Intersecting Identities: Young People, Religion, and Interaction on the Internet
Abstract: The growth of the Internet gave rise to many anticipations and apprehensions of how the new medium would affect the construction of meaning, individual identities, and social interaction. As humanity’s oldest expression of existential meaning, religion provides a challenging case for such studies. This study approaches these issues through an analysis of how 15 young Swedish men and women experience and use a particular web community, the Site, in constructing religious identities. The study took place during the year 2000, through a combination of online observations, offline interviews and text analysis. Starting from Ammerman’s concept of religious “autobiographies” - the individual self as constructed in interactions with religious discourses throughout life - the study argues that the Internet can become a significant resource in this process, but that this possibility is structured by certain conditions. An analysis of the ”repertoire of possibilities” of the Site – formed by the range of discourses, social relations, rules of interaction, and mode of communication – shows that these conditions contribute to polarized interactions and stereotyped identities, which restrict possibilities to further explore, question or reassess convictions and boundaries. The analysis of individual strategies for negotiating these conditions shows that intentions, dilemmas and competences in the individual’s repertoire of experiences affect when, how and for whom the Internet can become this resource. Finally, the study points to some significant conditions in the offline context which affect the process. The study outlines a framework, based on Linderman’s model of social semeiology, Slevin’s theory of the Internet and cultural transmission, and Fairclough’s discourse analysis, for the analysis of particular cases of meaning construction on the Internet. Furthermore, this framework suggests ways in which a case of religious identity construction on the Internet can be related to theories about transformation of religion and identities in late modern society.
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