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Social Identities Essay

‘The extent to which the individual is free to choose their own social identities has been underestimated in the main theories of socialisation.’ Explain and assess this view. By: Amy Rashid

In this answer, I shall assess the view on how far the freedom of an individual to choose their own social identity has been underestimated in the main theories of socialisation. First and foremost, from a Functionalist’s point of view, the society lives with value consensus, which is an agreement about values by the members of society. They conform to these values willingly, without any close enforcement necessary. Value consensus integrates the various parts of society, forming the basis of social unity or social solidarity. Like norms, values differ from society to society. As an example, the practice of infanticide and geronticide by the Caribou Indians, who lived to the west of Hudson Bay in Canada. The Caribou Indians were dependant on the caribou herds for their food supply. When occasionally, the herds failed to appear, several priorities are established to prevent the starvation of the whole community.

First, active males adults were fed, as they were to hunt for food for the whole community, next would be their wives so as to bear more children. Male infants were given more priority than their female counterparts considering they would grow up to become hunters for the community. Then comes the practice of geronticide, and once there were no more elderly to kill, the female babies would be next in line. To the Caribou Indians, these acts may seem sensible and even necessary, while to the rest of the world it may appear strange, cruel and perhaps inhumane. Therefore, this shows that without the existence of shared value consensus, members of the society would not cooperate and unite, thus resulting in disorder and disruption. From this perspective, it can considered that an individual’s social identity is a more or less a result of shared norms and values of their society, and thus the freedom of the individual in making that choice has been underestimated by this sociological theory.

However, this can be argued with the fact that not all members of the society conform to these values. The existence of various sub-cultures are evidence of this argument. For instance, the youth sub-culture, Punk, whose ideology is mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment. Common punk viewpoints also include anti-conformity and individualism. Punk also forms a local scene; punk and hardcore bands, fans who attend concerts and protests, and visual artists. Violence and substance abuse has also appeared in some sublets of punk. They wear ripped clothing, leather jackets, tight ‘drainpipe’ jeans, pins, metal studs and spikes and don Mohawk hairdos. Therefore, it can be concluded that an individual is not governed by laws of society in their decision of choosing their self-identity.

Secondly, Marxists believe that individuals are powerless to go against the ideologies imposed by the society. Karl Marx stated that social order is achieved through the domination by the few over the many, and that that domination is possible because it reflects the economic circumstances of the groups. The society is divided into social groups known as classes. The structure of society consists of a ruling class and a subject class, the former being the exploiter (bourgeois) and the latter being the exploited (proletariat). The subject class accept their situation, regarding it as part of the natural order of things. Consciousness of the society is infused with the ruling-class ideology, which proclaims the essential rightness, normality and inevitability of the status quo. For instance, the apartheid system in South Africa, enforced by the National Party government.

Under this racial segregation system, the rights of the majority black inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed while the Afrikaner minority rule was maintained. It was also under this system that South Africa was divided to develop into separate nation-states for a different ethnic group and, transport and civil facilities like busses, trains, hospitals and ambulances were all segregated. In fact, most blacks were practically stripped of their South African citizenship when the ‘homelands’ became ‘independent’. Thus, they were no longer able to apply for South African passports. Therefore, this obviously highlights the fact that the laws of society does in fact restrict the individuals freedom of choice of social identity.

However, this can be countered with the argument that not all individuals fall under this restriction by the laws of society. The 2013 Romania social protests triggered by unpaid wages and working conditions are an evidence of this. The employees demanded the resignation of plant leadership, some even went as far as starving themselves via hunger strikes. They also protested against wage arrears and unannounced layoffs, blocking the traffic on national road DN 64. This proves that the individuals are just as capable to unite and go against the ideologies imposed by the society, as they are to make their own choices regarding their social identities.

Lastly, if viewed from an Interactionist’s point of view, it would contrast with the perspectives of the first two theorists. Interactionists argue that social behaviour is no longer shaped as it used to be by people’s background and their socialisation. They argue that individuals are much freer to choose their own identity and lifestyle, no longer governed under laws of society. G.H. Mead stated in his theory that individuals behave based on what they believe and not just on what is objectively true. Thus, society is just thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation. Individuals are portrayed as active in acquisition and negotiation of their own social identities. For example, the habit of smoking which is becoming increasingly popular in the society, most especially among teenagers and college students. Despite being reminded time and again of the bad effects that are a result of smoking, they still choose to do it.

Based on research, it was found that many people smoke because it helps them relax and cope with difficult situations, or because it gives them confidence. A cigarette is also considered a reward that they can give themselves as often as they wish. Meanwhile, many teenagers confessed to have started the habit due to peer pressure and desire to be seen as ‘cool’. They also smoke to feel more mature or as a rebellious act against their parents, without considering the consequences. This shows that an individual behaves based on what they believe and not just what is objectively true. They themselves choose what they do and how they act in the society, hence proving that they are free to create their social identity. Also, this can be further supported by Herbert Blumer who believes that individuals create their own social reality through collective and individual action.

According to Blumer’s theory, symbolic interaction, interaction between individuals is based on autonomous action, which in turn is based on the subjective meaning actors attribute to social objects. Bluer theorised that assigning objects meaning is an on-going process of internal communication to decide which meaningful object to respond to. Individuals use their subjectively derived interpretations of others to predict the outcome of certain behaviours, and use such predictive insight to make decisions about their own behaviour in the hopes of achieving their goals. This means that it is not social laws that govern how human act, but their own interpretation. Thus, further supporting the Interactionist view that individuals are free to choose their social identity and are not governed by laws of society, hence showing that the freedom of individuals in making choices regarding their identity has not been underestimated in the Interactionist perspective.

Therefore, it can be concluded that while some theories may underestimate the freedom of individuals in choosing their own social identity, some others do not. Hence showing that while some individuals are free to decide on their social identity, some may be restricted by the laws of society.

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