Book Theme: Rise of the Avatar

Here we turn to ideas on the construction and expression of identity in modern society, beginning with our introductory essay for this section titled “Through the Looking Glass of Facebook.” Our essay asks an important question not just for social theory, but also for many college students today, whether they are enrolled in a theory course or not: Who would we be individually without the many communities—both online and offline—that support our identities and senses of self? And what are the social and individual consequences of the different versions (or avatars) of ourselves that we present to others on a daily basis? To dig deeper into these questions, we begin with George Herbert Mead’s classic work on the self as a social object and two pieces by the great Georg Simmel on individuality and society: “The Metropolis and Mental Life” and “The Stranger.” We then move on to Erving Goffman’s more contemporary but no less pioneering The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. The final three selections address more poststructuralist and postmodern takes on the issue of identity with excerpts from Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Zygmunt Bauman’s provocative essay on contemporary identity, “From Pilgrim to Tourist.” From the modern to the postmodern, these readings uncover the social origins of identity and that which we often take for granted most—our own sense of self.


Writing Out Loud


Mead suggests that the self emerges through social interaction, particularly when we are able to take on the roles and perspectives of others--that is, to see ourselves through their eyes. Please answer the following questions when you complete the reading.

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Metropolis and Mental Life

The United Nations estimates that more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. More than century ago, Georg Simmel reflected on the effects city living had on the minds of urbanites in “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” As you read the essay, answer the following questions.

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The Stranger

Simmel wrote about different social types that individuals become through their interactions with others, including “the poor,” “the renegade,” and “the man in the middle.” Each of these social types reflects elements of the wider social structure, or the networks and contexts in which the individual lives and operates. Simmel’s most famous social type is the stranger. Read Simmel’s writing and then answer the following questions about this issue of distance.

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Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Goffman’s most famous work is also one of the most influential books in all of sociology. As you join Goffman on his journey into the everyday, expect to find yourself recalling some of your own failed efforts to manage impressions. Answer the following questions after completing the reading.

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Gender Trouble

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is a seminal text in gender, feminist, and queer theory. Her argument about the performativity of gender--that is, gender is not a fixed identity but rather something that we act out over time--is also a sophisticated critique of feminist politics, which she outlines in the excerpt included here. Read the passage carefully and answer the following questions.

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Modernity and Self-Identity

In this reading, Giddens is concerned about the challenges of living in a modern world for our senses of self. As you read, please consider the following questions:

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Always-On/Always-On-You: The Tethered Self

Turkle is concerned with what happens to our senses of self and our relationships when we’re always connected to stimulating communication technologies. After you complete the readings, please respond to the questions below.

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Cultural Identity and Diaspora

Hall examines the meaning and social construction of cultural identity, highlighting how people construct identities through shared history, culture, and power. As you read, consider the following questions.

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Interactive Readings

Supplementary Sources

Test Materials

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