Social identity is a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon that is being formed and changed during a person’s lifetime. It is both the projection of what and who people want to be, and the result of the adjustments to the social environment with its imposed norms, cultivated ideals and expectations. Thus, social identity is a highly dynamic construct that evolves and mutates under the pressure of both inner and outer stimuli. Social identity is either a balanced or imbalanced relationship of these stimuli, a golden mean or symbiosis of individual and social perceptions of a self. In order to form and realize one’s status as both a personality and a social being, an individual has to master the duality of being loyal to one’s inner self and being flexible enough to comply with the social norms and expectations of the time and place.
Numerous literature entries discuss the concept of identity. Perhaps one of the most interesting compilations of definitions and perspectives can be found in a book by Richard Jenkins. Inter alia, he defines identity as “the human capacity […] to know who’s who (and hence, what’s what)” (Jenkins, 2014, p. 6). In addition, the author views identification as “mapping of the human world and our places in it” (Jenkins, 2014, p. 6). The further advancement and elaborating on the map analogy provides intriguing insights into the realm of identity. Jenkins argues that having a map and knowing it does not necessarily tell individuals where they should go. The map may only suggest the variety of routes and destinations. However, without a map, people would be lost in the fabric of society, and may even lose or never find themselves. In this regard, one may extend the idea of identity to the notion of social identity since individual and society are indivisible and mutually defining.
The correlation between self and social identity is ambiguous. Often, the relationship has a quality of dominance instead of balancing. “The social identity strives to dominate the Self because its job is to make us blend in with the groups we live in so that we can be accepted as “good” group members” (Emerick, 2010, p. 54). Thus, the social authority becomes a part of individual’s social identity. Theoretically and ideally, identity should be formed first and foremost by a person based on his or her sense of personality, sex, worldview, character, talents, place and aim in life, callings, etc. However, it is impossible to fully differentiate and disintegrate the aforementioned dimensions of personhood from the wider context of society and its direct and indirect influences.
After all, an average human being is brought up in a family, studies in educational institutions, works in groups and so on. The effect of any or all of the listed forces on the identity generation is undoubted. Nevertheless, one should understand the difference between choosing from the limited career options among the existing human professions and the career options limited by parents’ decision, hometown’s vacancies or season’s or decade’s trend. The former equals the full freedom of choice, whereas the latter are the outer, imposed values and visions of self that originate from the social institution of family, economic peculiarities of a geopolitical object, such as a city, and the fashion industry, respectively. In practice, an individual has to balance between the inner and outer preferences, which is an extremely difficult task. Thus, many people choose universities, careers, etc. that correspond to both their talents/goals/lifestyle while at the same time being in harmony with the authority of family or class from which people originate or in which they want to function. Other people set high goals, leave the comfort zone of tradition, transcend classes and cultures, and exceed family expectations. Neither type is better, still, I belong to the second one.
Using the metaphor suggested by Jenkins, I may say that I had the world map in my hands, literally. I was born and grew up in Nepal. My birthplace defined and predetermined a part of my social identity that is known as ethnicity and race. In other words, my social status began with the parameters I could not change, namely my country of origin with the adjacent cultural imprint.
However, when I grew and saw the opportunity to receive education abroad, I took it. Instantly, the decision extracted me from my native environment and put into an alien environment of the U.S. culture. This shift challenged my identity and demanded a great degree of flexibility and open-mindedness. Nevertheless, I did not experience the culture shock. Although American mentality and norms of social conduct differ greatly from those in Nepal, the new lifestyle had a positive impression and effect on me from the first months in the country. As for the society’s reflection on me, it was positive, as well. I saw the USA as a country open to various nationalities, ethnicities, races and religions. Inter alia, my observations and experience show that the concept of race has stopped being defining in the construction of social identity. Modern Americans do not see race as something that defines people.
They tend to see through an individual’s skin color, ethnicity and adjacent characteristics and focus on the acquired rather than in-born traits. For example, for a modern American company, skin color is of a zero value, while professionalism, intellectual potential, communicability, creativity and teamwork are paramount. In one of the books, I have found a speculation that “race is nonexistent” (Martin, 2005, p. 50). Contemporary America proves this hypothesis.
One of the major differences between Nepal and the USA consists in gender roles. When I came to America, I was impressed by the level of practical gender equity and women’s emancipation in daily life, business and politics. While Nepal is making its first steps toward the norms propagated by developed countries, the USA exemplifies them in their apogees. It is said that, “gender roles are learned through gender socialization that begins shortly after birth and transmits culturally shared beliefs and values associated with masculinity and femininity to children and adolescents” (Lee, 2005, p. 6). The females’ status in my native social tradition accounted for my vision of a relatively passive, submissive and shy woman as a role model. Indeed, I learned these expected behaviors and gender role preferences in the childhood, behaved accordingly and expected other people to follow the norms. Within my culture of origin, the model functioned well and was never or seldom questioned. Respectively, I used this culturally shaped image as the de facto definition of males’ and females’ social statuses. When I saw the realities of the modern-day feminism and emancipation in the USA, it challenged my native gender tradition. In the new country, I needed to conform to the new gender stereotypes. Being an adult, I had to go through gender socialization once again, in a new environment. At first, it felt like betraying the old values shared by my parents and ancestors. With time, I fully accepted and appreciated the new gender paradigm. Since “the construct of gender is one of the primary organizing components of the self-concept”, I had to reassess not only my vision of gender roles, but also myself (Lee, 2005, p. 6). On the background of the mainstream male stereotypes and behaviors in the USA, I pose as a shy personality with a soft voice. Currently, I am trying to build on confidence to perform successfully in the male gender role and male sexuality applicable to America in order to meet people’s expectations of me. I am also a social, outgoing person with a good sense of humor understandable and already adapted to American realities and culture. Thus, my communicability helps me and suits the American culture well.
Unlike inborn traits, class is an artificial construct created by society in the course of its evolution. It is the result of categorization of individuals. Class emerges in societies when people perceive and identify common interests and practices and unite based on them. “People collectively identify themselves and others, and they conduct their everyday lives in terms of those identities, which therefore have practical consequences” (Jenkins, 2014, p. 113). I associate and identify myself with the American working class. In general, the category of class does not have any considerable effect on my life or my social identity, at least, how I perceive it. As for the society, I reasonably believe that it does not use the class marker to either discriminate people or label them. Thus, a class in the USA is more a structural and theoretical division than a part of identity that causes segregation practices or bad attitudes. Thus, my “feeling of class” is not vivid (Devine, 1997, p. 90).
When implanted into the American culture, my social identity incorporated a part of the American sports tradition (i.e. a part of the entertainment and sport culture), namely soccer and basketball. After four years in the USA, I have become a huge fan of soccer and followed most of the major and famous soccer games. In other words, I have acquired a new cultural identity that can be described as a superstructure based on my native, in-born basis of identity. The cultural acclimatization and assimilation also occurred via mastering and speaking English. According to Jenkins (2014), identity as a human capacity is inevitably “rooted in language” (p. 9). The educational and career choices provided by the USA are wide. I chose those that fit me and which I fit. As a result, I study in the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and currently have the educational status of an undergraduate in Biochemistry. I work part-time as a supervisor in CVS pharmacy. These opportunities allowed me to realize my potential in the realms of studying and career, as well as extend my social identity so that it corresponds to my interests.
Unlike many (or most) of people, I had an extra factor in my close circles that shaped my identity and self-perception. I have a twin brother. In terms of identity and identification, it meant that I had to share my world with my twin starting from the pre-birth times. When we were born, we shared a home and our parents’ love and care. At the age of approximately three or four years, when children usually start to cognize the world and themselves, I included my brother into my picture of cognition. I regarded myself in relation to my twin brother. I always compared and contrasted myself to him. Thus, my realization of my “self” and my building of selfhood were a complicated version of self-reflection. I needed to both associate myself with my brother (because we are family) and differentiate myself from him (because I am a personality). Naturally, I did all of it subconsciously and only now apply sociology and psychology concepts to analyze my childhood in retrospective. In general, twins tend to have similar or identical looks but different personalities. Some twins may gravitate toward similar interests or wear identical clothes.
Nevertheless, they are never the identical replicas of each other in terms of social identity. “The social identity is different in each person because no two individuals ever have exactly the same experience in the family and society. Even identical twins have different experiences…” (Emerick, 2010, p. 54). Often, the differences accumulate and become more vivid when twins become adults and lead relatively separate lives. I am a perfect example. By brother is married and has a son. In contrast, I am single.
Currently, I live with my brother, his wife and my nephew. Different lifestyles contribute to our dissimilarities. My brother plays a social role of a family man, a good husband and a great father within the social institution of family. I am not exposed to any of these roles, which means that, for now, my social identity does not have the edges and qualities that my brother has.
Identification is closely and inevitably related to labeling and deviance. Moreover, “identification is never just a matter of name or label: the meaning of an identity lies also in the difference that it makes in individual lives” (Jenkins, 2014, p. 102). Since individual identities are parts of collective identities, an individual may fall off the norms and expectations shared by a group or society in general. Such people become deviants or demonstrate deviant behavioral patterns. Social reaction is what defines deviance. Deviance is not universal, but culture- and group-specific. It means that what is deviant for one society may be the norm for the other. However, there are some generally applicable understandings of deviance, such as mental disorders or crime. Other notions are much more subtle and contextually conditioned. My display of deviance resulted from either Nepali culture that is deeply imprinted in me, or the lack of a new cultural knowledge concerning the USA and its social norms. Nevertheless, the deviance issues were minor and never caused much inconvenience, let alone judgment or hatred on behalf of the Americans. For example, the initial polar difference between the American and Nepali gestures for “Yes” and “No” led to confusions being cultural faux pas. To overcome this potentially deviant gesture, I started to rely on my words more than on body language. The same is true for my culture-bound habit of taking off shoes each time I enter a house. For some Americans, such an action seems odd and makes me single out of the mainstream habits. When I address my brother in public, I don’t use his name and use the identifier “brother” instead, whereas Americans use names and even last names. Also, my reference to body fat as something positive may seem deviant in the light of the American/Hollywood cult of a slim body and healthy lifestyle and the current trend in the U.S. to view obesity as a disease. In Nepal, excessive weight is the symbol and direct indicator of material wealth. Besides the aforementioned cases, nothing makes me deviant. My race, country of origin, language proficiency, accent or lifestyle have not resulted in labeling me as a deviant or non-fit.
In conclusion, self-analysis and reflection upon my life provide empirical proof that social identity is not a static, but a dynamic construct formed both by an individual and social environment. I have managed to succeed in balancing the effects of society and culture on me with my vision of self. My personhood depicts the internal talents and interests that have successfully integrated me into a new cultural and social surrounding of the alien country. While remembering my origins and being the product of the family upbringing and national tradition, I am also a person able to adjust and accommodate to the “adopted” culture. Thus, my social identity comprises and encompasses my personal experiences and visions of selfhood, as well as those of my culture and the American culture. I am a product shaped be myself and two societies, and my social identity is still evolving.