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Autobiographical Memory and Identity Updating - page 5 / 19





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Our social environment may effectively mask our awareness of our changing identity in other ways as well.  For example schools are social environments with a number of explicit chrono-cues for children.  Grade-level designations, as well as landmark privileges (especially for the most senior students), are ways that schools clearly scaffold changing age and social status for the students.  For teachers, however, the school environment may effectively blunt the perception of changing time.  Years may pass, but for any teacher who teaches at a particular grade level, their students never age, depriving the teachers of a powerful chrono-cue for their own identity updating.  

Identity Updating Within the Context of Family

For most of us, family provides the most important framework within which we assess our changing identity.  While in American culture some important aspects of social identity such as professional status or educational status are not often marked within the family context, the family provides the most significant framework of social markers by which we assess and update our evolving sense of self.  

That the family serves a particularly important role in identity updating may not be surprising, but it is not completely obvious why this should be so.  It is interesting to consider three significant reasons for the special status of the family as a reference frame for identity updating.  


Emotional Valence. Relations within the family tend to be emotionally charged, and therefore changes in one’s role within the family will tend to have an important emotional valance.


Universal Relevance.  Many of the roles and within the framework of family ties are universally recognized and experienced by members of a community. Thus they provide meaningful reference points for one’s identity even to people not within your own family.


Reciprocity of Perspective.  An often overlooked aspect of kin statuses is that they are inherently relational.  One is a mother only by virtue of her relations to her children. A man is never instrinsically an uncle, but only in relation to one’s sibling’s children.6  This relational matrix of family relations has an intrinsically reciprocal dynamic lacking in absolute status terms like “architect” or “New Yorker.”  In some cases such as parent-child relations, the reciprocals are inherently asymmetrical.  I am a child only insofar as you are a parent. In English this asymmetry is characteristic of relations between opposite sex siblings, whereby I am your brother by virtue of your being my sister.7  For same sex siblings or for cousins the reciprocal is fully symmetrical.  For a male, to have a brother is also to be a brother.  The same is true for cousins and for any term not sex-linked.

Kin statuses thus model identity in two reciprocal ways: being kin implies having kin.  This means that developing one’s own internal kin status (e.g., “I am a sister”) is related to observing this status in others  (e.g., “I have a sister”).   In some cases (as with becoming a sibling) the reciprocal relationship is simultaneous and the internal status is always paralleled by an observed reciprocal relationship.  A male becomes a brother at the same time as he gains a brother.  In other cases the reciprocal is more contingent and develops only over time.  This is true for all lineal kin ties.  One may learn a lot about how to care for a child by first having been a child.  But one is always a child/grandchild before one is a parent/grandparent.  Here the reciprocity of the kin relationship is an important aspect of growth and social development.  At

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