Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Embodiment, Identity and Presence in Second Life - New Wine or New Bottles?

Presentation by Magellan Egoyan (Geoffrey Edwards, Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Geomatics) at the CITASA mini-conference (Communication and Information Technologies section of the American Sociology Association) in Second Life on August 12, 2007, on the theme of "Web 2.0 and Beyond: The Sociological Significance of Virtual Worlds Supplanting Cyberspace"

Abstract : Nick Lee has written “our insistence on embodiment in virtual environments structures social interactions in these worlds in ways that we may not consciously be aware of…” (Lee, 2006). Identity has been defined as the set of strategies, beliefs, values and representations that are organized for the survival of the entity concerned (Dornic and Edwards, 2007). Presence has a variety of meanings, but here I am concerned with the sense of someone being present, even though their actual physical body may be absent. These three concepts are interdependent on each other, and each of them manifests within the world of Second Life. Within the field of education, a form of learning called “transformative learning” has gained interest. Ashe et al. (2005) have stated that “transformative learning involves a change in personal feelings, beliefs, and values known as meaning perspectives”. This concept of meaning perspectives, introduced by Mezirow in 1978, is very close to current definitions of identity. It is proposed that the concept of transformative learning provides a framework for understanding how our conceptualizations of the self, our bodies and our interaction with others are changed in Second Life. The process of transformation ensures that what emerges is, indeed, new wine not just “old wine in new bottles”. Within Second Life, identity is multiple, body is performative and presence is determined by the quality of our interactions with others. These ideas are illustrated by drawing on work with scientist and artist collaborators within Second Life.

Key words : embodiment, cognition, identity, transformation, learning, evaluation, health science, virtual worlds, Second Life

* * *


I’d like to begin by acknowledging the contributions from the team of scientists and students with whom I have been exchanging ideas and understanding over the past six weeks. The Embodied Research Group in Second Life that I coordinate is the source of many of the insights I’m going to be presenting. A group blog is in the process of being created, and will give form and flesh to most that I am going to say here, and much more.

Then I’d like to present to you a short video sequence I’ve prepared that gives some concrete examples of some issues raised by embodiment within Second Life. Let’s go and look at it now. It can be found on youTube... please click here to view its contents.



The video underlines the key idea about embodiment, that it is « performative » in nature. Here are a couple of definitions of embodiment – the first essentially cognitive, the second social. They both reinforce this idea that embodiment is less about physicality than it is about how we act and what our experience of and the consequences are of those actions – hence it is performative.



Here is a definition of « identity », a related concept, and also of « presence ». These three ideas are intertwined – if embodiment is the ground, identity is the figure, and presence is the frame by which we view the two in interaction (Figure 1).



Figure 1 : Embodiment, Presence and Identity are related concepts. This figure suggests one way of understanding this relationship



The video presented to you examples of the four ways in which embodiment is present in Second Life – through extension, through negociation, through affordances and through enablement. What is interesting about Second Life is that many experiences express more than one of these – indeed, often all four are involved. It may be one of the reasons why our bodily experience within Second Life can be so compelling at times.

The final expression of embodiment, as a form of enablement, underlines the fact that our experience of embodiment in virtual worlds can have a whole range of impacts on our identity and actions in so-called « real life ». This begins to open the idea that our experience of embodiment in Second Life, with its performative aspects and its ability to multiply our sense of identity, is transformative.

Another aspect of attempting to study these issues within virtual worlds such as Second Life is the complexity of scientific approaches and methodologies that could be used (Figure 2). In the Embodied Research Group, we have identified at least four scientific methodologies in use by different members of the group – behavioural experiments, a quantitative means of study ; conceptual design approaches ; computer simulation studies ; and qualitative research.


Figure 2 : The relationship between different methodologies for studying embodying issues, as described in the discussion below


No one person that I know of masters all four of these research methodologies – therefore, in order to address embodiment, identity and presence from all sides, we need to work together and pool our methodologies. Also, we may ask whether there is a framework that we could use to help bridge these different approaches and bring them together ?

The idea of experience within Second Life as transformative offers the seeds of an answer. A theory developed in education science and later refined in the health sciences, called « meaning perspectives », offers an interesting approach. According to Ashe et al., 2005, « transformative learning involves a change in personal feelings, beliefs, and values known as meaning perspectives ». Meaning perspectives were first introduced by Mezirow in 1978.

This approach is rooted in the Qualitative research paradigm, within the approach called « grounded theory ». The focus on transformative experience lends this method to an integration with methodologies of Conceptual Design, however. In addition, within health groups attempts are already being made to link this approach to behavioural studies. Finally, multi agent computer simulation methods exhibit emergent behaviours which may be associated with a transformation framework. Therefore, situating identity, embodiment and presence within Second Life in the context of transformative experience offers a global framework for developing a cogent scientific research program.

Finally, the transformative nature of the expression of embodiment, identity and presence within Second Life ensures that our experiences are not just « old wine in new bottles » … the different ways in which our identities are enabled in new ways holds out the perspective that we are seeing « new wine », at least some of the time.

These perspectives highlight the tremendous energy that researchers are feeling with regard to virtual worlds such as Second Life and their role in how we humans function. The field of research is opening up onto new vistas, making this a very, very exciting area of investigation.

References

  • Ashe, Brenda, Maurice Taylor and Claire-Jehanne Dubouloz, 2005, The process of change : Listening to transformation in meaning perspectives in adults in arthritis health education groups, Revue canadienne d’ergothérapie, Volume 72(5), 280-288.


  • Codol, J.P., and P. Tap, 1988, Revue internationale de psychologie sociale, no 2, cited by Lipiansky, Identité et communication.


  • Dornic, I., and G. Edwards, 2007, Le partage des émotions ou quand le corps part à la recherche des mémoires : des pistes de réflexion pour l’élaboration d’un outil destiné aux arts de la scène, submitted to L'Annuaire théâtral.


  • Lee, Nick, http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2006/08/the_prison_of_e.html


  • Lipiansky, Edmond-Marc, 1992, Identité et communication. L’expérience groupale, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.


  • Mezirow, J., 1978, Education for perspective transformation: Women’s re-entry programs in community colleges. Teacher's College, Columbia University, New York.


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