Personal Identity 101: How Identity Is Socially Constructed

Foreword

Personal identity 101 was designed as an independent series of articles around the topic of identity and self. It joins various philosophical, psychological, and sociological theories with the aim of explaining the importance of personal identity and inspiring discussion on different existential questions. Articles will be saturated with diverse ideas and concepts, anticipated or scientifically proven theories with the purpose of encouraging readers to dive deep into the topic and identify their position in this dilemma.


Personal identity 101 consists of 8 articles. After completing the course, readers will be able to see the correlation between society and the self and vice versa.


  1. The Body Theory

  2. The Mind and Consciousness Theory

  3. The Soul Theory

  4. How Identity is Socially Constructed

  5. History, Culture, and Myself

  6. Contemporary World and Its Influence on Personal Identity

  7. Identity Problems and Solutions: Am I Good Enough?

  8. Future of Personal Identity: Flying Cars and Smiling Android

How Identity is Socially Constructed

Previous 101 articles have discussed some of the most popular personal identity theories; however, there are considerable objections to the ideas that were reviewed in those articles, and considering identity only as part of the body, the mind, or the soul is questionable. The aforementioned leaves the puzzle unsolved. What is identity? Where does it end? I am me. If none of these determine me, then what makes me myself?

 Personal Identity.” Treatise on Human Nature, Hume bundle theory
Fugure 1: David Hume

Scottish philosopher David Hume might have the answer to our question. He defined the self as nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions that follow each other extremely quickly and are in a perpetual flux and movement (Hume, 1739). To clarify, he believed that our identity was a set of collections of our material and non-material properties: thoughts, beliefs, values, and memories together with our body and all of our material possessions. All of these make us individuals and form our identities. However, as we grow and change, our bundle changes too. Hume explains that new properties replace old ones; therefore, our identity is ever changing and never constant. Does this mean that once we die, our identity will also disappear? What will remain of us?




To be is to be perceived by George Berkley
Figure 2: George Berkley

To find the answer to the question above, we need to analyze a famous phrase attributed to George Berkley: "To be is to be perceived" (1734). Saying this phrase, Barkley was trying to provide an argument for immaterialism and solve the ontological problem, and identity was none of his concerns. However, his words initiate a new perspective on identity. A person with a bundle of features is the same person as long as others perceive him that way. After an individual died, the memories and thoughts of this person remain here, so that person stays alive. Apart from this, the phrase has more connection to the issue. In the modern world, “To be is to be perceived” could be translated as follows: our identities and therefore our existence is determined by people around us, who have direct or indirect contact with us. In other words, this can be called social constructionism of identity.



“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I've ever known.” ― Chuck Palahniuk

According to popular opinion, others perceive me as who I am and how I present myself; however, the social construct view of the identity suggests that this process can work the other way around. Meaning, who I am and what I do results from what others think about me and what they expect me to do. This opens a discussion about the social construct side of identity. Webster University defines social construct as an idea that has been created and accepted by people in a society (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary). To be more precise, Social Constructionism is the underlying philosophical view that believes our meanings about the world are co-created by people rather than being reflections of “objective reality” (Liu, 2021). This theory significantly changes the perception and understanding of the identity. A person is a project of the society he or she lives in. The moment a person is born, labeling starts and never ends. Individuals grow up to fulfill their gender, culture, ethnicity, and many other types of roles. Thoughts, goals, values, dreams, everything that we have discussed as features of personal identity are, in fact, the result of social exposure. Each one of us is a reflection of the society he or she lives in. As an individual, as a person with an identity, our life must be full of small components. For example, watching movies, listening to music, hobbies; all the little things we do during the day are products of the society that surrounds us. We might think that our taste in arts is part of our identity, but all of these are developed by our everyday interactions with other people.

Ties of socialisation and identity are visible in the cases of some of the most famous feral children. History keeps records of the children who did not have the opportunity to socialise or were isolated from society in their primary development stage. For example, Anna, a little girl had spent almost six years of her life locked in a small room and had been fed on milk (Barkan, 2012). By the time she was found, she could not walk or talk. After a year of extreme care and observation, she started walking and talking like a two-year-old. She passed away at the age of nine. Unfortunately, Anna is not the only child who grew up far from society. There are examples of numerous cases such as Anna’s. All of them show that those “children who had no previous exposure to society, had no sense of identity and were reduced to animals with no sense of self or distinguishing intellect” (2013).


nature vs nurture. Feral Children
Figure 3: Feral Children. Wolf stealing a child

Personal identity 101 has already reviewed three different theories of identity: the body theory, the mind theory, and the soul theory. As Hume claimed, identity is an ever-changing bundle of material and non-material properties; therefore, we do not have the same identity through the course of our life. Apart from this, the article explained the famous phrase “To be is to be perceived” in the modern world and in the context of personal identity. This thought initiates a discussion about the aspect of the social construction aspect of self. Identity is created by society. It is not wrong to think that society perceives us because of our actions and attitudes. But, on the other hand, those actions and attitudes are dictated by others and their expectations. The idea that our identity is not ours might be frustrating, but we can conclude that Berkley's theory answers the question of what will remain after one dies: the memories of the person. If our self is created by others, and their perception of us assures our existence, then after we are gone, their memories and thoughts of us will keep us alive. We possess a set of characteristics and features that create us as individuals. This individuality helps us to stand out and be different from others. On the other hand, we cannot have an identity without society. So, to conclude, we are individuals with our own identity, but at the same time, we are part of the greater power.





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Irina Berdzenishvili

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