How Does Society Influence Your Development as a Person? | Facing History & Ourselves
Blurred crowd used to illustrate "individual and society" in Holocaust and Human Behavior.

The Individual and Society

How does our society shape the way we define ourselves and others? Explore some of the dilemmas people experience when others perceive them differently than they define themselves.


At a Glance

chapter copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Social Studies


  • The Holocaust


About this Chapter

Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? How we answer these questions shapes how we think about, and how we behave toward, ourselves and others. And our answers to those questions are influenced by the society we live in.  This chapter explores the relationship between the individual and society, and how that relationship affects the choices we make.  

  • What is the relationship between the individual and society?
  • What factors shape our identities? What parts of our identities do we choose for ourselves? What parts are determined for us by others, by society, or by chance?
  • What dilemmas arise when others view us differently than we view ourselves?
  • How do our identities influence our choices and the choices available to us?

This chapter is from the Individual & Society section of Holocaust and Human Behavior and includes:

  • 17 readings 
  • Connection Questions

We begin to learn our culture—the ways of our society—just after birth. That process is called socialization, and it involves far more than schooling. Our culture shapes the way we work and play, and it makes a difference in how we view ourselves and others. It affects our values—what we consider right and wrong. This is how the society we live in influences our choices. But our choices can also influence others and ultimately help shape our society.

Imagine that you encounter a stranger walking down the street. How might you describe the person? What labels would you use? We know that every person is different from any other in countless ways, yet when we encounter others we often rely on generalizations to describe them. “It's a natural tendency,” says psychologist Deborah Tannen. “We must see the world in patterns in order to make sense of it; we wouldn’t be able to deal with the daily onslaught of people and objects if we couldn’t predict a lot about them and feel that we know who and what they are." 1

Our society—through its particular culture, customs, institutions, and more—provides us with the labels we use to categorize the people we encounter. These labels are based on beliefs about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, and more. Sometimes our beliefs about these categories are so strong that they prevent us from seeing the unique identities of others. Sometimes these beliefs also make us feel suspicion, fear, or hatred toward some members of our society. Other times, especially when we are able to get to know a person, we are able to see past labels and, perhaps, find common ground.

The stories in this chapter explore some of the dilemmas people face as they establish themselves both as individuals and as members of a group, and as they define themselves and are defined by others. As the first step in the Facing History & Ourselves journey, this chapter introduces ideas about human behavior and decision making that will serve as a foundation for examining the historical case study in the chapters that follow. Teachers are encouraged to select the readings that match their objectives and the interests and needs of their students.

  • 1Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 16.

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Inside this Chapter

Analysis & Reflection

Enhance your students’ understanding of our readings on individual, society, and identity with these follow-up questions and prompts.

  1. The following poem appears in the Midrash, a centuries-old collection of commentaries on Jewish scripture:

    A person has three names:

    one that he is called by his father and mother;

    one that people know him by,

    and one that he acquires for himself.

    What is this poem suggesting about the ways we come to understand our identities? What stories from this chapter could illustrate this poem?

  2. The Bear That Wasn’t is a children’s book that reflects universal questions about the relationship between the individual and society. How do you see ideas from Reading 1, "The Bear That Wasn’t,"  echoed in some of the other readings throughout this chapter?
  3. In the reading The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Adichie warns of “the danger of a single story.” What does she mean? What other readings in this chapter illustrate this danger? Which ones suggest ways to overcome the danger of a single story?
  4. Legal scholar Martha Minow writes, “When we simplify and sort, we focus on some traits rather than others, and we assign consequences to the presence and absence of the traits we make significant.” What are some of the “traits we make significant” in our society? Do you think some traits and differences matter more than others, and if so, why? Who decides which traits matter most? What readings from this chapter have had the strongest influence on your thinking about these questions?

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