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How do people perceive the self and what do they perceive as the self? People look outside of the self to the social context because the views of the self are shaped by the world individuals encounter. Social identification theories demonstrate how identity is defined, as a conception of the self, the content of the self, or the knowledge about who I am, constructed in terms of rules and orders applying to social contexts.
Symbolic interactionists have delineated the procedure of constructing the self-concept by evoking the significance of the relationship between the individual and the social structure. George Herbert Mead (1984) differentiates “me” from “I” to explain the concept of social self and how self is constructed through interactions with others. Charles Horton Cooley (1998) presents the concept of the “looking-glass self,” noting that the self is constituted through interaction with its surroundings and that the self-concept is achieved by speculating the imaginative evaluation from others. For Mead and Cooley, self is not an a priori or pre-given because it develops only through contact with others.
For Erving Goffman the construction of self is a series of presentations or performances to others: “The very structure of the self can be seen in terms of how we arrange for such performances” in the society (Goffman 1997, p. 23). Social interaction is viewed as a performance influenced by cultural environment, concerning the other people, constructed to provide appropriate impressions.
In this way, the individual develops identity by interacting with others, through presenting desirable impressions according to the social expectations in a particular socio-cultural context.
In The Reproduction of Mothering (1999) Nancy Chodorow provides a psychological analysis of the construction of gender identity in the intimate social surroundings of family. According to Chodorow, gender identity is the consequence of a specific family form in which women are exclusively responsible for the nurturing of children. Children build their gender identity by differentiating themselves from their primary caregivers, usually their mothers. Because the early social environment differs and is experienced differently by male and female children, Chodorow argues that individuals develop different gender identities based on sex. Her research has been particularly influential in explaining how patriarchal practices of Western cultures affect individual identification processes.
Individuals understand and identify themselves in reference to groups. Social identities—national, ethnic, racial, gender, religious, occupational, and so on—com-prise critical aspects of the self-concept and are derived from perceived membership of particular social groups. Originally developed to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination, Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner’s social identity theory describes processes significant for an individual’s identification with large-scale social groups or categories. The social identification process starts from an “individual’s subjective location” in the network of social relationships (Tajfel 1982, p. 503). Identification processes are experienced differently by individuals in terms of their locations in the hierarchically organized social relations of a society—as members of nations; as members of gender groups; as members of racial/ethnic groups; as members of religious groups; and in other social locations. After being categorized based on group membership, individuals seek to achieve positive self-esteem by differentiating their in-group (we/us) from a comparison out-group (them/others). This in-group/out-group comparison process reflects commonly shared ideas or attributions applied to social groups. In other words, the in-group bias leads to discrimination toward out-groups; at the same time, though, some group members identify themselves based in part on socially assigned but negative or undesirable attributions.
In her study of racial-identity development of minority adolescents, Beverly Tatum argues that adolescents of color are more likely to be actively engaged in exploration of their racial or ethnic identity than are white adolescents because they receive more intensive “racial content” messages from their surroundings and they perceive how their racial identity is presented to other racial group members (Tatum 1997, p. 54). In contrast, whites in the United States often deemphasize explicit racial content, partly because they take it for granted and are privileged through various social domains. Illustrating this, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003) explores different dimensions of white privilege and demonstrates how whiteness is constructed in the U.S. society through narratives.
In a wide range of social settings, individuals struggle to establish social desirability or legitimacy of the identities they possess. Individuals recognize how the groups they belong to are perceived by other group members, and they react to this. Being a member of a particular group sometimes results in exaltation for the individual, but it can also result in unequal treatment, punishment, or marginalization. Distinctiveness often relates to the political boundaries established by the society. For example, identity politics postulates that difference is taken as a political motivation for action. Lesbian and gay activists struggle over their sexual identities to claim the same rights as heterosexuals to marriage, child-rearing, property ownership, and other social practices often forbidden to them.
In recent years social identification theories have expanded the range of research into interdisciplinary areas. Various social-scientific concepts and perspectives are increasingly incorporated as central aspects of social identification processes such as collective protest, political rhetoric, diversity, and system-justification beliefs (Hogg and Ridgeway 2003). However, social identification theories have been criticized for the treatment of identities as individual status categories, such as race/ethnic or gender categories. By focusing on the development of particular social-status categories, identification theorists often ignore structural issues, such as specific historical and cultural backgrounds or the political consequences of identification experiences in a given society. For instance, individual development of racial identity in the United States is deeply associated with the historical and cultural contexts of the United States. Through history, particular racial or ethnic groups have been projected with specific images, cultural notions, and political practices by other racial or ethnic groups. Thus, racial/ethnic identification processes not only mean developing social status categories at an individual level, but also imply structural power relations among racial/ethnic groups directly related to the historical and cultural context.
In the social sciences, studies use various methods— interviews, participant observation, ethnomethodology, discourse analysis, survey, and experiments—to investigate the social identification process at the individual level and how this process is related to the social structure.
- Abrams, Dominic, and Michael A. Hogg, eds. 1990. Social Identity Theory: Constructive and Critical Advances. New York: Springer-Verlag.
- Aronson, Elliot, Timothy D. Wilson, and Robin M. Akert. 2002. Social Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2003. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
- Brown, Kathleen M. 1996. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Chodorow, Nancy. 1999. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Cooley, Charles Horton. 1998. Charles Horton Cooley on Self and Social Organization, ed. and with an introduction by Hans-Joachim Schubert. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Goffman, Erving. 1997. The Goffman Reader, eds. with introductory essays by Charles Lemert and Ann Branaman. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
- Hogg, Michael A., and Cecilia L. Ridgeway. 2003. Social Identity: Sociological and Social Psychological Perspectives. Social Psychology Quarterly 66: 97–100.
- Howard, Judith. 2000. Social Psychology of Identities. Annual Review of Sociology 26: 367–393.
- Mead, George Herbert. 1984. George Herbert Mead on Social Psychology, ed. with an introduction by Anselm Strauss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Tajfel, Henri, ed. 1982. Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Tatum, Beverly Daniel. 1997. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations about Race. New York: Basic Books.
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