The concept of Identity a Sociological Perspective on the Relationship Between Individual and Society

Essay add: 30-03-2016, 16:39   /   Views: 4
The concept of identity can vary from the very physical, abstract and or logical depending on the primary focal point of discussion. Identity on its own may vary or differ and in some cases bear resemblance. These semblances may be results of biological (genetics), sociological, psychological and physiological dictates etc. In the case of an individual they may just describe the very characteristics by which they are known or identified externally, such as name, passport, bank account, job role, to name a few; whilst in social semblances, identities are fashioned by norms, values, beliefs etc. It is worthy to note that these identities can be shared by more than one individual or entity.
The objective of this essay is to illustrate issues that the concept of ‘Identity’ as the product of the relationship between the individual and society poses, in Sociological context. Therefore, the terms Identity, Individual and Society as applied in this essay are defined below for clarity.

In this essay, the term; Identity is defined as: the characteristics; or collective aspect of a set of characteristics by which an individual or group of individuals differ from or are similar to a social group (adapted – Simmel (1908). For instance, the Yorubas (West African tribe) have the characteristics of giving distinct facial marks on new born babies to identify them as belonging to the Yoruba tribes. Nigerian Yoruba (NY) tribal marks differ to Ghanaian Yoruba (GY). Therefore, a NY is distinct from a GY, though they both belong to the Yoruba tribe; i.e. the same marks that define them, also serve as boundaries. Jerkin’s (2008) assertion that classification is meaningless outside relationships supports this point. This can definitely define positively or negatively the way an individual’s identity is formed and how they co-relate with the society. Society on the one hand can be classified as the relationship between humans distinguishable from other groups and having a shared character, culture and institution.

For centuries, many, including the modern theorists, have toiled with the idea of a core ‘self’, which is viewed as the core entity of an individual, untouched by society. This can be looked at as individualism, people seeing themselves as different or unique due to the assumption that they control their own thinking and personality, and hence, are distinct. However, many sociologists have disputed the existence of a ‘self’ that is unrelated to social processes. George H. Mead’s (1863–1931) theories in early 20th century marked the beginning of the sociological rejection of a ‘real me’ as untouched by society. The origin of Mead’s Symbolic Interactionism theory traces back to Marx Weber's assertion that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world. This process of reflexivity constitutes the core of selfhood (Leary & Tangney, 2003; Goff, 1980).

In other words, individuals attach meanings to symbols, which they then act in accordance to their subjective interpretation of these symbols; resulting to the individual’s identity been shaped by their own imagination of how others may see or think of them. E.g. if an individual imagines that others will see them as romantic by the symbol of giving a diamond ring to their partners over a candlelit diner; they (the individual) will engage in this ceremonial gesture, regardless of their individual preference. Here, the individuals are said to be actors as opposed to being acted upon (Herman et al, 1994). The dilemma is, are they really who/what they think others think they are?
Well, different interpretation of this gesture may occur; as some individuals or group may perceive this gesture as an unnecessary expense before marriage, while others may deem it a symbol of commitment. Therefore, the individual’s identity would be altered from romantic to wasteful to the former group and committed to the latter. This means individual identity can assume different meanings to different groups and vice versa, like Princess Catherine sees herself as a wife to Prince William, a princess to the British community, mentor to the young generation and so on; but is she really? Geoffman argued that the individual and their roles are equally dependent on social definition (Lemert & Branaman, 1997).

For this reason, many theorists contrast the ‘self’ with the ‘personal identity’ - how individuals see themselves due to their social interaction. Therefore, her interpretation of who she is, stems from her internalised values, beliefs, norms etc through her early interaction with others and the role she occupies i.e. the fact that she believes that by marriage she is a wife and by virtue of family ties, a member of the royal family – all from social norms and values.
Consequently, her identity is in part indirectly shaped by society, as who she thinks she is, is as a result of the role she occupies. Some may argue that she is not really royalty as she wasn’t born one. On the flip side, others would say she is, by virtue of her association by marriage to royalty. Arguably, the formation of identity is both subjective and objective reality. As Berger and Luckmann stated: ‘‘no reality exists outside what is produced and reproduced in social interactions’’ (Goffman, 1959).

To this effect, Manning’s (1992) opinion, that a better understanding of the individual and or social identity will be necessary if the society they are acting in, is first understood and welcomed. Consequently the ‘Individual’ and ‘Society’ do not represent separate phenomena but rather connotes a social integration or reciprocal relationship between the individual self and social groups (society). It is however unclear which comes first; the individual self or the society?
On the one hand, the individual is a part of the society as its actions influences society therefore creating social groups; while on the other hand; the society influences the individual via its shared norms and values that drives the individual to take on the role of the other or make those individual choices in the first place. This is an action and reaction process. For instance, the oil boom in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria in the late sixties and early seventies saw a lot of skilled labour pour into the region from neighbouring societies, even as far as other West African states, like Ghana and Liberia. These migratory activities in turn spurred the locals to seek skilled craftsmanship in oil trade, relating to the boom exigencies in order to benefit them and the society as a whole. The means by which this primitive society sustained internal stability and survived overtime, was mechanically induced. However, if it were in industrialised complex societies of British cities like London, where the individuals are interdependent; performing different tasks and adhering to varying values/beliefs, the form of social cohesion would have been organically induced (Radcliffe-Brown, 1965). The danger here is that individual actions may be shaped into robotic actions, losing individuality and creativity which is the most important part of the functioning society. As it does not encourage individuals to take active roles in changing their social surroundings, even if the changes are beneficial to them. Here, active social change is undesirable as the various parts of society compensate naturally for issues that may arise (O'Sullivan, 1989; Cohen, 1968; Durkheim, 1997).

In conclusion, it is evident that individuals are contained in society; hence society cannot exist without the individual nor can the individual exist without any influence of the society. However, these individuals must posses an identity. These identities will either be distinct or similar, hence the formation of social groups by classification or association; separating society from individuals imply boundaries. It is also evident that individuals within a society are constrained by social rules, thus societal values and norms have defining effects on the individuals and their identity, be it directly or indirectly as individuals are constantly in a social context that other individuals exists.
In the formative periods, new towns developed when people moved around and formed new living niches, due to good governing state laws or the discovery of new raw materials like “black gold” or Petroleum. The core of formation of new activities, jobs, and services would mostly centre on mining/petroleum in such instances and be the very reason for migration. Oil drilling related jobs, engineers, manual laborers, surveyors etc will form the bulk of migrant skilled professionals to the new location. Often the society would come to be identified with the trend of looking for local home grown engineers, technicians, administrators etc. This would result in the development of new training institutes and affiliates with well established educational institutions of learning in the fields that would serve and keep the oil industry running. With time new comers to the town would have to find a niche for themselves to provide services to the local populace. In a case were the society has already formed its niche, the individuals most times have to offer services required by society. In which case their identities are those defined by the dictates of the society with which they chose to be identified. The society defining the individual gives a better cohesive society as they stand firm and build a stronger politically stable front. The mining of oil could lead to air and waterborne diseases, which could also trigger the need for medical personnel. And before long a complex macro-society is formed.
The fact remains that because resources are limited society will constantly be in conflict, therefore challenging the status quo, whilst encouraging social change (even if it means social revolution). In time their entirety is in response to the demands of the ‘larger society’; leading to specialization of duties. Consequently, identity can be formed by classification (different on one level – specialised duties, but same on a Meta-category, mining community).

By: Engr. Joyce Maagbe (2011)


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