Identity and Belonging Themes and Ideas

“Exploring Issues of Identity and Belonging” is one of four contexts that students may study within the “creating and presenting” section of the VCAA English Study Design. There are four texts for Identity and Belonging, of which schools choose two:

The context of Identity and Belonging is broad and can be approached in a number of ways. This article covers some of the “big ideas” that students will need to understand to respond effectively to prompts.

Note that one of the greatest difficulties with this context is remembering that any question, whether it refers to both “identity” and “belonging” or only one, expects you to acknowledge both components regardless. For example, prompts that mention how either belonging or identity require sacrifices, does not relate to general sacrifices, but to those specific to the opposite concept.

Identity is important

How we behave and our ability to relate to things and people around us is based on our sense of identity. Even people who feel “lost” or are attempting to find themselves have an identity, albeit not a fully developed one.

While identity is heavily influenced by our childhoods it is important not to think of this as something static, but as something which shifts over time with our experiences and process of maturation.

Multiple identities

Our identity may be seen to change in different contexts. For example, the person you represent yourself to be to your parents may be different than the one your friends or partner see. This may be a matter of “false” personalities to belong to more than one group, but it can also represent a distinct shift in how we present ourselves to others and perhaps correspondingly, think about our own identities. Whether or not the core of one’s identity remains the same despite these multiple representations of self is another point to be considered.

Belonging is important

In the same way that identity is important on its own, a sense of belonging is central to the human condition. The urge to belong is innate, stemming from our ancestry and is a source of safety and security. Even now, we are made more vulnerable by living separately from a group.

The groups we belong to change over time and this is important to our ability to grow and mature. Both the groups we associate with and the ones we idolize and are rejected from are significant forces on our lives.

How is identity formed?

There are many different factors that contribute to the development of our particular sense of self. Significant factors to consider include:

  • Upbringing – how we were raised and by whom
  • Past experiences
  • Gender
  • Race/nationality
  • Culture
  • Age/maturity
  • Education/intelligence/job
  • Socio-economic group
  • Religion
  • Beliefs/values
  • The groups we belong to
  • The people we admire

Each of these factors can play a significant role in shaping how we think about ourselves and identify to others.

Identity influences belonging

Our senses of identity and belonging are entirely interlinked. Often, our sense of self dictates who we wish to associate with; such as people who share our values or beliefs. While there are some groups we cannot choose, such as our families and often communities, we can choose our friends and partners, allowing for our identity to exercise power over our sense of belonging.

Belonging influences identity

The relationship between identity and belonging goes both ways. The groups we belong to, or even those that we want to belong to but are rejected from, influence how we see ourselves. Some groups demand a level of conformity, and require us to sacrifice a part of our identity in order to belong. Furthermore, gaining a relationship with others may assist in shifting our beliefs and give us new experiences, which in turn influence our identity.

Perhaps even more obviously, all of us are born into a group to belong to (at least to some extent). Our families and communities are not chosen groups, but one that we inherently belong to from birth which influences our sense of identity from a young age.

Another point to consider is if it is the urge to belong or the actual process of belonging that influences identity. The desire to belong can encourage us to relinquish elements of our identity or to abandon other groups we had previously belonged to. On the other hand, belonging to a group can influence our identity by creating new experiences that are specific to those people.

Identity changes

There are many ways identity can change, or be seen to change. As we grow older, have more experiences and form new connections with others, our identity may shift.

As we grow older, we gain wisdom and new experiences that can influence the way we think about ourselves. Identity is not static, but shifts and transforms with us. This change in our internal world in turn influences the way we see the world around us. Children and adults do not often share perspectives because as we age we are more likely to approach a situation with cynicism, or with the knowledge gained by past experiences.

Identity and belonging contradict each other

Beyond suggestions that one concept or the other requires the sacrifice of the opposite, we must consider if identity and belonging are actually mutually incompatible ideas. Undeniably both of these senses alter how we experience the other, but they also place irreconcilable demands on our psyche. If we accept that identity is what makes us different and belonging is what makes us the same, then we acknowledge this basic contradiction. This contradiction is a tough one as both concepts are obviously important in our lives.