By Karen Sternheimer
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned/
I know it sounds absurd/
Please tell me who I am.
Supertramp, “Logical Song,” 1979.
Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)/
I really want to know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)/
Tell me who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)/
Because I really want to know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
The Who, “Who are you?1978
Who am I? Who are you? These two hit songs capture central questions we ask within American society, and within sociology. In the study of sociology, we are very interested in how people make sense of themselves. Some of our earliest thinkers asked these questions, such as George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) who saw identity emerging from interactions between the self and society, and later Erving Goffman (1922-1982), who described the process through which we work to manage the impressions others have of us during social interactions.
Sometimes when I teach about this social process of identity construction, many students acknowledge that their identities might have been shaped in part by their parents, but often push back on the idea that their sense of self is a product of broader social interactions. For some, this is how they would describe people who are “phony” or superficial, qualities few people would admit to having.
I ask them to think about some of the ways that people seek a sense of identity through external sources. Some things that come up are the myriad of ways we might seek to learn more about our personalities by taking personality quizzes in magazines or on social media (watch out: lots of these quizzes are data mining operations).
If you have ever read a horoscope, practiced numerology, or read your Chinese zodiac sign in hopes of identifying personality traits, you are seeking an external source to better understand who you are (and possibly the compatibility with people around you). I was much more interested in these kinds of sources when I was younger and had less of a clear sense of self, or who would be a good relationship partner for me. (I also had a Magic 8 Ball as a child, so I found this kind of “inquiry” interesting, even if I was skeptical of its accuracy.)
While we might not be consciously aware of this process, participation in groups can reflect and reinforce a sense of self. Membership in specific groups, be they religious, political, fan-based, on social media, in person in local organizations, or in campus clubs can reinforce various identities we have.
For instance, some students join religious groups when first arriving to campus that might help them meet people with similar backgrounds. This then reinforces a sense of identity that they might have already held via social interactions.
Beyond specific groups, membership in larger amorphous “communities” (race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, national or regional identities, sports fans) might shape how we see ourselves, how others see us, or how we hope others see us.
Who are you?
We also seek to define others through their group membership and individual identities, offering what seems like an easy shortcut. We often use information about a person’s race and ethnicity, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation to make assumptions, also known as stereotypes. We don’t even have to be conscious of doing this. Buying into stereotypes can be considered problematic and can make us appear socially undesirable, but Implicit bias is a type of automatic assumption we might make about someone based on their apparent group membership, which we might not even be conscious of having.
While we might try to minimize race- and gender-based stereotypes, we still use stereotypes in other contexts. Just like presuming all Virgos are pragmatic and loyal or Pisces are creative and emotional, generational stereotyping is very common, based on the larger time period when someone was born.
This generational chart is filled with assumptions that we are somehow all similar to people born within a specific timeframe. Like horoscopes, many of these supposed characteristics are very general. I am supposed to be fun, independent, self-reliant, and highly educated, just like everyone born within the 15 year time block allotted to “Generation X.”
My parents, born just before the Baby Boomers, are supposed to be very different from those born just a year or two later: hard-working, conformist, loyal, and responsible, while Baby Boomers are described as mistrustful of government, focused on personal gratification, and questioning everything. Generation-based assumptions about workplace characteristics are particularly popular now, as the changing nature of work and labor leads many to look for simple answers to complicated questions about what makes workers most productive.
In Search of who we are: Linked with time, place, and economic context
We haven’t necessarily been asking identity questions forever. From the creation of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test over a century ago; These questions became more central with the diversification of our economy and the opportunities many people have to choose career paths, lifestyles, friends, and all sorts of things we often take for granted. (I recommend Merve Emre’s book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing for a critical look at how personality testing is not based on rigorous science but became a huge industry nonetheless.)
Who we are is linked with the time we live in. While we share similar experiences to those around us that may shape us throughout our lives, it is too simple to say that we share traits as a result. We are looking for shortcuts to learn who we are, but it is our complexity that makes us human. And requires a whole series of scientific disciplines just to try and figure ourselves out.
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