Identity is a fundamental part of everybody. It engages individuals in society and defines them. It is an active process that requires both decisions and involvement.
Identity is not the same as character or personality. If people were plays, then identity would be the plot and character and personality would simply be the props.
Essentially, identity has two elements: How individuals see themselves and how they are seen. The two are not necessarily the same.
Imagining how we appear is an important element of identity. This is vividly illustrated in the style of dress a person adopts when attending a job interview. The interviewee imagines what their clothes will say to the interviewer. (Mead, 1934).
Adopting an identity involves recognising aspects of ourselves in a particular imagine or style. This recognition and the feeling of belonging it generates can be described as being “hailed” by that identity. Its like saying “That’s me! I can see myself” (Althusser, 1971).
Identifying with an image is much exploited by advertisers who use aspirational images of life styles to promote products.
There are many influences on identity. These include: Upbringing, class, peer pressure, aspirations, opportunities, occupation, race, nationality, gender and politics.
There are two key forces that produce identity: agency and social structures. Agency involves personal choice, motivation and action. Social structure is the framework of organisations and traditions that direct, mould and constrain behaviour by their influence.
Whilst gender is a key component of identity, it is extensively influenced by social structures and exerts its influence within their constraints. Gender can thus impact on identity in different ways in different societies.
Gender is not the same as sex. Gender differentiates the feminine and masculine aspects of social life. Sex, on the other hand, is a biological term that defines the physical nature or being male or female.
Gender is a socially constructed proposition that describes those things that are typically masculine and typically feminine. In social science it is far too simplistic a presumption to say that men are typically masculine and women are typically feminine.
Certain tasks are historically regarded as feminine, such as child rearing, home making and cleaning. Other tasks have long been perceived as masculine, such as the military, steel making and coal mining.
Schools, workplaces, public services, the media and the legislation are tangible elements of social structure. Gender, social class, peer pressure and ethnicity are essentially invisible social structures.
Gender roles are no longer as hard and fast as they were in the past. Many men are now nurses and many women are now soldiers.
Gender constrains individuals in many different ways. The expectations of society and those of the individual can be at odds. Society, peer groups, employers and parents can all promote or curb both opportunities and aspirations based on gender.
The family exerts both obvious and covert “guidance” for gender identity i.e. Parents as role models and toys for play (dolls vs soldiers). Girls are encouraged to cook and boys to use tools. Even some colours are taught to be “gender appropriate” (i.e. pink for girls and blue for boys).
Educational achievement was once regarded as of secondary importance for girls. This was a largely self-fulfilling bias that steered girls towards marriage and domesticity rather than the job market. Boys were expected to do well educationally and were encouraged to become achievers and providers. Children are deemed to possess gender specific “pre-disposition” towards certain forms of physical or mental activity. This may influence their career aspirations from an early age (Burr, 1998).
Boys are increasingly becoming under achievers in education. Learning is no longer sufficiently masculine and lacks “cool”. Girls have become the leading achievers in learning. Intelligence and academic ability are now valued as aspects of “girl power”.
Employment, as a social structure, exerts a gender-based influence on society. A feminine boy is regarded as a prime candidate for a dancer or a hairdresser. A masculine woman is perceived as a classic gym instructor or traffic warden.
Religion can significantly influence gender identity. Some religions define men as superior to women. This is simply politics in disguise. Some religions permit bigamy. Both of these have the effect of reducing the status of women.
Culture is a potent influence on gender identity. Some cultures mould women to be submissive and unassertive, whilst others propel women towards positive social stature. As expectation is a forceful motivator, the effect on gender identity is profound.
The Law is another social structure that affects gender identity. Whilst equality of opportunity has been enshrined in both U.K. and European law, it has yet to be fully reflected in some social attitudes.
Essentially, gender identity is influenced by social structures because it cannot exist or evolve in isolation from them. Identity involves an interface between individuals and society in the same way that gender interfaces with social structures.