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Social constructionist approaches to the self emphasise the idea that people choose their identity

Identities are marked by a number of factors – ethnicity, gender or class, to name a few. The very real locus of these factors, however, is the notion of difference. A central question in this debate is who ascribes the identity, to whom and for what reason? Do we choose our identity, or is it beyond our control? To further complicate this matter we could also ask whether identity is a social construction or part of a psychodynamic process, or whether it is a complex amalgam of both of these.

There is quite a strong constructionist view of how the self and identity are both constructed by and maintained in parallel with societal norms (Burr, 2003). A central assumption within this broad approach is that reality is not self-evident, stable and waiting to be discovered, but instead it is a product of human activity. In this broad sense all versions of social constructivism can be identified as a reaction against positivism and naive realism. Social and cultural identities are founded on difference and they are shaped in relation to societal norms. In Foucault’s exploration of the mad, the criminally insane, the history of the deviant and of sexualities we see how the self is created in relation to expert discourses that define normal and pathological as well as trying to drive us back towards a norm; to make our sense of self align with a rational model in a process of normalization.

A social constructivist approach to identity assumes that we create realities – and make these realities meaningful – by way of interaction. We come to know society by interacting with culturally significant others (such as parents, teachers, and doctors), institutions (such as churches, schools, and governments), and symbolic universes (such as capitalism, patriarchy, and Christianity). The approach frames knowledge as learned, situational, and fallible, and, as such, partial, consequential, and sometimes problematic. Social constructivists attend to the processes in which realities – and knowledge of these realities – are developed by, maintained by, and transmitted to cultural members. Social constructivists focus on the ways in which a group’s beliefs, attitudes, and practices metaphorically crystallize into objective, authorless, seemingly natural and seemingly necessary matters of fact. By way of socialization, these matters, consequentially, also come to be perceived of as correct, valuable, normal, and therefore, unquestionable; they become phenomena we must understand and negotiate to be perceived as competent, legitimate cultural members.

Finally, one of the goals of this paper is to address the consequences of the processes of social interpretations, perceptions, and evaluations that correspond to claiming or being perceived as a particular kind of person.

Social constructionist approaches to the self: can people choose their identity?

Social constructionism may be defined as a perspective which believes that a great deal of human life exists as it does due to social and interpersonal influences (Gergen 1985). Although genetically inherited factors and social factors are at work at the same time, social constructionism does not deny the influence of genetic inheritance, but decides to concentrate on investigating the social influences on communal and individual life. The subjects that social constructionism is interested in are those to do with what anthropologists call culture, and sociologists call society: the shared social aspects of all that is psychological.

Brown (1995) suggests three main currents within social constructivism: The first approach is not concerned with demonstrating the reality or otherwise of a social phenomenon but with the social forces which define it. The approach is mainly traceable to sociological work on social problems. The second approach is tied more closely to the post-structuralism of Foucault and is concerned with deconstruction – the critical examination of language and symbols in order to illuminate the creation of knowledge, its relationship to power and the unstable varieties of reality which attend human activity (‘discursive practices’). The third approach is associated neither with the micro-sociology of social problem definition nor with deconstruction but with understanding the production of scientific knowledge and the pursuit of individual and collective professional interests. This version of social constructivism examines the ways in which scientists and other interested parties develop debate and use facts. It is thus interested in the networks of people involved in these activities. Unlike the post-structuralist version of social constructivism noted earlier, it places less emphasis upon ideas and more upon action and negotiation. This approach is thus compatible with both symbolic interactionism and social realism. Social constructivism is a theory which claims that knowledge is not something we acquire but something we produce; that the objects in an area of inquiry are not there to be discovered, but are invented or constructed. Therefore social constructivists may claim, for example, that there is nothing wrong with the mentally ill, and “that madness is nothing more (and nothing less) than what we make of it” (Church 2007: 394).

An “identity” here refers to a social category – Serb, man, homosexual, American, Catholic, worker, and so on – and in particular to a social category that an individual member either takes a special pride in or views as a more-or-less unchangeable and socially consequential attribute (Fearon 1999). Social categories are sets of people given a label (or labels) and distinguished by two main features: rules of membership that decide who is and is not a member of the category; and content, that is, sets of characteristics (such as beliefs, desires, moral commitments, and physical attributes) thought to be typical of members of the category, or behaviors expected or obliged of members in certain situations (roles). We would also include in content the social valuation of members of this category relative to others (contestation over which is often called “identity politics”).

People often believe, mistakenly, that certain social categories are natural, inevitable, and unchanging facts about the social world. They believe that particular social categories are fixed by human nature rather than by social convention and practice. Beliefs in the naturalness of a social category might be rooted in beliefs about alleged implications of biology (for example, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity in some formulations) or about theology and morality. Much constructivist labor has been devoted to undermining everyday primordialist assumptions by showing how the content and even membership rules of taken-for-granted categories like man/woman or heterosexual/ homosexual have changed over time. It is not true, constructivists assert, that because some system of social categories exists, the system is “natural” and ought to exist (Hardin 1995). A more provocative and interesting antiprimordialist claim is that the members of any two ethnic groups A and B need not think of themselves as A’s and B’s at all. For instance, a constructivist might argue that the peoples known as Croats and Serbs might, with a different nineteenth-century political history, be known as the South Slavs and as late as the first decade of the twentieth century there was no agreement among elites in the Balkans that Croats and Serbs constituted two distinct nationalities (Fearon, Laitin, 2000).

The kinds of people we claim or are perceived to be can influence interpretations of what we say and do, perceptions of our character, and how we are evaluated; who speaks affects what is said and who listens influences who speaks, what is spoken about, and how a speaker and her or his discourse is perceived.

Consider, for instance, the categories of female and male. When we enter society, culturally significant others, institutions, and symbolic universes classify us as one or the other. We must understand and negotiate these categories to be perceived as competent and legitimate cultural members, and the labels will follow us throughout our existence regardless of what we say or do; we cannot live outside of or uninfluenced by the female-male classificatory system. These categories often seem objective, authorless, seemingly natural, and necessary, and, consequentially, are often perceived as correct, valuable, normal, and unquestionable. When this happens – when sex is perceived as correct, valuable, normal, and unquestionable – then a person who does not align nicely with the appropriate sex-requirements can experience questioning, conflict, and relational strife as a result. Babies born with characteristics of both sexes may undergo corrective surgery, and persons who do not enact appropriate feminine and masculine behaviors that correspond to their (classified-at-birth) sex may be physically harmed, fired from jobs, forced into traumatic therapeutic situations, or ostracized by friends and family.

Foucault was among the earliest theorists to draw attention to the social construction of sexuality. Rather than taking it as a natural given Foucault sees sexuality as being constructed through discourse. He starts his examination of sexuality by questioning the role of repression, and particularly the extraordinary power that was attributed to it during the Victorian era. This has to be seen in the light of the emergence of perversion, homosexuality and other forms of sexual deviance as new categories that simply did not exist before they were organized into being by new discourses (Clarke, 2008).

Furthermore, the notion of ‘race’ was for many years a marker of difference and identity. The word ‘race’ has been associated with ideas of inferiority and superiority, hierarchy and persecution. As Robert Miles (1993) argues, whatever the manner in which the term is used it implies: ‘…an acceptance of the existence of biological differences between human beings, differences which express the existence of distinct, self-reproducing groups’ (Miles, 1993: p. 2). Rather than celebrate difference our cultural identity is used to pathologize other cultures whilst reinforcing who we are.


A social constructivist approach to identity recognizes that we experience life being particular kinds of people. These kinds often take the form of categories and are kinds both personally chosen and determined by culturally significant others, institutions, and symbolic universes. Categories influence how we interpret ourselves and others, and when we do not enact the appropriate characteristics relevant to the kinds of people we claim or are perceived to be, questioning, conflict, and relational strife can result. We come to understand ourselves by the categories of people always already present in the culture(s) in which we’re immersed, and we learn, via interaction, how to and why we fit particular labels. However, we can never know, definitively and completely, what categories others may demand of us or what kinds of people others will consider us as; we can try to pass as particular kinds of persons but may not succeed or know if we succeeded. And even though we may consider some categories pivotal to our being, this does not mean that others will recognize these categories always and everywhere or that we will forever consider these categories pivotal. A social constructivist approach to identity thus recognizes that identity requires constant care and negotiation, and understands that the kinds of people we claim or are perceived to be can change with context and relationship.

It could be argued then that an identity is fluid and contingent in relation to historical and cultural circumstances. The question of identity quite obviously focuses on difference and the negative connotations that stem from these perceptions. After all they are the basis of hatred, racism and social and cultural exclusions. Defining your own self by another often leads to a strong sense of who we are not, or more likely who we don’t want to be. This necessarily leads to the denigration of the other and the idealization of ‘us’. Clearly a straightforward social constructionist approach to cultural identity is helpful; it shows how a common cultural identity is constructed in relation to ‘norms’ and, in the case of Foucault’s work, to processes of normalization. It is, however, lacking in analysis of those powerful affective forces that make us feel a certain strong attachment to groups and ways of life.

We may have multiple identities to choose from in a given context. So, it may be the case that our identity is chosen at a particular time for a political purpose. There is, however, a complex psychodynamic process at work here in which emotive and affective forces play on older ideas around community, nationhood and the idea of ‘home’. These may also be mediated by class and gender differences and, as Foucault has shown us, by power, but we should acknowledge that while many people are in the privileged position of being able to choose their identity (Giddens, 1991) others are not. The way in which people imagine the world to be and imagine the way that others exist in the world is central to the construction of identity. It does not matter that belief may be more fiction than fact, because the human imagination is central to identity construction; it is therefore concrete and has very real consequences for the world we live in.


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