Lecture 8 – Identity – Oct 29, 2013
By the end of this lecture, you should be able to explain how anthropologists approach ‘identity’as
a social construct. You should have a basic understanding of some of the most important types
of identity that are talked about in anthropology (gender, race, ethnicity, religion, family
membership, age, etc). You should also be able to explain how certain behaviours, beliefs, or
symbols are associated with identities in different societies, while others are not, and some of
the implications of social inequality for how people experience their identities.
Key terms and concepts
gender, sex, sexuality
race and ethnicity
who are you?
- I am smart, a friend, a sister, a girlfriend and a daughter. I am a mix of different heritages but
Understanding identity – Identity is a complex concept that brings in a number of important
aspects of anthropological study. Aperson’s understanding of his or her identity incorporates a
number of different elements or categories that can be described as an “identity toolbox”. The
components of the “identity toolbox” may differ in different societies, and different societies
may also think some are more important than others. The toolbox includes:
• family membership
• ethnic group membership
• wealth • ethnicity
Identity as a social construct – In any society, people are raised to understand what it means to be
who they are. They are taught to interact in certain ways based on certain features. Which
features are important and what it means to have those features are both determined by the
society that a person lives in.
Identity is something that is experienced as an individual – a person comes to develop a sense of
self, and their relationship to the rest of the world, as a result of their view of their identity. It is
also something that involves creating relationships among groups (connecting different
individuals to each other as members of the same group, or dividing between different groups).
Self: The idea of a concrete, independent self with a stable identity is often assumed in Western
society to be a part of being a mature individual. This is not the case in all cultures – some
incorporate a great deal of fluidity in identity, while others downplay the idea of individual
‘independence’. This is based on different understandings of personhood, or what it means to
be an individual in a given context.
Socialization: The processes by which people in a given society learn how they should behave and
interact with others, and how they should understand themselves are called ‘socialization’.
Socialization practices produce different kinds of identity and inform how people in different
categories are taught to behave.
Some examples of identity categories that are very important in our own society are gender,
ethnicity, race, and religion.
Sex and gender: Gender is often assumed to be a biological reality, but in fact a great many