IDENTITY (Social Science)

Identity is a pervasive concept in popular culture. Broadly speaking, identity refers to the overall character or personality of an individual or group. For example, a young mother might define her identity as that which reflects the essence of who she is (such as being a woman, spouse, and parent) and how she got to be that way. A business can have its own identity, perhaps defined by its unique corporate culture or its advertising history. Significant historical events like wars, natural disasters, or surges in immigration can play important roles in helping to define a nation’s identity.

On the one hand, the defining features of identity frequently entail elements that must be "found" by an individual or group. For example, a musical group or the cast of a television show might have to work together for a long period of time before its performances flow smoothly and effortlessly and it is able to establish its own voice or overall character. Adolescents as well as adults can pass through identity crises that refer to periods of personal uncertainty or confusion. When a sports coach talks about his or her team finding its identity, this may refer to the development or recognition of a consistent way of playing or performing.

On the other hand, individuals or groups can also "lose" their identity through a variety of events or circumstances. For example, when politicians, celebrities, or other public figures engage in controversial behavior, those individuals must frequently work to reclaim or redefine their identities. A company that has made poor business decisions might be referred to as having lost its corporate identity. The modern phenomenon of identity theft is another example of identity loss, although it is more accurate to refer to this phenomenon as identification or ID theft. The popularity of the identity theft label suggests that an important part of lay definitions of individual identities are the public, demographic, and commercial means of identification.

As the previous examples illustrate, the popular boundaries of the identity concept are quite broad. This concept is similarly pervasive and broad in the theories and research of the social sciences and humanities. Self and identity are frequently used interchangeably by such theorists and researchers. In fact, sometimes writers will combine the terms into concepts such as self-identity or ego-identity. Within the social sciences and humanities, different disciplines emphasize different components of the concept. Thus, it is useful to consider how different fields define and operationalize identity.

Social science theorists and researchers distinguish a large number of different kinds of identity. Examples of identity types include racial, ethnic, group, social, religious, occupational, gender and sex role, cultural, physical and bodily, musical, athletic, academic, and so forth. Among these different identity types, a common distinction is made between personal and social identities. Personal identity usually refers to the unique characteristics of a person, including personality traits, personal values, opinions and preferences, physical characteristics, and career and lifestyle choices. In other words, these refer to aspects of a person’s identity that are distinct and different from other people. Social identity usually refers to one’s social roles, such as gender, racial, religious, political, ideological, and national group memberships. Typically, these roles involve ways that a person’s identity is similar to others, such as sharing a physical characteristic, speaking a common language, having a similar social class or socioeconomic status, practicing the same religion, or living in a common region.

Regardless of whether one focuses on personal or social facets, identity development involves a sense of sameness, continuity, and unity. Philosophically speaking, personal identity refers to the extent that an individual’s characteristics are the same over time. That is, identity establishes the conditions that define a person’s stable uniqueness. This can refer to the physical, psychological, and social aspects of the person. Thus, most social scientists agree that identity is something that develops over time and requires organization and integration, often achieved through the resolution of personal or social conflicts or crises. The failure to achieve some degree of identity coherence is thought to be a symptom of psychological, social, or cultural problems.

Identity also entails an individual commitment to a set of values and goals associated with specific characteristics. For example, much of personal identity involves identifying one’s unique features and determining the value of those features and how they relate to a person’s short-term and long-term goals. Social identity supposes an awareness of one’s group memberships, as well as some level of commitment, closeness, or emotional attachment to those groups. People who highly value their social identities are more likely to act in ways that are consistent with those roles than people who do not value their social identities. Identity development is, therefore, tied to how people think about themselves and how they decide which aspects of their experience are most important as they define themselves. In other words, the development of identity involves personal and social processes of definition, construction, and negotiation.


The pervasiveness of identity-related concerns is a relatively recent cultural and historical phenomenon. The psychologist Roy Baumeister (1986) described several influential social trends in European and American societies running from about 1500 to 1800. During these centuries, a variety of social, cultural, and economic changes corresponded with a shift in how philosophers, artists, writers, and the lay public viewed personhood and identity. Since the Middle Ages, there has been a weakening of the importance of a person’s geographical home and of the institutions of marriage and job in defining one’s identity. At the same time, the formerly important roles of one’s family of ancestry, social rank, gender, and religion have been at least somewhat trivialized. Thus, traditions and institutions that had previously defined people’s identity lost importance and influence.

These changes corresponded with new views on what constituted a person’s identity. For example, people began to consider the possibility that there is a hidden self; that individuality is important; that there is a separation of their public, social lives from their private lives; and that children develop and have their own potentialities worthy of attention. In other words, the boundaries of identity became increasingly broad and malleable. Baumeister (1986) argued that these trends continued through the twentieth century, reflecting an age of mass consumption, greater occupational choices, dramatic technological changes, and the marketing of both products and people. The net effect of these social, cultural, and economic changes is that people in industrialized societies are now plagued with difficulties in defining their identities. Because of the loss of traditional ways of knowing who one is, the more abstract, elusive sense of identity makes it increasingly difficult to define. Much more than was the case one hundred or two hundred years ago, people must work to find or uncover who they are, in order to resolve the dilemmas of modern personhood.

Contemporary identity requires choice, achievement, and frequent self-redefinitions as opposed to the passive assignment of identity of the past. With the widespread desire for establishing and determining one’s individuality and uniqueness comes greater difficulty, choice, and effort in achieving this. For instance, modern identity can be constructed out of one’s personality traits, material possessions, personal accomplishments, group memberships, and activities and organizations. For these reasons, various writers have labeled identity as "empty," "saturated," and "overburdened," and as reflecting "an epidemic of role distance" (Hoyle et al. 1999, p. 49). Some writers argue that European and American culture’s extreme preoccupation with an inner, independent identity leads to a devaluing or ignoring of the social world and the potential negative effects of contemporary social arrangements. This causes a seeking out of experiences and material possessions in order to avoid feelings of worthlessness or identity confusion.


Identity is a topic of extensive theory and research for many of the social sciences. Two disciplines that have devoted a great deal of attention to identity are sociology and psychology. Sociologists generally define the overall self as consisting of multiple identities tied to the different roles a person plays in the social world. Early twentieth-century sociologists such as Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) and George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) emphasized how other people provide "reflected appraisals" that encourage the understanding and establishment of a sense of identity. In his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) brought a dramaturgical approach to social identity. Goffman theorized that people play social roles like actors on a stage, claiming and becoming committed to a particular public or group identity. Part of this identity includes a public "face" that a person claims and then defends in social interaction. In later writings, Goffman presented the idea of a "spoiled" identity, in which a person can be stigmatized as a result of deviant behaviors or personal characteristics.

More recently, the symbolic interactionist perspective has assumed a prominent role in the sociological approach to identity. Contemporary versions of symbolic interactionism examine how a person’s identity is affected by the elements of social structure, in particular the social positions or roles that one plays and the meanings and expectations associated with those roles (Stets and Burke 2003). Role identities may differ in number, prominence, salience, and value to an individual, and sociologists have conducted a great deal of research on these aspects of role identity. For example, a greater number of role identities have been associated with greater resistance to stress and more positive mental health, particularly when those identities are voluntary or freely chosen ones rather than when they are conferred or obligatory.

The meaning of a role identity is something that a person must determine and negotiate. As such, it can be affected by the reactions of others. Over time, there can be changes in a role, as well as in the identity associated with that role. For example, when a person takes on a new role of being a spouse in a married couple, specific behaviors associated with that role must be defined and may change over time. In addition, the definition and boundaries of the spouse identity can change. Thus, the taking on, development, internalization, and changing of multiple roles comprise the most important features of identity from a sociological perspective.

Within psychology, the best-known treatment of identity comes from Erik Erikson’s (1902-1994) psy-chosocial stages of development across the lifespan (Erikson 1968). When and how does a coherent sense of identity develop? Research suggests that identity concerns are especially prominent among late adolescents and early adults. This seems to be due to the fact that it is only by this time that young people become physically and sexually mature, are competent in abstract thought, show increased emotional stability, and have a certain amount of freedom from parental and peer constraints. Younger children are typically not assumed to have an identity (at least in the overall coherent and stable sense of the term). However, aspects of identity (e.g., age, sex, and race) have been shown to be important to the self-perceptions and self-definitions of younger, preadolescent children. Understanding how a person is similar to and different from others is an important part of identity formation. In this regard, significant others can help to define the developing sense of identity.

In Erikson’s theory, adolescence is a time of increased power and responsibility and also a time when young adults must determine who they are and where they fit into their culture and society. Thus, the struggle for a sense of identity and the formation of a "philosophy of life" seems to be especially intense during this period. There are several different ways that young adults might deal with their identity struggles (Marcia 1980). For example, a person might show identity foreclosure. This can occur when people prematurely commit to and unquestioningly adopt the beliefs, values, or roles prescribed by parents rather than going through the process of developing their own beliefs, values, and career choices. Second, people may delay commitment in order to try out alternative identities, beliefs, roles, or behaviors. In this situation, called an identity moratorium, such people are actively caught up in the throes of the identity struggle and are striving to resolve it. However, they have yet to develop a coherent and stable identity.

A third possible outcome of the young adulthood identity crisis is called identity diffusion. This refers to an unwillingness to confront the challenge of charting a life course and a failure to achieve a stable and integrated sense of self. Unlike in the moratorium, such people show little concern or effort to resolve their self-doubt, apathy, and passivity. Finally, people can arrive at a sense of self and direction and form an integrated image of themselves as unique persons. This is called identity achievement. Such individuals have passed successfully through the identity crisis and are now able to make a commitment to a career objective and a personally meaningful set of beliefs and values. For Erikson and other identity theorists, adequate identity formation is the foundation of sound psychological health in adulthood. Identity confusion can interfere with important developmental transitions during the adult years.

More recent psychological approaches to identity include the idea that self-narratives or life stories serve as central features in the creation of a person’s identity. Psychological research also shows that people engage in a wide variety of behaviors to construct, test, and confirm their identities. For example, social psychologists have studied the processes by which people present specific identity aspects to others and manage the impressions that others form of them. What makes particular identity characteristics salient is likely to be tied to the social setting or context. Psychologists are also interested in studying how organized cognitive structures (or schemata) serve to maintain a person’s identity. For instance, cognitive structures can filter out competing or inconsistent information or lead to other forms of biased information processing that serves to protect or maintain one’s identity.

Whereas sociologically based identity theories focus more on the different roles that constitute a person’s identity, psychologically based social identity theory deals with how membership in groups is associated with self-categorization and social identities. For example, those who belong to the same group are seen as ingroup members, whereas nonmembers or those who belong to different groups are seen as outgroup members. A large amount of research has shown that such ingroup-outgroup categorization (sometimes based on arbitrarily defined group membership) results in ingroup favoritism and outgroup discrimination. Thus, it appears that merely belonging to a group can create meaningful social identities with strong attitudinal (e.g., prejudice) and behavioral (e.g., discrimination) implications.

Other disciplines within the social sciences and humanities also have utilized the identity concept in their theories and research. For example, political scientists are interested in the role of identity as a source of people’s political beliefs or political party affiliation. They are also interested in how identity is affected by isolation, alienation, anomie, and social injustices in modern society and how these problems impact social structure, political party affiliation, political action, and international relations. As such, the identity concept is one of many factors that can affect political actions and larger social conflicts.

Political scientists sometimes focus on how membership in particular groups is associated with a specific identity that may have implications for social movements, community mobilization, and other forms of collective behavior. That is, through the identification or construction of a collective identity, groups may be able to increase pride and consciousness, mobilize resources, and bring about societal changes. In other words, groups may strive to expand the range of a particular identity characteristic into a political force with accompanying social and legislative reforms. This process is referred to as identity politics. Examples of identities that fall into this category include religion, race, ethnicity, gender, and physical disability. Critics have argued that politicizing an identity component can be counterproductive to the goal of social change. For example, by calling attention to a specific identity, a group may find it more difficult to address the social injustices associated with it. Or there may be broader social or cultural backlashes directed toward a group identity.

Anthropologists and other social scientists have explored the processes of cultural identification and cultural variations in identity construction. A popular distinction relates to identity differences that are based on independent (or individualistic) and interdependent (or collectivistic) cultural construals. Educational researchers consider the development of academic identity and the relationship of various identity facets to academic achievement. Business and marketing researchers examine the mechanisms and processes associated with developing a corporate or brand identity in consumers. Within the humanities, a great deal of attention has been devoted to cultural and historical trends in the construction and management of identity (e.g., identity politics) and how identity is represented in and affected by works of art, music, theater, and literature.

Some of the current issues related to the identity concept include how to best measure the different kinds of identities and how multiple identities (and conflicts among these) affect behavior in specific situations. In addition, the development of different kinds of identities and how they interrelate from childhood through adulthood has received little research attention. How do multiple identities overlap and affect individual and group behavior? This is a particularly important question when considering broad social, cultural, or nationalistic actions, where several different identities may combine or conflict. For example, adopted or biracial children may experience unique issues as they attempt to develop their racial or cultural identity. More broadly speaking, one of the effects of an increasingly multicultural world is that the establishment of one’s identity may become more difficult or complicated. One interesting domain for identity theorists and researchers concerns how technological changes, particularly those associated with the Internet, affect identity processes. For example, the social scientist Sherry Turkle (1995) has shown that exploration of new, alternative, and multiple identities has become significantly easier and more varied through online communities, multiuser domains, role-playing games, and fantasy worlds.

In summary, identity is a very broad and influential concept in the social sciences and humanities. It has proven to be remarkably fluid and malleable, with different disciplines able to define identity in ways that best suit their purposes and emphases. The cultural and historical trends that led to changes in identity over the past several centuries are likely to continue to provide new challenges to identity formation in the future. Increasing globalization, industrial development, scientific advances, and technological innovations will mean that difficulties in defining identity will be a worldwide phenomenon.

Next post:

Previous post: