What Is Identity?

  1. 3.2 Define identity.

When you enrolled in college, you were most likely required to provide a piece of identification, such as a birth certificate, passport, or driver’s license. Identity is tied closely to identification; it refers to who you are and the specific characteristics that make you different from other individuals. In communication studies, identity includes not only who you are but also the social categories you identify yourself with and the categories that others identify with you. Society creates social categories such as middle aged or college student, but they only become part of one’s identity when one identifies with them or others identify you in these categories. For example, you may think of yourself as short, but others may classify you as being of average height. Many young people in their late teens and early twenties identify with the category college student, but a growing number of people in their thirties, forties, and even older are also returning to school and identifying with this category. The many social categories that exist can be divided into two types: primary and secondary identities (Loden & Rosener, 1991; Ting-Toomey, 1999). Primary identities are those that have the most consistent and enduring impact on our lives, such as race, gender, and nationality. Secondary identities, such as college major, occupation, and marital status, are more fluid and more dependent on situation.

To help define the term identity, let’s examine its essential characteristics. The first characteristic is that identities exist at the individual and the societal levels. Jake Harwood (2006) explains this concept: “At the individual (personal identity) level, we are concerned with our difference from other individuals, and the things that make us unique as people. At the collective (social identity) level, we are concerned with our group’s differences from other groups, and the things that make our group unique” (pp. 8485). For example, if you are an athlete, and you are thinking about how you are different and unique from others who are not athletic, then you are focusing on part of your individual identity. If you are focusing on how your sports team is different and unique from other sports teams, then you are focusing on your social identity.

We should note that identities are not necessarily only individual or social; they can be both, depending on the situation. How is this contradiction possible? Let’s look at an example. Many readers of this text are U.S. Americans, and their national identity is part of their social identity. Because they are surrounded by others from the United States, they may not be conscious of this as being part of their individual identity. But if they travel abroad, their national identity becomes part of their individual identity because this significant characteristic will differentiate them from others.

A second important aspect of identity is that it is both fixed and dynamic. Again, this seems like a contradiction. If you think about it, however, you will realize that certain aspects of our identities, although stable to some extent, actually do change over time. For instance, a person may be born male, but as he grows from an infant to a boy to a teenager to a young man to a middle-aged man and then to an old man, the meanings of his male identity change. He is still a male and still identifies as a male, but what it means to be male alters as he ages, and social expectations change regarding what a boy or a man should be (Kimmel, 2005).

A third characteristic of identity is that individual and social identities are created through interaction with others. The relationships, experiences, and communication interactions we share with others shape how we see ourselves. For example, people who travel abroad and then return home may experience stress, but they also experience growth and change—and communication with those they meet as they travel plays a key role in both (Martin & Harrell, 1996). As another example, in the 1960s and 1970s, many U.S. women became more aware of, and dissatisfied with, their social identity as wives and mothers. This prompted them to become involved in a larger social movement known as feminism, in which women organized and attended “consciousness raising” groups designed to alter how they perceived and performed their identities as females. Women in these groups were encouraged to think of themselves not primarily as wives and mothers but as the professional and social equivalents of men. This type of mobilization of women also occurred previously in history, when they organized to gain the right to vote. It also happened for others—both women and men—who organized to protest against racial discrimination. In these instances a common social identity brought people together into communities, and these communities in turn acted to improve the position of the particular social identity in society.

Our relationships with others help us understand who we are and how others perceive us.

A fourth consideration is that identities need to be understood in relation to historical, social, and cultural environments. The meaning of any identity is tied to how it has been viewed historically and how people with that identity are situated in a given culture and society (Hecht, Jackson, & Ribeau, 2003; Johnson, 2001). For instance, throughout history, we have had varied notions of what it means to be female (Bock, 1989).

Although Cleopatra was an Egyptian Pharaoh and Joan of Arc led the French army into battle in the fifteenth century, these individual women were significant exceptions to the rule. In their times and for much of history, women have been perceived as intellectually inferior, physically delicate, or morally weak when compared to men. Because of these beliefs, in many cultures women were denied voting and property rights and even custody of their children in the event of divorce. For example, until 1881, upon marriage, English women’s legal identities were subsumed by their husbands such that all of their property and wealth transferred to their spouses as well as their right to enter into any contracts (Erickson, 1993). In the United States, women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920—and, more recently, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has argued that the U.S. Constitution “does not, in fact, bar sex discrimination” (Cohen, 2010).

Contemporary U.S. women have all of the legal rights of men, yet historical conceptions of women still affect how they are positioned in society today. For example, “Women earned 76.5 cents for every dollar that men did last year, moving no closer to narrowing a gender pay gap that has barely budged in almost a decade” (Cronin, 2013). The value of women’s work can vary from Nevada where women earn about 85 cents for every dollar that men earn to Wyoming where women earn only 64 cents for every dollar that men earn (Casserly, 2013). Moreover, a number of religions still remain opposed to women serving as ministers and priests. The situation for women in other cultures can be even more challenging. In Saudi Arabia, although women make up 70 percent of those enrolled in universities, they compose just 5 percent of the workforce; their testimony in court is treated as presumption rather than fact; and they live mostly segregated lives (Azuri, 2006). Thus, a hierarchy exists across cultures in which one identity (male) is preferentially treated over another (female). You can probably think of other examples in which preferential treatment was given—or denied—based on race, sexuality, religion, social class, or age (Allen, 2004).

In sum, identity is key to understanding communication, and communication is key to understanding identity. As Abrams, O’Connor, and Giles have stated, “identity and communication are mutually reinforcing” (2002, p. 237).