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Identity in question
Identity in question

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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.