Since the beginning of time, societal norms and cultures have governed personal development. Values placed on individuals and groups dictate acceptable behaviors and actions, while simultaneously outlining and presenting specific ideas of particular ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. Because of this age old norm, much of our current society actually relies on these unspoken values and traditions to govern our own actions and decisions. Although certain social norms and values are crucial in understand acceptable behaviors, strictly adhering to them can have a detrimental effect: characteristics that make each person unique are lost.
Without individuality and originality, the true value and richness of what makes our world so intriguing and interesting, would not exist. Conforming to expected values and norms is a true detriment and serves no purpose other than to reduce and compact individuals.
Within recent years, two professionals that have looked at these very issues are James Gee, a linguist from Boston University, and Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist from Harvard University. Though they hail from very diverse backgrounds, their views on the concepts of individuality and social roles are surprisingly similar. The presentation of this information viewed through different lenses aids in thoroughly addressing these very complex topics.
In James Gee’s article, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction” he presents unique ideas on the concept of social roles — which he refers to as ‘Discourses’ — and defines them as “ways of being in the world [and] forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, and clothes” (6–7). Looking through the lens of a linguist this definition not only encompasses the traditional definition of discourse but adds elements that serve to describe other necessarily elements one must possess in order to fully embody a specific social role or Discourse, such as a doctor, lawyer, electrician, college student, etc.
Gee goes on to further describe Discourses as an “‘identity kit’ which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize” (7).
If we step back and view this definition from a different lens, perhaps one of a psychologist, it appears what Gee is describing is a social role.
Entering a Discourse: Embodying a Social Role
So the next question is, if one recognizes and identifies a Discourse, how does one enter it? Harvard researcher and social psychologist Amy Cuddy mentions the very same concept in her famed TED Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”.
Though she does not explicitly state the definition of social roles, it is alluded to as she presents her recent research on how our actions can change our behavior and the physiological structure of our brains. During her 20-minute talk, she details the story of one of her former students — a student who lacked confidence and was on the verge of failing the class due to her lack of participation. Cuddy sat down with this student and proceeded to explain to her that in order to be successful (or in the words of Gee, get into the Discourse of a Harvard student) she must “make herself powerful” and “fake [being powerful] until [she] become[s] it and internalize[s] [it]” (18:46,19:14). Stepping back and ‘debunking’ what Cuddy is saying makes it clear that, indeed, she is telling this student to do something that is not inherent to her natural abilities in order to fit into a mold she currently does not — something strikingly similar to Gee’s definition of how one can enter or embody a Discourse. In fact, Gee mentions this same method of entering a Discourse, one he calls
mushfaking, or “partial acquisition coupled with meta-knowledge and strategies to ‘make do’” (13).
This rather strange term has tremendous similarity to what Cuddy describes and can be regarded as synonymous with faking, and simply acting until you become what you desire, or enter a specific Discourse. Both Gee and Cuddy agree that in order to ‘enter a Discourse’ or to truly become and embody something or someone you inherently are not, there must be purposeful effort to change and conform to established values and norms; they agree an individual must make do, fake, or change who they are in order to fit a predesigned mold. In this way, entering a Discourse causes the loss of individuality and uniqueness.
Entering a Discourse = Conforming
This is applicable to modern day society and is all too common in the world we live in, so is there really any issue with it? In fact, there is. When we as individuals compromise and change our own behaviors to become something or someone else, we are conforming to social roles. We modify and alter who we are to turn into something desired by someone or something else. This can have drastic consequences, not only for the individual, but for society as a whole. Throughout both Gee’s paper and Cuddy’s talk, there is no mention of these consequences, in fact it is just the opposite. Though Gee’s paper was published in 1989, there was and still is tremendous value in our society placed on individualism and the liberation and power that it brings.
Yet, contrary to this recognized value, it is obvious there is no recognition or acknowledgement of it in his argument. Gee makes no remarks recognizing or explaining how this very prominent social norm plays a role in entering a Discourse; he simply states that in order to fit the social idea of a doctor or a lawyer, or any number of roles, one must adhere and conform to a certain, understood set of beliefs, behaviors, and values. Gee argues one must assume this “identity kit” in order to become or embody a desired social role, or Discourse; a definition eerily similar to that of conformity. This lack of diversity and individualism within the establishment of Discourses, Gee argues, is essential in entering/becoming a certain social role or such a Discourse. Similarly, Amy Cuddy also brings forth this same idea of an “identity kit” by using another piece of anecdotal evidence, this time about candidates at a job interview. She explains that the most successful candidates“change[d] [their] behavior and [their] behavior…change[d] [their] outcomes” (15:35). She describes this tactic, that she professes to her students and to the academic community, that in order to
“change your life in meaningful ways”
one must take on a persona, an identity that is something completely foreign to what one currently possesses (12:36). Again, there is no acknowledgement of the importance of individuality on Cuddy’s behalf, nor on Gee’s. Both of these highly regarded individuals fail to recognize that these institutions we identify as ‘Discourses’ or, in Cuddy’s case, ‘successful Harvard students’ are composed of individuals and each individual brings something unique to their environment and to the social roles in which they embody; they argue the opposite.
What This Argument Lacks
Both Gee and Cuddy are professing ideals that are contrary to the established American cultural value of individuality, in fact it is contrary to the values of most Western cultures. Sociologically and psychologically speaking, Western cultures are considered individualistic and truly promote the valuing of people as unique entities rather than as a collectivistic mass, as they do in Eastern cultures. So if Gee and Cuddy are both from, and both reside in, the Western world, why would they be professing conformity and collectivism? Simply, they fail to recognize the contribution that individualism has brought to the existence of social roles, groups, and cultures — and because they fail to recognize this fact, their arguments are called into question as there is a lack of development and acknowledgement of the opposing sides of their viewpoints. Although Gee states that
“there is no real sense in which we humans are consistent or well integrated creatures from a cognitive or social viewpoint”
and there is some hint of the recognition of individualism he quickly ignores this and continues on to say that
“most Discourses assume that we are [consistent or well integrated creatures] (and thus we do too)” (7).
It truly undermines what he is trying to say by ignoring the crucial role that individuals play, and failing to consider this side to his arguments, while only professing conformity. Likewise, Cuddy also fails to include any recognition of the role individuality plays by telling the struggling student to “fake [being powerful]” in order to succeed in the predesigned mold of a Harvard student (17:02). Nowhere in her 20-minute talk does she equate this faked power with the abilities of the individuality — she simply argues conformity and the need for modeling our own behavior after others who have been previously successful. Though each author makes claims that are valid in their own right, the avoidance of addressing the opposing viewpoint detracts from the effectiveness of their arguments. We can even go so far as to ask if Discourses and social roles would even exist as we know them without individuality, and truthfully they probably would not.
The Importance of Individuality
So why is there no acknowledgment of this on the part of either Gee or Cuddy? They both fail to recognize that for a Discourse or a social role to have come into existence in the first place, individuals had to congregate, cooperate and, in turn, bring with them unique characteristics and traits. Such individuals and their uniqueness is what formed Discourses and social roles, it was not by conforming to the actions of a single person or idea. By understanding this principle, it becomes evident that what Gee and Cuddy are arguing, is essential and necessary to fit in, is to conform; to make purposeful choices to change behavior, actions, and ideals in order to fit into a predesigned mold.
This constant changing of behavior, actions, and ideals that both Gee and Cuddy promote in their academic works, is not only contrary to the social norms of the society in which we reside, but is against the long standing value of individuality and individual development. If we are to follow what they outline, the unique characteristics that each person possesses will be lost and the aspects that make our world so exciting and stimulating would not exist. Conforming to predetermined values and ideals serves no other purpose than to diminish individuals, and thus, what Gee and Cuddy argue can be detrimental to our society and world as a whole. It is crucial to remember the value of individuality and celebrate it, rather than try and suppress its tremendous significance.
Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” Amy Cuddy:
TEDGlobal, June 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.
Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.”
Journal of Education 171.1 (1989): 5–17. Print.