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Identity Labels and Categories

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    Identity shapes our perceptions and the way we categorize people. Our individual and collective views influence our thinking. Regardless of personal, cultural, or universal identity people naturally focus on traits, values, behaviors, and practices or behaviors they identify with and have a tendency to dismiss those they do not.

    Age Cohorts

    Our numeric ranking of age is associated with particular cultural traits. Even the social categories we assign to age express cultural characteristics of that age group or cohort. Age signifies one’s cultural identity and social status (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Many of the most common labels we use in society signify age categories and attributes. For example, the terms “newborns and infants “generally refer to children from birth to age four, whereas “school-age children” signifies youngsters old enough to attend primary school.

    Each age range has social and cultural expectations placed upon by others (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). We have limited social expectations of newborns, but we expect infants to develop some language skills and behaviors like “potty training” or the practice of controlling bowel movements. Even though cultural expectations by age vary across other social categories (e.g., gender, geography, ethnicity, etc.), there are universal stages and understanding of intellectual, personal, and social development associated with each age range or cohort.

    Throughout a person’s life course, they will experience and transition across different cultural phases and stages. Life course is the period from one’s birth to death (Griffiths et al. 2015). Each stage in the life course aligns with age-appropriate values, beliefs, norms, expressive language, practices, and artifacts. Like other social categories, age can be a basis of social ranking (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Society finds it perfectly acceptable for a baby or infant to wear a diaper but considers it a taboo or fetish among an adult 30 years old. However, diaper wearing becomes socially acceptable again as people age into senior years of life when biological functions become harder to control. This is also an illustration of how people will experience more than one age-based status during their lifetime.

    Aging is a human universal (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Maneuvering life’s course is sometimes challenging. Cultural socialization occurs throughout the life course. Learning the cultural traits and characteristics needed at certain stages of life is important for developing self-identity and group acceptance. People engage in anticipatory socialization to prepare for future life roles or expectations (Griffiths et al. 2015). By engaging in social interactions with other people, we learn the cultural traits, characteristics, and expectations in preparation for the next phase or stage of life. Thinking back to “potty training” infants, parents and caregivers teach young children to control bowel movements so they are able to urinate and defecate in socially appropriate settings (i.e., restroom or outhouse) and times.

    Generations have collective identity or shared experiences based on the time-period the group lived. Consider the popular culture of the 1980s to today. In the 1980s, people used a landline or fixed line phone rather than a cellular phone to communicate and went to a movie theater to see a film rather than downloaded a video to a mobile device. Therefore, someone who spent his or her youth and most of their adulthood without or with limited technology may not deem it necessary to have or operate it in daily life. Whereas, someone born in the 1990s or later will only know life with technology and find it a necessary part of human existence.

    Each generation develops a perspective and cultural identify from the time and events surrounding their life. Generations experience life differently resulting from cultural and social shifts over time. The difference in life experience alters perspectives towards values, beliefs, norms, expressive symbols, practices, and artifacts. Political and social events often mark an era and influence generations. The ideology of white supremacy reinforced by events of Nazi Germany and World War II during the 1930s and 1940s instilled racist beliefs in society. Many adults living at this time believed the essays of Arthur Gobineau (1853-1855) regarding the existence of biologically differences between racial groups (Biddis 1970). It was not until the 1960s and 1970s when philosophers and critical theorists studied the underlying structures in cultural products and used analytical concepts from linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and sociology to interpret race discovering no biological or phenological variances between human groups and finding race is a social construct (Black and Solomos 2000). Scientists found cultural likeness did not equate to biological likeness. Nonetheless, many adults living in the 1930s and 1940s held racial beliefs of white supremacy throughout their lives because of the ideologies spread and shared during their lifetime. Whereas, modern science verifies the DNA of all people living today is 99.9% alike and a new generation of people are learning that there is only one human race despite the physical variations in size, shape, skin tone, and eye color (Smithsonian 2018).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Photo of Two Men Wearing Coats. (CC BY 4.0; Tojo Tantely).

    Because there are diverse cultural expectations based on age, there can be conflict between age cohorts and generations. Age stratification theorists suggest that members of society are classified and have social status associated to their age (Riley, Johnson, and Foner 1972). Conflict often develops from age associated cultural differences influencing social and economic power of age groups. For example, the economic power of working adults conflicts with the political and voting power of the retired or elderly.

    Age and generational conflicts are also highly influenced by government or state-sponsored milestones. In the United States, there are several age-related markers including the legal age of driving (16 years old), use of tobacco products (21 years old), consumption of alcohol ( 21 years old), and age of retirement (65-70 years old). Regardless of knowledge, skill, or condition, people must abide by formal rules with the expectations assigned to the each age group within the law. Because age serves as a basis of social control and reinforced by the state, different age groups have varying access to political and economic power and resources (Griffiths et al. 2015). For example, the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not respect the abilities of the elderly by assigning a marker of 65-70 years old as the indicator for someone to become a dependent of the state and an economically unproductive member of society.

    Sex and Gender

    Each of us is born with physical characteristics that represent and socially assign our sex and gender. Sex refers to our biological differences and gender the cultural traits assigned to females and males (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Our physical make-up distinguishes our sex as either female or male implicating the gender socialization process we will experience throughout our life associated with becoming a woman or man.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Portrait of Young Man. (Public Domain; Pixabay).

    Gender identity is an individual’s self-concept of being female or male and their association with feminine and masculine qualities. People teach gender traits based on sex or biological composition (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Our sex signifies the gender roles (i.e., psychological, social, and cultural) we will learn and experience as a member of society. Children learn gender roles and acts of sexism in society through socialization (Griffiths et al. 2015). Girls learn feminine qualities and characteristics and boys masculine ones forming gender identity. Children become aware of gender roles between the ages of two and three and by four to five years old, they are fulfilling gender roles based on their sex (Griffiths et al. 2015). Nonetheless, gender-based characteristics do not always match one’s self or cultural identity as people grow and develop.


    1. Why do people need and use gender labels?
    2. Why do people create gender roles or expectations?
    3. Do gender labels and roles influence limitations on individuals or the social world? Explain.

    Gender stratification focuses on the unequal access females have to socially valued resources, power, prestige, and personal freedom as compared to men based on differing positions within the socio-cultural hierarchy (Light, Keller, and Calhoun 1997). Traditionally, society treats women as second-class citizens in society. The design of dominant gender ideologies and inequality maintains the prevailing social structure, presenting male privilege as part of the natural order (Parenti 2006). Theorists suggests society is a male dominated patriarchy where men think of themselves as inherently superior to women resulting in unequal distribution of rewards between men and women (Henslin 2011).

    Media portrays women and men in stereotypical ways that reflect and sustain socially endorsed views of gender (Wood 1994). Media affects the perception of social norms including gender. People think and act according to stereotypes associated with one’s gender broadcast by media (Goodall 2016). Media stereotypes reinforce gender inequality of girls and women. According to Wood (1994), the underrepresentation women in media implies that men are the cultural standard and women are unimportant or invisible. Stereotypes of men in media display them as independent, driven, skillful, and heroic lending them to higher-level positions and power in society.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Man in Brown Long Sleeved Button Up Shirt Standing While Using Gray Laptop Computer on Brown
    Wooden Table Beside Woman in Gray Long Sleeved Shirt Sitting. (Public Domain;

    In countries throughout the world, including the United States, women face discrimination in wages, occupational training, and job promotion (Parenti 2006). As a result, society tracks girls and women into career pathways that align with gender roles and match gender-linked aspirations such as teaching, nursing, and human services (Henslin 2011). Society views men’s work as having higher value than that of women. Even if women have the same job as men, they make 77 cents per every dollar in comparison (Griffiths et al. 2015). Inequality in career pathways, job placement, and promotion or advancement result in an income gap between genders effecting the buying power and economic vitality of women in comparison to men.

    The United Nations found prejudice and violence against women are firmly rooted in cultures around the world (Parenti 2006). Gender inequality has allowed men to harness and abuse their social power. The leading cause of injury among women of reproductive age is domestic violence, and rape is an everyday occurrence and seen as a male prerogative throughout many parts of the world (Parenti 2006). Depictions in the media emphasize male dominant roles and normalize violence against women (Wood 1994). Culture plays an integral role in establishing and maintaining male dominance in society ascribing men the power and privilege that reinforces subordination and oppression of women.

    Cross-cultural research shows gender stratification decreases when women and men make equal contributions to human subsistence or survival (Sanday 1974). Since the industrial revolution, attitudes about gender and work have been evolving with the need for women and men to contribute to the labor force and economy. Gendered work, attitudes, and beliefs have transformed in responses to American economic needs (Margolis 1984, 2000). Today’s society is encouraging gender flexibility resulting from cultural shifts among women seeking college degrees, prioritizing career, and delaying marriage and childbirth.


    Your task is to find the ten words on the sex-role inventory trait list below that are most often culturally associated with each of the following labels and categories: femininity, masculinity, wealth, poverty, President, teacher, mother, father, minister, or athlete. Write down the label or category and ten terms to compare your lists with other students.

    1. self-reliant
    2. yielding
    3. helpful
    4. defends own beliefs
    5. cheerful
    6. moody
    7. independent
    8. shy
    9. conscientious
    10. athletic
    11. affectionate
    12. theatrical
    13. assertive
    14. flatterable
    15. happy
    16. strong personality
    17. loyal
    18. unpredictable
    19. forceful
    20. feminine
    21. reliable
    22. analytical
    23. sympathetic
    24. jealous
    25. leadership ability
    26. sensitive to other's needs
    27. truthful
    28. willing to take risks
    29. understanding
    30. secretive
    31. makes decisions easily
    32. compassionate
    33. sincere
    34. self-sufficient
    35. eager to soothe hurt feelings
    36. conceited
    37. dominant
    38. soft-spoken
    39. likable
    40. masculine
    41. warm
    42. solemn
    43. willing to take a stand
    44. tender
    45. friendly
    46. aggressive
    47. gullible
    48. inefficient
    49. act as leader
    50. childlike
    51. adaptable
    52. individualistic
    53. does not use harsh
    54. unsystematic
    55. competitive
    56. loves children
    57. tactful
    58. ambitious
    59. gentle
    60. conventional

    Compare your results with other students in the class and answer the following questions:

    1. What are the trait similarities and commonalities between femininity, masculinity, wealth, poverty, President, teacher, mother, father, minister, and athlete?
    2. How are masculinity and femininity used as measures of conditions and vocations?

    Sexuality and Sexual Orientation

    Sexuality is an inborn person’s capacity for sexual feelings (Griffiths et al. 2015). Normative standards about sexuality are different throughout the world. Cultural codes prescribe sexual behaviors as legal, normal, deviant, or pathological (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). In the United States, people have restrictive attitudes about premarital sex, extramarital sex, and homosexuality compared to other industrialized nations (Griffiths et al. 2015). The debate on sex education in U.S. schools focuses on abstinence and contraceptive curricula. In addition, people in the U.S. have restrictive attitudes about women and sex, believing men have more urges and therefore it is more acceptable for them to have multiple sexual partners than women setting a double standard.

    Sexual orientation is a biological expression of sexual desire or attraction (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Culture sets the parameters for sexual norms and habits. Enculturation dictates and controls social acceptance of sexual expression and activity. Eroticism like all human activities and preferences, is learned and malleable (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Sexual orientation labels categorize personal views and representations of sexual desire and activities. Most people ascribe and conform to the sexual labels constructed and assigned by society (i.e., heterosexual or desire for the opposite sex, homosexual or attraction to the same sex, bisexual or appeal to both sexes, and asexual or lack of sexual attraction and indifference).

    The projection of one’s sexual personality is often through gender identity. Most people align their sexual disposition with what is socially or publically appropriate (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Because sexual desire or attraction is inborn, people within the socio-sexual dominant group (i.e., heterosexual) often believe their sexual preference is “normal.” However, heterosexual fit or type is not normal. History has documented diversity in sexual preference and behavior since the dawn of human existence (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). There is diversity and variance in people’s libido and psychosocial relationship needs. Additionally, sexual activity or fantasy does not always align to sexual orientation (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Sexual pleasure from use of sexual toys, homoerotic images, or kinky fetishes do not necessarily correspond to a specific orientation, sexual label, or mean someone’s desire will alter or convert to another type because of the activity. Regardless, society uses sexual identity as an indicator of status dismissing the fact that sexuality is a learned behavior, flexible, and contextual (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). People feel and display sexual variety, erotic impulses, and sensual expressions throughout their lives.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Photo of Women Facing Each Other. I (CC BY 4.0; Brett Sayles).

    Individuals develop sexual understanding around middle childhood and adolescence (APA 2008). There is no genetic, biological, developmental, social, or cultural evidence linked to homosexual behavior. The difference is in society’s discriminatory response to homosexuality. Alfred Kinsley was the first to identify sexuality is a continuum rather than a dichotomy of gay or straight (Griffiths et al. 2015). His research showed people do not necessarily fall into the sexual categories, behaviors, and orientations constructed by society. Eve Kosofky Sedgwick (1990) expanded on Kinsley’s research to find women are more likely to express homosocial relationships such as hugging, handholding, and physical closeness. Whereas, men often face negative sanctions for displaying homosocial behavior.

    Society ascribes meaning to sexual activities (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Variance reflects the cultural norms and sociopolitical conditions of a time and place. Since the 1970s, organized efforts by LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning) activists have helped establish a gay culture and civil rights (Herdt 1992). Gay culture provides social acceptance for persons rejected, marginalized, and punished by others because of sexual orientation and expression. Queer theorists are reclaiming the derogatory label to help in broadening the understanding of sexuality as flexible and fluid (Griffiths et al. 2015). Sexual culture is not necessarily subject to sexual desire and activity, but rather dominant affinity groups linked by common interests or purpose to restrict and control sexual behavior.

    This page titled Identity Labels and Categories is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vera Kennedy.