Social identity groups are based on the physical, social, and mental characteristics of individuals. We are all members of multiple social identity groups, such as: (dis)ability status, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. The definitions and implications of belonging to a particular social identity group can change over time, as each sociohistorical period shapes the ways in which specific social identities are understood, reinforced, and used to create (or maintain) divisions or connections between people (Hall, 2011). Though the concept of social identities is a construct developed by humans, there is an abundance of research demonstrating that social identities have real impacts on how we understand ourselves and also how others perceive and interact with us (e.g., Hogg, 2016; Spears, 2011 for reviews). 

Intergroup Dialogue Project (IDP) offers participants opportunities to better understand their own social identities, learn more about other people’s lived experience with social identity, and develop skills to connect across social identity differences.

Intrapersonal Understanding

Understanding social identity is a process that can unfold throughout one’s entire life. Self-identification, or an awareness that one belongs to a specific social identity group, is frequently an early part of this development process (e.g., Calzo et al., 2012; Steensma et al., 2013). This is often followed by a period of exploration or learning more about the behaviors, attitudes, and traditions associated with being a member of a particular social group (e.g., Dillon et al., 2011) and how the group is perceived by others (e.g., Rogers & Way, 2016). 

IDP’s workshops with students, staff, and faculty provide ample opportunities for beginning or deepening this kind of identity exploration; even after one three-hour-long session, a majority of workshop participants reported seeing their own identities in a more complex, nuanced way. A session like this can yield concrete insights, such as these takeaways described by two undergraduate workshop participants: “I learned how influential my social identities are with respect to how I experience the world compared to others” and “While it is important to understand and empathize differences in social identities while interacting with people around, it is just as much important acknowledge your privileges in order to have a truly rich interaction.”
Given the short duration of IDP workshops, participants begin conversations that are not neatly resolved in one session. Fortunately, survey responses suggest that participants feel excited to continue exploring identity-related issues on their own, with a majority of participants indicating that their workshop with IDP made them feel more interested in trying to understand their own identities. Some participants imagine this ongoing work will be focused on specific identities (“I learned that I need to do more research into issues affecting certain identities that I think less about,” wrote one undergraduate workshop participant), and others anticipate thinking about social identity’s impact on different contexts (“Continue to think about how different social identities affect the workplace and how I as a supervisor can listen, support, and foster an environment where people can communicate and work through differences,” wrote one staff workshop participant).

Interpersonal Understanding

Individuals learn about people who have different social identities from sources as varied as personal interactions, media, and explicit or implied messages conveyed in families, schools, religious institutions, and cultures (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Harro, 2010). IDP’s Orientation sessions give incoming undergraduate students an opportunity to question the things they’ve learned about “others.” A majority of participants reported that they felt more capable of recognizing assumptions they made about other people and they were thinking about other people in a more complex, nuanced way following their Orientation session. One first-year student described the exciting potential inherent in this kind of learning: “I learned that people with very different backgrounds from my own can have startlingly similar experiences to mine that can serve as a conduit for more meaningful connections.” 

The transition to a university context is full of opportunities to meet new people and learn from the experiences of others, making this openness to and genuine curiosity about people who belong to different social identity groups particularly relevant for incoming students. “It is very easy to judge people quickly when meeting a lot of new people at once,” wrote one undergraduate Orientation participant, “but I think acknowledging that everyone is more nuanced than our assumptions would lead us to believe is quite important.”

Understanding Social Identities in Context

Frequently, social identity development processes lead individuals to cultivate a sense of clarity about what each identity means for them and how they move through the world (e.g., Bussey, 2011; Destin et al., 2012; Rogers & Way, 2016, Umaña-Taylor et al., 2004; Worthington et al., 2008). IDP’s semester-long course for undergraduate students enables participants to make connections between their own experience of social identity and the societal messages that have shaped their understanding of themselves and others. At the end of the course, students’ survey results indicated that they were thinking significantly more about (dis)ability, gender, race, and socioeconomic status. This reflects a recognition of intersectionality, or the extent to which social identities and the concomitant systems of power, privilege, and oppression that are linked to them, work in combination to shape our experiences (e.g., Crenshaw, 1989). “[This course] enforced the idea of intersectionality and make [sic] me reevaluate previous ideas I had about the role of the identities in my life,” wrote one student, underscoring how cultural norms that treat social identities as discrete and disconnected from each other can skew our understanding of intersecting social identities. 

After a lifetime of learning about social identities in a societal context that often fails to acknowledge intersectionality and also links these identities to stereotypes, students in EDUC 2610 often gain an understanding of the incomplete and biased nature of their prior knowledge about social identities. In a world with historical and ongoing injustices, stereotypes, and discrimination based on social identities, there are plenty of opportunities for people to be exposed to false narratives about individuals who belong to different social identity groups (e.g., Pincus, 2000; Steele, 2010). One student, describing what they learned in this course, wrote, “There are a lot of sterotypes [sic] and unconcious [sic] biases that are embedded in me because of the culture I grew up in, and it’s going to take more work to rid myself of those.” 

That work continues beyond this semester, and overall students seem excited to continue sharing and learning about social identities as indicated by significant increases in their reported likelihood of sharing information about their social identities with others and also seeking out media about social identities. This eagerness includes learning about their own identities (“Educate myself more on identities and possibly resolve or truly understand the internal conflicts that have arisen as a result of the intersection of my identities” ) and others’ (“I want to be more intentional about learning about the social injustices of those in social identities groups that are different from mine.”).