Theorizations on the factors affect the social identification processes
Author: Juan_Jose Villalón_Ogayar
Current knowledge of the social identification process requires taking into account the social experience of individuals in relation to the basic social institutions, as well as controlling how the evolution and transformation of social experiences influence each one of the analytical dimensions of the social identification process.
The relationship between social experience and identification has been approached from different perspectives to date. Two perspectives stand out. One: the socio-psychological perspective, which is mostly concerned with how the exclusion experience prevents individual identification regarding both permanence of oneself over time and belonging to social groups. Two: a more sociologically-based perspective on systemic change, more concerned with how the transformation of experiences of social integration, exclusion and vulnerability either prevents, destroys or jeopardises the socio-cultural representations of group belonging.
Currently, the question arising from the second perspective is: in the light of the changes observed in the forms of social stratification in European societies, characterised by rising social exclusion and vulnerability, how are the forms of social identification changing? This question should be contextualised as part of the study on social change and the dynamic relationship generated between forms of social structuring and the transforming social action.
Among other aspects regarding the association between structural substrate and social action, we know that both are engaged in a dynamic relationship. It is in motion, as it takes place over time on the basis of an asymmetric connection between the systemic dimensions, which is influenced by other elements such as cultural heritage. Yet, nothing is known about the operation of specific social processes that leads to the materialisation of inter-dimensional connections. This is what Tezanos refers to as the intersubjective stage reciprocal subjectivity.
Social identification occurs at this stage. The structural substrate is formed by objective components of social assimilation and differentiation that influence the individuals’ standing in the market, their labour conditions or standards of living. The cultural substrate is the depositary of the “symbolic constructions directed by the seeking of individual and group interests”, which leads to identification. Drawing from both dimensions, individuals can shape up their social identity, that is: they position and appraise themselves, and give a meaning to the entire set of ways of looking at themselves.
Past research studies have analysed the correlation between some fundamental outcomes of the social identification process and the changes to objective outcomes of social exclusion. Said studies observed that the change of structural substrate has to a point gone along the transformation of peer identification forms from the eighties to early 21st century in Spain.
The issue is today crucial for contemporary European societies that have been experiencing a deep crisis of basic social identities inherited from industrial societies for decades, and which, as demonstrated by Robert Castel (1991), have been feeling the impact of rising social exclusion. For example, in Spain this has led to a crisis of expression that has occasionally affected over a third of population, mostly women and elderly, as demonstrated by research studies in the last twenty years. This is a crisis that tends to be overcome by the new generations thanks to the development of new forms of identification that are more ideologically dispersed than previous forms, but which are increasingly more connected with the rising precariousness experienced by the youngest generations.
The issue that still needs clarification is what form of conscience of belonging and peer identification process tends to predominate when the regulation of social exclusion and integration changes, as the risk of being excluded from the basic structures and institutions of society either increases or decreases for individuals or groups. This question can be answered differently depending on the theoretical approaches currently used in social sciences. The most relevant approaches are the following:
The oldest, now practically abandoned, is the mechanistic approach. According to this approach, increasing risk of social exclusion dissolves basic group ties in a modern society (social class), as identification is defined by social status. If people fail to hold a stable position in society, they cannot develop a sense of group belonging. If social classes are fragmented, identities are too. This historical process has not occurred to date.
The agent’s subjectivity-based approach considers that the connection between structural substrate and peer identification ceases to be relevant in societies in which the subjectivity of individual units increases as a result of the individualisation process (cognitive or institutionalised). In said societies, agents engage in building their own identity. Within this context, rising exclusion and persistence of inequalities may lead to the dissolution of group ties, the fragility of identifications or recreation of group identities with a basically socio-cultural meaning, based on activities more closely connected to personal choice and short-living, such as leisure and goods consumption.
The problem with this approach is that it requires a change in the nature of the individual unit for different social systems. Is it possible to demonstrate the change in the subjectivity of individuals from one society to another? Certainly, not all individuals can apparently develop as subjects, but potentially they all are.
The culturalist approach defends that the connection between structural substrate and identification ceases to be relevant in societies in which both systemic components are dependent on the cultural dimension.
This approach faces a similar problem, as it proposes a change in the ways the systemic components relate with each other in different social systems. Does such a change make any sense? Can another simpler explanation to social change be brought up that only requires changing the contents of the dimensions and does not alter their relationships?
A different approach, which could be labelled as processualist, paves the way to explain the differences between social systems based only in changes to the contents. From this perspective, it assumes what was already pointed out by the mechanistic and culturalist approaches. That is, two processes take place in the structural substrate: organisation of social resources, and selection of individual units to hold positions in society. Yet, this new approach suggests that peer identification at the corporate level is essentially influenced by what is known as the social experience of social group integration or exclusion as experienced in selective processes over time and based on expectations for the future.
In social selection processes, each individual experiences integration into basic social institutions of their specific society (family, business, State) according to a set of selective criteria that can vary depending on when and where these criteria are upheld. The most effective criteria are the consensual traits that mark the categorical boundaries within populations.
The processualist-based hypothesis suggests that the weight of consensual identification traits tends to shift toward the strengthening of those consensual traits that are more intensely utilised by the basic social institutions (family, business and State) to sort out members of society and increase the risk of exclusion and access to basic social resources for specific sectors of society. The results drawn from the longitudinal macro-sociological analyses conducted to date have not succeeded in challenging the main hypothesis in the Spanish case. Nevertheless, there are still many doubts about the truthfulness of said hypothesis at the levels of individuals and specific organisations. The results from the latest research studies lead us to the conclusion that said issues need to be tackled differently: first, with panel methodology research based on a micro-sociological perspective; and, secondly, establishing a further line of research to focus on processes of social selection in each one of the social spaces in European Societies.
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