Performing Technical Affiliation

By Patricia G. Lange, USC

There’s a new sociological variable in town, one which I call performing technical affiliation. Technically speaking, it is not a new way of thinking about identity. For many years, perhaps millennia, people have enacted aspects of identity by interacting with and through technologized objects, forms of knowledge and related practices and values. Nevertheless, technical affiliation is not recognized on the same level of analytical importance as are traditional variables—such as class, sex, gender, ethnicity, and social race—that are most often cited in anthropological studies of sociality. It is time that technical affiliations are brought more systematically into analyses of identity and negotiations of the self.

Performing technical affiliation means displaying in words or actions, alliances to objects, values, beliefs, or practices that are often assumed to be associated with particular technical cultures (Lange 2003, 2011). A basic example might be someone declaring, “I can’t live without my iPhone!” meaning that they prefer this device and its interactional implications over those offered by other devices or other brands of mobile phone. When people affiliate toward something, they also tend to affiliate away from something else. Performances may be much more subtle and complex. They refer to more than purchasing decisions (which are of course laden with many other beliefs). Performances can indicate how people accomplish being a competent, moral person in the world. For instance, some people believe that learning about technology is best accomplished in a self-directed way, rather than through taking classes in schools. How one should learn to use technical systems, or how one should share information through media are important aspects of everyday identity performance. Performing technical affiliation routinely occurs in offline, as well as online contexts.

The concept draws on Goffman’ (1959) notion of performing the self in everyday life, but does not imply a simple binary that equates performances with being “onstage” versus hiding a more true self “offstage.” Such a notion has often simplistically been applied to studies of computer-mediated communication to dichotomize online (onstage) versus offline (offstage) behavior. But writing many years ago, Goffman (1963: 9) demonstrated that such an assumption over determines how much identity information is actually shared in person. Speaking about in person interaction, he used the term “virtual” identity to refer to incorrect assumptions that people impute onto others, such as assuming they have never been in prison, have never had a depression, or have never harbored other stigmas. A binary application of the performance concept also under determines what identity information is shared online. Studies too numerous to list here have shown how much identity information is given and given off (in Goffman’s sense) in online contexts.

The concept of performing technical affiliation instead draws on Goffman’s (1981) work on footing, which acknowledges that people may exhibit different levels of intensity or commitment to beliefs and practices. Some people may be animating someone else’s original statements and technologically-inflected worldviews. Others may be the authors or originators of such beliefs, and hold them to be very influential in their everyday decision making. The concept is purposefully broad to accommodate many levels of affiliation. An analogy may be drawn to the metaphor of affiliation to a club. One person may receive the newsletter and read it now and again; another person may be the club’s president.

Another vignette may illustrate the concept. Years ago, I gave a talk at the American Anthropological Association meeting. At one point, a speaker who was using a laptop PC struggled to get his audio-visuals to display properly. Another person on the panel quipped, “You should have used a Mac.” A few knowing chuckles traveled around the room. Later, after hearing my talk, this panelist told me that his quip was not a good example of performing technical affiliation, because he had no personal affiliation to the Macintosh computer. I assured him that it was an excellent example.

Recall that the concept takes into account different levels of performativity and varying commitments to the affiliations contained therein. His remark performed affiliation to the idea that Macintosh computers are better for manipulating media than are PCs. He was animating a notion that was commonly held (although may or may not be true), among Macintosh supporters, and others who believe it. His was a performance that would not be intelligible if people did not think that this belief was common. The joke would unintelligibly fall flat if everyone “knew” that PCs and Macs were equally effective for working with media. He himself does not have to believe the idea in order for the joke/performance to “work.”

Performing technical affiliation is a part of human life; people cannot get particular jobs or have certain kinds of successful relationships if they do not convincingly display particular orientations to specific technologies or technically-inflected worldviews and values. But sometimes performing technical affiliation can be problematic not only for individuals but society as a whole. For example, in her classic ethnography of physicists, Traweek (1988) noted a competitive tension between the theoretical physicists and the experimental physicists in an advanced research lab. The latter designed experiments to test the theories of the former.

Advances in physics could not proceed without their collaboration, but identity displays often coded in-group members as superior to out-group members. A theoretical physicist told Traweek that it was appropriate for an anthropologist to study such a “primitive tribe” as experimentalists. Each group learned to display a “studied disregard for each other’s judgment” (Traweek 1988: 112). One empirical question is, to what extent do such displays advanced or impede the production of human knowledge? How might their collaboration change if their cultural disregard was seen as a performance of technical affiliation that, if changed, could advanced the field much further?

It may be objected that technical affiliations only apply to specialized groups or elite technologists. But such an assumption ignores the anthropological record, and how technologies influence how people conceive of the self and how they choose to be a moral person in the world. For example, consider Gershon’s (2010) book on breaking up on the social network site of Facebook. She argues that people held definite ideas about how one should end a romantic relationship. Using particular media was seen to reflect something important about the morality and sensitivity of the person breaking up. If a person chose to break up over Facebook rather than in person, people used this information to make moral judgments about other people. Their media choices often had more salience in determining a person’s social character in those situations than any of the other traditional identity variables. To argue that Facebook is or is not a true “technology” are performances of technical affiliation.

Another objection may be that people do not consciously orient toward technical affiliations in everyday life. Yet, the impact of any identity variable such as class, ethnicity, gender, and so forth must be empirically shown to be important in analyses of social behavior. Just because people do not verbalize or understand the impact of their affiliations is not sufficient proof that the variable is unimportant for understanding contemporary self-construction. The same argument may be forwarded with regard to other variables, such as class. Americans often say they are in the “middle class” and do not necessarily orient around class. Yet these elisions do not prove that class is irrelevant for people’s social negotiation of the self, nor that society is “class-blind” with regard to determining socio-economic opportunities.

Perhaps hesitancy about adopting the construct exists because identity variables such as gender and class may influence people’s technical affiliations. But such variables are not predictive of technical affiliations. Knowing that someone is a man of a certain economic class, for instance, does not determine his views on whether computer platforms should all be open source, or whether he should take certain drugs to address health issues, or whether learning the programming language of Python is a good use of his time. Certainly, technical affiliations have interactions with other variables, as is the case with traditional identity variables. For example, in reaction to second wave feminism, which explored universalized experiences of womanhood, third wave feminists convincingly showed that other variables such as ethnicity and class brought much to bear on the experiences of being a woman in particular cultural groups. The same is true of technical affiliations. Important interactions between such affiliations and other identity variables should be empirically studied to broaden understanding of how technologized worldviews impact self-construction.

The time is right to acknowledge what has been discussed for a quite some time. As long-standing cyborgs, people’s technologized identities have historically been part of the human condition (Haraway 1991). Affiliations to technologies and related values and world views speak volumes about who we are as people, as members of cultures, and as individuals. Technical affiliations are crucial aspects of social identity. Scholars should systematically incorporate them in analytical studies of social behavior as routinely as any other traditional sociological variable.

Patricia G. Lange is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. She is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the Transforming Audiences 3 conference, September 1-2, 2011 at the University of Westminster in London. Website: Email:


Gershon, Ilana. 2010. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Lange, Patricia G. 2011. Video-mediated Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Technical Competencies. Visual Communication 10(1): 25-44.

Lange, Patricia G. 2003. Virtual Trouble: Negotiating Access in Online Communities. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Michigan. Available from UMI at:

Traweek, Sharon. 1988. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

15 thoughts on “Performing Technical Affiliation

  1. Patricia, thank you for this stimulating piece. It’s fun seeing someone develop a new concept instead of debating what an old one should mean. I find myself wondering how you would articulate the relationship between technical affiliation and what management guru Seth Godin calls “tribes,” people who see themselves as members of groups defined by allegiance to particular brands or celebrities.

  2. Hey John, thanks for your comment. I always get a bit nervous when a non-anthropologist uses words like “tribe” to describe things. But I think it is an empirical question as to what the relationship between brand of products and technical affiliations are. Clearly you see that kind of passion for things like brand of computer. This type of loyalty often comes with a whole host of worldviews and values. I would say that when affiliations become embodied, widespread, have impact, and can empirically be shown to have key relevance for identity, and at times more relevance in certain social settings than other traditional identity variables, then they deserve deeper analytical treatment.

    We may be entering an era of what I might call “affiliative sociality” that has less to do with what we thought of as culture and more to do with shifting alliances to people, ideas, and things. The idea here is not to return to a so-called schizophrenic, completely unstable postmodern form of identity. Some affiliations can last a life time or may span generations, and are not simply donned at will like a new outfit. But they can shift perhaps, in intensity, and over time. There’s probably a theoretical paper in there somewhere.

  3. Patricia, this notion of technical affiliation reminds me somewhat of studies of fandom in popular culture. Is that a fair comparison to make? At first flush owning (by default or by choice) commercial products like Macs or participating (enthusiastically or not) in a social network like Linkdin strikes me as similar to being a fan of manga or country music.

  4. I think there are definite similarities. But it is important to remember that technical affiliations are broader than product choice. They reflect all kinds of moral viewpoints and ideas of being in the world. For instance, many technologists believe that people should self-taught with regard to computers. But not everyone learns most efficiently this way. What is gained and what is lost when people expect others to learn through this way as opposed to engaging in more mentorship-student models?

  5. I wonder if, analytically speaking, it might be worth separating two dimensions of attachment: intensity and scope. One attempt to measure intensity is the bonding scale used by the ad agency I used to work for, a series of steps labeled (1) awareness, (2) consideration, (3) purchase, (4) repeat purchase, (5) can’t live without it. Thus, for example, I became aware of Macintosh in 1984, considered buying one and did, liked the one I bought enough to keep buying new models as they came out; now I am a fanboy. Buy a PC? You have to be kidding.

    What about scope? Here, from a branding perspective, the issue is brand extension, in which the affiliation extends beyond a single product. Here, too, Apple has done a brilliant job. I don”t just buy their computers. I am writing the post on an iPad. When I go off to work, my iPhone goes with me. An archeologist digging through my stuff will find older iPhones and iPods that I keep as backup. But there’s more to this brand extension than the things I buy. I have also become a doctrinaire adherent of the Apple worldview when it comes to product design. My first computing experience was creating and running FORTRAN programs on an IBM 360. In 1979-80, I was a research assistant on Roger Schank”s AI team at Yale. I have written routines in CPM assembler and a primitive accounting program in DBase II. Now, I’m like most people I know. I’ve got other things to do. I value simplicity and elegant design more than I do being able to hack hardware or code. In these respects my technical affiliation is a different world from that of the grumblers who bitch and moan about the Apple system being closed on CNET.

    But that’s enough auto ethnography. What I am trying to illustrate is my sense that your use of ‘technical affiliation’ implies a broader scope as well as a certain intensity. Like class, gender, religion, profession, or ethnicity, we are talking about what is literally a ‘world’ of difference. Have I got this right?

  6. The fact that with Apple you have an operating system controlled by a brand lends something distinct to the Mac/PC dichotomy. It’s not Nike or Reebok, it’s diesel or gasoline in a world in which Saab controls diesel engine technology.

  7. Actually, no. Mac OSX is pretty much an interface nicely integrated with a UNIX kernel. Any software engineer up to speed with UNIX utilities can play with it all he likes. The elephant in the room is the programmers and system designers who have invested their lives and careers in learning Windows, .net and other Microsoft software. They are already at huge risk of losing their jobs and livelihoods to cheaper labor in India, and if the products that “PC-world” manufacturers don’t sell well, the market for their services will shrink even further. Why the excitement about Android? The business model resembles Microsoft’s in that a lot of independent manufacturers get to modify the system. The predictable result is lots of bugs as different tweaks clash. That means more jobs for people who can spot and deal with bugs and, in the process, create more bugs down the line. In this respect, software engineers are like lawyers. They both belong to professions whose members create work for each other.

    These sorts of considerations might be something worth looking at in developing the implications of technical affiliations.

  8. Mac OSX is pretty much an interface nicely integrated with a UNIX kernel. Any software engineer up to speed with UNIX utilities can play with it all he likes.

    How is that relevant to the fact that the EULA forbids the installation of OS X on a non-Apple-branded computer?

  9. John, your auto-ethnography sounded very interesting! You were a member of Roger Shank’s AI team?! That’s a name I haven’t heard since my days working at SRI International. I think you are quite right to introduce the concept of scope. I think it would be awesome to see empirical studies on this question in various groups, perhaps beyond computer technology groups. Although, it seems to me that open source enthusiasts are another great example of how scope would work. It is not just a matter of choosing a Linux distribution, but rather ideas around Linux involve a whole world view about how information should be shared, etc. I also agree that studies of developers working with different operating systems would be really interesting.

  10. A very minor member of Roger Schank’s team. I and another graduate student spouse were hired as research assistants to write concept frames and scripts in LISP for FRUMP (Fast Reading Understanding and Memory Program), which was being developed by one of Schank’s graduate students, Jerry DeJong. I was an unemployed anthropologist looking into computing as a possible new career and this job gave me 24-hour access to Yale’s DEC TOPS-20 system and a free pass to audit the sophomore-level computer science course. As things turned out, I didn’t pursue a career in computing. When my wife’s grant brought us to Japan, I was hired by a corporate communications shop and became the editor of a daily translation business for which the client was IBM. That led a few years later to being picked up as a copywriter by a big Japanese ad agency. Funny old world this is. (If you’d like to learn more, I am happy to babble on; but perhaps we should do it off list. If you are interested, drop me a line:

  11. MTBradley- I believe that people’s “relationships” to EULAs are in and of themselves performances of technical affiliation

    In any way beyond the way in which jaywalkers and non-jaywalkers are categories of people? I’m not saying the assertion is incorrect, it just is not immediately apparent to me how the concept would work here.

  12. For the horde is a great example.

    And in terms of EULA relationships, the idea is that people with particular worldviews who believe information and technical knowledge should be freely shared may not believe in things like EULAs.

  13. I study product designers and I have been puzzling about Macs, Photoshop, and other forms of technical affiliation as well. I think construction of self is one part of the picture but a crucial dimension of technical affiliation in some communities is that the technologies of affiliation either provide the means for the communities to be connected (e.g. Facebook) — the sorts of technically constituted publics that Danah Boyd or Chris Kelty talk about. But in Chris’ account of open source projects, platforms like Apache are actually the technical means that allow these groups to be materially constituted. It isn’t just a matter of construction of self.

    In a paper I co-authored on designer’s tools — sharpies, post-its, and software packages — we argue that tools link communities of practices as shared infrastructures that undergird shared meanings, membership in the group, shared knowledge built upon the technologies, and a taken for grantedness that enables action and collaboration. Symbolic meanings and identity performance along are crucial to understanding tools within a community of practice, but also the shared practices and technical affordances explain affiliation. The technical quirks of Adobe Illustrator and the fact that tons of other designers have generated lots of hacks, macros, tutorials, and plugins for it are just as important in understanding why designers gravitate towards that package rather than an open-source alternative.

    The paper is called Shopping for Sharpies in Seattle: Mundane Infrastructures of Transnational Design.

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