What are the contributions of interactionist views to our understanding of identity?
It is important to think about a massive question about ourselves and society in order to answer this question and understand interactionism and how it might shape our identity. Do you believe that we are puppets of society and of the massive forces that shape it and that we lack individual agency or freedom to act as we are trapped in a society that makes so many crucial decisions for us? Or do you believe that actually, society has no control over us and we are individual agents in society that can choose to do and be what we want to without any other external forces shaping those choices for us?
Schools of thought such as Marxism and Feminism support the first point of view, as they look at the way that we are subject to massive societal forces that severely limit our individual agency and our ability to define ourselves and make choices about how we would live our lives. Interactionists support the second position, as they see we are placed in a society where we are able to make decisions without letting those societal forces dominate our sense of self.
Therefore, when we relate this view to identity, interactionism is useful to help receive a more balanced view about how we form our identity. In the face of so many forces such as discrimination and prejudice and class structures that threaten to shape our identity for us, interactionism reminds us that this is a two-way process, and that, to a lesser or greater extent, every individual has some responsibility for playing a part in shaping his or her own identity. We are not complete victims of society.
Symbolic interactionism emphasizes to us how important the individual is in constructing his or her own identity. Individuals do not simply receive identities as a result of their ethnicity, sex, or income level. Instead, they help to create their own identities by helping to decide what meanings various things have for them as individuals. This process is affected by their group status, but they also come to it as individuals.
Symbolic interactionism tells us that we decide for ourselves what various things mean to us. We do this by interacting with those things and then interpreting for ourselves what those interactions mean. As we do this, we create our own identity. As we go to school, for example, we interact with various subjects and with the idea of learning in general. Through this process, we help to create a part of our identity. We start to define ourselves as someone who likes to learn or who likes to rebel against learning, for example. We define ourselves as good at math or not.
Symbolic interactionism helps us to understand that individual-level interactions help to define our identity. We are not simply made by who we are in societal terms. Instead, we help to define for ourselves who we are.