Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Identity Theory, Gender Structures, and Development

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Every time I think I get a handle on masculinity and gender development, I read something that reorients my perspective. The latest shift comes from reading Identity Theory by Peter J. Burke and Jan E. Stets.

Identity theory (also social identity theory, although they are not identical) tends to look at agents (individual selves, which are not singular but collective - we are multiple selves based on our social roles in this model) and structures (socially agreed upon role definitions - the more agreed upon they are, the more rigid they are; the less agreed upon, the more fluid).

This is a socio-psychological model - as such, it is less concerned with subjective experience than it is with construction of identities as a manifestation of social roles. In this way, it is very useful in looking at gender roles, which are initially biological, then cultural constructs, and finally psychological.

That's my brief and vague overview.

Here is a more thorough definition from two of Identity Theory's (IT) most well-known proponents, Peter Burke and Jan Stets (2000) - the concepts of agents and structures used in the new book seems not to have been adopted in this earlier paper:
In social identity theory and identity theory, the self is reflexive in that it can take itself as an object and can categorize, classify, or name itself in particular ways in relation to other social categories or classifications. This process is called self-categorization in social identity theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, and Wetherell 1987); in identity theory it is called identification (McCall and Simmons 1978). Through the process of self-categorization or identification, an identity is formed.

In social identity theory, a social identity is a person's knowledge that he or she belongs to a social category or group (Hogg and Abrams 1988). A social group is a set of individuals who hold a common social identification or view themselves as members of the same social category. Through a social comparison process, persons who are similar to the self are categorized with the self and are labeled the in-group; persons who differ from the self are categorized as the out-group. In early work, social identity included the emotional, evaluative, and other psychological correlates of in-group classification (Turner et al. 1987:20). Later researchers often separated the self-categorization component from the self-esteem (evaluative) and commitment (psychological) components in order to empirically investigate the relationships among them (Ellemers and Van Knippenberg 1997).

The two important processes involved in social identity formation, namely self-categorization and social comparison, produce different consequences (Hogg and Abrams 1988). The consequence of self-categorization is an accentuation of the perceived similarities between the self and other in-group members, and an accentuation of the perceived differences between the self and out-group members. This accentuation occurs for all the attitudes, beliefs and values, affective reactions, behavioral norms, styles of speech, and other properties that are believed to be correlated with the relevant inter-group categorization. The consequence of the social comparison process is the selective application of the accentuation effect, primarily to those dimensions that will result in self-enhancing outcomes for the self. Specifically, one's self-esteem is enhanced by evaluating the in-group and the out-group on dimensions that lead the in-group to be judged positively and the out-group to be judged negatively. (p. 224-225)
One aspect of this model that I greatly appreciate is their acceptance of multiplicity as a foundational aspect of IT - although their version of multiplicity is based more on social roles and social structures than on internal "I-positions" or developmentally-stunted "parts" of the psyche.

The sociological perspective on parts/subpersonalities is part of what tends to be missing from the standards models (although in psychosynthesis, they often began exploration of subpersonalities with a listing of social roles - father, son, brother, friend, employee, and so on).

Here is a little more in terms of definitions for the book by Burke and Stets (2009):
People possess multiple identities because they occupy multiple roles, are members of multiple groups, and claim multiple personal characteristics, yet the meanings of these identities are shared by members of society. Identity theory seeks to explain the specific meanings that individuals have for the multiple identities they claim; how these identities relate to one another for any one person; how their identities infl uence their behavior, thoughts, and feelings or emotions; and how their identities tie them in to society at large.

Identities characterize individuals according to their many positions in society, and it is important to note as we move through the chapters in this book that both the individual and society are linked in the concept of identity. ... Although much of our focus will be on the individual, it is always to be remembered that the individual exists within the context of the social structure. As Cooley (1902) pointed out, the individual and society are two sides of the same coin. (p. 3)
Their model projects social structures as arising from "the actions of individual agents or actors and as feeding back to those agents to change them and the way they operate" (p. 6). However, as easy as it might be to look at the structures as shaping the individuals (traditional sociology), they recognize that the agents (individuals) shape the structures: "Depending upon the
nature of the agents, we would have a variety of forms of social structures" and "our actor is always embedded in the very social structure that is being created by that (and other) actor(s)" (p. 6). This perspective is reminiscent of Gregory Bateson's cybernetics feedback model from the 1950s.

Identity Theory, Gender, and Development

In the IT approach, gender is a social structure - but it is also an identity - and like all forms of individual identity, how one enacts gender helps define the cultural structure that emerges. We have a hegemonic masculinity because a very large percentage of men (and women, in a different way) accept and enact that particular model or role for men. Women contribute to the hegemony by also recognizing and accepting this male role.

However, we are now in a period where the traditional, hegemonic structure is breaking down for at least three major reasons.
  • One contributing factor is that women have redefined their own identity structures within the culture, and these new structures clash with the traditional male structures. Women are no longer satisfied with the big, strong, silent type - they never have been satisfied. Now they are position to refuse those men as partners. While men who were strong, dominant, and even aggressive or violent once had a mating advantage, this is no longer the case in first world nations.
  • A second contributing factor is that the economy, which has always been based on male strength and skills, is no longer in need of so many traditionally masculine skills. The technology- and information-based economy we are moving into has no gender preference. Women can write, program, organize, and manage as well as any men. In some skill-sets (those that require more interpersonal skills) they even exceed men, though not because men cannot be just as good as women, but because we are taught NOT to be good at those skills (although this may be changing, as long as mothers are allowing boys to be emotionally literate),
  • A third factor in the shift is that many men are no longer willing to subjugate whole parts of themselves to fit into the traditional structures - more and more men are moving into post-conventional awareness and identities. The men's movements have been working in the fringes of culture for much of the last 30 years, but men's issues are now starting to get serious attention. More and more, men want more out of life than 40 years in a job they loathe, a marriage for the sake of being married, and Friday nights at the pub. Men want to live more full lives than their fathers lived.
Burke and Stets (1996) have also looked at gender in their voluminous work. Here is a little of their reasoning for looking at gender as part of IT:
Gender provides an important subject of study because it may be understood both at the macro level, as a position in the social structure (Ridgeway 1993), and at the micro level, as an identity that persons apply to themselves (Burke 1989; Burke, Stets, and Pirog-Good 1988; Burke and Tully 1977). When gender is conceptualized as a position, the question is how a particular class of persons (either men or women) behaves and is treated in interaction, given the expectations attached to their status. When gender is conceptualized as an identity, we examine the meaning of male or female for persons when they are reflexive, and how this self-meaning guides behavior in interaction. Gender as status comes from the viewpoint of society; gender as identity comes from the viewpoint of individuals.

Gender should not be analyzed only through the lens of status or of identity because conceptual limitations exist when only one of these views is addressed. For example, examining gender only as status may address issues of power and inequality between the sexes, but it tends to mask individual choice and agency (Molm 1993). Alternatively, studying gender only as identity treats gender as an individual characteristic while ignoring how “doing gender” in interaction creates and reinforces differences between men and women in the social structure (West and Fenstermaker 1993; West and Zimmerman 1987). We see the status of gender and the identity of gender as simultaneously produced and maintained in interaction. Gender signals one’s social structural position and one’s view of himself/herself. The meaning of both influences behavior in interaction; this behavior, in turn, sustains identities and social structures. In other words, both being male or female and seeing oneself as more masculine or more feminine influence behavior in interaction; through this influence, they help to reproduce social structure and sustain a sense of self. (p. 1)
When I first read their ideas on gender as a social structure in Identity Theory (2009), I momentarily (well, for a day or two) struggled with how their model could be reconciled with a developmental model of gender identity. My confusion resulted from my own conception of gender identity as a line of development and their perspective on gender identity as a social structure.

However, the two are not mutually exclusive. At each stage of development, the individuals at that stage determine the dominant gender roles through cultural agreement. There are many complex ways in which this happens, but most simply, humans are hard-wired for group identity and so they adjust their own identities to fit into the group. Moreover, there are often "virus protections" that keep competing or differing possibilities from taking hold. For example, boys and men have long been coerced into traditional masculine gender roles through taunts and shaming - often name-calling: "faggot," "queer," "mama's boy," "sissy," and so on.

For the most part (excluding the developmental component for which I advocate), Burke and Stets (2000) share the social constructionist perspective on gender:
Femininity and masculinity are rooted in the social (one's gender) rather than the biological (one's sex). Societal members decide what being male or female means (e.g., dominant or passive, brave or emotional), and males will generally respond by defining themselves as masculine while females will generally define themselves as feminine. Because these are social definitions, however, it is possible for one to be female and see herself as masculine or male and see himself as feminine.

It is important to distinguish gender identity, as presented above, from other gender-related concepts such as gender roles which are shared expectations of behavior given one's gender. For example, gender roles might include women investing in the domestic role and men investing in the worker role (Eagly 1987). The concept of gender identity is also different from gender stereotypes which are shared views of personality traits often tied to one's gender such as instrumentality in men and expressiveness in women (Spence and Helmreich 1978). And, gender identity is different from gender attitudes that are the views of others or situations commonly associated with one's gender such as men thinking in terms of justice and women thinking in terms of care (Gilligan 1982). Although gender roles, gender stereotypes and gender attitudes influence one's gender identity, they are not the same as gender identity (Katz 1986; Spence and Sawin 1985).
None of this is to deny that men and women are biologically different. These differences - while smaller in general between the sexes than they are within the sexes - also shape gender identities in many ways, especially at earlier stages of development.

For example, in children gender development is thought to follow a three-stage sequence :
Constancy is usually represented by three stages (Slaby & Frey, 1975): (a) children’s growing realization that they are either a boy or a girl (called gender identity); (b) the recognition that this identity does not change over time (called gender stability); and (c) the recognition that this identity is not affected by changes in gender-typed appearances, activities, and traits (called gender consistency). (Cited in Martin, Ruble & Szkrybalo, 2002, p. 909)
[Emphasis added.]

Gender consistency tends to occur around age seven, give or take a little. However, gender nonconformity often is evident long before that age. Many transgendered or differently children adults say they knew they were different often before age five. All of the variations of differently gendered people call into question how closely linked are biology and gender identity.

Anyway, children define themselves as boys and girls based almost entirely on biology. For simplicity, we can consider this a pre-conventional understanding of gender - or a pre-conventional gender structure.

As kids enter into puberty and adolescence, they become slightly self-reflective in their efforts to enact a culturally appropriate performance of gender. They watch their peers, they have role models, and of course they have their same-sex parent - and for most kids, these are the models that shape their entry into the social gender structures. These are conventional gender roles.

For some people, most often those who are differently gendered or who do not identify as strictly heterosexual, conventional gender roles/structures do not fit. Those of us who identify this way often did not begin to explore alternative identities until going away to college. More and more, however, younger kids in middle school and high school are feeling freer to explore who they are as people. These people are enacting post-conventional gender roles.

At each of these three most basic stages (we could have anywhere from 4-8 stages depending on which model we use), the structure is determined by the dominant enactment of gender. However, when there are few people at a given stage and/or less agreement as to how the enactment should exist, there is more fluidity. Here is how Burke and Stets (2009) describe the interplay between agents/individuals and structures (while defining Sheldon Stryker's structural symbolic interaction):
Because there is never perfect agreement between agents about the meanings of behaviors, the flow of symbols and meanings also can shift and alter existing names and meanings, so that, to some extent, they are constantly being negotiated. Commonality of meanings and understandings is always being developed and verified. Where the consensus is high, the resulting structure is more stable and rigid; when the consensus is low, the structure is more fluid and changing. What is important in the interaction is not the behaviors themselves but the meanings of the behaviors, and it was this that Blumer pointed to when he coined the term symbolic interaction. The fact that these occur within the structures of society and are highly dependent upon those structures (often being defined by them) is what Stryker pointed to when he coined the term structural symbolic interaction.

What we have, then, are agent identities that come into being with the emergence of structure, that is, named patterns of behaviors and expectations. At the same time, these identities produce the patterns of behaviors that are named and constitute the structures. The patterning of behaviors is really a patterning of symbols and meanings that produce and reproduce the structure of society in a tug-of-war between agents that seek to validate existing self-meanings and thereby (because of lack of perfect consensus) invalidate, to some extent, meanings being maintained by other agents. (p. 16)
At the post-conventional stage, then, there is lower consensus, so we see more fluidity in the gender role enactments.

Implications

In terms of answering the question so many men ask about - "How do we change things? How do we create new and more open ways for men to be in the world?" - the answer is Just Do It.

The more of us who opt of hegemonic masculinity and create more fluid masculine roles, the less hold hegemonic roles will have on our lives. It's less about spending time in the woods beating drums and passing talking sticks, or any of the other mythopoetic men's stuff - but rather, it's about examining our own limits, our own edges where we become uncomfortable.

We can begin to talk about, think about, and act on those places where we feel trapped in the traditional "man box." We can work on being present to our feelings, opening and being vulnerable to ourselves, our buddies, our partners.

We can work with a therapist - we can work with a coach - we can begin our own men's group with some buddies who also want to change. It begins with us.


References (in order of first citation):

Burke, PJ & Stets, JE. (2000). Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3: 224-237.

Burke, PJ & Stets, JE. (2009). Identity Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Burke, PJ & Stets, JE (1996). Gender, Control, and Interaction. In Socialization into Marital Roles, NIMH grant MH46828, Irving Tallman, Peter J. Burke, and Viktor Gecas.

Burke, PJ & Stets, JE. (2000). Femininity/Masculinity. In Encyclopedia of Sociology, Revised Edition: 997-1005; Edgar F. Borgatta and Rhonda J. V. Montgomery (Eds.). New York: Macmillan.

Martin, CL, Ruble, DN & Szkrybalo, J. (2002). Cognitive Theories of Early Gender Development. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 128, No. 6: 903–933. DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.128.6.903


1 comment:

dheyjim said...

Most of the time , undecided gender and identity crisis can be a source of getting out of the path thats why some needs advicers orv those who are expert from ,psychosynthesis.