Theoretical Approaches – Culture and Identity

Lesson objectiveTo explore theoretical approaches
Lesson outcomes• Compare different perspectives.
• Evaluate their perspectives
• Explain what different perspectives believe



All structural perspectives take a macro approach to assessing culture and identity. This tends to mean that most individuals are passive and society governs their actions and thoughts. Functionalists believe that socialisation is a force for good by creating shared norms and values (called value consensus). This creates social integration thus creating stability. Parsons (1951) mentions that individuals internalist these rules so it becomes a part of their culture and identity e.g. identifying someone as male or female.

Adams and Marshall (1996), for example, have suggested 5 functions of identity that, as Serafini et al (2006) note, focus on what identity does “rather than how identity is constructed”:

  1. Structure: Identities function, as Serafini et al note, to provide individuals with a structured context for social actions – a “framework of rules” which is used to know right from wrong and allow people to express their behaviour (as Adams and Marshall put it, a “structure for understanding who one is”, ).
  2. Goals: Identities provide a sense of purpose by setting goals for our behaviour. E.g. to succeed at college, certain characteristics are desired and promoted e.g. studious.
  3. Personal Control: Identities provide a measure of “active self-regulation” in terms of deciding what we want and how we plan to achieve it. With so many choices in our lives, we are constantly analysing and assessing different information. This, in itself, creates us an identity.
  4. Harmony: We need to establish “consistency, coherence and harmony between values, beliefs and commitments”; e.g. a police officer who believes that speeding is acceptable is unlikely to be an effective patrol officer. Our beliefs must match our identity and commitments.
  5. Future: Our aspirations form a large part of who we are. Our hopes and dreams are unique. They also affect how we integrate into society.


Social class is inherently linked to means of production (the way things are produced). Historically, the more you earn, the higher your class.

According to Fraser (1998):

Social class has three particular characteristics.

  1. Particular roles to play in the way goods and services are produced (Marxism is sometimes characterised as involving a production class theory of social organisation).
  2. A particular relationship to other classes in society.
  3. Class interests are organised to pursue.

Wood (1995) argues two things: firstly “Is it possible to imagine class differences without exploitation and domination?” and secondly “The ‘difference’ that constitutes class as an ‘identity’ is, by definition, a relationship of inequality and power, in a way that sexual or cultural ‘difference’ need not be” an idea that is disputed by:


It is important not to generalise feminist approaches. However, a key theme for all sub perspectives is seen by de Beauvoir (1949) who argues that inferior female statuses stem from the fact that, historically, men have been able to use their power (both physical and social) to define female identities in opposition to male identities.

Liberal feminists attempt to gain equality for both men and women in everyday society. Hammer’s (1997) argument that “gendered language… symbolically excludes women” from male-dominated spheres (think, for example, about how the masculine pronoun “He” is often used in the media to symbolise both men and women). Liberal campaigners have worked hard to promote equality such as the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) made it illegal to discriminate based on sex)

Marxist Feminists believe that the greatest form of inequality for women is one based on social differences e.g. social class. They point towards various inequalities e.g. pay and responsibility. They claim that society is patriarchal and that men dominate women in society. This stems from primary and secondary socialisation which reinforces masculine and feminine identities. Women are encouraged to be more feminine and males masculine. Falling outside of these categories could result in societal exclusion.

Radical feminists use a more psychological perspective in demonstrating inequality. Male and females are hardwired to be biologically different. Females are more kind, caring and nurturing, whilst males are more aggressive and dominating. They categorise and explain that inequality can take place in two forms 1) Private sphere (what goes on at home 2) Public sphere – what goes on in work etc.

Postmodern Feminism is slightly complicated because it brings together many thoughts of idea. The first is that they believe that gender equality has been successfully achieved, while simultaneously castigating the feminist movement for making women frustrated and unhappy” ( They claim, however, that this has and is making women unhappy. This apparently is tricking women into achieving equality in the wrong manner. Instead of focusing on how to be equal, they are focused on manipulating and dominating men.

Butler (1990) argues that gender is not a quality of something we are but rather something we do. In other words, gender identities involve notions of: 1) performance (how we create our image) and 2) choice (women can choose to be masculine and feminine).

For post-feminists this “personal construction of femininity” often involves what they see as “reclaiming femininity” in the sense women can be both “feminine” (whatever that may mean) and able to pursue their education, career and so forth independently of men. To summarise, don’t try to be masculine to think that’s the only way to succeed, embrace femininity and you can succeed the same.

Criticisms of structural approaches

Garfinkel coined the term “cultural dope” which is his way of criticising the extent that structural approaches believe people are. He believes that people are active in their decision making and can reject norms, values and other cultures.

Social Action Theory Approaches

According to SAT’s identity is created to make sense of the world.

“Identities”, in this respect, are developed for two main reasons:

  1. Social – To succeed as a society, rules need to be made. Our identities bend to fit these rules. E.g. if society looks down on murder, you’re identity agrees that murder is wrong. However, interpretivists believe that our identity is fluid for two reasons 1) Society is mobile and changes and 2) There is more than one way to portray an identity and this changes from person to person.
  2. Personal – Goffman’s Dramaturgical approaches shows that in society its members are actors/ actresses. Depending on the audience and stage, so too does our identity. Out of the many different stages, it allows us to understand more about our identity; this becomes up. As Barnhart (1994) puts it: Interaction is viewed as a “performance, shaped by environment and audience, constructed to provide others with impressions” that match “the desired goals of the actor”. In Goffman’s words to “manage the impression others have of us”. This links with Cooley (1909) and his “Self Looking Glass” theory in which our actions change depending on how other’s interact with us. Their interactions provide us with knowledge about what they think of us.

There are two main steps to creating an identity according to SATs.

  1. Interpretation of our identity based on communication with others.
  2. Based on the above, we try new identities and this is called negotiation. The best fit basically becomes us.

Criticisms of Social Action Theory Approaches

  1. SAT focuses too much on individual control over a person’s identity and doesn’t explain the impact structural forces can have e.g. poverty turning a person to crime.
  2. Although there is some choice, there are also some fixed identities. How much a person can choose is subject to debate.

Postmodernist approaches

Bauman, Baudrillard and Lyotard all argue:

  1. Identity not imposed by structural forces and that we have a choice.
  2. Previously, this may have been the case. Now, these forces have become what is known as a metanarrative – these are now fluid and can change depending on situation and person.
  3. The current world is media-saturated and globalised. This allows individuals to pick and mix their identities creating hybrid or multi ones. This creates two core categories of identification.
  4. 1) Centralised identities – this is where there are some fixed parameters of identity which tend to be universal e.g. not to be a drug addict. This is mostly impacted by the media and other forms of communication. This is creating a fragmented society by creating two sources of primary identity e.g. a full-time shopper and a woman. 2) Decentralised identities – These are identities which can be more flexible and offer individuals choice e.g. adopting a new culture and actively becoming more British.

Criticisms of Postmodernism

  1. There is little evidence to support this idea.
  2. Most of the evidence cannot be measured as it is a social construct.

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