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To what extent can we shape our own identities?

In social Sciences, there are several ways to consider this question.
Identity can be defined as the way that individuals label themselves as members of particular group (e.g. nation, social class, subculture, ethnicity, gender….).
The claim is that human being is made for living in society in order to survive. Constructing and shaping an identity could then be considered as the result of a social process as it will be the factor of recognition (or rejection) from the group.
Identity can also be defined as the way that individuals see themselves, how they consider they are or they should behave according to their own criteria. In that case, they could want to change their identity in order to comply with the image they have of themselves. But still they will encounter within some limits, either biological, cultural or economic.

In both options, it is possible for an individual identity to be shaped for two reasons:
– First because of the changes happening within the structure itself under the pressure of the individuals. Some people may want to follow the changes, some may be opponent, and some others may want to be seen as the actors of the changes.
– Secondly because of the personal evolution of each individual. The origin of the modification comes from the person him (her) self.
Therefore, limits exist and we will scrutinize the impact of three of them: Biological, cultural and economic limits.
Biological limits refer to the problem of gender and ethnicity. Each individual is born with sexual characteristics, male or female. He (she) is categorized in some “ethnic” groups; he (she) receives an identity card or passport which allows him (her) to be entitled (or not) to access to resources: health, education…These attributes are given to an individual and defines an identity that the individual can accept or reject.
But limits could also be cultural. In our European and more individualistic society, we think that we can shape our own identity. Therefore, other beliefs exist elsewhere: Primitive societies believe that identities cannot be shaped as it is attributed by some divine intervention according to the role that you should play in society. This is for example the system of casts in India even if this system has evolved. That means that in such cultures, individuals will refrain themselves in shaping his (her) identity as the risk of exclusion either from the divinity or the group will be too important. In these societies where collective values are predominant, the room for an individual to shape his (her) identity is low as he does not authorised himself doing so. In more individualistic society, possibilities of shaping our own identities are larger. Even more, individual can have different identities according to the group from which he is searching recognition.
The third limits could even be economic. It may be hard to shape an identity for poor people as access to health and education is limited. It is also difficult to change our own identity in a working environment as individuals are recruited on the basis of various criteria and amongst them, their identity. If we do not comply with this identity, it could be hard to achieve anything according to the common rules and the risk of rejection from the group may be important.
These limits can be overtaken to a certain extent either because of the personal evolution of the individual or because of the change of the structures. That means that if we, as human being, have a given identity when born, this identity can be shaped under various influence produced by the interaction with the environment in which we are living. This interaction works in both ways. We interact on the environment and the environment interacts on us:
– Individually people can search for a change of identity for complying to an image they have of themselves or for being recognised by a social group;
– Collective action can make some people more conscious of their identity.
In conclusion, we can say that if identities could be imposed and changes limited by various factors such as biology, culture and economy, they still can be shaped to a certain extent. This could happen either by the willingness of the individual himself who wants to comply with the image he has of himself or because of the change of the environment and structures under the pressure of individuals and collective action.

Gove, J. and Watt, S. (2004), ‘Identity and Gender’ in Woodward, K. (ed.) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, London, Routledge/ the Open University.
Lewis,G. and Phoenix, A. (2004), ‘”Race”, “ethnicity” and identity’ in Woodward, K. (ed.) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, London, Routledge/ the Open University
Mackintosh,M. and Mooney, G. (2004), ‘Identity, inequality and social class’ in Woodward, K. (ed.) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, London, Routledge/ the Open University
Woodward, K. (2004), ‘Questions of identity’ in Woodward, K. (ed.) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, London, Routledge/ the Open University.

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