Constructing, Expressing & Contesting Identity

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will define the concept of identity construction. Additionally, examples will be provided for how various identities are expressed and contested.

What is Identity Construction?

The concept of identity construction is a very important one to contemporary anthropology, cultural studies, sociology, and many other branches of scholarship. Identity construction conceives of an individual's identity as something that is built up over time, not simply as something that a person is born with. A person's identity can be constructed using a variety of different cultural tools such as ethnicity, nationality, religion, subculture, or a host of other forms of identification.

Most understandings of identity construction do not dispute the effects of genetics or other biologically based influences on personality; rather, theorists of identity construction attempt to understand how individuals and communities use culture to create complex, dynamic forms of identity.

How is Identity Expressed?

Identity can be expressed in an array of different ways. A person who is married might express their marital status by wearing a wedding ring. Someone who belongs to a particular ethnic group might wear culturally specific forms of clothing or decorate their skin with unique markings. Among some ethnic groups in the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, young men will scarify their bodies to resemble the scales of a crocodile in order to signify their religious associations with crocodiles. A young woman who has become associated with heavy metal subculture might sew patches onto her jacket promoting her favorite heavy metal bands.

Two Sepik River drums depicting crocodiles.

All human beings express their identity in one way or another. Someone might be more, or less, conscious of the methods through which they express their identities, but regardless of one's cultural background, identity is expressed in one way or another. Certain cultures might be very aware of the ways in which they express their cultural identities. Other cultures might be less self-aware and not give much conscious thought to how they express their identities; nevertheless, something as seemingly unimportant as the brand of shoes you wear or the model of car you drive does express aspects of identity.

What Does Contesting Identity Mean?

Not all forms of identity are positive. Some identities are imposed on people by the societies in which they live. Racism is an excellent example of identity being imposed on individuals and groups in an unfair and oppressive manner. People from one particular group that has been designated by the society in which they live as a 'race' might be believed to be less intelligent or more prone to criminality than other 'races' identified by that society. Such beliefs are not based in fact but are rather culturally constructed prejudices.

In a situation where negative racist identities are being imposed on a group, individuals belonging to such a group might resist identity stereotypes by non-conformity or providing positive examples that contradict the stereotype. Contesting identity is the process of challenging the negative aspects of identity that are projected onto people by the societies in which they live.

Here are a few more examples of how identity can be contested: a woman living in a conservative society which believes that women are physically weak and emotionally unstable might join the military or become an accomplished athlete in order to demonstrate the falsehood of gender stereotypes. A member of an ethnic group believed to be unimaginative and only fit for manual labor might become a celebrated novelist, writing novels that deconstruct and satirize ethnic stereotypes. A gay man whose community assumes that all gay men must be effeminate might become the captain of the football team or become a hyper-macho rapper.

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