Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.
What Is Identity?
John is in middle school and is trying to figure out who he wants to be. In other words, he is searching for an identity. An identity is the concept we have of our role in the world around us. We don't simply wake up one day and decide on the person we want to become. Instead, we find our identity through a complex process that continues throughout our lives.
John is beginning to make his own decisions, but this doesn't mean he is free of influences. For example, if John tries out for the football team, why does he do this? Is he interested in finding out if he likes playing football? Did he get pressured by the coach because he is a good athlete, even though he didn't really want to join the team? Does he want to play football because his dad played, and it is expected of him? Or, is he simply trying out because his friends are all doing it?
Thinking about these questions can help us see that the decisions John makes are influenced by a variety of factors. To some extent, John chooses the identity of a football player, but this is also influenced by external factors that are out of his control. The perceptions, attitudes, values, and beliefs of John and those around him all play an important role.
Self Identity vs. Social Identity
The way John sees himself is his self identity. His self identity shapes his perceptions, or the way he sees the world. His attitude about life, the way he thinks or feels about something, depends on how he identifies himself. The way John sees himself is also manipulated by his values, what he thinks is right or wrong, and beliefs, what he sees as true and untrue. All these factors influence what John can accomplish and where he will fit in.
If John didn't see himself as capable of playing football would he be trying out for the team? Would he want to play football if he felt that it was a violent sport and that it is morally wrong? Thinking about these questions helps us see how John makes decisions about who he is, based on his perception of the world, the way he feels about things, the importance of his beliefs, and values on his choices.
John's social identity, or the way others see John, is also influenced by their perceptions, attitudes, values, and beliefs. Perhaps the coach has high expectations of him because his brother was a great football player. Maybe his teammates feel like he doesn't belong on the team because he has never played before, or they don't want to associate with him because of his race or religion. Social identity and self identity do not always agree, and this can cause conflict in a person's life. Imagine how John might feel if he identified with being a great athlete and then was cut from the team.
Stereotypes are an important concept to understand in relation to identity. Stereotypes are assumptions that are made about individuals simply because they belong to a certain social group. These ideas may not reflect reality. An example of a stereotype would be that people of a certain race are better athletes, or that athletes aren't smart. When someone believes a stereotype is true, they may make unfair judgments about an individual. In other words, the football coach may give preferential treatment to kids of a particular ethnic background or discredit the athletic abilities of a straight-A student.
Imagine that instead of John, we're talking about Joanne, a girl. Let's assume that most people at the middle school believe the stereotype that girls can't play football. Think about how Joanne's experience of trying out for the football team may be different than John's. Will her teammates treat her differently? Will her abilities be judged fairly?
Our identity is our ideas about the role we play in the world around us. It is a complex process, and it continues to develop and change throughout our lives. Self identity is the way we see ourselves, and it influences the decisions we make and goals that we set for ourselves. Social identity is the way others see us, and it affects how we are treated and what expectations are placed on us. Conflict occurs when self identity and social identity do not agree with one another.
Our perception is the way we look at the world. Attitudes are the way we think or feel about something. Values are our ideas about right and wrong, and beliefs are our ideas about what is true or untrue. These factors influence both our self identity and our social identity. Assumptions that are made about individuals because they belong to a particular social group are called stereotypes. Stereotypes are often untrue and judgments should not be made about an individual based on a stereotype.
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