Community engagement provides us with the exciting opportunities to create change with others. Because our engagement in communities requires extensive interpersonal interactions, it is important that we explore our social identities.
The term social identity originated in the 1970s and is attributed to two social psychologists, Henri Tajfel and John Turner. These scholars were interested in developing language and theories to help better explain the way people’s identities, and their relations to each other, are affected by their belonging, or perceived belonging, in different social groups.
Social identities (first explored in Module 1) are often defined as one’s group memberships shaped by individual characteristics, historical factors, and social and political contexts. While we all belong to many different groups, from sports teams to families, social identity groups refer to those that are part of large power structures in society. Because they are defined by societal structures, these group memberships shape the way we experience and interact with our social world.
Social identities, or our social group memberships, shape our perceptions, interactions, and choice. Rather than personality traits or interests that make up your identity and sense of self, social identities describe the socially constructed groups that are present in specific environments within human societies. Our social identities are deeply connected to the social issues with which we may be engaging during our experiences.
Our multiple identities are connected in ways that uniquely shape our experience. They may overlap and interact with each other in complex ways. It is especially important to be aware of the social identities that are important to you and the complex ways in which your different identities intersect, and recognize how certain social identities may carry unearned advantages or disadvantages with them (Crenshaw, 1989). For example, a young person with a disability may experience discrimination differently than an elderly person with a disability; women of colour experience discrimination in a completely different way than men of colour, or than white women.
Implications in Community Engagement Work
Social identities inform our perceptions of ourselves, but they also inform our interactions with others. It is important to be aware of these identities when entering a community, as it can influence the way we interact with others in social contexts. The way a community perceives your social identities can impact your engagement experience. Conversely, the way that you perceive the community will also influence your relationships, the outcome of your work, and everyone’s satisfaction with the experience. Social identities can also create power dynamics, especially when working with rights holders and/or minority groups. This is why it is so important that you conduct research ahead of time to better inform how these factors might impact your work, making you better prepared to handle any situations that arise due to social identities. An important question to ask when you conduct your research is, “What is the community’s historical experience with people who have my social identities?” Then ask yourself, “How do I perceive the social identities of the people in the community?” And finally, “How would they perceive my social identities? Would these perceptions change as a result of engagement and interaction?”
Take a few moments to think about your own identities.
Which social groups do you belong to?
Consider the Circle of Power presented on page 2 of this workbook. Use the wheel diagram to explore areas where you have experienced advantage or disadvantage in your life.
This is an important consideration when conducting community engagement projects. You may even consider including this as an individual activity among actors when you first start a project together.