Identity is a complex and diverse issue. As much as society, the media and academics try to debate its definition it is difficult to capture fully its meaning. According to Kroger (2000) identity is “a subjective feeling of self-sameness and continuity over time”. If research to date has shown anything it is that there are a number of ways to examine identity in psychology.
Of the three Identity theorists available to us it is the Social Constructionist theory that has transformed the way we view and research identity today. It has provided us with an epistemological viewpoint that brings with it new methods of conducting identity research. This essay illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. The Social Constructionist approach has many strengths but its greatest is that it contributes epistemologically to the psychological study of human experiences.
It suggests that any one environmental condition can produce many ‘knowledges’. (Willig, 2001) It highlights the central role of historical context, culture and language in the formation of a persons identity. The Social Constructionist theory views the person as embedded in society, continuously constructing multiple, diverse identities from a variety of social interactions. (Phoenix, 2007) Research by Keith, 1994 on ‘people with disabilities’ has shown that the individual differences within groups of people with the same impairment did not produce a single identity.
To the contrary it showed that there is no “disabled” identity but instead multiple and diverse identity’s. “I am not my disability, I’m me”. (Keith, 1994) This research complements the psychosocial research by Erikson’s where the importance of community and social interaction in the formation of identity was first identified. However, psychosocial theory only sees the person as being affected by society (Phoenix, 2007).
Both the Social Constructionists and the psychosocial theorists use qualitative research methodologies, the aim of which is to understand ‘what it is like’ to experience different human experiences. Using a qualitative research methodology means the researcher is primarily concerned with meaning. (Willig, 2001) One of the strengths of the Social Constructionist approach is that it has broadened the focus from mental processes to include how we understand meaning through language and social relations. It suggests that identities are not ‘natural’ and that ‘realities’ are constructed by people in their everyday social interactions.
Therefore, Social Constructionist researchers have shown how identities are constructed differently depending on which culture is being examined. People living in collectivist societies like Japan and China responded based on their relationships to other people, “I am a student at Beijing University”. In contrast respondents from individualists’ cultures answered more personally “I am a student”. (Smith and Bond, 1998) On the other hand psychosocial theorists use methodologies based on introspection and neglect large scale social identities.
They view personal and social aspects as different and focus on the personal aspects. (Phoenix, 2007) Clearly, language is a crucial aspect of socially constructed knowledge. Social Constructionists researchers emphasise the central role that language plays in the construction of meaning. (Willing, 2001) “Conversation is to be thought of as creating a social world just as causality generates a physical one.” (Harre, 1983, p65 as cited in Pasupathi, 2001).
The Social Constructionists viewpoint is that the same thing can be understood in a number of different ways, depending on the way people choose to tell their stories. A further strength of the Social Constructionist approach is that it provides the researcher with meaning and language based methods, namely, discourse analysis. This hermeneutic approach treats participants as ‘meaning producers’ and allows the researcher to examine the aspects of identity formation that are fluid and changing from setting to setting. (Phoenix, 2007).
The study of ‘life as a disabled child’ shows evidence of both rejecting being in a disabled category and also using their disability to gain privilege “Can we go early, Miss, ‘cos we are disabled. (Watson et al, 2000) Research carried out by psychosocial researchers use methods grounded in introspection and psychoanalysis. These researchers view language as a tool that can be used to describe inner experiences. They use research methods like clinical studies, ethnography and naturalistic observations all of which provide data that looks inward into the conscious mind and therefore has limitations in its methods of analysis. (Phoenix, 2007).
The language used is therefore not analysed for meaning making, instead it is used to understand the viewpoints of individuals and to look for commonalities that substantiate the researcher claims. Although the Social Constructionist approach contributes greatly to the study of identity formation, it does have limitations. This approach also represents a relativist ontology, as it emphasises the diversity of interpretations that can be applied to research data. (Willig, 2001) As the approach focuses on the subjectivity of data and uses symbolic analysis it cannot be used to make predictions about events.
“..My main preoccupation seemed to be desperately trying to deny the awareness of my difference which had started on that day”. (Micheline Mason, in Campling, 1981, pp. 23-4) Research by Erikson would suggest that this experience suggests a cause-effect relationship. The young girls ‘sudden awareness of the effect of her disability on her future. Erikson called this process “normative crisis”. Erikson research uses analysis techniques that look for understanding of the viewpoints of particular individuals. In contrast Social Constructionist analyses data from an outsider viewpoint that acknowledges the insiders viewpoint “but does not privilege it”. (Phoenix, 2007).
Clearly, the Social Constructionist approach contributes greatly to the study of identity. It offers psychological research an epistemological stance and new research methods that are unique and enrich psychological research. The Social Constructionist theory is that our everyday social relations create new ‘knowledges’ that are unique to the individual and their cultural context is a dramatic insight to the study of identity.
The approach is further strengthened by the view that language is a crucial part of socially constructed knowledge. The very conversations we have create multiple meanings depending on the way people choose to tell our stories. One of the weaknesses of this approach is that it is difficult to analyse and research cannot be extrapolated to the population as a whole.