Accepted Paper:

Embodied identity across the life course: mobilising continuity and change.  


Jenny Hockey (Sheffield University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the experiences of growing up heterosexual, ageing and death ritual and suggests that while relatedness is arguably less integral to western identities than elsewhere, individuality and autonomy are achieved, rather than given, aspects of the western self.

Paper long abstract:

This paper addresses questions to do with experiences of continuity and change across the life course. Concerning itself with the examples of growing up into heterosexual adulthood; ageing; and death ritual, it asks about the resources through which many members of western societies seek to create a sense of themselves as distinctive individuals. It suggests that whilst relatedness is arguably less integral to western identities than is common in other parts of the world, evidence suggests that individuality, autonomy and distinctiveness are characteristics of western concepts of self which are achieved, rather than taken-as-read. What the paper argues is that this process can involve the mobilisation of resources which act to create both continuities and discontinuities within and between individuals' experiences. Drawing on ethnographic data gathered among UK informants, it show, for example, that when questions were asked about the experiences of growing up heterosexual, age cohort comparison proved an important device for individuals framing the specificities of their own experience: 'things were different in my day'; 'things are different for us, now'. However, these data were drawn from interviewing within three-generation families and this wider body of material reveals marked continuities across generations. In terms of individual, rather than familial life history, however, accounts of ageing provided by older adults tend to highlight internal continuities and stand testament to individuals' experiences of themselves as somehow in possession of a stable 'core' which resists the passage of time: 'bits of your body wear out, but inside, the essential me is still the same'. When it comes to death ritual, then, this concern with the integrity and continuity of the individual can be seen to have contribute to a marked late twentieth century trend towards the personalisation of disposal and memorialisation practices. Data drawn from a study of the destinations of the increasing numbers of ashes removed from crematoria for private disposal show informants comparing this new trend with the perceived anonymity of the previous age cohort's modernist cremation services and cemetery design. Interpretation of these data, however, indicates continuities being manifested in re-workings of traditional practices and beliefs. Focussing on the temporalities of human embodiment, then, this paper asks how individuals make sense of themselves as western individuals whose social and embodied lives inevitably involve changes of all kinds.

Panel W017
Problems of continuity and change