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Personal and Social Identity

Contextualism, Interactionism

The idea that personal and group identity can be seen in a radically contextualist and antiessentialist way was presaged by the ideas of the sociologist Georg Simmel. From a traditional self-theory perspective one might conceive of the individual self as being defined by a list of traits, as well as behaviors, roles, group memberships, and so forth. At one level it might be tempting to define "personality traits" as part of personal identity, and group memberships as part of social identity. However, following Simmel (and SCT), this would again depend on the social context. The trait intelligence could be a personal property (especially where it distinguishes the individual from other individuals), however it could also form the basis for a (situated) group identity (for example, in distinguishing intellectuals from "philistines"). Similarly, a group membership label (such as a chess player or a Scot) may be seen as a feature of personal identity when there is no systematic grouping of people with these features in common in the current social context. In an interpersonal or intragroup context (for instance, a cruise party) these group labels become features that allow individuals to see themselves as individually distinct from others, helping to define personal identity. However, when the characteristics are shared with others, and used to differentiate from an outgroup, they become group defining features of social identity.

This analysis also points to the mechanism by which social identity (but also personal identity) becomes salient. Previously, following social identity theory, social identity was regarded as being salient in intergroup contexts (such as during intergroup conflict) although this rather begs the question of what counts as an intergroup context. SCT offered a cognitive/perceptual analysis of identity salience based on Jerome Bruner's notion "perceptual readiness" (or "accessibility") and "fit" applied to categorization processes generally. Following Penelope Oakes, who further developed Bruner's concept, one source of category salience is, therefore, the degree to which a group is socially differentiated from another in terms of its attributes. For example, a group that is sociable but not intellectual would differ from a group that is intellectual and unsociable. The social comparison would be high in comparative fit (or meta-contrast, to use Turner's term) and the social category should become salient. If these group differences are associated with known stereotypes, then the social categorization would also display high "normative" fit, further enhancing the salience of group differences. For example, a group of hairdressers (sociable but not intellectual) differs from a group of chess players (intellectual but not sociable), in an expected way (stereotypically).

Importantly, as Simmel's analysis also suggests, both identities and their contents (self-or ingroup stereotypes) are highly context sensitive. Whether an Asian woman categorizes herself (or is categorized by others as such) as Asian or female may depend on the outgroup present (males or Caucasians, for example). Whether psychology students see themselves as sociable or intellectual may vary depending on whether they compare themselves with physics students or school leavers.

Social stereotypes (as shared constructs about groups) are ostensibly less applicable to the mechanisms in which personal identity (and its relevant content) is made salient, but the comparative principle remains the same. A personal identity and its particular contents will become salient through differentiating comparisons with others in the social frame of reference (individuals may see themselves as powerful and competent in comparison with their younger siblings, but the opposite in comparison with a university professor).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismPersonal and Social Identity - Contextualism, Interactionism, Commitment, Culture, And The Relation Between Personal And Social Identity, Caveats, Criticism, And Extensions