Leadership Personal Identity

Which is more important in shaping individual identity: Social Structure or Social Interaction?

IMG_8694Everyday life is made up by our social interaction with others in our society, beginning with our family. School peers and later work colleagues and other outside influences such as media and education also help shape our belief systems; however as Charles Cooley ( 1864 - 1929) suggested what really creates the construct behind individual identity is the social structure of society, not our genes or interaction alone.  The society into which we belong gives us the choice of threads for the fabric into which we are woven.  Changes in social structure throughout history clearly demonstrate how the constraints of a societies structure forms the basis of personal identity; How a person thinks about themselves, and how they feel they can freely express that thought.

According to Auguste Comte (1838) social structure is the stable patterns of social behaviour made up of various components: Culture, class, status, role, and institution to which one belongs. (Holmes, Hughes & Julian, 2015) Whereas social interaction is classified by the acceptable way in which to live with ones fellow man. (Webster &  Sell,  2012)  Components that become important at this level are things like personal space, belief on eye contact and touching as well as semantic meaning behind body language and tonality.  Goffman (1959) introduced dramaturgy to explain the interaction process within societies. He theorised that our role in the world could be likened to that of an actor on stage; Back stage or front stage depending on the strength of our character in that scene and the role we are playing. He also suggested that some roles are incompatible with others, therefore causing conflict or strain within a person.

Social structure has been redefined throughout history with functionalism (Herbert Spencer), Karl Marx’s class structure analysis or structuralist perspectives (Levi-Strauss) among others creating theories from which to draw conclusions. (Henslin, Possamai, & Possamai-Inesedy, 2011)   When one of the 10 main institutions ( family, religion, law, politics, economics, medicine, science, military, media) categorised by Comte, are changed, such as in the industrial revolution, the inquisition  or the digital age, we see change in personal identity as individuals adapt to the new structure, values and ideologies of society (Holmes, Hughes & Julian, 2015).

Australian values place great emphasis on economic standing and education.  This starts within the family unit, where parents put great pressure on children to live up to their high expectations, or leave them to their own devices, with no guidance and poor role modelling. Our class system, although not as noticeable as some countries, still places the wealthy and educated in prestigious occupations which in turn increase social status. Emilie Durkheim (1858 - 1917) suggested this is how the conscious collective forms cohesion around shared norms. (Webster & Sell, 2012)  Karl Marx (1818-1882) believed the motivation of humans was to overcome alienation and repression.   He refers to todays ‘Retail Therapy’ as an extension of this consumerism based interaction, to fill the void left by alienation. (Holmes et al, 2015)

The framework of a society limit, guide and organise human behaviour. The difference in personal identity via different structure verses interaction alone, can clearly be seen when looking at different nations, cultures and subcultures.  Individuals attach emotional importance to the ideology and values of the society into which they have been brought up.  As Claude Lévi-Strauss's (1908 -2009) structuralists believe, the identity of society comes before the identity of the individual. (Webster et al, 2012) In India arranged marriages are the norm.  Crimes in the name of religion occurred  across many nations and throughout time with little remorse for their actions, which were justified due to the group beliefs to which they belonged.  A woman in Australia can expect respect, no sexual repression, choice of husband and choice of education and occupation.  Yet still in 2015 there are societies into which a woman is born where none of these rights are a given.  In Asia some poor families sell their daughters into the sex trade to survive,. The middle east sees women as second class citizens, if raped they are the accused and sentenced not the violator.  Our societal norms see us outraged by this.

Society changes as it responds to social and economic needs, advances in technology, religion or medicine and cultural dynamics. However the creation of who we are and how we think of ourselves is determined by the structure of the society in which we live, where we are located within it, the class and status of those around us and our peers attitudes and beliefs which have been instilled in tern by their position in the structure. A persons underlying perception of themselves and others is determined by the norms, values, ideologies, behaviours & interaction with the group to which they are brought up.   It is the structure which provides the accepted way of interaction between individuals and therefore the structure in the end is the most important criteria for shaping individual identity.


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Holmes, D, Hughes, K & Julian R (2015), Australian sociology : a changing society, Pearson Australia, Melbourne.

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retrieved 4 April 2015  http://reader.eblib.com.au.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/%28S%28lepy10cplfdk2yblq5bbrw5k%29%29/Reader.aspx?p=822649&o=132&u=l4RaKGu20wYXsBOZJLZ03Q%3d%3d&t=1428304365&h=EF7E507007FA2EF748F62CFAB4D8B299968E0921&s=18006500&ut=405&pg=1&r=img&c=-1&pat=n&cms=-1&sd=1#

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