The Many Faces of Identity

Yves here. Reader albrt, who has now launched his own Substack, has allowed us to republish his new post on identity, which takes a historical look as to how identity became A Thing, as in a topic for psychological and now political discussion.

To throw another framework into the mix, Emile Durkheim effectively posited that there was not much in the way of what we would call identity (save perhaps with the tribe) in traditional societies, where what he called “mechanical solidarity” operated. The social glue came about from people doing essentially the same work and living conditions, such as subsistence farming, holding similar religious beliefs, and having family ties as a key social organizing principle. Durkheim chose the term “mechanical” because there was not much role differentiation; people were essentially interchangeable parts. In organic society, specialized roles create more interdependence. Specialized roles, like an opera singer or a blacksmith or a plumber, also allow for what we would now call different lifestyles, and with them, the opportunity for more differentiated identities.

By albrt. Originally published at his website

“Identity” was declared the word of the year in 2015 by Everybody has an identity. In fact, everybody is a beatiful and unique snowflake. Even if I work at a minimum wage job and can’t get a date or pay my rent, I have an irreducible core of specialness that will carry me through, my kindergarten teacher told me so.

Despite the ubiquity of the term “identity,” it seems to me that the practitioners of buzzword bingo in academia have largely failed to explain to ordinary people how identity is related to hot-button issues of the day, so I thought I would give it a try.

Related topics have gotten plenty of attention, particularly the ill-defined bugaboo of identity politics.  Cultural and political polarization seem obviously related to the identities of the people becoming polarized. But have you thought about the relationship between identity and the claims about arrested development and personality disorders characteristic of either the deplorable class or the Professional Managerial Class (PMC), depending on who is doing the diagnosing?  This post is intended to outline the subject area, and then I hope to write several more posts in the coming weeks looking into different parts of the story.

Identity as it applies to a person is generally taken to mean characteristics that make the person unique, and that remain stable over time.  One researcher wrote in 1983:  “The historically minded inquirer who gains familiarity with the literature, however, soon makes an arresting discovery—identity is a new term, as well as being an elusive and ubiquitous one.  It came into use as a popular social-science term only in the 1950s.”  Philip Gleason, Identifying Identity: A Semantic History at 910, The Journal of American History, Vol. 69 No. 4 (1983).  Like most statements in the social sciences, this statement this is both true and not true depending on how you look at it.

The second definition of identity in the 1933 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is “[t]he sameness of a person or thing or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else; individuality, personality.”  That sounds kind of like the concept Gleason was talking about, and last time I checked 1933 was before the 1950s.  In fact, the OED points to John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, published in 1690, which has a chapter entitled “Of Identity and Diversity: wherein identity consists.”  This title sounds promising, but alas, Mr. Locke was mainly interested in parsing the philosophical notion that things exist, and that different things are different than things that are the same.

Locke observed that when we talk about inanimate matter being the same thing over time, we are talking about the physical substance.  When we talk about an animal being the same thing over time, we are talking about the life of the animal.  But when we talk about a person being the same over time, we are usually talking about the consciousness of the person:

[T]o find wherein personal identity consists, we must consider what person stands for; which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive, without perceiving that he does perceive. . . .  For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things; in this alone consists personal identity, i. e. the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Ch. XXVII § 9.

Locke raises some points that are tantalizingly close to present-day identity issues, but he does not follow up on the points that have occupied social scientists since the 1950s.  Locke sticks with what he regards as the main problem, which is whether human identities exist at all for philosophical purposes.  He concludes, as do most people who are not philosophers or mystics, that human identities do exist.  For a contrary view you may consult Aurelien discussing other lines of thinking about whether identities exist.

I won’t burden you with a detailed history of identity from 1690 to the present, because there is a good paper about it available on the internet by John R. Eidson. He identifies two distinct modern meanings of the word.

The most basic sense of ‘identity’ – which, in the history of the word, may be regarded as its prototypical center of usage – is the sameness of two or more things: A = B; or, rather, A1 = A2.  A second sense of the word, which is derived from the first, is that of ‘personal identity’, i.e., the sameness of a person with him- or herself from one point in time to another.  Usually, however, representatives of the social sciences and humanities have one of two further senses in mind, when they invoke the concept of identity.  These senses are often confused, but Mackenzie (1978: 39) distinguishes them clearly: “the metaphor that a collectivity can like a person have an identity” and “the identity which an individual can find through a collectivity”.  Adapting familiar terms to present purposes, I will call these two senses ‘collective identity’ and ‘social-psychological identity’. Eidson at 8.

Eidson traces early examples of American politicians during the Federal period who wrote about “national identity” to stress legal continuity in spite of regime change.  Eidson at 17-18.  Aside from that, 19th-century discussions of collective identity in English were mostly limited to the ethnological literature on native Americans, particularly noting their tendency to resist assimilation.  Used in this sense, the word identity picked up a new connotation of “the persisting separateness and distinctiveness of a category or a group of people.” Eidson at 18-19.

The idea of a dynamic individual social-psychological identity came much later, in the mid-20th century. That was what Gleason was talking about. The person most often associated with discussions about individual identity in the mid-20th century was a psychiatrist named Erik Erikson. Erikson is generally credited with coining the term “identity crisis,” which went on to become a core concept of self-help literature.

Trigger warning:  Erikson’s name and ideas will come up throughout this series of posts. His ideas about adolescence and identity formation have held up better than some of his other ideas.  He promoted heteronormativity and believed that young girls suffered from penis envy.  If you believe in canceling history when it does not conform to present-day notions, then you probably shouldn’t read Erikson in the original, and you may not want to read this series of posts because they will focus on the interesting ideas Erikson had and not on the reasons why he should be canceled.

Still with me?

Erikson was a prolific author, writing for both professional and popular audiences. Summing up earlier work Erikson said:

The term “identity crisis” was first used, if I remember correctly, for a specific clinical purpose in the Mt. Zion Veterans’ Rehabilitation Clinic during the Second World War. . . . Most of our patients, so we concluded at the time, had neither been “shellshocked” nor become malingerers, but had through the exigencies of war lost a sense of personal sameness and continuity. They were impaired in that central control ever themselves for which, in the psychoanalytic scheme, only the inner agency of the ego could be held responsible. Therefore, I spoke of a loss of “ego identity.” Since then, we have recognized the same central disturbance in severely conflicted young people whose sense of confusion is due, rather, to a war within themselves . . . . Erik Erikson, Identity Youth and Crisis at 16-17 (WW Norton 1968).

Erikson’s essential insight was that individuals sometimes experience discomfort and conflict about aspects of their own selves, and a problematic relationship with the self can lead to instability in all aspects of life.  Locke’s model of identity, simply being aware of continuity in one’s own consciousness, was not a sufficient description of identity as people experience it.

Erikson eventually came to believe that all humans must go through a developmental stage of identity integration in adolescence or early adulthood, and those who do a poor job of it will experience significant problems forming relationships and living stable lives. The proportion of young people in a society who experience identity integration as a crisis depends on multiple factors, including the ideologies and the range of roles available for young people in society as well as the relative stability of the society at a particular time due to historical events. Importantly, experiencing identity formation as a crisis is within the range of normal human development, and does not mean the individual will fail to integrate.

Erikson also believed that identity is a recursive process “taking place on all levels of mental functioning, by which the individual judges himself in the light of what he perceives to be the way in which others judge him in comparison to themselves and to a typology significant to them; while he judges their way of judging him in the light of how he perceives himself in comparison to them and to types that have become relevant to him.” Identity Youth and Crisis at 22. This conception has significant echoes of Jean Paul Sartre’s mid-20th century musings about authenticity and bad faith, as well as “the look” of others defining our experience.

Identity in the Eriksonian sense does more than just provide a foundation for the individual psyche. Identity formation is essentially the interface between an individual and society.  In fact, Erikson believed that identity formation is an important part of historical change—young people will have more difficulty establishing secure identities when prevailing ideologies and roles are inadequate for their perceived needs. They will be driven to express their difficulties and demand change, whether by engaging in delinquency, or by political action through official channels.

[A]t certain stages of individual development and at certain periods in history, ideological polarization leading to militant conflict and to radically new commitment corresponds to an inescapable inner need. Youth needs to base its rejections and acceptances “normally” on ideological alternatives vitally related to the existing range of alternatives for identity formation, and in periods of radical change, this essentially adolescent propensity comes to dominate the collective mind. Identity Youth and Crisis at 190.

Hey, maybe this is starting to sound sorta relevant to where we are today!

The next post will provide more about individual identity, since the individual is the building block of the group. After that I’ll try to tackle how group identities turned into identity politics, and perhaps by then I’ll have figured out what identity politics even means.

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  1. Watt4Bob

    Aside from that, 19th-century discussions of collective identity in English were mostly limited to the ethnological literature on native Americans, particularly noting their tendency to resist assimilation.

    So, a group of people who understand themselves, and who are comfortable in their own skin, and comfortable in their environment, are found to be strange by a bunch of confused and uncomfortable people, recently escaped from the remnants of a dying feudal empire, hell-bent on exercising every imaginable facet of their new-found “freedoms”, up to, and including genocide.

    When are we going to face up to the fact that rapacious greed and racist notions of superiority are not the hallmarks of a civilized, and freedom-loving people, but the sad evidence of submission to the rule of psychopaths?

    They” don’t hate us for our “freedoms” they’re simply fed-up with the negative results of interacting with our false consciousness, our cherished ‘identity‘.

    1. Vicky Cookies

      One of my favorite topics, thanks for a thoughtful and well-written post!

      Couple of ways to look at this:

      The South African concept of Ubuntu, that we are ourselves through other people, may apply: identity is a differentiation, often of opposites; a way to define yourself, or your group, in opposition to what it is not.

      The Buddha is supposed to have said that a world is not really a world; it is called a world. This is a different method than formal logic, the basis of which is A=A. “I am not myself”, we might say sometimes, and with the Buddhist way of thinking, we are probably right: the physical matter, the atoms of which our bodies consist constantly change, at the rate that our bodies are made of up completely different atoms than they were 10 years ago.

      The west is self-obsessed in part because meaningful Buddhist analysis has not penetrated its culture. Instead of a thorough examination of what we mean by ‘self’, and what implications our conclusions carry in regards to the concept of ‘other’, we get mindfulness apps with ads.

      The self is presented as a continuity of consciousness, but does such continuity really exist? Or is it more of a means of processing our surroundings, changing along with them. This is actually why I have some… I suppose you’d call it ‘faith in humanity’: because I believe consciousness to be a moment-to-moment phenomenon, contingent upon material conditions, I believe that radical change within individuals is nearly always possible.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Everyone has an identity. When everybody leaves you by yorself, you are alone with your identity. The only question is how much of that identity is actually us and how much was imprinted on us by our community & our experiences.

    1. Carolinian

      Almost all of it I’d say. While I have “consciousness” and came to disapprove many things about my father I’m also in many fundamental ways just like him. There’s nature and nurture and consciousness and that last may be the junior partner however much our ego struggles to deny it.

      Of course the above varies throughout our lives and when we are young we struggle to establish our own unique “identity” and when we are no longer young we realize how much that differentiation has failed to take.

      So parents teach your children well and societies need to do the same. Gen Z is struggling to be different but much of it is socially driven and perhaps turbocharged by social media. We are all unique to a degree but some of us would contend that the most relevant study is how we are all the alike.

    2. Societal Illusions

      Would actual identity as opposed to conceived or conceptual identity not also be a consideration? I have noticed how many have an identity they operate from that is at odds with who they truly are (or appear to be). I’ve felt this same gap within myself – I can conflate who I want to be with who I actually am – and am being. When the two are more aligned I am more whole, more integrated, and life is easier for me.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I dunno. My experience is that being who you are is no party.

        I have always had a strong sense of who I was, even when very young. For instance, the way some gays know they are gay when they are 6, I knew when I was 6 I would never be a mother, the role did not appeal to me, and that meant getting married didn’t make much sense (I had worked out that marriage was mainly about procreation, but I hadn’t worked out the property/shared overhead part). I also hated art projects even as a toddler. I thought they were stupid busy work.

        If you have a strong sense of who you are, unless you are also skilled at negotiating and smoothing over conflicts, my experience is you wind up acutely aware of how people want you to be different for their comfort and/or convenience. I am regularly angry because I feel I am having too often to defend my boundaries because I am not interpersonally skilled enough to manipulate other people or otherwise deflect their demands.

        Now there are times social ideas aligned with mine. I loved having to wear power clothes for work. I still kept a lot of my fancy wardrobe even though it is of no use to me now because it reminds me of who I was.

  3. lyman alpha blob

    This is very interesting and thanks for sharing the post!

    I think this part is important –

    “…young people will have more difficulty establishing secure identities when prevailing ideologies and roles are inadequate for their perceived needs.”

    So in other words, individual identities are constructed in response to larger group identities, those large enough to have prevailing ideologies and set roles to begin with, ie a state. And where do group identities come from? From the literature I’ve been reading recently, they are either imposed from outside, often at a later time, or coerced by the elites looking for subjects.

    An example of the former comes from In Search of The Phoenicians. The modern state of Lebanon sees the ancient Phoenicians as their ancestors, but this book argues that there was no group in antiquity who ever called themselves “Phoenician”. From the book blurb –

    …this monumental book argues that the notion of these sailors as a coherent people with a shared identity, history, and culture is a product of modern nationalist ideologies—and a notion very much at odds with the ancient sources.

    Josephine Quinn shows how the belief in this historical mirage has blinded us to the compelling identities and communities these people really constructed for themselves in the ancient Mediterranean, based not on ethnicity or nationhood but on cities, family, colonial ties, and religious practices. She traces how the idea of “being Phoenician” first emerged in support of the imperial ambitions of Carthage and then Rome, and only crystallized as a component of modern national identities in contexts as far-flung as Ireland and Lebanon.

    Among her arguments, the author notes that the first time the word “Phoenician” is used in literature or inscription comes many centuries after the heyday of the actual Phoenician people. So while many may identify as a descendant of the Phoenicians today, the Phoenicians likely never existed as a self-identified state. The term is just what later people came to call those ancient and prosperous Mediterranean merchants.

    I’m in the middle of a really eye-opening book right now called The Art of Not Being Governed by James C Scott. Scott discusses the behavior of the people in what he terms “Zomia” – the large contiguous highland region in southest Asia – over the course of many centuries. His main point is that states come and go, and if you weren’t a fan of the state, you could always head to the hills to escape excessive taxes, corvee labor, etc. The state was built in the lowlands and depended on padi rice agriculture. A state required a critical mass of people, so if you were an enterprising would-be king, you needed people to do the farming and produce the wealth of the state. Sometimes people would voluntarily settle, but more often states would send out raiding parties to bring back slaves from other states or from hill tribes. He uses the Han Chinese as an example quite a bit. And who were the Han? They were the dominant state, but they in turn were composed of all kinds of different ethic groups – people they had brought in from the hinterlands, voluntarily or otherwise. Once you were settled in the valley, farming and following the dominant religion, you were now Han. Your old identity was assimilated into the new state. The Han then gave their own names to the hill peoples who were not Han – very similar to how the ancient Greeks for example would call all non-Greeks “barbarians” which is definitely not what those non-Greeks called themselves. But if you decided you didn’t like being Han anymore, until the last 50-75 years or so, you could just up and leave and stop being Han.

    Now with modern transportation and communication reaching areas that were historically remote, you can’t just leave anymore and the taxman is going to come for you eventually. So what do you do today if you don’t identify with the state, as is the case for more and more people around the globe? It sure looks like you come up with your own individual identity, or identities, to differentiate yourself within the state that you are no longer able to simply leave.

    1. albrt

      Thanks lyman, and thanks to all the other commenters.

      Next week’s post will be about the workings of the Erikson model of identity formation. Erikson’s model was significantly based on comparing different cultures – I haven’t decided whether I want to do a whole separate post about the comparative ethnology aspect because Erikson’s observations were mostly from the 1930s and earlier. He would have been considered very open-minded in the 1950s, but a lot of it seems pretty cringe today. Not sure as an old white dude whether I want to stir that pot.

  4. IMOR

    I love NC. I love that members of the NC commentariat go on to publish at Substack. I love that its members revive ‘zines, and perhaps eventualky samizdat And that in four comments on a piece of the former, we get to lyman’s killer book rec. Thank you all.

  5. t

    Similar to how in some cities the residents sort themselves by whether or not they live in the suburbs or the wrong side of the tracks or the lake front?

  6. arthur bryant

    Great article! ” Identity formation is essentially the interface between an individual and society” is a very thought provoking sentence. It is depressing also when one thinks of the ideas of Nisbet in his “Quest for Community” (which describes how we have lost so many local institutions “close” to the individual). How is our current society affecting–or maybe one should say, poisoning–this interface for young white males, for example?

    I think it’s time to view again John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.

  7. zach

    I heard this story on Democracy Now! 1/11/24. Unfortunately, I cannot find the exact quote in print but one of the candidates in question made a comment that went straight to the heart of the topic of identity during the radio segment.

    Taken from DN! website, something to the effect “One of the women, Arienne Childrey, said of the rule, “Having to use your deadname is horrible. It is an attack on who we are.” “

  8. Dick Swenson

    D n you. Now I will mull this over and over for the rest of the week. Why can’t I get some peace?

  9. Michigan Farmer

    Good article and lively commentary, more proof, if such is needed, that NC is a unique and valuable place. The article mentions the social aspect of individual identity but could have explicitly brought out that aspect of describing how individuals form a sense of self. BTW, as an interesting sidelight, I find it fascinating that much of Buddhist teachings expend a great deal of effort in teaching the concept of self is a harmful illusion.

    For those interested in pursuing the topic further:

    Development through life: A psychosocial Approach by Barbara M.Newman University of Rhode Island, and Philip R. Newman. This is a basic college textbook about the psychology of human development but has great depth of coverage. It constitutes an eye-opening experience for those who want to begin or continue the practical task of self-discovery that is expedited via current social science.

    The Development of the Social Self, edited by Mark Bennett and Fabio Sani presents the idea that self-identity is developed from around age 7, through contact with social groups whose particularly salient features appeal to an inner sense of the subject’s personal agency. Many studies show that the process of developing identity through the lifespan depends greatly on the social groups we orbit in.

  10. Lunker Walleye

    Thank you for this essay, Yves and albrt. It is truly appreciated and so are the comments.

Comments are closed.