This post was prompted partly by the reading I’ve been doing on social psychology but also partly through watching a video produced by the Danish museum, Den Gamle By (The Old Town). Staff at Den Gamle By have done a lot of work around reminiscence and have a bookable programme of reminiscence sessions based in one of their reconstructed mid-20th Century flats. They produced a DVD about these sessions with inputs from staff and from academics at Aarhus University (with whom they regularly collaborate). One of the academics pointed out how the environment prompts social responses from the visitors. This made me think of Self Categorisation Theory (SCT), which I outlined in the previous post, and how, although SCT might not tell us anything new, it might provide a useful theoretical framework.
To recap a bit, proponents of SCT argue that “self-categorisation is comparative, inherently variable, fluid and context dependent [therefore] the inference is that the self is not a relatively fixed mental structure but the expression of a dynamic process of social judgement” (Turner, Oakes, Haslam & McGarty, 1974 & 2010, 293). As is clear from the dates in the citation – this is not a new idea, just new to me!
So, firstly, the self is a process of social judgement. It has been noted that people with dementia are able to continue to make social judgements and read other people well into the progression of the dementia that they are struggling with. So, the self emerges out of social judgements and we can have confidence that people with dementia are continuing to make these judgements and construct a socially appropriate self accordingly. Also, the fluidity of self as posited by SCT, flies in the face of conventional Western understandings of personal identity. (This is a point the authors expand on in the paper.) However, it seems like it should provide grounds for a positive and creative riposte to many conventional ways of talking about the death of self in people with dementia.
Turner et al. (ibid., 293) go on to argue that “self-categories are reflexive judgements in which the perceiver is defined in terms of his or her changing relationships to others within the frame of reference, presumably to enable the individual to regulate himself or herself in relation to an ever-changing social reality.”
So the environment, physical and social, is the frame which defines the individual’s self-categorisations and, on the back of those, the self that they act out in each given moment. In reminiscence sessions in open-air museums, it is the reconstructed historic space that provides the prompts as to what the appropriate self-categorisation is.
I know some staff from open-air museums are keen to emphasise that what they offer is an immersive environment (in contrast to conventional museums). I’m a little sceptical about this because I’ve never found an environment that wasn’t immersive. But the rooms used in reminiscence sessions are rich in prompts which support a social self, particularly at Den Gamle By where the session is framed as a social visit to someone’s home (lots of familiar prompts and patterns of behaviour).
Turner et al. (ibid., 293) take it further by saying that “[the] concept of self as a separate mental structure does not seem necessary, because we can assume that any and all cognitive resources – long-term knowledge, implicit theories, cultural beliefs and social representations, and so forth – are recruited, used and deployed when necessary to create the needed self-category”. They expand on this when they add that “[stability] in self-categorisation is likely to arise from (1) the stability of the social reality that provides contexts for self-definition, (2) the higher-order knowledge frameworks used to give coherence to varying instances of behaviour, (3) the social groups, subcultures and social institutions that provide [individuals] with stable norms, values and motives and (4) social influence and communication processes that translate particular conceptions of self and others into social norms and validate the broader elaborative ideologies used in their construction.
There’s much that needs exploring here, insofar as considering how this plays-out in the lives of people with dementia:
On the one hand, mental representations of long-term memories and social norms seem to persevere in people with dementia (perhaps because they are not stored in areas of the brain affected by the dementia). So the knowledge and frameworks are sustained and the person is able to draw on them to find a self which fits.
On the other hand, following Kitwood’s (1997) analysis of a ‘malignant social psychology of dementia’ some of these factors are indirectly affected by the knowledge that someone has dementia. (Or, they can be if care is not taken to address these issues.) A person’s social reality may be changed by the practicalities of living with dementia. Social groups may change. Communication may become problematic. For some people, then, a visit to a museum and a reminiscence session may be experienced as a return to an older, familiar social reality which allows that self to be expressed, it may reassert social groups and relationships upon which the self is based and careful staff may work with a person with dementia to ensure that communication is sustained and the self is expressed.
The list of questions I would like to pursue grows faster than my ability to pursue them but it would be interesting to see whether anyone has researched the experience of living with dementia using SCT as a theoretical framework. Meanwhile, quite a lot of work has been done on using social identity theory to study health and wellbeing and I’ll cover a bit of that in the next blog post.
Kitwood, T. (1997) Dementia Reconsidered: The person comes first. (pp. 45–53). Buckingham: Open University Press.
Turner, J.C., Oakes, P.J., Haslam, S.A., & McGarty, C. (1994 & 2010). Self and Collective: Cognition and social context. In T. Postmes, & N. R. Branscombe (Eds.). Rediscovering social identity (pp.287-300). New York: Psychology Press.