Devon Ferreira 204519344 Final Assignment: Long Essay In a society, like ours, which has fallen prey to segregation

on the basis of race, gender, class, culture, age, ethnicity, etc, it is evident that individuals in a society, such as this, are perceived by many as being fundamentally different. There have been two notions relating to identity formation. The first is where society has tended to fix people into categories according to their race, gender, class, age, etc, thereby implying or arguing for a biological determination (essentialism) of cultural and individual characteristics. Up until now it has been generally accepted that we enter the world with certain characteristic traits fixed from birth. To put it simply, we are destined to become who we are from birth, in other words we are biologically programmed into the individuals we become. However social sciences now operate on a very different perspective, which is the social construction of identity – through family, religion, educational institutions, mass media, peer pressure, etc. Social scientists further argue that we are not mere passive recipients in a society, but we are in fact active agents, participating in such processes of identity construction. We are not fixed with the identities we are given at birth for all time; rather we are actively engaging in the reconstruction of those identities thereby creating a society with a multiplicity of identities. Since society has generally adopted the view that people are fixed into their identities from birth, it has prevented individuals from being able to understand others standpoints/experiences. There has been much misunderstanding in the social world, concerning this issue because it is claimed that we cannot understand the thoughts, behaviours, desires, etc, of people who are said to be fundamentally different from us. For social research there are significant implications which need to be considered with regards to the above mentioned issue, namely social and political solidarity, communication, involvement on a sympathetic and empathetic level and dealing with conflicts, all of which will be in jeopardy if the notion of fix identities continues to be followed. There are two contradictory issues which arise from the issue of understanding others experiences. There are those that strongly hold onto the fix notion of identities arguing we can never come to understand the ‘other’ and that only people, who share gender, race, class, culture, age ethnicity, etc, can understand the experiences of those that are located in similar positions. On the other hand there are others, who adopt a more social constructionist view and believe in order to understand the experiences of others, you need not have to


belong to the same gender, race, class, age, ethnic groups and share the same experiences. Instead we must be able to grasp the sense of the experiences of others, by reflecting on our own identities in relation to others, as well as identifying, describing and explaining those experiences. Therefore this essay sets out to highlight the different notions of identity formation (fixed and fluid) suggesting that social identities are more fluid and subject to change. I will then show that those people, who adopt the former notion of identity, believe that only people who are located in similar positions, such as gender, age, race etc can understand the experiences of others. Finally I will conclude by arguing if one had to adopt a more socially constructionist view on the matter they will see they will be able to grasp a sense of others experiences by reflecting on their own identities in relation to others, as well as identifying, describing and explaining those experiences.

Social identity can be conceptualized as being connected to the individual’s knowledge that he belongs to certain social groups, together with some emotional and value significance that results from this group membership (Campbell, 1993). A social group can be understood as two or more individuals who share a common social identification, in other words these individuals perceive themselves to be members of a particular social category (Campbell, 1993). Thus, it is through an individual’s sense of belonging to different groups in society that they acquire a social identity which defines their own specific identity within society. According to Jenkins (1996: 5), social identity is “understanding of who we are and of who others are, and reciprocally, other people’s understanding of themselves and others (which includes us).” Social identity in Jenkins’ view is therefore a result of complex negotiations with ourselves and others. It is for that reason that social identity is about categorization, identification and comparison. In terms of categorization, we as a society of individuals often put others and ourselves for that matter, into categories. This involves labelling others as Muslims, single parents, or disabled people for example. This is a process whereby individuals are able to speak about and relate with other individuals. In terms of identification, individuals tend to associate themselves with other groups, their “in-groups”, which serve to bolster their self-esteem as it creates a sense of belonging. In terms of comparison, individuals tend to make judgements on “other” groups whilst comparing their “in-groups” with “others”, and more often than not they see a favourable bias towards the group to which they belong to. Out of this discrimination and exclusion arise whereby people


prevent others from having access to the same opportunities on the basis of difference for example race, age and gender.

Jenkins (1996) mentions that social identity refers to ways in which individuals and collectivities are eminent in their social relations with other individuals and collectivities. This involves a systematic process whereby relationships, between individuals, between collectivities, and between individuals and collectivities, of similarity and difference are established (Jenkins, 1996). Therefore, together, similarity and difference represent two dynamic principles of identity and are at the heart of social life. This is because they serve as a practical significance for individuals when attempting to identify with others. Similarity is no less important than difference and therefore both play an integral part in all internal and external developments (Jenkins, 1996).

Traditional social psychologists frequently attempt to distinguish between two separate subsystems of identity: The individual’s personality referring to those aspects of one’s identity that are unique; and their social identity referring to those aspects of identity derived from one’s belonging to a particular social grouping (Campbell, 1993). Each individual has a repertoire of identities open to them (social and personal); each identity informs the individual of who they are and what this identity entails. Which of these identities is more prominent for an individual at any time will vary according to the particular social context.

Critical social psychologists argue, however, that all identities are social in nature. They believe that it is impossible to speak of a purely personal identity (Campbell, 1993). Similarly Jenkins (1996: 20) puts forward a viable argument in which he states that “if identity is a necessary prerequisite for social life, the reverse is also true”. This suggests that personal identity, which is embodied in an individual’s self-hood, is meaningless when in isolation to the rest of society. In other words, yes individuals are unique and variable; however their selfhood inevitably takes place within a socially defined set of limitations and possibilities, through the processes of socialization and social interaction in which individuals constantly define and redefine themselves and others in the course of their lives (Jenkins, 1996).


This becomes clearer if we take a look at example. There is a girl who shares a relationship with her mother. It is obvious that the relationship she shares with her mother is quite specific as it has a unique history. There is no daughter that shares the same relationship as she has with her mother. However, if we look at the relationship she shares with her mother in the social context we will see that every interaction she has with her mother has been shaped by a range of socially constructed recipes for living. These recipes govern what counts as appropriate behaviour for mothers and for daughters. Ultimately these are guidelines for appropriate behaviour between family members, between people of different generations and so on. Therefore it is meaningless, as Jenkins argues to speak as if there were such a thing as a purely personal identity that could be conceived of separately from social identity (Campbell, 1993: 43).

It is important to note that this, however, does not mean that we are passive victims of socialization. Identity is a reflexive project that has to be “routinely created and sustained, explored and constructed as part of the reflexive process of connecting personal and social change” (Campbell, 1993: 43). We are actively involved in the task of constructing and reconstructing our identities from one social situation to another

According to Jenkins (1996) this view offers a template for the basic model which informs his whole argument, of internal-external dialectic of identification as a process whereby both individuals and collective identities are made up. Here an individual’s self-hood can only be achieved by taking on or assuming the position of the other (Jenkins, 1996). In other words we are unable to see ourselves at all without simultaneous seeing ourselves as other people see us. In essence what this means is that society as a whole is no more than an extension of identification (Jenkins, 1996).

Jenkins (1996: 21), further argues that it is not enough to merely assert an identity, “that identity must be validated (or not) by those with whom we have dealings.” Social identity is never one sided. In trying to explain this Jenkins (1996) stresses the importance of Goffman’s work, in which he gives a detailed description and analysis of the process and meaning of mundane interaction. Although we as individuals have control over signals about ourselves

which we send to others, we are all at a disadvantage in that we cannot guarantee either their “correct” reception or interpretation, or know for certain whether they received and interpreted it (Goffman, 1959). Hence the importance of what Goffman calls impression management strategies” in the construction of social identity (Jenkins, 1996: 22)

Goffman employs a dramaturgical approach in his study, concerning himself with the mode of presentation employed by the actor and its meaning in a broader social context. Interaction is viewed by Goffman as a “performance,” shaped by environment and audience, constructed to provide others with impressions that are consonant with the desired goals of the actor (Goffman, 1959: 17). The process of establishing social identity becomes closely allied to concept of the “front,” which is described as “the part of the individuals performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” (Goffman, 1959: 22). The front acts as a vehicle of standardization, allowing for others to understand the individual on the basis of projected character traits that have normative meanings. As a “collective representation,” the front establishes a proper “setting,” “appearance,” and manner for the social role assumed by the actor, uniting interactive behaviour with the personal front (Goffman, 1959: 27). The actor, in order to present a compelling front, is forced to both fill the duties of the social role and communicate the activities and characteristics of the role to other people in a consistent manner.

This process, known as “dramatic realization”, is predicated upon the activities of “impression management,” the control (or lack of control) and communication of information through performance (Goffman, 1959: 208). In constructing a front, information about the actor is given off through a variety of communicative source, all of which must be controlled to effectively convince the audience of the appropriateness of behaviour and consonance with the role assumed. Believability, as a result, is constructed in terms of verbal signification, which is used by the actor to establish intent, and non-verbal signification which used by the audience to verify the honesty of statements made by an individual (Goffman, 1959). Attempts are made to present an “idealized” version of the front, more consistent with the norms, morals, and laws of society than the behaviour of the actor when not before an audience (Goffman, 1959: 35). Information dealing with aberrant behaviour and belief is concealed from the audience in a process of “mystification,” making prominent those

characteristics that are socially sanctioned, legitimating both the social role of the individual and the framework to which the role belongs (Goffman, 1959: 67).

As can be seen we not only identify ourselves, but we also identify others and are identified by them in turn, in the internal-external dialectic between self-image and public image (Jenkins, 1996: 22). One sadly neglected understanding of the dialectic is offered by labelling perspective. It describes the interaction between (internal) the way we define ourselves, and (external) the way others define us, as a process of internalization. Internalization may occur when one is authoritatively labelled within an institutional social setting, like schools or the workplace. Here the individual acquires the identities which they are labelled (Jenkins, 1996). This presents a few consequences for the labelled individual as the identity they have acquired becomes solidified without entitlement to other identities or attributes. Labels can be both positive and negative, and have the potential of evoking resistance (Jenkins, 1996).

According to Beall labelling is often arises out of an overemphasis of difference between individuals in society particularly in relation to urban development. Beall (1997) takes a social development perspective when referring to social identities. Social identities, according to Beall (1997), often collide, become one and accommodate each other. In society there are an abundance of social relations which are established and challenged resulting in social divisions. Beall (1997) mentions that in order to create ‘Cities for All” which in turn provides inclusive urban spaces, these spaces need to welcome diversity and meet contrasting needs of different social groups. Thus she stresses that when developing urban areas that we take into consideration how the “structure of urban spaces presents both constraints and opportunities which impact people’s live in different ways. Hence she speaks of valuing difference and working with diversity (Beall, 1997).

Beall focuses her attention around the debates on difference. These debates have often “underscored how gender as social relation intersects with other social relations deriving from race, class, ethnicity, age and so on” (Beall, 1997: 7). Such debates, along with those on race, class, ethnicity etc, have given rise to both a discourse and a politics based on identity. While recognizing difference may come relatively easy to policy makers, it is working with

diversity that presents enormous problems (Beall, 1997). This is further complicated for policy makers by the fact that social identity which is often, if not always based on gender, race or some other expression of difference is not only about how individuals or groups identify and present themselves, but also about how others perceive and categorize those individuals or groups (Beall, 1997: 19). This is why identity politics and social organisation based on difference often feed into public action and social policy and planning with considerable difficultly at times (Beall, 1997: 19).

To overcome this problem Beall makes the distinction between difference and diversity. When these two terms are looked at as nouns they appear to mean the same thing. But when changed into verbs it makes it easier to see that subtle but important change in their actions. Looking at the term differentiate it implies categorization, prioritization, and potential hierarchies (Beall, 1997) however it also implies discrimination, labelling, naming and othering. Individuals tend to locate themselves among a repertoire, yet social development practices which identify and respond to one or more of these identities, can present a danger, as Jenkins mentioned, in that the process of identifying groups of people, or responding to their identities they assert at a particular time can solidify these identities, not allowing individuals the entitlement to other identities, interests or affiliations (Beall, 1997).

By contrast the term to diversify in the context of social policy and planning implies “different processes, rather than identities” (Beall, 1997: 9). It also implies variation, modification and protection against loss. But most importantly it implies action “among” and “by” people rather than “for” or “on” them (Beall, 1997: 9). Viewing society in terms of diversity implies that people do not possess a single fixed identity but rather a myriad of fluid identities, subject to change which they reveal in different social contexts.

Taking the fluid nature of social identities further I will now turn to authors, Campbell, Mare and Walker (1995). These authors argue that social identities are forever going through a process of reconstruction due to the ongoing changes occurring with social relations. In a recent study carried out by Mare, he set out to prove that ethnic identities are not fixed but rather that they are made, remade and may also be unmade (Campbell et al, 1995). The study,

which was performed on Zulu speaking workers in Natal and the nature of their ethnic consciousness, revealed that as a result of the transition from traditional society to a posttraditional society, transformations in their identity occurred. The process of transition from a traditional society to a post-traditional society is characterized by the fact that in a “traditional society, people are able to insert activities and experiences into the continuity of the past, present and future, which is structured by recurrent social practices” (Campbell et al, 1995: 289). This however is not possible in post-traditional societies which are constantly changing in nature. “Individuals are continually dislocated/disembodied in a process that unhinges the stable identities of the past, and ever opens up the possibility of new articulations of the self” Campbell, 1995: 289). This can be seen in the response researcher received from many of the participants in the study. For example many of them appeared to have stopped observing traditional customs as it had become increasingly difficult and costly (Campbell, 1995). Furthermore for some informants, Christianity had provided them with welcomed replacement for the old fashioned ritual based ways. These participants no longer identified themselves with Zulu ethnicity but had redefined their identities so that they could adapt to the transitions that have take place in society (Campbell, 1995).

Another interesting point that came out of this study was the fact that there was no clear articulation of a sense of Zulu group belongingness. The only group membership that featured most prominently in the interviews were family or voluntary associations like church. The lack of Zulu belongingness can be attributed to the fact that it had been significantly diluted by the availability of alternative identifications with larger multi-lingual groups (Campbell, 1995)

I have stressed in the first half of this essay that society is made up of multiple socially constructed identities which are not only established between different social groups but also within these social groups. However despite overriding evidence which supports this, people in society still seem to over emphasize on the notion of difference. As mentioned before, this tends to fix people into categories thereby denying individuals within these categories to possess other identities. In a society, like ours, which saw segregation on basis of race, gender, class, culture, age ethnicity, etc, play a major part in grouping people into different categories, it is evident that individuals in a society, such as this, still tend to be perceived by

many as being fundamentally different. Due to society tending to fix people into categories according to their race, gender, age etc, which results in classification of people into different categories, it prevents individuals from being able to understand others standpoints/ experiences. There has been much misunderstanding in the social world, concerning this issue because it is claimed that we cannot understand the thoughts, behaviours, desires, etc, of people who are said to be fundamentally different from us. There are two contradictory positions which arise from this particular issue. There are some that strongly hold on to the above notion of fixed identities arguing that we can never come to understand the ‘other’ and that only people, who share gender, race, class, culture, age, ethnicity, etc, can understand the experiences of those located in similar positions. However there are others who oppose this view. Because, as mentioned earlier, the nature of identities are described as being socially constructed, shifted and fragmented they believe that understanding the experiences of other people is dependent on individual identities rather than fixed social categories such as race, gender age etc. They argue that you need not have to share the same gender, race, class culture, age, ethnicity, and experiences, but instead be able to grasp the sense of these experiences of others, through identifying, describing and explaining it.

Funani (1992), in her article, speaks of the debate surrounding the conference on women in Africa and Africans in Diaspora, which is whether white women should be afforded the opportunity to read the proceedings of the conference. Funani (1992) points out that due to the categorization of people into groups, in particular racial groups; it results in people holding entirely different identities. The difference in the identities of black women and white women leaves a rather big gap to fill due to their experiences in life being so far apart. Funani, therefore, posits that we can never understand the experiences of ‘others’ unless we are located in similar positions to them and have shared the same experiences (Funani, 1992). She argues that the sense of an experience is only available through the experience itself. In other words “one can talk only from experience i.e. when one has lived such an experience (Funani, 1992: 54). She argues it is life, which leaves one with no choice of withdrawal. People discover the true meaning of life in terms of their acquired strength through suffering. This is why she rejects the claim by so-called white counterparts to know what black women experience because they have done research in these areas, but have little or no experience of it themselves (Funani, 1992).


She attempts to validate her arguments by mentioning that simply collecting data, analyzing it, and reporting it, is not the same as actually living through it (Funani, 1992: 54). She argues that white academics have a choice; they have a choice whether or not to research in black areas, and they have a choice to withdraw from the research situation at any time when it gets too uncomfortable or unfavourable. This is unlike the black women who are stuck in the life they are in and are unable to withdraw themselves from the situation they currently in (Funani, 1992).

She therefore strongly believes that people who have had the experience can be the only ones that truly understands and knows what it feels like to go through such an experience. In the case of a conference whereby ‘white’ women are speaking on behalf of the ‘black’ women, Funani (1992) argues strongly against it. These ‘white’ women are ill equipped, according to Funani (1992), to be in a position where they can stand up and truly depict the hardships and turmoil ‘black’ women have experienced due to these same women lacking insight or sensitivity for ‘black’ women According to Funani (1992) there is a need to establish a familiarity with the world you wishing to depict. Without this, according to Funani (1992: 56), you may well end up with an ideological position, which in the end has drastic implications for the whole of the “black world.” This strong point view put forward by Funani, reiterates the issue of how people are categorized on the basis of difference and that the gap that exists between these different groups of people, in Funani’s case whites and blacks, cannot be eradicated thereby promoting further segregation. While Funani (1992) is correct in stating that women were granted different statuses based on their race through the apartheid government, she assumes that all black women had been granted a lower status and all of them experience the same struggles. Funani’s view of society in terms of difference, according to Beall (1997), can present a danger in that the process of identifying groups of people, can solidify these identities, not allowing individuals the entitlement to other identities, interests or affiliations (Beall, 1997).

Funani’s claims that whites simply cannot speak for black woman as they are unable to understand their experiences is in vast contrast to other views on the issue. Fouche for

example, criticizes Funani for arriving at the conclusion which is basically that white women should not be allowed to participate in black women’s conference. Fouche questions Funani’s bitterness between white and black women, which she blames on the policy of Apartheid, by asking “whether in principle, the cure to apartheid can be more apartheid”, which Fouche feels Funani is suggesting (Fouche, 1993). Fouche is right in saying that while Apartheid brought about segregation, categorization and discrimination, and facilitated the creation of insensitive and patronizing white women; you can’t hide from the fact that there were some friendships and mutual respect that existed between white and black women (Fouche, 1993: 40). Therefore I have to agree with Fouche, that continuing along the same path, which is what Funani is basically claiming when she implies that there cannot be any form of communication and understanding between whites and blacks, is not the way forward.

Fouche raises a rather valid point in that Funani tends to focus her attention on the racial differences between whites and blacks, with regards to communication, but fails to recognize the difficulties of inter-class communication. There too exists a gap between the black middle class and rural women which is as great as that between the blacks and whites (Fouche, 1993: 40). According to Beall (1997) it is important to acknowledge and value difference, but one should also take into account diversity. By viewing society in terms of diversity it shows that although these women may belong to the same racial group, this does not mean that they all share similar identities and experiences. Instead there is a diverse mix of people within this racial group with regards to class, ethnicity, age, etc, who possess different identities and have different experiences (Beall, 1997). Like Fouche, Hassim and Walker (1992) mention that it is important that difference is not understood in such an inhibiting way as in racial terms. There is a need take class into account, since it is such a critical aspect of difference and that class cleavages are becoming less and less correspondent to the old familiar apartheid cleavages of race.

The view that communication between groups that are very different from each other is so difficult and therefore should be abandoned is ludicrous. Yes, as Fouche mentions, “people misunderstand or only partly understand the experiences of others, and the more different the circumstances of those others, the more likely that there is to be incomprehension” (Fouche, 1993: 40). It is also true, as Fouche mentions, no two people, no matter how close their

relationship is, can exactly live each others’ experiences. The reality is that there can never be complete “transparency,” nor is total communication possible (Fouche, 1993: 40). However this does not mean that because absolute communication between people, who are close to each other, is not possible that all attempts of communication should be abandoned. Fouche goes on to mention that although many different languages are spoken in society, it does not mean that we must stop translating. Instead she argues that the fact we experience the world through others diverse perspectives, means that we need others’ perspectives too enrich and amplify that experience (Fouche, 1993). This is why Fouche feels communication with others is important and meaningful.

The way in which some black feminists like Funani use ‘race’ can be very problematic. Many black feminists assume that any given black researcher is able to be sensitive to and understand all struggles of all black women. They believe that there is an automatic “sisterhood” among black women, based on the shared experience of oppression under apartheid (Hassim & Walker, 1992). Funani and others alike, are therefore adhering to a fixed notion of social identity which ignores personal identity within the category of ‘black women.’ As mentioned earlier, surely during the time of apartheid, there were some blacks who had benefitted from the apartheid system, such as collaborating civil servants in Bantustan bureaucracies and township councils or those who had access to resources such as education (Adam, 2000: 339). These assumptions that there was a black “sisterhood” link straight back into the kinds of criticisms that black women have been making about white women reducing black women’s experiences to a “universalizing stereotype” (Robinson, 1994: 67). Therefore class which can also be viewed as a fixed category seems to be overlooked by Funani. She fails to realize that there was not only a gap which existed between whites and blacks but also between middle class and lower class blacks.

In order for women’s studies to develop in a dynamic way, black feminist must come to realize and acknowledge that there are significant divisions among black women identities. They in turn also need to display some degree of self-reflection as they so unequivocally demand of white feminist academics (Hassim &Walker, 1992).


According to Fouche, in stark contrast to Funani, people’s experiences are not always different; there is a “commonality of human experience” (Fouche, 1993: 40). Nobody is insulated from exhaustion, discomfort, pain and the ordinary miseries people are afflicted with in their daily lives as human beings (Fouche, 1993). As human beings we can put ourselves in shoes of others and imagine the hardships, pain and suffering others experience which helps understand others circumstances a little better and enables us to unite forces with others and do our part by taking action on their behalf (Fouche, 1993)

The view that only those who belong to a particular group can understand the experiences of individuals with that particular group suggests that every group must be its own social scientist, and according to Fay (1996), this has particular appeal in world such as ours which is sensitively aware of the differences among types of people along ethnic, religious, gender, race and class lines. “Historical accounts are often used to justify or criticize particular political and social arrangements”, and therefore serve as weapons used in ideological struggles to establish one’s own particular identity (Fay, 1996:12). What is more concerning is the fact that such accounts often exemplified slanted, prejudice descriptions of particular groups or types of people. As a consequence of this undue categorization of particular groups or types of people, these same people end up wanting only their own members within the group to explain who they are, believing their own kind can truly understand their experiences, feelings and actions (Fay, 1996).

Fay (1996 seeks to find out whether those that claim “you have to be one, to know one” are valid in saying that. He comes up with some rather convincing arguments against that claim. Firstly you have to look at what is meant by the term “know” (Fay, 1996). If it is defined as having the same experience as, and the profound differences in people’s experiences is maintained, then we could agree that only people that are capable of having the same characteristic experiences as someone else can understand them (Fay, 1996: 27). Therefore anyone else who attempts to depict the lives of others is doomed to failure.

However if we consider the many publications that have depicted the lived experiences of others and have revealed in its density as well as its rationality, the above notion seems

utterly false. Fay argues that the reason for this is because there is a need to distinguish knowing from being. Knowing an experience does not mean having it. Instead it means being able to explain it in both a discursive and non-discursive manner (Fay, 1996). Thus Fay points out that “knowledge consists not in the experience itself but in grasping the sense of this experience” (Fay, 1996: 27). Knowledge is therefore not a psychic identification which only belongs to individual who had the experience, but rather an interpretive understanding, whereby knowing ourselves and others is an instance of decoding, clarifying and explicating rather than an instance of psychic union (Fay, 1996:28).

From what Fay has said above it becomes clear because “knowing is grasping meaning rather than merely experiencing, being one is neither necessary or sufficient for knowing one” (Fay, 1996: 28). It is not sufficient to be one because you can still be one but not fully understand what being one is all about. It is not necessary because you can grasp the sense of the experience even though you may be different from others and haven’t had the experience yourself (Fay, 1996).

Good research does not simply develop from common experiences, or language skills, but rather a combination of a whole host of attributes, including the ability to think critically and work rigorously. It may be said that a skilled researcher doing research on a community or individual subjects will muster some new insights as result of him/her being an outsider (Hassim & Walker, 1992).

I therefore feel it is important highlight what Robinson (1994) discusses in her essay, where mentions how the subjectivities of both the research and those being researched are “strongly implicated in the constructions and representations” which are fabricated in many texts resulting from academic research (Robinson, 1994: 73). Although the actual social location of the researcher, with regards to race, class and gender, has a definite impact on the way textual productions are shaped, we also have to consider the factors of disciplinary location and physical location during research, as wells political persuasion, personality, etc which also have an impact (Robinson, 1994).


Therefore, according to Robinson the challenge for both white and black women researchers is to ensure that they look into their own positionality with brutal honesty and recognize the implications of their positionality for their writings. In building their research, researchers need to do so with sensitivity and empathy for women whose life experiences are very different (Robinson, 1994). It is inappropriate for white women researchers to “seek authority in the political imperatives, feminism, women’s interests or non-racialism” as these imperatives heavily constrain and externally shape the way they tell the stories of women (Robinson, 1994). Yet, what is equally inappropriate is for black women to argue that can best depict authentic story of black women’s experiences by virtues of their own life experiences (Robinson, 1994).

There are three fundamental points which I have attempted to highlight in this essay. They are firstly that our identities are social in nature, hence the term social identity. Social identity is our understanding of who we are and of who others are, and reciprocally, other peoples’ understanding of themselves and others. It is a result of complex negotiations with ourselves and others. Society is a dense network of variably durable interactions and relationships, which are differentiated and organized across groups and institutions and tied to broad structures of society for example, gender, race, class, etc. people have multiple identities that have relevance to the different social networks that they are embedded in. These identities have variable salience that influences the likelihood of an identity being evoked in a given situation. What I wanted to stress the most in the first point, is that individuals’ social identities are not fixed but rather fluid as they are socially constructed and subject to change whereby they are constantly undergoing redefinition. There exists a multiplicity of identities within society not only between groups but also within groups. The second point I put across in this essay is that unfortunately societies, such as ours, which have been plagued by segregation, have come to focus too much on difference. This has resulted in individuals being grouped into various categories, whether it is based on race, class, ethnicity, age, etc, thereby fixing people into a single group identity. This does not allow for individuals to be seen as possessing a myriad of fluid identities. As an added result of this classification of people into categories, it prevents individuals from being able to understand others experiences. This is because many black feminists like Funani, who strongly hold onto the


latter notion of identity, argue that we can never come to understand the ‘other’ and that only people, who share gender, race, class, age, etc, can understand the experiences of those located in similar positions. The third and final point is that identifying with others from a diverse range of categories like race, gender, ethnicity, age, class, and culture, does not require one to be part of that particular social group and share the same experiences as a prerequisite to understanding others life experiences. No one can say they have shared the same experience, because we all possess different identities which influence our experiences. Understanding others’ experiences is instead dependent on how one is able to grasp a sense of the experience. Just because individuals do not share the same experiences does mean we should abandoned the communication of these experiences with others. Communicating our experiences with others helps enrich and amplify our understanding of others’ experiences. There is a need for researchers, black or white, to be more reflexive with regards to their own positionality within the research. By allowing the categorization of people into different groups to prevent communication of people’s experiences across all categories and failing to acknowledge the implications of their positionality society will ultimately be left in a stagnant pool of conflict, one which they will be unable to get out of.



Adam, A (2000). “The Colour of Business: managing diversity in South Africa”. Basel; P Schlettwein Publishing

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Beall, Jo (ed) (1997) “A City for All: Valuing Difference and Working with Diversity” London: Zed Campbell, C (1993) ‘”Identity and Difference” Agenda 19 Campbell, C; Marè, G; Walker, C (1995) “Evidence for an ethnic identity in the life histories of Zulu-speaking Durban township residents,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 21(2).

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Fay, Brian (1996) “Contemporary Philosophy of Social Science” Oxford: Blackwell Fouche, Fidela (1993) “Nigerian Conference Revisited”, Agenda, 19 Funani, Lumka (1992)”Nigerian Conference Revisited”, Agenda, 16 Goffman, Erving (1959) “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, Doubleday: Garden City, New York

Hassim, Shireen & Cheryl Walker (1992) “Women’s Studies and the Women’s Movement” Transformation, 18/19

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Jenkins, R (1996) Social Identity, London: Routledge. [chapters 1, 4]. Robinson, Jennifer (1994) “White Women Researching/Representing Others: From Antiapartheid to Postcolonialism”, in Alison Blunt and Gilian Rose (eds) Writing, Women and Space, New York: Guilford Press



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