The concept of identity traditionally evoked numerous discussions since this concept contributes to the better understanding of the essence of human self and its formation.
Obviously, the concept of identity is essential to research, and it opens new opportunities to understand what can influence the formation of the personality of an individual, his/her character, beliefs, views, opinion, etc. At the same time, it is necessary to underline that the concept of identity is often criticized since it is possible to estimate that the concept of identity imposes the external influences on the formation of the personality as determining factor, while other factors, basically concerning the internal world of an individual are practically ignored.
At any rate, whether one supports the concept of identity or not, it is still necessary to remember that the human identity and human “self” are not the same things for the latter seems to be a wider notion which incorporates not only the notion of identity which, to a significant extent defines self, but it also implies the development of an individual independently from the process of identification with certain community, culture, nation, etc. In such a way, self-reveals the major weakness of the concept of identity and its limitations.
Nevertheless, the concept of identity is worthy of profound research because it can be very helpful in the understanding of young people’s experience of school. To put it more precisely, the concept of identity helps better understand the process of formation of an individual in school and the impact of the social surrounding as well as the education system at large on the formation of the individual’s identity and self.
In such a way, it is necessary to analyze the concept of identity, understand its essence, and critically evaluate this concept to reveal the major strengths and weaknesses of the concept of identity. After that, it will be possible to fully reveal the significance of the concept of identity for the understanding of young people’s experience of school.
Basic implications of the concept of identity
In fact, the concept of identity is quite complicated, and it is hardly possible to give a universal definition of this concept. Nevertheless, it should be said that the concept of identity, as many specialists agree (Russell, 2002), is of a paramount importance and its existence cannot be denied. Also, it is worthy of mention that the concept of identity implies that an individual’s personality is shaped under the impact of his social surrounding and external influences of his cultural surrounding, norms, and beliefs accepted within a particular community the individual lives in. Gradually, in the course of the formation of an individual, he acquires the existing social and moral norms accepted in his community and, what is more, he attempts to identify himself with this community to get integrated into it and lead a normal social life. Otherwise, i.e., if an individual fails to identify himself with certain social groups, he is doomed to become a kind of outcast, who does not belong to any community and leads an asocial life, though it does not necessarily mean that he is some criminal or his behavior is antisocial. In fact, such an individual is simply lost for community as well as the community is lost for him, but such cases are rather exceptional than normal and, as a rule, practically all individual are normally socialized and, consciously or not, acquire their own identity which actually unites them with the rest of the community and make them feel a constituent and inseparable part of this community.
At the same time, it should be said that nowadays there are a lot of discussions concerning the problem of defining human identity and human ‘self’. But the question is not new. A specific feature of the contemporary research and discussion is that the main characteristic of these notions is that they are constantly changing. Furthermore, a significant influence on human identity and ‘self’ produce the society people live in. Among those who support this point of view may be named Zygmunt Bauman and Erving Goffman. They have some common points in their views on the problem of identity, human “self”, and human society. However, the views of Bauman are particularly interesting for the analysis of the concept of identity since this researcher focused on the problem of the holocaust in the context of modern society and, in this respect, it is also possible to refer to Goffman’s research of German society and the influence it produced on individuals. These researchers, referring to the extreme points in the development of human society as well as in the formation of human identity perfectly reveal the essence of this concept and the extent to which human identity may be affected by the surrounding culture and social environment of an individual. In fact, an individual’s identity may be shaped by his environment to the extent that he attempts to belong to the community even though its norms and rules, at the current moment of development, contradict to basic human values or even human nature itself, promoting intolerance, discrimination, and simply genocide as it was in the case of Holocaust. At the same time, this problem is also important for the modern society since it helps better understand the formation of human identity.
Bauman is famous for his works dedicated to the problem of modern society and separate individuals which he analyzed in two of his works “Modernity and the Holocaust” and “Modernity and Ambivalence.” He believes that modern society tends to be a society of order in which science and reason play the main role. At the same time, this tendency influences identity and force individuals to adapt to the changing society. At this point, he is close to views of Goffman who analyzed the Nazi period in German history and came to the conclusion that Germany was a solid mechanism, an asylum or total institution as he said.
According to this point of view, individual’s identity and human “self” are changing and depending on the changes in the society and social conditions around people. In other words, the concept of identity is not static, in stark contrast, identity is constantly changing, and these changes are the reaction of an individual on the evolution of his socio-cultural environment. This means that an individual can hardly avoid the impact of society and, therefore, he is susceptible to the external influences which affect his identity. Moreover, an individual has a natural need to feel that he is a part of the community for he cannot live in complete isolation from society. Otherwise, he could not lead a normal social life and become some sociopath. As a result, an individual’s identity is affected by the changes in the surrounding world and adapts to new socio-cultural norms whatever they are, if these norms are accepted by the overwhelming majority of society.
Actually, Bauman, on analyzing the processes that take place in modern society and paying a particular attention to study of Holocaust during World War II, indicates that in the modern world identity and human ‘self’ disappear in the context of rapid political and social changes like it happened in Nazi Germany and Jewish population of the whole Europe when there was a shift in human identification and their ‘selves’ as well as perception of representatives of other people as a ‘lower, worse race’. One of the conclusions he makes after the analysis of holocaust and its influence on human ‘self’ and identity is that the process of changes is practically a never-ending process and now it is characterized by a tendency to orderly organized society.
In this respect, it is particularly important to refer to the researches conducted by Goffman concerning German society and human identity and “self” at the period of World War II. He attempted to trace what happens to an individual who enters a total institution. Germany at large could be treated as a giant organism where the order was everything and might be called a total institution because of its high organization and bureaucracy. Nazi tended to establish a new order in the whole world, and according to Goffman’s views, it would necessarily involve the evolution of identity and human “self” of each. In such a way, the researcher proves the profound impact of the socio-cultural environment and dominating ideology on human identity since he underlines that the dehumanization of German society at the period of World War II was basically the result of the dominant ideology and Nazi propaganda which affected identity of each provoking either positive or, what was rarer negative reaction on the changes in the life of German society. Eventually, this led to the probably greatest tragedy in the history of mankind but, what is more, this led to considerable changes of human identity, which under the impact of external factors, simply transformed individuals in puppets in the hands of Nazi puppeteers who controlled all spheres of life, including education, and, therefore, could influence the formation of individuals’ identity.
Actually, Goffman states that in order to survive in any kind of social order an individual has to engage in a continuous process of evaluating the demands and expectations made upon him or her, and attempt to satisfy those by presenting an acceptable behavior to the outside world, in such a way adapting to a new social order (Russell, 2002). He also gives several examples which he treats as extremes in such a situation.
For instance, he describes the story of a boxer, Rocky Graciano who was moving from one institution to another, and everywhere he tends to fight the system until he joins the boxer club in prison. Since that time on he stopped fighting against the system and was completely absorbed by it. On the other hand, he draws another extreme example that is a story of Robert Maxwell who plays according to the system’s rules but finally his ‘self’ rebels. His official ‘self’ became unbearable for him, and he committed a suicide been unable neither to play the system nor to oppose it. Thus, Goffman depicts two possible extreme ways out either to be absorbed by the system or be withdrawn.
It may be projected to Bauman’s study of Holocaust. It is quite obvious that both Germans and Jewish had to adapt to new rules of the system created by Nazi. At this context quite noteworthy is a disbelief of Goffman in the ability of collective actions to change the system or the situation somehow in favor of individual’s identity or ‘self,’ to protect them from cruel rules. To prove it he draws examples of Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Treblinka in which groups of inmates have managed to gather enough strength and against the worst odds sabotage part of gas chambers. But even those who survived people have managed to do this only because they were in groups and played by their rules.
In spite of the fact that the research discussed above involve the experience of the epoch of World War II, they are extremely important for the contemporary world. As it has been already mentioned above, such notions as identity and human ‘self’ are changing, and such specialists as Bauman and Goffman believe that they are dependent on the system existing in the society that force individuals to adapt to it. In this respect, Holocaust and German history during the Nazi period may be treated as evidence of this statement. What is more, these historical examples indicate to the great role the concept of identity may play in the life of society at large, and each in particular since individuals’ identity is shaped under the impact of their surrounding. This is why an individual’s identity may change respectively to existing social norms and existing social structure. In such a situation, it is obvious that it is possible to create conditions in which a limited group of people that have all the power in society can influence the development of human identity and shape it according to their interests. It is necessary to underline that this risk is not a myth nowadays. In contrast, it is quite probably, taking into consideration the increasing role of media and the fact that they increase their influence on the formation of identity while education can hardly resist to the negative influences of students environment. In such a situation it is really important to perfectly understand the significance and essence of the concept of identity to better understand students’ experience of school and attempt to minimize negative and increase positive influences of their socio-cultural environment. However, it will be impossible to do without the analysis of basic strengths and weaknesses of the concept of identity.
Strengths of the concept of identity
Speaking about strengths of the idea of identity, it is necessary to underline that this concept refers to the natural need of an individual to be a part of the community. To put it more precisely, the concept of identity implies that an individual, as a social being, cannot live in complete isolation from the rest of society. Consequently, an individual needs to get integrated into the community he lives in to lead a normal social life. In this respect, the concept of identity helps better understand the process of individual’s integration and external factors that influence his integration in the community and, what is probably even more important, the factors that influence the formation of his self.
It should be said that an individual is a dependent being and the concept of identity explains the mechanism of the formation of his id the identity in the result of the influence of his socio-cultural environment. In this respect, it is necessary to underline that one of the strong points of the concept of identity is the fact that this concept reveals the irrevocable power of the social surrounding of an individual and its influence on his identity to the extent that an individual cannot resist to the influence of the existing social norms, rules, regulations, cultural traditions, and customs. As a result, an individual, as a rule, is not even conscious of the fact that his self and his identity are influenced somehow, and that is actually not his own rules and norms in accordance with which he lives but it is rather the rules and norms that are imposed on him, on his identity by society.
Furthermore, it should be said that the concept of identity also reveals the changing nature of human self and its dependence on the changes in the socio-cultural environment. To put it more precisely, the changing nature of the concept of identity helps explain the changes that occur in individual’s views in the course of his development and throughout his life. In practice, this means that the concept of identity gives a reasonable explanation why individuals can change their views even in the adulthood or late adulthood when their character and personality at large are shaped. In such a situation, the concept of identity proves the fact that individuals constantly react to the changes in their socio-cultural environment and adapt their behavior respectively to the changes that occur in society. In such a way, due to the idea of the changeability of identity, it is possible to understand the fact that human self, human personality constantly evolves and it cannot be a rigid structure. In other words, an individual cannot be a programmed machine or, to put it more precisely, an individual cannot be a machine once programmed and being unsusceptible to reprogramming or changes.
In this respect, it is possible to speak about another strong point of the concept of identity, namely about its role in the revealing the possibility of negative impact and the opportunity of the establishment of the total control over an individual from the part of a state or a limited group of people that have the power and are able to control various spheres of the life of society, including economy, politics, and education.
The research of Nazi regime and its comparison to modernity are particularly noteworthy since they fully reveal the danger of such a situation when human identity is practically manipulated by a criminal regime that leads to dehumanization of each and the entire society. In fact, the concept of identity, helps better understand the ways in which human self may be influenced and, therefore, the understanding of the concept of identity gives ample opportunities to avoid blindfold programming of masses of people by means of education, for instance, since as educators fully realize the role and significance of identity and how it is shaped they can also influence its formation in a positive way.
Consequently, the concept of identity turns to be quite strong since it is based on the social nature of human beings and their need to be a part of the community they live in. This concept reveals the possibility of manipulation and influence on the formation of human identity and, what is more, it helps better understand the extent to which such manipulations may be dangerous. Moreover, the concept of identity helps understand that an individual’s identity may change not only in the result of some manipulations but also in the result of any changes in social life and existing social order. This is why the concept of identity contributes to the more careful attitude to the implementation of radical changes which can affect the identity of each. This is particularly important since the formation of identity and external influences occur unconsciously for an individual, who sincerely believes that his views, ideas, opinion are exclusive of his own and not imposed on him by his socio-cultural environment.
Weaknesses of the concept of identity
Naturally, the concept of identity cannot have only strengths, and like any other theoretical concept, it is susceptible to criticism revealing weak points of this idea. In fact, the concept of identity is not an exception in this respect and has certain weaknesses which may decrease the significance of its impact on the formation of individuals’ personality and their life and behavior at large.
First of all, it should be said that the concept of identity implies the irresistible need of an individual to feel that he is a part of the particular community. In other words, this concept implies that an individual needs to identify himself with the certain socio-cultural formation which has its own rules and norms. In practice, this means that an individual does not simply want to get integrated into any community but, moreover, he wants to share the same values, traditions, norms, culture, etc. only by the necessity of his identification with the community he lives in. As a result, the concept of identity makes the socio-cultural integration even more important than the process of socialization itself. What is meant here is the fact that it is still quite an arguable point that an individual does need to identify himself with some community. Instead, it is possible to presuppose that it is just a normal process of socialization when an individual simply tends to live in accordance to the existing norms that are accepted within a particular community without regard to its essence.
In this respect, the idea of changeability of identity may be a kind of response to criticism of the concept of identity, but it is still worthy of reminding that nowadays, the problem of the loss of identity is often discussed (Chriss, 1993). To put it more precisely, the current trends prove the fact that modern society gets more and more integrated and various communities tend to unification and the creation of the new, universal community. In fact, this is a part of the process of globalization that affects the formation of individuals, but, at the same time, it is important to underline that such loss of identity indicates to the fact that people or their identities can change to the extent that they cannot simply identify themselves with any particular community. Instead, they simply become a part of the world community where the problem of identification with a particular social group is practically irresolvable. As a result, the essence of the concept of identity is a question, i.e., if there is a problem of the loss of identity than it would be logical to presuppose that the role and significance of identity was exaggerated since, in the modern world, people, originally having different socio-cultural background and, therefore, different identity, can normally live in multicultural community and feel their unity partially preserving their uniqueness and partially integrating in the new, global community. As a result, the concept of identity turns to be susceptible to changes to the extent that it can simply vanish in the process of the formation of the new, global community which leads to the loss of socio-cultural identity of individuals related to a particular and unique community or culture. In perspective, it is possible to speak about the formation of the community that will unite people of the entire world and, in such a situation, the concept of identity loses its significance even more because the only community individuals will need to identify themselves with will be mankind.
In such a way, it is obvious that the concept of identity should not be bound solely to the unique socio-cultural background of an individual, but, instead, it should incorporate all the external influences society produces on the individual. Though in such a situation, the existence of the concept of identity seems to be doubtful for there is actually no really motivated need of an individual to identify himself with the particular socio-cultural background but simply the natural need of socialization and acquisition of the essential social skills, learning existing social norms in order to lead a normal social life and adapt his behavior to the existing social norms.
Anyway, being a part of the community is not necessarily equal to the identification with the community. It is another weak point of the concept of identity, which exaggerates the external influences on an individual and minimizes his internal power and inclinations. In this respect, it should be said that an individual cannot be dependent on his social environment because each is a unique personality. At any rate, it is obvious that whatever the community is and regardless the extent of its impact on an individual there are no identical individuals. Naturally, people may be similar in their behavior, share similar beliefs, have similar ethical and moral norms, etc. but still they are different. This difference is determined by individual, internal peculiarities of each person and it has nothing in common with the concept of identity. Otherwise, all people would be the same and they would be programmed machines without their own will and deprived of independent judgments. Obviously, such a situation is practically impossible and even the arguments of the supporters of the concept of identity that there were totalitarian regimes that totally controlled people and shaped their identities are not very convincing since even in Nazi Germany as well as in any other totalitarian state there was opposition, there were dissidents who did not want identify themselves with dehumanized community.
The importance of the concept of identity in understanding young people’s experience of school
Nevertheless, in spite of certain weaknesses of the concept of identity, it is still very important in understanding young people’s experience of school. In fact, whether one supports the concept of identity or is skeptical about it, it is hardly possible to deny that people strongly tend to social integration and they attempt to gain the recognition and public acclaim. This is why it is possible to estimate that people tend to identify themselves with the community they live in to gain the desirable recognition and acclaim. Such identification is particularly important to adolescents because adolescence is a very important period in the life of each individual which is marked by consistent physiological and psychological changes which affect the personality of an individual dramatically.
In this respect, it should be said that the role of school experience increases considerably for adolescents since due to the changes that occur in this period of their development their school environment, basically consisting of their peers, grows more significant than their family environment, i.e., their parents. This means that in school, as students grow older, especially in the period of adolescence, they tend to become a part of their community consisting of their peers. In other words, they want to identify themselves with the new social group, different from that they get used to, for their family and other significant adults play less and less important role in the social life of an adolescent, while the role of peers increases considerably.
As a result, they attempt to create their own, unique community, where they live according to their own rules and norms. No wonder that such trends often lead to unpredictable or even antisocial behavior of adolescents. Basically, adolescents are often dissatisfied with themselves since at this period of their life they have not really found their own identity yet but they are rather in search of it, and their attempts to identify themselves with the group of their peers may be viewed as the first relatively independent attempts to identify themselves with some social group.
Naturally, educators and parents should understand these changes that occur to young people in school and react adequately to changes in adolescents’ behavior and psychology. In such a situation the concept of identity turns to be of paramount importance because it helps better understand and explain the motives of actions of adolescents, their behavior at large and, what is more, reveal their actual needs. Obviously, this can help construct a more effective model of relationships with adolescents since when educators and parents know the needs of adolescents and their motivation, it is possible to meet the demands of educators and parents to needs of students. To put it more precisely, due to the concept of identity, it is possible to create a positive school experience for young people assisting them in their efforts to find their own identity.
In this respect, it is necessary to underline the important role of educators and parents in the guidance of young people in their search of the identity. Naturally, it does not mean that educators and parents should shape the identity of students. In fact, in adolescence and later, they will hardly be able to control students and shape their identity avoiding the influence of peers, but it is extremely important to guide adolescents in search of their identity and their self that is possible to achieve through establishing an effective and cooperative relationship with students. The latter goal is quite difficult to achieve but the knowledge of the concept of identity can enlarge educators’ and parents’ opportunities to influence students because the concept of identity implies that identity is changeable and, therefore, educators and parents should simply choose the proper way how to influence positively the formation of identity of adolescents. At this point, it is necessary to underline that the interference of educators and parents in the process of development of adolescents and form their identity should not be excessive. Instead, they should simply assist and guide but not rule adolescents.
Anyway, the concept of identity is extremely important for young people in school. In fact, it is in school they made their first steps in search of their identity and, consequently, school experience is very important for them. Moreover, it is even possible to estimate that the experience they acquire in school can, to a significant extent, the further development of their identity and their personality. Even though identity is susceptible to changes, it is still necessary to remember about the great role of the adolescence and young adulthood in the formation of identity and personality of the individual. In fact, both identity and personality of an individual are shaped by the end of his schooling that proves the importance of this period in the life of each person. This means that, by the end of schooling, the identity is practically shaped and after school, it will simply change and evolve under the impact of various external factors and changing the socio-cultural environment.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the concept of identity is essential since it plays a significant role in the process of formation of an individual and affects an individual throughout his life. At the same time, it is necessary to underline that the concept of identity has both strengths and weaknesses, which should be taken into consideration to avoid exaggerating or underestimating the importance of the concept of identity. The latter is particularly important about the understanding of young people’s experience of school. In fact, the idea of identity help educators and parents better understand the changes that occur to students in the process of their development, especially in adolescence, and assist them in their formation. At the same time, the concept of identity is also essential for young people in school as well because it is where they acquire the essential social experience and the basis of their character and personality is created.
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Bauman, Z. (1991). Modernity and Ambivalence. New York: Cornell University Press.
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Chitty, C. (1992). The Education System Transformed. Manchester: Baseline Books.
Garner, P. (2001). “Vision or Revision? Conflicting Ideologies in the English Education System.” In Mazurek, Winzer, and Majorek (Eds.) Education in a Global Society: A Comparative Perspective. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Russell, G. (2002). The Modern Education. London: Random House.
Wertsch, J.V. (1991). Voices of the Mind. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf
Whitty, G. Edwards, T. and Gerwitz, S. (1993). Specialization and Choice in Urban Education: The City Technology College Experiment. London: Rootledge.
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