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An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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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 as 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 our 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.