Social Component of the Self Social Identity

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Social identity is the self that is shown to other people. This is the part of ourselves that we use to create an impression, to let other people know who we are and what they can expect from us. Social identity is dif ferent from self-concept because identity contains elements that are socially observable, publicly available outward expressions of the self. Gender and ethnicity are aspects of social identity . This may or may not figure into a person s self-concept, but gender and ethnicity are parts of one' s social self, one's identity that is available to others.

Identity has an element of continuity because many of its aspects, such as gender and ethnicity, are constant. People are recognized as being the same from day to day, week to week, and year to year . If you were asked for your "identifica tion," you might produce a passport or a driver' s license. These documents contain socially available facts about you, such as your height, weight, age, and eye color. They also contain your family name and your address. All of these pieces of information are aspects of your identity , and they provide others with a brief sketch of who you are.

The Nature of Identity

Identity has two important features: continuity and contrast. Continuity means that people can count on you to be the same person tomorrow as you are today . Obviously, people change in various ways, but many important aspects of social identity remain relatively stable, such as gender , surname (though some women elect to change this when they marry), language, ethnicity , and socioeconomic status.

Other aspects of identity can change, but do so gradually , lending some sense of continuity, e.g., education, occupation, and marital status. Other aspects of identity refer to behavior patterns that are public, such as being an athlete, a delinquent, or a "party animal," which also contribute to a sense of continuity (Baumeister & Muraven, 1996).

Contrast means that your social identity dif ferentiates you from other people. An identity is what makes you unique in the eyes of others. The combination of characteristics that make up your identity dif ferentiates you from everyone else. For example, there may be other students who speak the way you do and work where you do, but you are the only one who likes a particular type of music and has your ethnic background and eye color . Some characteristics are more important to social identity for some people than others. We now turn to how people develop identity by selecting what they choose to emphasize about themselves in their social identities.

Identity Development

Although anything that provides a sense of sameness can potentially become part of identity, people have some latitude to choose what they want to be known for . For example, a student may try out for the swimming team, thereby choosing the identity of an athlete. Another might break a lot of rules, thereby choosing the identity of a delinquent. People also dif fer from each other in the strength of their identities. Some people feel a strong sense of reputation, whereas others feel adrift in their social relations, not knowing who they are expected to be. In fact, most people go through a period, usually in high school or college, in which they experiment with various identities. For many people, this is an uncomfortable time. They may feel socially insecure or sensitive while developing their social identity .

As mentioned in Chapter 10, the term identity was popularized in the 1960s by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1968). He believed that identity resulted from efforts to separate oneself from one' s parents, to stop relying on one' s parents to make decisions about what values to hold and what goals to pursue in life. Erikson believed that achieving an identity took ef fort and work and that there was always a risk that an identity achieved could come undone, resulting in what he called role confusion. People need to continually work on achieving and maintaining their identity, Erikson taught.

Identity can be achieved in several ways, according to Erikson (1968). Many people struggle with identities, particularly during late adolescence and early adulthood. Experimenting with various identities can be compared to trying on dif ferent hats to see which one fits. In trying on identities, a young man in college might on semester be an athlete and the next semester join the debate and chess clubs; the following semester, he gets a tattoo, has some body parts pierced, and starts hanging with a crowd of similarly mutilated persons. People actively struggle to find social identity that fits, one they are comfortable with. Usuall , after a period of experimentation, most people settle into a comfortable social identity and attain some stability.

For other people, the route to identity is not through experimentation. Instead, some people attain an identity by accepting and adopting a ready-made social role. Typically, such people adopt an identity that is practiced and provided by their parents or significant others. For example, they may take over the family busi ness, buy a house in their hometown, and join the same church as their parents. Such people appear stable and mature in their identities and have mature values, plans, and objectives even when they are teenagers. Another identity adoption example is arranged marriages, in which the parents decide whom their children will marry and the children accept this decision willingly , a practice still common in India today.

These kinds of instant identity adoptions can be risky , however, as they may be achieved with a certain amount of rigidity , making the person closed to new ideas or lifestyles. Such people may be inflexible and stubborn in their social roles, especiall when they are under stress. Nevertheless, for many people, this route to identity is an acceptable and reasonably healthy alternative.


The French movie The Return of Martin Guerre, starring Gerard Depardieu, portrays a true story from medieval times about the theft of social identity. The scene here shows the "new" Martin, who has just returned from a nine-year absence, embracing the "old" Martin's wife. The film won three French Academy Awards.

The French movie The Return of Martin Guerre, starring Gerard Depardieu, portrays a true story from medieval times about the theft of social identity. The scene here shows the "new" Martin, who has just returned from a nine-year absence, embracing the "old" Martin's wife. The film won three French Academy Awards.

The true story of the return of Martin Guerre is so interesting that several film depictions have been made. In the real story, which took place in medieval sixteenth-century France, a peasant, Martin Guerre, leaves his wife to fight in the "One Hundred Years War." His wife waits patiently for him, but after nine years without word, she presumes that Martin is dead. Believing herself a widow, she is astonished when Martin returns suddenly after being away so long. Although the neighbors have a big homecoming celebration for Martin, several are suspicious that the man is an impostor, that he is not really Martin but someone who knew Martin well enough to steal his identity. To the lonely wife, however, he looks like her Martin, sounds like her Martin, and has a working knowledge of the intimate details of their prior relationship. In addition, the man in her house now is nicer, gentler, more loving, and more responsible than the man who went to war almost a decade earlier. And so she very much wants this man to be her Martin.

Telltale signs of a forged identity emerge bit by bit and unravel the clever facade around Martin's social self. The neighbors get the local magistrate involved. His wife tries to defend Martin as her husband and, even if he is not, she wants him to stay anyway. Nevertheless, the case is made that he is an impostor, that this Martin is not really Martin Guerre. The impostor is believed to have forced the real Martin to reveal details of his self-concept and social identity and then to have used this knowledge to create a self-concept and social identity so similar to Martin's that he fooled even Martin's wife into believing he was truly her returning husband. The magistrate, convinced that this is not the "real" Martin, charges the impostor with adultery, a crime punishable by death. Martin's wife is not similarly charged because she believed this was her husband.

The 1993 French film based on this story, The Return of Martin Guerre, starring Gerard Depardieu, won three French Academy Awards. It is a stunningly filmed study in the portrayal of the self and social identity. In it, we see the small details that go into making a social identity. It shows how people form expectations for social behavior from others based on identity and how small violations of those expectations can create doubts and suspicions.

Identity Crises

A person's identity is challenged from time to time. The answer to the question "Who do others think I am?" can change. For example, when a woman gets divorced, her social identity changes from "I am married" to "I am divorced and newly single." Or a man gives up a career as a business executive to pursue a vocation in small-scale farming, so his identity changes from "I am an executive" to "I am a farmer ." Other challenges to identity would be events that change one's reputation, change one's family life, or change one's economic status.

Erikson (1968) coined the phrase identity crisis, meaning the feelings of anxiety that accompany ef forts to define or redefine on s own individuality and social reputation. For most people, the process of going through an identity crisis is an important and memorable phase of life. Sometimes it happens early , in adolescence; sometimes it happens later , in midlife. And some people have identity crises multiple times in their lives. Psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests that there are two distinct types of identity crises, identity deficit and identity conflict (Baumeist , 1986, 1997).

Identity Deficit

An identity defici arises when a person has not formed an adequate identity and thus has trouble making major decisions: Should I go to college or not? If I go to college, what major should I choose? Should I join the military service? Should I get married? A person without a secure, established identity would have trouble making such major decisions because he or she has no inner foundation. When facing a tough decision, many people turn inward to find the answe . In doing so, many people arrive at a course of action right away , because they know their own values and preferences very well; they know what "a person like me" would do in such situations. When people who have an identity deficit turn inwar however, they find little in the way of a foundation on which to base such life choices.

Identity deficits often occur when a person discards old values or goals. Fo example, college students often reject old opinions in favor of new ideas and new values to which they are exposed in college. In fact, some college courses are designed to encourage students to doubt or challenge their previous assumptions about themselves or the world. A popular bumper sticker , often seen on college campuses, is "Question Authority." But rejecting old beliefs and assumptions creates a void or an identity deficit, which is accompanied by feelings of emptiness and uncertaint . Such feelings prompt people to search for new beliefs, for new values and goals. People who are trying to fill this identity deficit may try on new belief systems, explore n relationships, and investigate new ideas and values. They may be alternatively depressed and confused at one point in time, then euphoric about the possibilities in their lives.

People in identity deficit are particularly vulnerable to the propaganda of various groups. They are often very curious about other belief systems, so they are very vulnerable to influence from other people. Because of their feelings o emptiness and their search for new values and ideas, they tend to be very persuadable during this period. As Baumeister (1997) points out, recruiters for cults are often especially successful at enlisting persons who are under going identity deficit crises

Identity Conflict

An identity conflict involves an incompatibility between two or more aspects of identity. This kind of crisis often occurs when a person is forced to make an important and dif ficult life decision. For example, a person who emigrates to the United States may have an identity conflict between wanting to assimilate into the majority culture and wanting to maintain his or her ethnic identity . A similar identity conflict arises in working persons who also want to have a family . A person with a strong commitment to building a family might experience an identity conflict if he or she were of fered a promotion at work that involved longer hours or frequent out-of-town travel. Whenever two or more aspects of identity clash (such as career woman and dedicated mother) there is a potential for an identity conflict crisis.

Identity conflicts are "approach-approach conflicts, in that the person wants t reach two mutually contradictory goals. Although these conflicts involve wanting tw desirable identities, not much pleasure is experienced during identity conflicts. Iden tity conflicts usually involve intense feelings of guilt or remorse over perceive unfaithfulness to an important aspect of the person' s identity. People in an identity conflict may feel as if they are letting themselves and others down

Overcoming an identity conflict is often a di ficult and painful process. On course of action is to put aside a part of one' s identity, to abandon a formerly important aspect of the self. Some people are able to strike a balance in their lives. For example, a college professor may accept a lighter teaching load to have more time with his children; a business executive may telecommute to her job two days a week in order spend more time with her children. Some people partition their lives in ways that prevent such conflicts from arising. For example, some people keep their wor lives and their private lives entirely separate.

Resolution of Identity Crises

Identity crises—both deficits and conflicts—commonly occur during adolescenc though not all adolescents experience identity crises. Those who do find that resolu tion involves two steps (Baumeister , 1997). First, they decide which values are most important to them. Second, they transform these abstract values into desires and actual behaviors. For example, a person might arrive at the conclusion that what is really important is to have a family . The second step is to translate this value into actions, such as finding the right spouse, someone who also wants a family; working hard t maintain this relationship; preparing a career with which to support a family; and so forth. As the person begins working toward these goals, he or she assumes a secure identity and is unlikely to experience an identity crisis, at least during this early phase of life.

A second phase of life in which identity crises commonly occur is during middle age. For some people, this is a period in which they experience dissatisfaction with their existing identities, perhaps at work or in a marriage. Whatever the reason, people undergoing a midlife identity crisis begin to feel that things are not working out as they wished. They may feel that their lives are inauthentic. People in the midlife identity crisis begin to doubt that they made the right choices early in life, and they reconsider those commitments: "If only I had done . . ." is a frequent complaint. It is a period of regret over time spent pursuing goals that turned out to be unsatisfying or impossible. Many people in this predicament decide to abandon their goals and experience an identity deficit because they give up the principles that have guide their lives so far .


The movie character Lester, played by Kevin Spacey in the Oscar-winning film American Beauty, undergoes an acute midlife identity crisis. In fact, the movie is about the havoc Lester wreaks on his family, neighbors, and co-workers during his identity crisis. Lester goes from being a complacent husband, a neglecting but "good-enough" father, and a submissive worker to someone who wants things his own way at home and at work. One day, Lester decides that he does not like what he has become and decides to make drastic changes in his life. During his transformation, Lester ruins his marriage, drives his daughter to contemplate running away, loses his job, experiments with drugs, pushes an unstable neighbor over the brink, and contributes to the delinquency of two minor children. Clearly, Lester's attempts to redefine himself are adolescent and dysfunctional throughout most of the movie. However, toward the end, Lester appears to be starting on the right track; he has finally found some integrity and is heading in a positive direction. It is the scene in which Lester decides not to have sex with his daughter's girlfriend that he acknowledges that his new identity will at least be that of a mature adult.

In the Oscar-winning movie American Beauty, actor Kevin Spacey plays Lester, a man undergoing a severe midlife identity crisis. In his effort to transform his social identity, Lester changes the way he interacts with his wife, his boss, his child, and even his neighbors. While he makes some rash decisions along the way, toward the end of the movie we get a sense that Lester is finally forming a positive new identity.

In the Oscar-winning movie American Beauty, actor Kevin Spacey plays Lester, a man undergoing a severe midlife identity crisis. In his effort to transform his social identity, Lester changes the way he interacts with his wife, his boss, his child, and even his neighbors. While he makes some rash decisions along the way, toward the end of the movie we get a sense that Lester is finally forming a positive new identity.

People who undergo midlife crises often act as adolescents again. That is, an identity crisis often looks the same, whether it occurs at adolescence or at midlife: the person experiments with alternative lifestyles, forms new relationships and abandons old ones, and gives up previous ambitions and responsibilities. In midlife crises, people often change their careers, change their spouses, change their religions, change where they live, or do various combinations of these. Sometimes they simply change their priorities—for example, a woman might keep her job and her spouse but decide to spend more time with her spouse and less time working. A midlife identity crisis can be just as much of an emotional roller -coaster ride as an adolescent identity crisis.

To summarize, a social identity consists of the social or public aspects of yourself, the impression that you typically create in others. Many of your more visible characteristics—such as gender , ethnicity, and occupation—contribute to your identity. Other characteristics, including those that make up reputation, also go into the formation of identity. Your identity is what gives you and others a sense of continuity, of being the same person tomorrow as today . It also makes you unique in the eyes of others.

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