The notion of the social self has been of particular interest in the social sciences because it reflects a concern with how people’s social behavior varies not only as a function of different social roles but also as a function of the kind of social others with whom a person interacts. Within the social sciences, a distinction is made between personal identities, self-identities, and social identities (Hogg, Terry, and White 1995; Thoits and Virshup 1997). Personal identities consist of self-definitions in terms of unique and idiosyncratic characteristics. Social identities, on the other hand, reflect identification of the self with a social group or category. Self-identities, the focus of this article, are conceptualized as a definition of self as a person who performs a particular role or behavior.
Self-identity refers to a person’s self-conception, self-referent cognitions, or self-definition that people apply to themselves as a consequence of the structural role positions he or she occupies or a particular behavior he or she engages in regularly. Self-identities reflect the “labels people use to describe themselves” (Biddle, Bank, and Slavings 1987, p. 326). For example, a person’s self-identities may include the fact that she is a mother, a wife, a daughter, a social worker, and a blood donor. Self-identities provide meaning for the self, not only because they refer to concrete role specifications or behaviors but also because they distinguish roles or actions from counterroles or opposing behaviors (Lindesmith and Strauss 1956). For example, “the role of mother takes on meaning in connection with the role of father, doctor in connection with nurse, and so on” (White and Burke 1987, p. 312).
Theoretically, the importance of the concept of self-identity is derived from identity theory (Stryker 1968, 1980; Burke 1980; Stryker and Serpe 1982; Wiley 1991), which views the self not as an autonomous psychological entity but as a multifaceted social construct that emerges from people’s roles in society and the behaviors they perform. Symbolic interactionists such as Mead (1934) and Cooley (1902) considered the self to be a product of social interaction: It is through social interaction that identities actually acquire self-meaning and people come to know who they are. It is important to note that identity theory focuses on the self-defining roles that people occupy in society rather than on the wider range of different social attributes, such as gender, race, or ethnicity, that can be ascribed to the self. Thus, the general perspective of identity theory forms the basis for a relatively large body of microsociological literature concerned with predicting role-related behavior (Simon 1992; Thoits 1991). Within social psychology, however, researchers have been more interested in using self-identity to improve our understanding and prediction of the relationship between attitudes and action.
The concept of self-identity is pivotal in the link between social structure and individual action. Self-identities, by definition, imply action (Callero 1985) and are a set of expectations prescribing behavior derived from a person’s social position and considered appropriate by others. Satisfactory enactment of roles or behaviors not only confirms and validates a person’s self-identity (Callero 1985), it also reflects positively on self-evaluation. The perception that one is enacting a role satisfactorily should enhance feelings of self-esteem, whereas perceptions of poor role performance may engender doubts about one’s self-worth and may even produce symptoms of psychological distress (Thoits 1991; Hoelter 1983; Stryker and Serpe 1982).
Within the field of social psychology, the greatest interest in self-identity has been shown by researchers in the attitude-behavior field. Within this field, it has been argued that self-identities can determine intentions and behaviors. For example, political activists may participate in protest actions because activism has become a central part of their self-concepts, and blood donors may give blood because being a donor has become an important part of their self-definition. Self-identity may have a predictive effect on intentions, independent of attitudes and other constructs, because self-identity encapsulates people’s goals or interests that are distinct from those expressed by their attitudes. Indeed, as noted by Sparks (2000), the integration of self-identity into the theory of planned behavior “offers the opportunity to examine the social, moral, and emotional dimensions of people’s attitudes and behaviour in greater detail” (p. 45).
Several authors have addressed the extent to which self-identity might be a useful addition to the dominant models of the attitude-behavior relationship, namely the theories of reasoned action (Fishbein and Ajzen 1974) and planned behavior (Ajzen 1991). Self-identity has been found to contribute significantly to the prediction of behavior across a number of domains, including altruistic behavior such as blood donation (Charng, Piliavin, and Callero 1988), political behavior such as voting (Granberg and Holmberg 1990), environmental behavior such as recycling (Terry, Hogg, and White 1999), health behaviors such as exercise behavior (Theodorakis 1994) or licit and illicit drug use (Conner and McMillan 1999), and consumer behavior such as food choice (Sparks and Shepherd 1992). On the basis of past research, Conner and Armitage (1998) argued that it is reasonable to assume that there are certain behaviors for which self-identity is an important determinant of intentions (Armitage and Conner, 2001).
One important question for self-identity researchers is the nature of the interplay between self-identity and past behavior. Identity theory assumes that self-identity and past behavior interact to influence intentions. That is, with repeated performance of a behavior, that behavior is more likely to be seen as an important part of the self-concept, increasing the predictive power of self-identity. However, support for this hypothesis has been equivocal: Some studies have found that self-identity is more predictive of intentions at higher levels of past behavior (Charng et al. 1988), some tests have found no evidence that the effects of self-identity vary as a function of past performance of the behavior (Astrom and Rise 2001; Terry et al. 1999), and other tests have found that self-identity is more predictive of intentions at lower levels of past behavior (Conner and McMillan 1999; Fekadu and Kraft 2001). Conner and McMillan argued that the stronger impact of self-identity on intention at lower levels of past behavior may reflect the role that initial experiences play in strengthening the relevance of identity to intentions. However, as behavior is repeated, intentions become less under the control of cognitive factors such as self-identity and more under the control of habitual forces such as past behavior. Given these inconsistencies, more research on the interplay of self-identity and past behavior, using a wide range of populations and behaviors, is needed in order to understand more fully the role of self-identity in the attitude-behavior context.
Within the literature, self-identity is assessed in a number of ways. Initially, researchers used direct and explicit statements to measure the extent to which a particular role or behavior was integrated as part of the self. For example, researchers working within the theory of planned behavior have asked people to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as, “I think of myself as the sort of person who is concerned about the long-term health effects of my food choices” (Sparks and Guthrie 1998), “Blood donation is an important part of who I am” (Charng et al. 1988), or “I am not a type of person oriented to engaging in contraception” (Fekadu and Kraft 2001).
Such measures have been found to be reliable and to predict behavioral intention; however, several criticisms have been noted. First, explicit statements require people to declare in public his or her identification with a particular role and behavior, therefore increasing the salience of that behavior (Sparks, Shepherd, Wieringa, and Zimmermanns 1995). Second, it has been argued that measures of self-identity serve as measures of past behavior, with people possibly inferring their self-identities from an examination of their past behavior (Sparks 2000). Finally, Fishbein (1997) has argued that self-identity measures may essentially constitute measures of behavioral intention.
In the past decade, however, researchers have developed alternate measures of self-identity. Drawing on marketing research, Mannetti and colleagues (2002, 2004) have used an identity-similarity measure that reflects the degree of similarity between the person’s self-image and that of the stereotypical or idealized person who engages in the target behavior. After obtaining independent descriptions of the two images, the distance or nearness between them is computed as a difference score, which is then used as an identity-similarity measure. This type of measure, which is less direct and explicit as well as more specific than other measures, does not increase the salience of behavior, and is independent of behavioral intention, has been found to be a large and significant predictor of behavioral intention (Mannetti, Pierro, and Livi 2002, 2004).
Theory and research within the social sciences has highlighted the important role that self-identities play in shaping and guiding action, but future research is needed to tease apart its specific roles. One important direction for future research is to examine the interplay among self-identity and other constructs identified as important in attitude-behavior research and to track the development of self-identities over time. Another important research direction, given the criticisms leveled at self-identity measures, is to develop measures that avoid both the conceptual issues highlighted above and the statistical issues involved in using difference scores. Interest in self-identity and its implications for behavior is widespread, and it is likely that interest in this area will persist for a long time.
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Deborah J. Terry
Joanne R. Smith