Sociologists tell us that identity can be described in a number of ways, including as an external perception of the individual by those around him, as a contrast to an Other, and as the individual’s own perception of self. Though these definitions are interconnected, for the purposes of this discussion I will primarily focus on the last.
There are many factors which contribute to our perception of self, including nationality, race, gender, social class, occupation, family position, personality traits, age, religion, and political allegiance. Each of these factors will have a greater or lesser degree of importance to each individual, playing a greater or lesser role in the way in which the individual sees himself.
Some of these factors, such as ethnicity and gender, are genetically imposed upon us at birth, and only through extreme measures like gender reassignment, can they be altered. Some, such as age, occupation, education, and family position change naturally over the course of a lifetime. Many others, including nationality and political allegiance, are subject to voluntary change. On a physical level, one can choose, or at least affect the appearance of, hair and skin color, and the shape of one’s body. In addition, there are factors which may come and go during our lives, such as involvement with social groups and activities. Sometimes these involvements are short-lived or ephemeral, particularly when they are inspired by celebrity or fashion. Often, however, when these involvements become true passions, they become as much a part of who we are as those factors we inherit, possibly more so because we have chosen them and desire to be seen as belonging to a group of like-minded adherents.
In the modern world, one can choose to align oneself with any number of options, developing and reinventing identities at different points in life. One can choose to be a member of the Women’s Institute, a Goth, a Christian, a supporter of Manchester United, a writer, a cyclist, a care giver, a rugby player, a Conservative, or indeed any combination of an almost unlimited number of possible identities. In his essay, ‘Popular culture and construction of postmodern identities’, Douglas Kellner writes that identity has become complicated by an ever-increasing number of options. The expanded possibilities with which people, today, are faced can lead to anxiety ‘[f]or one is never certain that one has made the right choice, that one has chosen one’s “true” identity’ (p142).
On Being an Other
Kathryn Woodward (1997) describes identification as ‘…the process of identifying with others, either through lack of awareness of differences or separation, or as a result of perceived similarities…’ (p14). As it relates to belonging, identity involves an emotional investment with or attachment to a group, and this leads on to the formation of the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. As the number of possible social allegiances expands, however, Kellner asserts that so does the individual’s need to be recognized by other members of the group to which he belongs (p142). Referring to Riesman et al (1950), he writes that the individual ‘is dependent upon others for recognition and thus for the establishment of personal identity’ (ibid). The individual’s view of himself is shaped, in part, by the group’s perception of the individual and by the perception of people outside the group. Because others recognize us as being part of the group, we come to see ourselves in the same way. Conversely, we are also recognized as not belonging to certain other groups. In this way, identity is determined as much by the groups with which we associate ourselves as it is by the groups with which we don’t: it is determined as much by what we are not as it is by what we are.