Why is the social required for the development of a sense of self?

How is identity social? Why is the social required for the development of a sense of self?

Identity has diverse meanings, subject to the context within which the word is in use. In this context, however, identity refers to the sum total of different facets integrated to form a cohesive whole—a unified sense of self. While the unified aspects point to the knowledge about oneself in relation to the goals, preferences and characteristics among other things that make up an individual, the knowledge also relates to group affiliation in terms of social position, race, gender, age and class (Howard, 2000). Therefore, our self-identity gets its validation from the relations with groupings and positions held within the groupings. Identity therefore defines individuals in terms and categories shared with other people. Identity transcends to the assumption of the sense of commonality with others.

Reference to identity sometimes diverts from the social groupings of race, gender and ethnicity to the political realm. Individuals, therefore get their identities sometimes from the political affiliations, and in a sense begin to act in a similar manner as the members of the political group. As a social construction, politics therefore becomes an identifying element of such an individual. The sense of identity, therefore, borrows a lot from the social constructions, and although there is such a term as personal identity, it is indeed the sum whole of different aspects, largely the social. Thus, granted that humans belong to different social groupings, only a few of these grouping really define a person, with the rest making minimal impact to an individual’s identity.

According to the social identity theory, individuals express their individualities according to the social and personal elements (Howard, 2000). The social refers to the membership to social groupings, while the personal relates to the idiosyncratic features that distinguish one individual from another. Although these are opposite continuums, they are in fact inseparable given that individuals tend to relate themselves to groups thought as having positive attributes, and therefore paint them in a positive light, while they shun those with negative attributes, while paint them negatively (Howard, 2000).

Yet the influence of the social in the construction of self is more evident today in relation to the increasingly globalized world. The influence of social integration through travel, communication and interaction with different cultures within the social context has a major influence in the sense of self. Only groupings that remain locked out (such as the Amish) of the increasingly changing world remain confined within their traditional ways of life. However, even these have constantly been bombarded by the changing aspects of the world, which has had a major influence in their traditional sense of self as seen in the declining collectivism in China and Japan (Callero, 2003).

Such unfolding of events points to the role of the social in the development of the self. Thus, while the sense of self develops (in both children and adults) in relation to the success and failures people encounter, the social groupings and other individuals play an important role the development of self through the diverse range of communication that such groups or individuals relay to a specific individual. An individual, therefore, develops a sense of self in relation to their actions, the actions of other individuals and groups, and the reactions of other groups and individuals towards the group that such an individual belongs.

According to Goffman, Who is stigmatized? How do these people mange stigma? How is it that one characteristic of an individual becomes a central part of identity?

Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity offers an insight into stigma and the people who are stigmatized as well the management of stigma by the stigmatized. Thus, according to Goffman, a stigmatized person is one who is ineligible for social recognition (Goffman, 1986). Originally, stigmata were signs on the body, which were purposely inflicted to point out low moral status. These have however been exported to character according to Goffman, and relate to the incongruence between a person’s prescribed character and their real character (Goffman, 1986). The outcome of the incongruity between the two is an adverse reaction of the society against the individual displaying the discrepancy.

The stigma, according to Goffman, may take several forms that include bodily abnormalities, blemishes or ethnic stigma that include race and religion (Goffman, 1986). These stigmas, when possessed by an individual, invalidate other claims to normality, and therefore become the distinctive markers between the normal and the stigmatized. These markers sometimes however extend to generalizations such as the perception of the dumb being deaf and so on.

The reaction of the stigmatized varies across groups or individual. Some stigmatized persons embrace their stigma as a mark of uniqueness and shamelessly display their stigma. This becomes their way of managing the stigmatization, such as criminals displaying their rough posture and actions, which exude fear among the normals. Self-exclusion, self-hate and shame are other ways for the stigmatized to manage stigmatization, away from the display of shamelessness and pride.

Organization into groups of people with similar characteristics forms another way of the stigmatized managing their plight. The groups, which include self-help groups, national organizations or secret brotherhoods, act as means of gaining a sense of belonging and dealing with their stigma (Goffman, 1986). The groups sometimes designate a representative, who presents the plight of the stigmatized to the normal, as proof of the capability of the marginalized in performing the ‘normal’ activities.

Attempts to conceal the stigma sometimes prompt the stigmatized to undergo surgery and other processes. The idea behind this is to conceal the deformity (stigma) in order to be fully accepted within the normal group setting (Goffman, 1986). Although there is risk of being discovered, such processes give the stigmatized a sense of belonging among the normals. Additionally, other stigmatized individuals learn to do specific things much better such as the disabled being able to inspire others, both normal and stigmatized.

A diverse range of characteristics brought together forms the total package of an individual. These characteristics form the unique identity, differentiating an individual from others. However, it is possible that a single character stands out from the rest, and hence forms the central characteristic that forms an individual’s identity. The singular characteristic, while originating from the attributes associated with particular social groupings, represents the whole person, and therefore the identity with which such an individual is known.

Is internet identity validated in the same manner as RL identity? How? Is it specifically contextual or generalizable? 

Since the beginning of the widespread use of the internet, humans have developed multiple identities—the real life identity and the internet identity. Turkle (1999) calls the computer, and the internet at that, a second self, given that the internet allows an individual to take up multiple identities within the spectrum of the online life. The internet allows one to create different personae within the virtual space, which the individual then projects as their identity within the online life (Turkle, 1999). In essence, therefore, the cyberspace allows one individual to exist as different people with different identities, even though it is the same person with a singular identity in real life.

Even with the possibility of the creation and projection of multiple identities within the realm of the cyberspace, the question remains on the validity of these projected identities in comparison to the real life identity that one possesses. According to Turkle (1999) within the virtual world, the obese can be slender; the shy can project themselves as outgoing and the plain as beautiful. All these is made possible by the composition of the ‘new’ self and identity using texts that describe what one would want to be and be seen as in the cyberspace (Turkle, 1999). The ability to remain anonymous, only being known by the virtual handle, makes the creation and projection of the cosmetic personality, possible. The anonymity in the cyberspace additionally allows individuals to explore and express suppressed elements of the self, making it possible to express the multiple aspects of self simultaneously (Turkle, 1999). Ideally, it is almost like breaking free of the confines of the real life, and freely expressing and projecting oneself under the guise of anonymity.

The validity of the internet identities is however in question, and can therefore not be similar to the validity of real life identities.  In the real life, one creates and maintains an identity, one that he/she is known. The idea that the multiple identities created online are subject to an individual’s mood, even though they bring out different aspects of the individual, discredit the validity of these identities.  Largely, these identities are a result of play; changing either the name or place (Turkle, 1999). The resulting effects of venturing into the online territory of infinite identity possibilities is that some feel uncomfortable from the sense of fragmentation, while others feel relieved, even as others still have a sense of self-discovery (Turkle, 1999). The infinite possibilities within the virtual world therefore discredit the validity of these online identities. Moreover, these virtual identities are only validated as long as the individual is within the fantasy of the online world, ending the moment they awaken from the somewhat protracted fallacy.

The fact that the personae created in the virtual world depend on the mood of the user make the online identities much contextual than generalizable. The identities created in the virtual space are usually site, forum and blog specific (Turkle, 1999), and adding the idea of these identities depending on the user’s mood makes them contextual. Therefore, while it is possible for an individual to exhibit different moods and behavior at different times in the real world, an underlying element always remains constant. Within the virtual space, however, only the one sided (contextual) face of the individual’s description will be projected; a lie considering the multifaceted existence of human life.


Callero, P. L. (2003). The Sociology of the Self. Annual Review of Sociology, 29:115-133 Goffman, E. (1986). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc

Howard, J. A. (2000). Social Psychology of Identities. Annual Review of Sociology, 26:367-393

Turkle, Sherry. (1999). Cyberspace and Identity. Contemporary Sociology, 28(6):643-648