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Richard N. Pitt

Associate Professor of Sociology,
University of California, San Diego

How do people derive social identities and defend themselves as credible holders in the (seeming) absence of conventional or confirming evidence of those identities?

I am interested in “category polluters,” or people who stake a strong claim to a social category in some conventional ways, but “dirty it up” by not being able to fully embrace all of its conventions. Many social scientists believe the social world operates on Goffman’s “systems of enabling conventions,” in that we understand each other and ourselves based on the normative consensus of the idealized performances of identities. This tendency is fundamental to our capacity to “know one when we see one.”  But what happens when an actor’s performance of an identity does not match our expectations? My research looks at identities that seem at odds with conventional understandings of those identities, identities that often have to be defended because they do not match the social norms associated with them.

Two recent publications, my book Divine Callings and research on double majoring, seek answers to this question.  Divine Callings looks at the construction of a “called identity”. The mere experience of a call serves as a defense against suspicions that their claim to be ministers is not credible or legitimate. This defense must be mobilized because surprising numbers of ministers do not have conventional markers of clerical identity: religious training, employment, and credentials. Double majoring is a choice so unconventional that many colleges still have no way to denote the status in their student enrollment systems. Students describe having to explain and defend the choice to be a double major, especially when this nonconventional academic identity bumps up against parental wishes and institutional norms.