Submitted as the final essay assignment for Foundation Social Science, Certificate of University Preparation
At the start of the seventh season of Seinfeld, Jerry and George, having just broken up with their respective girlfriends over the most trivial of differences, come to a sudden realisation. “What kind of lives are these?” Jerry poses, with the implication being that their habit of making a big deal over minute details in their lives was starting to be a problem with the way they saw themselves (David & Ackerman, 1995). In the same way, Goffman (1963) categorises identity in three aspects: social, personal, and ego, which is defined by relationships with others, one’s definition of it, and experiences, respectively. Specifically, I will be talking about how my identity, being an amalgamation of my experiences (Goffman, 1963), has both been shaped by and relates to my experiences through the topics I have learnt in Social Science. This essay will give an overview of the topics I have learnt that I found particularly meaningful, mainly media and social anthropology. It will also explain their links to my experiences and expand upon them, demonstrating how they are inherently interwoven with each other and, ultimately, the overarching topic: identity.
The media in today’s world is colossal and fundamental; its role in our lives cannot be overstated. Derived from the Latin word for ‘middle’, it started out with the Gutenberg printing press in the fifteenth century, and today, appears everywhere we turn, even on our wrists, enabling practically instant access to the happenings of the world. O’Shaughnessy and Stadler (2008) identifies five influences on the media, namely, the role of people in innovating, which also leads to, secondly, technological advancements in the space, the economic considerations which are a powerful motivator for advancements, controls and regulations from authorities which curb those advancements, and perhaps most significantly, the audience to the media that determines its success. Social media today finds itself as both a cause of and effect to these pressures, and recent developments suggest that it is about to undergo yet another substantial change. Facebook, as a monopoly in social media (“Social media stats worldwide”, 2018), has been under scrutiny by governments due to the Cambridge-Analytica scandal, which brought to light how it manages and profits over user data. Other concerns exist in the medium as well, such as the proliferation of fake news, and all these only demonstrate the significance of social media’s role today. Fake news, incidentally, is increasingly the authoritarian’s favourite scapegoat. Acutely aware of the role social media played in the toppling of regimes in the Middle East, autocratic governments have been justifying growing censorship as a way to combat the phenomenon of fake news, such as in Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act (Deahl, 2018). Where I am from, Singapore, too, has indicated its intentions in enacting such a law as seen in their setting up of the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, which is ironic, as, according to historian P. J. Thum (2013), the Singapore government has also been the “biggest purveyor of fake news” by using the state-controlled media to regurgitate its justifications in its use of detentions without trial. My involvement in an opposition political party, and later, The Online Citizen, Singapore’s longest running independent online publication (“About us”, 2018), has shown me first-hand not just the impediments of censorship, but also the power of independent media, despite the former. Various posts and articles I composed as a reporter for The Online Citizen demonstrated this phenomenon, such as one on the arrest of an activist which garnered 500,000 views (The Online Citizen, 2017), and a posting of my exchange with a minister (Lin, 2017), which resulted in said minister later making a statement to clarify what he had said (Tham, 2017). Our reach, mainly through the use of social media, has led to the authorities responding accordingly in implementing a law they claim targets fake news, but, from their record of silencing dissent, suggests censorship. Ultimately, learning about the media in an academic setting as well as being a part of it has yielded in me the same conclusion: that the media, despite its flaws, is but a powerful tool that will only increase in prominence in the future, and wisdom lies in refining and learning it. By extension, media studies in the realm of social science and its graduates are becoming more vital than ever.
Larry David, in an episode of the highly acclaimed series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, unabashedly asks his friends if their adopted Chinese child has “any proclivity for chopsticks” (David, 2009). That, of course, could not be further from the truth, which is that culture, rather than being biologically bestowed upon, is “acquired” (Tylor, 1871), and that process of acquisition is called enculturation. Culture, defined as the multiple facets of society that one learns, including the arts, law, mannerisms, thinkings, and attitudes, is a cornerstone of social anthropology since social anthropology studies the differences between and within cultures (“Discover Anthropology”, ). Social anthropologists deal with a wide range of topics, including politics and inequality, both of which, like the censorship of the media, are crucial in understanding the Singapore context. Along with media control, Singapore adopts a system of government that is ostensibly democratic, but employs various tactics seen in various laws, constitutional amendments, gerrymandering, and others, the result of which is a lack of free and fair elections, and thus the ability of people to affect change (“Elections in Singapore: Are they free and fair?”, 2000). This denies people the ability to affect change in economic issues, such as income inequality, another feature of social anthropology, in which Singapore’s is amongst the highest in the developed world (Watkins, 2007). A recent book by Teo You Yenn (2018) explores this problem in the form of an ethnography, which is a method of collecting data and analysis of a culture through immersion in participant-observation (Kawulich, 2005). In it, she uncovers stories of the unseen poor and bravely argues for what must be taboo to a government deeply-steeped in economic conservatism: universal welfare. Like Teo, I, towards the end of my stint at The Online Citizen, attempted an ethnography (without having heard of the word), in my process of documenting the volunteer work done in an elderly nursing home. Posted on The Online Citizen (Lin, 2018), the report, unlike a traditional ethnography, took a couple of months, rather than years, and probably contains researcher bias due to my not consciously taking account of it. Yet, in hindsight, several aspects of participation observation teachings have been employed. Kawulich (2005) found the advice of adopting the attitude of being “treat(ed) like a little child who knows nothing” helpful in her research, by removing barriers usually imposed by a group on an outside researcher. I started, quite literally, in the same way: as the youngest and most inexperienced of the group, being taught, guided, and welcomed throughout as that. I participated in the role as a “complete participant”, until the last few weeks when I decided to write up a report on it. During that final week, I employed the “participant as observer stance”, actively writing down quotes and observations in my interactions, and informing the participants that I had intended to write a report about them. I used background knowledge as a participant earlier to provide a foundation as to understand and report on the findings I had in that one week. Thus, studying ethnography through social anthropology in this course allowed me to learn not only through readings but also through analysing and learning from my own participation in it, which unexpectedly serves as an additional hands-on experience to a distance course, that research has shown to reinforce learning (Kontra, Lyons, Fischer, & Beilock, 2015).
It has been argued that one’s cultural identity is made up of eight factors: socio-economic status, ethnicity, family, religion, cultural heritage, their current territory and origin, sex, and language (Oganesyan, 2015; Sysoyev, 2001; Malouf, 2001; Meyer, 2007; Ward, 2016). Burr (2003) supports a similar perspective, describing identity as a “subtle interweaving of many different threads.” After watching Black Panther, a film which dealt with African-American discrimination as well as highlighting the importance of their roots to Africa (Feige & Coogler, 2018), a discussion arose between myself and a friend as to why I did not relate to the culture that one would consider to be part of my Chinese ethnicity, and did not feel as strong a need to, unlike African-Americans and Māori, for instance. The answer, as it turns out, is due to the fact that the strength of one’s sense of ethnic identity is directly related to the size, power, and discrimination encountered for that ethnic group (Martinez & Dukes, 1997; Phinney & Alipuria, 1990; Tsai & Fuligni, 2012), and I, being part of the majority Chinese race in Singapore, did not feel those effects due to privilege. Another reason for my not relating to the default ‘Chinese culture’ is perhaps due to a degree of multiculturalism in Singapore that has effectively changed individual cultures through regular, repeated contact between them, eventually forming a common Singaporean identity that I identify more closely with, a phenomenon called acculturation (Redfield, Linton, & Herskovits 1936). One of the hallmarks of this shared identity, like numerous other examples of acculturation (Kottak, 2014), is the formation of a new language called Singlish, a combination of English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil lexicons, with its own grammatical rules that is said to be focused on efficiency and practicality (Gwee, 2016). The Singapore government, however, is opposed to the proliferation of this language, purporting that it lowers the standard of proper English, and can serve as a “class marker”, handicapping those at the bottom who are only proficient in Singlish (Au-Yong, 2016; Siau, 2018). According to sociolinguistics, language and accent use can and have indeed been used as a signifier for status (Lyons, 2014; Wolfram, n.d). By discouraging the use of Singlish, however, the government may ironically be helping to enact a society defined exactly along these terms, based on an elitist mindset that resurfaces occasionally, as evidenced by a recent school textbook which categorises one’s use of Singlish as an indication of having a “low socio-economic status (SES)” (Lay, 2018). At a more fundamental level, identity theorists have described the self as being formed through one’s reaction to people’s perceptions and behaviours to the self (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934; Callero, 2003; Sullivan & West-Newman, 2007). Until recently, this was how I primarily defined myself: incorporating tastes, ideology, and attitudes that were in opposition to, but paradoxically, still subjected to, mainstream culture and what people thought of me. A turning point, and what I attribute to be a religious experience, came when a bout of depression lasting a month, and the almost instantaneous relief from it subsequently, led to what has been termed as “ego-death”, a feeling of a “complete loss of subjective self-identity” (Johnson, Richards, & Griffiths, 2008). The ego, belonging to the three main parts of one’s psyche (Freud, 1923; Jung, 1928), controls mainly one’s awareness of identity, and this cognitive shift from its diminishment is akin to the effects of psychedelics, which reduces blood-flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network (Carhart-Harris, Erritzoe, Williams, Stone, Reed, Colasanti, Tyacke, Leech, Malizia, Murphy, 2012), the feeling astronauts have described experiencing when viewing the earth from the moon, a term dubbed “the overview effect” (Yaden, Iwry, Slack, Eichstaedt, Zhao, Vaillant, & Newberg, 2016; Grant, 2017), as well as in meditation and mythicism in eastern religions (Safran, 2003). For me, it was the same spiritual death that the apostle Paul wrote about, whose previous self has been “crucified with Christ…(and that) it is no longer I who live, but Christ (who) lives in me” (Galatians 2:20, New Living Translation), leading to the realisation that so much of what I held to be in high regard and as part of my identity did not matter as much, as well as a recognition of my underlying selfish and egotistic attitudes. This new lightness of being enabled the more careful exploration of the various aspects of social science, both academically and experientially, such as in the ethnography in the elderly nursing home, as well as be less judgemental towards other beliefs, analogous to the concept of cultural relativism in anthropology, which emphasises equal respect towards each culture in spite of differences in a bid to deepen understanding of it (Kottak, 2014).
While the Social Sciences can be seen by students as merely a course to study intellectually for the obtainment of grades, it has been a window into aspects and experiences of my life, which I now can categorise into their respective fields of study. Having both theoretical and practical knowledge facilitates a synthesis of all subjects, which is essential because, as seen in this essay, they frequently overlap and intertwine with each other. The topics I have studied: media, social anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and many others, therefore also culminates as part of my experience and, essentially, my identity.
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