Any investigation of identity-related concepts should take account of the cultural and sociohistorical contexts that influence these concepts. The manner in which humans perceive themselves has a history as long as we have been self-aware or have been able to experience a reflexive consciousness. The perception that an individual has of themselves as ‘a person’ has come to be one of the most cherished conceptions that any individual holds (Carrithers, Collins and Lukes, 1985). The conceptualisation of individual identity has varied over time and is affected by numerous factors such as the prevailing culture or the “social institutional constraints and their associated normative expectations”, within which individual’s exist/have existed (Kashima and Foddy, 2002, pp. 181; Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996).
Although Van Halen and Janssen (2004) refer to the changes that have occurred, over the centuries, in terms of how we view identity as being a commonly accepted conclusion in the self and identity literature, there are only a small number of theorists in the social psychology or identity studies areas who focus directly on this area (for example: Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote, 1996; Kashima and Foddy, 2002; Smith, 2002). The majority of those writing in this area agree that the concept of identity in the medieval era can be seen as having involved a view of the individual as a straightforward, easily perceived entity, and that this can be contrasted with the modern perspective where a perception of the individual as complex and difficult to understand predominates (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote and Levine, 2002; Kashima and Foddy, 2002; Van Halen and Janssen, 2004). However there are others, for example Harbus, (2002) who see that view as being an overly simplistic view of identity in the medieval era.
Identity in the Medieval era can then be contrasted with identity in the 20th/21st century, where identity had changed from being something easy to see and know to being something that is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to know (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote and Levine, 2002; Kashima and Foddy, 2002). In the past the context that an individual was born into determined their place in society. Now, due to the evolution of social reforms and other factors a development in thinking occurred that promoted the idea that individuals have the freedom to be whoever they want to be (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Van Halen and Janssen, 2004). “Choice has replaced obligation as the basis of self-definition” (Cote and Levine, 2002, pp. 1). Modern self-definition now depends on a changing, uncertain mixture of choices and accomplishments, and identity is assumed, perhaps unrealistically, to contain the values on which these choices are made (Baumeister, 1987; 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996; Cote and Levine, 2002). Actively defining who one is has become a critical activity in Western culture. It is now necessary, due to a flexible and complex societal structure, to decide who one is, for example what career one will pursue, who one will marry etc. Therefore the process of self-definition is more psychologically demanding than in the past. As individual identity is treated more as a commodity individuals feel that they must actively manage their identity-structure by “reflexively and strategically fitting oneself into a community of ‘strangers’ by meeting their approval through the creation of the right impression” (Cote, 1996, pp. 421). This is made more difficult by the fact that previous “fixed set answers” (Baumeister, 1987, pp. 166; Baumeister, 1999; Baumeister and Muraven, 1996), for example those provided by religious faiths, or by the concept of work as a source of fulfilment, have lost much of their potential as a source of fulfilment due to modern organisation of work and the workplace, and are therefore increasingly being abandoned (Smith, 2002; Van Halen and Janssen, 2004). At a time when there is an increase in the perceived need for guidance in how to define oneself, there are less traditional frameworks to draw on in order to do so. This has led, in some cases, to individuals engaging with more extreme versions of traditional, fixed set answers, for example through religious fundamentalism. In the past secularism, science and technology were seen as a viable alternative to the ‘falling star’ of religious faith and its associated heavenly rewards, however people now perceive that these provide only a limited number of relatively shallow sources of fulfilment, and so turn to tried and tested sources of sociocultural support (Smith, 2002). Many individuals welcome the ability to make choices, but may not have developed the means to cope with the process of making those choices, being responsible for their choices and having to live with the consequences of those choices. This has, in many instances, led to the normalisation of emerging identity related problems for individuals such as “being: unsure about what they believe in; uncommitted to any course of future action; open to influence and manipulation; and unaware that they should pass a sense of meaning to their children” (Cote and Levine, 2002, pp. 2).
The modern sociocultural context in which people live is one of economic interdependence as individuals act as traders in multiple, but simple, relationships with others. This is in opposition to the Late Medieval Era, when individuals existed in a single social unit, producing and consuming good and services. The majority of individuals now exchange their labour for monetary rewards that are then used to obtain goods and services. This tendency towards sparse social networks results in individuals having relationships with different individuals and groups who may not have any relationship, exchange or social, with each other. This frees the individual from having to conform to a single, all-inclusive world-view, as those in a tightly knit medieval society did. Instead the individual may have to contend with multiple, perhaps differing, expectations of conformity from the different individuals and groups in their lives (Kashima and Foddy, 2002). From this situation evolves a heightened need for multiple self-representations, or a multidimensional identity-structure, to satisfy the different contexts that exist in one’s life.
An extended version of the above, along with references, can be found at http://sites.google.com/site/studyidentity/identity-in-sociohistorical-context