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 can 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.