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Studies on Human Identity


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The study of how human identity is moulded is a big concern of social science because nations continually manage their rhetoric that “we are one national identity”.  They know that being identified with something gives commitment toward that object of identification.  Or at least they know that not feeling part of a social structure or a social process is the cause of much dissension.

A field that has studied identity is called Symbolic Interactionist Theory.  It posits that without a relationship, without that human mirror, there is little that we can know about our own identity.  Maybe in a non social situation (in isolation) identity is meaningless, or at least useless.  Can we say that we have no identity in that situation?

What are these identities? They are centred in action and reaction and are based in thought, speech, belief, emotion, level of conviction, repetitive or non repetitive patterns, our seemingly closed or open attitudes, and how the other perceives that these identities impinge upon them.  The identities are also in a hierarchy of importance to us and those not so important to us, (by how much we are identified with them).  Another classification could be that they are “core identities”, which we may or may not be able to articulate, or social identities, group identities, roles that we play, or our own self image summed up from the recurrent patterns of all of the above.

It is said that humans further have the ability to read the gestures of each other. We immediately know if we are getting verification of the identity that we are presenting, or rejection.  This all happens with little or no thinking about it.  It is how we have learned to operate.  Really every human contact is seeking a verification of the self.  That might seem like an oversimplification, but it is at the core level in every social interaction.  We want to be accepted, believed in, be successful in our communal endeavours, and that success equates to the receiving of this verification.  It doesn’t mean that we treat everyone the same.  There are those that are most successful in obtaining verification within their own group if they rob and humiliate someone else, or get tattoos or have body piercing etc.

It is furthermore said that the Human Mind is a learned behavioural ability to covertly rehearse alternative lines of conduct and to perceive the likely consequences.  This has also become almost an instinctive process. Therefore we can semi-choose our desired result, although we don’t always play it that way.  Depending on the hierarchical importance of the identity, we feel a positive emotion if we receive verification and a negative emotion if we don’t receive verification, if we are censured.  In fact strong negative emotions are usually a sign of an identity crisis.

The continuous feedback loop that we operate under is that we are always feeling a low level pride (not to be confused with vanity) if we are verified, and a low (or more) level of shame if we are censured.  These feelings are automatically delivered to us as part of the human system. This is how we navigate in the social matrix. If we are playing the social system we may adjust our identity to better fit in.  If we are repressing these feelings we may have made decisions that we don’t play this game anymore.  But still our behaviour can be grossly effected by receiving or not receiving verification.

The positive emotions are an openness and a willingness to engage more with others and with the system. Macro social structures that set people up for success in verifying their identities will elicit commitment toward that system.  This can be done by promoting broad and open classifications of identity that everybody starts to accept, like in a pluralistic diverse society.  Positive emotions are usually played out on the spot, not harboured as a hidden syndrome.  After long success they may become embedded in the personality, and then are often present.

Some say that humans are more complex than this.  They consciously manipulate their identity to achieve the desired result.  I would say of course, but going deeper nobody really knows who they are.  We are all testing our identity with the other, at some level.

People experiencing negative emotions might still be engaged with the social system and they may change and mould, or choose another identity to better fit in. They also gravitate toward other more accepting groups, or stay at home. These negative emotions are likely to become suppressed.  They can be suppressed by minimising their importance with self talk, or by quickly moving off of them onto another (often obsessive) activity. One thing about repressing emotion is that it is a form of a shut down.  Therefore the person becomes less attuned to themselves and to others.  Imagine a society that gets little verification from each other, the whole society becomes detached and dysfunctional in their partial shut down.  Often those societies have prohibitions about acknowledging shame and emotion. This is either because of a limited justice system, macho values or government prohibitions on (suppression of) disagreeing minority voices. 

The repressed emotion is often transmuted into anger or hate, when it pops up inside. One of the best ways to handle anger has been to attribute it to someone else.  Negative emotions generate prejudices towards culture and categories of people, and loss of commitment toward the social structure.  This causes conflicts, ethnic violence, and mass mobilisations of angry persons. This explosive tendency can erupt anywhere in society.  Armies take over and further repress the population, which reinforces the lack of identity verification.

One thing to remember is that even though we may have a vast repertoire of these identities, they are being established by the reactions of the other.  By now we have lost touch with this process, and think that they, and their associated emotions are true.  I believe that by watching this process one can realise that the shame of not being accepted is not so severe after all.  (Dis-identify)  Maybe other people have a right to their opinions, or they are carrying their own heavy burden of non-discharged emotion.  Projection is the natural result.  We can realise that really we have no identity, and these are just manifestations of living together.

We can also acknowledge that we do operate with identities in society, and we can mould them both within ourselves and externally, through dialogue, new laws promoting more equal treatment, and constant modifications to our own and the other’s rhetoric.  We don’t have to act out the identities that others project upon us, nor be subjugated by them.

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