Leaving Your Identity Behind

Jim McAlexander and I wrote an article about leaving identity-central communities. We both felt strongly about the subject because we had such a heart for the people we interviewed who were going through the difficult process.

Leaving communities or institutions that have become an institutional pillar of identity turns out to be a much stickier, difficult, and longer process than had previously been examined in the literature at the time. The subsequent article that was accepted for publication was about four drafts later–with two more coauthors–for the Journal of Consumer Research (Marketization of Religion, JCR 2014).

We turned the first paper that was simply titled “Leaving” into a chapter for Susan Fornier’s book Strong Brands, Strong Communities. The book is not in print any longer, and the chapter is not available anywhere online, except in Google Books with a number of pages left out, as Google Books does.

Going through my weird time of exile here in Newfoundland, having left behind virtually every identity-salient institution I’d been a part of previously, has been extremely difficult. This experience is why I started coaching other professionals who were going through times of transition, such as joining the Great Recession or leaving academia.

I recently reread this article, and was surprised at how prescient the analysis was for the time I was to go through, and how many of these concepts I use successfully in my coaching. I scanned the pages and merged the images into a pdf to share here.

On Culture and Change

Those who live along the San Andreas Fault in Southern California are jolted periodically by the movement of the Pacific tectonic plate and the North American plate as the two outer shell pieces strain to slide over the Earth’s mantle into new positions. Their strain against resistance and release of pressure result in earthquake shock waves. This change is paradoxically both inexorable and predictable and yet inevitably unexpected and surprising to the individuals and communities that experience it.

Societal shock waves from change can alter individuals and communities as well. Identities change. Neighborhoods change. Meanings and ideologies change. Communities and individuals struggle with this tension of change. Yet change is inevitable. Sometimes it is a small magnitude change. Sometimes it is “The Big One.” A large level shockwave—The Big One as it were—in geological terms results in a radical change to the landscape. The Big One in societal or individual change results in changes that have intertwining effects on individuals, neighborhoods, institutions, and markets.

Stay tuned for more thoughts on cultural change, large and small–how this changes consumers, and how consumers change society.

The Quantified Consumer

There’s a refrain we hear often when consumers talk about dealing with bureaucracies, or with businesses with less-than-stellar service cultures: “I’m just a number to them.” It generally refers not so much to an actual number, but to a feeling of anonymity. In the age of Big Data, “I’m a number” can take on a very different meaning–communicating not anonymity, but the fact that an entity knows one down to granular detail. And it’s very much about the number itself.

We live in a world that is increasingly datafied. Third parties collect all the bytes of info we leave behind in our massive data exhaust clouds as we traverse the online landscape. These entities quantify us with our own data. Things not previously quantified are translated into scores as companies try to make sense of the data.

Sometimes the scores that are generated from the collection of our data are shared with us by companies or institutions. Our dataist paradigm leads us to trust in numbers as objective and true measurements. So when companies or entities quantify us in some manner, we tend to accept it.

In recent research analyzing consumers of credit score products, my co-author and I find that consumers who are quantified may take on the resultant score as part of their identity, translating the score to a narrative arc of self. What’s really interesting is that these consumers show similar ideological characteristics to those in the quantified-self movement. To a greater or lesser extent, they are the number. The number is them.

This opens up all sorts of questions about consumer identity in the age of company datafication and consumer quantification.

What’s in a number? We are, apparently.

DuFault, Beth Leavenworth and John W. Schouten (In press) “Self Quantification and the Datapreneurial Consumer Identity.” in Consumption Markets & Culture https://doi.org/10.1080/10253866.2018.1519489