Thin roles

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Thin roles at the parking lot

Dying strip mall outside Austin, Texas

Home roles thinned at a mall, Providence, RI

The most obvious difference between modern society and traditional societies is that identity is looser. Supposedly modern people can choose their social roles; "natural facts" about them are not supposed to determine their social roles. Earlier, your birthplace, your parents and lineage, your gender, your religion, all put limits on what you could achieve, who you could relate to, what kinds of political and economic roles were available to you -- and there were no purely economic roles. Modernization in principle removes barriers to your economic and political participation. You may be Chinese by birth but decide this ethnic identity will not determine your life. Other people are not required to deal with you on those ethnic terms and you may be offended when they insist on doing so.

The other side of this freedom is a certain thinness. As more and more of your being become matters for choice, your identity has fewer restrictions, but it may also feel disturbingly empty, without guidance or meaning. Modern places whose social grammar defines only thin roles may be criticized as thin places, but the true critique in such cases is the way that the places' normative criteria for recognizing each another as equal participants demand nothing more than thin roles. A parking lot or a mall or an airplane trip engages us only as drivers or as shoppers or as passengers. It is what Marc Augé refers to, without condemnation, as a non-place. Your individuality may seem thin if all you have available is a sequence of such thin roles.

So the notions of thick or thin places provide useful critical concepts, as long as we do not ask that society return to traditional naturally determined social roles. Without that demand, "thick" places would be those whose normative social grammars engage more aspects of our being than the relatively abstract roles that are all that many modern places require.