Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Identity and Social Roles: A Relational Perspective

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Identity and Social Roles: A Relational Perspective

Article excerpt

Identity and relationships

Identity is the meeting point of an extremely rich variety of stimuli, reactions, provocations, reflections and decisions that come about as a consequence of the impact people experience with the natural and social environment surrounding them. For this reason, it has been analysed according to research perspectives differing widely in approach and methodology, such as philosophy, anthropology, psychology, psychiatry and sociology. We intend to make this latter discipline our starting-point in an attempt to identify the principal problems encountered today constructing an identity, the difficulties involved and the potential psychosocial processes needed to enable its complete actualization.

Let us begin by stating the elementary assumption on which the entire development of our enquiry is based: identity is the result of interactions between the self and others; it is, that is to say, the emergent effect of relationships. This observation may seem almost banal today, but the full scope of its application can be all too easily underestimated. Even as it is, the concept, while based in its explicit formulation on intuitions and reflections that stretch back to ancient times, is linked to recent discoveries by social psychology - now accepted by all the human sciences - according to which "we are what we are as a result of our relationships with others" (Mead 1934, back-translation from Italian edition, 1966, p. 364). For this reason, therefore, "if the Ego-Alter relation is not activated, a person may not complete the steps necessary for the development of his/her nature" (Donati and Colozzi 2006, p. 104), given that identity is "an expression of a time and place, a system of interpersonal relations" (Murphy 1959, p. 83).

When defining this strange situation, writers often employ more or less effective metaphors. Thus we find the human condition described as a reality that can be seen always and only "through a veil" (Allodi 2008), in accordance with how others see us (Gattamorta 2008). Knowing whom I am therefore becomes tantamount to "knowing where I stand" (T0nnesvang 2005, p. 54).

Individuals cannot define themselves, that is to say "identify themselves", except by starting from a reference to the relationships that have made them what they are. Simply saying my own name amounts, basically, to saying where I come from, to revealing who the people are that gave me this name. All that is most personal to a person - their own name - therefore becomes the most obvious and commonplace witness to the fact that the ego is a reflected entity. This situation means that one's identity always appears as a dynamic, and at times conflictual, reality. It is the result of a problematic compromise between what I feel myself to be and what others are willing to recognize that I am. For this reason, "I can never be sure that my identity as I see it coincides with my identity as others see it. Identity is never given, it is always built and (re)built in a greater or lesser and more or less durable uncertainty" (Dubar 1996, back-translated from Italian edition, 2004, p. 130).

We might define this as the "bipolar" and - in its fundamental components - the irreducible structure of the identity. It is practically established that, for each one of us, the individual is not, "under certain aspects, an element of society" (Simmel 1908, re-translated from Italian edition, 1989, p. 32) and is not, therefore, reducible to an intrusive set of social pressures. It is also true, however, that we can discover ourselves only through others (Berger and Berger 1975). "Without this other-relating root", therefore, "the individual will lose the reference point for valuing his experience" (T0nnesvang 2005, p. 56).

Let us make it clear that the theoretical framework we will adopt to investigate the type of interaction taking place between personal identity and social role, is that of the relational theory, in its specific formulation by Pierpaolo Donati. …

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