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Communication Theory of Identity

The belief that communication, relationships, and communities are principal elements in the process of identity construction is the premise of the communication theory of identity (Hecht, Jackson, & Ribeau, 2004). According to Wadsworth et al. (2008), ‘‘identity is both a sense of self and communication or enactment of self, resulting in the articulation of four different levels or frames of identity that merge the individual with the society around him or her” (p.67).  Sometimes aspects of identity throughout these layers complement one another but other times they in conflict, which forces the individual to negotiate these tensions to conceptualize his or her identity (Hecht et al, 2004).  Identities are not static, and understandings may shift within the different layers and contexts because one cannot separate the layers of identity. As these layers of identity “interplay,” one layer may become more prominent than another depending on the context (Jung & Hecht, 2004). This interplay of layers can be reflected in an individual’s style in the physical world and extended to create a multi-versal self* within virtual worlds through the use of avatars., which is discussed here.

Wadsworth et al. (2008) refers to these layers as personal, enacted, relational, and communal.In the personal layer, identity exists as a sense of self, and the individual is the sole focus of identity. Therefore, feelings regarding the self and self-understandings mold one’s identity (Wadsworth et al., 2008).  In the enacted layer, one expresses his or her identity through communication, and the self exists through verbal and nonverbal messages and behaviors which constitute a performance (Wadsworth et al., 2008). In the relational layer, one collectively constructs identity by interacting with others. The first step of identity creation within this layer includes the perceptions of others, which help to form one’s identity. Second, one forms his or her identity through his or her roles and relationships with other individuals. Third, the establishment of the collective unit of a relationship affects the creation of identity (Wadsworth et al., 2008). The communal layer is the final layer where societal perceptions about identity are based on membership, which places an emphasis on group membership (Wadsworth et al., 2008). In this layer, individuals might understand their identity through a common group identity or membership in virtual worlds that their choice of virtual fashion reflects.

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