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Beyond Adult Normative Perspectives in Digital Identity Discourse

Social media background

One reason I was drawn to study the intersections of digital social media and student identity is my passion for theory. When I was a master’s student at the University of Maryland College Park, Student Development Theory was unquestionably one of my favorite courses. In my professional career, I actually used theory to structure educational experiences. SOUL Camp, a program that was conceived and implemented alongside a fantastic group of committed student leaders at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, was firmly rooted in student development, engagement, and retention theory. I used leadership theory (Kouzes & Posner, 2002; 2008) to structure student leader training. I find theory and practice to be intimately entangled in the work of being a student affairs educator (Dewey, 1904).

Many theories utilized by professionals in the field adhere to Western, essentialized notions of self: a belief in an autonomous, independent and individually acting agent who, after a linearly predictive period of maturation and growth, adequate challenge and support (Sanford, 1967), will reach a developmental apex (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010). This is often referred to as self-actualization or self-authorship (Evans et al., 2010).

The discourse, theories, and models of the field have attempted to partially move away from this understanding of student identity, starting with the Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (MMDI) (Jones & McEwen, 2000) and its various reconceptualizations (Abes, Jones, & McEwen, 2007; Jones & Abes, 2013).The MMDI complicated our discussion about student identity by recognizing identity as centered in psychological, sociological, cognitive, environmental, and discursive processes. As I co-taught Student Development Theory last spring here at Louisiana State University, I discussed with our students how the MMDI attempts to take a half-century of student development theorizing – disjointed, disconnected, fragmented theory and models – and put the pieces back together into a holistic examination of student ‘development.’ In fact, Jones and McEwen (2000) were fairly explicit that developing a holistic model of student identity development would be the complicated task of researchers in the 21st century.

Social Media Space: Disrupting Student Development

Social media spaces, however, complicate our relationship to traditional student development theories.   In distributed social media space, understandings of identity as stable, as reaching a developmental apex, disappear. Social media spaces are creative, dynamic, social environments. Understanding environmental and ecological theories are critical to my understanding of the disruption caused by social media spaces, primarily because the vast number of social media platforms (over 300 according to Erik Qualman (2013)), and the near-constant proliferation of changes to digital architectures, make the presentation, articulation, and understanding of identity in digital spaces challenging (Eaton, 2014).

This is why I believe it is time for the field of student affairs to move beyond some of our adult normative (Junco, 2014) conceptions of student ‘development,’ particularly when it comes to discussing identity in digital spaces. In borrowing the term adult normative from Reynol Junco (2014) and danah boyd (2014), I am speaking specifically of the field’s adherence to discussing identity only in the language, theories, and conceptions of identity rooted in Western, empiricist, essentialized understandings. This is the field’s adult normative perspective. It has guided our work for a long time. It is important to continue teaching these perspectives to our graduate students, viewing their possibilities and limitations.  However, these adult normative theories may not translate well into digital social media spaces.

I think in digital spaces, particularly when speaking of identity across distributed social media spaces, we may need to move away from essentialism entirely. This is why, in my work, I turn to complexity theory, specifically the concept of emergence, which posits that “every new property whenever it is created and every time it is created is emergent” (Emmeche, Koppe, & Stjernfelt, 1997, p. 90).

In distributed social media space, our disembodied identities are consistently created and re-created. How our identities emerge across social media may not always be ‘controlled’ by us as individually autonomous agents: social media is social. A wall posting from a friend or family member, a long-lost picture where a friend tags you, a ‘timehop’ back to five years earlier, a retweet, a share. These affordances (boyd, 2014; Morrison, 2014) of digital social media space creatively and constantly allow us to emerge into our identity. Identity is not predictable, linear, or necessarily controllable by us individually.

Rather, across distributed social media space we find that we are constantly becoming. I like Lisa Cary’s (2006) notion of the constant arrival: “it seems we never ‘arrive’ – rather, we are always engaged in multiple arrivals” (p. ix). This is how I think of identity in distributed social media space: multiple, constant arrivals, emerging into identities fluidly, over and over. Not static, essentialized, or completely controlled by us individually, but rather an emergent process occurring through relational intra-actions across people, space, and time (Barad, 2008), where collectively we are entangled in the creative unfolding of many identities engaging and co-creating the universe.


Abes, E. S., Jones, S. R., & McEwen, M. K. (2007). Reconceptualizing the model of multiple dimensions of identity: The role of meaning-making capacity in the construction of multiple identities. Journal of College Student Development, 48(1), 1-22.

Barad, K. (2008). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cary, L. J. (2006). Curriculum spaces: Discourse, postmodern theory and educational research. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Dewey, J. (1904). The relation of theory to practice in the education of teachers. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Eaton, P. W. (2014, May 11). Viewing digital space(s) through Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://pweaton.wordpress.com

Emmeche, C., Koppe, S., & Stjernfelt, F. (1997). Exploring emergence: Toward an ontology of levels. Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 28(1), 83-119.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jones, S. R. & McEwen, M. K. (2000). A conceptual model of multiple dimensions of identity. Journal of College Student Development, 41, 405-414.

Jones, S. R. & Abes, E. S. (2013). Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Junco, R. (2014). Engaging students through social media: Evidence-based practices for use in student affairs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The leadership challenge (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2008). The student leadership challenge: Five practices for exemplary leaders. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Morrison, A. (2014). Facebook and coaxed affordances. In A. Poletti & J. Rak (Eds.), Identity technologies: Constructing the self online (pp. 112-131). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Qualman, E. (2013). Socialnomics: How social media transforms the way we live and do business. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Sanford, N. (1967). Where colleges fail: The study of the student as a person. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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