Social Identification process: about the definition

Social Identification process: about the definition

Author: Juan José Villalón Ogáyar

What is to this date known as social sciences of the social identification process enables us to place this element right in the centre of social change. We can introduce it visually in a simple (yet common in Sociology) explanatory model, such as it was synthesised by G. Therborn in 1995 (pag. 16-18). We could place the social identification process as a connector between the two basic dimensions of social systems (structure and culture) and social action, sharing its place with power-based relationships (See Chart1). Note though that, while power-based relationships are a systemic macro-element, social identification places us within the micro-social perspective.

Chart 1. The position of social identification process in social change

Source: Villalon, J.J. (2006), Identidades y Exclusión Social. ¿Qué nos iguala? ¿Qué nos diferencia?, 2006, Ed. FOESSA/

This outline conveys the hypothesis that the way people regard themselves in relation to others seems to be greatly relevant to understanding how social change occurs, as it does with power-based relationships. This implies that, even though the structuring of society places each individual in a specific position in accordance with a set of learnt standards, the same individual can, in their interaction with others, find, create and share models of self-understanding in society that break established patterns and triggers social action seeking the transformation of the system.

What Sociology, Social Psychology and Social Anthropology have confirmed so far in relation to this issue is that all individuals have their belongings or membership, and that they are aware of the consensual traits deriving from their culture and the positions they hold in the social structure. These systemic dimensions are variable, and thus individuals have no choice but to subjectively position themselves repeatedly in their milieus. The more open-ended and changeable both dimensions are in their social system, the more often they will need to reposition themselves. Thus, social experience drives them to deal with all their memberships and identities, subjectifying and organising them (Citrin and Sears, 2009; 171-173). And this is achieved through a dialectic process between the individual’s inner and outer realities (Jenkins, 1996).

I understand belonging or memberships as the objective bond of the individual with an institutionally organised social group such as the families, schools, firms, associations, political parties or States. In other words, it is the connector to social organisations of which we are formal and declared members, yet not necessarily public.

Consensual traits would be the forms of segmentation of population in social sectors distinguished by one or more natural or artificial traits based on a set of beliefs that impregnate said traits with a more or less shared meaning, always short-lived, which enables people to sort out members of a group from others at a given point in time at least. Usual consensual traits in Europe are those that distinguish individuals on the basis of their age, gender, ethnic group, birthplace, political ideas, religious beliefs, abode, occupation, level of education or social class.

It has also been discovered that, in contemporary European societies, different structural variables have a partial impact on identification (age, gender, social status and occupation), as well as cultural variables such as religious beliefs, work and family values (Villalon, 2006, 2008, 2009).

Much is yet to be done to further our understanding of how the social identification process works in all its dimensions in connection with the specific social experiences of individuals. It is necessary to study the structural changes affecting individuals over time, as well as the changes to their forms of development, assessment, significance and classification of social identities over a sizeable period of time.


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