Are our identities established through choice or constructed for us by
society and what is expected of us in line with our gender, class and culture?
Can we change our identities to fit in with how we want society to see us rather
than how society expects to see us?
Firstly we should not confuse personality with identity. Personality traits may be
something we have in common with people we meet but identifying with a certain
social group is something we choose to do usually as a result of the things we
have in common. Personality is categorised as an internal characteristic not a
choice. (Woodward 2004, p.6)
Identity is, on the whole, how we are seen by society. Our identities
are first formed by the initial factors that are present at birth alongside the society
we are born into. This is based on several factors; gender being the most
obvious of these. Other factors include skin colour, language and ethnicity.
These factors are combined along with others to create what we come to know as
‘ourselves’, our identity.
How we are perceived by others also forms part of our identity as it puts us into
an identified social group. How we see ourselves comes later as we develop our
own sense of self. As we grow and become more self-aware our identity changes
and we begin to mould ourselves developing our own personal identity. This is
done through choices we make (agency) and through interaction with forces
beyond our control (structure).
When we meet new people we tend to question their identity to establish where or
if we fit in with their social group. This inevitably includes looking for ways in
which we are similar but also different.
On occasion we won’t have to ask questions as the badges people wear can
answer these for us. In this situation we can establish an immediate
connection even if we have never met them before. Someone wearing a T-shirt
bearing the logo of your favourite band would be someone you could connect
with instantly regardless of any other factors of their identity. (Woodward 2004,
p6). We use symbols so as others will see us in the way we want them too. Hair
colour or style will set us apart from some but also connect us to those we want to
identify with. “We symbolise the sort of person we want others to think we are
through the clothes we wear and the ways in which we behave”. (Mead 1934,
Our careers also play an important role in the formation of our identity. In our
choice of job we will associate with our colleagues, with whom we share a
collective identity, working for the same cause and aiming for similar goals. This
is another part of the agency that helps define our identities, the choices we make
in the careers we take up and the geographical areas in which we work.
The structures by which our identities are formed are beyond our control. The
culture into which we are born will be the foundations of our identity. As we
advance in years and knowledge we have the choice to change aspects of our
culture, therefore changing parts of our identity. The colour of our skin, age,
ethnicity and class are some of the restrictions that will prevent us changing our
identities completely. Gender is also a structured part of our identities from a
legal aspect. Whilst someone may change their gender, the official
documentation that records that persons existence will always state the gender
under which they were born. (Woodward 2004, p10)
Assuming the identity of a parent is also a choice we make, being a sibling, aunt,
uncle or grandparent is a part of our identity over which we have no control. We
can also take on different identities depending on the situation we are in at any
given time, socialising, working or in our own home environment.
In conclusion we can have a degree of...
References: Woodward K, Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity. Chapter 1, Questions of Identity. London, Routledge/The Open University.
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