“There is a need for identity politics that encourage the production of alternative discourses of the self for more inclusive practices of imagining.”

I wrote a short piece discussing the digital self from the perspective of potentiality and the becoming of the self for the M/C Journal issue on ‘automediality‘. I draw on a previous study (with Annamari Huovinen) on plus-sized fashion bloggers and examine blogging as automedial self-construction, where automedia entails both the media about the maker (the subject) and the process of mediating the self.

“Blogging as automedia is not only a way of making visible that which occupies the margins, it also actively contributes to diversifying identification points in the public sphere that are not limited to the digital, but have implications regarding the production of social realities, regardless of the mode in which these are experienced.”

I reflect on the possibilities and restrictions embedded in the shared imagination feeding into identification processes in the current media landscape, and discuss the parameters for imagining the self in the wider context of contemporary consumer society and for constructing the self in the digital narration that transforms the potentiality of the self into existence. Identity is one of the enduring interests in digital media research and has been approached from multiple perspectives variably emphasising such themes as authenticity, resistance, anonymity, and such. In this short piece, I employ the less common relational approach to being, developed by Kenneth Gergen, which emphasises relational being.

More specifically, I examine the self in relation to the market and the contemporary consumer society to explore the relational tensions shaping identity construction of marginalised individuals. With the help of the notion of social imaginary I look at relations of inclusion and exclusion as forces that position individuals and impose a consumer subjectivity even when identity projects are resistant in nature, aiming for greater inclusion, visibility, and social acceptance.
“The fatshion blog as a form of automedia is driven by the desire for change in the social circumstances where self-construction can take place, toward the future potential of the self, by diversifying acceptable subject positions and constructing novel identification points for fat women. The means are limited, however, and despite the explicit agenda of promoting body positivity, the collective aspirations are rooted in consumption and realised in the realm of fashion and the market.”
The question, therefore, is whether resistance outside the market is possible, or whether the desire for inclusion, the ‘aspiration for normalcy’, necessitate market participation and the adoption of consumer subjectivity. I argue the social imaginaries that feed into identity construction and offer pathways to normalcy and acceptance cannot be seen as simply enabling, but instead construct fields of constrained possibility (Harju, 2017) thereby imposing limitations to the kind of acceptable identity positions marginalised individuals can seek.
I therefore reflect on the parameters of imagining the self, the relational tensions present in the automedial construction of the self, in the becoming of the self in the contemporary consumer society where “consumer subjectivity offers normative intelligibility in the various expressions of identity, providing tools for the becoming of an included subject…”
However, “it raises the question of whether resistant identity can occur outside the market and outside the logic of consumption when it seeks social inclusion.”
Blogging as automedia makes visible that which occupies the margins and narrates the potentiality of the self into being. It also contributes to adding diversity to the range of identification points in the public sphere, to discourses of the self, that are not limited to the digital but have implications regarding the production of social realities, regardless of the mode in which these are experienced.

You can read the article A Relational Approach to the Digital Self: Plus-Sized Bloggers and the Double-Edged Sword of Marked-Compromised Identity in the M/C Journal issue focusing on the theme of ‘automediality‘.

Blogs, Digital culture, Gender, identity, Media

Lectio Praecursoria: On ‘being’ Online – Insights on Contemporary Articulations of the Relational Self

Academic Endeavours, Blogs, Digital culture, Dissertation, Education, identity, Media, Research, YouTube

On being Online: Insights on Contemporary Articulations of the Relational Self

Lectio Praecursoria, the opening speech, presented at the public defence of Anu Harju on 16th June, 2017, at the Aalto University School of Business. Professor Fuat Firat acted as the honorary Opponent.


Photo: Anne Kankaanranta



Honoured chairperson, honoured opponent, ladies and gentlemen.

Four days ago, a major event in Finnish political life took place as the Finnish coalition government was faced with dissolution. This was the result of the election of a new party leader for the True Finns party. Although dissolution was later avoided, social media erupted in seconds. Camps were put up. In no time at all, we could witness the formation of us and them as groups sharing ideological and emotional congruence emerged. On a global scale, the same thing happened with Brexit, and when Donald Trump was elected the president of United States.

Social media are emotional media. As concerned citizens rushed to social media to voice their opinions of the recent political event, they were soon faced with the fervour of their opponents. Twitter seemed divided, and Facebook was filled with political commentary and speculation. Even the main newspapers were circulating people’s reactions on Twitter as news, as has become the new norm in broadcasting. As users of media, we were soon immersed in the commentary regardless of our own participation.

Yet, politics is not the only arena to elicit emotional reaction on social media, but increasingly, popular culture and entertainment serve as a site of belonging. Popular culture provides a shared social imaginary, and is able to offer the cohesive glue somewhat lost in the fragmented, globalised world. Six years ago, similar mediated, polarized waves of emotion swept the Internet when Steve Jobs died. Since then, we have witnessed collective commemoration online with the passing of the likes of David Bowie, Robin Williams and Michael Jackson, to mention but a few. Public, collective mourning on social media is a relatively new practice that brings people together in a mediated manner.

Celebrity culture is not only linked to media’s power in producing the celebrity, it is also tightly linked to consumer culture.

Celebrity culture has become extremely pervasive in our culture. As a cultural product, the celebrity is accessible to everyone. Communities of different kind are typically created on the basis of popular culture: this is because through participating in global trends, events, and phenomena we feel we belong to the world, that we are active participants rather than mere spectators.

Celebrity culture is not only linked to media’s power in producing the celebrity, it is also tightly linked to consumer culture. Good taste, for one, is embodied in the celebrity. While the celebrity teaches us how to consume and how to be, they also represent a body and a self that is managed, fashioned and controlled. A person equipped with the capacity to respond to various demands resonating with the ideals of any given time is also able to accumulate considerable symbolic power. It is in this way that the ideal self, the normative notion of the preferred way of being, is also produced.

Now, with the march of digital media, the reverse is also true: we can all become a celebrity. It is common practice to emulate the normative good taste. Popular culture is at the forefront of fashion, for example, and more and more, ordinary people take to blogging about fashion, but also the everyday. These so-called fashionistas often reflect the celebrity style, sometimes in hopes of social and cultural mobility. Some even become a celebrity in their own right.

We take photos and selfies and post them online, on blogs, in Snapchat, on Instagram. We make public comments on Twitter without the knowledge of our reader-base, and engage in conversations with people we are likely never to meet. We construct what Benedict Anderson calls ‘imagined communities’, groups of people who image they form a collective with something in common. Online, we tend to seek similar others.


My doctoral dissertation is positioned at the intersection of media anthropology and Internet studies. Instead of focussing on technology alone or even primarily, it is the social and cultural life in the current digital context that forms the focus of inquiry in these fields. My dissertation is a multi-disciplinary study, and I also draw on sociology of consumption and cultural studies. This allows me to include the wider, global currents in the examination of the more local articulations of identity as these emerge in the relational flow of the Internet.

The goal is thus to increase our understanding of the complexity of being in our digitally enhanced world, and to shed some light on alternative ways of being.

These fields of research share a continued interest in issues concerning identity. Yet, despite the common interest, each operates within the bounds of their own field: this dissertation addresses the relative lack of dialogue between these divergent fields, and offers a multi-disciplinary take on self-construction at the intersection of digital media and consumption.

The aim of the dissertation is to provide insights into how we are positioned in a matrix of varying, even conflicting relational forces: these economic, cultural and social forces position us as more or less included or excluded subjects. The goal is thus to increase our understanding of the complexity of being in our digitally enhanced world, and to shed some light on alternative ways of being.

As relational beings, we exist in a network of relations that make up different social spaces.

I adopt a relational approach rooted in social constructionism, and developed by Kenneth Gergen, to examine the interconnectedness of social, cultural and economic forces that position us. The relational view of being sees the self as a dialectic, social construct that is in constant flux: this is because the relations we are embedded in are also constantly shifting. As relational beings, we exist in a network of relations that make up different social spaces.

This dissertation is an examination of digital culture. I treat the online as embedded in the offline, and see online practices as being informed by those offline. The relational self is fluid, contextual, and emergent: for this reason the binary distinction between online and offline modes of being is not necessary in the relational framework, as the self is always emergent in the relational flow. Thus, it is not meaningful in the context of this study to think in terms of separate entities occupying the physical, offline realm and, conversely, the digital online realm – instead, we can think of being in our digital time in terms of the different manifestations of the self that populate different social and relational spaces.

In order to anchor the relational being into the contemporary globalised context, I also draw on the notion of the social imaginary. The social imaginary organizes the everyday, and makes practices possible by providing a framework that allows us to make sense of the said practices. Imaginaries are involved in how we imagine our lives and our social existence, the norms that guide or constrain us, as well as the rules and regulations we uphold by practicing them.

While imaginaries construct a horizon of conceivable action, it is important to notice the normative dimension of popular imaginaries.

The ability to imagine is a fundamental human capacity. While imaginaries construct a horizon of conceivable action, and can thus be seen as enabling frameworks we draw on in our everyday, it is important to notice the normative dimension of popular imaginaries. For example, how we imagine the good life, or the way we should be, is largely influenced by the imaginaries we draw on. Thus, popular imaginaries do not simply provide input for liberating and emancipatory alternatives, but they are also implicated in constraining how we imagine. Imaginaries can also limit the range of alternatives we are able to imagine. For example, the plus-sized bloggers, examined in this dissertation, resist normative femininity; yet, they nevertheless operate within the feminine imaginary that dictates how women should be, and what they should look like.


I approach the question of the relational self by looking into the consumption practices of digital media users, and how these relate to self-construction in the wider framework of our culture. Consumption spans the more traditional consumer goods, such as fashion and technology, to include consumption of the symbolic. The social spaces I have examined revolve around fashion and fandom, both cultural practices tightly linked to media and popular culture. The empirical material was collected from social media sites that include plus-sized fashion blogs and YouTube memorial videos for the late Steve Jobs.

While I also employ digital ethnography, which translates into spending time in various social media sites in order to gain more detailed knowledge of the community in question, I consider digital ethnography more as an outlook than a specific method. The empirical material was analysed in discourse analytic tradition, combining Critical Discourse Analysis and Appraisal Theory.

In order to examine the conditions under which the contemporary self is constructed, I employ the notion of celebrity. These forces include the market with its inherent market ideology, cultural and social forces, intertwined with media logics of visibility and the prevalent practices of consumer society whereby commodities are used to express identity. In the context of the empirical studies, on one side of the celebrity phenomena we have Steve Jobs, and on the other side the plus-sized fashion bloggers, micro-celebrities in their own blogosphere.


In the process of becoming, we are faced with relational tension and conflict. Negotiating these tensions requires the capacity and ability to respond to the input: we may accept the relational input, or we may reject it.

The findings suggest there is an aspirational self constructed in the social imaginary, reflecting the value system of our society. The aspirational self is conflict-ridden where the two ideals of ‘being yourself’, on the one hand, and ‘improving yourself’, on the other, are juxtaposed. Both empirical cases illustrate this point: the plus-sized fashion bloggers, as much as Steve Jobs and his fans alike, all strive towards this kind of being. However, the process of becoming by way of improvement and control masquerades as ‘being yourself’.

Becoming the preferred self with value and symbolic power in our society requires a lot of work on the self.

Let’s return to Twitter for a while and the topical events. Twitter tells me that the Internet Company Yahoo is set to be sold. The outgoing CEO, Marissa Mayer, was hailed the company’s saviour when hired five years ago. Similar to Steve Jobs, and indeed the plus-sized bloggers, Marissa Mayer epitomises and embodies the ‘aspirational self’. A quick look around various social media tells me that Marissa Mayer participates in beneficiary runs, is healthy, slim and active, and inspires her staff as evidenced by the photo gallery online. She has had a phenomenal career for a female CEO of her age, and she has also managed to have a baby – something the media portrays as proof that women can have it all.

In Marissa Mayer, the ideal self is materialised. While her story is represented as one of success, an encouraging example to all women, it also shows the mechanisms of control present in the workings of the ‘aspirational self’.

Rather than being a simple matter of ‘being yourself’ or ‘realising your true potential’, becoming the preferred self with value and symbolic power in our society requires a lot of work on the self. In this process, the self becomes a commodity.


Entangled with media logics, such commodified self is digitally enhanced, publicly shared and re-shared, and collectively evaluated. With this dissertation, I have showed some of the complexities of today’s digitalised and commodified world, and what the increasing complexity might mean for the self. However, the study also finds ample evidence of the presence of resistance to hegemonic ways of being and doing, and the construction of alternative ways of imagining that is necessary for change. Perhaps with more people participating in the production of alternative meanings, change is possible.

This brings me to my last point. The relational approach to self adopted in this dissertation underlines the co-constitution of being, of the self, at the intersection of various technologies and relations. More importantly, however, it draws our attention to co-action and the potential of relational transformation for a more inclusive future.


Link to the published doctoral dissertation at Aalto University e-thesis here.


Pictured here with the honorary Opponent, Professor Fuat Firat, from University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

On gender, size and consumption

Digital culture, Gender, identity, Media, Research

Routledge recently (Dec 2016) published a book on gender in the field of consumption and marketing, edited by Z. Arsel, K. Eräranta and J. Moisander. The edited volume, Gendering Theory in Marketing and Consumer Research, brings together social sciences and consumer studies to examine gendered practices of consumer behaviour and marketplace activities, as well as the gendered nature of the current marketplace. The research featured in the book, originally published as a special issue on gender in the Journal of Marketing Management, draws on various theoretical approaches to gender from intersectional, material-discursive to practice-oriented theories to explore gender as a lived experience and a socially controlled performance in the realm of consumption.


Chapter three, Fashionably voluptuous: normative femininity and resistant performative tactics in fatshion blogs, features an empirical study on gender, size and identity in the context of plus-sized fashion blogging, co-authored by Annamari Huovinen and myself; you can read a short synopsis of the article on the Journal of Marketing Management blog.

Our article deals with issues of gender normativity, size and identity, and consumer resistance of marginalised consumers. The empirical material illustrates how normative understandings of gender identity work in complex ways in marginalized consumers’ identity construction, particularly as enabling resistance: while normativity is regularly considered to be constraining regarding identity performance, we show how normativity can also offer resources for resistance by providing an interpretative framework open to subversive performative acts.


However, such self-disciplining can be seen as part of a wider trend in the contemporary society where individuals are expected not only to manage their self and their body (e.g. the quantified self movement), but also, in the process, to attach exchange value to the managed self in the market where it is not okay “to come as you are” and where the self that is continuously undergoing improvement is a hotter commodity than a self that is ‘stagnant’.


Not only does blogging about plus-sized fashion and the everyday experiences as a plus-sized consumer allow the bloggers to actively contribute to the creation of alternative subject positions for themselves and thereby become empowered, but the collective and visible act of blogging also serves to widen the culturally predominant and traditionally constricting notion of femininity and thus promote size equality.

In addition, however, our findings show that resistant acts emerging from normative frameworks function rather like a double-edged sword: while increasing size awareness and promoting equality (in terms of ‘size neutrality’ or ‘fat acceptance’) and diversity, the performative acts of the plus-sized bloggers nevertheless draw heavily on mainstream representations of women as unflawed and stylish, beautifully packaged and pleasing to the eye, submissive and pleasing: that is, as controlled subjects who engage in self-management techniques and submit themselves (perhaps unwittingly) to a position where they become the object of somebody else’s gaze.

Such self-disciplining can be seen as part of a wider trend in the contemporary society where individuals are expected not only to manage their self and their body (e.g. the quantified self movement), but also, in the process, to attach exchange value to the managed self in the market where it is not okay “to come as you are” and where the self that is continuously undergoing improvement is a hotter commodity than a self that is ‘stagnant’. While this trend feeds dissatisfaction, fortunately counter-voices and counter-discourses are emerging, plus-sized fashion bloggers being one example of such counter-movement in the arena of consumption.


Keywords: gender, identity, size, consumption, consumer resistance

Our article featured in the Journal of Marketing Management blog

Blogs, Digital culture, Gender, identity, Media

The Journal of Marketing Management has set up a new blog where they aim to disseminate information on new research and inform their readership of current research topics.  My co-author Annamari Huovinen and I were happy to be featured in the JMM blog regarding our article published the Special Issue of Journal of Marketing Management ‘Theorising Gender and Gendering Theory‘ on normativity, consumer resistance and performative gender identity of fathion bloggers.

Have a look the JMM blog post on our article ‘Fashionably Voluptuos: normative femininity and resistant performative tactics in fatshion blogs’


In terms of gender identity, and normativity as social and cultural capital in performing gender, there is still a lot to research in the area of consumption.


This research project proved very interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration. Hopefully, we will be able to continue this line of research in the future. You can read the full article here. Thank you for reading!




Article in print feels like a materialisation of sweat, tears and great collaboration

Blogs, Digital culture, Gender, identity, Media, Research

There’s nothing quite like paper when it comes to the reading experience!

Yesterday, I received my hard copy of the Journal of Marketing Management Special Issue on gender in marketing and consumer research, guest edited by Zeynep Arsel, Kirsi Eräranta and Johanna Moisander.

Journal of Marketing Management, Special Issue on gender in marketing theory

Journal of Marketing Management, Special Issue on gender in marketing theory

Our article 'Fashionably voluptuous: normative femininity and resistant performative tactics in fatshion blogs' in one of the Special Issue articles

Our article ‘Fashionably voluptuous: normative femininity and resistant performative tactics in fatshion blogs’ in one of the Special Issue articles

Our paper ‘Fashionably voluptuous: normative femininity and resistant performative tactice in fatshion blogs‘,written by my colleague Annamari Huovinen and myself, was published in this issue. This was a great and rewarding project, and our first collaboration in terms of academic research. It feels satisfying to see the words and sentiments in print that we worked so hard for. To feel the paper, to turn the pages, is such a different experience from staring at pixels which much of academic work amounts to nowadays.

In this article, we examine fatshion blogs (that is, ‘fat fashion’, or plus-size fashion blogs) as a site of subversive identity work, but also as an instance of consumer resistance. Fatshion blogging, with its image sharing, constitutes a performative act that draws on the normative notions of beauty, gender identity and femininity to contruct identities that seek to subvert the prevailing ideals while working to create a space for alternative female subjectivities. However, largely mediated by the media as much as the market, cultural ideals of what the female body ought to look like, the norms governing what is acceptable, sit tight and pervade even the most active resistance.

The fatshionista project is a complex and multi-layered endeavour that highlights the complicated and intertwined nature of identity at the intersection of social and cultural norms, consumer culture and the market. By actively promoting fat acceptance and rejecting social demands as these pertain to the ideal female body, the fatshionista project seeks to widen the subject positions available for women; however, the collective undertaking nevertheless (re)constructs and maintains some other forms of gender oppression by way of upholding certain norms governing the female body while resisting others. This highlights not only the difficulty of consumer resistance, but also the conflicted nature of identity performance under the influence of the market, the media and social and cultural expectations.

The article outlines two performative tactics employed by fatshionista bloggers as they construct and negotiate their identities online, one of which higlights diversity and difference relative to the mainstream representations, while the other underlines similarity by way of subverting the normalised mainstream fashion discourses.