Figuring out “figured worlds”

I’d planned to write today about a speaker I saw a few days ago, another PhD candidate in my program at CUNY, who spoke about a concept developed by Dorothy Holland in the late 1990s called “figured worlds.” Holland’s way of explaining identity and agency are new to me, and so I cannot elaborate beyond a basic but interesting point from the first chapter: “…[I]dentities are improvised…from the cultural resources at hand. Thus persons and… groups are caught in the tensions between past histories that have settled in them and the present discourses and images that attract them or somehow impinge upon them.” (4)

Identity as an improvised entity is interesting, challenging, not the least of which because even though our own identity construction may be dynamic, it seems to me that other people – and maybe society as a whole – would permit much less fluidity, for various reasons. (This thought refers me immediately to my previous post about people watching on the New York subway…) Think about it: I couldn’t come into my accounting job one day and tell my boss, “You know, I’m not really a numbers person at the moment. I’m going to walk over to marketing and see how that fits.” Or consider how much differently we speak and feel with family vs. friends vs. romantic partners, almost as though diverse parts of ourselves surge to the surface at any given social period, pulled back into waiting when our meeting is over; our loved ones may know us equally well, but who exactly do they know and how might that be a tenuous statement? These are simple examples but consider the basic point: How is the improvisation, the constant (re)generation of identity (if we’re going with Holland’s concept) tolerated by social existence? And how does our participation in social relations complicate or engender this seemingly fragile, hard-to-define process?

If I sound like I’m casting around with some difficulty in order to understand this better, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I will report back after I’ve finished Holland’s text, Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds…that is, if I haven’t improvised myself into a blogger with writer’s block.


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