Data Type: Journal Article

A sociological account of the persistence of invalidated anorexic identities

Haworth-Hoeppner, S., & Maines, D. (2005). A sociological account of the persistence of invalidated anorexic identities. Symbolic Interaction, 28(1), 1-23.

This article examines invalidated identities (which indicate that there is an inconsistency with one’s identity and the way others perceive it) from a sociological perspective, in an attempt to see why certain individuals hold onto invalidated identities. The authors examine this question by focusing on the invalidated identity of anorexia, and approach their question with the assumption that such identities are largely socially constructed. They examine three identity dimensions that contribute to an anorexic person’s tendency to hold onto his or her identity: size (i.e. “the public dimension of identity, involving an actor’s appearance”), control (i.e. “feeling competent and ‘in control’”), and desirability (i.e. sexual attractiveness) (7).

The data for the study were collected using a snowball sample from a previous “study on body image and eating disorders (Haworth-Hoeppner 1996)” (6). Findings of the present study are based on roughly two-hour long in-depth interviews with “twenty-one White, middle-class women between the ages of twenty-one and forty-four,” who each had an either indicated, or were diagnosed as having, anorexia (6). Grounded theory was used as the primary approach for the data, and the data were organized into categories using the constant comparative method, and revealed two categories in their analysis. The first, “distorted communication”, was identified as the process through which anorexic identities are formed. The second, more relevant to their initial research question, was “identity invalidation” itself, which, as mentioned before, involved the dimensions of “size”, “desirability”, and “control”. The authors found that whereas “size” and “control” aspects of anorexia directly associated with “identity invalidation”, that “desirability” is a focal point of the “validation” of their identities (i.e. having their identities conform to others’ expectations). The authors further found that anorexics tend to construct “fictionalized identities” (i.e. false identities based on what an individual believes herself to be), in “discordant awareness contexts” (i.e. situations in which “one actor attempts to control the flow of information during identity transactions by contesting the ‘true identity’ that another actor assigns” ) that allow them to continue their invalidated identities.

This article is relevant to the sociology of “mental illness” because it suggests that, while invalidated identities are fundamentally social in nature, they do not simply rely on normative social ideas. The authors argue that a set of sociological categories are needed to understand why individuals with invalidated identities (in which one’s perception of her identity does not match up with others’ perceptions of identities) do not simply let go of such identities. The authors looked at this on the micro and macro scales. First, they identified a complex set of dimensions of anorexia specifically, which produce both identity invalidation (e.g. “size” and “control”) and validation (e.g. “desirability”) in anorexics. Second, the authors suggested more broadly that the social transactions that give invalidated identities meaning may best understood with regard to the broader concepts of “master identities” (i.e. in which one identity becomes the frame for all others” ), “fictionalized identities”, and “discordant awareness contexts,” frames of reference which may be useful for future research in mental illnesses involving invalidated identities.

Categories: Qualitative Methods, Social Construction, Sociology of Mental Health and Illness, Symbolic Interaction
Publication Date: 2005