identity

Although the term identity has a long history-deriving from the Latin root idem implying sameness and continuity-it was not until the twentieth century that the term came into popular usage. Discussions of identity take two major forms-psychodynamic and sociological. A central thrust of both traditions has been to challenge essentialist understandings of the concept. These assume a unique core or essence to identity-the ‘real me’-which is coherent and remains more or less the same throughout life. Against this the emphasis within both sociological and psychoanalytic theories has been, to varying degrees, the invented and constructed character of identity.
The psychodynamic tradition emerges with Freud's theory of identification, through which the child comes to assimilate (or introject) external persons or objects, usually the superego of the parent. Psychodynamic theory stresses the inner core of a psychic structure as having a continuous (though often conflicting) identity. The psycho-historian Erik Erikson saw identity as a process ‘located’ in the core of the individual, and yet also in the core of his or her communal culture, hence making a connection between community and individual. He developed the term identity crisis during the Second World War, in reference to patients who had ‘lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity’, and subsequently generalized it to a whole stage of life (as part of his epigenetic life-stage model of the eight life-stage of man). Here, youth is identified as a universal crisis period of potential identity confusion. Subsequently, the term ‘identity crisis’ has moved into common parlance.
The sociological tradition of identity theory is linked to symbolic interactionism and emerges from the pragmatic theory of the self discussed by William James and George Herbert Mead . The self is a distinctively human capacity which enables people to reflect on their nature and the social world through communication and language. Both James and Mead see the self as a process with two phases: the ‘I’, which is knower, inner, subjective, creative, determining, and unknowable; and the ‘Me’, which is the more known, outer, determined, and social phase. Identification, here, is a process of naming, of placing ourselves in socially constructed categories, with language holding a central position in this process. In the later works of Erving Goffman and Peter Berger, identity is stated clearly to be ‘socially bestowed, socially sustained and socially transformed’ (Berger, Invitation to Sociology, 1966).
Developments in social theory associated with structuralism and post-structuralism share the concern with language and representation more broadly which was integral to the symbolic interactionist approach to identity. Structuralism and post-structuralism, however, more assertively emphasize the constitutive or deeply formative role of language and representation in the making of identity. Underpinning both structuralism and post-structuralism are the insights of the Swiss structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (see The Course in General Linguistics, 1949). Saussure's work emphasized the way meaning in language was produced, not through the intention of the speaking or writing subject, but by the interplay of signs. Language itself was a structured system which produced meaning. In a radical formulation, Saussure suggested that it was language which effectively spoke the individual by subjecting him or her to its rules, rather than the other way around. Saussure's account of language has been used to argue that all social and cultural meanings are produced within language or systems of representation more generally. In other words the world around us, and our place in it, is given meaning-made meaningful-within representation. In an important sense, therefore, who we are-our sense of identity-is shaped by the meanings attached to particular attributes, capacities, and forms of conduct.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault , building on the broad thrust of Saussure's arguments, took this account of identity further through his work on discourse or discursive formations. Discourse, for Foucault, shaped ways of talking about or representing or knowing a particular object. In his work on the growth of the modern prison, for example, he argued that penal discourses (such as criminology) produced a distinct set of ways of talking about and knowing the criminal and the criminal mind (see his Discipline and Punish, 1977). Importantly, for Foucault, these discourses furnished positions for agency and identity. They did so both for the knowing subject (the expert criminologist) and for the known (the criminal). The raw material for identity, then, was formed within discourses, taken up and inhabited by an individual, shaping and forming a sense of identity in the process.
Foucault's work also introduces an element which has become central to recent accounts of identity. This is the insistence that we, as individuals, inhabit multiple identities. There are two key dimensions to this assertion. The first-and most important to Foucault himself-is that different discourses generate particular and often divergent positions for agency and identity. Discourses associated with religion, the state, sport, or consumption produce discrete and often contradictory versions of the self. We are, within this perspective, each addressed by a range of possible versions of ourselves: as devout believer, as taxpayer, football supporter, or hedonist. The second dimension is that the multiple identities we inhabit in relation to a range of social practices are themselves linked to larger structures of identity. What is usually cited here are structures like class, ethnicity, ‘race’, gender, and sexuality. It is important to note, however, that these different identities are not discrete-they interact with each other. As Catherine Hall has shown in relation to nineteenth-century middle-class men in Britain, their masculinity was dependent upon and secured not only through class-based dispositions, but also through particular kinds of ethnicity (‘Englishness’) and race (‘whiteness’) (see White, Male and Middle Class, 1993). Gender, ethnicity, and race, as in this example, are not partitioned but interwoven.
A further development of this concern with the interfusing of identities has emphasized the hybridity of cultural identities. The notion of hybridity suggests-most importantly in relation to ‘racial’ and ethnic identities-that identities are not pure but the product of mixing, fusion, and creolization. Underlying this account of identity is an attention to the mixing and movement of cultures. Figuring prominently in this are the diverse forms of cultural traffic-from the slave trade to the contemporary circulation of media forms-which have helped to shape the modern world (see, for example,, Black Atlantic, 1993). The resulting fusion or hybridity of identities is not the product of the assimilation of one culture or cultural tradition by another, but the production of something new. Studies of the hybridity of cultural identity are closely allied to accounts of diaspora identities. Diaspora is a term that was initially used to refer to the dispersal of Jewish people across the globe, but is now regularly used to describe a Black diaspora, the movement and trafficking of people of African origins across continents. Diaspora identities are shaped by this sense of having been, in Salman Rushdie's phrase, ‘borne across the world’ (see his Imaginary Homelands, 1991); of being ‘in’ but not entirely (or only) ‘of’ the West.
A different conception of identity is stressed by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan . Lacan developed Freud's work via the influence of Saussure and emphasized the split and alienated aspects of identity. In what is, in large degree, a rigorous reworking of Freud's writings on narcissism , Lacan defines the infant's first sense of itself (its first self-identification) as coming through its imaginary positioning by its own mirror-image (see his essay on’The Mirror Phase as Formative of the Function of the “I”’, 1968). Looking at its own reflection, or literally reflected in its mother's eyes, Lacan argues that the infant misrecognizes itself as its mirror-image; and is taken in by its own image in a moment of gestalt. Lacan describes this as an instance of primary narcissistic identification, and it is for him the basis and prototype of all future identifications. The splitting or misrecognition at the heart of this process is exemplary for Lacan; it establishes the subject's enduring relation to the visual field as an alienated or decentred experience, a split between the external ‘ideal ego’ (the mirror-image) and the internalized ‘ego ideal’.
Discussions of identity have been prominent in sociology and have spawned a huge literature, including many plays and novels, in which the quest for identity or the breakdown of the self are primary themes. These accounts tend to divide into two main camps: an optimistic and a pessimistic version. For the optimists, the modern world has brought with it increasing individuality and choice over a wider range of identities. Thus, people are more likely to self-actualize : to discover an inner self which is not artificially imposed by tradition, culture or religion; and to embark upon quests for greater individuality, self-understanding, flexibility, and difference. By contrast, pessimists portray a mass society of estrangement: for example, the psychodynamic tradition highlights the loss of boundaries between self and culture, and the rise of the narcissistic personality; while the sociologists see a trend towards fragmentation, homelessness, and meaninglessness, and bemoan the loss of authority in the public world through the growth of self-absorption and selfishness.
There is, therefore, no clear concept of identity in modern sociology. It is used widely and loosely in reference to one's sense of self, and one's feelings and ideas about oneself, as for example in the terms ‘gender identity’ or ‘class identity’. It is sometimes assumed that our identity comes from the expectations attached to the social roles that we occupy, and which we then internalize, so that it is formed through the process of socialization . Alternatively, it is elsewhere assumed that we construct our identities more actively out of the materials presented to us during socialization, or in our various roles. However, Goffman's work (in particular The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), which looks at the complex ways in which we present ourselves to other people, a process which might be termed identity management) raises a crucial issue that is unresolved in all camps: namely, the question of whether or not there is an authentic self or identity behind the various masks which we present to others. See also personality ; psychoanalysis ; reflexive modernization.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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