Sunday, January 25, 2009

Identity and experience: anecdotes

In a Business Week story, the writer says that "identity" replaces "experience" as the next big concept in design and media thinking. People create their own identities interacting with products and services and so the business world should look at the rapidly shifting identity of the consumer. Indeed, the "smart" folks are spot on!! Identity and experience shape response and behaviour of an individual and is intertwined with the meaning and creation of the person's culture. I will examine some of my experiences and how they have contributed to my identity and thus my articulations.

Arihihenbuwa(2006) noted that the study of culture is a study of ideas and values. I was reminded of my initial days in Bangkok when I was looking at everything with wonderous eyes and trying to understand the Thai culture. One morning while taking a walk (yes, you can take a walk yearlong, unlike midwest!!), I saw an image of Lord Buddha in the park. Most of Thailand is Buddhist and being a Hindu, I understand the tenets of Buddhism and respect Lord Buddha. In Hindu and Buddhist cultures, people usually pray to God early in the morning and in the evening by lighting incense sticks, little candles, decorating the Lord's image with flowers and giving offerings. In Hindu culture the usual offerings are milk, fruits, sugar, jaggery, nuts etc. Imagine my feelings when I saw two opened bottles of beer, a coconut, some cooked chicken and fruits. I was appalled!! How can you offer Beer and chicken to God? My first reaction was judging the actions negatively but later on I understood after conversing with locals and my own reflections that Thais view it normal to share whatever they have with God as it is through his grace that they enjoy those and why not. Later, I found such practices within Hindu culture too. Indeed, that was my first lesson in studying a culture and a realization to have patience and not adopt a judgemental attitude but observe, open spaces for conversation and understand the liminal spaces in the daily interactions. 

Carson (2002) has beautifully illustrated these meaningful spaces in his account on doctor-patient relationship where he says that the hypehenated/ liminal space is a space for ethical encounters, of seeking meanings of illnesses and life, of overcoming silences with meaningful conversations. In his stories, Carson (2002) also highlights openness, humility and a pluralistic attitude. This is important for us as communication scholars to recognize and understand this space and most importantly care, care to spend time to understand and overcome this silent space. 

Signs, symbols, symptoms, meanings, we need to get a grasp of these to understand and increase our effectiveness of interaction. And this is not only true for a doctor patient relationship but also in the larger world where we as health communication scholars would be implementing campaigns, providing expert advice. Identity plays a vital role in making sense of life and the illnesses as they disrupt the normal living. The illness and our response to it gets interwoven into our everyday life and we are changed, not only physically but mentally too. Our response is a subset of our identity and it in turns shapes our identity. So, the effectiveness of our campaign on intervention is dependent on how we have deciphered the embedded meanings. Dutta (2008) cites the case of treating smallpox in a part of India where individuals seek a variety of options to shape their treatment response including praying to Goddess Sitala who is attributed the power of healing this illness. I have experienced this in numerous interaction with families of children afflicted with Measles. It is probably a different God but the meanings are the same. And so are the meanings attributed to the numerous stones, talismans, feng shui items we hang in our homes or wear in constructing our lives around them. Each is distinct and unique and a part of identity and culture provides the backdrop against which identity is realized (Dutta, 2008). 

Lewton and Bydone (2000) reinforce the theme of identity and healing in their narratives examining the Navajo synthetic principle sa'ah naaghai bik'eh hozho (SNBH). SNBH specifies that the conditions for health and well-being are harmony within and connection to the physical/spiritual world. This is something which is very familiar to me and a part of my life as an Indian from South Asia. As Lewton (2000) further elaborates, "specifically, each religious healing tradition encourages affective engagement, proper family relations, an understanding of one's cultural and spiritual histories, and the use of kinship terms to establish affective bonds with one's family and with the spiritual world." I am reminded of my grandmother who was a homepathic doctor and used to check my pulse and tongue everytime I would complain of fever or stomach problem and ask me which places I had visited the preceding night and days and if I have been regular with my prayers. I am also reminded of image of the God hanging in many doctors' offices in India underneath which is written, "I treat, he cures".

Identity is a dynamic concept and is defined by and defines experience. It also shapes our interactions and articulations. While I was working for UNICEF, I beleived and advocated that IMR (Infant Mortality Rate) is a holistic indicator of a society's development. It did touch a wrong chord somewhere in my consciousness while I discussed my own society's dismal IMR rates but I did not question it further as my identity tied to a UNICEF staff prevented it. Now I am actively contesting this statement and exploring its dimensions and ethical issues surrounding it and would certainly not use this as an anchor for any IMR intervention. Is this a manifestation of changes in my identity? Its also a question of your horizons of knowledge. How much have you cared to explore and contest in your learning? Reading Arihihenbuwa, Dutta and other scholars of those genre and reflecting upon lived experiences, I am beginning to question accepted norms of development, globalization, normaly cited indicators of progress. 

Similar questions are raised in the illuminating paintings and narratives in "Indonesia Sakit". The paintings are not only a reflection of the artist's subjective experiences and hopes concerning "reformasi" at the end of the autocratic oppression of Suharto but also the artists' enactment of their resistance through those paintings. The paintings and their interpretions, the narratives took me reflecting on the Indonesian history, the role that the western governments and institutions like IMF, WB played in it, and the emerging postcolonial disorders in the Indonesian society. It reminded me of the paintings by the children affected in the 2005 Tsunami in Andaman islands and their subjective experience and interpretations. The paintings of the children who had lost their parents, their siblings, their families gave us an insight into their traumatic experience which were embedded in their silent gazes. This insight guided us in designing our rehabiliation interventions. Our experiences shapes our identity and in turn are shaped by it and both are culturally situated. As Dutta (2008) articulated, culture provides the contextual space within which individuals develop a sense of self, value aspects of it, and enact this self concept in their everyday life.


Mohan J. Dutta said...

How does identity play out in he interstices of culture and structure in health communication? What does it mean to have an identity? And how does this identity offer channels for enacting agency? for working with, negotiating, and simultaneously resist the social structures that continue to marginalize the subaltern?

Steph said...

"I am beginning to question accepted norms of development, globalization, normaly cited indicators of progress." Lala, don't we HAVE to questions all of the above in order to provoke new lines of thinking and change? Who are the people to begin with that constitute what the "normal" indicators of progress are? And is progress = progress?