The Contingency of Identity


Claude Steele, in his book Whistling Vivaldi (2010), brilliantly narrates his 30+ year journey as a social psychologist researching identity and stereotype threat. He explains “identity contingencies” as the situational conditions because of one’s social identity and their effects on, particularly, educational access and academic performance. Here are two excerpts:

Identity contingencies—the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity . . . Contingencies are circumstances you have to deal with in order to get what you want or need in a situation. . . . Ours is an individualistic society. We don’t like to think that conditions tied to our social identities have much say in our lives, especially if we don’t want them to. . . . By imposing on us certain conditions of life, our social identities can strongly affect things as important as our performances in the classroom and on standardized tests, our memory capacity, our athletic performance, the pressure we feel to prove ourselves, even the comfort level we have with people of different groups—all things we typically think of as being determined by individual talents, motivations, and preferences. [My purpose] is to bring this poorly understand part of social reality into view. I hope to convince you that ignoring it—allowing our creed of individualism, for example, to push it into the shadows—is costly, to our own personal success and development, to the quality of life in an identity-diverse society and world, and to our ability to fix some of the bad ways identity still influences the distribution of outcomes in society. How do identity contingencies influence us? Some constrain our behavior down on the ground, like restricted access to a public swimming pool. Others, just as powerful, influence us more subtly, not by constraining behavior on the ground but by putting a threat in the air.” p. 3-5

“People, though capable of independent choice, do have a location in society; their lives are located somewhere in its social, economic, and cultural structures and in the networks of relationship that make up society. Being born into a low-income Appalachian family in the hills of eastern Kentucky is to take life on from a different location in society’s opportunity structure than being born into a high-income family in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Different locations afford people different resources, different access to the “social capital” of skills, knowledge, opportunities, and life chances.” p. 196, (emphasis mine)

Thank you, Dr. Steele.



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