While mnemonics are not everyone’s favourite hot beverage I’ve always found them a very useful memory device – and I’m particularly fond of CAGE (Class, Age, Gender, Ethnicity) and its less-exulted compatriots CAGES (…Sexuality) and CAGED (…Disability)* for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, it has a simple manifest function for students. If you’re ever stuck for evaluation ideas in an exam it’s always possible to say something useful about class, age, gender or ethnic differences. Use it as a kind of “Get Out of Jail Free” card you can play whenever you need a quick prompt to get an answer flowing.

Secondly a latent function of CAGE for teachers is that you can use it to illustrate the concepts of structure and action in a simple and memorable way using the distinction between social and personal identities.

Social identities

Every culture classifies behaviour in some way; it groups similar types of behaviour under a particular name / label and, most importantly, assigns various meanings to that behaviour. Social identities are, in this respect, social structures – an idea we can illustrate in the following way:

Our culture generally recognises two biological sexes (male and female) and assigns to each a set of social characteristics; these, being cultural in origin, may change over time or differ from society to society. In this respect social identities relate to the attributes we are given when we play different roles (achieved or ascribed); men and women, for example, are expected to take and show, respectively, the masculine and feminine traits that our society associates with biological sex:

Gender stereotypes

Men are:

Women are:




















As this list suggests, the stereotypical social characteristics assigned to biological opposites tend to mirror each other – which tells us something about how our culture theorises gendered social identities.

CAGE reflects the idea our behaviour is structured and restricted by social identities. Just as being imprisoned in a real cage would restrict our range of physical movements and choices, social identities are metaphorical cages – the idea society attempts to lock us into a range of socially-approved behaviours, ideas and practices.

Personal identities

The mnemonic does, however, have a further dimension because a cage is somewhere from which it’s possible to escape – and although we can’t actually escape social identities – simply by living in a society we’re all assigned statuses related to class, age, gender and ethnicity, for example – we can interpret and modify these identities. This reflects the concept of social action embodied in personal identities that relate to what we each believe ourselves to be, considered in two ways.

The first is how we interpret the particular role we’re playing at any given time. ‘Being male’, for example, can mean something different (or personal) to me than to some other men, just as the concept of masculinity can have different interpretations and meanings. For some men (and women) it involves traits of toughness, ruggedness, aggression and so forth, whereas for others it involves a completely different set of meanings.

In other words, although there are structural aspects to identity (of the kind suggested above in relation to gender stereotypes) it is possible to “escape the CAGE” – although we need, of course, to recognise possible penalties for deviance. Elderly people, for example, who “don’t act their age” may be subjected to a range of sanctions, such as ridicule, just as men and women who don’t conform to gender stereotypes, such as how to dress appropriately, may be subjected to sanctions that are both psychological and physical.

The second way involves what Marshall (2003) defines as ‘a unique core or essence – the “real me” – which is coherent and remains more or less the same throughout life’. Personal identity can relate to deep beliefs about who we are when we strip away our social pretensions (the person we present to others, for example, when we’re trying to impress or influence them).


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