Identity Construction in Sociohistorical Context

  • Ian BurkittEmail author


The goal of this chapter is to trace the historical roots of the modern Western sense of identity as constituted by the possession of an ‘inner’ self. In contrast to other authors who have traced this notion to Puritanism and Romanticism, or to the Scottish Enlightenment, I begin with the Greco-Roman conception of persona, focusing on the way this concept indicated both self as mask or public presentation and self as the true nature of the individual. This was expanded with the Stoic idea of self-mastery through moderation as a route to self-improvement. I then argue that the tension between self as public persona and self as a private possession grew in the sixteenth century under the influence of the humanist movement. In particular, Erasmus was the first to employ the theatrical metaphor of the world as a stage with all the people on it playing their parts. Erasmus also reinterpreted the Stoic ideal of self-mastery at a time when social controls were moving away from external forces onto the individual psychological plane, so that people were expected to control themselves. In yet a different power structure during the eighteenth century, Adam Smith reinterpreted Stoicism in the context of a commercial capitalist economy, emphasising how we shape our own behaviour by seeing ourselves as we imagine others do. This sets the scene for the different views of self and identity found in psychology today, particularly in symbolic interactionism.


Sixteenth Century Public Life Identity Construction Public Role Impartial Spectator 
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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social Sciences and HumanitiesUniversity of BradfordBradfordUK

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