The question ‘who am I?’ raises speculations about who we are as human beings and why we behave the way we do. This is of great interest to social psychologists. One particular theory about this social identity is that it is not fixed or innate but that it is something that changes over time and is constructed through our social interactions with other people. This essay will explicate the idea of socially constructed identities and consider the evidence for and against this view with examples of research studies from both social constructionism (Phoenix, 2007) and Social Identity Theory (SIT) (Turner and Brown, 1978).
Here, the term ‘identity’ refers to the individual personality (behavioural and characteristic) of a person. It is what differentiates us from each other. The way we think about ourselves and the way we are viewed by others are things that shape our identities. Social constructionists believe that humans form identities through experiences, language (discourse) and learning and are particularly interested in the ways in which people behave in social settings. This use of language can be a great analytic tool and can give better understanding and meaning to more general behaviour through, for the most part, subjectivity and insider viewpoints. In contrast, SIT is interested in minimal groups and uses an outsider viewpoint. Both constructionism and SIT do, however, focus on individuals albeit in different context.
Both SIT and social constructionism are historically and culturally specific as different historical times and different cultures use different language. Both perspectives are similar here as we are able to define ourselves through language and relationships (sometimes within a group culture). The way we use language shapes the way we behave through use of things such as media and discourse but can be subject to researcher’s interpretations and could be seen as a weakness for social constructionism.
The ways in which we use language can also be related to embodied identities and the ways in which society looks at people, for example, with disabilities. There is a sense of group identity with some disabled people which would support SIT’s theory, but in Keith’s account of suddenly becoming disabled (Keith, 2007) she reconstructs her identity and ‘remakes’ her life, which supports the social constructionists view. Theories in social construction bring to the foreground differences within social divisions i.e. most disabled people do not see themselves as being part of a group, but see themselves as individuals and strongly agree that they do not have a ‘disabled identity’ (Phoenix, 2007).
There are differences in people with the same identities, such as being black, male and British. We have multiple identities but we may relate to one identity more than another. Construction of our de centred and diverse identities through language and interaction with others can involve power relations as we relate to each other. The...