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 dictionary.com. 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.