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. Read more
As with so many useful terms, there is no simple single understanding of ‘contemporary’. It is still being explored and in some ways may never be fully settled on. At the same time, there are some clear lines of sight that help people see a way through.
Contemporary, by its roots, is about time and belonging together. That apparent clarity is immediately one source of difficulty. Its common-sense understanding has contemporary relating to particular things coexisting within this current time period (Contemporary = of the present) but (a) there is a different sense in which anything in the past was contemporary with other things in that same past period. (Everything is contemporary in its own time – so there is nothing especially contemporary about today); and (b) not everything that exists together in the here and now might be judged to be contemporary in its values.
Maybe one answer is to declare that the currently contemporary relates to the now of today and simply ‘is’, as something that cannot be generalised beyond its very fragmented existence. This sees the contemporary as being a highly diverse set of outlooks (more so than things have been in the past) – with diversity in cultural production, exchange, consumption, materials, meanings …. and with little expectation of being able to neatly draw boundaries to contain it. That, in turn, leads back to contemporary being able to encompass everything and anything, so long as it is thought of as contemporary.
This contemporary-as-diversity arises from an understanding that we currently live in a very different kind of world, and that any socially-constructed activity will reflect things that are shaped by a unique set of stronger, broader, different forces. This brings some paradoxes and puzzles: The world (physically and socially) is more connected than ever before but, at the same time, feels more fragmented. There are widespread, almost universal, influences but these play out differently everywhere: Think global; Think local.
This was also true, in its own way, of past eras of expanding trade and industrialisation. There is something particularly new and different in the nature of those same influences, making the contemporary what it is today. What is so specific about the shaping forces of now? What is it within anything contemporary that clearly marks it out as such: as being characteristic of twenty-first century existence rather than of any previous age? Read more