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Types of Identity and Their Features

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Aspects of Identity
    Identities are Created through Communication:
    Identities are Created in Spurts:
    Identities are Multiple:
    Identities are Influenced by Society:
    Identities are Dynamic:
    Identities are Developed in Different Ways in Different Cultures:
    Groups that shape our identity
    Age Identity:
    National Identity:
    Regional Identity:
    Cyber Identity:
    Personal Identity:


Each human being has their own identity. This is not just our physical features, cultural background or gender, but rather something which is constantly developing through our experiences and encounters (communication) with other people. Identities are dynamic and complex. We also have multiple identities which are influenced by cultural background and society (Judith et al. 2013:45).

Our identities form a very important part of our self-concept. They are not constant, and it is not something that we can achieve or complete (Spreckels, J. & Kotthoff, H., 2009).

Aspects of Identity

Identities are Created through Communication:

The development of our identities is heavily dependent on communication. Identities are co-created and reinforced through communication with other people. We are who we are due to the conversations we’ve had and the relationships we’ve built throughout our lives. As Kennith J. Gergen says, “I am linked therefore I am” (Gergen, 1985:45).

Every time we communicate, it gives us an opportunity to learn something, to express ourselves, to behave a certain way and to alter our thoughts or views on something. This allows for us to form a self-concept which forms part of our identities.

Depending on who we are communicating with and what we are talking about, different parts of our identities may be emphasized. Gergen also mentioned that mobile communication technologies (phone calls, texting, etc.) also influence our relationships as well as our identities (Gergen, 2002).

For example: If somebody I’ve never met calls me on the phone to book a photoshoot, (as I am a photographer) my physical or sexual orientation identities will probably not be as important to them as my age or occupational identity, as these might give them an idea of my maturity and experience which could help them decide if I am trustworthy of taking photos on their special occasion.

Identities are Created in Spurts:

We may go through stages where we are very aware of our identities and how they are being shaped, however, there will be other periods when we do not give it much thought. Our identities are not developed in an even or smooth process, it is developed in spurts. “Certain events provide insights into who we are, but these are framed by long periods during which we may not think much about ourselves or our identities” (Judith et al. 2013:46).

For example: When I was 15 years old, I went on an exchange program to the United States of America. In the 11-month period I was there, I was constantly questioning my identity. I lived with a family that practised a different religion as mine, they had a different class identity as my family back home and of course they were a different nationality than me. I had adopted many of their practices and ‘norms.’ That year was a year full of self-development. My self-concept and identity had changed drastically by the time I got back to South Africa.

Identities are Multiple:

So many different factors go into making us who we are, which is why we do not have an identity, but rather identities. The context, time and people around us determine which identity will come into play. We are all a part of many different groups in the community, which may all highlight something different about our identity (Fiddy, 2010).

For example: I cannot describe myself with one word. I am a female, a student, a photographer, a swimmer, and the list goes on. However, let’s say I were to join a feminist group, I may portray more of my gender identity whist spending time with that specific group.

Identities are Influenced by Society:

Our identities are influenced by societal forces such as politics, economics and history. “Although each person has their own individual personality, ideas and thoughts, we are shaped by the society and culture which surrounds us every day” (Fussell, 2010).

This is why people associate themselves with specific groups and not others. We have been placed into identity categories before we were even born (Gergen, 2002).

For example: If both your parents are Christian, you might be labelled by society as Christian as well.

Identities are Dynamic:

Identities should be looked at as dynamic rather than fixed, as they are ever changing. What we associated with a specific identity 30 years ago, may be completely different today. Judith et al (2002:47) mentions that “The social forces that give rise to particular identities are always changing.”

For example: My gender identity is female. Years ago, this was something you were born with and couldn’t change. It could mean you are weaker than males, that you have to stay at home and clean and cook. However, today it is something completely different. There is power in our femininity. More and more females are becoming successful business woman and starting up their own businesses. In the past this was the male’s role, but today we fight for equality. The perception we have of the label ‘female’ might be different 20 years from now.

Identities are Developed in Different Ways in Different Cultures:

In many societies, individualism is emphasized. We are told from a young age that we are unique and encouraged to ‘know who we are’ and to be independent. However, not all societies share this view on individualism. In other countries, your community or family identity might be more important than your individual identity. “Identity development does not occur in the same way in every society” (Judith et al, 2002:47).

For example: A child born in the United States of America might be focused on developing a strong individual identity. So, they would pursue their interests, dress and behave differently to their family or community members. Whereas a child in a country such as Japan, which has a collective culture, might focus on developing or fitting into their family’s identity. So, they might pursue joining or taking over the family business rather than going off to study something completely different.

Groups that shape our identity

Age Identity:

Our age may determine how we dress, speak and behave. We are also expected to behave in a certain way depending on our age. For example, if you are 18 or older in South Africa, the community might expect you to find a job and move out of your parent’s house.

Different generations are also associated with different behaviour, skills and knowledge. For example, my generation is seen as the technologically advanced generation. According to research we are also more optimistic, open-minded, globally orientated and concerned about protecting the environment (Judith et al, 2002:47).

Different cultures celebrate certain ages, for example a 15th birthday of a Latino daughter is very important, just like a 21st in South Africa. We celebrate these birthdays as they mean adulthood in our cultures. Although, this is just what the media and people has taught us to believe. You might be a 16-year-old South African and feel and act more like an adult, whereas someone else who might be 21 years old and have no sense of responsibility or drive to act like an adult. “Even as we communicate how we feel about our age to others, we receive messages from the media telling us how we should feel” (Judith et al, 2002:47).

How I communicate my age identity: My age identity is communicated through my clothing, the jargon/slang that I use, the people I spend my time with and the methods of communication which I use. I feel the way I dress is modern, trendy and acceptable for a 21-year-old student. However, it might be looked down upon if a 50-year-old business woman wore the same thing. Most of my friends are between the ages of 18 and 30, we tend to use ‘current’ slang which elder people might not understand. The use of cell phones, computers and social media is a daily part of my life.

National Identity:

National identity, or nationality, is often confused with racial or ethnic identity. However, it is an identity of its own, influenced by the cultures, traditions and language of your country. “It is a sense of a nation as a cohesive whole” (Tariq, 2018).

When we think of America, we think of very patriotic, English speaking and sport loving people, as this makes up a large portion of the countries traditions and culture. ‘Friday night lights’ is a tradition whereby a large American football game takes place on a Friday night and the whole town will attend to support the teams and watch the fireworks. This is part of their national identity as American football lovers. In South Africa however, American football is hardly played, but rugby is a big deal.

How I communicate my national identity: Personally, I think the South African identity is hard to explain and represent, as there are so many diverse cultures and languages. So, although I am South African, I feel I only represent the English and Afrikaans part of the nation. I communicate this by being proud of my country, by associating myself with a mix of people of different races, cultures and ethnicities as South Africa is a rainbow nation. My traditions and the activities I do communicates my national identity, for example, when I go to a friend’s house on a Saturday afternoon to braai and watch the rugby. I also communicate my nationality by the way I speak, using phrases such as ‘howzit’ and ‘now now,’ singing the national anthem of South Africa, and so on.

Regional Identity:

Reginal identity is similar to national identity, however, it is the concept of your region. Different regions may have a different way of communicating and behaving. For example, in Limpopo, Sesotho is the main language used to communicate, whereas in Kwa-Zulu-Natal, Zulu is the primary language. This forms part of your regional identity, which become very important in intercultural communication. Sometimes these regional identities can result in a national independence movement (Judith et al. 2013:57).

It’s almost as if each area has it’s ‘norms.’ If you come from a small town, you might smile and greet a random person who walks past you, but if you live in a busy city, you pass so many people on a daily basis that you might hardly acknowledge or look at the other person.

How I communicate my regional identity: My regional identity is communicated by my accent and the slang I use when I talk. For example, in Limpopo we’d say ‘howzit boet?’ Whereas someone from Johannesburg might prefer the term ‘bru.’ The way I dress could communicate my regional identity. As I live in a small town with extremely high temperatures and very casual restaurants, I might go out in a jean with open shoes and a T-shirt, whereas someone from Cape Town might prefer to wear heels and a dress. As it is a small town, everyone is connected in a way or has mutual friends, so it is easy to strike up a conversation and make friends with people.

Cyber Identity:

Cyber identity, (also called online or virtual identity) is the personality or personalities that are portrayed through a person’s online interactions such as what you post, comment and share online. Personas cyber identity may vary from a person’s actual, identity in real life (Investopedia, 2018).

We act as the ‘interface’ between the physical person and online person which others see on their mobile or computer screens. Cyber identities carry risks such as cyber bullying and identity theft because often your online profile contains personal information such as your date of birth, home address and so on (Judith et al, 2002).

How I communicate my cyber identity: I am a strong believer that we should not post our problems on social media. Therefore, I try to avoid posting negative or sad personal things online, this contributes to my cyber identity of always being positive and spreading love. I also like to post about social and environmental problems to bring awareness to a cause, so when one looks at my online profile your first impression might be that I am an animal or nature lover who is trying to save the planet- which is true! I also have my basic information such as name, age, where I am from and what I do, which all contributes to my cyber identity. I post many photos of me with friends or family, and this all communicates who I am.

Personal Identity:

Our self-perception as well as other perceptions of ourselves influence our personal identity greatly. For example, if you see yourself as a positive person, you are likely to act more positive. Similarly, if someone else tells you they think you are smart and responsible, you might try to act smarter and more responsible (Judith et al, 2002).

Our personal identities are also influenced by a number of other factors such as our family, friends, religion, race, and so on. These factors then influence our taste in music, clothing, speech, the activities and hobbies we take part in, the sports we play, and the list goes on.

How I communicate my personal identity: My personal identity is communicated through everything I do and say. It is communicated through the way I dress and the activities I take part in. I have a strong set of morals and ethics which you notice when I am in a conversation with somebody. I am hard working and motivated, my friends see this when I turn down a night out to stay home and study. I am a person that despises trends, and you can see that in my taste of music. I do not enjoy popular hip hop or rap which most people my age enjoys. This all communicates my personal identity.

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