Socialisation refers to the lifelong social experience by which individuals develop their human potential and learn culture. A key product of socialisation is a sense of self, often described as identity. We form identity by absorbing our interactions and experiences in an ongoing life course. Identities help provide a sense of where we come from, who we are in the current moment, and who we might be in the future (Plummer 2010, p. 172). Understandings of socialisation and identity provide a framework for understanding how individuals construct the social worlds in which they live.
Human beings engage continually in social interaction with others. We are not born with an existing self-perceiving consciousness, and must learn through social interaction to form an individual identity (Back, Bennett & Edles et al. 2012, pg. 97). Social structures and cultures are founded upon social interactions. By interacting with one another, people design rules, institutions and systems within which they seek to live. Since social interaction and social structure are each focused on different aspects of the human experience, our understanding of social life would be vastly incomplete without one or the other.
Macrosociology and microsociology are two levels of analysis used by sociologists when analysing aspects of social life, such as identity. Macrosociology’s focus is placed on social structure - stressing the broad features of society, whereas microsociology has a much narrower focus on social interaction. Both microsociology and macrosociology make vital contributions to our understanding of human behaviour and the shaping of individual identity (Heslin, Passamai & Possaai-Indesedy 2011, pg. 76).
Consisting of culture, social class, social statuses, groups and social institutions, social structures can be defined as the patterns of predictable human behaviour that cluster around key problems in living which vary in all societies. Social structures emerge from individual actions (Plummer 2010, pg. 101). Sociologists define social interactions as everyday events in which individuals communicate and respond through language and symbolic gestures to affect one another’s behaviour and thinking (Ferrante 2007, pg. 514).
Symbols are used to communicate the expectations of a given society. Through this broad scheme of social development, it is clear to see how social interaction lies at the core of social structure, and therefore, is more influential in shaping individual identity and behaviour. One method in the empirical study of social interaction is symbolic interactionism. One of the many areas of social life symbolic interactionists’ focus on is stereotypes. Stereotypes deeply impact our behaviour and how we react to one another.
According to sociologist George Mead, the symbolic interactionist perspective in sociology sees the self as “emerging out of the mind, the mind as arising and developing out of social interaction, and patterned social interaction as forming the basis of social structure” (Leary & Tangney 2003, pg. 130). Through the process of social interaction, individuals both consciously and unconsciously, define, interpret, and attach meaning to encounters with others. When we first meet someone, we classify them according to our perceptions of their visible characteristics.
We cannot help but notice certain features, especially the person’s sex, ethnicity, age and clothing. Our assumptions about these characteristics shape our first impressions. They also affect how we act toward that person – and, in turn, how that person acts toward us. For example: a manager of five individuals in a factory holds the belief that all people that belong to a particular ethnic group are lazy. One of the five individuals in the factory belongs to that specific ethnic group. The manager designates specific tasks to these individuals, some that are demanding and some that are menial.
The “lazy” individual is assigned a menial task. At the end of the year the manager assess what each individual has done throughout the year and realises that the “lazy” person always left work on time or even early while the others worked overtime – igniting the thought “I was right, that person is lazy. ” How we expect an individual to act shapes our attitudes and actions. From how we act, the individual develops ideas of how we perceive them, the behaviours of the individual change to match our expectations, thus confirming the stereotype.
Everyday life brings with it many roles and our uniqueness as individuals comes from the collection of all the roles we play. The same person may be a student, a teenager, a shopper, a worker and a date, as well as a daughter or a son. Roles become incorporated into the self-concept and shape our individual identities. Helen Ebaugh, an ex-nun, conducted a study on the impact exiting a role has on an individual. She interviewed people who had left marriages, police work, the military, medicine and religious vocations.
She found that these individuals struggled with the question of “Who am I, now that I am not who I was before? ” She found that the role had become so intertwined with the individual’s self-concept that leaving it threatened the person’s identity (Heslin et al. 2011, pg. 94). The particular emphasis or interpretation that we give a role is known as ‘role performance’. Role performance can be defined as the ways in which someone performs a role – showing a particular style or personality (Heslin et al. 2011, pg. 91). A number of sociologists have compared social roles with the dramatic roles played by actors.
Sociologist Erving Goffman (1922–1982) developed dramaturgy, in which everyday life is analysed in terms of the stage. By this, Goffman meant that social life is like a drama or a stage play: Birth ushers us onto the stage of everyday life and our socialisation consists of learning to perform on that stage (Heslin et al. 2011, pg. 90). According to this model, social interaction is viewed as if it were theatre, people as if they were actors and roles as if they were performances before an audience in a particular setting.
Impression management lies at the core of Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis of social life. Goffman likens people in social situations to actors, in that they must be convincing to others and must demonstrate who they are and what they want through verbal and non-verbal cues. In social situations, as on a stage, people manage the setting, their dress, their words, and their gestures to correspond to the impression they are trying to make or the identity they are trying to project; this is the process of impression management (Ferrante 2007, pg. 30). As individuals, we are made up of countless habits, mannerisms, beliefs, attitudes, values, abilities, needs, interests, family history, and so forth, that when accumulated, define our unique individual identities.
However when interacting with others, we cannot display all aspects of our private self, so we select characteristics from our psychological and behavioural matrix that we believe will present the identity we should be during a particular occasion or encounter (Metts 2009, pg. 07). Physical appearance can be altered in order to leave a certain impression on an individual or group. For example, if an individual wanted to appear intelligent, they might wear glasses. If they wanted to appear like a professional they might put on a suit and carry a briefcase, even if it is empty. Emotional expressions can also be used in managing impressions. When working in a service industry such as retail you need to manage your emotions, even if you may be upset.
You appear happy, or at least content, when dealing with customers in order to seem happy to be helping them. On the surface, impression management may strike as manipulative and deceitful however, most of the time, we are not aware that we are engaged in impression management, we are simply behaving in ways that we regard as natural (Ferrante 2007, pg. 157). Have you ever changed your mind about something you were wearing and decided to change your whole outfit, or maybe just swap shirts or add a necklace?
Each time we dress ourselves for an activity we are preparing for impression management (Heslin et al. 2011, pg. 94). As social interaction and social structure are each focused on differing aspects of the human experience, our understanding of social life would be vastly incomplete without one or the other. However it is social interaction that lies at the core of social structure, and is therefore more influential in shaping individual identity. As individuals, we are not born with an existing self-perceiving consciousness.
We must learn, through social interaction, to form an individual identity. Elements of social interaction, including symbolic interactionism, dramaturgy and impression management are each key components in shaping individual identity. Everyday life brings with it many roles and our uniqueness as individuals comes from the collection of all the roles we play. These roles become incorporated into our self-concept and shape our individual identities. These identities are directly influenced by impression management.
Through impression management we consciously and subconsciously select characteristics from our psychological and behavioural matrix in order to portray a particular identity that we deem appropriate for a particular occasion or encounter. How we act or in turn, how we expect an individual to act, shape our attitudes and actions. Our attitudes towards the characteristics we to select portray are deeply influenced by stereotypes. Through this broad scheme of social development, it is clear to see how social interaction is more influential than social structures in shaping individual identity.