An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

An introduction to social work

2.2 Identity and identities


In the previous section we considered the importance of people’s individual biographies to an understanding of who they are. Such biographies play an important part in making us who we are. In this section we will explore some of the ideas that have contributed to social workers’ understanding of the concept and importance of ‘identity’. These ideas are all examples of the kind of knowledge or theory that informs social work practice.

Figure 5  It’s all aboutme

Thinking about your own life story and those of other people can make you realise that we are not just interested in people’s experiences, but in what it is those experiences mean to them and how they affect their lives. After all, some events will seem more important than others; we all highlight some experiences as more significant than others. In this way, we build up a picture of ourselves that we call ‘our identity’. But what do we mean by ‘identity’? A useful definition might start with defining self-identity as ‘the way in which I see, describe or define myself’. Yet there is more to the concept of identity than this definition suggests. In this section you will be asked to consider both self-identity and ‘ascribed’ identity. In addition to different ideas about identity, you will explore the ways in which these impact on and affect social work.

You will have noticed that this section is called ‘Identity and identities’, and you might consider that a little odd. However, it draws attention to an important debate about ourselves: are we essentially the same person, with a fairly constant idea of ourselves, which changes little in different situations? Or is our identity complex and changing, transformed by the way in which we respond to similarities and differences between ourselves and those around us? The view that identities are constantly changing (O’Hagan, 2001) helps to remind us that, for many people, their identities are in a constant process of transformation, as they make new allegiances and are subject to pressures, challenges and changes in how they see themselves and their world. This can have important implications for social workers and service users, as O’Hagan makes clear:

Professionals in health and social care, particularly in mental health, know only too well that the process of identity change can constitute a major crisis for their clients. That process is often risk laden, heightening alienation and vulnerability, and necessitates much understanding and empathy.’

(O’Hagan (2001), p. 29)

Complex identities

This more complex perspective on identity has been developed by Stuart Hall, a cultural theorist who has argued that identity is not simply given or fixed, ‘it is a matter of “becoming” as well as of being’ (Hall, 1990). He suggests that identity is something that is never complete, and that it is more helpful to think about ‘identification’ as a process rather than ‘identity’ as a fixed state (Hall, 1990, p. 51). Hall’s ideas suggest that ‘who we are’ is strongly determined by feeling an affinity with ‘people like us’ or people with whom we share ideas, values, beliefs or experiences.

Many people will share these affinities with people who surrounded them as they grow up (family, friends and communities), but Hall’s ideas of identity also allow for individuals being strongly influenced by experiences and relationships later in life, which can have equally profound influences on how we see ourselves. In the context of social work, examples could be a person becoming familiar with their birth heritage as an adult, developing new spiritual beliefs or even their experience of engaging with higher education and professional training, which for some people may provide a strong sense of identification, but for others may feel quite alienating. Equally, for some people, their ‘professional’ life is not central to how they identify themselves; this might be secondary to their gender, marital status, ethnicity, religion or other aspects of themselves.

The significance of specific aspects of a person’s identity may vary. For instance, in the England and Wales census of 2011, 59% of people identified themselves as Christian (ONS, 2011). In Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, however, to describe oneself as ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ is to make an important statement, not just about religious belief, but also about belonging to a particular community and all that it entails. In those circumstances, religious affiliation defines identity more strongly than many other attributes. Similarly, nationality or language may be strongly linked with identity, for example, whether someone identifies themselves as Welsh or British, Welsh-speaking or not, and some people who are Muslim or Jewish regard their religious identities as central to their being and way of life, while other Muslims or Jews might see their identities as more linked to community, family, nationality, ethnicity or class. Minority groups might also see their identities as partially forged by the discrimination and exclusion they experience, which means that as discrimination changes, so identities can shift in relation to it. Other people might derive their identity from a geographical area, so they might say ‘I’m a Londoner’, ‘I’m a Geordie’, ‘I’m from Swansea’ or ‘I’m Glaswegian’. Often people use these terms when they are away from home in order to emphasise their ‘differentness’ from others. As Hall suggests, the importance attributed to different aspects of identity are liable to shift and vary over time and with circumstances.


There are many important aspects to life that can help shape an identity, including nationality, class, religion, gender, sexuality and ethnicity.

Activity 5 How do you define yourself?

Allow 20 minutes

Write down a list of words you would use to define yourself, in order of importance. See how many of these draw on your work and your leisure activities (the things that you do) and how many draw on your personal characteristics (the things that you are).

Then ask someone you know well to complete this exercise about you. Compare your list with theirs.


How did you find carrying out this exercise? Notice that you have just applied the previous theoretical discussion on the shifting nature of identity to your own life and experiences.

Were factors such as ethnicity, class, gender, political beliefs, sexual identity, religious belief (or lack of it) and vegetarianism significant factors in your list, or did you include others?

This exercise should show how complex the notion of identity can be and it should warn you against making assumptions about other people’s identities.

Ascribed identity

Ascribed identities can be thought of as the identities that other people, or society, might impose on you. These include, for example, gender-and age-defined identities which are rooted in very early social experience.

There may be conflict between the two kinds of identity. Many social work service users, for example, find that their view of themselves (their self-identity) differs from society’s view of them (ascribed-identity), and that frequently the latter is negative and based on a stereotype. Stereotyping is a process through which we assign a set of attributes to a person based on their presumed membership of a particular group. It also involves simplifying information about complex situations. For example, many older people find that their identity is seen only in terms of one attribute, their age, and the traits that are assumed to accompany that age, while their individual characteristics, capabilities and experiences are ignored. Similarly, people with mental health problems are often portrayed as one group and are frequently stereotyped in films, books and television as being stupid or violent and therefore to be feared.

Stereotypes represent society’s views in a rigid and simplistic way. It can be all too easy for individuals to absorb or internalise stereotypes so that they come to believe they are true of themselves or of others. It is an important part of social work to become aware of how we may have internalised some assumptions about people before getting to know the real person. You may feel you have been stereotyped yourself. For example, you might have come across some stereotypes of social workers and noticed that this affects your views of social work. How accurate do you think these stereotypes are? Do they contain any truths? How does it make you feel to be stereotyped in that way?

While we recognise that stereotypes exist in our culture and can become part of our personal responses and attitudes, it is important in social work that we spend time thinking about, and becoming aware of, our assumptions.

Activity 6 Thinking about your own stereotypes

Allow 20 minutes

Look at these images and answer the questions below.

Figure 6 Stereotyped images
  • In what ways do you think some of these people or groups might be stereotyped by society at large?

  • Do you think these images reinforce the stereotypes or challenge them?

  • Are there any stereotypes of people or groups that you think you might have held in the past or are affected by now?

Make a note of any time you think you have been stereotyped. How did this feel?


These images have been chosen because they challenge stereotypes – for instance, the assumption that older people do not take part in dangerous, adrenaline-filled activities. They pictures were chosen to suggest that stereotypes should be challenged and thought about. How did you react to them? Do you have other examples of challenges to stereotypes?

It is not easy to challenge stereotypes but it is important to do so. We can all be influenced by what other people think, but part of building good social work skills is to reflect on the assumptions we make about how people might think, feel or behave on the basis of a stereotype.

Spoiled identities: stigma

In his classic book Stigma (1963), the Canadian-born Erving Goffman argues that stigma relates to the notion of ‘devaluation’, in which an individual is disqualified from full social acceptance. Society establishes ways of categorising people and what are felt to be the ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ attributes for each category. Stigma, then, is essentially a pejorative (negative) label that sticks, one that is applied to an individual’s ‘differentness’, their perceived non-conformity, deviance or simply a difference in appearance or behaviour. That individual is then discredited. Stigma can result from physical or mental impairment, from known biographical records (such as a prison sentence or hospital stay) or from context (keeping ‘bad company’). It can be ascribed (e.g. his father is a criminal, so he must be one) or achieved (e.g. becoming a delinquent).

Goffman argues that society tends to regard the person with a stigma as ‘not quite human’ and this leads to a form of discrimination that reduces their life chances. Of course, stigmatised individuals are likely to be very aware that others do not accept them and are not prepared to deal with them on an equal basis. Their own sensitivity to the standard set by society may also lead to some incorporation of that judgement into their view of self. As Goffman puts it,

‘shame becomes a central possibility, arising from the individual’s perception of one of his own attributes as being a defiling thing to possess.’.

(Goffman, 1963, p.18)

Self-identity and ascribed identity are rarely separate from each other. They interact, and impact on, each other. In other words, our views of ourselves are necessarily formed by other people’s views of us.

Think back to Mary Baker’s experience of going to Halliwick Hall. This example dramatically illustrates how someone’s self-identity can change drastically, in this case through admission to residential care. Mary had one view of herself up to the point of her admission, but the regime at Halliwick Hall treated her as a number, rather than as a person with a name and individuality. Even without knowing more about Mary’s story, it would be reasonable to assume that her ascribed identity may have led her to experience the ‘shame’ described by Goffman and to have low self-esteem. You can see here how societal definitions of a stigmatised group (here children with disabilities), can have a devastating impact on the way in which they are treated and therefore come to view themselves.

Mary Baker’s account reminds us that some regimes in institutional care can and do damage a person’s sense of identity. Stripping people of their individual characteristics by dressing them in the institution’s uniform, calling them by numbers rather than by name and treating them all alike are powerful assaults on an adult’s identity - even more so on a child’s. Residential care, like all living environments, can be a powerful influence in determining residents’ identities, for good or ill.

Psychosocial theories of development

There are a number of psychosocial theories of human development and these all emphasise something slightly different. David Howe suggests that

‘by psychosocial we mean that area of human experience which is created by the interplay between the individual’s psychological condition and the social environment…’.

(Howe, 2002)

Erik Erikson, a German psychoanalyst who worked in the USA from the 1930s, proposed that there are eight stages of life, from infancy to old age, each stage having its own particular task in the development of an individual’s identity (Erikson, 1950). This theory has been very influential in social work and continues to be so.

Erikson’s work, and that of other theorists, has been criticised for being based on studies with mainly white European and North American populations, and therefore taking no account of other cultures’ approaches to identity development (Robinson, 2002). Erikson himself acknowledged that his theory of psychosocial identity might not have universal application as it was largely based on his own clinical practice. Nonetheless, his theory has a contribution to make to social work practice.

The next section focuses on ‘attachment theory’ – a psychosocial theory of human development which has been extremely influential within social work.

Attachment theory and social work

John Bowlby was the first exponent of attachment theory. He spent his career studying the impact of maternal deprivation. He formulated his ideas in the 1940s and 1950s from working with war orphans, evacuees and children who had suffered emotional deprivation in childhood. Bowlby believed many of these children went on to suffer a range of behavioural, emotional and mental health problems that he felt were in some way connected to their earlier experiences.

In formulating his theory, Bowlby drew on the research of his colleague Mary Ainsworth. Her studies of infants and mothers identified sensitive and responsive care as the vital ingredient in promoting secure infant–parent relationships. She found that care giving helped children to develop a sense of self, to make trusting relationships with others and to have the ability to learn and achieve (Lindsay, 2006). Bowlby defined an attachment as the ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’ formed with the person who provides physical and emotional care (Bowlby, 1969). To Bowlby and his colleagues it seemed that if children were to thrive emotionally they needed a close, continuous, care-giving relationship in infancy.

Bowlby believed that human beings are biologically programmed to seek proximity, safety and security from attachment figures in the face of fear or threat. Removed from their primary care givers, he thought, children go through a cycle of protest, despair and detachment. Bowlby noticed that even when children were returned to their primary care giver, sometimes their anxious behaviour continued.

The strange situation

Figure 7 The ‘strange situation’

Ainsworth developed a research technique called the ‘strange situation’, in which young children are subjected to a series of brief separations from their parent(s) and encounters with a stranger followed by a reunion with the parent(s). This has shown that it is possible to distinguish different patterns of attachment of young children towards their parents. Howe summarises the four different patterns of attachment which Ainsworth identified as:

  1.    secure attachments
  2.    insecure, ambivalent attachments
  3.    insecure, avoidant attachments
  4.    disorganised attachments.

Each attachment pattern can lead to a different way of relating to other people. We all have different attachment styles carried over from our early experiences and this might affect how we relate to others.

Howe suggests that, although attachment theory and other psychosocial approaches are a framework for understanding individuals rather than a specific method for social work intervention, they do have implications for social work practice.

Howe proposes that attachment theory and other psychosocial theories can help us to understand risks and protective factors in people’s lives. Protective factors include having someone significant who cares about you and the sense that children and adults are able to make of their early experiences. He suggests that the social worker can help to identify the protective factors in an individual’s psychosocial environment, and help to strengthen them.

Disrupted attachments

In the next activity you will be reading more about the emotional needs of young children and their reactions when their early attachments become disrupted.

Activity 7 Emotional needs

Allow 20 minutes

Read ‘Who cares? The emotional needs of young children’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , by Fagan.

  • What are some of the responses that Fagan suggests children can have to early adverse experiences?

  • Were any of these surprising or new to you? Which ones?

  • Are any of these reactions familiar to you from your own experiences with children that you know or have worked with?

  • What emotions are they likely to evoke in someone else?

  • This article talks aboutthe ‘mother’ as the primary care giver – how did you feel about that?

  • What effect might disrupted attachments have on people as adults?


Fagan suggests that children can respond to not having their early needs met in a number of different ways, such as:

  1. by not caring and withdrawing, trying to avoid feelings of disappointment, loss, anger or frustration

  2. by pushing boundaries

  3. by demanding total attention and possession

  4. by pushing away intimacy

  5. by becoming aggressive.

While some of these behaviours might be familiar to you, others might be less so.

Although this article talks about the ‘mother’ as the primary care giver, attachment research now shows that early on in a baby’s life it is responsive care from a consistent care giver which is most important; and it does not have to be a biological parent to whom a baby becomes attached. Who looks after a child in babyhood might well be determined by culture and circumstance. Infants can also form attachments to more than one care giver, although these might have different levels of intensity. Babies seem to start to discriminate between caregivers between the ages of three and six months. While Fagan talks about children and adolescents, it is important to keep in mind that attachment theory can be used as a framework for understanding biographies and histories at any point in a person’s life.

The impact of early experience

Recent developments in neuroscience have confirmed Bowlby’s original findings. They have also allowed us to extend our understanding of the importance of the relationship between responsive early care giving and the development of the human brain. The brain develops differently depending on what kind of experiences it receives. From the last three months of pregnancy up to two years of age is a crucial time, as this is when the brain is most malleable and when its pathways first form. But neuroscientific evidence also suggests that change is possible throughout the lifespan. We might never completely erase our previous experiences but we can build new experiences, new expectations and new pathways in the brain (Music and Miller, 2006).

Critics of Bowlby’s theory have argued that attachment theory can appear to ‘blame’ mothers and place too little emphasis on the whole range of influences throughout people’s lives, such as life circumstances and peer interactions. Despite criticisms and modifications, attachment theory remains a powerful influence in social work. As David Howe (2002) claims, an understanding of how attachment works can help social work practitioners

‘to make sense of the way children and adults react to and deal with the social and emotional demands of others’

(p. 175)

For social workers, the role of attachment figures in early childhood requires careful thought, particularly in relation to children in need of protection. However, they must also make careful judgements as to the kind of interventions they make with all children. While children often exhibit amazing flexibility and strength in the most difficult of circumstances, poor decisions made during this period can undermine a child’s ability to form future attachments. These relationships may also have untold implications, both for individuals and the quality of parenting they subsequently offer their own children.

Attachment theory can be a useful framework for understanding and working with individuals at any point in their lives, particularly when they might be going through a change or transition, such as becoming parents themselves. It has also proved a useful approach to working with adults in mental distress, especially those who are trying to make sense of their identities in the face of childhood trauma and abuse (Bateman and Fonagy, 2003).

Understanding identity

You can see that a positive sense of identity can go awry for a range of reasons. The factors can be psychological, as in the parent-child example, or sociological and political, as with child refugees. Cultural and heritage factors can also be significant. Care regimes and child placement policies are determined by a combination of these factors as well as by social policy. What all these have in common is that identity is formed by a person’s interaction with others – caregivers, peers, people in powerful positions, dominant social groups – but equally, identity can be strengthened or damaged by these elements too.

It is easy to make assumptions about service users without recognising that many experiences have contributed to shape them into the people they are. You may need to remind yourself that their identities are as varied and complicated as your own. A better understanding of how service users see themselves will help you to work with them.

Key points

  • Identity and identities are based on both how we define ourselves and the ways in which society defines us.

  • Theories of identity are useful tools that we can use to understand how identity develops, in diverse ways throughout life.

  • The complexity of, and disruption to, people’s lives mean that a positive sense of identity can be damaged, but attention to life stories or biography can enable us to understand the person.

  • Attachment theory is a powerful influence in social work and offers important ways of understanding biographies, despite modifications to its original formulation.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus