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Social Identities, Power and Privilege

In the community setting, service-learning students will interact with people from many different backgrounds. 

Social 1


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. 

Identity 2 


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,

2Adapted from the following sources: Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “identity,” accessed June 10, 2022,

3Oxford Living Dictionaries: English, s.v. "social construct," accessed June 10, 2022, 

  • 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. 
In our social world, the personal and social identities we hold create dynamics when we engage with others. In our community engagement experiences, we might engage with people who are similar and different from us in various ways. Understanding the dynamics of power that we operate in can help us to work better with others to meet the goals of our projects or interactions.  

Privilege refers to unearned advantages that individuals may have in some settings, based on the socio-cultural makeup of the environment.

Activity: Privilege for Sale 
Article: Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12.]

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.  

External Links

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

Further Reading

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.