To What Extent Is Our ‘Identity’ Chosen for Us? Essay
To what extent is our ‘identity’ chosen for us? What is identity? Where does identity come from? For some identity is who we are as a whole and according to the Oxford English Dictionary identity is ‘prove or recognise who or what a person or thing is’. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology on the other hand starts off with a three page explanation on how identity came about. In this essay we will look at the issue of identity using the macro perspective, structural functionalism and hopefully reach as conclusion.
When looking at the subject of identity they are what can be seen as many differing types such as the inner self, ME, I, the personal identity and of course the social identity. The inner self refers to the ‘little voice’ in our heads Blackmore (1999) described this as ‘the real you’ and claimed that it is the part of the person which thinks, dreams and controls memories, therefore it is seen to persist throughout the life span giving a sort of continuity. Personal identity or Self-identity on the other hand, is how we see ourselves; it is seen as public and visible.
On the personal side it is seen as things such as birth records, passports even medical and career files. Self-identity could be seen as nurtured by the individual, it is a mixture of socialisation between own thoughts, peer pressure and knowledge gained from outside forces such as books and the internet, even media pressure. Social identity is based upon factors such as class, age, gender, ethnicity and region it can also be based on ‘memberships of social groups’ Haralambos & Langley (2008).
From society we are socialised through norms and values which are enforced by family, institutions such as schools and religion. Today however the issues of class, gender and region are not as strictly enforced due to changes with society and the social movement of individuals. G H Mead (1967) claimed that a basic feature of human beings is the possession of a sense of self. Social interactionists tend to claim that identity has origins and emerges through social interaction therefore we depend on others to ‘tell’ us who we are.
Cooley tended to use the term ‘looking glass self’ to bring forward his idea that we ‘see ourselves reflected in the attitudes and behaviours of others’ Cooley (2009). Goffman (1969) referred to this as the ‘presentation of self’ and saw it as a process where individuals deliberately rearranged things such as clothes, hairstyles and mannerisms to either make a public statement about ourselves or fit in with others. Interactionists therefore seem to challenge the idea of fixed self, and claim that identity can and will change over time for example; who I am NOW is NOT who I WAS five years ago.
Identity can change over a period of time or changed by a dramatic life event, things such as bereavement, redundancy and labelling can force what can be seen as re-examination of the self. Even so structural functionalists like Parsons and Merton believe that the identity is assigned, and that there can be no change. They basically see social structures within society and form a relationship between the manner in which the social structure constrains the individual and their actions.
Jenkins (1996) on the other hand claims that identity is negotiable and that is created by process of human interaction, meaning individuals make comparisons between themselves and others and therefore establish similarities and connections to differences between themselves and not necessarily institutions, Jenkins goes on to claim that identity is not only linked to individual interactions but related to larger social groups and that the interaction through these groups lead to the construction of boundaries. Jenkins then states that identity is never completely fluid but simply a matter of choice.
On the other hand Witz & Woodward (2000) argue that identity has a lot to do with the way a person answers the question ‘Who am I? ’ Woodward claims that identity is marked by similarity and how an individual identifies with others, therefore forming a group identity for example; I support Sheffield Wednesday therefore I am a Sheffield Wednesday supporter and not a Sheffield United supporter, the individual would be within a group of likeminded individuals, basically having the same belief that their team is better than the other.
Woodward takes her ideals on identity from a range of individuals such as G. H Mead, Goffman and Freud, like Mead she believes that individuals see themselves through the eyes of others, and through imagining the way others view us our personal sense of identity is therefore linked to our external identity or the image others have of us. For example; how the individual looks and dresses, a suit worn to an interview would give a better image than wearing dirty tracksuit bottoms. Bauman (1996) however states that ‘identity has not just become fragmented, it has ceased to have any stable base whatsoever.
Identity has become simply a matter of choices and not even choices that are necessary consistent or regular’ Bauman makes similarities between identity and pilgrimage, as he claims within a pilgrimage a person maps out their future life they are seen as having a goal and therefore all of their actions are aimed at completing that goal. In conclusion it could be seen as difficult to understand, how someone could believe that identity is wholly acquired, or that it is wholly ascribed.
Even if it is argued that an individual is wholly a product of circumstances and that any filtering or rejection of idea’s beliefs is an illusion brought on by the complex interaction of the various ascribed elements to their identity, then we are forced to accept these interactions and the interactions between an individual’s own identity and others identities are so complex that even if the basic rules for how ascribing works are understood that what emerges is chaotic (as in chaos theory) and cannot be understood or predicted (chaos theory, put very simply, states that a system of sufficient complexity loses it predictability because the feedback from interactions of various elements of the system on the various elements of the system are too complex to predict, and that what emerges is chaotic behaviour).
Even if ascribing is the only true way identity exists, once one has accepted this results in a chaotic system then one also has to accept that understanding yet more about ascribing will never enable you to predict, measure or model identity, by understanding more (i. e. having more elements in the system) all it does is make the model more complex and introduce more chaos into the system. The only way to effectively describe an ascribed identity model is in acquired terms since acquired focuses on the apparent behaviour (the emergent behaviour of the system) rather than saying identity is fixed by the input. Put simply, identity maybe 100% ascribed, but what emerges is something so complex it loses its predictability, and without that predictability ascribed models of identity lose their value.
On the other hand, 100% acquired identity seems to suffer from a fundamental flaw in its starting point. If nothing is ascribed to me, then there is a moment before identity is acquired, when identity could be described as an empty vessel. But if my identity is empty, void of anything, what motivates me to acquire identity? Who in short acquires the first element of my identity? To me, for these reasons and other reasons too (such as just observing the human beings around me, where I can see elements of both acquired and ascribed identity) the only model that can be used to describe identity is one that uses both acquired and ascribed identity.
Bibliography Bauman Z. 1996) From pilgrimage to tourist – a short history of identity. In Hall S. & du Gay P. (eds) 1996) Blackmore S. (1999) The meme machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press Cooley C. H. (2009) Human Nature and Social Order. Richardson Goffman E. (1969) The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth: Penguin Haralambos M. & Langley P. (2008) Sociology in Focus 2nd Ed. Scotprint, Haddington, East Lothian Jenkins R. (1996) Social Identity Routledge; London Mead G. H. (1967) Mind, Self and Society: 1 (Works of George Herbert Mead). New edition. University of Chicago Press Witz A. & Woodward K. (ed) (2000) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class Nation Routledge; London Reference Bauman Z. 1996) From pilgrimage to tourist – a short history of identity. In Hall S. & du Gay P. (eds) 1996) Blackmore S. (1999) The meme machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press Cooley C. H. (2009) Human Nature and Social Order. Richardson Goffman E. (1969) The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth: Penguin Haralambos M. & Langley P. (2008) Sociology in Focus 2nd Ed. Scotprint, Haddington, East Lothian Jenkins R. (1996) Social Identity Routledge; London Mead G. H. (1967) Mind, Self and Society: 1 (Works of George Herbert Mead). New edition. University of Chicago Press Witz A. & Woodward K. (ed) (2000) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class Nation Routledge; London