updating the ‘practical guide’ that tells the individual how to act.

A dynamic of multiple social identities, some of which are prominent while others are more subtle (but which exist and are present), emerges from an example presented by Breakwell (1993). She describes how for fifty years the ethnic and religious social representations of the various peoples in the USSR were invisible, but once the communist regime collapsed, these identities reemerged and were accorded a central place in the social perceptions of the nations in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Thus, even when Soviet citizens defined themselves with a uniform national identity, their other national identities still existed.

The term ‘polyphasia’ expresses the coexistence of multiple fields of different and sometimes conflicting representations (Moscovici, 1985; Jovchelovitch, 2008; Friling, 2012), how an individual can contain contradictions and act in different ways in different situations. Beliefs and knowledge are constructed by means of social negotiation through personal interactions, shared history, shared culture, and shared practices. Since interaction between individuals in society and different social groups is dynamic and changing, different types of representations emerge that will not necessarily be consistent with one another. Therefore, polyphasia represents the simultaneous utilization of different kinds of knowledge within the contexts of a changing reality.

Identity is defined by means of the social representations shared by the group. Membership in groups whose social representations do not overlap expresses the coexistence of several identities. Consequently, every individual simultaneously holds several social representation systems (identities) that are not necessarily mutually consistent, which can result in contradictory personal choices. At times, for a particular length of time, one group of representations will gain prominence and dominance, while another that represents a different identity, remains in the shadows and does not gain expression. Thus for example, an individual can live in luxury in an exclusive neighborhood, and at the same time be actively involved in improving living conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

One of the arguments currently being voiced (Sammut, 2011; Moghaddam, 2010) contends that globalization has shattered the traditional categories of identity groups and social solidarity to a greater extent than modern society. Following the extensive preoccupation with the differences between pre-modern communal society and modern urban society, and the distinction proposed by German sociologist Tönnies at the end of the nineteenth century between Gemeinschaft (community typified by solidarity founded on close relationships and friendship) and Gesellschaft (association typified by a division of labor between individuals, and a relationship based on personal interests), we will argue that in the current globalization and online communication era, more than ever before identity groups are founded on functional relationships associated with work, interest, and specialization. Thus, online discussion groups enable individuals, at times from several different countries, to associate and communicate on the basis of a common subject, and with complete separation between different identities. In contrast with communities in the past, people today are connected primarily due to a sense of shared identity typified by personal choice in a constantly changing public space (Jovchelovitch, 2007), which enables the coexistence of (at times radically) different identity groups.

In the present article, we seek to contend that the aim of privacy is to enable incompatible representations to coexist without a struggle, and thus organize the individual’s identities in a way that enables him to continue holding them without having to relinquish one in favor of another. Privacy, therefore, is a social mechanism that enables the simultaneous and at times paradoxical existence of several identities, without the individual or society being confronted with the inconsistency between them.

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