Social Identity Exploratory Essay

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It seems obvious that individuals know who they are, and have a sense of who other people are. Consequently, social relations are to a larger extent guided by issues of identity. Essentially, identity is not possessed nor is it an attribute, but an individual and collective-level process. In regards to identification, people are individually unique, but they also have collectively shared aspects. In addition, individual and social identities only reveal themselves within interactions. Social identity can, therefore, be considered as the individual self-concept in relation to larger social constructs. This paper will discuss how social identity is produced performatively.

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According to Coleman et al. (2017), the process of social identity is independent of the will of an individual. Further, a society is a collection of social identities extending over a landscape. It is through social identities that people are able to learn from a situation how to behave in a similar situation and to interact with people. One of the ways through which social identity is achieved is group membership. In fact, people usually derive self-esteem from groups because of the resulting sense of belonging to a social environment. According to Robbins (2009), as members participate in a group, they try as much as possible to build a positive identity to increase their self-image. In this case, the process of self-categorization results into the development of concept of in-groups and out-groups. Therefore, it seems normal to attribute to themselves perceivably desirable characteristics while discriminatively constructing negative identities for others by attributing to them undesirable characteristics. For example, in terms of nationality, a person might claim that their culture is the best in the world while exaggerating the factors that make him or her think so. Tajfel (2010) finds a cognitive basis to the tendency of people to group things. Consequently, similarities within the group and differences between groups are overrated.

Language is another factor that further explains the production of social identities. In fact, it is core to the concept of performativitiy. Language seems to create and identify social group membership because it contains shared communicative conventions. It is even argued that language is such a strong influencer of social identity that it can displace other identities. According to Gumperz (1982), it is language that enables individuals to acquire knowledge and experience in various areas, which strengthens the social group and the capacity to share even more. The process of understanding, which is the basis for the interactive use of language in social situations, is dependent on a system of meanings. This system is responsible for recognizing the complexity of communication through the various channels on which the act of speaking is based (Gumperz, 1982). For this reason, social and cultural differences which influence how the channels are signaled are numerous and sometimes difficult to detect, which means that even the slightest differences in language have far-reaching impacts on social interactions. Sometimes, the style of speaking can influence perceptions and stereotypes about identity and attitudes even if the language spoken is the same. However, adults do not acquire language the way children do. Children learn language as they are socialized in the culture in which they are raised, which then provides the means to understand and attach meanings to social contexts and interactions (Coleman et al., 2017). First language learning often takes place in small groups through interaction with peers or family members and it integrates the acceptable standards of behavior. On the contrary, adult language learning especially second language follows the normal linguistic system through rules. This kind of learning may have a minimal impact on social identity because the small cultural differences can affect the meanings people attach to the interactive use of language. Therefore, learning and speaking language can produce and reinforce social identity. Robbins (2009) points out that linguistic devices can also be used to change social identity and to construct others. For example, profanity and other devices can be used to position oneself in a different part of the social landscape.

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Language does not only describe reality, but also does various other things through speech acts. According to Austin (1975), language has the capacity, under the right conditions, to effect change and represent social action, which means that performatives are not mere statements. Performative language or utterance, therefore, is a speech act, which effects events or social relations. According to Austin (1975), performative language includes speech acts such as making promises, apologizing, appointing, threatening, swearing, and taking part in a wedding ceremony as a bride or groom. Therefore, such utterances do not have the value of being either true or false. For example, uttering the words ‘I do’ in a wedding becomes the sign that marriage has indeed taken place. From the above postulations, the implication is that all utterances are performed, but only some are performative. Austin (1975) then discusses the three functions of language: locutionary, illocutionary, and prelocutionary. Locutionary functions entail the utterance itself when saying something. Illocution means the intended effect in making an utterance, which, therefore, means that what is said depends on the social conventions that apply to different situations. Prelocution is the effect itself, which listeners and the society perceive when something is said. Nevertheless, Austin (1975) points out that since perfomatives are not dependent on truth conditions for them to be meaningful, certain appropriateness must exist. This is referred to as felicity conditions. First, there must exist a conventional procedure, which has a conventional effect. Second, the circumstances and persons making the utterances have to be appropriate and consistent with the procedure. Third, the procedure must be carried out appropriately, completely, and correctly. In addition to these, persons must demonstrate the necessary sincerity thoughts, intentions, and attitudes when making the utterances. For example, a court judge must have the right motive and be in the right place when determining cases, otherwise the speech acts become irrelevant. Therefore, if the above conditions are not fulfilled, an utterance cannot successfully function as an action. Drawing from Austin’s (1975) theory, it seems that it is possible for social identity to result from a pattern of repetitive speech acts as guided by the overarching social conventions.

The concept if performativity has also been used to describe the social construction of gender. In itself, the social identity of gender is a constructed process that happens through various performative acts. According to Cameron (1997), people enact gender through various social activities. Further, the behavior of men and women is constantly understood through a more general discourse on gender difference. The discourse itself is referred to in attempts to explain the differences in gender. While referring to Butler’s (1990) work, Cameron (1997) points out that masculinity and femininity are effects people produce by the particular style of the activities they do. Gender, therefore, is considered as the recurrent ‘stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts, which over time produce the appearance of substance of a normal kind of being.’ The implication here is that a person is not born a man or woman, but performatively attains the social identity; repeatedly performing certain acts according to the cultural norms that define femininity and masculinity (Cameron, 1997). In regards to language and gender, the issue of gendered speech arises as it is also considered a stylization of the body. Most importantly, people learn and reproduce ways of speech suitable to their sex, and learn other sets of gendered meanings attached to ways of speaking, which means that the resulting behavior is dependent on these meanings (Cameron, 1997).

Race and ethnicity also have key impact on how people achieve social identity performatively. It is obvious that different races and ethnic communities may have their unique cultural norms, language, and even sets of socially accepted standards. Particularly, language differences in racial or ethnic groups reinforce social identity. As aforementioned, language does various things in addition to describing reality. According to Bucholtz (2001), people often can go through a process of cultural adaptation where cultural aspects of a particular group become diffused. However, language itself can be modified within a racial group to distinguish itself from other forms in an attempt of a social group to distance itself from the various other ideologies that may exist in a setting. Therefore, a whole new social identity is achieved through language modification. Specifically, Bucholtz (2001) observes how an ideological social identity is achieved by a group of nerds using language to distance themselves from the influence of African American culture on the standard English language and the youth culture. It, therefore, means that language ideologies, the considerations of social class, and gender in different racial or ethnic groups can shape the manner in which language is used to construct social identities (Shankar, 2008). For example, profanity in language use and preferences of music and films may differ significantly based on gender.

Social identities can also result from the influence of media. Gershon (2010) notes that there are no shared media ideologies and so utterances made through a certain medium may be ambiguous. Further, the choice of media has far-reaching impacts on the effectiveness of the utterance. Media ideologies encompass beliefs, strategies, and attitudes about the use of media and the justification of the same. They regard the assumptions that people often make about how a particular media helps in executing communicative tasks (Gershon, 2010). However, the beliefs and attitudes about media may be contradictory. From another perspective, media users can be said to prefer media that portrays the in-group positively or that which is more effective.

In conclusion, social identities are produced by various social as people interact with the social environment. From theories of performativity, social reality and identity are created through language and symbolic social acts. As seen, social identity is a process and not an attribute. Since language has been found to be crucial in the achievement of social identity, the implication then is that language modifications can be used to separate social ideologies as people interact with others.

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  1. Austin, J.L. (1975). 2nd ed. “Lecture I,” pp. 1-11 in How to do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Bucholtz, M. (2001). “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropolgy 11(1): 84–100
  3. Cameron, D. (19970. “Performing Gender Identity: Young Men’s Talk and the Construction of Heterosexual Masculinity.” In Language and masculinity, eds. Sally A. Johnson and Ulrike Hanna Meinhof. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 47–64.
  4. Coleman, S., Hyatt, S., and Kingsolver, A. (2017). The Routledge companion to contemporary anthropology. New York: Routledge.
  5. Gershon, I. (2010). “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Media Switching and Media Ideologies.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20(2): 389–405.
  6. Gumperz, J. (1982). Language and social identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Robbins, R.H. (2009). Cultural anthropology: a problem-based approach (5th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning.
  8. Shankar, S. (2008). “Speaking like a Model Minority: ‘FOB’ Styles, Gender, and Racial Meanings among Desi Teens in Silicon Valley.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 18(2):268-289.
  9. Tajfel, H. (1982). Social identity and intergroup relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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