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Social Identities, Power and Privilege
In the community setting, service-learning students will interact with people from
many different backgrounds.
1. Of or relating to human society, especially as a body divided into classes according
to status: social rank.
2. Of or relating to the life, welfare, and relations of human beings in a community: social problems.
1. The condition of being oneself or itself, and not another: He began to
doubt his own identity.
2. Condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is; the qualities, beliefs, etc., that distinguish or identify a person or thing: a case of mistaken identity; someone’s gender identity; immigrants with strong ethnic identities.
If identity refers to the qualities that make someone who they are, then a social identity refers to the aspects of someone that are formed in relation to the society of which they are a part. Social identities describe the socially constructed groups that are present in specific environments within human societies.
Social Construct 3
A concept or perception of something based on the collective views developed and maintained within a society or social group; a social phenomenon, mechanism, category, or convention originating within and cultivated by society or a particular social group through social practice, as opposed to existing inherently or naturally; a social mechanism, phenomenon, or category created and developed by society
Our individual identities answer questions about who we are and from where we derive our sense of self. We gain a sense of identity from our characteristics, experiences, interests, and social context.
It’s important to remember that these identity categories are not naturally occurring - rather, they are a socially constructed response to variation or difference. They are given meaning and power by the people who make up a society.
1Adapted from the following sources: Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “social,” accessed June 10, 2022, http://www.merriam-webster.com.
2Adapted from the following sources: Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “identity,” accessed June 10, 2022, http://www.merriam-webster.com.
3Oxford Living Dictionaries: English, s.v. "social construct," accessed June 10, 2022, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com
Ability status: the interaction between one’s physical or mental embodiment and normative social expectations of the human body. For example, the expectation that all people walk produces built environments (like stairs) that disable people who move through the world differently.
Social Class/Socioeconomic status: refers to an individual’s access to resources including wealth, connections, and pedigree
Race: the social construction of human phenotypes based on history and skin color
Ethnicity: real or perceived differences within a large group, for examples of differences of religion or culture
Sex: determined by complex relationship of genes, hormones and anatomy; refers to the biological features of humans such as penis, vagina, breasts etc.
Gender: the different social interpretations of sex; refers to both one’s own internal sense of masculinity, femininity (gender identity) and the way one practices, behaves, and presents that identity (gender expression)
Sexuality: It includes sexual feelings, thoughts, any attractions, preferences and sometimes behavior.
Religion/Spirituality: One’s connection to a religious affiliation, faith community, or spiritual practice.
Tribal/Indigenous Affiliation: membership in or familial ties to existing or historical tribe, tribal nation, nation, or other indigenous group.
Age: the period of time that someone has been alive, also life stage (child, young adult, adult, middle-aged elder, etc.)
Citizenship: the status of being a citizen; citizenship confers the right to live, work, vote, and pay taxes in a given country
How are social identities relevant to community engagement work?
When we interact with people who are different from us, as is often the case in community engagement, these differences can manifest in two major ways:
- Social identities inform our perceptions of ourselves.
- Social identities inform our interactions with others.
Privilege in Community Engagement
It’s important to be aware of privilege in community engagement work for a number of reasons:
Understanding privilege means understanding that others have very different life experiences than you.
Just like our social identities, our privileges can affect our perceptions and interactions.
- Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to discussion idenity, power, and privilege
Contact the CCE
Contact the Center for Community Engagement to learn more about social power and the role it plays in community engagement. Compounded with considerations about social identities and privilege, we can offer some ways strong partnerships acknowledge challenges and work to address them. The Academic Community Engagement Coordinator can suggest class activities, further reading, and potential next steps for you and your students. Contact email@example.com
Lin, C., Schmidt, C, Tryon, E., & Stoecker, R. (2009). Service learning in context:
The challenge of diversity. In R. Stoecker & E. A. Tryon (Eds.), The unheard
voices: Community organizations and service learning (pp. 116-135). Philadelphia,
PA: Temple University Press.