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What is meant by identity? Essay

What is meant by identity? Identity can be defined as how I see myself and how others see me. (Woodward, 2007, p7). Identity can be confused with personality. Where personality describes certain qualities individuals may have such as being confident and outgoing or shy and introvert, identity requires some degree of choice. Identity is marked by similarity and identities are formed through interaction between people. We choose to belong and identify with a particular identity or group. This sense of belonging involves having the ‘same’ identity as one group of people and recognising that others are ‘different’.

Symbols are important in marking the ways in which we share identities with some people and differ from others, such as the language we speak, the clothes we wear such as a uniform, or a team scarf or badge. These are examples of how we identify with being the ‘same’ and also ‘different.’There is a link between the personal and the social. The personal being individuals taking up identities, and how we as individuals feel about whom we are, and the social is everyday interactions with others, and the societies in which we live.

How we see ourselves does not always match how others see us, for example in the workplace, individuals may see themselves as hardworking and deserve promotion, where the employer may view them as an underachiever. This could also happen at a more personal level within family and friend relationships. We may well also have different conflicting identities such as being a parent, friend, employee, or student all at the same time. This is known as having ‘multiple identities’. Multiple identities also include age, gender, class and ethnicity.

An example of the link between the personal and the social is in the way of an individual’s passport. A passport gives information about a person’s identity in an official sense. It describes that one person and also states which group that person belongs to, namely which nation, for instance you may hold a UK passport, which identifies you as a British Citizen, whereas you may actually identify yourself as a European. This is what is known as having a ‘collective identity’. Other examples of identity in this official sense include driving licences, i.d. cards and credit cards.

The structures which are the forces beyond our control shape our identities, whereas the agency is the degree of control we have to choose who we are.

Structures such as gender and class influence, encourage or prevent individuals from identifying with certain groups and therefore shaping their identity.

There are different theories of what control we do have in shaping our own identities, and scope for agency. George Herbert Mead says we ‘symbolize’ the sort of person we want others to think we are. This is done by the clothes we wear or how we behave. We can ‘visualize’ ourselves. We imagine ourselves and see pictures of ourselves in our own minds. (Mead, 1934)Erving Goffman put forward that our identities are acted out as ‘roles’, like parts in a play. We can improvise and play to an audience. We act out our identities everyday with other people. (Goffman 1959)Sigmund Freud’s theory is his understanding of the ‘unconscious’, which are often repressed feelings from childhood which can influence the choices we make in later life, and who we become as adults.

Individuals can come to understand their childhood experiences and shape their identities through therapy. (Bocock, 1983)To conclude, it is possible to shape our own identities through the roles we play in everyday interactions with others. We act out and present ourselves to others, through the way we dress or the language we speak to mark ourselves as being the ‘same’ as those we share an identity with and ‘different’ from the ones we don’t. Changes in our lives also shape our identities; these include the workplace, loss of jobs, new technologies, changes in social structures, class, gender and culture, the community in which we live, and economic changes. These changes in identities can create an uncertainty about ‘who we are’ and how we cope with change.


Bocock, R. (1983) Sigmund Freud, London, TavistockGoffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York, Doubleday AnchorMead, G.H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society, Chicago, University of Chicago PressWoodward, K. (2007) Questioning Identity: gender, class, ethnicity, DD100, The Open University, LondonWord Count 682

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