Contemporary Identity of Individuals: a personal exploration

Why is the idea of identity worth exploring? Is contemporary identity any different from any past or common-sense understandings of identity?

What follows is a summary gained from reflecting on my own experiences and studies, up to and including the transition to retirement.

Identity is a complex and strategic notion that sits at the centre of many current events and discussions. Identity appears to be crucial, yet is contentious. Identity defines, differentiates and distinguishes. It is central to our individual being yet, for many people, identity is seen as structured by social processes beyond the individual.

In recent decades, it appears that identity has become more central, as accounts seek to explain events as culturally rooted in individual concerns. Identities, and processes of identifications, have become important again.

Contemporary views of identity sustain a number of puzzles that are worth exploring.

This is the first of a pair of linked articles on identity. It focuses on identity and people, whilst the next article focuses on identity and place.

For me, identity connects to a range of other things that are personal interests.

It links to sociology, psychology and ethnography (through considerations of the interplays between individuals and society). It links to evidence and policy (eg government identifying categories of people based on assumed identities and then mandating, compelling or nudging those people to change their behaviours). It links to writing, to art and to place – all of which are current concerns of mine.

Its importance as a psychological or sociological notion has varied over time. Identity can be considered as being common sense, or as a bureaucratic collection of data, or as an adjunct to policy-making, or as a focus for academic research. At the everyday level, identity gets annexed around ideas of personality, uniqueness, character, and so on.

Recent western ideas of identity rest on a base that includes the Protestant stress on individual responsibility; the growth of a sense of privacy; the effects of occupation and employment; perspectives on the nation state; and an increased focus on gender, sexuality, religion and ethnicity.

At this level identity is such a frequently used idea that it has a common-sense, taken-for-granted, nature. Identity is within and around all of us, all of the time – Surely we all know what we mean by it: It just ‘is’.

There is much talk, at the moment, of ‘identity theft’. Identity, in this sense, is little more than sets of bureaucratic data – unique registration of a birth, date of birth, officially-recorded names, national insurance number allocated to a person, authenticated address, national health number, etc.. This data can be used to identify, or impersonate, an individual.

It is when we interrogate media reports and policy documents that the representational aspects of identity come to the foreground. Identities are attributed. People are grouped as tenants; home-owners; claimants; strivers or scroungers; high-net-worth individuals. They are potential terrorists; British; refugee; asylum seeker; economic migrant. They are Old Labour; New Labour; Compassionate Conservative; right-wing bigot. All of this is semantics until public policy, or community behaviour, is enacted on the basis of such identifications.

I can’t imagine that, as a very young child, I sat there reflecting on my growing sense of identity. I can, however, remember instances where I was strongly affected by feelings of trust, shame, autonomy, excitement, wonder, intimacies and exclusions, and the constraints of the small town I grew up in. Increasingly I came to see such things as somehow constituting ‘me’ as a separate identity.

When I, later, took a more academic interest in ideas of identity (linked to work as a teacher, youth worker, manager of adult learning opportunities, community development worker, undertaker of evaluation studies, policy formulator etc) a guiding principle was that the role of educator/developer was to create opportunities that gave people ‘access to significance’.

An early starting point for this exploration into identity formation was the work of Erik Erikson who looked at identity formation across the lifespan. He proposed eight stages of development: trust/mistrust (hope & drive); autonomy/shame (willpower & self-control); initiative/guilt (purpose & direction); industry/inferiority (competence & method); identity/role confusion (fidelity & devotion); intimacy/isolation (love & affiliation); generativity/stagnation (care & production); integrity/despair (wisdom & renunciation).

This work was further developed around the notion of identity status, identity exploration and identity commitment – with identity seen as a developing thing across a number of continua.

Further work on identity in the 1970s expanded it until the closed/ fixed/agreed/ defined/ directly-observable and measurable inner nature of identity was substantially replaced by a more abstracted/ hypothetical/ probable/ tentative view of identity.

This did not make any particular approach right or wrong, just more or less credible. Other starting points and other lines of development might be equally credible; and if a number of things are credible, it then becomes a matter of choice.

Early on, for me, identity was much more than a simple collection of traits, able to be prised apart by trait-analysis questionnaires. It implied interplays and interactions. Identity was appropriated from context; shaped and influenced by constant referencing to things that, themselves, didn’t stay the same. Identity was developing; inconsistent; unstable.

My occasional forays within sociology, during the 1980-2000 period, were accompanied by demands that each established strand of theorisation was to be engaged with but not fixated on as some other emergent line of thinking was always on the horizon.

What follows is an excursion across some of those various lines of thought, in a rather truncated and idiosyncratic way.

Underpinning my interest in identity was an interest in change: What are the processes of learning by which people develop a sense of self; and are there learnings by which people can change that sense of self? This interest stumbled around in the hinterland between learning theory, developmental psychologies and theories of society.

The sociology I initially engaged with, all those years ago, placed weight on role-behaviour and identity negotiation: interacting with others in a group and with society at large as people explored and committed to collective identities. It aligned this with psychologies of individualities, such as Becker’s Labelling Theory.

Theoretical starting points ranged from Marx (identity was rooted in the sense of self that resulted from ones role in the economic class structure) and Freud (identity was potentially unstable and irrational as the conscious and subconscious mind came into tensions).

My interest in cities made the Chicago School of urban studies another starting point. In a rapidly changing society people were continually involved in identity projects, searching for uniqueness within their groups of peers.

Urbanisation corroded traditional communities in which identities had been formed. Increased routinisation of time through enforced work patterns changed family relationships and created a stronger separation of home and work identities. Initially, work patterns created new social bonds and productive identities but these have, more recently, been replaced by identities shaped by bureaucracies and concerns with efficiency and individual performance.

Partly because of being a namesake, Gregory Bateson kept cropping up. In place of the reification of community as a ‘thing’ he introduced a focus on entities as the system of relationships between them. The focus was less on what might be contained in any categorisation and more focused on the concept of boundaries that become used for purposes of identification.  Differences were seen as useful for demonstrating how identity works. Differences were the things that made a difference.

One line of thought that attracted me during my early studies was that of Mead’s Symbolic Interactionism within which self-identity arose from an ability to see oneself from the perspective of a generalised other. This moved things beyond the passive action of developing an identity through self-monitoring, and saw identity as something negotiated. Identities were social not personal; a continuous development via a network of significant others – identity as life history.

The emphasis shifted onto Goffman’s social production of identity through the self as character interacting with the self as performer. During social interactions people present and perform an identity whilst simultaneously reading the presentations of others. Reflexive adjusting one’s perception of self, based on assumptions of what is acceptable and the reactions of other, allowed people to construct an individual identity.

This led me on to the sociology of knowledge, the social construction of understanding and the work of Berger and Luckmann. The construction of identity became a matter of representation – moving away from ideas of identity uniquely based on personal histories, geographies or immediate group cultures. Wider ideologies helped to shape how people self-identified and were identified by others.

Any lingering notions of identity emerging from an unfolding life-story that had purpose and direction were challenged. For Bourdieu and others identity had to be constructed from degrees of contingencies; various potential identities held together as a summarised whole.

I was introduced to Castells and the shift from identities structured by modes of production to identities structured around modes of consumption; and, as a counterbalance to these more structuralist lines of thought, one end-point of my skating across sociology and identity followed on from Gramsci’s emphasis on hegemony, the materiality of ideology and the agency of individuals. All social relations, including those that structured identities, were encompassed within political terrains. Writers such as Laclau and Mouffe allowed for identities to be linked to dimensions of contingent support and challenge, articulated via threads of identifications.

I passed time exploring how language mediates reality; with identities being created within language. The arrival of poststructuralism brought questions about the stability of the language system itself. Discourses around identity became sites of contention as different groups strove to produce meaning.This created, at the personal and academic level, further destabilisations around the idea of identity.

A disparate parade of theorists all generally challenged the notion of a person being the author of their own acts. An identity was not that of a unique individual standing apart from society. Identity came from within some structuring social processes that still left room for individual agency. Lines of argument were developed by Anthony Giddens and others.

A string of viewpoints was thrown at me over time; and still new waves of thinking came (and often went).

For Foucault, identity relied on power and knowledge and the ways that powers were used create discursive fields which shaped identity.

For Lacan, the individual searched for a unified, stable sense of self by identifying with images – but never achieved completion in this.

For Ricoeur, the self was a fiction through which we understood our lives as coherent stories and narrative identities: We are the stories we believe and tell about ourselves.

For Postmodernism (characterised by an increased anxiety about existence, the importance of memories, fragmentation and lack of solidity) identities could be a kind of approximation, an impression, a constant switching across a range of positions and potentialities; a series of provisional masks; an amalgam of improvised contingencies. There was desire for coherence but with little expectation of finding it.

Each new theorisation, and counter-theorisation, made some lines of thought ever more rarefied (sometimes to the point of almost incomprehensibility).

This led to relinquishing any search for firm assurances and abandoning any belief that theorisation could bring such assurances. There was no reliable theoretical armature around which to construct solid notions of identity. From this position, theory, at best, was (eg Gilles Deleuze) a box of tools: something practical, fulfilling various tasks as I worked on local understandings of identity.

Interest focused on identifications, on becomings, on transformations. Identity was a dynamic process of assemblage, a constant flux, constituted by things that define it whilst themselves always shifting.

Inevitably, this complexity led some to suggest doing away with the concept completely. Alternative concepts were proposed, in order to capture the fluid and dynamic nature of identity as a process, diverse and ever-changing. Others favoured the use of identification, with identity perceived as made up of different components that are ‘identified’ and interpreted by individuals.

Over many years I had, thus, been exposed to a long and expanding area of sociological and cultural studies – the end result being that identity had become problematized.


Where does this leave us now?

In summary:

In contrast to attempts to pin down identities there is an increased perception of identity as always open to transformation: a process of identification. One does not necessarily have a single, unified identity; one can be always about to become one. There is no core identity for one to keep returning to; there is the striving to locate oneself within differences and particularities.  Identity is constantly able to be made and remade through exploration. One does not have an identity; one is an identity.

If we accept that identity can be socially constructed and reconstructed from fragments, pieced together in different ways, we are better able to comprehend the fluid, dynamic, temporary, contingent nature of identities. Each aspect of identity (ethnic identity; gender identity; class identity; national identity; etc.) is itself fragmentary and builds on sets of historical fragments. We are fragmented individuals in fragmented histories: and yet we are still able to think of ourselves as having an identity.

Whilst recognising the fragmentary elements of an identity, it is still possible to see identity as being a consistent whole within which all those complex fragments play a part in shaping the overall pattern.

There is always the danger that all of this can still feel a bit too individualistic, with a given identity solely belonging to the individual, separate from the social world. Our identity is what separates us from other individuals. At the same time, identity is what places us within the world. Identity is produced and embedded in negotiated social relations between people, within wider social influences. Identity is constantly worked out in the practices of everyday life, via the narratives (of memories, experiences, interpretations etc) people use to constantly make sense of their lives..

Given the contradictions and ambiguities, there is an element of anxiety and self-defence in identities that can be problematic but still have a coherence.

There are still puzzles to be explored.

  • There is more to be done on the nature of identity in the context of ‘being contemporary’.
  • There is more to be done on the place of genetics and epigenetics in identity formation.
  • There is more to be done on the implications of this fragmentary nature of identity, and how fragmentary discourses are held together.

The contemporary world has a number of significant features that set it apart from the social life of the late C20th. We live in an increasingly globalised and hybridised world. There has been a decline in unchallenged reliance on notions of authentic essences and absolute differences.

One narrative in contemporary culture is that the social conditions we live in act to destabilise a sense of self, opening up possibilities of rootlessness and instability. The open, tentative identity becomes a focus for contemporary worrying, contemporary culture and contemporary ways of being.

All of this creates tensions of various kinds. If there is now (for some) less dependence on fixed cultural differences and cultural identity, with scope for greater anxiety about loss of identity and subjectivity, one possible response (for others) is the drive to cling to notions of authenticity and authentic identities, with a desire to construct and maintain identities that can assert differences and distinctions..

In this contemporary, complex and uncertain existence individuals exist in a plurality of social worlds, managing multiple facets, as they fragment their social identities across diverse situations. This is particularly true online.

Social media sites enable people to promote aspects of social behaviours and attitudes. Putting oneself out there is a common form of creating and testing forms of self-identity. This sits neatly alongside the contemporary sense of identity as a flexible, adaptable configuration of fragments. Social media allows individuals to rapidly produce and distribute shifts in identities, or alternative identities, and get instantaneous feedback on these. Such production/feedback cycles can result in celebrity identity, in group-identity reinforcing of values and ideologies, or can result in identity attack through internet trolling.

The fear of not having our identity recognised in the real world is, arguably, being added to by a fear of not being connected virtually to others: by the anxiety of having missed something that would be an opportunity to reinforce our own perceived identity. There is, in the extreme, a need to be always on; constantly consuming and tentatively producing ourselves; always open to capturing the moment and pin it down in relation to ourselves. If it is not recorded then it didn’t really happen? If it didn’t happen then we didn’t exist as our virtual identification.

Social media gets drawn in to sustain identities as they are promoted online. A recent example, for me, was observed on a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This was on my ‘must visit’ list for a long time and I finally got there in 2015. I walked round in the old-fashioned way (as befitted my age of 70 years) studying the paintings that I had especially gone to see. I intended to buy postcards on the way out – mementos of the fact that I had seen the paintings. Others acted differently. At each famous painting there was a knot of younger people lined up to take photos of themselves with the painting and put the picture on-line almost immediately. ‘Here is me with that Starry Night thingy’; ‘Here is me with that Jackson Pollock thingy’ and so on. Each well-known painting was being co-opted into the person’s online presence as part of consolidating some sort of identity. For those young people it was all about them and only tangentially about the art.

So is identity a totally flexible thing? Or a thing that is flexible within some social determinants? Is there no opening for genetically-predetermined facets that shape identity?

Erikson had used the term ‘epigenetic’ in 1968 (in ‘Identity: Youth and Crisis’) to encompass the idea that environment and culture affect how our personality/identity develops through the predetermined sequences, with progress at each stage relying on success (or otherwise) in previous stages.

The term was already well-established by then, but with a variety of meanings. In 2008 a consensus was determined. Epigenetics was taken to relate to stable, heritable changes in genetic activity that arise without changing the underlying genetic code of the DNA sequencing. Chemical tags get attached to sequences of DNA in ways that switch genes on and off. It is not so much that personality-traits get inherited or not, more a case of there being a propensity for sets of gene operations to produce changes in response to social/environmental contexts.

Inherited predispositions get shaped by social interactions, opening up potentials for the developments of aspects of a significant identity that somehow get held together as a unified whole.

There are views that this offers a breakthrough in understanding how ‘memories’ can get passed down generations to be structured into identities of children or even grandchildren. There are also views that this is a much-hyped, over-promoted area of research

I suppose that my current position is that human life is a richly messy thing and identity is a complex notion within that messiness.

Which brings me to the most recent stage of life: Retirement from paid employment after more than forty years in public service. Before retirement I had a clear identity – overdetermined by that employment. I was a long-standing City Hall officer; I was someone looked to for answers around developments linked to learning, to child poverty, to basic kills, or neighbourhood renewals.

After retirement what was I? What was my new identity, after this significant rite-of-passage?

I saw it as made up of a number of fragments, juggling and jostling together for attention and application. I have described this elsewhere (In the post: ‘Personal Fragments of me: What am I adding up to?’ on the site It took a year or two before the answer to the question “And what are you doing now, Geoff?” ceased to be “I used to be …..”  It happened suddenly, when the answer that (unthinkingly) came out was “I am a writer”. I had acknowledged a new identity for myself.

Which sort of brings us back to the beginning. It is fully consistent with Erikson for me to regard myself as still having the potential for development, even at this age. Framing this stage of my life as unfolding around a framework partially structured around a fifteen year creative undertaking (R:2025) aligns with Erikson’s characterisation of this stage as developments around attempts to foster productiveness, integrity and wisdom rather than stagnation, renunciation and despair. It is these ongoing developments, within their wider history and social context, that sustain my identity for now.

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