Self, Identity and Difference

How do key perspectives explain, analyse and evaluate views on self and identity?

  • Structuralist
  • Functionalist
  • Marxist
  • Feminist
  • Social action
  • Interactionist
  • Postmodernist


This debate centres around how individuals see and define themselves and how they are seen and defined by others.

Identity is an important concept and is central to the way society functions. Group similarities and differences frame our social connections and allow us to build solidarity and identification with others. Identity is a key theme of society.

Identity as a concept is not used exclusively by sociologists – the idea is central to studies in psychology, politics, society and culture.

In the 21st century (the postmodern world) identity has an added significance in a world where individuality is emphasised.

Identity and personality are not the same thing: identity is both fluid and changeable during our lifetime. Personality is based on the more fixed aspects of our character – loud, quiet, brash, private etc.

Key debate – Is identity SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED or SOCIALLY CAUSED? which is, basically, the structure v. action debate

Identity operates at 3 different levels


The ‘little voice’ inside your head – is THIS the real you?

The part of you that thinks, dreams, has memories?

The YOU that loves/hates/worries?

Sociologist, Susan Blackmore: YES – that IS the real you

It persists throughout your entire life

You spend all your waking hours having an internal dialogue in your head – it never ends It has continuity

SO – at one level – your identity exists as your INNER SELF

PERSONAL IDENTITY – another level of ‘you’

IDENTITY that is

  • Public
  • Visible
  • Unique
  • From cradle to grave
  • Online

Issue for YOU – how much of this personal identity is freely given? Who uses it, and how?

SOCIAL IDENTITY – another level of ‘you’

Based on membership of, or  identification with, particular social groups

Link here to ascribed and achieved status

Often framed as CONTRASTS – young / old, black / white, male / female etc

SUMMARY . . . THREE ‘levels’ of identity

INNER SELF – the voice inside your head, the real you (?)

PERSONAL IDENTITY – the public, visible and unique you

SOCIAL IDENTITY – based on membership of, or identification with, particular social groups

Constructing identities

For most sociologists – our identity is not something we are born with, but something that is formed by INTERACTION with others in social settings.

One of the best ways to understand the social character of identity is to look at the ideas of SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM – an approach first put forward by George Mead

George MEAD and identity

Mead argued that the BASIC feature of humans is the possession of a sense of our SELF or IDENTITY (he thought they were the same thing)

As we grow – we become aware of people who are ‘not me’

We grow and form an impression of our own ‘self’ – ‘I’m funny’, ‘I’m likeable’, ‘I have a big nose’ etc etc

We grow and have internal conversations with ourselves – e.g. we get angry and cross with ourselves

Sociologists like MEAD argue that our identity has SOCIAL ORIGINS – it emerges in the course of social interaction

We depend on each other for vital CLUES about who we are

Charles Cooley uses the term ‘looking glass self’ to explain how we ‘see’ ourselves reflected in the attitudes and behaviour of other people towards

For example – we may be uncertain about a new ‘look’ or haircut until we see the responses of people around us

We can reject the opinions of others – but sometimes those opinions are hard to ignore

Sometimes we take the initiative rather than waiting for others to form an opinion of us

Goffman calls this the ‘presentation of self’ – where we deliberately arrange our appearance and adopt certain mannerism in order to make a public statement about ourselves – i.e. piercings, tattoos, particular dress styles or ways of talking, behaving etc

CHANGING SELF INTERACTIONISTS challenge the view that each of us has a fixed and stable self

  • Identity CAN change with time
  • The YOU now may be very different from the YOU in 10 years
  • Identities can change quickly – trauma, mutilation, grief etc
  • Alternatively, identities may change more slowly over time

Other perspectives on IDENTITY

Most sociologists agree that identity is negotiated by individuals. However, not all sociologists agree fully:

Functionalists, Marxists and Feminists – all taking a structuralist approach – argue the STRUCTURES and INSTITUTIONS OF society (good and bad) will influence our identity

Marxists – identity largely FIXED by SOCIAL CLASS

Functionalists – identity largely fixed by SOCIALISATION / NORMS

Feminists – identity largely FIXED by PATRIARCHY

Postmodernists disagree – society is COMPLEX. Identity is not stable/fixed – we change as we go through life as we CHOOSE our identity

Links to other areas of study

Labelling – ideas of self-fulfilling prophecies (education)

Becker’s labelling studies – (crime and deviance) ideas about the label becoming the ‘master status’ and therefore the key element of identity and self

Summary of the key perspectives on identity

Structuralist – macro approaches. They don’t agree how, but they do agree that self/identity are the product of social structures

  • Functionalist – identity largely fixed by SOCIALISATION / NORMS
  • Marxists – identity largely FIXED by SOCIAL CLASS
  • Feminists – identity largely FIXED by PATRIARCHY

Interactionists – action/micro approaches. Identity and the self ARE socially constructed (defined and created by society). HOWEVER, individuals can control the ways in which they present themselves to the rest of the world during their social interactions.

  • Symbolic interactionists – identity is a basic feature of being human and is developed through social interaction
  • ‘Changing self’ interactionists – identity changes over time