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Personal and Social Identity

Commitment, Culture, And The Relation Between Personal And Social Identity

This analysis also starts to reveal the close relationship between personal and social identities. From the perspective of self-categorization theory, similar processes apply in activating personal and social identities but at a different level of analysis or abstraction. Self-categorization theory distinguishes subordinate (interpersonal), intermediate (intergroup), and superordinate (supragroup or interspecies) levels of analysis. The principle of "functional antagonism" states that any given level of categorization, to the extent that it becomes salient, will inhibit other competing identities. This is seen as controversial in certain respects, suggesting that people cannot simultaneously countenance more than one identity, seemingly ruling out dual or compound identities. However, this is less problematic when salience is conceived as a relatively automatic and ephemeral process that can shift quickly with comparative context, and be overridden by conscious awareness and strategic processes. Moreover, in principle there is no limit on the complexity or idiosyncrasy of identities, and SCT explicitly eschews the sociologistic assumption that the imposed social categories (those that the researcher or experimenter prescribes or might assume are operative) are the ones that are genuinely psychologically relevant for the participant in research. This is an empirically contingent question.

This analysis suggests that context largely determines the activation of personal or social identity. It also suggests a somewhat divorced relationship between personal and social identity, enhanced by the functional antagonism metaphor. However, there are likely to be strong individual differences and individual inputs into this process, which is consistent with SCT as an interactionist theory in the sense of person-situation interaction. One important factor that is likely to determine the activation of levels of identity, and specific social identities is the concept of commitment. At the group level, commitment refers to the degree of identification with a particular group, and high identification is likely to enhance the accessibility of that self-categorization, even when the consequences of embracing this identity is negative or threatening. This is important because it is precisely when the group is threatened that it most needs its group members to support it. It is also important, however, to see group identification in a dynamic way, as an outcome of, as well as an input into, group process; otherwise, the metatheory reduces back to the individualism of personality theories.

Just as commitment to group identities can affect the social identities that are activated and used, so commitment to personal identity (or identities) can be argued to do the same. Indeed some have argued that there is a "motivational primacy" that generally favors personal identity over group identity, and, more contingently, others have argued that the personal self or identity is inherent to Western societies. The motivational primacy debate has argued that the individual self is more basic than the collective self because of evidence that people switch to a social identity when the personal identity is threatened, but not vice versa. However, this research can be criticized on a number of levels. First, the research tends to pit a generalized individual self against specific social identities, confounding comparisons. Second, as the response of high identifiers faced with threat to their group identities has shown, lack of switching when threatened can be read as evidence of commitment, and not that the identity is secondary. Some research that attempts to calibrate the general importance of personal versus social identities, although at odds with the contextualist spirit of SCT, also provides evidence that the general priority given to personal identity compared to social identity in Western countries, is not true of all categorizations and cultures.

This point serves as a reminder that there is much cross-cultural work that sheds important light on the personal-social identity distinction and the complex and contingent relation between them. Although SCT has the most explicit and perhaps radical analysis of the personal versus social identity distinction it is not the only theoretical framework or research program to address this distinction, although the terminology is not always identical. Many researchers refer to the individual versus collective self or the private versus collective self. In particular, researchers interested in cultural differences in social relations and the self, particularly between individualist and collectivist cultures, have been keen to emphasize forms of self-hood that are less individualistic, less grounded in the Cartesian notions of the preformed individual self, as separate, independent, egoistic, and so forth. However, these approaches do not always distinguish between the personal and social identity, so much as blur the boundary between the two, suggesting that in collectivist cultures the connection of the individual (qua personal identity), is much more chronically bound up with and connected to the group (the family, work relations, and other social networks). It is not clear, therefore, that the personal-social identity distinction of self-categorization theory has quite the same analytic resonance in say, Chinese culture.

In the tradition of social cognition research some of these approaches see personal and social identities as separate cognitive structures (as representing different stores or "baskets" to use the analogy of D. Trafimow et al.). This argument forms a challenge for SCT, which argues that the content of these two levels of identity is difficult to pin down because they are so context-dependent and dynamic.

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