If differences on the basis of gender, ethnicity and disability are socially constructed, how should people view their identities, for example as men, or disabled people, or people of African–Caribbean origin? Where do such identities come from, and how useful are they in explaining people's experience of communication in care services?
Foucault’s ideas about changing discourses, and the ways in which they construct people's view of the world, can be applied to issues of ethnicity and gender. The dynamic and fluid nature of ethnic and gender categories is apparent even in the language and terminology used to describe people. Think, for example, about the different labels that have been used to describe black people of Caribbean heritage living in the UK over the past 50 years, and about the different meanings attached to those labels. Terms such as ‘Negro’, ‘coloured’, ‘West Indian’, ‘black’ and ‘African–Caribbean’ have different connotations. Firstly, each term has included and excluded different sets of people. ‘West Indian’ implicitly excluded people from Caribbean countries that had not been British colonies, for example, while ‘coloured’ and ‘black’ were also applied at various times to people of African and Asian origin. Some terms referred to skin colour, others to national or geographical origin. Some terms had strongly negative connotations, or their connotations changed over time. Moreover, the terms had different meanings for different people. Avtar Brah describes how the term ‘black’, which was originally pejorative, was taken up and used as a source of pride and as a political identity. It was also assumed for political reasons for a time by people of Asian, Turkish and Arab origin resident in the UK (Brah, 1992). More recently, and as a result of complex political and cultural processes, religion has played a greater part in the ways in which both society classifies people and people identify themselves. So in some contexts the term ‘Muslim’ now assumes greater importance than other ‘ethnic’ classifications, such as Asian, Arab or North African, with which it intersects.
These examples point to the contextual nature of identities. Another example of this is how different identities become important for people in different settings, as you will see when issues of ethnicity are explored later. Stuart Hall, a leading writer on issues of culture and identity, suggests that the word ‘identifications’ is preferable to the term ‘identities’, reflecting a view that identity is a process rather than something fixed and unchanging (Hall, 2000). Furthermore, assuming an identity takes place in a social context. As Hall makes clear, the identities that people take on always come with a history and are to some extent ‘given’ by society, although people may attribute different meanings to them.
The next activity is an opportunity to reflect on your own social identities, and the meanings they have for you.