Social identity in poverty

Jim Wood writes.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the articles from David Robson and Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington in the July/August edition. The analyses of factors influencing the choices people make when in poverty help to clarify underlying aspects of the lived experience of poverty that many decision makers in services simply have not got their heads around. How personal agency is dominated by the stress of the tensions posed by what their money should be spent on is evident and for me goes back to some very rudimentary elements of self and identity.

While being a relatively older perspective I still find that self-concept and how it interacts with the more recent formulation of an individual’s social identity has power as a basis for understanding the behavioural choices made by those in poverty. At different times in my very varied working life I was aware of the dilemmas faced by many people with little income. In retirement I was a ‘debt adviser’ for a while, and directly saw how the sense of self and identity impacted the decision making process and choices made. For example, buying a large screen TV makes a statement about your access to high value goods even if the choice makes another part of life more difficult. In another situation the need to be part of a family where many Christmas presents were exchanged conflicted with a young couple’s deep desire to find a way into a life without the challenge of indebtedness. Yet their self-concepts struggled to internalise a sense of personal behaviour that could surmount familial ties, their rationale being ‘That is how it is in our families, it’s what we are, what we do’. They chose to remain in significant debt.

Most of us will experience stress and how it can freeze the capacity to think clearly. For those with limited psychological and emotional resources in poverty the clearest route out of the conflict inherent in such choices and decisions was, I noted, reflected in a strong tendency for the ‘pull’ of being viewed as part of a group or community, however this might be defined by the individuals themselves. This comes as a result from that want to align self-perception with an identity as an accepted part of a group or society. This is a tension between acting in your own best interests versus behaving according to what you are interested in. The desire to be seen as of ‘worth’ somehow and to feel part of the ordinary community becomes an attraction to prefer what best serves their perceived interests in maintaining a certain social identity and personal self-concept despite the risks of indebtedness.

Jim Wood
Retired Educational Psychologist, Ottery St Mary, Devon

Illustration: Tim Sanders

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber