To answer this question I shall firstly present the outcomes from a non scientific experiment that was designed to examine how ordinary people viewed the issue of identity. In my opinion the results of the experiment illustrated how little we know about ourselves our how we become who we are.
The main focus of the paper will then concentrate on the key concepts and theories surrounding the sociological perspective regarding identity and why it has the tendency to be characterised by uncertainty. To support my argument the paper will concentrate on my analysis of… Chapter 1 (Questions of Identity) and Chapter 3 (Identity, Inequality and Social Class).
In my conclusion I will propose a critique of the evidence presented and submit a personal viewpoint based on that evidence.
The question of why there should be any uncertainty regarding ones identity would probably be best answered by examining the meaning of identity and what it actually represents. Before I began this assignment I asked several family members and friends to explain (1) how they would describe their identity? and (2) how did they think it was formed? The answers I received to question (1) were quite diverse ranging from detailed descriptions of their physical appearance and personality traits and (2) to some vague and imprecise affirmation of nationality and ethnic background. While there is some veracity in both responses… social scientists would argue these points in depth and offer a more concise answer to the identity crisis.
When we are called to question the issue of personal identity we seldom consider the impact that structure and agency have in shaping our identity or identities. In the first instance we are all born into a society that is marked by its own set of unique identifiers and in the second instance… as individuals… we make a variety of choices and decisions that can unwittingly make us active participants in determining ‘who we are’. Both of these concepts support the idea of identity being established on the premise of it being a social construct that is linked between what is personal and what is social. This in turn can create a state of conflict when we strive to determine how we perceive ourselves… how we are perceived by others… and what constraints influence both perceptions.
What’s Personal and What’s Social?
If we look at these two concepts in isolation the degree by which they shape our identity is indicative of how we live our lives and how we see others live theirs.
In socially defined identity we are marked by the society in which we live. We are constrained by many of the mechanisms by which it functions e.g. economic, social and cultural factors which in turn distinguish us as individuals and as part of collective group.
In support of this notion… Mead, Goffman and Freud cite the influences of Structure and Agency in identity formation where our autonomy of choice is managed by the social forces that surround us (Woodward 2004 p 18). The upshot of this view is that individuals are obliged to constantly construct and deconstruct their identity as they are (according to Althusser) “interpellated or recruited into their identity” niche (Althusser 1971). In my view Althusser’s work goes a long way to show how social structures such as occupation, ethnic origin, gender and class impact on the self perception that people have regarding their own identity… in other words… how we perceive ourselves is subject to moderation when social structures are taken into account.
However Althssuer’s interpellation would also take into account the dynamic nature of society and that the issues regarding identity uncertainties will be subject to relentless change when we consider those that have gone before us and those that will come after us. In other words social structures are in a constant state of flux even considering the established continuities of birth, health, welfare, education etc. and as a consequence we have to continually adapt our identities to accommodate these changes. Much of the uncertainty of identity is acknowledged in John Greaves narrative concerning the coal industry when he describes how the forced structural and economic changes within his community changed the way people seen themselves and brought home a realisation that for them nothing would ever be the same or remain the same (Woodward 2004).
In my non scientific experiment outlined at the beginning of this paper… friends and family put quite a lot of emphasis on their personality (likes and dislikes) and their physical attributes (height… weight… colour etc) when describing their identity. Without knowing it most gave accounts of what they were as opposed to what they were not… but by this mutual exclusion it helped them reinforce a sense of their communal identity with those around them through their… interaction… language… culture… and their uptake of roles… symbols… and lifes experience. This concept is demonstrated by George Mead in his suggestion that there is a link between how we imagine ourselves and how others might see us (Mead 1934)… and in doing so we manufacture the way we want to appear or imagine we appear.
This notion is supported by Woodward when she describes how symbols and representations not only indicate who we are… they also indicate who we are not (Woodward 2004 p.12). Mead’s argument is supported by Judith Williamson’s cultural studies discipline when she demonstrates that the process of identity choice can come down what clothes we decide to wear on any given day (Williamson 1986, p.91). This notion would find favour in Mead’s argument that “people have some degree of control over the identities they adopt” through imagination, visualisation and symbolisation (Sherratt et al 2004 p.14).
Identity (Income and Class)
It would be difficult not to accept that wealth/poverty do not help shape ones identity. Those on the ‘breadline’ are perceived to be a certain type of person… they are stigmatised because that’s how society sees them. But how do they see themselves? According to Woodward the connotation of being identified as poor is not universally accepted even by those who are living on state handouts. This is illustrated in her submission of the 1990’s research into social security claimants when they were asked about poverty levels in the UK (Woodward 2004 p.85). What was interesting about the results of this survey was that the respondents were divided on what poverty meant to them but intriguingly many simply refused to be categorised as being poor and did not see any link between them and their identity.
In the discussion regarding identity being subject to the structural constraints described above it would be reckless to think that wealth… power and class were not fundamental to their relevance in the formation of our identity. The unequal spread of wealth throughout the UK has had the propensity to contribute to the notion of class. In separate surveys in 1995 and 1996 it was determined that a majority of people (69%) believed that class impacted on their life chances (Jowel et al 1995) while an almost equal number (66%) believed that “ordinary people did not get their fair share of the nations wealth” (Adonis & Pollard, 1998 p.11).
However… and despite these two findings… there is a growing mood that the traditional face of class was in decline and that work place identities were being replaced by lifestyle identities. In his empirical studies of consumption Pierre Bourdieu emphasised that although people may occupy different class positions… they may in fact have the same earning power but they may also adopt very different consumption patterns (an inference to the erosion of class identity as illustrated by Woodward’s discussion of the social perspective debated in the 1960’s) (Woodward 2004 p.105). Nevertheless even though Bourdieu argues that there is an element of differentiation “in and between the classes” with regards to the powers of consumption he sees it and occupation as being “interrelated” and a signpost to identity formation.
Before commencing this particular assignment I had asked myself the same questions that I put to my relatives and friends regarding my perception of what my identity meant to me. My own answers were not dissimilar to those that I was presented with. My views on identity and how it was formed were very narrow and although I could relate to the theory suggested by experienced sociologists I had failed to see the correlation between the key factors that made me both subjective and objective of my identity. In other words… the outcome of impromptu experiment I carried out was fraught not only with a high degree of uncertainty but also an equally high degree of confusion.
In my opinion the changing face of today’s society and the way it conducts its business is going to be an abiding catalyst when we look to who we are and the more evident those changes are then the more uncertain we are likely to be. I would readily concede that the modern day notion of identity is likely to become more and more enigmatic as we come to terms with ourselves as individuals or as members of a collective and I believe there’s no getting away from the influences that structure and agency will play in determining identity.