In order to discuss structural influences on identity it is important to first understand why identity is of importance to social scientists. Primarily social scientists need to understand the formation of identities and how and when this takes place. Secondly, social scientists need to understand what level of control a person actually has of shaping their own identity, and finally what if any uncertainties concerning identity that currently affect the UK.
Furthermore social scientists have made a distinction between agency, this being the level of control that we ourselves have in relation to who we are and structure, which is the forces of which we are unable to control but which, never the less, contribute to shaping our identities (Woodward, Pg 6). Social structures constrain people’s ability to adopt certain identities (Lewis and Phoenix pg 131). These distinctions greatly assist when evaluating identity and all the questions that surround the topic.
For the purposes of the essay the three structural influences that I have chosen to discuss are gender, social class, and culture. When discussing gender in this way it is important to look at the social differences and characteristics associated with being a man or a woman as opposed to sex and the biological differences. Gender categories during early childhood are usually very simple. Children’s immediate world teaches them about gender appropriate behaviour through things like parental behaviour and play.
This type of categorization is very stereotypical and can result in assured predictions based upon what is essentially a very small amount of knowledge, and narrow minded with regards to their gender and the types of activities that their gender should lead them to engage in (Grove and Watt, pg 57). When children start school this knowledge and understanding provides them gendered interests and behaviours. During a child’s journey through the education system Murphy and Elwood 1998 study suggests this behaviour is recurrent in numerous ways and therefore adds to gender boundaries.
The evidence from the study strongly suggests that due to this, particular sorts of knowledge and style of expression are required by different school subjects (Grove and Watt, Pgs 75 and 76). Social class is a category that opens up a whole host of other topics. For example, being of a different class may involve differences in culture, economic circumstances, educational status, property ownership and power.
Social scientists however use social class as a way of classifying the economic and social divisions of society, therefore differences in economic systems create social class groupings (Woodward pg 21). Social class can be shaped by our history and can provide us with a sense of belonging (Mackintosh and Mooney, pg 96). In Britain in 1999 most people still described themselves in class terms, and the majority categorized themselves as working class (The Guardian, 15th January 1999, pg 3).
The social class that a person belongs to can give many mixed emotions, some see it as a positive label with which they can identify with, others however perceive the labelling as a form of stigma (Mackintosh and Mooney pgs 85 and 86). This reaction is likely to have some dependency on the class in which the person is in and issues such as gender. Culture as a structural influence on identity again opens up many other topic categories. In general the cultures we know and identify with give us a sense of shared meanings and values.
Having national identity is an important part of the culture of a society (Woodward, pg 22). For example an individual may hold a British passport, which in itself proves citizenship but it also takes away some aspects of the person’s identity. There is no place yet given for multi-ethnicity and regardless of birth place individuals are all placed under one heading thus giving the impression of a collective identity. This impression can be given to other areas regarding this subject, the word ‘race’ can be used as a way of categorizing people simply based on physical characteristics.
Some people may use a persons ‘race’ to affix meaning to their background and describe their culture, culture however is not just ‘race’ dependant. When looking at each of these areas in terms of a structural influence, what soon becomes apparent is the large extent to which they interact with each other along with abundance of other factors. For example when discussing the education system with regards to gender this raises the question of social classes and education along with the effects of cultural differences and many more.