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Identity is often thought of as a permanent feature of a person, connected to their bodily integrity, consciousness of time through memory, and sense of themselves as an individual with particular characteristics. Sociologists locate identity as a social construction of reality with relevance for both self and others. Social identities identify persons as members of groups or categories of persons, whether through statuses such as race, gender, sexuality, ability or disability, age, family, and kinship, which are commonly thought of as based in biology, as well as statuses such as nationality, ethnic group, religion, occupation, and other group memberships which are thought of as cultural. For sociologists, all of these statuses are understood as social constructions, including their characterization as rooted in biology.
Membership in an identity group or category confers expectations and meanings on the individual, orientations which are meaningful and influence both self and others. Sociologists recognize both multiple identities for any given individual and their intersectionality; for example, the intersectionality of race, gender and class means that each of these statuses influences the positionality of the person in social structure, as well as the meaning of each status and its impact on identity. Many statuses are associated with meanings that sociologists define as stereotypes which can be either negative or positive. These stereotyping attributions have been associated with the creation of spoiled identity or stigma by Erving Goffman, in which the self is disparaged by others for identities such as disabilities or racial/ethnic status. In postmodern theory the sense of difference engendered by stereotyping identity is characterized as the construction of otherness or othering, where others are characterized as inferior by members of a dominant group and are subject to dehumanization by those within the in-group.
Despite these issues, sociologists see social identities as allowing persons to interact with each other on the basis of typifications. Beginning with George Herbert Mead, the self has been characterized by its ability to anticipate the responses of others by placing them in situational context. Goffman built on and popularized the idea of situational identity, given by one’s position in particular interactional contexts, such as student and teacher or doctor and patient. While these statuses are considered situational and temporary, to engage in such interactions one must be aware of the social expectations of appropriate behavior in each situation. Mead and Goffman emphasized both cultural influences and the emergent quality of such interactional moments, where individuals must construct appropriate behavior in order to meet their interactional goals. Behavior is influenced, but not determined, by situational requirements. For Goffman, individuals engage in impression management whereby they take up and maintain lines by means of which they make claims for identity and its associated social honor and must manage issues of credibility as they attempt to maintain face throughout interactions.
Questions about identity have been debated since the classic positions of Karl Marx and Max Weber on the issue of class consciousness. For Marx, identification with the working class was the essential ingredient of class or revolutionary consciousness. Weber understood identification with class as closer to social psychological constructions such as Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, where the individual’s experiences in a social position such as class status confers on the self an identity based on cultural capital acquired through everyday experience. Identity politics refers to self-conscious organization on the part of individuals who identify with interest groups to achieve political ends.
Sociologists share the idea of identity as a social construct, often citing the role of narrative as when individuals learn to narrate usable identities for particular contexts, such as when the self is problematized. Sociologists are divided on whether to be troubled by the social construction of identity. While some seem not to lament a loss of authenticity to the construction of identity, others do. For example, Arlie Hochschild voices concern about the emotion management required by employment in the service economy which intentionally echoes Marx’s concerns about alienation from oneself and others.
For Kenneth Gergen the postmodern era is characterized by a saturated self arising out of the omnipresent influence of media, as well as the multiplicity of opportunities for interaction characterizing urban existence. These result in a multiphrenic self which senses its own inadequacy to meet the multitude of social and cultural obligations which it incurs. Unlike Mead who saw a rationality and logic emerging from one’s immersion in the shared generalized others of one’s society, Gergen sees the postmodern self as juggling not only a host of obligations, but a conflict of rationalities represented by those differing aspects of identity.
- Burke, P. J. & Stets, J. E. (2009) Identity Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Gergen, K. J. (1991) The Saturated Self. Basic Books, New York.
- Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon & Schuster, New York.
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