Self and Social Identity (Perspectives on Social Psychology)
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Key Readings in Social Psychology - Routledge
Seligman, C. Olson, and Mark P. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Serpe, R. The construction of self and reconstruction of social relationships. Lawler and B.
Key Readings in Social Psychology
Markovsky Eds. Simon, B, Pantaleo, G. Stets, J. Identity theory and social identity theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 63, Stets J.
Leary and J. In political and religious contexts it is especially important to keep in mind when we identify with groups or categories of people, and understand who we are partly in those social terms, that we also see ourselves and others as unique individuals with our own personal histories which cannot be fully understood in terms of groups, classes or categories of people to which we belong. We and others are not only members of various groups like a church or a football club or family or a local community; and we are not only men or women, Australian or another nationality, we are not only adherents to a particular shared belief system, nor are we either clearly distinguished as good or bad, strong or weak, hopeful or depressed, outgoing or withdrawn, or well defined in terms of any categories of human differences.
Indeed, while we all tend at times to identify ourselves in terms of groups or categories that are important to us, especially when the relevant reference group is under threat or when it is being celebrated in some way, we know nevertheless that there is more to our identities than those group or class identifications. Most people are aware of the seriously disruptive consequences of group identities which exclude other understandings of ourselves and others.
We see dangers in appeals to exclusive and passionate national or religious group identifications. Identity politics has been played with assertions and denials of claims made by groups seeking social and political advantages or rights on the basis of such defining characteristics as race, religion, nationality, place of residence, occupation, education, gender and sexual preference.
National, religious, ideological and party political leaders have played upon the identification of people with their communities in terms of tribe and nation, blood and soil, race, colour, class and beliefs. Such identity politics has dangerous consequences as the history of the twentieth century demonstrates with horror; and it is a game that is still being played as if its dangers were not known. It is important to see that identity can be understood in other terms.
There is an awakening concern that in some respects in recent years in the West, we have regressed in this respect. After centuries of struggle to recognize individuals as possessing certain basic rights by virtue of their common humanity regardless of such group identity distinctions as race, nationality, class and religion, we have moved again towards policies and practices in which approved actions are once more based upon group identities.
It has been a constant struggle in the social, political and legal processes of liberal democracies, and it is seen now in more challenging forms in international, communal and global religious conflicts. Identity politics is based essentially on theories of class memberships and of relations between classes of people. But most people know that who they are is more than the sum of their group memberships. Identity then has both personal and social dimensions and there is a difference between the way social identity works and the dynamics of personal identity.
But that is not all. Besides the personal and social aspects, there is also the sense of agency or an executive function in which a person acts and is not merely acted upon. There have been thousands of articles published on the social psychology of the self and its extraordinary complexity and varied forms, but as one recent reviewer Baumeister pointed out throughout the whole literature there appear to be just three important roots of selfhood.
Self and Social Identity
These are reflexive consciousness, interpersonal being and executive function. I have not mentioned reflexive consciousness explicitly so far, but our being both the subject and the object of our self perceptions is implied in what we discussed about awareness of the unity and continuity of who we are.
The concept of self is broader than the notion of identity, so that for example the interpersonal aspects of our being include the ways in which we interact with others as well as our group identifications, but the sense of being an active agent, the origin of actions, is essential to our conception of personal identity. In both personal and social respects the self might at times be regarded as passive, as an observer of what we have done, or of what has happened to us and where we are in the world.
But every conscious person is aware that he or she is not merely the locus of interacting forces. Even the most deterministic psychologists know that they are responsible for their own behaviour, that they can purposely pursue aims in their research or their professional practice, and in their private lives, aims which they have chosen and which they will by their own deliberate actions seek to achieve.
People have a sense of agency in which they originate action and cause things to happen. Indeed if we are ever so dispossessed of personal power as to lose all control over our destinies, we become so alienated from life that our sense of self tends to disappear.
Research on intrinsic motivation has pointed in many ways to the critical importance of this sense of agency. I want now to relate it particularly to the way that a sense of identity functions in the development of the whole person. What has happened to us personally and socially in the past and our knowledge of how we have acted as responsible agents has helped to form our identities, but our sense of identity does not depend only on memory.
I know myself to be the person who made this or that choice, who deliberately acted in a certain way. That is, if you will, the existential self which gains personal meaning from deliberate responsible actions, as described by Victor Frankl, originally in From Death Camp to Existentialism Frankl Our sense of identity is intimately related to the commitments we have made, and we know that not only by looking back to what we have done in the past. One's sense of identity is formed from the experience of becoming who we are more than from remembering who we were, it is dependent to a degree on whom we see ourselves becoming and are not yet.
There is a future aspect to it that is essential for purposeful behaviour and central to the sense of agency. As Gordon Allport wrote fifty years ago on his little book Becoming: Basic considerations for a Psychology of Personality ,. To understand what a person is, it is necessary always to refer to what he may be in the future, for every state of the person is pointed in the direction of future possibilities.
Allport p. Just as we know ourselves to be whom we have become as we are now, we also know that our identities are not limited to the present outcome of our histories and group memberships, for who we are includes a sense of becoming who we have the potential to be. Every living person is a work in progress. Purposive behaviour in a global personal sense is intimately tied up with a sense of identity which has a past, a present and a future , as well as a social context.
Knowledge of our own identity gives rise to a range of possible strategies which we can conceive as solutions to personal problems.