Why do humans search for identity

The central idea is that any individual's sense of identity is determined in large part by the explorations and commitments that he or she makes regarding certain personal and social traits. It follows that the core of the research in this paradigm investigates the degrees to which a person has made certain explorations, and the degree to which he or she displays a commitment to those explorations. A person may display either relative weakness or relative strength in terms of both exploration and commitments. When assigned categories, four possible permutations result: identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, identity moratorium, and identity achievement.

Diffusion is when a person lacks both exploration in life and interest in committing even to those unchosen roles that he or she occupies. Foreclosure is when a person has not chosen extensively in the past, but seems willing to commit to some relevant values, goals, or roles in the future. A moratorium is when a person displays a kind of flightiness, ready to make choices but unable to commit to them. Finally, an achievement is when a person makes identity choices and commits to them.


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Weinreich's identity variant similarly includes the categories of identity diffusion, foreclosure and crisis, but with a somewhat different emphasis. Here, with respect to identity diffusion for example, an optimal level is interpreted as the norm, as it is unrealistic to expect an individual to resolve all their conflicted identifications with others; therefore we should be alert to individuals with levels which are much higher or lower than the norm — highly diffused individuals are classified as diffused, and those with low levels as foreclosed or defensive.

Weinreich applies the identity variant in a framework which also allows for the transition from one to another by way of biographical experiences and resolution of conflicted identifications situated in various contexts — for example, an adolescent going through family break-up may be in one state, whereas later in a stable marriage with a secure professional role may be in another.

Hence, though there is continuity, there is also development and change. Laing's definition of identity closely follows Erikson's, in emphasising the past, present and future components of the experienced self.

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He also develops the concept of the "metaperspective of self", i. Saunderson and O'Kane, At a general level, self-psychology is compelled to investigate the question of how the personal self relates to the social environment. To the extent that these theories place themselves in the tradition of "psychological" social psychology , they focus on explaining an individual's actions within a group in terms of mental events and states.

However, some "sociological" social psychology theories go further by attempting to deal with the issue of identity at both the levels of individual cognition and of collective behaviour.

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Many people gain a sense of positive self-esteem from their identity groups, which furthers a sense of community and belonging. Another issue that researchers have attempted to address is the question of why people engage in discrimination , i. Both questions have been given extensive attention by researchers working in the social identity tradition.

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Different social situations also compel people to attach themselves to different self-identities which may cause some to feel marginalized, switch between different groups and self-identifications, [6] or reinterpret certain identity components. Educational background and occupational status and roles significantly influence identity formation in this regard.

Another issue of interest in social psychology is related to the notion that there are certain identity formation strategies which a person may use to adapt to the social world. Kenneth Gergen formulated additional classifications, which include the strategic manipulator , the pastiche personality , and the relational self. The strategic manipulator is a person who begins to regard all senses of identity merely as role-playing exercises, and who gradually becomes alienated from his or her social "self".

The pastiche personality abandons all aspirations toward a true or "essential" identity, instead viewing social interactions as opportunities to play out, and hence become, the roles they play. Finally, the relational self is a perspective by which persons abandon all sense of exclusive self, and view all sense of identity in terms of social engagement with others. For Gergen, these strategies follow one another in phases, and they are linked to the increase in popularity of postmodern culture and the rise of telecommunications technology.

Anthropologists have most frequently employed the term 'identity' to refer to this idea of selfhood in a loosely Eriksonian way Erikson properties based on the uniqueness and individuality which makes a person distinct from others.

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Identity became of more interest to anthropologists with the emergence of modern concerns with ethnicity and social movements in the s. This was reinforced by an appreciation, following the trend in sociological thought, of the manner in which the individual is affected by and contributes to the overall social context. At the same time, the Eriksonian approach to identity remained in force, with the result that identity has continued until recently to be used in a largely socio-historical way to refer to qualities of sameness in relation to a person's connection to others and to a particular group of people.

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The first favours a primordialist approach which takes the sense of self and belonging to a collective group as a fixed thing, defined by objective criteria such as common ancestry and common biological characteristics. The second, rooted in social constructionist theory, takes the view that identity is formed by a predominantly political choice of certain characteristics. In so doing, it questions the idea that identity is a natural given, characterised by fixed, supposedly objective criteria. Both approaches need to be understood in their respective political and historical contexts, characterised by debate on issues of class, race and ethnicity.

While they have been criticized, they continue to exert an influence on approaches to the conceptualisation of identity today. These different explorations of 'identity' demonstrate how difficult a concept it is to pin down. Since identity is a virtual thing, it is impossible to define it empirically.

Discussions of identity use the term with different meanings, from fundamental and abiding sameness, to fluidity, contingency, negotiated and so on. Indeed, many scholars demonstrate a tendency to follow their own preconceptions of identity, following more or less the frameworks listed above, rather than taking into account the mechanisms by which the concept is crystallised as reality. Others, by contrast, have sought to introduce alternative concepts in an attempt to capture the dynamic and fluid qualities of human social self-expression.

Hall , , for example, suggests treating identity as a process, to take into account the reality of diverse and ever-changing social experience. Some scholars have introduced the idea of identification, whereby identity is perceived as made up of different components that are 'identified' and interpreted by individuals.

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The construction of an individual sense of self is achieved by personal choices regarding who and what to associate with. Such approaches are liberating in their recognition of the role of the individual in social interaction and the construction of identity.

Anthropologists have contributed to the debate by shifting the focus of research: One of the first challenges for the researcher wishing to carry out empirical research in this area is to identify an appropriate analytical tool. The concept of boundaries is useful here for demonstrating how identity works. In the same way as Barth, in his approach to ethnicity, advocated the critical focus for investigation as being "the ethnic boundary that defines the group rather than the cultural stuff that it encloses" , social anthropologists such as Cohen and Bray have shifted the focus of analytical study from identity to the boundaries that are used for purposes of identification.

So many of them were so profoundly unfamiliar to me. I experienced the shock of a lack of recognition.

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In order to understand many of these peculiar, vivacious, turgid and beautiful documents, I had to learn to imagine Jews. I acquired this skill by leaving my "Jewish identity" at the door of the seminar room. For it is an axiom of that identity that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew; but the study of history showed that this axiom was a necessary fiction. We were not only one thing, we were also many things.

The complication was delicious. Here was diversity, but on the inside.


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  • As a boy, I had been taught that it was my duty to choose Jewishness, and I have always warmed to the choice; but I was thrilled to understand that it was my duty also to choose among Jewishnesses. This made the tradition vital. And so I set out to gain the knowledge that would be required for the judgment of my own patrimonies. It is important to distinguish between identifying oneself and justifying oneself.

    Identity in America is so fitful and so flexible not least because it is so often cobbled together for the purpose of self-justification; and this constant clamor for self-justification is a drain on American dignity. One must defend oneself, of course, if one is attacked for being a black or a homosexual or a woman or a Jew or a Catholic, but one must dream of being more than a defender of oneself.

    To assert your right to be something is not yet to be something. The lure of identity is the lure of wholeness. It proposes to bind up the parts and the pieces of a life and transform them into a unity, into a life that adds up. This provides a mixture of psychological and aesthetic satisfaction.

    But is there really nothing worse than a life that does not add up? Surely the life that does add up is the easeful one. Erikson was right to remark that "an increasing sense of identity. The desire for wholeness is indistinguishable from the desire for death. Only religion is candid enough to say so. In the modern world, the cruelest thing that you can do to people is to make them ashamed of their complexity. A life that does not add up is not a life of irony. Quite the contrary. Its accomplishment is to contain within itself many things that do not go together, all of them unironically.

    Irony used to have an aspect of courage, in an age in which inconsistency was an occasion for pain. But this is an age in which inconsistency is an occasion for pleasure. The name of that pleasure is post-modernism. And so the aspect of courage is to be sought in literalness, in taking words and ideas and things for what they are and following them far. I hear it said of somebody that he is leading a double life.

    In America, the tribunes of identity are the tribunes of diversity, but the joke is on them. Their ends are contradictory. Diversity means complexity. Identity means simplicity. Anybody who takes diversity seriously will see that identity is an illusion. The multiculturalists will reply that there is no contradiction, that America is a complex society of differently simplified individuals, a multicultural society of monocultural people. But they misunderstand America.

    The American achievement is not the multicultural society, it is the multicultural individual. And the multicultural individual is what the tribalists and the traditionalists they are not always the same people fear. Identity is a promise of singleness, but this is a false promise. Many things are possible in America, but the singleness of identity is not one of them.

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    There is a greater truth in the plural. There is also a greater likelihood of decency. The multicultural individual is a figure of moral friction.

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