Module 2. Our Power & Identity
IDENTITY FORMATION & POLITICS
Trying to figure out who you are, what you value and believe, and why you think the way you do is a lifelong process. In the first chapter of Thinking Well, Stewart E. Kelly (2000) suggests, “we all have lenses through which we view reality, and we need to know what our individual lens is composed of and how it influences our perception of reality.” Take a moment to reflect and hypothetically paint a picture of yourself with words. Try to capture the core of your being by describing who you are. Once you have formulated a description of yourself, evaluate what you wrote. Does your description focus on your personal characteristics or your socio-cultural characteristics you learned from other people in your life (i.e., family, friends, congregation, teachers, community, etc.)?
Identity, like culture itself, is a social construct. The values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols, practices, and artifacts we hold develop from the social relationships we experience throughout our lives. Not only does personal identity make us aware of who we are, but it also defines what we stand for in comparison to others. Identity is relational between individuals, groups, and society meaning through culture people are able to form social connections or refrain from them. It is real to each of us with real social consequences.
We develop our identity through the process of socialization and enculturation. Socializing agents including family, peers, school, work, and the media transmit traditions, customs, language, tools, and common experiences and knowledge. The passage of knowledge and culture from one generation to the next ensures sustainability of a particular way of life by instilling specific traits, attitudes, and characteristics of a group or society that become part of each group member’s identity.
Identity shapes our perceptions and the way we think about and categorize people. Our individual and collective views influence our thinking. Regardless of personal, cultural, or universal identity people naturally focus on traits, values, attitudes, and practices or behaviors they identify with and dismiss those they do not.
Generations have collective identity or shared experiences based on the time period the group lived. Consider the popular culture of the 1980s to today. In the 1980s, people used a landline or fixed line phone rather than a cellular phone to communicate and went to a movie theater to see a film rather than downloaded a video to a mobile device. Therefore, someone who spent his or her youth and most of their adulthood without or with limited technology may not deem it necessary to have or operate it in daily life. Whereas someone born in the 1990s or later will only know life with technology and find it a necessary part of human existence.
Each generation develops a perspective and identifies from the time and events surrounding their life. Generations experience life differently resulting from social and cultural shifts over time. The difference in life experience alters perspectives towards values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols, practices, and artifacts. Political and social events often mark an era and influence generations. The ideology of White supremacy reinforced by events of Nazi Germany and World War II during the 1930s and 1940s instilled racist beliefs in society. Many adults living at this time believed the essays of Arthur Gobineau (1853-1855) regarding the existence of biological differences between racial groups (Biddis, 1970). It was not until the 1960s and 1970s when philosophers and critical theorists studied the underlying structures in cultural products and used analytical concepts from linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and sociology to interpret race discovering no biological or phenological variances between human groups and finding race is a social construct (Black & Solomos, 2000). Scientists found cultural likeness did not equate to biological likeness. Nonetheless, many adults living in the 1930s and 1940s held racial beliefs of White supremacy throughout their lives because of the ideologies spread and shared during their lifetime. Whereas modern science verifies the DNA of all people living today is 99.9% alike and a new generation of people are learning that there is only one human race despite the physical variations in size, shape, skin tone, and eye color (Smithsonian, 2018).
As we explore the aspects of identity formation, it becomes evident that we are more than our racial-ethnic composition. By examining the influence of culture on our lives, we can understand how other identity labels or categories operate together in people’s lives and affect our values, attitudes, norms, and practices. There are many elements of our identity that work simultaneously and intersect that impact our understanding of ourselves and others as well as influence our experiences, social interactions, and relationships.
Race-ethnicity with class, gender and other identity labels or categories of sexuality, religion, spirituality, national origin, immigration or refugee status, ability, tribal citizenship, sovereignty, language, and age intersect within a social context creating stratified social arrangements and systems of power. The interconnected nature of social categories overlap and have a cumulative effect on our lives. Your identity or social location in a society can shape what you know, what others know about you, how you are treated, and how you experience life (Anderson & Collins, 2010). Social labels and categories we use to define identity such as race, ethnicity, class, and gender matter because they are and continue to be the basis for systems of power and inequality. As people are stratified into social categories along identity lines, the persistent reality of inequality is evident.
The dominant group has historically served as the gatekeeper to resources, opportunities, and knowledge in the United States. Intersectionality exists within a matrix of domination or social structure with multiple, interlocking levels of power and control that stem from race-ethnic relations, gender, class and other social categories (Anderson & Collins, 2010). Those who identify and are accepted as members of the dominant group have access and privileges associated with their power and status, whereas others do not.
To summarize the concept of intersectionality and articulate your own intersectional identities.
Please take a moment to view Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TED Talk, The Urgency of Intersectionality. This video introduces the concept of intersectionality. As you watch the video, think about the different ways your identities intersect and how this impacts your ability to reach your educational and life goals. Once you have viewed and reflected on the video, answer the following questions:
- What does intersectionality mean in simple words? What is an example of intersectionality?
- How does social and cultural context influence our perceptions of identity?
- How do your social identity labels or categories intersect and overlap? How do these labels or categories empower and/or oppress your life experience?
- Do you think about social identity, privilege, and oppression often? Why or why not?
Examine each of the identity labels or social categories that intersect in our lives, are you able to determine which label or identity-type is associated with dominance, power, and status? For instance, explore gender identity. Describe the power and status of those who identify as male in comparison to those who identify as female? Now, evaluate the identity label for those who are non-binary. How is power and status different for non-binary people as compared to those who identify as male or female? How is social dominance, power, and inequality apparent and understood based on gender identity? How are life experiences different based on gender identity? Now consider gender and race. How is dominance, power, and status understood and how do gender and race labels intersect to influence life experience?
Globalization and Identity
With the advancements in technology and communications, people are experiencing greater social forces in the construction of their cultural reality and identity. The boundaries of locality have expanded to global and virtual contexts that create complexities in understanding the creation, socialization, adaptation, and sustainability of culture.
Globalization is typically associated with the creation of world-spanning free markets and the global reach of capitalist systems resulting from technological advances (Back et al., 2012). However, globalization has the unintended consequences of connecting every person in the world to each other. In this era, everyone’s life is connected to everyone else’s life in obvious and hidden ways (Albrow, 1996).
Globalization lends itself to cultural homogenization that is the world becoming culturally similar (Back et al., 2012). However, the cultural similarities we now share center on capitalist enterprises including fashion and fast food. Social researchers also recognize patterns of cultural heterogenization where aspects of our lives are becoming more complex and differentiated resulting from globalization. Our social relationships and interactions have become unconstrained by geography (Back, et al.). People are no longer restricted to spatial locales and are able to interact beyond time and space with those sharing common culture, language, or religion (Giddens, 1990; Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). People can travel across the globe within hours but also connect with others by phone or the Internet within seconds. These advancements in technology and communications alter what people perceive as close and far away (Back et al., 2012). Our social and cultural arrangements in an era of globalization are adapting and changing the way we think and act.
Globalization also influences our identity and affinity groups. Technology allows us to eliminate communication boundaries and interact with each other on a global scale. Today people are able to form and live across national borders. Advances in transportation and communications give people the opportunity to affiliate with multiple countries as transnationals. At different times of their lives or different times of the year, people may live in two or more countries.
We are moving beyond local, state, and national identities to broader identities developing from our global interactions forming transnational communities. A key cultural development has been the construction of globality or thinking of the whole earth as one place (Beck, 2000). Social events like Earth Day and the World Cup of soccer are examples of globality. People associate and connect with each other in which they identify. Today people frame their thinking about who they are within global lenses of reference (Back et al., 2012). Even in our global and virtual interactions, people align themselves with the affinity groups relative to where they think they belong and will find acceptance. Think about your global and virtual friends and peer groups. How did you meet or connect? Why do you continue to interact? What value do you have in each other’s lives even though you do not have physical interaction?
With the world in flux from globalization and technological advances, people are developing multiple identities apparent in their local and global linkages. Identity is becoming increasingly contextual in the postmodern world where people transform and adapt depending on time and place (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). Social and cultural changes now adapt in response to single events or issues. The instant response and connections to others beyond time and place immediately impacts our lives, and we have the technology to react quickly with our thoughts and actions.
People can now live within global electronic cultural communities and reject cultural meta-narratives (Griswold, 2013). Postmodern culture also blurs history by rearranging and juxtaposing unconnected signs to produce new meanings. We find references to actual events in fictional culture and fictional events in non-fictional culture (Barker & Jane, 2016). Many U.S. television dramas refer to 9/11 in episodes focusing on terrorists or terrorist activities. Additionally, U.S. social activities and fundraising events will highlight historical figures or icons. The blurring of non-fiction and fiction creates a new narrative or historical reality people begin to associate with and recognize as actual or fact.
All forms of media and technology influence identity including values, norms, language, and behaviors by providing information about activities and events of social significance (Griffiths et al., 2015). Media and technology socialize us to think and act within socio-cultural appropriate norms and accepted practices. Watching and listening to people act and behave through media and technology shows the influence this social institution has on things like family, peers, school, and work on teaching social norms, values, and beliefs.
Technological innovations and advancements have influenced social interactions and communication patterns in the twenty-first century creating new social constructions of reality. These changes, particularly in information technology, have led to further segmentation of society based on user-participant affinity groups including racial-ethnic groups (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). The internet and web-based applications link people together transecting local, state, and national boundaries centered on common interests. People who share interests, ideas, values, beliefs, and practices are able to connect to one another through web-based and virtual worlds. These shared interests create solidarity among user-participants while disengaging them from others with differing or opposing interests meaning racial-ethnic groups can easily develop cohesion among like members across borders and inflate antagonism for others. Cybersocial interactions have reinforced affinity groups creating attitudes and behaviors that strongly encourage tribalism or loyalty to the social group and indifference to others.
Even though there are so many media, news, and information outlets available online, they are homogenous and tell the same stories using the same sources delivering the same message (McManus, 1995). Regardless of the news or information outlets one accesses, the coverage of events is predominantly the same with differences focusing on commentary, perspective, and analysis. Shoemaker and Vos (2009) found this practice allows outlets to serve as gatekeepers by shaping stories and messages into mass media-appropriate forms and reducing them to a manageable amount for the audience. Fragmentation of stories and messages occurs solely on ideology related to events rather than actual coverage of accounts, reports, or news.
People no longer form and take on identity solely from face-to-face interactions; they also construct themselves from online communication and cybersocial interactions. Approximately 73 percent of adults engage in some sort of online social networking extending their cultural identity to virtual space and time (Pew Research Center, 2011). Technological innovations and advancements have even led some people to re-construct a new online identity different from the one they have in face-to-face contexts. Both identities and realities are real to the people who construct and create them as they are the cultural creators of their personas.
Technology like other resources in society creates inequality among social groups (Griffiths et al., 2015). People with greater access to resources have the ability to purchase and use online services and applications. Privilege access to technological innovations and advancements depend on one’s age, family, education, ethnicity, gender, profession, race, and social class (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). Signs of technological stratification are visible in the increasing knowledge gap for those with less access to information technology. People with exposure to technology gain further proficiency that makes them more marketable and employable in modern society (Griffiths et al., 2015). Inflation of the knowledge gap results from the lack of technological infrastructure among races, classes, geographic areas creating a digital divide between those who have internet access and those that do not.