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An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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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’ (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 similarities 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 culture 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 Belfast’, ‘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.