Identity and Difference >> Content Detail



Amazon logo When you click the Amazon logo to the left of any citation and purchase the book (or other media) from, MIT OpenCourseWare will receive up to 10% of this purchase and any other purchases you make during that visit. This will not increase the cost of your purchase. Links provided are to the US Amazon site, but you can also support OCW through Amazon sites in other regions. Learn more.

A list of topics covered in this course is available in the calendar below.

Course Description

How can the individual be at once cause and consequence of society, a unique agent of social action and also a social product? This course explores how identities, whether of individuals or groups, based on single behaviors or institutional practices, are produced, maintained, and transformed. Students will be introduced to various theoretical perspectives that are used to make sense of identity formation, including essentialism, constructivism, stigma, deviance, discourse, and performance. We will explore the utility of these terms in discussing issues of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. Classes will combine lecture and discussion. Each class is keyed to a set of readings, and it is crucial that students keep up with the readings and be prepared to discuss them in class. Class participation—in terms of regular attendance and participation in discussion—will count strongly towards the final grade.


Participation (including reader responses and oral presentation of third argumentative essay)25%
First paper (6 pages)20%
Second paper (4 pages)15%
Final paper (10+ pages)40%


You must attend class and participate in discussions; this part of the course, including Reader Responses (see below), will account for 25% of the final grade. Writing Reader Responses will help you feel prepared to speak up in class; if a student does not volunteer, she or he may be called upon to speak. Students who miss more than 2 classes will lose credit.

Reader Responses

Reader responses consist of a paragraph or two describing your reaction to two or more of the readings for each session unless there is an alternative written assignment for a given class. Do not summarize, but rather give us your response to the reading. These should take no more than 30 minutes to write. Reader responses will be factored into the overall evaluation of your performance. You will be encouraged to post these on the class server prior to the class for which they are due to share your thoughts with your classmates. For some classes, specific, short written and/or presentation assignments are required in lieu of reader responses to prepare you for class discussion, as listed below. These are also factored into the Participation grade.

Argumentative Essays

You will write 3 papers: 6-pages (20% of final grade), 4-pages (15% of final grade), and 10+ pages (40% of final grade). The first two essays will address a topic, to be handed out in class, based on course readings. The final paper, combining research and analysis, will give you an opportunity to explore in depth some aspect of identity of your own choosing, and will be rewritten based on extensive comments given by the professor. It will be based on library research and/or field research that you will conduct on a topic approved by the instructor.

We are fortunate to have a writing tutor for this course. You are required to make an appointment with the writing tutor to discuss the progress of your first and third papers, and are encouraged to work with her more intensively over the semester.


Students will give an oral presentation of the third paper, time limit to be determined on the basis of enrollment. Presentations are factored into the participation grade. Rehearsing is advisable.

Required Books

Amazon logo Goffman, Erving. Stigma. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963. (Available as: Goffman, Erving. Stigma. Reissue ed. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1986. ISBN: 9780671622442.)

Amazon logo Lazarre, Jane. Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997. ISBN: 9780822320449.

Amazon logo Rhodes, Lorna A. Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780520240766.

Please see readings for additional assigned readings.

Recommended Citation

For any use or distribution of these materials, please cite as follows:

Heather Paxson, course materials for 21A.218J/SP.454J Identity and Difference, Fall 2006. MIT OpenCourseWare (, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Downloaded on [DD Month YYYY].


I. Theoretical perspectives
2Essentialist theories
3Structural theories
4Constructivist theories: Social interaction
5Constructivist theories: Discourse, performance, and fractured identities
II. Case studies
6Gender: Conformity and/or deviance
7Race: From biology to culture and back again
8Race: What we learn from our mothers, and vice versa
9Psychopathology and incarceration
12Student presentations


© 2009-2020, All Rights Reserved.
Higher Ed Space ® is a registered trademark of AmeriCareers LLC.