Individual Identity Essay

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Individual Identity is Almost Entirely the Product of Social Structure

The question of individual identity has been debated by scholars for centuries. The question of whether the self derives from society, exists independent of society, or co-exists as an operator of and within society, continues to be the focus of many scholarly discussions and debates. Is there a social structure without individual identity? And can individual identity be defined and exist absent the social structure as a contextual frame of reference? It is possible that the self and society or social structure act in symbiotic relationship to each other; influenced by each other, however, influencing each other as well. Moreover, one cannot exist in total absentia of the other nor parallel to each other (Giddens 1991).

According to structural functionalism, society is an organism with a system of parts that function collectively for the efficiency and effectiveness of society (Bourdieu 1977). This consensus theory views society as a structure based on balance amongst the parts, interrelation, and built on order by which smooth functioning of the whole is maintained (Greener 2002). Shared norms and values are the basis of society with a focus on social order predicated on implied agreements betweens organizations and groups. Social change is seen as happening in a methodical way. There is acknowledgement amongst structural functionalists that change is sometimes required to remediate social dysfunctions; however, change is required to occur slowly in order for people and institutions to adapt more readily.

There are seven primary assumptions posited by structural functionalism: (1) Systems possess a property of order and the parts of the system are interdependent. Social units and societies become and remain cohesive based on cooperation and orderliness; (2) Self maintaining order or equilibrium is what systems lean toward.

Societies and social units work most effectively when they function as an single organism with all the parts of that organism working toward the smooth and natural working of the system; (3) Change is an ordered process and the system may be involved or static as it relates to change; (4) One part of the system impacts on the structure that the other parts are able to take; (5) Boundaries are maintained within their environments. External or natural environments are separate; however they adapt to each other. This is the same dynamic that occurs within social units or societies. If there is significant conflict between parts, the other parts of the organism must adapt; (6) The successful division of positions and labor help to maintain balance as each part interrelates to create a harmonious and efficient whole. It is important for the system or societal unit to motivate the most capable and properly placed individuals to fill the most important roles and positions; (7) Self maintenance is a system tendency that involves controlling relationships and boundaries of the parts as they relate to the whole (Lambert, Timpledon, & Marlesen 2009).

Structural functionalisms' primary focus is on large scale or macro level societal functioning. As such, structural functionalism does not provide a contextual frame of reference for individual identity. For Durkheim, men were creatures of unlimited desire; never quite satisfied with simply having their biological needs met. Because of man's natural insatiability, external checks and balances were required to maintain control; societal control. Society imposes limits on man's desires and "constitutes a regulative force which must play the same role for moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs" (Cuff, Sharrock, Francis 1992, p43). It is when societal forces breakdown that individuals are then left to their own devices; wherein individual desires are no longer regulated by the norms of society. Durkheim refers to this anomie or normlessness ( p 43).

Durkheim's main objection to individualistic social theories did not mean that he supported overregulation as posited by sociologists such as Spencer. Rather, Durkheim viewed man as Homo duplex -- having "body, desire, and appetite and also socialized personality" (Turner 1991, p 150). The individual, however, was only human in part, when it came to appetite and desire, and the influence of society was required to ensure the former. For Durkheim, true moral action resulted from sacrificing some level of individual desire. Individual identification and individual potentialities, according to Durkheim, was contained in modern society as long as social regulation was the guiding force.

In social theory, agency is seen as a power of capability to be the "originator of acts and a distinguishing feature of being human" (Cleaver 2007). The notion of agency is frequently conceptualized as relational in that it does not occur or exist in isolation or a vacuum, but is exercised in a world where structure shapes opportunity and resources are available to humans.

Appropriate ways of being and behaving is not just a matter of singular or individual choice Cleaver 2007, p223). For Giddens, the variation stemming from the exercise of agency was very important. Although the structural constrains within which agency operation was recognized, the inflexible nature of everyday practice and the intentional and unintentional effects of individual action was strongly posited (Giddens 1984). Giddens purported that individuals may exercise capability or power by accessing various forms of authoritative resources; whether material or non-material.

Moreover, his focus on self-identity was understood as shaping and being shaped by the modernity institutions. The self is described as not being passive and determined solely by outside influences in the development of self-identity.

Giddens maintained that individuals not only contribute to but directly promote social influences that "are global in their consequences and implications" (Giddens 1991, p12). Giddens argues, in his book, "The Consequences of Modernity," Durkheim treated society in an almost supernatural and mystical way, like a "super-being" to which individual members of the society display an awe and undeniable endearment to the society (Giddens 1991). However, Giddens regarded the self as one free to shape its own identity without the mandate of conformity to "society." The self and therefore the individual, has an internal referentiality that guides and governs behavior, thought and emotionality. For example, society, because of institutional regression, fosters shame; whereas individualized referentiality fosters guilt.

Norbert Elias, on the other hand, posited a new approach based on his understanding of social life as a process thereby capable of "promoting the conceptual unification of such oppositions considered as irreducible by structural functionalism and the so-called "methodological individualism" (Elias 1995, p34). Elias suggests that investigation should begin by the analysis of neither society as external structures imposed neither upon the individual nor as the aggregate actions of isolated individuals. Rather, an earnest look should be taken at the connectedness amongst individuals and societies. This posited challenge to sociological theory would be the construction of figuration models that are empirically based, and overcome the "imaginary gap between the individual and society" (Elias 1996, p67).

Elias' goal was to challenge the long held notions that placed society above the individual and the individual above society. He avoided the concept that individuals and societies were fundamentally distinct (1996, p238). Elias' figurations described the "web of interdependencies formed among human beings which connects them: that is to say, a structure of mutually oriented and dependent persons" (1999, p70).

He argued against the concept of the individual as an independent and isolated monad that has to control their autonomy and the interdependence that binds them; creating even stronger interdependency. Elias thought it essential to substitute the tradition notion for a more open human; one who is "fundamentally oriented toward others and in need of others" (Quintaneiro 2006, p4).

Elias also addressed the notion of society as an impersonal concept that resulted from the assumed incapacity of individual "mastery over configurations', which makes the individual seem extraordinary. As a theory that represented more of the middle of the extremes of structural functionalism and Giddens capacity for agency, Elias posited that individuals and society could be seen in the contextual framework of "individuals as interdependent persons and society as interdependent persons in the plural form"(Quintaneiro 2006, p4). If sociological theory could be viewed in that way, overcoming traditional polarization, there would be recognition of each individual as a human being among other human beings, and society would be seen as an interdependent mix of those interdependent individuals. It would then be sociology's responsibility to "make the individuals of any association understandable to themselves and in relation to one another," emphasizing "the mechanisms of interdependencies, which from a figuration develops" (Kilminster 2007 p59).

Durkheim and others, who followed after the Marx theory, saw society as the preeminent entity in which individuals should adjust and subscribe their behavior. Durkheim viewed individuals and thus individual identity, as ruled by passion and desire; and if left unregulated by society, would lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness as all desires cannot be satisfactorily met.

For the good of the whole, then, it was important to reign in the individuals' desire for the collective. Giddens, who posited an individualistic theory, dismissed the notion that the regulation of society was required in order to identify the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Individual Identity.  (2011, July 13).  Retrieved February 16, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Individual Identity."  13 July 2011.  Web.  16 February 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Individual Identity."  July 13, 2011.  Accessed February 16, 2019.