Social identity refers to a person’s membership in a social group. The common groups that comprise a person’s social identity include age, ability, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and religion.
As a result of your social identity, you are usually a member of an in-group and out-group. For example, if we’re talking about age and you’re born from 1981 to 1996, you’re a member of the Millenials in-group. But, you’re an out-group from the generations Gen Z and Gen X.
Commonly, sociology students will be asked to look at the following eight examples of social identity to see how they might be classified.
Examples of Social Identity
Age is one of the few core social identities that will change throughout your life. At each life’s stage, you’ll pass through a range of prejudices and privileges based on your age.
Young people often face prejudice due to the stereotype that they are naive and incompetent, middle-aged people are no longer welcome in some youth settings, and elderly people often face difficulties in getting jobs because of a perception that they are no longer in their prime.
But each generation also has its own group identity that follows them through life. Gen Z, for example (Born from 1997 onward), are known for their love of social media and a perception that they are highly conscious of environmental issues.
This perception may follow Gen Z through their lives as it was a defining feature of their generation when they were youths.
Ability is a social identity factor that is often invisible unless you are ‘othered’ with the label of ‘disabled’.
The social identity of ability can cause serious disadvantages for some people who are discriminated against due to social barriers such as lack of ramps to get into buildings or insufficient infrastructure in an office.
As people age, society’s perception of their abilities may also impact them. Similarly, long-lasting biases presuming women are less competent than men still persevere in some cultures. Here, we can see how identities overlap and compound one another. We call this phenomenon ‘intersectionality’.
Ethnicity refers to the cultural origins of your family. Your ethnicity may influence the morals, cultural traditions, food, and religion you practice.
While often linked to race (for example, most ethnic Kenyans are also black), ethnicity refers to the culture of a group of people whereas race refers to physical characteristics.
Examples of ethnicities include Native American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Maori, African-American, and Kurdish.
Related: Imagined Communities Concept
Race refers to the distinct genetic features of a person, most commonly (but not only) identifiable by skin color.
While we often define race by colors (white, black), the diversity of possible skin colors within a racial group and the increasing amounts of blended families means this characterization is increasingly difficult.
Race has been one of the primary social identity characterizations throughout history and has led to serious discrimination, and even genocide, based on racial prejudice (aka racism).
Gender refers to a person’s identification as male or female. Gender attributes (masculine and feminine) are also socially constructed and often ascribed to people based upon their sex at birth.
In recent decades, the characterization of gender has been hotly disputed with many cultural theorists seeing it as a cultural rather than physical characteristic. This began with the acknowledgment of the separation of the biological concept of sex-at-birth from stereotypes of gender.
Thus, today, gender is seen as a fluid rather than binary concept. Old tropes of masculine and feminine are challenged by today’s youths who are increasingly finding ways to challenge historical gender norms.
6. Sexual Orientation
Sexual orientation refers to your physical and romantic attraction to people of a certain sex.
Common sexual orientations include opposite-sex attraction, same-sex attraction, and bisexual (attracted to both sexes), but there are many more. We use the acronym LGBTQI to refer to minorities within this social identity grouping. The acronym refers to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, and intersex identities.
Historically, people who were not normatively opposite-sex attracted have faced extreme discrimination, which continues in many places to this day.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, a cultural change in the West saw a wave of institutional reforms that aimed to normalize LGBTQI peoples and reduce discrimination. A prime example of this is the legalization of same-sex marriage in many nations.
7. Socioeconomic Status
Socioeconomic status primarily refers to people’s wealth but also points to a range of other social and cultural markers associated with people of different social classes (such as job type, food preferences, and values).
Traditionally, we separated people into three socioeconomic groups: working-class, middle-class, and upper-class. As a rough estimation:
- Working class people would work in low-paid blue-collar jobs and enjoy pop culture.
- Middle class people would work in salaried white-collar jobs and enjoy the benefits of home ownership.
- Upper class people would be business owners or people from old money who controlled capital (factories, land, rental properties) and would rely on their ownership of capital to generate wealth.
These rough separations of socioeconomic status are increasingly fluid, where working-class people may become wealthy or enjoy homeownership but continue to identify with working-class culture, food, music, and work ethic.
Religion is a social identity that refers to someone’s belief in a higher power (one or more Gods).
Religious people may also identify with the ethos of an organized religious group such as Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus.
Traditionally, belonging to a religious social group may have increased people’s social capital and allowed them access to benefits such as jobs (e.g. jobs obtained through connections at Church) or even exposed them to biases (such as discrimination against Jewish people in the mid-20th Century).
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Difference Between Social Identity and Cultural Identity?
Social and cultural identities overlap. Generally, a social identity refers to a recognized social group within a society (race, gender, social class), whereas a cultural identity refers to a series of beliefs, morals, and practices connected to a person’s upbringing.
These two concepts are very similar and are best prised apart by examining the definitions of the two terms:
- Society: Refers to a group of people living within one another’s sphere of influence. The group may or may not be culturally homogenous.
- Culture: Refers to the traditions, values, customs, and beliefs of your family. Cultures often have their own view of social identities (e.g. some traditional cultures have more rigid views of gender than the 21st Century Western culture).
What is a Personal Identity?
Your personal identity comprises all of your social identities wrapped up in one (plus other things that may make you unique, such as your membership of subcultures or music tastes).
To get started with looking at personal identities, consider:
- Your Age: Are you Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z?
- Your Ability: Do you identify as having a disability that may cause prejudice?
- Ethnicity: Do you identify as belonging to a historical group with common ancestry?
- Your Race: Do you identify as belonging to a genetic grouping based on the physical origins of your ancestors?
- Your Gender: Do you identify as male, female, trans, or other?
- Your Sexual Orientation: Do you identify as having a romantic attraction to a particular sex? (If you’re young, you may want to skip this one until you’re an adult!).
- Your Socioeconomic Status: Do you identify as being working-class, middle-class, or upper-class, or a bit of a mix of these?
- Your Religion: Do you identify as belonging to a group of people who have a shared belief in a God?
Examples of social identity include age, ability, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and religion. These are the ‘big 8’ social identities.
Social identities are a way for us to conceptualize the different ways society has classified people based on their characteristics. Each characteristic groups us into in-groups and out-groups. Historically, social identities have been used to unfairly privilege some people and discriminate against others.
The intersection of all our social identities, plus other factors like or cultural values, subcultural identifications, and tastes, can feed into our own personal identity, which is a profile of what makes us unique.