4.1.0: Types of Identities

Three related but distinct components of our self-perception are our personal and social identities (Spreckels, J. & Kotthoff, H., 2009), and our co-cultural identities. In this section, we will discuss personal, social, and co-cultural identities. 


4.1.1: Personal and Social Identities

(Image: CCO 1.0)

Social Identities: Our social identities are derived from the social groups that we belong to, both voluntarily or involuntarily, such as a sports team, art club, band, or family.

Personal identities include the components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connected to our life experiences. For example, you may consider yourself a puzzle lover or identify as a fan of hip-hop music. Our social identities are the components of self that are derived from involvement in social groups with which we are interpersonally committed.

Social identities differ from personal identities because they are externally organized through membership. For example, we may derive aspects of our social identity from our family or from a community of sports team fans. Our membership may be voluntary (such as being a member of a sports team) or involuntary (family). There are innumerous options for personal and social identities. While our personal identity choices express who we are, our social identities align us with particular groups. Through our social identities, we make statements about who we are and who we are not.

Personal identities may change often as people have new experiences and develop new interests and hobbies. Social identities do not change as often because they take more time to develop, as you must become interpersonally invested. For example, if an interest in online video games leads someone to become a member of a MMORPG, or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game community, that personal identity has led to a social identity that is now interpersonal and more entrenched.


4.1.2: Co-Cultural Identities

As a reminder, culture is defined as a set of learned behaviors, values, beliefs, and patterns of thinking that we learn as we grow and develop. However, as we know from our own experiences and observations, there are many different sets of behaviors, values, beliefs, and patterns of thinking around us. Within any geographic location, both the dominant culture and various co-cultures exist. Devito (2014) defines the dominant culture as “the learned system of values, beliefs, attitudes, and ways of thinking held by the people who are in power in a society” (p. 73). However, co-cultures also “exist side by side with the dominant culture and are comprised of smaller numbers of less powerful people who hold common values, attitudes, beliefs, and orientations that differ from those of the dominant culture” (p 73). The co-cultures we belong to are based on factors like race, gender, and social class, and they form part of our identity.

Our co-cultural identities are based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being, and include expectations for social behavior, ways of acting, and norms (Yep, G. A., 2002). The ways of being and the social expectations for behavior within co-cultural identities can and do change over time. For example, think of how ways of being and acting have changed for African Americans since the civil rights movement or norms of behavior for women today versus 50-years ago.

These common ways of being and acting, and norms within a co-cultural identity group are expressed through communication. In order to be accepted as a member of a co-cultural group, members must be acculturated, essentially learning and using a code that other group members will be able to recognize. A code is a socially-constructed, historically transmitted system of rules, beliefs, and premises pertaining to communicative behavior. Basically, communication codes tell us how to behave and interact with others, and tell us what is considered ‘normal’ and acceptable behavior.

We are acculturated into our various co-cultural identities and learn communication codes in obvious and less obvious ways. We may have a parent or friend tell us what it means to be a man or a woman. We may also unconsciously consume messages from popular culture that offer representations of gender. Because co-cultural identities are learned via communication, they are also socially constructed. Social constructionism is a view that argues the self is formed through our interactions with others and in relationship to social, cultural, and political contexts (Allen, 2011). The sub-sections below discuss how co-cultural identities such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability have been constructed in the United States, and how communication relates to those identities. Other important identities could be discussed, such as religion, generation, nationality, class, etc. Although they are not given their own subsection, consider how those identities may intersect with the identities discussed next.


Would it surprise you to know that human beings, regardless of how they are racially classified, share 99.9 percent of their DNA? This finding by the Human Genome Project asserts that race is a social construct, not a biological one. The American Anthropological Association agrees, stating that race is the product of “historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances” (Allen, 2011). Therefore, we’ll define race as a socially constructed category based on differences in appearance that has been used to create hierarchies that privilege some and disadvantage others. Racial distinctions have been based largely on phenotypes, or physiological features such as skin color, hair texture, and body/facial features. Unfortunately, Western “scientists” used these differences as “proof” that native populations were less evolved than the Europeans, which helped justify colonial expansion, enslavement, genocide, and exploitation on massive scales (Allen, 2011). Even though there is a consensus among experts that race is social rather than biological, we can’t deny that race still has meaning in our society and affects people.


Think back to the previous chapter on perception and to our discussion of microaggressions. Race is one of the first things we notice about someone. Whether we are conscious of it or not, certain stereotypes and perceptions that are associated with skin color may manifest themselves, often unconsciously, in our communication. Perhaps you have heard or even made the assertion that “I don’t see race” and/or “I am colorblind”? Unless you truly can’t see color because of a physiological deficiency, this statement is incorrect. Usually, it is made because we feel uncomfortable talking about race or acknowledging its impact, as many of us have been told that in the U.S. we value equality and should judge others based on merit, not race. However, it is important to be critical and self-reflective of the ways in which skin color influences our communication with others.


When we first meet a newborn baby, we ask whether it’s a boy or a girl. This question illustrates the importance of gender in organizing our social lives and our interpersonal relationships. Many parents consciously or unconsciously “code” their newborns in gendered ways based on our society’s associations of pink clothing and accessories with girls and blue with boys. While it’s obvious to most people that colors aren’t gendered, they take on new meaning when we assign gendered characteristics of masculinity and femininity to them. Just like race, gender is a socially constructed category.

You may have noticed that use of the word gender instead of sex. Sex is based on biological characteristics, including external genitalia, internal sex organs, chromosomes, and hormones (Wood, 2005). While the biological characteristics between men and women are obviously different, it’s the meaning we create and attach to those characteristics that makes them significant. The cultural differences in how that significance is ascribed are proof that “our way of doing things” is arbitrary. For example, cross-cultural research has found that boys and girls in most cultures show both aggressive and nurturing tendencies, but cultures vary in terms of how they encourage these characteristics between genders. In a group in Africa, young boys are responsible for taking care of babies and are encouraged to be nurturing (Wood, 2005). This example shows that although we think gender is a natural, normal, stable way of classifying things, it is actually not.

Gender is an identity based on internalized cultural notions of masculinity and femininity that is constructed through communication and interaction. There are two important parts of this definition to unpack. First, we internalize notions of gender based on socializing institutions, which helps us form what we think it means to be male or female. For example, when you think of a man, what characteristics come to mind to describe him? What do men like to do? How does a man behave? Think of a female. What characteristics describe the normal female, what they like to do, and how do they behave? Socialization and internalization of societal norms for gender differences accounts for much more of our perceived differences than do innate or natural differences between genders. Gender norms may be explicitly stated—for example, a mother may say to her son, “Boys don’t play with dolls”—or they may be more implicit, with girls being encouraged to pursue historically feminine professions like teaching or nursing without others actually stating the expectation.

Second, we attempt to construct that gendered identity through our interactions with others, which is our gender performance. If we identity as female and want others to perceive us as female, we will attempt to behave and communicate as we think a female is supposed to. For example, if you identity as female you may communicate this identity nonverbally by wearing dresses and make-up.


Although many people hold a view that a person’s sexuality should be kept private, this isn’t a reality for our society. One only needs to observe popular culture and media for a short time to see that sexuality permeates much of our public discourse. Sexuality relates to culture and identity in important ways that extend beyond sexual orientation, just as race is more than the color of one’s skin and gender is more than one’s biological and physiological manifestations of masculinity and femininity. Sexuality isn’t just physical; it is social in that we communicate with others about sexuality (Allen, 2011). Sexuality is also biological in that it connects to physiological functions that carry significant social and political meaning like puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy. Sexuality is at the center of political issues like abortion, sex education, and gay and lesbian rights.

The most obvious way sexuality relates to identity is through sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s primary physical and emotional sexual attraction and activity. The terms we most often use to categorize sexual orientation are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and bisexual. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are sometimes referred to as sexual minorities. While the term sexual preference has been used previously, sexual orientation is more appropriate, since preference implies a simple choice. Although someone’s preference for a restaurant or actor may change frequently, sexuality is not as simple.

Hidden Identities:

Certain identities, such as sexuality or mental health conditions, are not easily discernible to the eye. These can make these types of identities ‘hidden’ to the general population, unless the choice is made to disclose them.

While these communities are often grouped together within one acronym, LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual- the + symbol stands for other sexualities, sexes, and genders that are not included in these letters), they are different. Gays and lesbians constitute the most visible of the groups and receive the most attention and funding. Transgender issues have received much more attention in recent years, but transgender identity connects to gender more than it does to sexuality, and a person who identifies as transgender may also be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. Last, queer is a reclaimed term often used to describe a group that is diverse in terms of identities, but usually takes a more activist and at times radical stance that critiques sexual categories. However, it should be noted that even though the term is considered ‘reclaimed’ by many, it was once used as a derogatory slur meant to oppress anyone who did not present as a typical ‘male’ or ‘female,’ and, as such, some may still think of it as being negative. As with other cultural identities, notions of sexuality have been socially constructed in different ways throughout human history.



There is resistance to classifying ability as a cultural identity, because we follow a medical model of disability that places disability as an individual and medical rather than social and cultural issue. While much of what distinguishes able-bodied and cognitively able from disabled is rooted in science, biology, and physiology, there are important sociocultural dimensions. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment” (Allen, 2011). This definition is important because it notes the social aspect of disability, in that people’s life activities are limited, and the relational aspect of disability, in that the perception of a disability by others can lead someone to be classified as such.

Ascribing an identity of disabled to a person can be problematic as this label carries social and cultural significance. People are tracked into various educational programs based on their physical and cognitive abilities, and there are many cases of people being mistakenly labeled disabled who were treated differently despite their protest of the ascribed label. Students who did not speak English as a first language are more likely to be placed in special education classes or put into a lower track.

Ability, just as the other cultural identities discussed, has institutionalized privileges and disadvantages associated with it. Ableism is the system of beliefs and practices that produces a physical and mental standard that is projected as normal for a human being and labels deviations from it as abnormal, resulting in unequal treatment and access to resources. There is also a lot of stigma that surrounds mental conditions such as depression or anxiety, and some people falsely claim that these are “made up” or “not real” conditions. However, these conditions do exist and invalidating them can and has had serious emotional consequences for those who suffer from them.

Unlike other cultural identities that are typically stable over a lifetime, ability fluctuates for most people. We have all experienced times when we are more or less able. Perhaps you broke your leg and had to use crutches or a wheelchair for a while. Whether you’ve experienced a short-term disability or not, the majority of us will become less physically and cognitively able as we get older.

Back to: I.C.A.T Interpersonal Communication Abridged Textbook > Chapter 4: Identity and Perception of Self