Each unique being has many labels

February 9, 2007

Our 'identity' consists of many different facets - acknowledging this should help us to see the futility of stereotyping others, says Richard Crisp

Think for just a moment about all the different ways in which you can describe yourself: I am, for example, a psychologist, male, white, young(ish), British and liberal. The multifaceted nature of our identities affords us a dazzling mixture of possible selves and the capacity to see this potential in others. Why then do we appear resolute in defining our world in its most simplistic form; the division into "us" and "them"?

Identity is at the forefront of many of the big academic debates this year, from Cambridge University's Darwin lectures to the Institute of Historical Research's Anglo-American Conference in July. It is also a huge issue for the press. The recent national debate on the wearing of veils by Muslim women, for example, has once again brought to the fore the issue of integration and assimilation in multicultural Britain. This is an important debate but, if conducted in simplistic terms, it runs the risk of fixating us on just a single basis for describing ourselves and others - that is, religion.

Thinking categorically is an inevitable characteristic of how we define ourselves and how we think about others. But when this becomes one-dimensional, when one single basis for classifying people dictates our impressions, we may end up exacerbating tensions between communities. If we are to combat social exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, and develop systems and expectations in education to do so, then we must focus not on single divisive criteria, but instead on the multifaceted nature of identity.

Psychologically speaking, our enduring obsession with classification is consistent with what we know about mental functioning in more general terms. We like things to make sense, to be coherent, to be predictable. Thinking about someone in terms of their gender, race or religion helps us to organise our worlds. Categories tell us who we are in relation to others. They define us, they provide us with a sense of who we are; they are the essence of our identity.

The problem is that while categories define us, they also provide the bedrock for prejudice. Racism, sexism, ageism - these are all social problems characterised by our tendency to categorise. How, then, can we address these pervasive social issues, defined by categories and categorisation, when these very same categories form the basis for how we make sense of the world? Perhaps the solution is not to try to ignore categories but to embrace them and the true nature of multiculturalism. In other words, perhaps we should keep thinking categorically, but think categorically in a multitude of different ways.

The point is that we are not defined just by our religion, or race, or gender, but by all of these things and by many others. Really appreciating this multiplicity may be the key to reducing prejudice and discrimination along any one of these criteria.

Social psychological research has supported this basic idea. Laboratory studies of social perception have found that prejudiced attitudes are challenged by encouraging people to use many different ways of thinking about others, rather than categorising all the time in terms of just race, just religion, just gender or just age.

Getting people to realise that members of minority groups should not be pigeonholed into just one category, and that there are all sorts of other ways people can be described, reduces prejudice according to any single basis for classification. This works because rather than applying a negative stereotype to someone just because they are a member of a stigmatised group, people come to realise that social categories are fluid, flexible and dynamic, and that there are many different (and positive) ways in which anyone can be described. As such, the impact of any one negatively valued identity is reduced. It shows us that we all have a lot in common, but the we are also distinct from one another, and we can all bring something unique to the societies in which we live.

Incorporating tasks that encourage an appreciation of the multiple and diverse nature of identity into social and personal education should help encourage more religious and ethnic tolerance. But appreciating the flexibility and dynamism of our multiple identities can also tackle social exclusion in the form of academic underachievement. A capacity to think of ourselves in many different ways lies at the heart of self-determination, aspiration and innovation; and this is no more evident than in the career choices we make at school, university and beyond. Should one become an engineer, teacher, artist, scientist or banker? Thinking categorically can stifle these aspirations and damage confidence.

Take gender: it is well established that women face gender discrimination in both implicit and explicit forms in their professional lives. Psychological research has shown that the career and academic choices of women, like those of a range of groups, are influenced by perceived social and cultural expectations - that is, social stereotypes. For example, women, if we are to believe society's expectations, are just not as good as men at maths. Many women believe this stereotype and so choose gender-stereotyped careers to avoid the discrimination they perceive to be inevitable were they to enter a male-dominated profession.

In this case, we are talking about the attitudes one has about oneself rather than the attitudes of others. Just as an appreciation of the multiplicity of identity can discourage us from holding negative expectations about others, it can also free us from the negative expectations we hold about ourselves. If gender is a source of discrimination (for instance, for women contemplating a career as an engineer, solider, banker or priest) then we must encourage the appreciation that gender is just one (albeit misplaced) criterion for entering such domains; there are many more identities that are important for self-definition, self-determination and, ultimately, career success.

Promoting a recognition of the diverse nature of our identities could be achieved in several ways. Research has shown that training young children in "multiple classification skills" can significantly reduce the extent to which negative stereotypes are used to describe others. For instance, training could require children to sort cards describing men and women, mechanics and nurses, into different piles. The more piles children create, the more variegated and diverse their perception of gender roles in occupation; the fewer piles, the more stereotypic. In research testing this intervention, children asked to repeat the task, with appropriate guidance, until they sorted according to multiple criteria, subsequently stereotyped less on the basis of gender.

Teaching young adults about multiple identities may take the form of a wider societal debate about the nature of identity. There are a number of ways in which such a debate could be structured in a classroom setting, based on what we already know from social psychological research. For instance, the mental process of putting oneself in someone else's shoes can help to break down boundaries and encourage less negative perceptions of others. Similarly, imagining positive interactions between members of different ethnic groups, even when there are high levels of segregation, could begin to question unfounded negative expectations. These and other techniques may provide the basis for developing practical interventions to help us realise the benefits of multiple identifications.

From education to inclusion, our identities are a resource on which we should capitalise. From realising potential to reducing prejudice, encouraging an appreciation of multiple identities may prove critical in addressing the some of the most pressing social issues facing Britain today.

Richard Crisp is a social psychologist at Birmingham University.

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