A summary of Ontological Security

Jan 25, 2021


…Riffing on this topic for a recent piece I’m writing.

The concept of “ontological security” as elaborated by Anthony Giddens in his book The Constitution of Society (1984) is a useful tool in discussing how we understand the self. Simply put, ontological security is a sense of stability that emerges in response to “the need to experience oneself as a whole, continuous person in time —as being rather than constantly changing — in order to realize a sense of agency.” (Jennifer Mitzen, 2006, p. 342, encapsulating Giddens’ ideas, who in turn draws heavily on sociologist Erving Goffman and ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel, at least in his 1984 treatment of the concept) Although we might understand theoretically that self identity is interactive and relational, our sense of security in the world relies on our belief that we ourselves have somewhat stable boundaries (most obviously delineated by our skin, the largest organ of our body).

Ontological security is the concept that, for me, explains why people believe that somewhere inside, they have a “true,” “authentic” or “core” Self (sense of self, Selfhood, Self Identity) when the predominant theories of self and identity take a social constructionist or relational perspective. In most philosophical or theoretical treatments, my own included, our selves are certainly not unified or universal, but a constantly negotiated interaction in social contexts. Perhaps it’s because most humans experience and identify their Self most readily through their bodies. These physical entities provide constant evidence that we exist, that we are an individual (not a dividual), and therefore, we can be known, if not to others, at least to ourselves. Of course, we might at some points in our lives recognize and describe the “Self” or our “being” in more relational ways, but most of the time, we (are trained almost from birth to) just experience ourselves as unified entities, unreflexively, as a matter of fact. 

Theorists writing about identity, selfhood, or metaphysics tell a different story of ontological security than people tell themselves. Since centuries of thought have been devoted to this topic, I often just turn to my own favorites to sketch some relevant concepts of ontological security, embedded in how these three thinkers talk about how the Self is performative, interactional, product and process, and in all ways entirely relational. 

First: Judith Butler on the performance of self

Butler’s work nearing the end of the 20th century extends the more classic symbolic interactionist theories of theorists such as Mead, Blumer, and Goffman, giving new depth to how the enactment of social roles –like gender– is performative. In her book Gender Trouble (and in other work), Butler makes a strong case that all aspects of Self and self identity are interactional. Gender is constructed, its characteristics reinforced repeatedly in response to the mirror of the other’s perceptions. A temporary outcome of cyclical dynamics of structure and agency, it is stabilized through structured and organized routines so that what was once a negotiation of meaning (negotiation of identity) or a subject position, becomes an objectified, reified Self. This is not to say the Self remains obdurate or unchanging. But that it feels good (“good” meaning in this case something akin to secure because it is stable rather than dizzying) to know who we are. That’s the simple explanation of ontological security.  (Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was originally published in 1990 by Routledge) 

Second: Kenneth Gergen on the loss of ontological security after the postmodern era

Like many invisible infrastructures or frames of being in the world, we only notice the frame when it’s disrupted. We only think about ontological security when we experience its apparent opposite, ontological insecurity. Kenneth Gergen, however, argued in his fantastic (and prescient) book The Saturated Self (1991, Basic Books) that ontological security was broadly disrupted at the end of the 20th century, an outcome of postmodernism’s relentless reflexivity on the construction of reality, including the self. As people become more commonly aware that the stable self is a myth, and even perhaps feel it at some affective or cognitive level*, this feeling (or knowledge?) can undermine any grounding one might have used prior to this epoch to maintain the certainty required to have a stablized sense of self. Gergen continues this argument, noting that combined with endless perspectives from multiple different sources of ‘truth’ at once, the objective self becomes just another matter of perspective. As he writes, the “consciousness of construction” is sharpened and the “objectivity of self recedes from view. And in the end one is left with perspectivity — itself a product not of the individual but of the surrounding communities in which one is embedded” (Gergen, 1991, p. 137-8, et passim).  

Third: Sherry Turkle on the idea of multiplicity of selves in digital contexts

The capacities of digital social contexts of the 1990s augmented and actualized the ideas of multiple, fragmented, proteon, distributed, or flexible selves. So the aforementioned reflexivity of the so-called postmodern era coincided with the advent of the publicly available internet, with its unique characteristics and features for communication and being with others. To be physically distant yet intimately connected in synchronous or asynchronous ways with others meant one could play with one’s performance of identity, which became a common practice for those with means and leisure time. It was possible to build multiple concrete identities in various digital places and be with others beyond simply building an imaginary of multiplicity. Thus, people experienced and then shared their experiences of radically moving beyond the self as a singular entity. Globally distributed networks of connection highlighted in the 1990s what sociologists or philosophers like Martin Buber had long known, that whatever we describe as self requires and emerges in continuous interaction with Other. And if we have multiple relations, we are essentially multiple beings in contexts. Despite the flaws in her later works, sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle provides some of the best discussions of these dynamics and practices in her 1995 work Life on the Screen

Since the advent of the internet, the relationality of self has been studied in much depth. My colleagues produce nuanced discussions to which I hope my own work on echolocation contributes. I point to Susanna Paasonen, Erika Pearson, Theresa Senft, Dennis Waskul, J Edward Campbell, Jenny Sunden, Katrin Tiidenberg, to name a few.

Ontological security is a term that has been in recent years used as a concept to build nuance in discussions of human security, especially at the level of the state. It has also been used in marketing, which I find fascinating since it seems such a hefty concept for the marketing world. Here, Jennifer Mitzen’s work is a good entry point.

For me, it’s connected to a theory of social echolocation, and I use it, alongside ‘ontological insecurity,’ to reflect on how our sense of stability and wellbeing in the age of always on, digitally saturated societies, is deeply connected to how others respond to us, which is a communication pattern not just limited to humans communicating with each other through various digital medium, but involving nonhuman participants in the conversation, interwoven into platform features, the affordances of our mobile devices, the accessibility of networks, the expectation of instantaneous data transmission and information exchange, and other infrastructures.  I’m working on these ideas here, in a longer piece on the Ontological Insecurity of Disconnecting.

*Whether or not this is felt is another matter –certainly the luxury of class and industrialization enables some people, more than others, to reflect on multiple realities.