Is it accurate to assume that the “self” and “identity” are socially constructed?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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According to Gergen (1991), postmodern society has fragmented the original version of what was once known as "identity" and the "self". In Gergen's words, the media has 

furnished us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self.

In postmodernist theory, back in the day when nuclear families were the norm, and capitalism was as its most organized, the likelihood of individuals to develop an identity and a clear concept of who they were was much higher. This is because society, as a whole was organized in a way that everybody was aware of who was who, who did what, and who was good for doing what. Back then, according to the theory, characters were fully formed. There is "the man", "the woman", "the husband", and "the wife". Then, there are the professions "the policeman", "the teacher", "the soldier". Then, there was the hierarchy. The President is at the top. The man is the head of the household. The children are the obedient offspring. These were social constructs that during one time were strongly followed and which may very well have helped many individuals find themselves. Understanding concepts is easiest done when things are given their proper role, place, and value. 

However, the postmodern thinker argues that it is the media and the changes in those constructs (most which come with the advent of a modern and newer approach to things) that have left society unable to determine the same determining factors that were clear before:

  • IS the man the head of the household?
  • ARE children supposed to be obedient?
  • CAN teachers be also soldiers?
  • CAN the good be bad? 

These questions are challenges to the status quo that,according to the theorists, have led the new world wondering "WHO are we, really?"

Whether this is true or not can only be determined by the individual's own life experiences. To give the media alone the power to break down society into identity chaos would be unfair because it takes more than imagery to cause change. Change comes primarily from motivation, and secondarily from learning. In order for the media to cause such a transformation in society, the latter must be ready, willing, and able to accept the challenge of transformation and embrace it. 

This is evidently what has taken place. Although conservative sections of society strongly believe that an organized society can enable identity, a liberal part of the population prefer to challenge the original constructs and come up with something different. None of them is wrong for doing so, as our society allows us to differ. Yet, if we stick to what psychologists and sociologists continue to show, it is clear that motivation and a need for change is what ultimately leads us to the behaviors that will eventually help us build a sense of identity. 

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