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Cultural and Societal Impacts of the Selfie

For almost two decades, the act of taking and sharing selfies through technological devices is continuing to thrive as a digital ethnographic routine. Producing this type of photo is such a straightforward process, but there is certainly a more complex individual and cultural understanding behind the purpose of these visual expressions. This essay will examine the cultural and societal aspects that are incorporated into selfies with references to anthropological theories as well as examples from my personal experience (referencing my attached photos before the bibliography). In the first section, I will go over some essential Anthropology theories by Stuart Hall and Erving Goffman and explain how they can be applied to the task of analyzing selfies. Afterwards, I am going to explore how this method of photography is strongly linked to our individuality in both the public and private spheres of society. This segment will be followed by an evaluation of how selfies represent our political identity as well as other important visual signifiers. Lastly, my conclusion is going to reflect on why the combination of all of these factors play a significant role in determining how we wish to portray ourselves to others via the selfie platform.
One of the well-known models of Anthropology that correlate with selfies and visual messages comes from Stuart Hall’s research on representation. He established three academic approaches as a way to comprehend the meaning of language and symbolism. First, the “reflective approach” which suggests the producer is using examples of true information and recreating it with encoded messages (Hall 1997: 24). In opposition to this is the “intentional approach” which explains that media portrayals are specifically encoded with the intents of the producer who created it. In this case, it is not about the messages that are shown, rather the individuals who are showing it (Hall 1997: 25). Thirdly, the “constructionist approach” combines the properties of reflective and intentional representations to create a sense of meaning that is interpreted as both denotative and connotative (Hall 1997: 25). Hall’s theory can certainly be applied to the cognitive process of taking a selfie because when we do this activity, we are sending a message that reflects who we are and that conveys our current intentions. For instance, my selfie from the workplace confirms that I was some sort of security employee who worked outdoors.
Erving Goffman is another theorist who is strongly applicable to this topic and he presents an alternative interpretation of the relationship between culture and imagery. This theory looks at how we perform our identities within controlled environments from the viewpoint of individuals, others, real, and unreal performances. First of all, he defines performance as “any form of activity by a given participant on a given occasion that can influence other participants in a particular way” (Goffman 1959: 10-46). This main subject extends further into three additional notions about the theory of performance which Goffman classifies into separate categories.
First “dramaturgy”, a term that compares social interactions to the metaphor of being a stage that recreates scenery into a composition consisting of primary identity performance in the foreground region and additional interactivity in the background. Next, “dramatic realization” is a phrase used to describe when someone feels the need to express a more dramatic form of identity depending on the type of social interaction that they are involved in. Lastly, “idealization” occurs when we want to establish an ideal social performance that includes trending narratives about common values in culture or society (Goffman 1959: 10-46). It can be understood that selfies are a presentation of ourselves since we are essentially framing a particular theme through the use of facial expressions, clothing, location, and background props.
In addition to representation and performance, selfies allow us to share an extension of our individuality in a more intimate way than traditional photos. Through the interactivity of this medium, we are sharing the qualities that define who we are as an individual and what makes us stand out from others (Veum and Undrum 2018: 87). According to academics Michael Koliska and Jessica Roberts, “people use selfies to express a particular notion of the self or to convey a certain impression: Through the clothes one wears, one’s expression, staging of the physical setting, and the style of the photo, people can convey a particular public image of themselves, presumably one that they think will garner social rewards (Koliska and Roberts 2015: 4)”.
In ‘How the World Changed Social Media’, the authors present a similar argument, “selfies are more engaged in acts of sharing and circulation”, and “because of this it may represent a more socialised and less individually focused activity than traditional photography” (Miller et al. 2016: 158). However, they also imply that researchers are critical on how we digitally express our identity, stating that they believe this form of self-expression is an example of narcissism (Miller et al. 2016: 158). In some cases, it is likely that observers will interpret a person’s image of self-expression as a display of selfishness, but with the appropriate context, it can be seen in a more positive aspect.
Furthermore, “visual tropes” add another potential layer of creativity to the practice of photographic self-expression. They are considered to be commonly used themes or visual cues that a generic audience can easily recognize (Zarzycka 2013: 178). A person may incorporate some kind of trope into their selfie to identify the most important details of their individuality. In ‘American Anthropologist, Shipley implies that this is because “digital images are easily detached from original contexts and recontextualized, in the process critically challenging the basic aesthetic principles presupposed in the images’ earlier incarnations” (Shipley 2015: 404).
Another key factor regarding individuality is the separation between public and private realms since there is always going to be content in your self-photography that you are either open to revealing or preferring to keep hidden. This is similar to the concept of keeping our work life and social or family life compartmentalized from each other. This predicament can potentially affect the quality and quantity of selfies that we post on social media because concealing information will make our representation seem less authentic.
Some of the images that I have added in this essay were taken during my teenage years because I determined that they provide a good illustration of the individuality complex. In the one with a short-buzzed haircut, blue filter, slightly angled pose, and simple background, it conveys that I wanted to replicate the tough male stereotype. The second image has more imagery and symbols throughout the foreground and background which creates a composition of my typical living environment. The clothing and personalized room setting of this selfie contain clues that signify my demographics such as current age (physical appearance), where I might be living (Toronto shirt), and the weather conditions (winter hat).
From a more social perspective, the information that we display in a selfie contributes to the framework of our identities such as our interests, lifestyle, opinions, and values. We want others to know what we care about by visually associating ourselves with it as if it were an advertisement. It is also an ideal strategy for supporting or protesting against the causes that you directly care about such as campaigns, social movements and other topics of concern. Within this context of society and relationships, Dr.Swaminathan contends that “the selfie becomes a construction of the self and selfhood that’s constitutive of the processes of conformity and non-conformity, of strangeness and alienation, and of identity and rootedness (Swaminathan 2014: 5)”. In other words, when we choose to communicate through this medium, there is confliction between making the decision to share ideals that follow cultural norms or go against popular trends.
In support of this theory, I found that several attributes of my identity are visible in the majority of the selfies that were included in this essay. For instance, my political interests were exhibited by the city of Toronto shirt that I was wearing in one image, as well as a Canadian leaf symbol on the neck pillow in my workplace selfie. It might also be interpreted as an act of non-conformity to reveal myself relaxing on the job rather than being hard at work. My interest in pets (or specifically cats) is also evident because of the photo that I took with my cat. It gives off the impression that I am a pet owner who is comfortable with animals.
With all of these ideas in mind, the ultimate objective that people are trying to accomplish by posting selfies is to suggest that everyone else should recognize them as to how they personally want to be perceived. It is a message that is assembled for the purpose of being evaluated by someone else, yet the person in the photo is envisioning themselves as their imagined persona. This is further supported by another section of Jesse Weaver Shipley’s photo essay. He insists that “the selfie, rather than a singular form of technologically driven self-portraiture, is a multimedia genre of autobiography or memoir that makes the image maker into the protagonist of stories of his or her own composition (Shipley 2015: 404)”.
On the other hand, there is also statistical data on selfies which suggests that they are primarily uploaded by people for entertainment, information storage, and relationship development purposes (Williams, Stohlman, and Polinsky: 81-82)”. However, when I reflect on the reasons for choosing to take these five particular selfies, they all revolved around an event or personal statement that I wanted to share with others. From an Anthropological perspective, the aspect of initiating social interactions quickly came to mind, but it took an analytical approach to determine how I attempted to represent my individuality.
It is evident that the selfie has effectively maintained its status as a central part of our customary social media activities. Sometimes this form of photography appears to be generic or repetitive with no meaningful intention, but even under these circumstances, there are many subliminal connotations to be observed. My paper went over how certain characteristics of ethnography are constantly integrated into the creation and circulation of selfies. I referenced the work of some credible anthropologists as well as my firsthand experiences to provide additional justification on this matter. The beginning of my essay summarized the concepts of representation and performance from an Anthropological context and described how they deeply inspire our visual expression choices. Then, I outlined how selfies are connected to our personal and public personas, which also lead to an explanation on why selfies embody our political identity, lifestyle and values. These sections were supported by image samples which were drawn from my first-person experience. In the conclusion of this paper, I reasoned that the convergence of these ethnographic elements has a substantial impact on the outcome of our selfie decision-making process.
Bibliography
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books.
Hall, Stuart. 1997. Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage in association with the Open University.
Koliska, Michael and Jessica Roberts. 2015. “Selfies: Witnessing and Participatory Journalism with a Point of View,” In International Journal of Communication, Vol. 9: pp. 1672-1685.
Miller, Daniel, Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang. “Visual Images.” In How the World Changed Social Media, 155-80. London: UCL Press, 2016. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/stable/j.ctt1g69z35.18.
Shipley, Jesse Weaver. 2015. “Selfie Love: Public Lives in an Era of Celebrity Pleasure, Violence, and Social Media.” American Anthropologist 117 (2): 403–13. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/login.aspx?direct=true

Diving Deeper in Social Structures via Levi-Strauss

Diving Deeper in Social Structures via Levi-Strauss
Claude Levi-Strauss was a Belgium born French anthropologist and ethnologist who is considered the father of structuralism. Structuralism rose in popularity because of a need to make philosophy more scientific, a way to make it rooted in the real world and not so much in the world of metaphysics and abstraction. At its roots, structuralism was a linguistics movement in which a study of language would be conducted in order to break down speech into units and organize those units into pairs. By doing thus one would be able to break down at its core types of relationships. According to Strauss structuralism includes a huge range of social phenomena. What exactly was Strauss’ idea of structuralism and to what extent could it be used; does it have any utility when it comes to how historians perceive history? Strauss argued for the idea that a savage mind and a civilized mind work upon the same structures, that the idea of human characteristics are fundamentally the same throughout the world. This paper therefore looks deeper into Strauss’s social structures and his concept of structuralism.
What exactly is Structuralism? Simply stated, it is a form of thought that tries to explain how common knowledge allows people to navigate the social world around them and how that world is full of patterns and structures and that those patterns are reproduced by the circulation of narratives and rules within every culture around the world. Structuralism on the social scale can be achieved through myths, kinship relations, and of course language. Language is a foundation of a culture; it distinguishes a group of people from one another. Whether it is a primitive culture in the Amazon Basin or high society in Europe language is an important part of peoples lives, it is what differentiates us from our closest cousins the primates. Many have argued it is language that separates man from animal, but language is so much more then just the simple means of communicating with others. It is at its heart an inseparable part of one’s culture. In this regard though it too isn’t just an element of one’s culture, but also a type of structure in culture that also has different components that make it up. One of these components that make up language is speech, by constructing different speech systems one ends up with the language structure. It is not just simply the spoken word that makes up human language though. There are other forms of what Strauss would consider language, one such form would be myths, while not exactly language it is definitely according to him a type of language.
In 1952 Strauss wrote The Structural Study of Myth in which he took Structuralism and applied it the mythology showing that all myths throughout history, no matter the culture could be structured along binary lines. Myths like language has a fundamental role in any culture, it lays the foundation for a society’s origins. These tales are normally closely tied to religion or spirituality and try to explain how a society’s institutions, taboos and customs were established. So, it is not surprising that Levi-Strauss should say that myth is language, in this assumption he lays claim to the notion that one can look at myth the same way one looks at language and also break them down into structures the same way. For him myth was a language because one had to speak it at some point for it to even exist. He says, “Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at taking off from the linguistic ground on which it keeps rolling.”[1] But how does one break down myth? Strauss claims that myth has three main parts that build its structure. Meaning, composition, and function. For Strauss the meaning behind the myth is not simply isolated within the fundamental parts. It is instead found in the composition of all of the parts of the myth. Within the myth he asserts that language functions on a higher plane then within any other linguistic expression. From these claims then he concludes that myth may be able to be broken down into basic units, and from these basic units one is able to summarize they are different from the units of language and yet are still a form of language. The simplest way to explain is that the content of the myth maybe anything and will differentiate between cultures substantially, but the structure of the myth is the same the world over because every myth is simply a sum of the same parts. For Strauss myth was linked to ritual and ritual and other similar forms of social acts was a symbolic form of communication and existed outside of the norm and was something that people innately had in their biology no matter where they may have originated.
Another aspect of Levi-Strauss’ Social Structures was the kinship relations, Strauss argued that tribal kinship groups normally were found in pairs or in some instances in groups that were both opposed to each other and yet linked together in some form or fashion. One of the ways he backed this thought up was in the example that he had observed how people categorized trees and animals based on oppositions as well as his time in the Amazon among indigenous tribes there. Humans for whatever reason seemed to work on an opposite scale, hot and cold, good and evil, night and day, friend or foe. He argued that for a person to understand one, that must have experienced the other. For Strauss the individual cognitive structure had direct influence on social structures. He assumed three fundamental properties of the human mind, the act of giving and receiving bound the participants in a form of a social relationship, people innately follow rules, and reciprocity is the easiest way to start a social relationship.[2] He discovered in his research that there was a wide range of cultures that had no history of being in contact with each other and yet they all seemed to have rules about who one could not and could marry. From these studies Strauss came up with a kinship system in which there were three structures, elementary, semi-complex, and complex. The elementary structures are based on rules that specify whom a person must marry while the complex systems focus on the negative marriage rules which mean who a person can not marry. The semi-complex structure is a mixture of the complex and elementary systems. What is even more interesting is the thought behind how these structures formed, what caused these structures to be put into motion? Why did humans fundamentally shy away from certain things that would be considered taboo? Why were there certain things that through the world from every culture even when not linked historically were the same? This notion that human shared certain thoughts biology was at the root of Strauss’ social structure. For Strauss, kinship structure was based on marriage and not descent. His aim was to understand the origin of human culture and where the origin of the kinship categories began.
For Strauss social structures were the logic behind reality, that empirical truths were built around the social structures. For him the structures were intertwined and existed within each other, one could not go away or be changed without affecting all the others. He insisted that there were universal structures that connected all people and cultures together, that there was something in our very biology that made us think and act on some fundamental way the same as other cultures. That our myths may differ in content but at their core they are a form of language and therefor they fit into a certain type of mold. As Strauss pointed out if myths were not spoken then they would not exist, that he argued was a form of language. Social structures could not very well exist without the most basic for of social interaction, that of kinship structures. It is through these ties that social interactions take place and societies grow and evolve over time into cultures. For Strauss there are distinct kinship structures within the social structure and surprisingly he found that throughout the world, cultures that had not historical connections still shared certain believes and practices further giving credence to his belief that there is something in our very makeup that ties people together in the most fundamental way. There are such things as universal human truths, things that tie all human together by the very virtue of being human and these truths
Bibliography Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. Claire Jacobson. New York: Basic Books, 1963
[1] Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. Claire Jacobson. New York: Basic Books, 1963. P. 210
[2] Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. Claire Jacobson. New York: Basic Books, 1963

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