Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity; edited by Kath Woodward

Woodward, K. (ed.) (2004) QUESTIONING IDENTITY (understanding social change). 2nd edn. London: Routledge in association with the Open University.

This is an easy-to-follow and useful book based around three central questions:

  1. How are identities formed?
  2. To what extent can we shape our own identities?
  3. Are there particular uncertainties about identity at this point in the UK? (bearing in mind the book was first published in 2000)

It covers how identities are formed through interaction between people and the structures through which our lives are organised. New technology, migration, diversity and changes in gender roles all affect how we can shape our identities.

“Identity necessarily involves and interrelationship between the personal and the social which can also be expressed as a tension between structure and agency.”  (Agency here means the individual’s ability to make decisions and choices guided only by their desires: free will).

Chapter One explores Questions of Identity.  What is identity?  How do we know which people are the same as us?  Sometimes people have multiple identities and there are tensions between these. Identities are not fixed and constant (eg physical appearance changes over time).  Identities may be institutionally constructed (eg via a passport).  We have to be able to imagine ourselves and understand how we appear to others and then we can present ourselves through symbolising which gives us a degree of agency “although the repertoire of symbols upon which we can draw is always limited by the particular culture which we inhabit”.  Not all of our self-representation is conscious or explicit.

Louis Althusser argued that people are interpellated – a process where people recognise themselves in a particular identity. This links the individual to the social and may be work consciously or unconsciously.  The organisation and culture of our society shapes identities. Class, gender, ethnicity and place are all important.  The work we do is also a factor. Difference is relational and is unequally weighted so can create outsiders.

People use their bodies as a site for the construction of identity – sometimes conforming to stereotypes but also asserting resistance and creating new identities.

Chapter Two looks at Identity and Gender.  “…gender illuminates the complex multiple origins and practices of identity very clearly, because it allows us to explore our capacity for agency, and the social and biological structures that constrain our freedom to choose our gender identities.” This chapter covers characteristics which are deemed to be more feminine, masculine or neutral; how differences can be socially constructed; the essentialist viewpoint which defines a category by an essence (eg having a vagina or not) and fuzzy categories which have a lot more room for diversity. There is also the interpretation that masculine and feminine are not opposites but different dimensions: it is possible to be both at the same time or neither (undifferentiated) – according to sociologist Sandra Bem in the USA in 1974.

In children there is a ‘search for certainty’ with the self-categorisation of gender and society has created ideas of what is ‘gender-appropriate’. Categories are highly stereotyped  as children are ‘naively certain’.

Differences are natural and innate but they “may result from a complex interaction between biology and social-cultural experiences; biological processes are responsive to environmental influences and vice versa. None the less, the view that cognitive strengths and weaknesses of men and women are ‘determined’ by an unalterable biology is pervasive.”

Chapter Three focuses on Identity, Inequality and Social Class.  It explores what it is to be poor; how the experience of poverty includes the pain of social isolation and stigma; how children may suffer from limited access to shared culture. Poverty is relative but representations of the poor can be very demeaning.  This chapter also contains an interesting reference to the idea of an ‘income parade’ developed by Dutch economist Jan Pen.  This is a good visual representation of the idea.

It is argued that wealth and privilege are not very visible and many sociologists say that class has lost much of its significance for identity with the decline of the unions and work-based community cultures and fragmentation into sectional identities.

Key themes from Marxist theory about class identity:

  1. The link between the ownership of capital and class position
  2. Social polarisation and class conflict – growing divide between the bourgeoisie and proletariat
  3. Class consciousness emerging through the experience of solidarity and collective action

Max Weber’s theory of social stratification starts with individuals – identifiable groups with certain interests in common determining their ‘market position’.  “…for Weberians, class divisions and inequalities reflect different life chances in the market, whereas for Marxists, class relationships are founded in exploitative production relations.”  Identity and collective action focus more on status group than on class.

Income and work are important sources of identity. This is socially produced as we cannot have identities except in relation to others.

Chapter Four is about ‘Race’, ‘Ethnicity’ and Identity. It questions the idea that race and ethnicity are fixed. Shifts in terminology and definitions have occurred as a result collective action and resistance. Identities can be collective and political as well as individual. Markers of ‘race’ are not clear indicators of biological difference so some argue the term ‘race’ should not be used. Others would say that although ‘race’ is a social construct, “it continues to be treated as socially significant because inequalities are reproduced through practices of racism. The fact that it has real effects means that it is also important to identity.”  Essentialism exaggerates differences and reduces similarities between groups while understating differences within groups.”

Sojourner Truth’s speech in 1851″powerfully challenged essentialist thinking that women are necessarily weaker than men and that enslaved black women were not real women. Her identity claim is this relational, constructed in relation to white women and all men and clearly demonstrates that identities involve power relations – in this case of inequality. In addition, her speech shows how racialized and gendered identities cannot be separated since everybody has both a gendered and a racialized position.”

Social structures constrain people’s ability to adopt certain identities but because social change affects the shape of these structures, opportunities are opened for people to adopt new or hybrid identities.

The book concludes with Kath Woodward’s Afterword: “There are tensions between the personal and the social and between the agency people can exert and the constraints of social structures. There are uncertainties, which are historically specific. We live in changing times. We have multiple identities and identities are multifaceted. Multiple identities offer the possibility of diversity and have the potential for reconstruction and renewal. This is why identity matters.”

Although this book is a great introduction to the subject of identity, it would be good to understand how social media now feeds in to this. Technology has enabled us to find other people with whom we may identify all around the world. We can also easily create personas and interact with strangers to explore our own identities. Meanwhile cyber-bulling and shaming is out of control with teenage girls especially taking the brunt causing depression and suicides.

Transgender representation has also become a widely-discussed area of late.

From an image-making point of view, it is really important to keep studying this subject to ensure that my approach to portraits and other projects is sensitive and clearly conveys the desired message. There are thousands of good examples of photographic projects which explore identity successfully and this fact alone indicates how important a subject it is for me as a photographer.











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