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The Concept Of Identity In Society

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Published: Thu, 11 May 2017

The concept of identity is described in numerous different ways such as the I, Me, personality, self and essence. These offer a starting point for us to attempt to understand and explain who and what we are internally and within the external world .There are various theories that have been developed to help us make sense of what contributes to our identity. These theories examine the factors that can build, shape and change our identity, covering aspects such as the structure of society, our interactions with others and past experiences.

Identity could be defined as being directly relevant to associated characteristics of an individual’s character or of a group. Identity can be viewed as a both passive and active form, it can be used to help others define us which is usually not controllable by that individual it can also be relevant to how we as individuals view ourselves.(Macionis and plummer,2008). There are various forms of the self and identity the three main groups most individuals are able to place themselves within .These are the collective self, the individual self and the relational self. The concept of identity in modern western society has shifted as a result of changes in ideology and society. These changes have included industrialisation where subjects act as workers who move around for work and have a identity that is flexible and not rigid within social structure and enlightenment where subjects are able to change their identities and create new choices and choosing new value systems (Michael.A, 2008)

The relationship of identity in the structural sense and the actual power an individual has over their identity has been critically analysed by theorists such as Goffman (1999) and Garfinkel (1984) have placed emphasis on the way individuals can develop and mould identity using language.Mead describes a similar form of interaction where personality, interaction and social structure provide a framework that can then be used for an understanding of identity (Choudry,2010,p11). To examine the various theories that contributes to the study of identity in regards to investigating societies understanding of older people. This will be looked at using the following structure, firstly looking at ways in which ‘age’ forms an identity will be considered. Secondly, the influence of theorists on attempting to understand the process by which this identity is created will be examined. Third, the concept of stigma and its repercussions will be discussed. Finally, the role and identity both personal and professional of the Social Worker as an agent between structural aspects and the impact of this role on the service user.

How old an individual is and how this influences identity varies and can be interpreted differently from different personal perspectives and cultures. From an objective sense age is simply the culmination of a process that is begun at birth and one that is given certain social indicators (Taylor and field, 2007, p.113). Older people or old age in many societies worldwide is not clearly defined but usually a term used when referring to someone a few years older than the individual being referred to (Miller,2008). Various cultural views can produce pressure on who is considered young or as an older person within society. This can vary according to cultural context (Stephens and Leach, 1998,p.475).

The implications of being identified as an older person can cause tension between the potential conflict of the individuals view of their identity and the structural view . In traditional society, the identity of the elderly is often a prescribed element, that presupposes norms of clothing and behaviour (Taylor and field, 2007).Other members that belong to that particular traditional society are projected with ideals of how to behave in a manner suited to people of an older age a manner that would change for another person of similar age (Stepehns and Leach, 1998, p. 476) . These assumptions have the ability to reduce the amount of power a older person has as they are defined and categorised based on visible characteristics rather than as a whole person (Miller,2008). Therefore social workers interpretation of an older person should fully consider the relationship between identity ,older people and structural factors.An older person may not view themselves as simply fitting in to a particular category such as ‘older person’ even if society is able to do so.

There are many different sociological theories that can assist in understanding contemporary societies attitude to identity when referring to older people (Giddens,2000 ,p.521).Within social work acknowledging and utilising the right of self determinism is an important part of the framework created when providing support and assistance to older people(Miller, 008 , P4). When identifying a person in need the role of the social worker could include providing a range of suitable options to choose from. However the social worker would provide the older person with the tools to make an independent decision. This can be explained by the adherence to identification in terms of the agency exerted by the older person (Franzese,2009,p.71).It is important that the social worker refrains from categorising the elderly originating from the perspective of an ‘older person’ but viewing as an independent individual in need (Franeze,2009).To assume without proof about the lack of ability of an older person must be avoided. This can create a tendency to make judgements and disempowered the service user, leading to lack of understanding in regards to the care and support required. Especially in regards the older person’s ability to make independent informed choices based on a understanding of their life and being the ‘expert within their own situations’. Although there are types of illnesses such as mental health issues that tend to occur more in the elderly than in the younger generation the social worker needs to assume the service user is capable -so regardless of how the service user is generally presenting him o herself unless presented with proof that suggests otherwise. Using this method in social work and emphasising the person centred approach can be explained through understanding the right to self determinism and empowerment (Kim, 1991). To practice effectively the social work must actively avoid becoming complacent with the attitudes towards older people projected through dominate discourse in contemporary society. This discourse projects identity on to individuals using age as way of categorising the social work need to provide the individual with the right to self-determination.

This is a difficult perspective to maintain when the structure of society promotes and accepts the idea of defining individuals in regards to age (Giddens,2000).This is also difficult to maintain when surrounded with many resources that are provided to those in need by social services that are allocated based on age and therefore creating restrictions if an individual does not fall into that age bracket. Therefore suggesting it is difficult to completely avoid catergosring older people as this is the system used in the society they exist in. This can be examined by looking at psychosocial identity, although Giddens suggests that we are reflexive agents we may have a smaller agency than what is suggested (Newman and Newman,2008).This suggests the rationale model of decision making for an individual is limited in its uses ; the choices we make are usually created for us to some extent as they are usually made when need or desire ansd the actually outcome only clear after the choice has been made.(Newman and Newman, 2008). Consequently an older person may experience the limitation of making a rational choice in regards to their identity as these choices may be made from a particular need. The older persons rational choices maybe affected by anxieties and fears surrounding their identity. As a result the role of the agent is quite limited in regards to the way interaction occurs between agent and structure. Therefore the individual has less choice than what may be assumed.

Another important element for understanding identity in relation to contemporary social work is the subject of stigmatism. Stigma can be explained as a loss of individual social identity and status that occurs when an individual is simply looked upon as a member of a group with shared characteristics (Giles et al., 1990).The concept of being an older person could be looked upon as a creation of society rather than something that has naturally developed through positive association. This is relevant to older people as stigma can produce problems as it relates a number of conditioned to older people, stereotyping them (Giddens, 2000).Bringing in ethical practice a better way to avoid projecting identity on to an older person it would be more effective to avoid placing stigma upon the older person.With messages provided by the media in various forms such as television advertisements that depict older people as suffering from illness and being in need. When only provided with these images of older people not stigmatising within social work would appear to be problematic. Structural aspects such as bureaucratism and globalisation make community self determinism and professional independence very difficult if not impossible (Bowles et al,2006).There is an conception that older people after being classified as ‘older’ change from being active to passive members of society with limited involvement and are limited in their self-determinism. Goffman proposed a definition of stigma that emphasisies the differences between the virtual self in social identity and the actual social identity.(Goffman, 1969)

Tension that has been identified by Sociological theory therefore is concerned largely with the interaction between the agency of an individual against the stigma that may be imposed upon the concept of the elderly, and their own right to self-identity (Newman and Newman, 2008, p.388). To an extent, as is represented by the psycho-social theoretical standpoint, it is difficult to argue from the perspective of interactionism the ways in which the individual has a significant agency in order to combat this perspective (Macionis and Plummer, 2008, p.76). Garfunkel (1967) argues that language is used as an active means by which individuals shape the identity around them. Rather than accepting a social identity that is imposed by the social structure in which they find themselves, individuals are active participants in the creation of such categories (Stephens and Leach, 1998, p.24). Of course, given that much of the social stigma associated with ageing stems from the ways in which the elderly are portrayed as mentally unstable, passive victims with mobility issues, all of which can be supported with a certain degree of statistical evidence, the ways in which individuals can rail against the stigma is problematic (Newman and Newman, 2008, p.289). However, the stigma is better understood as a blanket type definition applied to all individuals within a certain category ignoring the extent to which they fall into such categories. Identity theories, particularly from an interactionist perspective, are quite limited in their approach to describing how each individual holds their ability to actively define themselves in opposition to such stigma.

The use of identity theories are not only significant for the ways in which Social Workers treat the elderly but can be seen as useful understanding the means by which the individual appreciates their own impact upon the context (Giddens, 2000, p.522). In particular, an understanding of the interaction between agency and structure can help the individual reflect on the extent to which certain roles are almost predefined by the context in which they find themselves (Haslam, 2003, p.99). First, the Social Worker’s role can be interpreted in the way in which they can be seen as part of the social structure. The fact that the provision of services can be interpreted in a negative fashion as the imposition of structure allows the individual to assess their own role and position within this context. Furthermore, the individual must appreciate their own potential for agency within the structure in the attempts provided for the avoidance of oppressive practice (Newman and Newman, 2008, p.388). An important element of this process is in the use of reflective practice which allows the Social Worker to assess their own individual approaches and their emotions to the servo e provision. The extent to which they view the elderly with a stigma, or make assumptions regarding their ability to provide their own active approach to their own identity can be self-assessed. In many cases, it is possible for the Social Worker to adopt the Goffman idea of a distanced role, where they play a role in the service provision that fits various notions of the ideal way that such services can be provided without stigma (Goffman, 1963, p.54). This will involve occluding their true feelings or impressions of an individual, and the reflective practice allows them to assess and understand their approach to the subject (Goffman, 1999, p.16). The notion of the importance of agency within this context is therefore a key way in which Sociological Theories have affected Social Work practice.

A range of effects have a significant effect on the way in which individuals are influenced in their identity (Giddens, 2000, p.522). In many such cases it is almost impossible for the elderly to exert their own level of agency in order to resist the categorisation and the accompanying stigma that often applies. In many cases, this can occur as the result of active influences on the part of the individual themselves, even if it is a distanced social role as suggested by Goffman (1999). The important influence of such theories upon the understanding of identity, however, fall into the area where the Social Worker can be seen as part of an active element of the structuration process (Zastrow, 2009, p.59). This is a difficult role to avoid on account of the fact that despite the ways in which agency is emphasised for the individual for whom care is provided, the provision of services is often defined by age rather than simply by need. From the perspective that to avoid stigma as a whole, it could be expected that the various requirements of the elderly may come under different remits, such as mobility issues coming under the disabled remit; and in many cases this does continue (Zastrow, 2009, p.61). However, the fact that certain benefits are available to the elderly on the basis of age alone means that the Social Worker remains an agent, albeit an active one, of the notion that age defines a social identity. This social identity therefore means that there is a subgroup of services that would be provided, and this perhaps undermines the active attempts to avoid imposing stigma on the concept of the the elderly and allow the individuals to impose their own agency.

The most useful forms of identity theory would appear to ultimately stem from Lemert and Mead, that emphasise the position of an interaction between structure and agency (Franzese, 2009, p.71). As has been described in the previous discussion, elements that emphasise the process of either agency or the role of structure tend to miss the point of the way in which elderly people interact with the definitions that are applied to an identity. For the Social Worker there are numerous advantages that can be gained from an understanding of such theoretical contributions and the influence of different theories can help understand the requirement to avoid stigma and the emphasis that is made in Social Work to the process of individualisation, despite the inherent contradictions that can exist in the way in which services are provided. Social Work is essentially a part of society and represents and reflects the processes within it; as such, Sociological theories will always be of use in explaining and describing the ways in which different processes form a part of practice (Franzese, 2009, p.71).


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