Preparing for Postmodernity

Storying the Self

Preparing for Postmodernity: The Peril and Promise

The current changes in the economy and superstructure associated with postmodernity pose particular perils and promises for the world of education.

As Wolf has argued, it is quite conceivable that it will not just be the welfare state which is dismantled in the new epoch but also aspects of the superstructure (Wolfe, 1989). In particular, some of the median associations such as universities and schools may well be diminished and decoupled in significant ways. This means that institutional sites may not be any longer the only significant sites of struggle and it also means that methodological genres which focus on institutional analysis and institutional theorizing may be similarly diminished.

Associated with this restructuring of institutional life is an associated change in the form of knowledge, particularly the forms of workplace knowledge which will be promoted. Significantly, much of the workplace knowledge currently being promoted is context specific and personal (Goodson, 1993, pp. 1-3). Putting these two things together means that there will be two different sites for struggle in the postmodernist period. Firstly, there will be the continuing struggle for the theoretical and critical mission inside surviving but conceivable diminished institutional sites.

Secondly, and probably progressively more important for the future will be the site of the personal life and identity. It is here that perhaps the most interesting project what Giddens calls "the reflexive project of the self" will be contested in the next epoch. Life politics, the politics of identity construction and ongoing identity maintenance will become a major growing site of ideological and intellectual contestation. In this regard, Pinar's notion of Cuirere, the focus of lived experience may prove to be prophetic. The agenda standing before us is one where identity and lived experience can themselves be used as the sites wherein and whereby we interrogate theoretically and critically the social world. If that sounds a bit pompous which it does, what it really means as far as I'm concerned is that we should be investigating and promoting the life history genre. Here the important distinction is between life story and life history. The life story is the initial selected account that people give of their lives: the life history is the triangulated account, one point of the tripod being the life story but the other two points being other people's testimony, documentary testimony and the transcripts and archives that appertain to the life in question.

Storying the Self

The use of personal stories and narratives in teacher education has to respond meaningfully to the new conditions of work and being in the postmodern world. As a number of social scientists have recently argued, this means we should reformulate our conceptions of identity and self-hood. The global forces which are undermining traditional forms of life and work are likewise transforming notions of identity and self. Identity is no longer an ascribed status or place in an established order rather identity is an ongoing project, most commonly an ongoing narrative project. In the new order, we 'story the self' as a means of making sense of new conditions of working and being. The self becomes a reflexive project, an ongoing narrative project. To capture this emergent process requires a modality close to social history and social geography - modes which capture the self in time and space.

For Giddens, the reflective project of the self,

consists in the sustaining of coherent, yet continuously revised, biographical narratives, takes place in the context of multiple choice as filtered through abstract systems. In modern social life, the notion of lifestyle takes on a particular significance. The more tradition loses its hold, and the more daily life is reconstituted in terms of the dialectical interplay of the local and the global, the more individuals are forced to negotiate lifestyle choices among a diversity of options. (Giddens, 1991, p. 5, quoted in Coupland and Nussbaum, 1993, p. xv)

He adds:

Self-identity for us [in the late modern age] forms a trajectory across different institutional settings of modernity over the duree of what used to be called the "life cycle," a term which applies more accurately to non-modern contexts than the modern ones. Each of us not only "has," but lives a biography reflexively organised in terms of flows of social and psychological information about possible ways of life. Modernity is a post-traditional order, in which the question, "How shall I live?" has to be answered in day-to-day decisions about how to behave, what to wear and what to eat and many other things as well as interpreted within the temporal unfolding of self-identity. (Giddens, 1991, p. 14)

The idea of the "life cycle" ... makes very little sense once the connections between the individual life and the interchange of the generations have been broken ... Generational differences are essentially a mode of time-reckoning in pre-modern societies. ... In traditional contexts, the life cycle carries strong connotations of renewal, since each generation in some substantial part rediscovers and relives modes of life of its forerunners. Renewal loses most of its meaning in the settings of high modernity where practices are repeated only in so far as they are reflexively justifiable. (Giddens, 1991, p. 146)
Date of publication:
Paper given at American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, 1994
Life History
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Appears in:
Educational Practice and Theory, Vol. 20, No.1 pp-25-31