In What Ways Is Identity A Social

Construct? Essay, Research Paper

“Without social identity, there is, in fact, no society.” — Richard Jenkins

The idea that beliefs about “who we are” are created in a social context reflects the basic sociological theory that human beings are socially created, not prisoners of instinct. Sociologists see identity as related to the society in which people exist. People, are, in part, socialized into their identities. There are assorted ways that conceptions about individual and group identities are socially constructed. An identity is created against a social background that tries to make social interaction meaningful, understandable and well-organized by categorizing people in various ways. The nature of identity is expressed as a social phenomenon and a dynamic feature of social life. The understanding that “who we are” is socially constructed permits us to account for the fact that how we view ourselves and how others see us is not socially static.

The concept of identity narrates an understanding of who and what we are; and what we and other people believe us to be. An identity involves a set of characteristics that define us as individuals, groups, societies and so forth. In order to develop a sense of identity, it is essential to have a sense of self-awareness. Individuals develop this sense of self through the socialization process when they learn the manner of social interaction on the basis of various cultural identities. The one, in short, is dependent on the other. Identity is a social construct, in the way that once an individual assumes a particular identity – they acquire and exhibit specific social characteristics. Cooley’s “looking-glass self” offers an insight into the development of an identity. His theory was that we use behaviour of others towards us as a kind of mirror in which is reflected an image of the person we are. Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical approach uses a theatrical metaphor to represent the social world. It illustrates how an individual develops a sense of self and personality through adopting a role, assuming a status and learning a set of flexible behavioural principles during social encounters.

Social categories, or sources of identity, can be and are used for the purpose of generating and maintaining individual and group identities. To clearly explore the ways identity is termed a social construct, this essay will outline several examples that are significant sources of identity; namely: gender, age, and ethnicity. However, before illustrating the various examples, a few sociological perspectives on the social construction of identity will be briefly discussed in order to establish a clear framework.

Sociological perspectives all agree that identity is a social construct, and reject any notion that identity is innate. Social circumstances and expectations create who we are and cast the identity. These perspectives are rooted in the basic concept, and provide opinions on the manifestation of social identity. The Structuralist perspective places great emphasis on socialization as a means of social identity being a social construct. Socialization is viewed as an influential steering force in terms of the way people are branded or labelled into particular structures of cultural identities. For Marxists, social class is regarded as the leading source of social identity and self-image. The interactionist view, such as the view held by G.H.Mead, argue that our identity – our ‘self’, is an ingredient in us, but it is in fact truly socially created. Post modernists take the stand that identity is no longer fixed but is continually being changed. Individuals are free to choose identities based on their ability to actively and consciously decide upon the social context in which an identity develops. These more recent sociological views contrast sharply with the historical view of the 17th and 18th century. The dominant view back then was that an individual’s identity remained the same throughout life and was not affected by social circumstances.

The discrepancies between men and women (in terms of social characteristics) are the product of social and cultural factors. Gender is defined in terms of the particular cultural characteristics that people bestow upon different biological sexes. According to Stoller, labels such as ‘masculine and feminine’ represent gender differences. In effect, gender refers to the various ways that culture ascribes all kinds of behavioural differences to biological males and females. Upon birth, a baby is labelled according to its sex followed closely by that of gender. Gender is a significant source of identity mainly because of the social characteristics we give to children of different genders. A gender identity revolves around the belief that you have things in common with others – in this case, people of the same gender share the same biology, distinct ways of perceiving and behaving in the social world. According to social learning theory, gender socialization teaches society-acceptable behaviours for the gender role and gender personality. This, thereby, leads to the development of their own feelings and consciousness (their own gender identity).

Sociologists have focussed on gender as a learned set of behaviours. The existence of gender appropriate norms and gender expectations imply that gender identity is only possible through learning. . It is about learning to do something and convincing others that we are doing it right. Gender roles are attitudes and activities that a society links to each biological sex. They are the active expression of gender identity. Basically, gendered identity is about role-playing. Aspects of the male roles reflect the kind of assumptions we make about how men should behave such as leadership and taking control of situations. This applies to aspects of women’s roles where a woman is assumed to be more emotionally expressive than men – the disparity being due to gender socialization. Femininity and masculinity are not innate properties of the associative biological sex. Femininity and masculinity refer to the characteristic types of behaviour of the woman and man in a given culture. What counts as femininity and masculinity varies between societies – reflecting that gendered identity has to be a social construct. Several femininities and masculinities are also probable in complex societies. For example, one becomes ‘feminine’ through social processes such as learning how to wear dresses, use of makeup, caring for others and so on. Sexual identity is not attained simply by an act of individual will nor is it discovered in the ‘recesses of the soul’. Sexuality is shaped by the society and culture in which we are a member of. Social factors like religious teachings, laws, the media, medical definitions, social politics, psychological theory and the media all inform and influence our sexuality.

Age group has apparent cultural connotations with regard to identity. The four very broad cultural groupings based on age are :- childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. Each of the cultural groups confer a sense of identity on people – sense of belonging to a specific grouping with its own values, norms and forms of behaviour. By being labelled or categorized into one of the cultural groupings, an individual plays a role. An identity complementing the role is assumed, and that individual further defined that identity through the learning of and conforming to that group’s set norms, values and expectations. Through this, an age identity develops social characteristics. All four groups reflect certain cultural assumptions about how it is appropriate/inappropriate for people of a certain age to behave. In many ways, these behavioural assumptions are related to things like lifestyle. People are generally encouraged to identify themselves with different kinds of behaviour based around their biological age. AN old age identity, for example, is a social construct in that society tends to treat people differently in the ‘old age category’. Once a person has enough ‘old age’ characteristics they are perceived by society as ‘senior citizens’ or ‘old age pensioners’. And it is this perception that affects communal treatment of that person, for instance, that person’s status tends to fall and society see them (the ‘old aged’) to be less active and more dependent.

The third example, is how ethnicity defines an individual’s identity – and how an ethnic identity is defined by certain social characteristics. Ethnicity is a concept that refers to learned cultural behaviours and cultural identities that are acquired. Ethnic identity is not given nor fixed. It develops after an individual internalises and maintains the characteristics of that ethnicity. There is an important role for material culture – that is, everyday commodities like clothes and food – in the construction of ethnic identities. Shaun Hides studied Asian communities in Leicester and found that ethnic identities are made by people in the process of doing things. His study emphasized clothing in conveying a sense of identity. Yinger (1981) claimed that an ethnic identity allows individual members of an ethnic group to “…share a common origin and to share important segments of a common culture, and who, in addition, participate in shared activities in which the common origin and culture are significant ingredients.” Ethnic identity highlights the similarities amongst people who share the same cultural heritage and hence differ across societies. Therefore, ethnic identity is a social construct in that various cultural heritages exist according to traditions, habits, beliefs and roles.

As social beings we feel the need to belong to various groups (the biggest being humanity or the human race). The need to feel we belong is significant as it causes us to draw a sense of identity from these groups. Social integration into these groups allows us to feel we belong, and by extension, we are able to define ourselves through our identity and also a sense of purpose to life. All in all, it is through the differences between groups, categories and societies that provide the basis of a specific identity. Behavioural and attitude differences are evidenced everywhere and by explaining these differences through an examination of various sources of identity, sociologists can understand the ways identit


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