Archive for September, 2020

Building and communicating a core identity

Thursday, September 24th, 2020

People do things for reasons. These reasons may not always be totally explicit, to individuals and others, but they are always there’ (Haines and Drakeford). 

How we respond to a social problem is a consequence of what we think causes that problem’ (Polk).

Fig 1 Example of a personal body of knowledge on the theme of ‘belonging, place and change’ assembled with Google Blogger; the subject and topics of ‘ancestors and place’.

1 Knowing your core identity.

Many  European cities and towns are exhibiting rising levels of social exclusion and the concept of ‘social innovation’ in urban development focuses on the processes aimed at countering it.  

The term ‘social innovation’ has three core dimensions: 

  • the satisfaction of human needs (content dimension);
  • an increase in the socio-political capability and access to resources (empowerment dimension); 
  • changes in social relations, especially with regard to governance (process dimension). 

This blog addresses all three dimensions of social innovation in the context of living sustainably by getting to know your core identity and valuing the community where you live; its origins, how you came to be and what you can do to improve things for future citizens. The process dimension of social innovation is the dynamics of ancestry.  Knowing, recording, and preserving your family history impacts you, your family, and future generations of people you will never know. Family history is more than pedigree charts, censuses, and birthdates.  It can shield you against adverse life experiences by giving you an understanding of who you are by creating your own narratives about yourself and helps establish your unique, authentic core identity.  For example, family narrative researcher Robyn Fivush found that sharing family stories contributes to young peoples’ emerging sense of self, both as individuals and as  members of unified families. Adolescents who are able to recount specifics and details of family stories have higher self-esteem and greater resilience.  Family stories give us a sense of belonging and create a core identity with place that can be a great source of empowerment in an age of rapid change. This puts the concepts of ‘belonging’, ‘place’ and ‘change’ at the centre of educational narratives to cope with social innovations needed for living sustainably.  Place and placement of individuals guide the narrative. Family stories directly impact how we see ourselves because they give us an idea of where we come from and how we fit into local history. In this respect we are a unique combination of the culture, history, and traditions we inherited from our own families augmented by our freedom of thought.  Freedom of thought is the precursor and progenitor of action and thus is closely linked to other liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. 

The more we discover about our past, the greater a connection we feel to our ancestors. If we record our own history we open the opportunity for future generations to connect with these when we are gone.  Connecting with members of our family past and present by learning their history fills an innate need in each one of us.  The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative that can be added to by future generations.

2 Do you know?

Key questions for anyone embarking on a quest for developing their core identity are; what is the glue that holds a family together? What are the elements that make some families effective, resilient, and happy?  The last decade has seen important  breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, function more effectively. Research,for example, has reshaped our understanding of family dinnertime conflicts, discipline and difficult conversations. These innovations have come from trendsetting programs in Silicon Valley and the military, who have introduced techniques for making teams, including families, function better.  The family dimension began from an observation made by Sara Duke, a psychologist working with children, who noticed something about young people with learning disabilities.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges

The Duke-Fivush measure, called the “Do You Know?” scale, tests the idea by asking children to answer 20 questions.  Examples include: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Duke and Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre provided the opportunity to reassess the stress responsiveness of their subjects and once again the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient to the 9-11 experience, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?  It is thought that the answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,  Every family has a unifying narrative and those narratives take one of three shapes; the ascending family narrative ie things got better year on year: the descending narrative ie things got worst year on year: and the oscillating family narrative ie there were good times and bad times.

Children who have the most self-confidence have a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.  Leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making; the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.  Successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity. They preserve core, while stimulating progress.  The same applies to families.  Indeed it has been  recommended that families create a mission statement similar to the ones companies and other organizations use to identify their core values.  The military has also found that teaching recruits about the history of their service increases their camaraderie and ability to bond more closely with their unit.  

Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. But talking doesn’t mean simply “talking through problems,” as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

3 Boredom

There is a growing interest in research about place attachment, or emotional bonds formed with places.  It derives from the acknowledgement of the role that these bonds can play in defining personal identity and establishing a sense of belonging to places that encourage pro-environmental behaviors. Vandalism is antisocial behavior that involves the willful destruction or damaging of property in a manner that defaces, mars, or otherwise adds a physical blemish that diminishes the property’s value.  Participating in vandalism also diminishes one’s core identity. 

The UK Government describes anti-social behaviour as, ‘intimidating or threatening activity that scares you or damages your quality of life’. Most anti-social behaviour can be allocated to one of these three categories: street problems, nuisance neighbours or environmental crime. These categories cover a broad range of conduct.  Rowdy and inconsiderate behaviour, inappropriate use of vehicles, dumping rubbish, graffiti and other deliberate damage, have been identified as key issues amongst residents. Anti-social behaviour impacts individuals, families and communities, it prevents a peaceful community life and degrades the environment.

The motivation for being involved in criminal damage, recorded by the UK’s Offending, Crime and Justice Survey 2005, was boredom, after which followed: ‘for the buzz’, and ‘was drunk’. Widespread boredom is not just restricted to young people.  Ir permeates society as a whole, due in part to ‘mediated entertainments and prearranged excitements’.  Under the dehumanizing conditions of modernism, boredom has come to pervade the experience of everyday life. The response to collective boredom is ‘to have fun’ which has spawned not only moments of illicit excitement, that is, ephemeral crimes committed against boredom itself, but larger efflorescences of political and cultural rebellion.   Work and consumption of mass-produced leisure activities does not satisfy people; humans need adventure, but not in pre-packaged form. This explains our need for a ‘buzz’ obtained through legitimate (e.g. alcohol, extreme sports) or illegitimate means (e.g. drugs, acts of vandalism). For some people, ‘the deployment of carefully honed skills in dangerous situations, the on-the-spot integration of practiced artistry and illicit adventure, the embracing of emotional rituals that pre-date modernist rationality, all suggest experiences that are not boring.  They are not boring precisely because they recapture, if momentarily, the lost immediacy of self-made human experience. They suggest a broader question as well: Are certain crimes committed not against people or property as such, but against boredom?’.   

The absence of theories of boredom is argued to be a gap both in psychology and education. For children in school, the boredom model has the character of a positive feedback loop that is maintained in unstable equilibrium by external forces until such time as they can leave school.  Zachary Jason put it this way: 

“For two weeks in third grade, I preached the gospel of the wild boar. My teacher, the sprightly Mrs. DeWilde, assigned my class an open-ended research project: Create a five-minute presentation about any exotic animal. I devoted my free time before bedtime to capturing the wonders of the Sus scrofa in a 20-minute sermon. I filled a poster as big as my 9-year-old self with photographs, facts, and charts, complete with a fold-out diagram of the snout. During my presentation, I shared my five-stanza rhyming poem about the swine’s life cycle, painted the species’ desert and taiga habitats in florid detail, and made uncanny snorting impressions. I attacked each new project that year — a sketch of the water cycle, a history of the Powhatan — with the same evangelism.

Flash forward to the fall of my senior year in high school, and my near-daily lunchtime routine: hunched over at a booth in Wendy’s, chocolate Frosty in my right hand, copying calculus worksheets from Jimmy and Spanish homework from Chris with my left while they copied my notes on Medea or Jane Eyre. Come class, I spent more time playing Snake on my graphing calculator than reviewing integrals, more time daydreaming than conjugating verbs.

What happened in those nine years? Many things. But mainly, like the majority of my fellow Americans, I fell victim to the epidemic of classroom boredom”.

4 Urbanised heroes

Social innovations are new social practices that aim to meet social needs in a better way than existing solutions for a carbon free society which shares planetary resources equally between countries. These new ideas are fostered with the goal of extending and strengthening civil society by eliminating boredom through all dimensions of of social innovation.  Currently, we are far from realising these outcomes because of suboptimal working conditions, in education, community development and health. 

At heart we are all like Zachary Jason. We all have an inner urge to projectise life by building personal bodies of knowledge, but a national curriculum mitigates against this happening in school.  Self-motivated projects are mental prints of our provisional understanding of subjects we are passionate about.  In particular, when faced with the past we feel compelled to recover it in order to thread it through the warp of our own daily life.  Learning the history of our ancestors helps us gain a greater understanding of the challenges they faced, and it often inspires greater love and compassion for their flaws and mistakes. This compassion can easily translate to our relationships with the living, within our families and outside them. We all face hard things. Remembering that fact in the context of others’ shortcomings allows us to be better employees, managers, spouses, parents, children, siblings, and human beings.  That is to say, knowing our family history builds resilience. In learning about our ancestors’ lives, we can see patterns of overcoming failures and surviving hard times. Their stories remind us that surely not everything in life will work easily, that disappointments occur and inequalities exist, but that we can recover, triumph, and find happiness despite hardships.

William Dade was an 18th-century cleric in Yorkshire, England. Although he never married and had no children of his own, he promoted the practice of including as much information as possible in parish registers in addition to the basic requirements of law, which are to record births, marriages and deaths. Because of his efforts, many registers of this period contain rich information for genealogists. Amy Harris, a family history researcher at Brigham Young University, refers to Dade’s type of selfless effort as ‘genealogical consciousness’. The act of being aware of and having a sense of responsibility to our ancestors, progenitors, and all of future humankind is an act of altruistic selflessness.

The ability to cooperate and act selflessly is unique to humanity. Harris teaches that this is what allows us to harness the “power of millions and billions.”   Learning our history, recording it, and preserving it blesses not only our related family, but the entire human family.  So, our family history goes beyond the names and dates we find in our tree. It’s about what makes us who we are. It’s about people with whom we can form deep connections. It’s about people who lived and breathed and suffered and triumphed. It’s about roots and branches and leaves and entire forests. It’s about all of us.

The majority of families tell their family stories in a prototypical, perhaps archetypal fashion, depicting their ancestors as heroes under circumstances of deprivation, danger, fear, and threat. A tendency to valorize ancestors is observed in the stories framed by important historical events while private family stories tend to have more of an amusing character. Why a family shares that or another type of story depends on many circumstances, particularly on a long-lived and generative ancestor, intergenerational relations, and family values.  However, the fact is, if you go back far enough, each one of us has a shared ancestor with every other person on earth. 

Scientists estimate that the most recent common ancestor of all humans lived just a few thousand years ago.   Nathan Lents develops this concept that there was someone, a specific man or woman, who probably lived in either Egypt or Babylonia during the classical period, to whom we can all trace our ancestry. ‘ Assuming an average generation time of 20 years, this means that we are all 120th cousins, descended from someone who was alive when the pyramids were already aging structures’. Many millions of other people living at that time also have living descendants, of course. The last common ancestor is simply the one who is an ancestor to all of us, in addition to our many other ancestors who are not common to everyone.  Lents gives the example that in the lands of the former Mongolian empire, around 8% of the population are direct descendants of the serial rapist Genghis Kahn and that takes us back less than 800 years. Even as far away as North America, around 0.5% of men carry the Y-chromosome of the great Kahn’.  Lents believes that  it is good to keep the limits of genealogy in mind and to hold its value in context.  In this holistic state of mind we owe more to the culture our ancestors represent than to their genes.

In his review of the Afro American Alex Haley’s semi fictional account (Roots) of the seven generations of his ancestors that began with enslavement, Jervis Anderson writes of the stern necessity that drove Hayley to see and understand himself more wholly. 

“Even when the past responds to inquiry, it seldom does so fully; there are many places in which it keeps its silence. In composing his work of ‘faction’, Haley may have felt the need to do what many of the rest of us must: complete ourselves, as best we can, by an act of imagination”. 

The point is that we are eventually forced to end the genealogical trail with a fanciful account of a surrogate ancestor to fill gaps. This reasoning, sometimes called abductive reasoning, typically begins with an incomplete set of observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for the data set. Abductive reasoning yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information at hand, which often is incomplete. An example is applying arts/abductive reasoning to explain sustainability, global warming and inequalities.

5  Grimsby: a Case History

By the mid-20th century Grimsby was the home port for the largest fishing fleet in the world. This economy declined dramatically after the Cod Wars of the 1970s had denied the United Kingdom access to Iceland’s prolific fishing grounds.  Also, in line with its Common Fisheries Policy, the European Union parcelled out fishing quotas in waters within a 200-nautical-mile limit of the UK coast to other European countries. Since then Grimsby has suffered post-industrial decline, although expansion of the food business has been encouraged since the 1990s.  For about a century the community was an example of an ecumene, a collection of families dependent on the North Sea’s fish stocks for its livelihood.  Its economy, from building the fishing fleet to the home braiding of fishing nets, was built around an industry that does not exist any more. The social deficit was depicted in a 2018 article in the Guardian newspaper as skills shortages, long-term jobless families, deprivation, drugs, homelessness, empty homes, fly-tipping, and children in care. The government’s indices of deprivation in 2015 ranked the town’s East Marsh Ward as the fourth worst place in the UK for employment, the second for crime and the worst for education, skills and training.  Grimsby is therefore a prime case history of post industrial cultural decline and a candidate   

for the urgent application of social innovation.

Local efforts to develop and deploy effective solutions to challenge systemic social and environmental issues of belonging, place and change are expressed in the town’s visual culture. Visual culture refers to aspects of culture that are expressed in visual images of public spaces. Art and visual culture are intertwined and for most people they come into view together in public spaces. 

For most UK citizens their family heroes are likely to be great grandfathers who made the brave decision to leave a labouring life in the countryside to seek their fortunes in industrialising towns and cities, hoping to live the dream. Theirs is what has been called the heroism of modern life. 

‘Urbanised heroes’ refers to a case history family narrative of Fred Bellamy (born,1858) and Ted  Kemp, (born, 1860), both economic migrants, who embedded their families in Grimsby in the second half of the 19th century.  To discover the bare bones of the settlement process means developing a genealogical consciousness in order to piece together random finds in the census data and public records of births, marriages and deaths to assemble a personal or collective history.  Having public access to this information actually insists that the finder has a moral duty to recover the life or the culture that brought it into existence.  This makes these tiny survivals in census forms so precious.  They illustrate the fragility of memories that give content to names.  It also shows how the legacies of the past require effort  to rescue them from anonymity and simplification and make them meaningful.  The task of anyone attempting to write a family history is to answer the question, How can I build upon these fragments of past lives knowing that much of the real person is lost in the way we recall.  This is the subject of Keith Douglas’ poem, entitled ‘Simplify me when I’m dead’.

Remember me when I am dead

and simplify me when I’m dead.

As the processes of earth

strip off the colour of the skin:

take the brown hair and blue eye

and leave me simpler than at birth,

when hairless I came howling in

as the moon entered the cold sky.

Of my skeleton perhaps,

so stripped, a learned man will say

“He was of such a type and intelligence,” 

no more.

Thus when in a year collapse

particular memories, you may

deduce, from the long pain I bore

the opinions I held, who was my foe

and what I left, even my appearance,

but incidents will be no guide.

Time’s wrong-way telescope will show

a minute man ten years hence

and by distance simplified.

Through that lens see if I seem

substance or nothing: of the world

deserving mention or charitable oblivion,

not by momentary spleen

or love into decision hurled,

leisurely arrive at an opinion.

Remember me when I am dead

and simplify me when I’m dead. 

6  Blogging a personal body of knowledge

This blog is a development of one published in 2017 entitled Networking in Common.  That blog was introduced with the following quote from Culture 21.

“Public space is a place of social interaction as well as key for the identity and landscape of the city. As a common good, it belongs to all inhabitants and it has a systemic relation with other common goods such as culture or education”.

Art and visual culture are bound up with everything that one sees in day-to-day life, i.e. advertising, landscape, buildings, photographs, movies, and paintings.  In fact, visual culture is expressed in anything in public space that captures a person’s attention and begins a process of communication from past to present through visual means.  Visual culture brings together processes of social innovation by drawing upon art history, humanities, sciences, and social sciences, When analysing visual expressions of culture, one must focus on production, reception, and intention, as well as economical, social, and ideological aspects in order to produce a digital landmark.

At a grassroots level, cyberspace allows social innovation as an interactive form of communication, where any digital citizen can use social media to communicate with the world in realtime and can actually receive a response, can have a dialogue and have a chat room as a public space to organise a response.  This points to a potential route for young people to assemble their own knowledge base using social media from which to become digital literate.  Digital literacy in education encompasses specific skills when reading online text that may contain embedded resources such as hyperlinks, audio clips, graphs, or charts.  The aim is to engage young people on line in social innovation  that requires them to make choices to communicate their knowledge about what is good and bad about where they live.  It is important that they present their plans for improving the bad things involving self education for living sustainably This blog provides an educational framework, with examples of subjects in cultural and social heritage for them to do this.  Each subject consists of topics which are illustrated with pictures and notes. The package can be published on the Internet for comments as a prescription to overcome boredom. It can be assembled and communicated globally using Google Blogger, for example, as the Internet platform (Figs 1 and 2).

Fig 2 Example of a personal body of knowledge on the theme of ‘belonging, place and change’ assembled with Google Blogger; the menu of subjects