Shaping Identity Using Social Structure

INTRODUCTION Social structure and social interaction are integral in evaluating a person’s identity. Identities are the sets of meanings people hold for themselves that define “what it means” to be who they are as persons, as role occupants and as group members (PJB article) People are generally influenced by the norms and beliefs of society. A person’s identity is formed through a combination of factors derived from social structure (macrosociology) and social interaction (microsociology).

The self influences society through the actions of individuals thereby creating groups, organizations, networks, and institutions (PJB a soiciological approach to self and identity). Reciprocally, society influences the self through its shared language and meanings that enable a person to take the role of the other, engage in social interaction, and reflect upon oneself as an object. (PJB, a sociological approach to self and identity). This essay explores how components of social structure can be more important in shaping an individual identity than social interaction.

PARAGRAPH 1 (Definitions& Context) Social structure refers to the framework that surrounds us, consisting of the relationships of people and groups, which gives direction to and sets limits on behaviour. (Sociology, A Down to Earth Approach SDEA) K Plummer defines social structures as the patterns of predictable human actions that cluster around key problems in living and they vary in all societies. Social structure is all around us and is what helps to dictate our behaviour and keep our life in order.

It sets the scene for an individual to behave and act appropriately in different settings at different times. Social structure is made up of culture, social class, social status, roles, groups and social institutions (SDEA). Social interaction is the way that people interact with one another (SDEA). According to K Plummer, human beings engage continually in social action and interaction with others – changing their own lives and others. We are never solitary individuals and always depend on others for a sense of who we are (K Plummer).

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A person’s action is influenced by the actions or awareness of others. Social interaction includes stereotypes, personal space, touching, eye contact, smiling, applied body language, dramaturgy, role performance, conflict and strain (SDEA). The difference between social structure and social interaction is that social structure provides a guide to everyday life and social interaction provides a meaning of sense (ref)? PARAGRAPH 2 Social status refers to a position that someone occupies (SDEA). Statuses can be prestigious or less prestigious and range from mother, daughter, spouse, lawyer to criminal.

Most individuals are found to occupy several statuses simultaneously thus giving us the term ‘status set’(SDEA). For example, an individual can take on the status of mother, wife, employee and friend. Out of all the statuses we occupy, there is one significant status that tends to override all the other statuses one may occupy, this is termed as a ‘master status’ (SDEA). Status can be further divided into two types, ‘achieved status’ and ‘ascribed status’. To illustrate ‘achieved status’, Usain Bolt is best known for being the fastest man in the world.

We see him as a 26 year old Jamaican track and field athlete, a son and brother, but ever since winning both 100 meter and 200 meter races in the London 2012 Olympics, his achievements has earned him that title. ‘Achieved status’ can be both positive and negative (SDEA). By contrast, factors that are involuntary and inherited such as race, sex, family social class, is known as ‘ascribed status’ (SDEA). These factors are usually beyond our control. As life brings change, so too do our statuses. It is constantly evolving according to changes and stages in life.

Despite our state of affairs, it is our status that guides our behaviour. For instance, a colleague may turn up to work one day after facing some difficulties at home, however in a work environment, he would continue to work and behave in a professional manner regardless of his personal situations. In addition, individuals can also reinforce their identity by using status symbols in as part of their appearance. This can be in the form of a work uniform to signify an occupation, or in a fashion sense, the type of clothing worn is a silent statement of what sets you apart from others.

PARAGRAPH 3 As Linton states, “a person holds a status, and performs a role”. Simply put, a status is a position and a role is a set of behaviours. With each status, follows a certain role for us to take part in. People tend to adapt to roles, moving through different roles in fluency as student, son, friend. Because people tend to have many different statuses and therefore, many different roles, conflict occasionally occurs among the various roles. The concept of role conflict is “conflict among the roles connected to two or more statuses” (ref).

A good example of role conflict lies in the working mother; she must take on the responsibilities of mothering the children at home while taking on the responsibilities of working outside the home, away from the children, in order to earn an income (RR). This kind of conflict involves roles which arise from separate statuses, but the same sort of conflict can occur from the roles of a single status. Role strain, then, is “tension among the roles connected to a single status”. A teacher, for example, can be friendly with his or her students, but must remain objective in grading them.

Roles help to keep our behaviour aligned to our particular status. Roles are an essential component of social structure because they lay out what is expected of people. Role performance is the way in which someone performs a role, showing a particular ‘style’ or ‘personality’ (SDEA). Role performance allows us our own unique individuality to show through. PARAGRAPH 4 “Knowledge is power, information is liberating, education is the premise of progress in every society in every family”. These famous words quoted by Kofi Annan refer to a few social institutions that are a part of social structure.

Social instituitions consist of family, religion, education, economics, medicine, politics, law, science, military and mass media (SDEA). Each one functions separately but together they enable society to maintain order and create a sense of community. The mass media influences our attitudes toward social issues, the ways that we view other people and even our self-concept (SDEA). Information in the media can be extremely persuasive, it can easily alter our perception if we are not careful or have very little experience in the topic of interest. They not only provide information and recreation but also mould public opinion and attitudes.

The information and knowledge which we accumulate through life from media is part of creating an identity for ourselves. To demonstrate, smoking advertisements have been around to promote awareness and advises us of serious health implications. However, today’s youth may view it differently and partake in it because of peer pressure. On the other hand, media can also bring nations together when there is an important event such as the Olympics, press conferences and so on (RR). The topic of religion is another social institution as it involves patterns of beliefs and behavior that help a society meet its basic needs (steven Burkan).

Emile Durkheim (1915/1947) [1] observed long ago that every society has beliefs about things that are supernatural and awe-inspiring and beliefs about things that are more practical and down-to-earth (Durkheim, E. (1947). The elementary forms of religious life (J. Swain, Trans. ). Glencoe, IL: Free Press. (Original work published 1915)). Religion teaches us to practise a way of life that is fulfilling for self and others, thus enabling individuals to become better people. This can also create a meaning of identity for some. The other social institutions such as education, politics, law and the military keeps society safe and in order.

They inform us of rules and regulations so that society can function and maintain order. Each social institution establish the context which we live, shaping our behaviour and colouring our thoughts. (SDEA). Social institutions form the pillars of society, they are not only a set of rules, but markers for society to develop an identity that is aligned with culture. CONCLUSION Which is more important in shaping individual identity? Studies of social structure attempt to explain the significance of shaping one’s identity and in combination play a vital role in defining an individual.

It is the content, which provides a way of making sense of who we are. This provides development to an identity which individuals are embedded in and therefore understood, communicated, and shared with others in culture. For example, individuals can define their identity upon meeting someone for the first time by describing what they do, where they are from or whether or not they are in a relationship. Social structure as we can see today can shape opinions, attitudes and thought which leads us to our behaviour and thus our identity.

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