Construction of Identity

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Identity Construction

The concepts of structure and agency are important in social sciences, particularly when it comes to identity formation. Although the debate rages over the supremacy of agency over the structure, the two concepts are instructive components of sociology (Browne, 2005, p. 14). Sociologists use the two concepts to understand human behaviour, especially the trigger factors and the forces that control human behaviour within the society. Accordingly, sociologists can construct the identity of individuals using the agency and structure concepts. Although structure and agency have different connotations when it comes to the interpretation of human behaviour, the two concepts are interrelated and interdependent (Leydesdorff, 2010, p. 2139). Agency implies the ability of individuals to determine their courses without external influence whereas structure implies the frameworks that regulate the opportunities and behavioural choices available to human beings. This paper thus examines the construction of human identity using the concepts of structure and agency.

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Agency

According to Giddens (1984, p. 18), the structuration theory helps in the development of the concepts of agency and structure. In essence, the social structure is independent of human agency. People can opt to behave in specific ways irrespective of societal restraints. However, the behaviour of humans has ethical, legal, and moral implications. The implications bring out the relationship between the agency and structure. Sociological analysis involves the examination and interpretation of human actions in their sociological contexts. The author argues that all actions have intentions and ramifications (Archer, 1996, p. 41). Although humans may identify with some actions because of the positive attributes of such actions, some actions may take place because of the inherent societal restraints. This means that the construction of human identity depends on the various aspects of agency and structure. With the sociological knowledge of agency and structure, it is possible to construct the identity of human beings.

The concept of agency is a significant determiner of individual identity because it anchors on the premise that behaviour emanates from free choice. People who have the freedom to act may act in a particular manner as to predict their behaviour and personality. The actions that predict an individual’s behaviour revolve around the intention of the individual to act. In essence, the concept of agency promotes individualism as the key determinant of individual identity (Leydesdorff, 2010, p. 2138). Accordingly, people can choose to identify themselves with particular traits and behaviours based on the available opportunities and choices. However, individuals may perceive the ramifications of structure and behave in a manner that is in consonance with the structure. The advantage of individualism is that some people can forge unique identities that can help them to transform the world. The theory of agency relies on social action to promote the construction of individual identity. It means that individuals act freely in a social environment to portray given traits.

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Giddens’ (1984, p. 15) perspective on agency emphasizes on the intentionality of human actions. People do not act in consonance to the socio-cultural or political norms, but instead, they act in a deliberate manner as to satisfy individual interests. Individual fulfilment is more important than adherence to societal regulations. Consequently, individual actions precede societal opinions and rules. Many societies across the globe have been shaped by the amalgamation of individual identities. It means that the norms and rules of the society depend on the individual identity. The manners in which individuals behave within the society determine the ethical perspective of the society. Individuals actively engage in identity construction through a selection of unique choices within the structures of the society (King, 2010, p. 253). For example, some people may act in a manner that depicts them to be leaders within the society whereas others may determine to remain followers through allegiance to individuals of their choice.

Individuals use reflectivity to interpret given situations and act accordingly. The reflective agents enable people to weight the motivations against the consequences of given actions. More often than not, individuals identify with the actions that derive significantly higher rewards than the risks involved (Dépelteau, 2008, p. 52). Self-identity goes beyond the observation features in a person. An individual may identify him/herself with various aspects that may not make sense to other people. Self-identity comes from within in that individual resolves to take a particular perspective and act in a given manner. The identities of individuals depend on the extent to which those individuals are willing to act differently within the society. The concept of agency offers free opportunities and choices to individuals so that people can act in different ways that reflect the diversity that exists within the society.

Structure

Unlike the concept of agency that enables individuals to identify with their behaviours and form personalities based on their inherent characteristics, the structure concept is concerned with the society. The society plays an important role in shaping the opinions and behaviour of individuals (Dépelteau, 2008, p. 51). The society comes in different forms namely family, school, church, government, and the community. The society may have written or unwritten rules that guide the behaviour of all the members of the society. Accordingly, the individual identity depends on the extent to which the individual adheres to the rules of the society. The rules of the society may be liberal or institutionalized, depending on the nature of the society.

The structuralist approach tends to disapprove human action, particularly action that is non-compliant. The concept of structure disagrees with the concept agency about the origin of behaviour. Unlike the agency concept, the structuralist approach refutes the fact that behaviour emanates from free will Giddens (1984, p. 30). According to the agency of structure, the structural factors play an important role in influencing behaviour and determining individual identity. Structuralism argues that the socialization agencies play a significant role in the construction of individual identity. The social circumstances and norms determine individual behaviour, which in turn, reflects on the identity of the individual. It implies that both concepts, namely agency and structure, can construct individual identity, albeit in different techniques.

Unlike the agency approach that recognizes the individual as an embodied actor, structuralism perceives the individual as a situated actor. It implies that the environment informs the actions and behaviours of an individual or a group of individuals. The elements of time and place help in the construction of individual identity because people act in the context of time and the environment (Whittington, 2010, p. 109). People may take specific actions because they are timely or act according to the prevailing norms in a given environment. For instance, religious institutions may influence the behaviour of an individual in the context of time and place. The faithful are restrained from engaging in unorthodox activities while in such social institutions. The correctional institutions play a similar role in the construction of individual identity.

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The structure concept manifests through the socialization agencies that define the society. The socialization agencies influence individual behaviour, which in turn determines the identity of individuals. For instance, a family is a basic unit that delineates the roles of all the members of the society (Giddens, Duneier, Appelbaum, and Carr 2016, p. 36). The parents and children identify with their roles within the society. The roles may be obligatory or optional. The parents who choose to fulfil all their roles within the family, including the insignificant and optional roles may identify with the element of generosity and care. Conversely, children play a specific role within the family, which is loyalty and respect. In addition to the family, the media and peers influence individual behaviour on a significant scale.

When it comes to the media and peers as agents of socialization, individuals may choose to conform or rebel. The media plays an important role in the society by depicting specific norms and doctrines that the society ought to adopt. The doctrines may be real or false, depending on the prevailing cultures (Whittington, 2010, p. 110). An individual may choose to abide by media and peer influences or opt for a reasoned behaviour. Although every individual has a choice of behaviour, the consequence of the behaviour may vary, depending on the social construction. The agencies of socialization play a significant role in the determination of individual behaviour within the society.

The concepts of structure and agency refer to the society and individual respectively. The two concepts delineate the forces that guide individual decision within a societal framework. The operation of the ‘individual’ is related to yet independent of the ‘society.’ Individuals develop their identities based on the extent to which they conform to the societal norms (Bryant and Jary 2014, p. 67). The concept of structure implies the rules, obligations, and expectations by the society of individual behaviour. The sociological construction of human behaviour indicates that humans are entirely in control of their actions although they cannot determine the consequences of their actions. The agency concept indicates that people have the free will and obligation to do as they wish without necessarily requiring any confirmation or approval from other people or the society.

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The Structuration Theory

Anthony Giddens, A British sociologist, came up with the theory of structuration that enhanced the concepts of agency and structure. In essence, the theory explores the relationship between human behaviour and the societal restrictions. It delineates how the agency interacts with the structure to form an identity. Accordingly, it is possible to construct the identity of humans using the structuration theory. According to Giddens (1984, p. 43), human agency is independent of the social structure, which means that people can make independent decisions regardless of societal structures. For instance, people can choose to obey the law or face the consequences of disobeying the law. It implies that the structure of the society can be institutionalized or unrestrained.

The structuration theory amalgamates the concepts of agency and structure with the objective of constructing the identity of individuals. The correlation between agency and structure occurs at different levels, depending on the social circumstances. It implies that individuals play an integral part in all structural formations. The society comprises of the individual members that make the group (Leydesdorff, 2010, p. 2140). Additionally, the collective identities of the individuals determine the ethical conduct and norms within the society. The structuration theory states that any alteration in the rules governing the behaviour of individuals changes the entire structural formation. For instance, the conservation of environment was a free will in the past centuries. However, nature has necessitated the implementation of rules governing environmental protection, which bind all individuals within the society. The society reinforces the rules as prescribed and accepted by the individual members. It means that the societal norms ought to conform to the identities of the individuals within the society.

Nature vs. Nurture

The perspectives of nature vs. nature can help in the construction of individual identities, particularly through the lens of the structuration theory. The nature aspect deals with the inherited or genetic component of individual behaviour whereas the nurture component is concerned with the acquired characteristics of an individual (Bryant and Jary, 2014, p. 62). The concept of structure corresponds to the nurture aspect in that the experiences that an individual gains from environmental factors affect the behaviour and identity of the individual. When it comes to nature, individuals make choices on the available opportunities based on their inherent characteristics. The nativists, evolutionists, and empiricists offer distinct perspectives with regard to identity construction.

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The nativists, evolutionists, and empiricists offer various evidence of nature vs. nurture to support the construction of individual identity. The nativists argue for the nature in that individuals may identify with specific behaviours, skills, preferences, and capabilities because of their inherent characteristics (Leydesdorff, 2010, p. 2138). For instance, the Chinese identify with martial arts because it is a native tradition. The evolutionist perspective favours the concept of structure in the sense that the environment around an individual may influence the identity of the individual. Evolutionary biology predisposes individuals to specific identities, such as the need to reproduce and sire many offspring. When it comes to the maturation perspective, nature plays a substantial role in individual identity construction. For instance, children develop identities according to programmed biological patterns acquired from parents.

As a conclusive remark, Giddens’ structuration theory is important in identity construction, considering the interrelationship between the concepts of agency and structure. Although the concept of agency constructs individual identity by characterizing the individual as the focal point of action, the concept of structure places a premium on the social structures. The two concepts are interdependent because individuals form the society, which is liable for formulating the rules by which individuals ought to obey. The collective identities of individuals form the identity of the society. Besides, the nature vs. nurture offers evidentiary perspectives that are critical in the construction of identities of individuals.

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  1. Archer, M S 1996, Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Browne, K 2005, An Introduction to Sociology, Cambridge Polity, Cambridge.
  3. Bryant, C, & Jary, D 2014, Giddens’ theory of structuration: A critical appreciation, Routledge, London.
  4. Dépelteau, F 2008, ‘Relational Thinking: A Critique of Co‐Deterministic Theories of Structure and Agency’, Sociological Theory, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 51-73.
  5. Giddens, A, Duneier, M, Appelbaum, R P, & Carr, D S 2016, Introduction to sociology, WW Norton, New York.
  6. Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration, University of California Press, California.
  7. King, A 2010, ‘The odd couple: Margaret Archer, Anthony Giddens and British social theory’, The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 253-260.
  8. Leydesdorff, L 2010, ‘The communication of meaning and the structuration of expectations: Giddens’ “structuration theory” and Luhmann’s “self‐organization”’, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, vol. 61, no. 10, pp. 2138-2150.
  9. Whittington, R., 2010, ‘Giddens, structuration theory and strategy as practice’, Cambridge Handbook of Strategy as Practice, pp. 109-126.
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