In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Identity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Edited Volumes and Handbooks
  • Journals
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • Affect Control Theory
  • Identity Control Theory
  • Role Identity Theory

Sociology Identity
Angie Andriot, Timothy J. Owens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0025


We outline four identity theories typically employed by contemporary social psychologists: personal identity, role identity, social identity, and collective identity. Personal identity (see [Personal] Identity Theory), the most elementary of the four identities, was pioneered by American sociological social psychologists (SSPs), particularly Sheldon Stryker. SSPs emphasize how demographic, social, and cultural factors affect human social interaction. Personal identity is what makes every person unique, defining them through their specific biographies (e.g., name, birthplace), unique characteristics (e.g., intelligent, athletic), role identities (e.g., daughter, employee), and particular combination of private and public experiences. Role identify (see Role Identity Theory), also pioneered by American SSPs, particularly George J. McCall and J. L. Simmons, is inspired by the language of dramaturgy. Role identity is defined as the role (or character) people play when holding specific social positions in groups. It is relational, since people interact with each other via their own role identities. Social identity (see Social Identity Theory), pioneered by European psychological social psychologists, particularly Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner, emphasizes how a person’s cognition, affect, and personality traits affect immediate person-to-person social interactions and vice versa. It is the part of an individual’s self-concept formed through the knowledge of his or her membership in meaningful social groups and organizations (e.g., Kiwanis Club, the Cleveland City Club) and categories (e.g., Native American, northerner). In short, it is through our public selves that we are able to simplify the world around us by using categorizations to infer our similarities and differences to other people. Finally, collective identity (see Collective Identity Theory), also pioneered by European psychological social psychologists, especially Alberto Melucci, is the self in action. Collective identities are especially important to social movement participants, political activists, and others banding together to fight for or against social change by working on shared goals and action plans. In short, it is a process by which a set of individuals interacts to create a shared sense of identity or group consciousness.

General Overviews

Given identity’s currency in contemporary social psychology, it is surprising that there are not more identity-centered books accessible to students and professionals alike. The reason is likely the fact that several aspects of identity are currently in use by social psychologists, especially personal identity, role identity, social identity, and collective identity, thus hampering unified treatments of identity’s many faces. Intradisciplinary boundaries between the structural and processual wings of sociological social psychology and interdisciplinary boundaries between psychological and sociological social psychologists have also made integrated overviews difficult. See Thoits and Virshup 1997 for a welcome exception. The nesting of identity within broader notions of the self and self-concept, and the tendency for some researchers to use “self” and “identity” interchangeably, have also posed problems. Nonetheless, there are accessible works available. Two perennial and influential sociological favorites on identity are McCall and Simmons 1978, out of print but widely available on the used book market, and Stryker 2002. George J. McCall and J. L. Simmons entertain both structural and processual symbolic interactionist viewpoints, while Sheldon Stryker focuses exclusively on a structural symbolic interactionist view of identity. Two additions to identity overviews are MacKinnon and Heise 2010 and Burke and Stets 2009. Perinbanayagam 2000 offers a view of identity primarily through the lens of processual symbolic interactionism and semiotics, rhetoric, and discourse analysis that is quite distinct from the others in this section. Even though the authors are not specifically recognized as identity theorists, Goffman 1959 and Rosenberg 1979 provide useful insights into identity from broader contexts of processual symbolic interactionism (Goffman 1959) and social structure and personality (Rosenberg 1979).

  • Burke, Peter J., and Jan E. Stets. 2009. Identity theory. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This overview of identity is centered on Burke and Stets’s identity control theory (see Identity Control Theory); nonetheless, the authors provide well-written discussions of the various forms of identity.

  • Goffman, Erving. 1959. The presentation of the self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

    Goffman’s classic analysis of the theatrical character of people’s everyday social lives.

  • MacKinnon, Neil J., and David R. Heise. 2010. Self, identity, and social institutions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    This monograph, while building on earlier work in affect control theory (see Affect Control Theory), proposes a new theory of the self. While affect control theory emphasizes the way people confirm their identities through the selection and enactment of role-appropriate actions, the new theory is more broadly about the self. Specifically, people confirm their selves by selecting and enacting identities.

  • McCall, George J., and J. L. Simmons. 1978. Identities and interactions: An examination of human associations in everyday life. New York: Macmillan.

    First published in 1966, this is a clearly written and comprehensive book-length treatise on the foundation and many facets of both processual and structural symbolic interactionist viewpoints on roles and identities. This much-cited book is particularly known for its erudite introduction to the authors’ seminal sociological social psychological role identity theory.

  • Perinbanayagam, R. S. 2000. The presence of self. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    The winner of the 2001 Cooley Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, the book draws on ideas from the pragmatist philosophers and philosophers of language to provide a unique view of identity and “beingness of the human individual” (book jacket).

  • Rosenberg, Morris. 1979. Conceiving the self. New York: Basic Books.

    The concept of psychological centrality views the self as an interrelated system of hierarchically organized components (e.g., identities and personal attributes). Psychological centrality helps people protect their self-concepts by pushing potentially damaging self-components to the periphery of the self system while holding self-enhancing ones closer to the center.

  • Stryker, Sheldon. 2002. Symbolic interactionism: A social structural version. Caldwell, NJ: Blackburn.

    This clear depiction of identity from a structural symbolic interactionist viewpoint explores its historical roots from philosophy to contemporary sociology. A particular merit of the book is that its breadth and depth are understandable to undergraduates while being useful to professionals interested in knowing more about the roots of Stryker’s identity theory.

  • Thoits, Peggy A., and Lauren K. Virshup. 1997. Me’s and we’s: Forms and functions of social identities. In Self and identity: Fundamental issues. Edited by R. D. Ashmore and L. Jussim, 106–133. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This much-cited chapter provides an outstanding overview of several theories of identity from sociology to psychology.

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