Skip to main content

Social Construction of the “Self”

Alan Watts’

‘Briefly, the thesis is that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of sin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East – in particular the central and germinal Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction.’ Preface to The Book : On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are (1966).


Education, Work and the Social Distribution of Knowledge

How do you know anything? What is the role of society in that knowledge?

‘Men always love what is good or what they find good; it is in judging of the good that they go wrong.’ Rousseau.

‘If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.’ Henry Ford

‘Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.’ Mark Twain

‘Our separate fictions add up to joint reality.’ Stanislaw Lec

‘A person gets from a symbol the meaning he puts into it, and what is one man’s comfort and inspiration is another’s jest and scorn.’ Justice Jackson.

‘The education of moral sensibility with regard to the question of how we should treat others is only part of the story. The other part of the story is the quality of an individual’s own life as he experiences it. Here too the narrative arts have an enormous amount to offer. The idea of making one’s life worthwhile by choosing goals and striving towards them, sometimes deferring present satisfactions in the hope of greater rewards later, demands the imposition of a narrative structure upon it, as if one were the author of one’s own story.’ (Grayling 2003:14)

‘Only by being aware of a rich array of possible narratives and goals to choose from can one’s choices and actions be truly informed and maximally free… exposure to stories – which in part represent possible lives – is a vital ingredient in the ethical construction of an individual’s personal future history.’ (Grayling 2003:14)

‘Liberal education is disappearing in the English-speaking West, as expectations decline and schooling narrows into training focused mainly on participation in the life of the economy. It is worth iterating what a loss this is; for the aim of liberal education is to help people continue learning all their lives long, and to think, and to question. New and challenging moral dilemmas are always likely to arise, so we need to try to make ourselves the kind of people who can respond thoughtfully.’ (Grayling 2003:9-10)

Sir Ken Robinson on Changing Education Paradigms:


Some career advice from Alan Watts:


“What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?”

People answer poets, writers, ride horses … but you can’ t money that way…

Alan Watts advises to “forget the money”. “Because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time: you will do things you don’t like in order to go on living that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid!”

Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life that spent in a miserable way. And after all, if you do really like doing what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is,  you can eventually … become a master of it … and then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is … somebody is interested in everything. Anything can be interested you can find others who are… So it’s an important question: what do I desire?

To finish, little quote from one of my favourites: ‘Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophical thought has done its best, the wonder remains.’ Alfred North Whitehead

Social Construction of Wealth and Happiness

Wealth isn’t only socially constructed. Neither is poverty. Are wealth and poverty only about stuff? How about being wealthy or poor in time? Or in spirit? Pleasure? Love? Friendship? Does the pursuit of wealth in purely monetary terms cause us more problems than the benefits it brings?

George Carlin on Stuff to start it off:


There are many ways to view the world, each built up by a one’s social environment and upbringing. The social construction of childhood:


‘The world’s most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain, small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status.’ [2]

What do you think of this statement? Is poverty only relational, or are there some absolutes in an availability of resources sense?

The intro to The Gods Must Be Crazy demonstrates colossally different worldviews:


‘We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free.’[4]

Sidelining the danger of falling into “Noble Savage” idealizations/criticisms (ie recognizing that hunger & gatherer lifestyles have their problems too, and moving on), let us talk briefly about the contrast between common Western lifestyles (40-hour work weeks, sitting on computers) and a couple of alternative lifeways.

‘Hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society.’[4]

So… what is affluence/wealth?

According to Sahlins, an  ‘affluent society is one in which all the people’s material wants are easily satisfied.’

It is interesting to contrast our “Galbraithean” way of life (‘wants are great’ + ‘means are limited’) with the “Zen road to affluence” whereby people can enjoy an ‘unparalleled material plenty – with a low standard of living.’ [1]

Today’s growth/market/consumer-based economy is based on a ‘perpetual disparity’ with ‘unlimited wants’ and ‘insufficient means’. No matter how much “stuff” we accumulate, we always want more. Do you think even the most “wealthy” people in our world today are affluent? How many hours do they work? Are they happy?

In some cultures, value is about ‘freedom of movement.’ [3]

Social construction of wealth and happiness: does wealth make us happy?

This order of happiness ‘is not a result to be attained through action, but a fact to be realized through knowledge. The sphere of action is to express it, not to gain it.’ [5] More on happiness:

I guess there are many different ways to be in the world, and different paths to wealth, health, love and happiness… kinda like there are many ways of interpreting the dots below…



[1] Marshall David Sahlins, ‘Chapter One: The Original Affluent Society’, Stone Age Economics (New York: Aldine, 1972). p, 2.

[2] Ibid. p. 35.

[3] Ibid. p. 12.

[4] Ibid. p. 14.

[5] Alan Watts, The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East (London: Village Press, 1968). p. iv.

[6] Hiebert, Paul G. (2008). Transforming Worldviews : An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Social Constructions of Beauty

Anata wa chisai atama!” You have a small head! — a compliment in Japan. So much to the extent that some Japanese wear a five-pound Small-Face-Make-Belt around the head while sleeping. Apparently it helps your head shrink over time. A good example of the role of society in constructing one’s idea of beauty.

Behind “beauty”:


Ok, so beauty isn’t only an idea constructed by society. It’s hard to dispute that Victoria’s Secret models are beautiful.


But… would they have been beautiful in the 50s?

A (very) brief, limited and generalized history of beauty:

  • 16th Century – flat chest, 13-inch waist
  • 17th Century – large bust and hips, white complexion
  • 19th century – tiny waist, full hips and bust
  • 1920s – slender legs and hips, small bust
  • 1940s & 50s – hourglass shape
  • 1960s – lean, youthful body with long hair
  • 1970s – thin, tan
  • 1980s – slim but muscular, toned
  • 1990s – heroin chic
  • 2000s – thin bodies with large breasts

What are some of the differences between a Marilyn Monroe & a Kate Moss?


Following that song, it is interesting to consider how society constructs our ideas about wealth? And love, which I will post on soon…

How do our stories about beauty, wealth and love impact our experience of happiness?



Poking Fun at Society’s Stories

Today I’m looking at the Social Construction of Reality. How does society construct our reality? Comedians do a good job at pointing it out…

George Carlin: The American Dream


Chris Rock: Can White People Say Nigger?


Eddie Izzard: Do you have a flag?





Life is a Game: Alan Watts & Happiness

I have noticed that in times I’m feeling down, reading or listening to Alan Watts makes me happy again. Why? His deep bellowing laugh and sense of humour? Maybe that’s part of it. But really it’s his philosophy, it just “clicks” with me. It makes me feel good. Life is a game, says Watts.  When I hear his words the dramas of my ego disappear into the cosmic drama I’m a playing. I remember that everything I know and think, is just a question of how I am looking at it.

In his book The Meaning of Happiness, Watts recaps the two most common types of books on happiness:

  1. those that tell us how to become happy by changing our circumstances
  2. those that tell us how to become happy by changing ourselves

His book falls into neither of these two categories:  ‘it is possible in a certain sense to become happy without doing anything about it.[1] Watts explains that he sees happiness as ‘not a result to be attained through action, but a fact to be realized through knowledge. The sphere of action is to express it, not to gain it.[2]

Happiness, says Watts, starts with total acceptance: a ‘yes-saying to everything that we experience, the unreserved acceptance of what we are, of what we feel and know at this and every moment.’ [3]

It is only when you seek it that you lose it... Like your shadow, the more you chase it, the more it runs away. [4]

Life and happiness is ‘unusually complicated because in fact it is unusually simple; its solution lies so close to us and is so self-evident that we have the greatest difficulty in seeing it, and we must complicate it in order to bring it into focus and be able to discuss it at all. This may seem a terrible paradox, but it is said that a paradox is only a truth standing on its head to attract attention… Nothing could be more obvious and self-evident than a man’s own face; but oddly enough he cannot see it at all unless he introduces the complication of a mirror, which shows it to him reversed. The image he sees is his face and yet it is not his face, and this is a form of paradox.’ [5]

In The Nature of Consciousness Watts explains that in his philosophy ‘there is no difference between the physical and the spiritual. These are absolutely out-of-date categories. It’s all process; it isn’t ‘stuff’ on the one hand and ‘form’ on the other. It’s just pattern— life is pattern. It is a dance of energy. And so I will never invoke spooky knowledge. That is, that I’ve had a private revelation or that I have sensory vibrations going on a plane which you don’t have. Everything is standing right out in the open, it’s just a question of how you look at it.


We are expressions of The Transcendent playing a game of hide and seek with Itself:

‘You have seen that the universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that there is no separate “you” to get something out of it, as if life were a bank to be robbed. The only real “you” is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For “you” is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new.’ [6]


As in this symbolic representation of John Wheeler’s “Participatory Universe”, we see ourselves as the reflexive eye that has emerged within life’s story, and looks back at where it has come from. So… if you’re feeling down, remember:
Accept your self, just as you are.
Accept the world, just as it is.
See the connections.
Live. Die. Hide. Seek.
Don’t chase happiness, express it.
Life is a game, have fun with it.
Participate. Play.

[1] Alan Watts, The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East (London: Village Press, 1968). p. xi.
[2] The Meaning of Happiness. p. iv.
[3] The Meaning of Happiness. p. vi.
[4] The Meaning of Happiness. p. xxi.
[5] The Meaning of Happiness. p. xxiii.

[6] Alan Watts, The Book : On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969). p. 118.

Preserving “The Pyramid” – the reason things are the way they are…

“Things are the way they are because they have been designed to be this way,” a friend of mine said. “It’s all about preserving The Pyramid.”

What’s The Pyramid? Let me tell you…

“The Pyramid” (according to my friend) is a method of social, economic and political organisation that is at the core of every human civilisation from the Egyptians to Hindus to Monarchies to Capitalism.

All the big political conflicts come down to one thing: The Pyramid.

Conflicts are either initiated by people on top pulling strings to preserve or expand the present Pyramid; or conflicts are initiated by revolutionaries who disagree with the structure and seek to turn The Pyramid up-side-down.

As I thought through history, I realised my friend was right. The English and Spanish Conquest of the Americas, India, China… We seize land to expand our pyramid. We seize resources to secure our pyramid. We take down any leaders who don’t agree to it’s rules. We call anyone who challenges the Pyramid a “terrorist” and “national threat”. Why? Because they really are a threat to this hierarchy – and the people at the top do not like that.

From the Egyptians:

To the Hindu caste system:

To Capitalism today…

Globalisation has seen the pyramids of once isolated civilisations join together to create an even bigger pyramid. And as the upper and middle class grows, so does the lower class, hence as our global population rapidly expands, so does The Pyramid. The rich get richer as  the poor get poorer.

In the global pyramid, the top 0.5 billion earning over $20,000 a year (of which many earn far more, and a small number earning far far more than that) while 60% of the world’s population live on less than $2 a day.

The pyramid of wealth distribution looked at in another way shows the top 1% taking 2/3rds of the US national income…

How is such inequality allowed to persist?

Through a carefully constructed system that involves a “social distribution of knowledge” [1]. We educate some (the children of the monetarily rich) to make the system work for them, and educate others (the children of the not-so-money-rich) to work for the system.

Those in power know the formula: give people a reason to live (eg through career path or religion or an ideology) and educate them enough for their societal roles. No more, no less.

The system teaches people to obey authority, not to question it. It encourages conformity, a docile acceptance of the status quo.

According to my friend’s theory, all the “evils” of the world are there for a reason: to maintain The Pyramid. This includes:

  • Poverty is there because a massive base is needed to support the weight of the top.
  • War is there because it secures the resources required to make weapons and keep the system running as those at the top require.
  • Lack-of-education is there because in the social distribution of knowledge, not everyone needs to know stuff. All you need to know is what your role requires you to know, no more, no less.
  • Religion is there because it gives people a purpose. It explains the unknowns, it controls the masses, and it gives people hope for a better life next time round – be it up in heaven or in one’s reincarnation.
  • Debt is there because it contracts a permanent slave of those people and countries who work to repay it.

The destructive cycle is this: (1) as we seek to join the upper class  or move up the middle classes (a good thing), we inadvertently (2) increase the lower class – not such a good thing if this means 12 hour work days behind a sewing machine. Then, (3) as the base of the pyramid increases, so does poverty (families have less food and less land to provide), and (4) as poverty increases, education decreases and people have more babies, causing (5) the global population continues to explode and (6) as the earth’s resources recede it seems inevitable that, at some point in the future, billions of people’s lives  are going to be lost.

Should we challenge The Pyramid? Maybe. But to be honest I’m not sure that we can.

What happens when someone challenges the authority of The Pyramid? They get taken down. Just look what they are doing to Julian Assange!

History has shown Animal Farm scenarios time and time again: revolution upon revolution. When oppressive humans are kicked off the planet and animals declare themselves equal, it’s only a matter of time before pigs (or some other animal) will rise up and become the new oppressor.

The Pyramid has been torn down and built back up by a numerous groups who then take the place of the new rich and powerful. Whoever wins the battle replicates the model’s inequalities, and rewrites history to produce a new “social distribution of knowledge.” It’s an endless cycle.

Geez this is depressing. Where’s my Christmas spirit? Don’t get me started on Christmas… the capitalistic “Christian” tradition that is based on a pagan holiday inadvertently idolizing the “God” that declared “He” never wanted to be idolised. Ah sorry, I shouldn’t write it off like this. It is a lovely family time. I’ll try to uplift my words from here on…

If we can’t fight The Pyramid, should we embrace it? Maybe. Maybe there are ways of making it work without the above evils, I’m not sure.

Is inequality ok? Maybe. It’s impossible for everyone to be equal. And unappealing – diversity makes the world a more interesting place. And whose to say that the rich people are “rich”? Are those at the top of the pyramid “better off” than the people at the bottom? Life can be pretty boring if you have everything without the challenge. The poor might be much richer in different ways…

But it can’t be denied that it’s pretty shit that two-thirds of the world have no place to shit.

Maybe it’s best to live one’s life somewhere in the middle. Probably myself and most of you think of ourselves as somewhere in the middle (although earning more than $20k pa places us in the upper).

Even in the top segment of the pyramid if you have a mortgage and particularly if you have children, then choices become even more limited – we are culturally molded to work for the system. I wonder how many people at the very very top of The Pyramid are even consciously aware that they are creating or perpetuating it?

Is there anything wrong with being a cog in this wheel? No. I guess not – as long as you are happy. What if this happiness is just an illusion? Maybe living in an illusion is the best place to be. Should we be putting our efforts into finding ways to make the pyramid work for us? Maybe. But maybe not. Alternatives may exist, I’m not yet sure.

In sum, things are the way they are because they have been designed this way. Poverty, religion, education systems, health-related issues – all of our problems are (at least in part) designed to serve the powerful and preserve The Pyramid. If you want to address these problems in a way that is real and sustainable, then it will be useful for you to consider the power hierarchies within The Pyramid, and engage with those in decision-making positions to make changes toward more just institutions and hence a more just world.

When my friend first shared this theory I protested, now I’m coming around.

More on The Pyramid? Check out the sequel blog post Rethinking “The Pyramid” – do alternatives exist? and blog entries tagged “The Pyramid“.


I have a habit of grabbing pictures off Google Images and not recording the copyrights… if anyone would like me to acknowledge their work where I haven’t please do let me know.


[1] The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann 1966


Have you met TED? Introducing “Narratology”

Which Ted? Ted from How I Met Your Mother, or Ted-Talks? While both are wonderful sources of inspiration, today I will using the former to introduce “Narratology”.

Narratology is the study of narratives, the stories lived and the stories told. The stories in one’s head, and the stories that become one’s reality. The story of you, the story of your people, your culture, your religion, the story of humanity, the story of the universe… stories surround us.

Roland Bathes,  sums up narrative better than I ever could:

The narratives of the world are numberless. …  Able to be carried by articulated language, spoken or written, fixed or moving images, gestures, and the ordered mixture of all these substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting, stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news times, conversation … [and] narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society… Caring nothing for the division between good and bad literature, narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural. It is simply there, like life itself. [1]

Narrative is, in the words of another great narratologist Theodore R. Sarbin, our “root metaphor.” [2]

How I Met Your Mother has some of the cleverest scripting ever. Besides the fact that it has me laughing, and that it has even had me in tears (when Ted got hit by the car), my favourite thing about this show is the way they play with narrative.

In case you haven’t seen it, every episode is told from told from the viewpoint of a father in 2030 telling his children “how he met their mother”, recollecting his friends’ stories from and seemingly never getting to the part where he actually meets their mother. Episodes don’t always follow exactly on from one another and stories are played out as they would be told – with parts forgotten, exaggerated and imagined. Stories within stories within stories are told from individual people’s different perspectives, capturing many truths about our culture, social nuances, fantasies and life issues.

This is one of my favourite examples… “Blah Blah” and the hot-crazy scale!


Ok, so if you are a keen follower of this blog, you will notice that (once again) I am jumping eclectically from one topic to another. The other day I introduced my plans for studying philosophy, and now I’m talking narratology. Where is my structure? My staged methodolic organised research? It might make no sense to anyone else but it is there, somewhere in my unconscious and subconscious mind, I just haven’t identified it yet.

My approach to research is more intuitively led – and I like it this way, it keeps things fun. I’m also interested the application of the concepts I’m studying – rather than just the theory. The different theories I’m reading about seem to overlap and shine lights on each other.

What does narratology mean for philosophy and religion and big history? What does Social Construction Theory have to do with Faucault’s Discipline and Punish, with power, structure and agency? What does this have to do with our ecological trajectories? What does this mean for me, and the life I am living? These are the sort of questions going through my head.

It might seem mind-boggling, with complicated topics layered upon one another, but I get bored easily, and this keeps me entertained. I would much prefer move organically through the literature, reading whatever topic makes me excited in a moment, rather than over-indulging in one of them and moving sloggishly onto the next. How this pans out in pulling together a large body of academic work… I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see.

As I learn about these very interesting mind-twisting concepts, I will share them. If you get lost in my brain, in the hopping from one topic to another, then I appologise – it probably means I’m just as lost as you!

Long story short – if you haven’t met Ted then you should meet him soon!


[1] Barthes 1966 essay Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives, quoted in Michael J Toolan, Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction (London: Routledge, 1988). p. 6.

[2] Theodore R. Sarbin, ‘The Narrative as a Root Metaphor for Psychology’, in Sarbin ed., Narrative Psychology : The Storied Nature of Human Conduct (New York: Praeger, 1986b).