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Identity in question


This course looks at identity, focusing upon the individual's perception of self in relation to others; the relationships between multi-ethnicity, cultural diversity and identity; and the effects of inequality and social class upon identity. It also looks at inequality and social class as they relate to perceived identity.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of Level 1 study in Sociology.

Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • provide a definition of identity

  • recognise how gender and socio-economic categories such as class can be used as a source of identity

  • discuss social structures in terms of gender, class and nation.

1 Questions of identity

1.1 What is identity?

This course is about questions of identity. Identity itself seems to be about a question, ‘who am I?’ We are going to focus on three key questions in this section:

  • How are identities formed?

  • How much control do we have in shaping our own identities?

  • Are there particular uncertainties about identity in the contemporary UK?

First, we need to think a bit more about what we mean by identity.

If identity provides us with the means of answering the question ‘who am I?’ it might appear to be about personality; the sort of person I am. That is only part of the story. Identity is different from personality in important respects. We may share personality traits with other people, but sharing an identity suggests some active engagement on our part. We choose to identify with a particular identity or group. Sometimes we have more choice than others. This chunk will address the relative importance of structures, the forces beyond our control which shape our identities, and agency, the degree of control which we ourselves can exert over who we are. Identity requires some awareness on our part. Personality describes qualities individuals may have, such as being outgoing or shy, internal characteristics, but identity requires some element of choice. For example, I may go to football matches on Saturdays because I enjoy shouting loudly with a crowd of lively extroverts, but I go to watch Sheffield Wednesday because I want to identify with that particular team, to wear that scarf and make a statement about who I am, and, of course, because I want to state that I support one Sheffield team and not the other (Sheffield United). We may be characterised by having personality traits, but we have to identify with – that is, actively take up – an identity.

This example also illustrates the importance of marking oneself as having the same identity as one group of people and a different one from others. Think about a situation where you meet someone for the first time and, in trying to find out who they are, ask questions about where they come from and what they do. In such situations we are trying to find out what makes up this person and also what makes them the same as us – that is, what we have in common – and what makes them different. If you see somebody wearing the badge of an organisation to which you also belong, it marks that person out as being the same as you, as sharing an identity. Or consider a situation where, travelling abroad, hearing the voices of those who speak your own language, you feel both a sense of recognition and of belonging. In a strange place, finding people who share our language provides us with something and someone with whom we can identify. Or imagine that you are on a train, and a stranger in the compartment is reading the local newspaper from the town where you were born. You might strike up a conversation which includes references to what you have in common. This presents a moment of recognition and of having something in common with another person who shares an identity with you. Identity is marked by similarity, that is of the people like us, and by difference, of those who are not. There are other examples which are less reassuring, where the appropriate identity is not established, and where, for example, one may be denied access to credit or hire purchase, pension or sickness benefits, or entry to a club or restaurant, or, even more significantly, to a country.

How do we know which people are the same as us? What information do we use to categorise others and ourselves? In the examples above, what is often important is a symbol, like a badge, a team scarf, a newspaper, the language we speak, or perhaps the clothes we wear. Sometimes it is obvious. A badge can be a clear public statement that we identify with a particular group. Sometimes it is more subtle, but symbols and representations are important in marking the ways in which we share identities with some people and distinguish ourselves as different from others.

In this sense, although as individuals we have to take up identities actively, those identities are necessarily the product of the society in which we live and our relationship with others. Identity provides a link between individuals and the world in which they live. Identity combines how I see myself and how others see me. Identity involves the internal and the subjective, and the external. It is a socially recognised position, recognised by others, not just by me.

However, how I see myself and how others see me do not always fit. For example, individuals may view themselves as high achievers, worthy of promotion, yet be viewed by their employer as less than successful. The young people noisily returning home from a club in the early hours of the morning may be seen by others as troublemakers. Think about some of the ways in which how you see yourself may be at variance with others' perception of you. This could be at a more personal level, in the context of family and friendship relationships, or at a more public or even global level, where particular characteristics are attributed to specific national or ethnic groups. A sense of conflicting identities may result from the tensions between having to be a student, a parent, and an employee at the same time: these are examples of the multiple identities which people have.

The link between myself and others is not only indicated by the connection between how I see myself and how other people see me, but also by the connection between what I want to be and the influences, pressures and opportunities which are available. Material, social and physical constraints prevent us from successfully presenting ourselves in some identity positions – constraints which include the perceptions of others. Criminal identities are often produced through the exaggeration of stereotyping, where newspaper reports reproduce the notion of a criminal identity as young, male and black (Mooney et al., 2000). Criminality can be produced by others who construct this category of person. This process of stereotyping certain groups as criminal also illustrates some of the imbalances and inequalities in the relationship between the individual and the world outside.

The subject, ‘I’ or ‘we’ in the identity equation, involves some element of choice, however limited. The concept of identity encompasses some notion of human agency; an idea that we can have some control in constructing our own identities. There are, of course, constraints which may lie in the external world, where material and social factors may limit the degree of agency which individuals may have. Lack of material resources severely limits the opportunities we have; as in the case of poverty and economic constraints. It is impossible to have an identity as a successful career woman if one is without a job and if there are no employment opportunities. Other limitations to our autonomy may reside within us, for example in the bodies which we inhabit, as illustrated by the ageing process, by physical impairments, illness and the actual size and shape of our bodies.

1.1.1 Summary

Identity involves:

  • a link between the personal and the social;

  • some active engagement by those who take up identities;

  • being the same as some people and different from others, as indicated by symbols and representations;

  • a tension between how much control I have in constructing my identities and how much control or constraint is exercised over me.

1.2 Who am I?

Let us start with an example of an individual and his identity which illustrates the link between the personal and the social. The social scientist Madan Sarup uses the example of his passport, which gives information about his identity in an official sense. Our passports name, describe and place us. A passport describes an individual; it names one person. It also states to which group, in particular which nation, that person belongs:

I have three passports, all British … In the first one, I am a young man with a lot of hair and a confident smile. My height is 5ft 8in and I am a school teacher. In my second passport photograph, most of the hair has gone. I have a white beard and a serious expression. My height is now 1.73 metres and I am a college lecturer. In the third passport, the smaller red one, I am bald. Again I have a serious expression, but now my face is heavily lined. A friend asks: which is the real you? Of course, people see me in many different ways … I want to have a closer look at my red passport… At the top are the words ‘European community’ … The passport refers to my nationality – British Citizen.

(Sarup, 1996, p. xiv)

Figure 1: Examples of UK passports

Three passports offer details about identities, which are different, yet each belongs to the same person. Physical appearance is important, but it changes over time. Sarup's friend asks, ‘which is the real you?’ This suggests that there is not only continuity in the name of the person who possesses the passports, but that there might be a fixed, true, ‘real’ identity which could be uncovered. The personal identity of the named person includes their experience and life story. Continuity is important to our understanding of who we are, but changes suggest that identities are not fixed and constant; they change too.

We have some information here about what Sarup looks like. At one level physical appearance is how we ‘read’ people when we meet them. The body is also an important component of personal identity. Sarup cites physical appearance as the principal example of what is revealed here, but there are many other aspects of the body which have an impact on identity. Size, shape, disability, sex, all influence our experience of who we are and who we can be.

A passport picks out other key aspects of identity, which include occupation, nationality and age, all of which position us and give us a place in the society in which we live. However, it does not say anything about how we occupy these positions or about what they mean to us. We do not know how Sarup himself feels. Passport details cannot reveal a person's feelings. We need more information:

I think of [British Citizenship] as a formal category, because it does not express how I feel about it. I am not proud to be ‘British'; it reminds me of the scars of imperialism, the days of the Raj. I feel more sympathetic to being a citizen of the European Community, but here too I feel ambivalent. I would rather be a citizen of a federal European Community, but friends remind me that the concept of the ‘Fortress Europe’ is a Euro-centric strategy to maintain the power and privilege of the ‘First World’.

(Sarup, 1996, p.xv)

Here Sarup suggests that he identifies more actively with being a European than a British citizen. To identify with a nation or group like this is to take up a collective identity. However, only one UK identity is offered by the passport. I notice that my own passport gives my place of birth, in Wales, but currently calls me a British and not a Welsh citizen. That Britain is a multi-ethnic, multicultural society is not acknowledged here either. Sarup refers to the colonial past which positions him in a particular relationship with ‘Britishness’. This history is not recognised in the passport. The British Empire, however, used to have a place, with the old blue passport which referred to ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and her Colonies’, but more recent passports have no place for multi-ethnicity as yet. Those who hold the UK passport are grouped together as if we share one British identity. What we have in common is that we do not have another national identity (unless we have dual citizenship). We are not French or Chinese nationals. Identity is thus also marked by difference; that is, by indicating what we are not.

The very fact of having a passport at all confers identity. Particular passports provide rights of citizenship which are denied those who do not possess a passport at all. The passport illustrates some of the ways in which identities are institutionally constructed, and in this case the UK state, through legislation, plays a very powerful part in defining the identities of its citizens, especially in making some identities possible and others impossible. In the UK, birth has to be registered in order for the child to exist officially at all. Birth certificates, like death certificates, require that the person be classified as female or male. There is no alternative or scope for negotiation. At present, whatever an individual does in life to change their gender identity, the death certificate has to accord with the birth certificate. Other examples of the official production and classification of an identity include ID cards, credit cards, membership cards, driving licences or any other sort of licence.

Activity 1

Think about your own passport or any other identity card or official document. What does it say about you? Does it suggest groups with whom you share an identity and those from whom you are different? Does this suggest several different identities? What is omitted? What is the importance of such institutional identities?


The kind of information revealed in an official document like a passport has many omissions about what identities and allegiances may be important in our daily lives. Fortunately, the state does not expose our political allegiances, community involvement, sexuality or status as a parent, although these also combine to produce our identities. The apparently single identity of citizenship leaves out all the contradictions about who we are and the multiplicity of identities each of us has.

Institutions like the state do have the power to restrict individual or collective freedom to adopt some identities. We probably do not think about these restrictions nor about national identity or citizenship very often, except when we are denied the rights associated with citizenship.

1.2.1 Summary

  • The passport example illustrates the tension between how I see myself and how I am seen by others, between the personal and the social.

  • Institutions such as the state play an important role in constructing identities.

  • Difference is very clearly marked in relation to national identity.

  • Such official categories contain omissions and cannot fully accommodate the personal investment we have in our identities, nor the multiple identities we have.

2 Gender identity and gender development

2.1 The development of gender identity

In this section we are going to look at where we come from in terms of childhood experience and the development of gender identities in childhood. Gender identity involves the construction and use of gender categories. Children's gender categories are at first rather simplistic; but, as we shall see, children refine their categories so that they become more reliable and useful for their social lives. Studying the development of gender identity in children reveals that this is a story of a search for certainty. Self-categorisation is a necessary part of developing a gender identity. In exploring the formation of gender identity in children it would therefore be sensible to ask questions about children's construction and use of gender categories.

We look at four key questions:

  • At what age do children display behaviour that suggests they are using gender categories?

  • At what age can children categorise themselves (and others) as belonging to a gender category, and what does this categorisation mean to them?

  • Are young children's gender categories different from those of adults, and if so in what ways?

  • How are gender identities maintained in later childhood?

What evidence exists about children's use of gender categories? Children's preference for particular toys is some of the earliest behaviour indicating a categorisation of masculine and feminine. Preferences, behaviours or traits that mirror the views of one's society about what is masculine and what is feminine are termed gender-appropriate. Opting for gender-appropriate toys (masculine toys such as trucks, toolkits, and construction kits if one is a boy and feminine toys such as dolls, tea-sets, and domestic items if a girl) can usually be seen by 2 years of age. There is evidence that from 3 or 4 years, children are able to categorise toys as suitable for boys or girls, and knowledge of the gender-appropriateness of toys strongly influences preferences.



Preferences, behaviours or traits deemed to be suitable or proper with regard to masculinity and femininity in a particular culture.

Figure 2: Some toys are considered to be appropriate for boys and others for girls

Our second question asked about children's ability to categorise themselves appropriately. Some researchers believe that consistent gender labelling is a particularly important milestone. Most children can categorise themselves appropriately and consistently as a boy or girl at some time between 2 and 3 years of age. Durkin (1995) describes this as a gradual process:

… the child slowly becomes aware that he or she is a member of a particular sex. At first, this knowledge constitutes little more than a label for the child, equivalent to a personal name. The child begins to discover which other individuals fall into the same category, and elaborates his or her gender labels to include terms such as man, woman, boy, girl. But knowledge is not perfect.

(Durkin, 1995, p. 180)

There is evidence that some important gender-appropriate behaviours result from the child's ability to categorise themselves as a boy or girl. Such behaviours include having a greater preference for same-gender peers. However, some gender-appropriate behaviours such as toy preference, as we have seen, occur before this milestone is typically reached. Once children are able to categorise themselves and others appropriately, they can draw upon (and build upon) their previously acquired knowledge to refine their construction of gender categories, and further develop their own sense of gender identity.

So from quite an early age children are able to categorise themselves as male or female. Perhaps this is early evidence of the formation of gender identity. What, though, does the label that children initially apply to themselves actually mean to them? What did Durkin (in the quotation above) mean when he noted that children's knowledge ‘is not perfect’? The answer to these questions depends upon evidence relating to our third question about the development of gender identity. This question asked whether the gender categories used by young children differed from those of adults. Learning more about the characteristics of children's gender categories can tell us more about the sorts of gender identity they are forming.

Research has found that gender categories typically constructed by young children under about 5 years of age have particular and distinct characteristics (Kolhberg, 1966). The evidence for this is revealed through mistakes that children make. They may, for example, suggest that girls can become uncles, and boys become aunts. In addition to misunderstandings about the stability of gender over time, children are often also fooled by context. If outward appearances change, if, for example, a man dresses in woman's clothing, or if a man engages in activities considered to be typically feminine, then children may consider such a man to have changed into a woman.

2.2 Gender categories

Young children's gender categories are highly stereotyped. This can lead to assured predictions of an individual's preferences based upon knowledge of their gender, and the kinds of activities that they may typically engage in. Children develop such rigid gender categories in their search for certainty about gender. These categories are essentialist, having a simple in-group and out-group distinction that children use for understanding masculinity and femininity, and for defining their own gender identity. However, because the categories they use are inflexible, this leads them to make mistakes about gender. Given these distinctive characteristics of young children's gender categories, we can describe children as being naively certain about gender.

How might the construction of children's gender categories lead them to believe that gender may not be stable throughout life? Although a few people may change their gender identity, as adults we need a sophisticated understanding of this, rather than a naive belief that when surface characteristics change (such as clothes and make-up) so does gender. Take a look at the quotation below:

Johnny (age 41/2) I'm going to be an airplane builder when I grow up.

Jimmy (age 4) When I grow up, I'll be a mommy.

Johnny No, you can't be a mommy. You have to be a daddy.

Jimmy No, I'm going to be a mommy.

Johnny No, you're not a girl, you can't be a mommy.

Jimmy Yes, I can.

Source: Kohlberg, 1966, p. 95

Jimmy, although of an age where he can presumably label himself as a boy, believes that he can be a mommy when he grows up. The current construction of his own gender identity does not restrict him to remaining the same gender throughout life. Why might this be? Research conducted by Bem (1989), described in Box 1, illustrates that young children look for certainty in gender categories that they construct using social and cultural characteristics. Bem's study reveals that young children's categories are less influenced by biological knowledge, and this, claims Bem, is principally because they simply do not have this knowledge.

Box 1 What are young children's gender categories made of?

In an experimental study, Bem (1989) found that only about half of 3, 4, and early 5-year-olds were able to draw upon biological knowledge (genitalia) in deciding whether pictures of nude toddlers were boys or girls. Most of the children who were successfully able to identify boys and girls from biological cues were subsequently able to categorise the same children consistently as boys or girls when they were shown pictures of them in clothes and with hairstyles characteristically associated with the opposite gender. In other words, most children who were able to categorise gender on the basis of biological cues were not swayed in their judgements by the contradictory gender-cues presented through surface appearances. Most of those children who could not correctly identify boys and girls from seeing their genitalia were more likely to decide the gender of the same child in subsequent pictures on the basis of appearance.

So early gender categorisation is particularly dependent upon social and cultural experiences. Perhaps this can help us to understand why young children make mistakes about the stability and constancy of gender, and why their gender categories are defined in highly stereotypical ways. As adults, we know that just because someone changes appearance from one gender to another (for a fancy dress party, for example), or just because they engage in activities that are considered to be typically appropriate to the opposite gender, they nevertheless remain the same gender. This is because our understanding of gender embodies both biological and social knowledge – our understanding of gender is complex and sophisticated. We understand (unlike young children) that changing our gender identity takes more than changing our outward appearance or the activities that we do. In addition, we also understand that just because someone prefers woodwork, football, and beer over needlework, netball, and wine, it does not necessarily mean that person is a man. This is because we are aware that the links between our stereotypes do not correspond neatly to being a man or a woman; there is indeed diversity with regard to gender in our society. However, if we were made to place a bet about someone's gender given particular characteristics, we might draw upon our stereotypical knowledge in doing so; but stereotypes cannot be relied upon, and as adults we know this.

Gradually, children's culturally defined gender categories are supplemented with biological knowledge. Children from about 5 years of age onwards learn that their own and others’ gender identity generally remains the same across time and across contexts. This is a profound development in the gradual construction of gender identity. As the gender categories that children develop become more reliable, they also become more flexible and are no longer essentialist. Children learn that there are multiple gender identities, masculinities and femininities, rather than one masculine and one feminine type. Children are still certain about gender, just as we generally are as adults; but this is now because, like adults’ categories, their categories become more reliable and adaptive.


Multiple gender identities

Masculinities and femininities, rather than one masculine and one feminine type. In any society there is a whole range of ways in which femininity can masculinity can be expressed.

Although gender categories become more flexible, they continue to work as powerful social tools. The gender categories used in the construction of gender identity are actively maintained and re-constructed throughout our lives. But, as our fourth question asks, how does this come about? Francis (1997, 1998) has conducted some interesting research with school children, that examines the construction and maintenance of their gender identities. This research is described in Box 2.

Box 2 Gender identity and gender maintenance

Francis (1997, 1998) asked primary school children (aged 7 to 11 years) to engage in some pretend role play. The groups of children were asked to choose between play situations of a hospital, hotel, or school, and they had to choose the roles that they were going to play from a set provided. Francis observed the children's play and examined their talk. In choosing their roles, boys took the high-status positions of doctor, manager and head teacher slightly more often than girls. Those boys taking high-status positions used their role to exert domination and power far more often than did girls.

The gender roles the boys took on and constructed could be described as ‘typically masculine’ and those of the girls as ‘typically feminine’. Particularly when playing in mixed groups, the children constructed the gender roles as oppositional to each other. In general, Francis found that the girls took on sensible, selfless, mature, and facilitating behaviours, and boys took on silly, selfish, immature, and demanding behaviours. Such gender-typical behaviours correspond to previous research with school children which has consistently found girls at school to be diligent, sensible and quiet and boys to be rowdy, disruptive, and preoccupied with violence. Francis interprets the children's constructions of oppositional gender roles to be part of a process of identity maintenance.

Adoption of typical gender identities generated situations in the role play in which the girls (typically feminine) behaviours, such as willingly accepting low-status roles, and facilitating the role play with their sensible suggestions, supported the boys' (typically masculine) behaviours of taking up high-status roles and behaving in a demanding and selfish way. Francis notes how the girls' adoption of such feminine positions is simply demonstrative of socially appropriate feminine behaviour, which she describes as exemplifying a ‘properly female’ identity.

Francis is careful to point out that these gender-appropriate identities and behaviours were not taken up by all children; instead, they were fluid, and some children challenged or ignored them. Francis suggests that children work quite hard in constructing and maintaining their gender identities; but it also highlights that the behaviours typical of masculine and feminine roles are not binding, and that there is opportunity for diversity. Why are gender categories and gender identities not fixed? One reason, as Francis points out, is that gender constructions are only one part of our identities, alongside ethnicity and social class, for example. Sometimes the influences of these other factors may reinforce those of gender; at other times they may outweigh them, and this affords diversity. Because many factors interact in the construction of identity, there can be no single masculinity or femininity; there must instead be a diversity of masculinities and femininities.

This section has discussed the typical pattern of gender identity development and has shown that gender is crucial to identity and our understanding of who we are. But just as there is diversity in terms of masculinity and femininity, there is diversity too in children's acquisition of gender identity. Children have different experiences and develop at different rates. It is also important to note that research takes place at a particular time, and in a particular place, so the story of the typical may also be culturally biased.

2.2.1 Summary

  • Children's developing understanding of gender can be described as a search for certainty.

  • Young children make mistakes about gender illustrating their rigidity and their naive certainty regarding gender.

  • As children's knowledge of gender grows in complexity, basic biological knowledge is added to their social-cultural understanding.

  • Research by Francis illustrating girls' ‘sensible-selfless’ and boys' ‘silly-selfish’ behaviour demonstrates how gender identities are constructed and maintained.

  • Children's knowledge of gender in relation to their own identity and that of others develops both in terms of flexibility (in that they can accommodate diversity) and in reliability.

  • Masculine and feminine identities are not fixed, partly because identities are multidimensional. Diversity arises through the existence of masculinities and femininities.

It is possible to continue to follow this story of what is typical through investigating how constructions and perceptions of gender identities may affect experience of school and subsequently performance at school. One could explore the claim that performance in exams may to a certain extent be dependent upon gender, both in terms of one's own identity, and in terms of how schooling as a social process deals with masculinity and femininity.

3 Identity, inequality and social class: what it is to be poor

3.1 ‘Making ends meet’

When you say that someone is ‘poor’, what do you mean?

Do people whom others call ‘poor’ always see themselves in that way?

One group whose identities are greatly constrained by income are the poor. But, as the questions above suggest, poverty is not a simple fact of some lives: rather, it is a concept with different meanings, and a label that we may accept or reject. This section considers how poverty shapes identity.

When people talk about being poor, they often talk about the difficulty of being able to ‘make ends meet’ on low incomes. The phrase evokes people's experience of the daily struggle to feed and clothe a family on very little money, to keep them warm, dry, clean and safe, and to do this without getting into debt or getting into trouble. Some low income families in the UK live on social security benefits alone and have very little other access to cash or formal sources of credit. The result is a very basic existence:

I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't go out, I don't eat meat. I have thought of getting rid of the TV but I can't because it's for [my son] … I think, ‘Shall I get rid of the cat?’ but I can't … There's absolutely nothing I spend money on except just surviving, you know, paying bills and buying food.

(quoted in Kempson, 1996, p. 49)

This quotation is drawn from a survey of life on low incomes in the early to mid 1990s (Kempson, 1996). The survey was based on 31 studies that had been funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The people interviewed in the studies were diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, geographical location and life experience. Kempson's survey concluded that people who had been ‘on benefits’ for a while generally faced a hard choice between going without essentials or falling behind with their bills for water, electricity, gas or rent. The longer people live on low incomes, the harder it gets to cope. Children grow, clothes wear out, appliances need replacing, school activities cost money, isolation gets worse because of lack of money to socialise, and health and mental energy are undermined. Kempson concluded that UK benefit rates in the early 1990s generally gave people insufficient money to cover even basic needs. As one benefit recipient said: ‘You're on the poverty line whichever way you look at it … Nobody can manage on £46 a week. You can't exist on that. You can't manage it. It's degrading’ (quoted in Kempson, 1996, p. 6).

Many low income households in the UK, however, do not claim state benefits. Many people live on low wages, and the extent of very low paid work increased in the 1980s and 1990s. In the Rowntree studies reported in Kempson, wages of £70–£90 a week for such full-time jobs as shop assistant, and around £100 for male manual jobs, were quite commonly reported.

So how much is enough to ‘make ends meet’? The Rowntree studies asked this question in a variety of ways. The people interviewed were asked how much money they needed to cover basic outgoings, to live on, to avoid the need to supplement low wages, to create a low likelihood of problem debt. The different calculations produced some remarkably similar answers despite the diversity of people interviewed. Single people reckoned that in the early 1990s they needed about £150 a week, or less if they were not a householder. Lone parents came up with a figure of around £180 a week. Couples with children needed around £200 to avoid arrears on bills. Many people on low wages were working long hours to try to bring their incomes up to these figures (Kempson, 1996).

The consistency of these estimates suggests that, in a particular time and place, there tends to be a shared view about what goods and services are necessities. The UK government also takes a view on this issue. It states that the level of Income Support – the basic benefit for adults – should be ‘the amount needed to bring their income up to their “applicable amount”. This is the level the law says they need to live on’ (DSS, 1997, p. 21). Income Support payments vary according to family circumstances and housing costs. The number of people living at or below the Income Support ‘poverty line’ is frequently used as one definition of those counted as ‘poor’ in the UK. The Rowntree studies showed that by the early 1990s these benefit payments had fallen below a social consensus on the level that was necessary.

Figure 3: Possilpark is one of the most deprived areas in Scotland

3.2 Necessities and luxuries

As the division of opinion between the government and low income people illustrates, definitions of poverty are the stuff of political debate. People in the Rowntree studies tended to focus on ‘paying bills and food’. Most people's list of basic needs would also include adequate food and clean water, clothing, shelter and heating. But are there also less apparently physiological, more evidently social, necessities of life?

Activity 2

Look back at the quotation in section 3.1. A woman on a low income seems to be arguing that a TV is a ‘necessity’ for her son.

  • What do you think of her argument? Do you think a TV is a ‘luxury’ or a ‘necessity’ in the contemporary UK?

  • Decide what you think and why before reading the discussion.


Televisions were not a necessity in the 1930s since they were not available. But how about in the UK today? You may have answered, no, a TV cannot be a ‘necessity’ because one can stay alive without a TV. But what about living a human life, with enough sociability and communication to make life worthwhile? Many accounts of the experience of poverty include the pain of social isolation: of not being able to afford to socialise with your peers. Communication with others is part of being human, and in a society where virtually everyone has access to a TV at home, people without television are deprived of access to one of the staples of conversation, jokes and information exchange. Children can suffer particularly from limited access to a shared culture – something the mother quoted in section 3.1 was trying to avoid for her son.

So one might conclude that in the UK, where 96 per cent of households had a television in 1994, it is now a ‘necessity’. A lack of a TV constitutes relative deprivation if all the other children in the class have access to one and it has become a basic means of communication and cultural reference point. By the same token we could argue that a radio was a necessity in Britain in the 1940s. A TV seems to be a necessity at the end of the twentieth century; a computer may become a necessity in future years if using one becomes a common way to bank, shop and communicate.

There is no ‘right answer’ to Activity 2. Necessities are a matter of social and political judgement. But that does not mean our definitions are arbitrary. In 1990 a study called Breadline Britain asked 1800 people whether a number of items were ‘necessities’; 58 per cent put a TV in that category, up from 51 per cent in a similar survey in 1983 (Goodman et al., 1997, p. 244). Our ideas about what we need depend on what others have and what others expect. Even notions of what constitutes adequate food and heating have changed over time. Social scientists therefore generally recognise that there is a strong ‘relative’ element in definitions of poverty. That is, there are some irreducible human needs, but poverty in a society is also defined relative to the goods, services and opportunities available to the non-poor.



Poverty is more than a lack of money. It carries a stigma because it is defined relative to what people think is needed for a decent life.

3.3 How others see us

The relative nature of poverty is an old theme in social science. Adam Smith, the eighteenth century writer who is often regarded as the founding father of economics, put it this way: ‘By necessaries I understand not only the commodities that are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest orders, to be without’ (Smith, 1776, quoted in Sen, 1981).

Ideas of what it is to be poor are thus closely tied up with difficulty in maintaining the basic decencies of life. In the Rowntree studies, people on low incomes repeatedly referred to fear, for example fear of homelessness or disconnection from water, heat and power; to shame, especially shame at getting into debt; and to guilt about having to ask others for help. ‘When they turned the water tap off, I felt very upset, I can't explain … I feel personally ashamed. I feel ashamed at myself’ (quoted in Kempson, 1996, p. 37).

As a result, the idea of being ‘poor’ carries a stigma: it is a label that many people living on low incomes resist. For example, in a set of interviews in the early 1990s, 85 social security claimants were asked whether they thought ‘poverty’ existed in Britain, and if so, who were the poor and were they themselves ‘poor’? Almost everyone could answer these questions, and almost two thirds of interviewees said that they did not consider themselves to be poor. Half of the rest admitted reluctance in defining themselves as poor. The answers were also gendered. Men were more likely than women to deny poverty, suggesting that men may be more likely to be ashamed and women more realistic, as this short extract from an interview shows:



An attribute that is perceived by others as demeaning or discrediting for those who have it. It can be social or physical or a characteristic shared by a whole group or by a few individuals. Stigma is used to justify exclusion.

Interviewer: Do you think poverty still exists in this country?

Respondent (man): It don't.

Respondent's wife: It does!

Respondent: We're not poverty-stricken, nowhere near it yet. We've got all the stuff we can sell.

Respondent's wife: But that doesn't mean we've got food in the cupboard …

(quoted in Dean, 1992, p. 83)

The interviewees in the survey expressed many different meanings of the word poverty. Some saw poverty more as a state of mind than a fact: poor people were ‘people who think they're poor’, an idea often associated with the notion that people bring poverty upon themselves. The survey author comments that some interviewees seemed to see the admission of poverty as a kind of self-indulgence: they insisted that there were many worse off than themselves, or that ‘real’ poverty no longer existed. Others felt that poverty implied a lack of dignity or cleanliness and cited their clean homes as evidence that they were not poor. Others straightforwardly resisted what they saw as an undesirable classification: some said that they did not ‘class’ themselves as ‘poor’, but as ‘ordinary working class’.

Poverty is therefore not only a relative matter. Representations of the poor in British culture are often demeaning. As a result of these derogatory meanings, it is hard for people struggling on low incomes to identify themselves as ‘poor’ and to use that identity in campaigning at the level of national policy. National anti-poverty lobbying has been largely conducted by ‘experts’ and professional campaign groups. This is in contrast to the effective organisation and national lobbying carried out on their own behalf by, for example, people with disabilities (many of whom suffer from poverty) who have fought to change public representations of disability and to change social and individual expectations (Beresford and Croft, 1995). Campaigns of this kind require people to identify with a label; but, as a participant in one conference that brought together anti-poverty campaigners and people with experience of poverty put it: ‘I think this word poverty is a real crusher’ (Lister and Beresford, 1991, p. 10).

Figure 4: A homeless man begging from commuters

3.3.1 Summary

  • Claims about who is poor are rooted in shared and contested ideas about the basic necessities of life.

  • The experience of poverty is both relative and relational. It is defined by what people have, and what they can do, relative to the opportunities of others.

  • Poverty carries derogatory meanings, so it does not easily provide a basis for collective identity.

3.4 Audio activity

Using audio is a very idiosyncratic practice amongst Open University students. Some listen to them in the car, others on a personal stereo on the train, some while washing up, others at their desk. Flexibility of use is certainly one of their virtues. However you use them, some of the following may be useful guidelines.

  • Read the notes for the activity before you listen. At the very least try and fix in your head or note down the main purpose of the audio and listen out for the key questions of the course.

  • If you can, have a pen and paper handy for short notes.

  • Audio can be stopped and replayed – when something is complex or interesting. It can also be fast-forwarded.

  • After listening to the audio – and this is really the most important thing – spend five minutes organising your notes and thoughts. What are the key points, new ideas, new connections sparked by the audio? Is there anything you need to look up or check over? If you can’t do it now, make a note to do it later.

Listening to audio files

Participants: Dr Kath Woodward, Dr Karim Murji and Professor Wendy Hollway.

While listening to the audio files below you will hear a discussion of the key questions posed about identity in this course.

  • How are identities formed?

  • How much protocol do we have over shaping our identities?

  • Are there any particular uncertainties about identity in contemporary life?

Key points

The key points discussed are:

  • Changing times have led to particular interest in matters of identity.

  • Migration and movement mean identities are changing and people's sense of who they are and where they belong becomes more important.

  • There may be greater uncertainty about identity now than in the past.

  • Identity involves links between the personal, how we see ourselves, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the social, how others see us and the structures that make up the society in which we live.

  • Identity is marked by differences, including how we look, such as the clothes we wear, and how we sound, such as language and accent.

  • Identity requires some personal engagement on our part; we have to take up identities for ourselves.

  • We are constrained by others' perception of us and by the societies in which we live, but we are also able to effect changes, for example through collective action.

Before listening

Think about these questions:

  • What is identity?

  • How are identities formed and what processes are involved?

  • Do we have multiple identities?

  • What sort of changes are there in the contemporary world and how might they impact upon our identities?

  • How might uncertainties create new opportunities for shaping our identities as well as insecurities?

  • Do we shape our own identities?

  • What sort of constraints are there and which structures might influence the identities we have?

The original audio for this course was 30 minutes in length. For the purpose of this web delivered course it has been subdivided into three shorter sections. You may choose to listen to all three audio sections one after the other or you may listen to them at different times. Remember that the notes in the section ‘before listening’ apply to all three sections.

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Transcript: Audio 1

[Kath Woodward]
This is DD100 Audio 3A. I’m Kath Woodward and I’m joined today by two of my colleagues on the DD100 course team, Wendy Hollway and Karim Murji. I won’t say any more about Wendy and Karim as this is an audio about identity – I’ll leave them to say a bit about themselves. Wendy, if you were asked about your own identity, what sort of things would you say?
[Wendy Hollway]
Well, you’ve just introduced me in a work context, so I suppose I’d start by saying what I am in The Open University. I’m a Professor of Psychology and that’s relevant because of the approach that I will take to these discussions. But what else would I say about myself? I’m a white English woman and a mother and I suppose I would also like to describe myself in terms of certain personality characteristics. I’m energetic, I’m quick-witted. Somebody described me as charismatic over lunch and I thought ‘Oh, that’s nice.’
[Kath Woodward]
You said several things there. It’s a very short amount of time to say it, but you’ve said things about yourself in the world and about who you feel you are. What would you say Karim?
[Karim Murji]
I think my answer would depend on whom I’m with and where I am, so the answer may not be the same at all times. But, for current purposes, I suppose I might say people often ask me ‘Are you a British Asian?’ and I find these things a bit confusing because I’ve never felt very Asian, even though I might look Asian. I was born in East Africa and I have no conception of myself being Asian until I arrived in the UK and people started thinking of me, referring to me, in these ways. I’d actually never been to Asia in my life until quite recently. And, for people like me, calling yourself British is not very clear. It’s not very clear whether you are British or not because of the whole problem around what British identity represents. But I think it became clear I was British when I went abroad to Europe, or to countries like France, where suddenly it became very clear because of behaviour, but also because of language. But, yes, clearly I was British because they treated me as if I was British.
[Kath Woodward]
I think this shows the ways in which identities are multiple. Even just the very brief description that you’ve both offered suggests that identities are varied and it may be more useful to talk about identities rather than identity, because each of us has several. Also, that our identities change with the context in which we find ourselves. And another of the aspects of identity that we offer in the course – in Block 1, looking at definitions – is that identity links the personal to the social. It links who we think we are with how others see us, as Karim suggested. We’re often aware of who we are through how other people define us and categorize us. It’s also about the ways in which we’re marked as ‘different’ from some people and ‘the same’ as other people. There is also the way in which identities change in different situations and also change across time. I wonder why it is that we are interested in identity at this point in the course, because this is where we start in Block 1 – with looking at the concept of identity. But it’s a work with which we’re familiar in our everyday life. In fact it’s quite a buzzword, not only in academic circles but also in a whole range of different contexts. Why do you think it is that we are interested in identity now? Is it about change?
[Wendy Hollway]
I think that it is partly about change and, although we might exaggerate the fact, there were times in the past where probably people led more settled lives in which their main sources of identity were taken for granted. Now we travel more and we change jobs more and there is a lot more movement and possibility. One example, which I think is particularly striking, is the change in gender relations that has occurred over the last, say, 30 or 40 years in Britain. One of the most fixed forms of identity that each of us felt from very early on was whether we were male or female. I think one of the things that has changed is that women are allowed to be much more like men, and men are even allowed to be quite a lot more like women than they were in the past. Women have more work roles and do similar work to men in many cases. Men are taking on the kind of parenting, caring roles in greater numbers than they were. So, I think that uncertainty has affected our identity in terms of our genders.
[Kath Woodward]
That’s one area of our lives in which change has taken place. Can you think of others, perhaps over a similar kind of period – over perhaps the last 50 years – in which there have been changes taking place that might make identity a more interesting issue at this point?
[Karim Murji]
Well, like Wendy, I think that the issue of movement is quite important because of why identity matters and why identities might have changed. But the kind of movement I’m thinking about takes place on a larger scale. It’s about movement of peoples, movement of goods, movement of consumable items, movement of capital across national borders – perhaps even at a global level. And I think that throws up all kinds of new challenges because what appeared to be stable features of identity, for example our national identity – we might have thought of ourselves as British – no longer seems so settled. For example, look at the relationship between Britain and the EU. It’s not clear exactly what’s British and what’s European. If we think about devolution, it’s not clear that all people subscribe equally to a British identity. In fact, there are multiple identities even within the nation state. And so the idea that nations were imagined communities becomes more complicated because, in fact, there are multiple imagined communities within the nation. And, for example, there might be Welsh people who think of themselves as being Welsh and British or Welsh and not British because British is seen to be largely something that’s dominated by England and the English. So I think movement of people, movement of goods across borders and so on has thrown up new challenges. Sometimes all of this is referred to as globalization, but that throws up new challenges which make identities more complicated and it becomes harder to say where peoples’ loyalties really lie.
[Kath Woodward]
This raises some questions about the ways in which identities are formed in relation to different contexts. Whilst you suggest, Karim, that our identities are changing in terms of national identity and the place that we belong, we also in that context are British or not British, and we are also at the same time mothers, fathers, workers. All of these identities work together in different ways. But this raises one of the big questions that we address in this block, which is what’s going on when we go as far as to say that we’ve taken up an identity? The question, as we form it in the course, is how are identities formed? What sorts of processes are involved? There have been these changes in work, in politics, in movement – movement in different ways – but how do these things influence our identities? And do they contribute to them, and what sorts of things are happening? So, perhaps if we could look now at how we might address this question about how identities are formed in relation to the kind of changes that have taken place. Karim?
[Karim Murji]
I think I’d approach the question of how our identities are formed more from a structural perspective. In other words, while I think there are things people can do to change their own identities, I’m more interested in the ways in which peoples’ identities are shaped or given to them. And we shouldn’t ignore important but basic things such as legal categories of identity. For example, your citizenship – your ability to belong to a nation state – is an important marker of your identity because, for example, possession of a British or European passport has a cachet and a value that other passports would not carry, for example in terms of your ability to travel around the world. So there are, I think, basic things like that, which sometimes go unmarked but are important.
[Kath Woodward]
So the law is, in a sense, a structure too …
[Karim Murji]
[Kath Woodward]
… as well as the state.
[Karim Murji]
But I think talking about the state leads us to other ways in which… our identities are shaped or moulded for us. For example, the state or the government uses various kinds of categories of identity. The census is an obvious example that appears in the block. And, although those categories change and are sometimes decided in consultation with people, nevertheless they are not, in a sense, very natural identities. They are not identities that we might feel ourselves to have naturally in terms of how we might describe ourselves. Nevertheless, the extent to which people describe themselves in terms of census categories shows the ways in which those things are interpolating us. In other words, we’ve come to identify with those identifications.
[Wendy Hollway]
I could add to that. I think I said right at the beginning that I’m white English. Of course I grew up not thinking that I was white. I grew up in a part of rural northern England where I didn’t meet a black person for years, I’m sure. And the fact that I was white was completely irrelevant until I started mixing with black people. I remember being on a bus in East Africa where I was the only white person. At that point I was extremely self-conscious of the fact that I was white. By that time I was in my twenties. So these categories are given in language but they don’t necessarily map on to the way we’ve learned to experience ourselves as we’ve grown up.
[Kath Woodward]
So the categories are imposed upon us through the kind of structures – social structures – in which we operate.
[Karim Murji]
They are imposed in some ways, but the fact that we come to live those identities and see them as part of our lived experience suggests that they’re not simply imposed; we must take them on board. And sometimes in taking on board those identities we might refashion them, we might change the meaning of them. So structures can to some extent be changed by agency.
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[Kath Woodward]
This illustrates the ways in which our identities are formed in relation to how we perceive ourselves and also how others see us – by the kind of clothes we wear – or how others hear us, and the example of the ways in which we speak. The relationship between how we see ourselves and how others see us is very important in the kind of processes that are involved in looking at how identities are formed; and the ways in which we have some investment in an identity at a particular time. Karim, you started your response with an emphasis on some of the structures which create the possibility of certain identities rather than others. Another dimension of the formation of identity might give more emphasis to the personal element in the equation between the personal and the social. What would you say Wendy – that the sort of examples of ways in which identities are formed might give more emphasis to the ways in which we engage with a particular identity?
[Wendy Hollway]
Yes. I think the way other people see us is hugely important. This starts long before we are language-speaking young people who are beginning to organize and understand the world around us and the way we are treated by other people. It becomes embedded in our experience. And because one of the definitions of being human is that we are self-conscious individuals, we learn a lot about who we are from the way people treat us. As George Herbert Mead pointed out, we have an ‘I’ which is the experiencing part of us and the ‘me’ which is the response to the way we are experienced. And that means that we are very influenced by the people around us who, as it were, hold up a mirror to us through which we see ourselves. It’s the way that they hold up that mirror, but it’s also how we imagine they are responding to us, and both of those things intermingle to create, over time, a sense of our identities. That’s one emphasis – on our social relations with others. But psychologists also emphasize how we develop, particularly through childhood, and how we acquire the basic kind of building blocks of ourselves from the moment we’re born. A lot of this happens without our conscious awareness of it. It’s often joked that however hard we try not to be like our parents we’ll end up being more like them than we think. That’s because it happens at a level that is below conscious awareness. And so through identifications we acquire many of the building blocks that create us.
[Karim Murji]
What I find interesting in what Wendy’s saying is that there are certain identities we may think we have which we take for granted – the most obvious ones being things around gender, perhaps ethnicity, perhaps whether we’re able-bodied or disabled or not. So, for example, we both said that we only recognized ourselves as being white or British when we were somewhere else, where it was brought home to us. I think another point which might be helpful is that Goffman, for example, is often criticized for sometimes suggesting that there are only a certain number of roles or ways in which we can perform these roles and so on. But it may well be that through social practices – through, for example, the practice of consumption – the various kinds of identities or roles are created for us all the time. Other examples are whether we buy our clothes at store type x or y, whether we drive a particular kind of car, where we live in the country, how we speak, what kind of schools people send their children to and so on. All these things are ways in which people can fashion their identity in the social world. But sometimes these options, or these choices, are offered to us through advertising, the media and so on.
[Kath Woodward]
But there are points at which there are severe constraints on how free we are to fashion ourselves in these situations, when you say about the cars we drive and the clothes we buy. But that shifts the emphasis from perhaps the processes – the personal individual level processes of identity formation – to what is available in the social world. When you suggest that there are points at which we might not know what’s happening – we might not be aware of the identities which we are taking up – how else might we look at what’s happening in these situations, Wendy?
[Wendy Hollway]
I think that most of the time we are not aware of the self by which we live. I think it’s very popular at the moment, not just in social science but in broad culture, certainly in the west, for people to say ‘I can be whoever I choose.’ The idea is that through the clothes that you wear and the performances – in a sense, who you enact yourself as being amongst other people –you can create an identity for yourself, which is chosen. Now, psychoanalysis emphasizes this nine-tenths below the surface and I think the implications of that for identity is to say, well, most of the time we are who we are without even being aware that this is what’s going on. And if we tried to change those things we’d be hard put to it, because we’ve never formulated them in language, we’ve never been very conscious of them – they just are.
[Karim Murji]
I also agree that there are limits to what we can do, but I think I’d approach it slightly differently. Sometimes we get the impression – or perhaps it’s better referred to as an illusion – that we can fashion identities in any way we want. But there are things about our lives that are very hard to change. For example, no matter what anybody says, it’s very hard to change physically how old you are – you can lie about it but, nevertheless, it doesn’t change the truth, I don’t think.
[Kath Woodward]
You can use anti-wrinkle cream.
[Wendy Hollway]
But that raises the question of the new technologies which are about manipulating identities. So not only can people have nips and tucks to make them look younger than their chronological age, but they can change sex and pass themselves off as women or men in a way which completely goes against the old idea that a sexual identity is something that is biologically fixed for life. And this has given people new realms of choice, which we wouldn’t have dreamt of until recently.
[Kath Woodward]
This is an element of change that we didn’t identify in the earlier discussion about changes, perhaps over the last 50 years – the advent of new technologies. For example, reproductive technologies have enabled women in their later years to give birth, and women who had thought they would be infertile to give birth. That’s another component in the changes that have taken place; also, communications technology that speeds up the process of communication across the world.
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[Kath Woodward]
We’ve looked at some of the ways in which structures – social structures, which are changing – may appear to have shaped our sense of who we are and the ways in which our identities are formed. We’ve also looked at the kind of psychic processes that are going on. We’ve put the spotlight on two different sides, in a way, which is not to suggest that the two are separate and distinct. Because how we feel about an identity is very important in relation to how we construct our sense of ourselves and who we are. But also important is what’s available to us and what the society we live in offers us as possibilities. One of the things which, in looking at how identities are formed, has been difficult to avoid is looking at how much control we exercise over this process. This is another of the big questions that we address in this block. The extent to which we can be seen may be shaped by unconscious forces – as Wendy might have suggested in relation to her iceberg metaphor – and also by some of the social structures that we’ve suggested, which place constraints upon us: either the categories that are created through legal, political, social institutions or the kind of material constraints, those of social class, situations such as poverty, which severely constrain the amounts of autonomy we have in deciding who we are, certainly in deciding whether we can buy products that create our identity. This question relates to our concern with the tension between how much agency we have and how much control is exercised by the different kinds of structures. How much constraint is there and are we as severely constrained as perhaps was hinted at in your use of the unconscious.
[Wendy Hollway]
Well, paradoxically, I don’t think this emphasis on nine-tenths being under the surface and out of the control of our conscious intention ends up amounting to an argument that we aren’t agents of our own lives. Because, I think the unconscious is a very creative source of agency. If we were just produced by our social environment you could read off who somebody was from all the social positions and social relations in which they were contained. And, what’s wonderful about human beings is that they always defy those categories. I think maybe the changes that we’ve seen in the last 30 years or so for gay people in Britain is a good example of this. Because the socialization theory, if it worked, would have turned all little boys into tough ‘I don’t cry’, ‘I love guns’ and ‘I’ll be like my dad’ sort of boys and little girls would have liked to have babies and preferred pink and all those things. Well, we don’t slip easily into those gendered roles and what gay liberation did was take this up at a conscious intentional level.
[Kath Woodward]
That is illustrated in relation to other social movements as well. In terms of gender, you could look at the women’s movement also as having had a transformative impact on the kind of relations that you were talking about earlier as being one of the main sources of change. What would you add to that, Karim, in terms of the extent to which collective action might effect changes in terms of our identities?
[Karim Murji]
What’s interesting for me about thinking about collective ways of changing peoples’ identities is the way in which we can see that ideas about what it means to be a woman, or ideas about what it means to be a man for that matter, ought to be black or white but can change over time. These things are not simply fixed. For example, in the 1980s it was quite common for Asian people to regard themselves as being black: they belonged to groups like the black section of the Labour Party (there’s still something called Southall Black Sisters, which is largely made up of Asian people) and so on. To some extent, that terminology has moved on and lots of Asian people don’t describe themselves as being black any more. But at that time, when African-Caribbean and Asian people all saw themselves as being black, there was something quite powerful being said about identity and identification because we’re not just giving ourselves an identity, we’re also identifying collectively with a group of people. And that group identity also gives us the sense of who we are and what our goals are, what we’re trying to achieve and so on. So I think collective identification, such as the nation or the football crowd or a group of people who are interested in hunting or other similar hobbies are quite powerful ways of thinking about the part both agency and structure play in identity. To some extent we belong to groups because they give us an identity but also, to some extent, we fashion some of the meanings of those identities while we’re in those groups by the ways in which we behave and they behave towards us.
[Kath Woodward]
How important are the names, do you think, in terms of these categories, because Wendy mentioned the gay movement and earlier on you talked quite a lot about the issue of being black and Asian or Asian and British?
[Karim Murji]
There’s a good example in the block of a quote from Henry Louis Gates where he says ‘My grandfather was a Negro, my father was coloured and I’m black.’ Well, if you move on from that, you’d now say you’re a person of colour, because in the USA people like Henry Louis Gates, who’s a black professor in the USA, describe themselves as people of colour.
[Kath Woodward]
So it is important what words we use and the names we use. It isn’t just about merely a label. It actually illustrates how dynamic the process of changing identities is and it also illustrates the ways in which, through taking action, it is possible for people to reshape, reform, identities.
[Karim Murji]
Yes, it is possible but we shouldn’t assume that people can always transform their identities. If we take the example of race and ethnicity, the language may have changed from negro to coloured to black to person of colour or ethnic minority (some are all those) but somewhere along the line the inequalities within groups of people one might broadly label ‘white’ and ‘black’ are still very marked and very clear. So, we can change something about the categories and we can change something about our identities and we can change something about the way in which people might see us, but some of those material factors that you were referring to earlier on do persist – not in exactly the same way, but they do persist.
[Wendy Hollway]
I think language unfortunately only works because it emphasizes the difference between things in one category and things in another. Black means black because of white, in the context of racial difference. But, of course, people don’t fit into those categories. They are extremely fuzzy. In fact they just don’t work, as Hitler found out when he tried to categorize Jews and Arians in the 1930s. It was an impossible task and so he kept on changing the rules, because who we are, even just simply in terms of ethnicity, is massively multiple and complex and words can only fix something which will not be fixed, which is more mixed and fluid than that underneath.
[Karim Murji]
Yes. It operates in complicated ways because, for example, in the wake of devolution in Britain there are now all kinds of people who assert their identity as English. And one of the controversies around the 2001 census categories was a number of people saying things like ‘Why isn’t English a category amongst these things?’ And there is, to some extent, an English nationalism. I think identity does work relationally. We know that some people are black because other people are white. We often assume that one of these terms is dominant – white is dominant, black is subordinate – and to some extent that also works with male/female, able bodied/ disabled and so on. And that’s true, but if we overdo that sense of them and us, sameness and difference, we sometimes don’t recognize the extent to which both sides are themselves internally differentiated. So, for example, white is not a homogenous category any more than black or minority is. But, curiously, if we look at things like census categories, we see that white remains almost undivided, whereas all the other categories are heavily divided and so on. Yet we know that historically, as well as in current times, there are many degrees of whiteness – people who do and don’t belong to whiteness. The example of Jews is a good one because it’s very hard to say whether Jewish people are regarded as being white or not. At various times, particularly in Victorian times, the Irish have been regarded as not being quite fully white. And there are many examples of people of ‘Mediterranean’ origin who, particularly in the USA, were regarded as being black and not as being white at all.
[Kath Woodward]
I think it’s very useful to point out the ways in which, although we have in part offered a definition of identity which is based on sameness and difference, we mark ourselves out as the same as one group of people and different from another. I think what you’ve suggested shows the ways in which this is never as clear cut as it might appear. A category which might seem to be the same, whether this is women or men or black people or white people, is always itself sub-divided and also there are differences that cross these categories. However, one of the ways in which we are seen to belong to one identity does involve the ways in which we mark ourselves out as being the same. And one of the ways in which we mark ourselves out as being the same as some people or different from others is through the kind of symbols we use to identify with a particular position. And these things can be, in some situations, taken for granted but, where we take up an identity, they are explicit – even if they can be misunderstood and misinterpreted. We’ve pointed to the ways in which identities might be seen to be changing, and we’ve looked at a particular period of time. But identities are of concern to us because there are some uncertainties. Some of the uncertainties are the result of changing times, of changing social relations and changing social structures; others are due to the very nature of identity in that it’s always a balancing act between what’s inside and what’s outside. Also, each of us has multiple identities and, even with a very brief discussion, we’ve picked out a whole range of different identities that each of us has, and that some of these may be more certain at some moments than at others. We’ve also looked at the ways in which identities are formed through a number of processes that take place, both inside and outside, that largely involve a link between the two, and the ways in which identities are dynamic, changing and are important to us because we still seek some way of belonging and of finding out who we are. So, thank you very much Wendy and Karim.
End transcript: Audio 3
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After listening

Make some brief notes in response to the questions above and think about how the discussion in the audio files has illustrated some of the ways in which identities are formed. People both make individual and collective investment in identity positions and are themselves categorised as having particular identities, sometimes not of their own choice, such as through census categories or ethnicised or racialised stereotypes. Structures can be changed through agency, although there are constraints at some times and in some situations which make this very difficult. In the discussion Karim Murji, as a sociologist, cites examples of 'outside' structures in the personal–social interrelationship, whereas Wendy Hollway, as a psychologist, places more emphasis on personal, 'inside' dimensions, including conscious and unconscious forces influencing individuals' experience and sense of who they are. Identity is not always apparent or transparent and we may not always be fully aware of our different identities or of why we have taken up these positions.

An investigation into identity, especially in changing times, raises issues about different relationships and tensions between the personal and the social, structure and agency, conscious and unconscious factors and between sameness and difference. Whilst structures may be very influential in shaping our identities there are always uncertainties and changes which often take place through agency, either that of individuals or collectively through groups of people. Uncertainties can lead to confusion, but change can also create diversity and new opportunities for us to shape our identities. Identity is a dynamic concept that has considerable significance within the social sciences and in our everyday lives.

4 Where do you come from?

4.1 Race and place

The following poem was written by Jackie Kay who was born in Glasgow in 1961. Her mother was a white Scottish woman and her father was a black Nigerian student. She has written extensively about the subject of identity in the context of her own experience – for example, of being an adopted child, brought up in Glasgow.

Activity 4

Now read the poem.

So you think I'm a mule?

‘Where do you come from?’

‘I'm from Glasgow.’


‘Uh huh. Glasgow.’

The white face hesitates

the eyebrows raise

the mouth opens

then snaps shut


yet too polite to say outright


she tries another manoeuvre

‘And you parents?’

‘Glasgow and Fife.’


‘Yes. Oh?’

Snookered she wonders where she should go

from here –

‘Ah, but you're not pure’

‘Pure? Pure what.

‘Pure white? Ugh. What a plight

Pure? Sure I'm pure

I'm rare …’

‘Well, that's not exactly what I mean,

I mean … you're a mulatto, just look at ...'

‘Listen. My original father was Nigerian

to help with your confusion

But hold on right there

If you Dare mutter mulatto

hover around hybrid

hobble on half-caste

and intellectualise on the

'mixed race problem’

I have to tell you:

take your beady eyes offa my skin;

don't concern yourself with

the ‘dialectics of mixtures';

don't pull that strange blood crap

on me Great White Mother.

Say, I'm no mating of a

she-ass and a stallion

no half of this and half of that

to put it plainly purely

I am Black

My blood flows evenly, powerfully

and when they shout ‘Nigger’

and you shout ‘Shame’

ain't nobody debating my blackness.

You see that fine African nose of mine,

my lips, my hair, You see lady

I'm not mixed up about it.

So take your questions, your interest,

your patronage. Run along.

Just leave me.

I'm going to my Black sisters

to women who nourish each other

on belonging

There's a lot of us

Black women struggling to define

just who we are

where we belong

and if we know no home

we know one thing:

we are Black

we're at home with that.’

‘Well, that's all very well, but …’

‘I know it's very well.

No But. Good bye.’

Source: Kay, 1991
  • What is meant by the question ‘where do you come from?’?

  • What is the relationship being drawn between place and identity here?

  • What does Kay mean when she writes ‘I am Black’ and then ‘we are Black’?


The poem indicates some of the ways in which we link identity to place and the criteria which are used for making those connections. In everyday interactions we interpret the clues which are given and given off and classify people accordingly. For many of us it is no longer possible to ‘read off’ identity from the same signals we might have used in the past. This poem represents a contemporary question about identity. In attempting to classify people according to where they come from we may be thrown, when there are contradictory messages given off.

In this situation it is suggested that the white woman is confused by Kay's claims to be ‘from Glasgow’ because she apparently feels that black people cannot be ‘really’ Scottish (or British). The poem describes how the white woman here ignores the replies (and Kay's Glaswegian accent presumably) and insists that to be black is to be an outsider.

The poem also highlights the way in which identity is marked by difference. People mark their identities by some symbols of difference – scarves, badges, clothes, ways of speaking. This time the difference suggests that the white woman defines Kay as an outsider, in an unequal relationship of ‘us and them’. ‘Us’ includes people who are the same as us, using the criteria which we think mark us out as the same, for example being white; ‘them’ are marked out as different because ‘they’ are not the same as ‘us’. This suggests that ‘we British’ could be a superior category to ‘those foreigners’. The key point about difference in the example of the poem is that being black or white is not only a way of marking difference but is used as a means of asserting superiority. Such assertions of superiority and the attempt to exclude people on grounds of ‘race’ and ethnicity can be described as racist.

This poem is also about a search for certainty and disquiet about uncertainty. When ‘snookered’ by her earlier questions the white woman resorts to questions about ‘purity’. She is seeking to locate identity in a category which we can mark off as fixed and certain. Kay's response to the misconceptions of the white woman is to deny any uncertainty on her own part. She gives voice to a collective identity which has meaning for her as an individual. She may be unclear about where she ‘comes from’ but is quite certain about who she is, who she wants to be and with whom she belongs. In her response Kay is offering one possible solution to the uncertainties posed by the question ‘where do you come from?’ in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society.



Difference is relational. It has to be defined in relation to something else. For example, Monday is the day after Sunday and the day before Tuesday. Difference often involves oppositions which are unequal.

Multi-ethnicity and cultural diversity arising from the cultural differences in the contemporary UK raise a number of questions about uncertainty and diversity and about the ways in which people have the possibility, or not, of constructing their own identities. How can people respond so that they can actively engage with shaping their own identities? What kind of action is appropriate and how do we resolve the dilemmas with which we are presented? One strategy is to assert and celebrate difference as Kay does in her poem, in order to take control of her own identity. We can see here the unequal power relations that shape and influence the construction of identities, shown in this context in relation to racist ideas and practices.

4.1.4 Summary

  • Identity is based on being the same as some people and different from others.

  • Identities are constructed in relation to place.

  • Difference is unequally weighted and can create categories of outsiders.

  • Individuals and groups have to negotiate both the uncertainties of social change and the constraints of inequality.

5 Conclusion

Are we now better equipped to answer the three questions posed in Section 1.1?

How are identities formed?

We present ourselves to others through everyday interactions, through the way we speak and dress, marking ourselves as the same as those with whom we share an identity and different from those with whom we do not. We use symbols in order to make sense of ourselves in relation to the world we inhabit. This world is characterised by structures which may limit our choices, but which may also provide more opportunities.

How much constraint is exercised by social structures and how much control do we have in shaping our own identities?

Both as individuals and through collective action it is possible to redefine and reconstruct our identities. We can negotiate and interpret the roles we adopt. Through collective action it is also possible to influence the social structures which constrain us, but there are clearly restrictions and limits. The scripts of our everyday interactions are already written and at the wider level structures are deeply embedded in contemporary culture, economy and society. Identity formation continues to illustrate the interrelationship between structure and agency.

Is there more uncertainty about ‘who we are’ in the contemporary UK?

There have been changes in our lives, in the domestic arena, in the workplace, in our communities and at the level of the nation and its place in the world. Some of these changes have been translated into questions of identity, for example in concerns about how people cope with change. Change has also created new opportunities for redefining ourselves, at home and in the workplace and as members of different ethnicities and nations within the UK. There is both uncertainty and diversity. Identity is a particularly useful concept for explaining how people cope with change and uncertainty and the opportunities presented by diversity. Identities are fluid and changing. This, in itself, produces uncertainties.

This unit has introduced not only some concepts and theories used by social scientists but also some of the ways in which they approach their task. We have started with questions and some tentative claims. What is happening to identities? How are they formed? Having offered some definitions we then went on to find some evidence. Some of the evidence suggested that we know about the marking of difference through symbols and representation, which itself suggested more questions about how these symbols work. Could they work at the level of the unconscious? In order to explore further the link between the personal and the social we looked at and applied some of the concepts about social structures. This unit has only introduced these ideas of social scientists starting with a question, seeking evidence and using concepts and theories to begin to offer an explanation. At each stage new questions emerge. The questions which were posed at the outset produce a more complex picture of how identities are formed, the link between the personal and the social, the tension and relationship between structure and agency, and the degree to which identities are formed at a time of uncertainty which also offers diversity and opportunity for change.


Bem, S.L. (1989) ‘Genital knowledge and gender constancy in pre-school children’, Child Development, vol.60, pp. 649–62.
Beresford, P. and Croft, S. (1995) ‘It's our problem too! Challenging the exclusion of poor people form poverty discourse’, Critical Social Policy, 44–5, pp. 75–95.
Dean, H. (1992) ‘Poverty discourses and the disempowerment of the poor’, Critical Social Policy, vol.35, pp. 79–88.
Department of Social Security (DSS) (1997) Households Below Average Incomes: A Statistical Analysis 1979–1994–5, London, The Stationery Office.
Durkin, K. (1995) Developmental Social Psychology, from Infancy to Old Age, Oxford, Blackwell.
Francis, B. (1997) ‘Power plays: children's constructions of gender and power in role plays’, Gender and Education, vol.9, pp. 179–91.
Francis, B. (1998) ‘Oppositional positions: children's construction of gender in talk and role plays based on adult occupation’, Educational Research, vol. 40, no.1, pp. 31–43.
Goodman, A., Johnson, P. and Webb, S. (1997) Inequality in the UK, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Kay, J. (1991) A Dangerous Knowing, London, Sheba.
Kempson, E. (1996) Life on a Low Income, York, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Kohlberg, L. (1966) ‘A cognitive-developmental analysis of children's sex-role concepts and attitudes’ in Maccoby, E.E. (ed.) The Development of Sex Differences, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.
Lister, R. and Beresford, P. (1991) Working Together Against Poverty: Involving Poor People in Action Against Poverty, Open Seminar Project, University of Bradford.
Mooney, G., Kelly, B., Goldblatt, D. and Hughes, G. (2004) DD100 Introductory Chapter. Tales of Fear and Fascination: The Crime Problem in the Contemporary UK, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Sarup, M. (1996) Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
Sen, A.K. (1981) Poverty and Famines, Oxford, Clarendon Press.
Further reading for section 1
Sandra Lipsitz Bem (1993) The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality, London, Yale University Press. This book argues that, to achieve true gender equality, we need to study the hidden assumptions about sex and gender that pervade our society and culture. Bem's thought-provoking book tries to reveal and then dismantle these assumptions, arguing that society need not – and should not – be organised around the difference between men and women.
Vivien Burr (1998) Gender and Social Psychology, London, Routledge. This book gives a clear introduction to the psychology of gender, without assuming a detailed knowledge of psychology. Burr looks at gender differences in a variety of arenas – education, work, and the media – and at some methods used to study gender.
Richard Jenkins (1996) Social Identity, London, Routledge. This is an accessible introduction to debates about social identity which draws mainly on the disciplines of sociology and anthropology. It offers a well-illustrated discussion which elaborates the theories introduced in this chapter.
Madan Sarup (1996) Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press. This book integrates social science material on identity with personal narrative about events in the author's autobiography. He provides accessible coverage of a range of approaches to identity with a focus on culture and representation.
Kath Woodward (2002) Understanding Identity, London, Arnold. This book maps out a range of theoretical debates about the concept of identity, linking them to contemporary issues and recent discussion about the importance of identity. Recent concerns, drawing on a wide range of examples, are located within historical debates.
On inequality: John Hill's report to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Inquiring into Income and Wealth, vols. 1 and 2, is written for a general audience, and is very readable. It has a lot more on the income parade.
Fran Abrams (2002) Below the Breadline, London, Profile Books, offers a more recent discussion of poverty in the UK.
Polly Toynbee (2003) Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain, London, Bloomsbury, presents an accessible account of the experiences of people on very low wages.
On social class: Rosemary Crompton's book, Class and Stratification (1998) is a fairly accessible survey.
On consumption: Edgell, S., Hetherington, K. and Warde, A. (eds) (1996) Consumption Matters, Oxford, Blackwell, can be recommended.
Harriet Bradley (1996) Fractured Identities, Cambridge, Polity, is a useful discussion of interrelationship between class and gender.
Gerth, H. and Mills, C.W. (1948) From Max Weber, London, Routledge – has excerpts from original texts by Weber and useful introductory commentary.
Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto – the real thing. Clear polemic which highlights key parts of Marxist mystique. A good read!


The content acknowledged below is Proprietary (see terms and conditions) and is used under licence.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following source for permission to reproduce material:

Woodward, K (2004) Questioning Identity: gender, class, ethnicity, London, Routledge / The Open University, chapter 1, pages 6-11, 31-34, 39-40; chapter 2, pages 55-60; chapter 3, pages 82-87.

Kay, J. (1991) 'So you think I'm a mule?' The Adoption Papers, Sheba Feminist Publishers, Copyright (c)© 1991 Jackie Kay.

Figure 1: examples of UK passports. Crown copyright is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office; Figure 2: Mike Levers/The Open University; Figure 3: Stephen Mansfield/The Scotsman; Figure 4: John Harris/Report Digital

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