Identity and Difference

A summary of Kath Woodward’s theory of how identity is constructed.

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.

Developing 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.

To return to the homepage –


Kath Woodward (1997) Identity and Difference.

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Symbolic Interactionism

Self identity is an active process through which ‘I’ reflect on how i think others see me and adapt my social self accordingly.

George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) believed that human experience, thought and action were inherently social because humans interact on the basis of symbols, the most important of which was language.

He saw the self as something active and dynamic which emerged through social action and interaction and was thus critical of structuralist theories such as Functionalism and Marxism which saw the self as something passive and determined by simply soaking up norms and values.

Mead emphasised the centrality of language as a shared system of symbols and signs which allows for the development of selfhood and social interaction.

Three key ideas of Mead’s social psychological theory of self are:

  1. Individuals acquire language (symbolic meaning) through their attachment and interaction within social groups
  2. Language (symbols) is the primary medium through which the concept of selfhood emerges
  3. Individual selfhood is realised through social interaction which is mediated through language (symbols) and develops throughout the life course.

Mead was a philosopher and social psychologist whose most important work was Mind, Self and Society published posthumously from his ‘student notes’ in 1967.

The social self

The central idea of Mead’s work is that the individual self is inherently social. He didn’t see the self as something innate or fixed, but thought that it emerged through action and interaction with others.

He went as far as to say that the self could not be introspected because it only existed in interaction, outside of interaction the self ceases to exist.

It is only through language that we develop a sense of self and become self aware through an ongoing process of self-monitoring and reflection.

When the individual engages in such processes they are actively considering possible courses of action, possible ways of being in the world and actively excluding others, they are engaged in the process of ‘making themselves’ which is dependent on social interactions.

Language: the basis for human interaction

Mead emphasises the importance of language throughout his work.

Language comprises a system of symbols and signs that enable human beings to generated and signify meanings.

It is language which makes culture possible and separates humans from animals. Animals can make gestures related to objects and events in their immediate context, but their communication is always limited to those contexts.

Language allows human beings to refer to people and events that are divorced from the contexts in which they first occurred. Thus it is through language that the temporal and spatial dimensions of human existence are opened up and we are no longer trapped in the immediacy of. the present.

Language is also the basis of dialogue which is beyond mere one off exchanges between individuals, it allows for complex systems of classification and rational arguments to occur, both of which are again abstract in the sense that they are not dependent on immediate context.

The I and the Me

Language also allows for dialogue with one’s self and it is through language that one’s self-concept is developed.

For Mead, language does not only describe the world, it makes makes objectification possible, it enables us to objectify or ‘create’ the self.

Mead’s theory of language and the self rests on his distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’.

  • The ‘I’ is reality as we experience it from the inside and the source from which all consciously directed action springs. The I is the idiosyncratic and created aspect of the individual.
  • The ‘me’ is the object of self-awareness, one’s own physical body perceived by others. The Me represents the social component born out of the internationalisation of social roles, norms and values

The Me does not act as a constraining force on the I but is both enabling and regulating because it allows the individual to review and adapt their actions in light of the perceived reactions of others.

The self is thus a process, not fixed or static.

The generalised other

The generalised other refers to the complex of social attitudes, norms, regulations and ways of seeing the world internalised by an individual. It is the link between the individual and the social groups to which one belongs.

The notion of the generalised other is crucial to Mead’s theory of self-development.It explains how individuals learn to regulate and monitor their own conduct by assuming the perspective of a generalised and impersonal other.

it is only through thinking of how others see ‘me’ that the ‘I’ can realise its own autonomy.

In short we need this social interaction to be able to be conscious of ourselves and develop ourselves, without interaction the individual self does not exist!

The development of the self

Mead also theorised about how individuals come to develop a sense of self through different stages of childhood. He distinguished between the play stage and the game stage.

The play stage

Children first start to develop a sense of self by playing roles that are not their own, such as playing doctors, spacemen, or superheroes for example.

In doing so they become aware that there is a difference between themselves and the role they are playing, hence the idea of the objectified ‘Me’ starts to become apparent as different to the ‘I’.

The game stage

Mead provides the example of game playing as a situation in which children learn to see the world (or the game) from the general situation of all other players and the different view points of particular players.

A fundamental part of a game is knowing other people’s roles. Take as an example the game of football, where there are several different roles: attacking players, defensive players, the goalkeeper and the referee, to name a few, and to be able. to play football any individual needs an idea of the role of each of these, and this is already a complex process that involves thinking how other people will be seeing, and playing the game.

An individual also needs a concept of the generalised other to play a game of football – or an overall picture of the field of play and how all the parts work together in general.

Later on in life

The ability to empathise with and see oneself through the eyes of the ‘generalised other’ is essential to successful interpersonal communication because the reactions of others are tied to and shape the parameters of social situations. It is ultimately what makes co-operative action at the social level possible.

Role taking

An important aspect of the development of self identity is role-taking. People interact on the basis of taking on the role of the other: for example if someone is waving at you across the street, you think that they want to attract your attention, and this ‘taking on their position’ is crucial to the basis of your interaction with them. (Of course you may use other signs, stereotypes)

There are also range of professional roles associated with various jobs such as teaches and doctors, which have expected patterns of behaviour associated with them, and in order to take on one of these roles any individual will have to conform to these.

Culture, social roles and institutions

Mead recognised that social institutions existed, but only in so far as there were social roles attached to them.

For example, the nuclear family exists as long men and women accept the concept of mother and father, the school exists as long as teachers and pupils accept their relative roles to each others.

He did not believe that social roles determined the individual because…

  1. Many cultural expectations were not specific. Clothes
  2. Individuals have a choice over what roles they enter
  3. Some roles encourage diversity
  4. Society does not have an all embracing culture
  5. Many cultural meanings suggest possibilies rather than requirments
  6. At times it may not be possible to fulfil cultural expectations of social roles, innovation may be required.

Social Order

Despite the fact that Mead didn’t believe institutions existed in any modernist solid sense of the word, he still recognised that there was a sense of social order and stability, but these were only actively accomplished through interactions, which are dynamic.

It follows that social order is dependent on the actions and interactions of individuals and thus is fluid, and liable to change at a moment’s notice.


Mead offers us a social psychological account of human interaction which is relevant to social theory because it challenges the modernist, static theories of Functionalism and Marxism which view individuals as passive and lacking agency.

However, Mead’s symbolic interactionism may be too focused on the micro small scale, just interactions, there is no consideration of history and power structures.


This material is mainly relevant to the Theory and Methods module taught as part of the AQA’s A-level sociology second year.

To return to the homepage –

Sources/ find out more

Inglis, D (2012) An Invitation to Social Theory, Polity.

Wikipedia entry: George Herbert Mead.

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Sociological Perspectives on Identity

Identity LawlerA summary of Michel Foucault’s work on identity, deviance and normality, governmentality, subjectification and technologies of the self, taken from Steph Lawler’s ‘Identity’ (2014) – also includes Nikolas Rose’s development of Foucault’s work.

If there’s one central idea in this chapter (IMO) it’s this – ‘In today’s society, we have little choice but to be tied into a project of the self in which the self becomes something to be worked on – and it is in this way that power works through us.’

Becoming ourselves: governing and/ through identities

In the contemporary West it is hard to avoid the idea that the self is a project to be worked on. We see this everywhere, but especially in self-help books, therapy, the various experts promising to guide us through different stages of our lives and, of course, in the media: in chat-shows and ‘make-over’ programmes for example.

All of this is presented as freeing, as if working on the self involves freeing us of the oppressive influences of others.

What Nikolas Rose calls the ‘norm of autonomy’ has become an orthodoxy in many discussions about identity – but we should consider the argument that when we are incited to be ‘free’, we are then the most enmeshed in in the workings of power – the relationship of the self to itself within a contemporary project of self-actualisation, self-awareness and self-improvement has become a norm which ties us to relentless self-scrutiny, in which we watch ourselves for signs of deviancy and wrong doing.

We can only perceive such a project of the self as being about autonomy if we perceive power as a repressive and denying force.

An alternative perspective, associated with Michel Foucault, envisages power as a force which works positively through our desires and our selves, which sees categories of subject as produced through forms of knowledge.

(A legitimate question to ask would be why are we so obsessed with the idea of individual autonomy when we live such complex, interdependent lives.)

Power/ knowledge

MIchel Foucault
Michel Foucault – ‘Power Produces Truths’

The Enlightenment view = ‘knowledge is power’ – if we obtain knowledge this will free us from the workings of power. This assumes a true self which lies outside or beyond power and self-knowledge, realised through reason.

Foucault – opposes the view that knowledge is power – one of the ways in which power works is through producing ‘truths’ about the world. These truths come to seem obvious, necessary and self-evident, they form part of the coherence of the social world and place the self within it.

Foucault argues that there has been a gradual shift in the uses and forms of power in the last 150 years in the West –

From juridical, or law-like power – which uses the language of rights and obligations.

To forms of normalising, or regulatory power – which uses the language of health, normality and self-fulfilment.

Juridical power says ‘obey me or you will be punished’, regulatory power says ‘obey me so that you can be happy’. This is a form of power which doesn’t rely on coercion, but one in which we scrutinise and regulate ourselves, the self comes to act on itself.

For Foucault, power is at its most powerful when it is its least repressive – power works not just though denying but through offering ways of being and pleasure.

As Tom Inglis puts it – ‘power announces truth’ – its truths are forged on the basis of knowledge, but this refers not to knowledge about a set of facts but rather to what might be termed ways of knowing, or in Foucauldian terms discourse.

Discourses define what can be said and thought, and how these things can be said and thought. – they are verbal or non-verbal ways of organising the world, creating ways of conceptualising that are seen as axiomatically obvious – they are epistemological enforcers (Said, 1991). (I guess they’re sort of like paradigms!)

An example of a discourse today is to understand present emotional problems as stemming from a troubled childhood, rather than because you’ve been cursed by a witch-doctor – the later would just not be taken seriously, it is outside of the discourse of understanding negative emotions.

Discourse differs to the concept of ideology because ideology presupposes a real which is beyond ideology which the ideology obscures – to speak of discourses is to speak of the knowledges which produce the truth. Foucault, in fact talks of the politics of truth.

What this line of questioning opens up is the possibility that who we and who other people are is an effect of what we know ourselves and others to be, that it is discourses which have produced categories of person and that this is how we understand ourselves.

Making people up

A good example of how categories of people are produced can be found in the way many Westerners think about sexuality – many people don’t just think of sex as something they do, they think of sex as something they are.

Foucault argues that this way of brining together sexuality and identity is relatively recent. In the 19th century, same-sex relations occurred, but there was no special consideration given to ‘being homosexual’.

It was throughout the 20th century, along with the new pseudo-science of Sexology in which people categorised the minutiae of sexual activity, that the category of the homosexual became created as a subject, and thus the identity of the homosexual was produced (or you might say, invented/ constructed). Alongside this, the category of heterosexual also needed to be produced, because homosexuality has no meaning without it.

These new categories of knowledge in fact produced what they aimed to describe – categories of person.

Foucault wants to challenge the ‘sexual liberation’ discourse – especially the idea that new apparent sexual freedoms bring with them an absence of power and control. With increased interest in sexuality in the 20th century came new forms of scrutiny as more experts emerged – and while the invention of sexual subjects has clearly been liberating for some, it has also become a means whereby we increasingly scrutinise ourselves for signs of abnormality and unhealthiness.

This legacy goes beyond sexual identity to extend into every area of our lives and our identities.

Technologies of the self

One way in which power works is through categorising people in terms through which they come to understand themselves – in this sense subjectivities are created in regimes of knowledge and power.

In explaining the relationship of the self to itself, Foucault uses the term subjectification. There are two meanings of the word subject – subject to someone else through control and dependence and tied to one’s own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to, according to Foucault.

Through subjectification, people become tied to specific identities, they become subjects, but they also become subject-ed to the rules and norms engendered by a set of knowledges about these identities.

We have little choice but to be tied into a project of the self in which the self becomes something to be worked on – and it is in this way that power works through us.

We are subjected subjects across many forms of identity – parent, worker, citizen, for example, all of which demand a level of scrutiny to maintain. The way government works today is through establishing normal-abnormal categories along these various dimensions of identity and then people employ technologies of the self in order to stay within the boundaries of normality (usually) – (the struggle is to keep up, or stay ahead, if you like!)

Psy knowledge, expertise and authority

Psy knowledges includes such disciplines as medicine, psychiatry, psychology and pedagogy, which produce ‘truths’ about the self and its relation to others. These have gained ascendancy in the West, especially since these knowledges have escaped the boundaries of academia and inform a whole of host of professional practices (social work and teaching for example) and our daily lives through such things as chat-shows and gossip magazines.

Nikolas Rose argues that it is hard to conceive of person-hood today without reference to ‘psy.’

Psy governs through using regulatory or normalising power – not working in spite of our desires, but through them – and generating specific kinds of desire in the first place.

This process started about 150 years ago through the development of ‘technologies of responsibilisation’ – when the home became perceived as the counterweight to the state, new experts in the fields of medicine and education emerged to regulate private life – and these experts govern through making assertions about the way we should act as subjects, which go largely unquestioned.

Over the years subjects have come to understand themselves as people who should be morally responsible for their own actions by monitoring the minutiae of daily-life – two examples of how this is achieved in the context of education are the teaching of English literature in schools and more recently circle time – both of which encourage the development of a self-reflecting, moral, responsibilised subject.

The norm of autonomy and the scrutiny of the soul

Rose argues that we now live in a psychotherapeutic society in which the self is understood as an inner state, to be sought out, understood, and actualised. This doesn’t so much manifest itself as narcissism, but is rather something we are stuck with – most of us can’t imagine attempting to understand ourselves without the discourses of psy.

Therapy has now become the norm for many areas of social life – that is reflecting on inner states is seen to be a cure for all sorts of social ills. Rose’s task is show how this therapeutic culture which stresses autonomy actually ties us more closely to the workings of power.

Foucault suggested that abnormal and normal manifestations of sex became axes around which people’s behaviour could be judged – Rose has broadened this out – now it is not normality which is the goal, but rather autonomy, and he applies this to much more than the sexual dimension of identities.

We live in an era where dependency now means pathology – but the path to autonomy means adhering to the strictures of psy expertise and watching and monitoring ourselves more closely.

Rose argues that there are four principle sets of concern around the goal of autonomy:

  1. A subjectification of work – work is understood as significant in terms of identity
  2. A pyschologisation of the mundane – life events such as marriages and births are seen as having a potentially transformative role in life.
  3. A therapeutics of fininitude – chapters in our life ending are now seen as times of potential danger but also possibility for personal growth.
  4. A neurotisation of social intercourse – social ills have come to be understood in terms of problems stemming from the ways we interact with others.

Across these four dimensions, we see the production of a particular kind of self – ideally autonomous, self-actualising, exercising choice, and a project to be worked on.

For Rose, in a therapeutised culture, social ills become personal problems to be worked on. We are not necessarily free, because we are now obliged to live our lives as projects.

The state of the therapeutic

States still exercise regulatory, normalising power through the deployment of expertise. This is most notable in expert knowledge surrounding the child.

The state takes a special interest in producing the right kind of citizen – citizens who believe themselves to be free and who believe there are equal opportunities. This is primarily done through exploiting the desire of parents to be ‘good parents’, especially mothers. For example:

– parents are enjoined to turn learning into play

– they should evoke reason and rightness

– states employ numerous professionals which subject parenting to scrutiny

Parents are encouraged to engender a sense of autonomy in their children, but this autonomy is a myth – the belief that children can do anything will not reduce structural barriers to their achieving certain goals in life.

The state also retains its ability to use coercive measures, though these are rarely deployed, such as:

– parenting orders

– parenting contracts


– Those who are subjected to these things fall into the category of ‘failed parent’ (or ‘failed human’) and if people are subject to these things, the failures are understood as their own or their parents’ fault, not because of social ills. The discourses of psy rest on these categories of exclusion.

Resisting these discourses is not straightforward – Foucault offers no straightforward method, other than to constantly question the desirability and legitimacy of such categories.

Evaluations of this perspective

The strength of this perspective lies in highlighting the myth of individual autonomy and the fact that your ‘identity’ isn’t really your own – you are a product of social categories, which in turn are products of power relations.

One problem is that this perspective cannot explain why people make such intense investments in their selves.

Lawler finishes the chapter by recommending Barry Smart’s ‘Michel Foucault’ (1985) and Michele Barret’s ‘The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault’ (1991) as good introductions to Foucault’s work.

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