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Subjectivity and Aspects of Contemporary Identity Essay

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Updated: Aug 26th, 2019

According to Tracy Marafiote, the phrase individual is associated with three terms- self identity, subjectivity and agency- which are expressed as salient aspects of human being (2004, p.2). The degree to which different scholars stress or ignore subjectivity reveals perceptions of the person as an individual and vice versa.

Self or subjectivity focuses on the level of presence of a consistence, coherent and recognizable quintessence of an individual in all circumstances. The construct of subjectivity on the other hand represents a person’s social and historical status. It is a position that defines the basis of his knowledge and experience. It also usually deduces a positioning of an individual by outer social forces (Marafiote 2004, p.2).

A major aspect of contemporary identity and modern views of the individual is the idea of inwardness, the concept of our selves as beings with inner depths, and the connected notion that we are selves (Marafiote 2004, p.3). Linguistic constructionists generally oppose the notion that an individual has a subjective character. According to this school of thought, subjectivity is perceived as an attainment of relationship.

Thus, subjectivity is perceived as an action that emanates from the social and historical situations and relations in which an individual (as subject) encounters.

In this context, subjectivity is not an expression of some aspects of the person, but is generated via an individual’s social relations that provide signs as to the type of behaviours and actions deemed suitable or anticipated in a given social environment (Salgado and Hermans, 2005, p.5). In nutshell, the notion and apparent existence of the rationality of subjectivity constitutes a social construct (Marafiote 2004, p.4).

Subjectivity on the other hand implies describing individuals as mainly influenced by social relations and other discursive actions. With respect to the notion of inter-subjective interdependency, Gergen (1994) attempts to alleviate a prospective situating of individuals as resolute subjects who are scarcely more than the passive aggregation of their interactions (p.215).

The concept of subjectivity is borrowed from theories postulated by other scholars such as Mead and Goffman (Gergen 1994, p. 216). Shotter (1993) presents a slightly different idea. His form of alienating from a resolute subjectivity mirrors Gergen’s ideas.

Shotter defines what emerges as a concession: an individual’s social identity is determined by the position of the subject, for example, a citizen of Chicago, Mary’s son or the local Member of Parliament. These positions generate a sense of self or an identity and as a result turn in to the foundation of a person’s social individuality- where an individual is recognized in terms of their relations with others (Shotter 1993, p.175).

Agency is defined by McNamee and Gergen (1999) as “the figure of a lone individual whose intentions, plans, understanding and control over actions apparently take place in a world without others” (p.71).

McNamee and Gergen thus describe human agency in terms of relational responsibility; one that takes place within relational dialogue and action. It entails behaviours that sustain and promote types of interchange from which beneficial action itself is realized (McNamee and Gergen, 1999, p.18).

Thus, what is emphasized here is a definition of agency that gives credence to an individual whose actions and intentions occur in a world where other people are present (Marafiote 2004, p.5).

In Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land, Mary Ellen presents her subjective, personal account of her experience in Arnhem Land. Balanda is a good example of the recent developments in non-fiction work where an outsider, usually journalists, plunges themselves in a situation of which they posses negligible prior knowledge.

Other similar works include Helen Garner’s examination of the legal system in Joe Cinque’s Consolation and the First Stone. However, Balanda emerges as the most outstanding non-fictional work.

As Ellen stresses in the book’s title, the author’s note and other parts of the book, Balanda is merely a subjective, personal account of her experience living in Aboriginal communities (Review of Balanda 2007, p.1). Balanda is a phrase used by Aboriginals to describe non-Aboriginal people living among them.

The phrase clearly describes non-natives as outsiders, and Ellen’s decision to use it as the title of her book reflects the general notion of how she and other non-natives she interacted with during her stay in the Aboriginal communities, remained outsiders to that community (Reed n.d., p.3).

During her 14 months stay in Arnhem Land, Ellen experienced a strong feeling of otherness in the community. This is mirrored in the way she employs the phrase Balanda as the title of her book. Her sense of alienation is extended to the non-indigenous members of the community. She discovers that several white people in Arnhem Land practise their own sub-cultures.

According to her, they belong to diverse tribes and scarcely drift out of them. Due to her relative alienation, Ellen states that she became cautious with everyone, including white people, attempting not to sound too green, too urban and too green.

She also did not try to assume too much space of the land of Aboriginal people. Ellen was surprised by the prevalence of middle-aged white people in the community as guardians of Whitlam self-determination policy. Initially, Ellen anticipated working with social-justice oriented individuals of her own age.

She envisaged that the community would have plenty of upright young adults, who like her, were drawn to this place by social ethics. Ellen’s experience with these white guardians offers one of Balanda’s most elementary insights: this trivial establishment had promoted a dependency attitude that sustained their ranks among Aboriginal communities.

In particular, she noted that the white members in these communities used training as a tool to validate their existence on the grounds that they would be rendered irrelevant once their jobs were filled by Aboriginal people. As a result, Ellen explains that they protected indigenous people from employment and bureaucratic obligations (Review of Balanda 2007, p.2).

As she reflected on her linguistic project, Ellen noted that the involvement of white linguists rendered Aborigine’s self-determination process irrelevant. As a result, a harmful communal dependency grew between Aboriginal people and Balandas. Ellen explains that in spite of these intentions, both cultures experienced negligible crossovers.

It appeared improbable that indigenous people would ever live like Balandas: become educated; get a 40 hour per week job; and supervise resources the Aboriginal way. Ellen’s subjectivity is depicted when she states that Aboriginals could not behave like Balandas because they were half humans, with no laws, religion, culture or basic understanding of what is important in life (Review of Balanda 2007, p.3).

Ellen depicts the manner in which this dependency attitude is eked in the minds of Aboriginal people. She states that the natives made white settlers indispensable and had no plans to replace them from their administrative responsibilities. As she mounts her case, Ellen directs her attention on social issues such as alcohol abuse, over reliance on CDEP and domestic violence.

The storyline trajectory she uses to describe these social issues stems from her life experience in Arnhem Land and the transformation in her attitude (subjectivity) on Aboriginal issues that takes place as a result. The strong and weak points of this book are illustrated by Ellen’s narrative strategy.

At one point, she employs a subjective approach to drag readers along her down the rabbit hole encounters in Arnhem Land, although one can easily get bored as Ellen gives a detailed chronology of her daily activities in Arts Centre. To some degree, Ellen’s narrative approach enables her-as a relative stranger- to give a personal account on a number of social issues she comes across.

There are also cases where she reveals her naivety regarding the same issues. For instance, when she visits Alice Springs on a field research trip, she is astonished to discover that some indigenous people are hired in influential positions in local organizations. This act reveals her lack of knowledge about the topography of Aboriginal affairs (Review of Balanda 2007, p.4).

One of the painful points of Ellen’s experience in Arnhem Land occurs when she is scorned at for her outlooks as a young woman, a southerner, and a foreigner. Ellen complains that her opinions are ignored although she had spent nearly one year in the community. She sarcastically describes the political system used in Aboriginal community, particularly on a person’s right to express his views.

One other major observation about Ellen’s experience in Arnhem Land is the relational dimension that entails working with indigenous people. Normally, it requires dedication and time to create a relationship with Aboriginal people to be able to address social issues in the community.

Ellen claims that she decided to leave Arnhem Land due to a sense of dejection regarding social issues such as domestic violence and alcohol abuse, in addition to the inability of the white community to take appropriate actions to improve Aboriginal lives.

She connects her decision to leave the community to her criticism of the ability of the Balandas to maintain itself. Her subjectivity is manifested when she feels dejected by being unable to solve problems facing Aboriginals. She fails to realize that it is impossible for anyone, even her, to improve the wellbeing of the natives in less than one year (Review of Balanda 2007, p.6).

Ultimately, Ellen employs caution while she explores the current status quo in Arnhem Land. She aspires to make both political and moral issues in rural Aboriginal communities more reachable to readers from a similar environment to herself.

She is extremely cautious in foregrounding her subjective processes to avoid disparaging or romanticising the Aboriginal people she comes across. The main weakness in Balanda is Ellen’s lack of affinity with majority of indigenous and non-indigenous people in the community (Review of Balanda 2007, p.8).

The major impression derived from this book is Ellen’s attempt to try to understand the community into which she encroaches and depicts herself as a well-meaning and socially dedicated Balanda from the south. However, only flickers of understanding materialize: to some levels, Ellen seems to acknowledge that she cannot make any lasting contribution.

Her readers are also Balandas by implication because very little evidence exists to suggest that Ellen’s book is written for readers different from herself.

Therefore, while Ellen recognizes her own opportunity and those enjoyed by other Balandas she interacts with in the community; this knowledge stays partials and does not include the question about her esteemed speaking position vis-à-vis that of Balanda and the natives. She also fails to rise above the long-established Eurocentric perception that we need to help native people (Reed n.d., p.5).

Ellen’s book is also quite suggestive at times; the title of her book Balanda is used to literally refer to the non-natives people in the community. The title is also used to describe Ellen and her encounters in the community as out of place, on a territory that she describes as Aboriginal.

It also describes Ellen as a non-native because she is out of place, far away from Melbourne where she usually engages her friends in discourses about Aboriginal issues. Ellen’s position as a Balanda among the natives enables her to investigate the personal and philosophical issues that append to this position, as she discovers what it implies to be a Balanda.

Ellen protracts the custom of positioning natives as being up north. This is shameful since her investigation of the exact connotation of being Balanda in Aboriginal community brought about some fascinating issues for discussions on cross cultural engagements (Reed n.d., p.6).

Ellen is able to provide critical insights on self determination and her role (and white workers) which she describes as present day missionaries. However, she appears to have an affinity to extrapolate from her personal experiences, to a complete investigation of self-determination as unfeasible. This is a sweeping statement that differs from the experiences of scores of other Balandas living among native communities.

Ellen fails to account the role of native people in successful implementation of self-determination programs among the indigenous communities. Therefore, self-determination is depicted as the dilemma, a dangerous sweeping statement in this ever rising conservative epoch.

Ellen connects it to present discourses on welfare dependency and appears to regard the linkage as adequate in itself, devoid of any cross-examination of the utility of the Aboriginal dilemma (Reed n.d., p.7).

Ellen describes social problems that are present in Aboriginal communities. These include domestic violence towards women, substance abuse by teenagers, illicit brews (grog) and institutionalized male aggression toward women. Readers are unable to understand how Aboriginal women in Australia struggle to define and present their personal responses to these issues.

Ellen appears ignorant of the level to which the issue of speaking positions and domestic aggression towards Aboriginal women has been cross-examined. Also, the manner in which Balandas drink their illegal but secretly endorsed wines and spirits, which are delivered by the Darwin barge, reveals duplicity that encloses their being permitted. The consumption of grog by Balandas is exhibited as benign.

This emphasize Ellen’s focus on drinking problem by Aborigines, which is utterly generalized, considering her fleeting denial of the typecast of the drunken no-hoper Aborigine as presented in the pages of her book (Reed n.d., p.8).

Ellen feels literary out of place in indigenous communities. She later encounters a sexually threatening episode from Rodney, an Aboriginal man who demands sexual favours from her. Reader learn about this encounter when Ellen talks to Alice, one of her Balanda friends, about two Aboriginal men jailed, one for murdering his wife and the other for raping her own daughter.

Ellen employs a subjective approach as she recounts her encounter with Rodney. On one hand, she reveals her fear of every Aboriginal man she came across (because they all resembled Rodney). On the other hand, she feels embarrassed by her racist feeling.

The book does not dwell further on Ellen’s fear of all Aboriginal male and what the encounter with Rodney reveals about her racist views. We learn later that Ellen experienced violence from her father which made her live in utter fear. However, she portrays her father’s violence as an isolated case while the Rodney’s case is perceived as a widespread problem connected to community-based hostility (Reed n.d., p.8).

Ellen and her Balanda friends were invited to see an Aboriginal dancing ceremony. She saw some Aboriginal children taking drinks from bottles of Coke as they chatted in their language. Later on, she perceived this scene as a demonstration of all the problems experienced by the natives, the coke now seen as an emblem of the high prevalence of heart ailments and diabetes, and drug abuse, resulting in premature deaths.

The diverse analysis of this generalized scene mirrors the numerous ways in which Ellen’s views portrayed in Balanda stay quite dual, maybe as a result of the prevailing customs in Aboriginal communities where there is a clear line segregating Balandas and natives. Ellen states that segregation was brought about by foreignness because of the numerous dissimilarities between the natives and Balanda.

This is aptly captured by Stuart Hall (1996) who notes that “identities are never unified and, in modern times, are increasingly fragmented and fractured” (p.4). As the book comes to an end, Ellen states that her one-year stay in Arnhem Land had altered her perception about the native.

She explains further that she eventually viewed Aboriginals as human beings contrary to her earlier stereotypes of the spirituals perception. As she was departing, Ellen claims paradoxically that the Arnhem Land had made her feel at home because she turned into a better person living there.

Ellen’s claims are nonetheless subjective because she was unable to find an apt way to summarize her stay in the community. Most of Ellen’s recounts are subjective and emerge from her personal point of view (Reed n.d., p.9).


Gergen, K. J. (1994) Realities and relationships: Soundings in social construction. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Hall, S. (1996) Who needs ‘identity’? Questions of cultural identity. London, Sage Publishers.

Marafiote, T. (2004) Selves, Subjects, and Agents: (Re) Positioning Agency with Self Identity and Subjectivity. Rocky Mountain Communication Review, 2, 1-17.

McNamee, S., and Gergen, K. J. (1999) Relational responsibility: Resources for sustainable dialogue. London, Sage.

Reed, L. (n.d.) Out of Place. Retrieved from web

Review of Balanda. (2007) Mary Ellen Jordan: My Year in Arnhem Land, Allen and Sydney, 2005. Available at: .

Salgado, J., and Hermans, J.M. (2005) The Return of Subjectivity: From a Multiplicity of Selves to the Dialogical Self. E-Journal of Applied Psychology, 1-13.

Shotter, J. (1993) Cultural politics of everyday life: Social constructionism, rhetoric and knowing of the third kind. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

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