Identity is to do with how an individual answers the question ‘who am I?’. This is not just a psychological question but also a social question because it involves an individual in deciding what social groups they identify with.
The individual has agency over which groups they identify with and can choose to act in a way that confirms that identity.
Identity is a matter of making decisions about similarities and differences. It is about deciding which groups you share things in common with and which groups are different to the groups you identify with.
This post is a summary of some of the key ideas in Kath Woodward’s (1997) Identity and Difference.
Structural constraints on individual identity
Identity is both subjective and objective. It involves how I see myself and how other see me.
With some identities it is relatively easy to synchronise how I see myself and how others see me, such as with being a football fan or being a metalhead. As long as you support the team, wear the strip, and attend matches or listen to heavy metal music, where a leather jacket and grow your hair long, most other people in the football or metal groups will probably accept your subjective definition of yourself.
With other identities syncing the subjective and objective dimensions of identity may be more difficult as other people may contest your own self-definition. Consider the recent debates over trans-rights for example: the British government does not accept that a person who is a biological man has the right to subjectively identify as a female, even if that is their subjective definition of their self.
Thus in some cases there are structural constraints which limit the capacity of individuals to self-identity in certain ways.
Examples of structural constraints on identity
- biological sex – even in Britain in 2023 the government doesn’t recognise the legal right of trans people to identify as a different gender to their biological sex
- social class – in many of the highest paid professional jobs such as Medicine, Journalism and Law the working classes lack the cultural capital to fit in with work culture and may well be excluded from equal opportunities.
- Economic – some people may lack the money to purchase the products to signify the identities they wish to.
- nationality – some immigrants may be prevented from adopting formal identities as citizens because of racist immigration policies.
Structure and individual identities
Following Althusser, Woodward argues that we are recruited into identities through a process of interpellation, or hailing.
As individuals go through life they are surrounded by a number of signs and symbols which call to them, they look at these symbols, interpret them and recognise themselves in some of them, with which they come to identify.
Pre-existing symbols often interpellate different groups differently, so there are different hailings dependent on age, gender and ethnicity for example.
For example, media images are far more likely interpellate women to wear short skirts and sexualise their bodies compared to men.
These symbols are a pre-existing part of the social structure and different symbols call out to different types of people depending on their class, gender and nationality, and thus interpellation links structure to agency in the formation of identities.
Woodward drew on the work of Mead, Goffman and Freud to theorise about how individuals developed their identities.
Following Mead, Woodward argued that an individual develops an identity by imagining how others see them, and this involves visualising ourselves in social situations and thinking through what ways of acting are appropriate for those situations.
For example, when we attend a job interview, we tend to plan ahead and think about what to wear, how to introduce ourselves and what questions to ask the interviewers at the end of the process.
When attending a job interview an individual does not have total freedom of choice over what to wear or how to act. They have a range of clothes, speech styles and demeanours (symbols) they can choose from which are limited by the pre-existing culture of the job they are applying for.
Thus while we have to employ agency when we visualise ourselves in the job interview and are making choices about what to wear and how to act those choices are limited by the culture we are going into.
An individual goes through a similar process when deciding what social roles to adopt.
Following Goffman, Woodward argues that there is a performative element to social roles. People imagine what behaviours are appropriate to the roles they are in (or wish to go into) and try to act in ways which will convince people they are fulfilling that social role (at least when they are visible, or on on the social stage)
If you think about a teacher, for example, there are a number of behaviours they need to display every day to convince people they are performing the teacher role successfully, such as smart dress, punctuality, prompt and fair assessment, inclusivity, enthusiasm, and so on.
This process of developing a social identity is complex. Goffman distinguished between the back stage of social life where we prepare for and practice our social roles and the front stage where we perform them.
Teaching is a good example of how these two work together. The backstage is the lengthy teacher training process, lesson planning, thinking through how to deal with difficult students, there is a lot of planning and preparation before the teacher goes into school and plays their role on the front stage.
Finally Woodward draw on Freud and recognised that the repression of sexual desire in early childhood plays an ongoing role in the formation of identity in adulthood.
People have an unconscious which contains repressed feelings and desires they are not aware of. Sexual desire and sexuality are large part of this and gender is a huge part of our identities. Our sense of who we are is fundamentally tied up with our identities as men and women.
Uncertainty and identity in the UK
Changing social structures in postmodern times mean that identities are increasingly insecure and uncertain today, and there are several example of this…
The decline of traditional masculine and female identities
The decline of heavy industry such as mining in the U.K. has lead to men going through something of a crisis of masculinity. Traditional working class masculine identities in industrial areas were based on men doing physically demanding labour, such as mining, and adopting the breadwinner role within the family.
Men in traditional working class areas increasingly face a choice between unemployment or jobs which aren’t particularly masculine and much more likely to be insecure, which compromises their ability to express their masculinity through physical labour and to be effective breadwinners.
At the same time women’s job opportunities have increased and more women have gone into the labour market, changing their traditional roles as housewives and mothers, and meaning that the typical relationship today will involve a negotiation about the respective roles men and women will play, the old certainties are gone.
Family is also an uncertain source of identity today as marriage is less likely, and for those who do get married, more than 40% will end in divorce. The result is a family landscape that is more diverse with more single people, more cohabiting couples, more step-families and thus the family today is much less likely to be a stable source of identity, and more likely to be one in which identities shift as relationships breakdown.
New technologies have also challenged traditional biological constraints on when women can have children. The oldest person to have a child is now over 65 thanks to IVF, and so women don’t necessarily have to switch off the idea that the parent-hood identity is over by their mid-40s, and the same goes for their male partners too.
The decline of national identities
There is also more uncertainty over national identity today. Just look at the painfully insipid list of characteristics which the government calls ‘British Values’, these are so vague and can be interpreted in so many different ways that they can never act as a source of collective identity.
Add to this Brexit which divided the nation, the death of Queen, the main symbold of British identity in many people’s eyes, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all wanting to go their own way, and it’s clear there is no real idea of what ‘Britishness’ means anymore, if there ever was.
New Social Movements such as the green movement also offer new sources of identity linking the global and the local around specific political issues, which overtly challenges the failure of the Nation State to tackle such issues.
Identity and Consumer culture
Consumer culture now allows people to express their identities in a huge variety of ways.
Individuals have a huge amount of choice over the material products they can buy which signify something about themselves: from clothes to cars and gadgets and the way in which they style their houses.
The body has also become a project in postmodern society with more people working out and sculpting their bodies becoming a major source of identity, and body modifications such as tattoos or more drastically plastic surgery.
Kath Woodward’s theory of identity: Evaluation
Woodward offers us a useful insight into the complexities of identity construction in postmodern society.
She draws mainly on action theory to describe how people actively construct their identities but she also recognises that there are objective, structural limitations which limit the identities individuals can carve out.
However despite the existence of objective structural barriers which limit the free expression and construction of identity increasing amounts of people forge forward to construct new identities in postmodern society.
This material is mainly relevant to the Culture and Identity option within A-level sociology.
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Kath Woodward (1997) Identity and Difference.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
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