Identity in Sociohistorical Context

Any investigation of identity-related concepts should take account of the cultural and sociohistorical contexts that influence these concepts. The manner in which humans perceive themselves has a history as long as we have been self-aware or have been able to experience a reflexive consciousness. The perception that an individual has of themselves as ‘a person’ has come to be one of the most cherished conceptions that any individual holds (Carrithers, Collins and Lukes, 1985). The conceptualisation of individual identity has varied over time and is affected by numerous factors such as the prevailing culture or the “social institutional constraints and their associated normative expectations”, within which individual’s exist/have existed (Kashima and Foddy, 2002, pp. 181; Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996).


Although Van Halen and Janssen (2004) refer to the changes that have occurred, over the centuries, in terms of how we view identity as being a commonly accepted conclusion in the self and identity literature, there are only a small number of theorists in the social psychology or identity studies areas who focus directly on this area (for example: Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote, 1996; Kashima and Foddy, 2002; Smith, 2002). The majority of those writing in this area agree that the concept of identity in the medieval era can be seen as having involved a view of the individual as a straightforward, easily perceived entity, and that this can be contrasted with the modern perspective where a perception of the individual as complex and difficult to understand predominates (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote and Levine, 2002; Kashima and Foddy, 2002; Van Halen and Janssen, 2004). However there are others, for example Harbus, (2002) who see that view as being an overly simplistic view of identity in the medieval era.


In Late Medieval Europe there appears to have been little interest in knowing the structure of one’s identity, at least not for the majority of individuals. There does not appear to be evidence of any substantial sense of identity-structure, an ‘inner self’. One’s identity was seen as being the same thing as one’s visible actions, and thus was perceived as being a straightforward entity (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote and Levine, 2002). The dominance of Christian views, influenced by the teachings of St. Augustine, produced a particular view of life. Life was viewed as being a precursor to an afterlife, where one would enjoy eternal salvation and fulfilment or suffer eternal damnation, according to clear guidelines one could follow. Social order, from this perspective, can be seen as something that was perceived by people in the Late Medieval Period as a ‘great chain of being’ and as fixed, stable and a product of divine decree. One’s identity, in late medieval times, can then be seen as being something that was determined by “very stable, visible, ascribed attributes, such as family membership, social rank, adult vs. child, place of birth, and gender” (Baumeister, 1987; Baumeister, 1999, pp. 4; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote, 1996; Van Halen and Janssen, 2004). Medieval culture was postfigurative, with children learning primarily from their forebears (Mead, 1870, cited in Cote, 1996). Well defined transitions, for example becoming an adult or marriage, marked the taking on of new components of individual identity (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996). In terms of the medieval sociocultural context in which people existed, individuals tended to live in tightly knit social networks, such as family households, villages or townships, under the rule of some external political organisation, such as empire or state, that would provide a socioeconomic framework for trade, law etc. Members of these communities participated in multiple activities together, for example religious or agricultural activities, rather than having any single, simple relationship with an individual (Kashima and Foddy, 2002). This would have resulted in strong social pressure to remain loyal to tradition, to conform, with deviation being punished (Cote 1996; Cote and Levine, 2002). In summary, this heteronomous, ascribed identity (Cote, 1996) in the Late Medieval Period can be seen as having been a concrete entity bounded by the individual’s physical and temporal context and place in the community (Kashima and Foddy, 2002).


Changes in how identity was conceived appear to have begun in the early modern period, when the idea of self-knowledge became more complex due to an emerging view of one’s identity as something that was inner and hidden (Baumeister, 1987; Riesman, 1950, cited in Cote, 1996). A possible causative factor was a breakdown of Late Medieval Social Order where people and their roles were no longer perceived as being congruent. This breakdown may have been linked to increased social mobility, which saw the growth of a middle class. With this separation of individual and society a new focus on inner individuality began (Beaumeister, 1987; Riesman, 1950, cited in Cote, 1996). The “inner nature of selfhood”, which is assumed by much of modern psychological thought, can be traced back to the 16th century (Baumeister, 1987, pp. 165). Social change, such as that described above, disrupts cultural continuity as it affects the relationship between socialisers and socialisees (Mead, 1970, cited in Cote, 1996). The social changes brought about by increased secularisation, the industrial revolution (1750-1850), population explosion, social mobility, and the introduction of ideas like individual freedom and equality by the American (1775-1776) and French (1789-1799) revolutions facilitated a move away from older ways of viewing social order.


Identity in the Medieval era can then be contrasted with identity in the 20th/21st century, where identity had changed from being something easy to see and know to being something that is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to know (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote and Levine, 2002; Kashima and Foddy, 2002). In the past the context that an individual was born into determined their place in society. Now, due to the evolution of social reforms and other factors a development in thinking occurred that promoted the idea that individuals have the freedom to be whoever they want to be (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Van Halen and Janssen, 2004). “Choice has replaced obligation as the basis of self-definition” (Cote and Levine, 2002, pp. 1). Modern self-definition now depends on a changing, uncertain mixture of choices and accomplishments, and identity is assumed, perhaps unrealistically, to contain the values on which these choices are made (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote and Levine, 2002). Actively defining who one is has become a critical activity in Western culture. It is now necessary, due to a flexible and complex societal structure, to decide who one is, for example what career one will pursue, who one will marry etc. Therefore the process of self-definition is more psychologically demanding than in the past. As individual identity is treated more as a commodity individuals feel that they must actively manage their identity-structure by “reflexively and strategically fitting oneself into a community of ‘strangers’ by meeting their approval through the creation of the right impression” (Cote, 1996, pp. 421). This is made more difficult by the fact that previous “fixed set answers” (Baumeister, 1987, pp. 166; Baumeister, 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996), for example those provided by religious faiths, or by the concept of work as a source of fulfilment, have lost much of their potential as a source of fulfilment due to modern organisation of work and the workplace, and are therefore increasingly being abandoned (Smith, 2002; Van Halen and Janssen, 2004). At a time when there is an increase in the perceived need for guidance in how to define oneself, there are less traditional frameworks to draw on in order to do so. This has led, in some cases, to individuals engaging with more extreme versions of traditional, fixed set answers, for example through religious fundamentalism. In the past secularism, science and technology were seen as a viable alternative to the ‘falling star’ of religious faith and its associated heavenly rewards, however people now perceive that these provide only a limited number of relatively shallow sources of fulfilment, and so turn to tried and tested sources of sociocultural support (Smith, 2002). Many individuals welcome the ability to make choices, but may not have developed the means to cope with the process of making those choices, being responsible for their choices and having to live with the consequences of those choices. This has, in many instances, led to the normalisation of emerging identity related problems for individuals such as “being: unsure about what they believe in; uncommitted to any course of future action; open to influence and manipulation; and unaware that they should pass a sense of meaning to their children”  (Cote and Levine, 2002, pp. 2).


The modern sociocultural context in which people live is one of economic interdependence as individuals act as traders in multiple, but simple, relationships with others. This is in opposition to the Late Medieval Era, when individuals existed in a single social unit, producing and consuming good and services. The majority of individuals now exchange their labour for monetary rewards that are then used to obtain goods and services. This tendency towards sparse social networks results in individuals having relationships with different individuals and groups who may not have any relationship, exchange or social, with each other. This frees the individual from having to conform to a single, all-inclusive world-view, as those in a tightly knit medieval society did. Instead the individual may have to contend with multiple, perhaps differing, expectations of conformity from the different individuals and groups in their lives (Kashima and Foddy, 2002). From this situation evolves a heightened need for multiple self-representations, or a multidimensional identity-structure, to satisfy the different contexts that exist in one’s life.


References that discuss how identity has been viewed differently, or has been different, at different points in history:


Baumeister, R. F. 1987. How the self became a problem: A psychological Review of historical research. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 52, 1, pp. 163-176


Baumeister, R. F. 1999. The nature and structure of the self: An overview. In R. F. Baumeister (ed). The self in social psychology. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press


Baumeister, R. F. and M. Muraven. 1996. Identity as adaptation to social, cultural and historical context. Journal of Adolescence, Vol. 19, pp. 405-416


Bukobza, G. 2007. The epistemological basis of selfhood. New Ideas in Psychology, Vol. 25, pp. 37-65


Carrithers, M., S. Collins and S. Lukes, 1985. The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Cote, J. E. 1996. Sociological perspectives on identity formation: The culture-identity link and identity capital. Journal of Adolescence, Vol. 19, pp. 417-428


Cote, J. E. and C. G. Levine. 2002. Identity formation, agency and culture: A social psychological synthesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum


Harbus, A. 2002. The medieval concept of the self in Anglo-Saxon England. Self and Identity, Vol. 1, 1 pp. 77-97


Kashima, Y. and M. Foddy. 2002. Time and self: The historical construction of the self. In Y. Kashima, M. Foddy and M. Platow. 2002. Self and identity: Personal, Social and Symbolic. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates


Korostelina, K. 2008. History education and social identity. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, Vol. 8, 1, pp. 25-45

Smith, M. B. 2002. Self and identity in historical/sociocultural context: “Perspectives on selfhood” revisited. In Y. Kashima, M. Foddy and M. Platow. 2002. Self and identity: Personal, Social and Symbolic. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates


Van Halen, C. and J. Janssen. 2004. The usage of space in dialogial self-construction: From Dante to cyberspace. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, Vol. 4. 4, pp. 389-405