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Identity is...


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There are many different ways of understanding 'identity', from the simple 'me' that we all believe we are to complex considerations found in domains such as philosophy, ideology and cultural studies.


Identity first may be considered as a single entity, what Maturana and Varela called a 'unity'. It is singular thing with a clear defining boundary that can be named.

A unity is separated by its boundaries and recognized by the differences with other unities. 'I' am not 'you'. There may be a singular, authoritative Other that defines the the unity.

Identity is the I, the self, the coherent person I see in the mirror (although, as Lacan points out, that image is not without its troubles). It may be cloaked by the many mechanisms of coping, but there is assumed to be a true self, the 'real me' hidden inside.

Depersonalized, identity is given to an object or human subject. It is a human role created by ideology and culture into which we are interpellated and where we accept that given position and all the rules and implications therein.


Beyond the simple unity, identity can be seen as having separate components.

Freud described the id, ego and super ego, each a separate part of the person. Most notably, there is conscious and unconscious elements to identity, the awake 'me' who thinks he is in charge of the bus and the deep and dark unconscious that is increasingly proven to have a significant say in what 'I' think, believe, feel and do and hence who I am.

In multiple-personality theory, we become a collection of separate identities. A person can even have sub-identities so separate, they may not seem to know one another. Closer in, I am a different person at work, at play and at home. I am also a sum of my histories and am hence a five-year old boy as well a fifty-something year old man.


Beyond the cohesive collection, the spectrum of identity can be stretched to a consideration of being more a kit of parts with some common theme. The individual parts may be related partially and temporarily with other parts. There is no clear boundary and the actual extent identity is hard to name. The question of 'is' vs. 'is not' may be clear for some things, but not for others.

Crowds have identity, as do nations, and each reflects back to the individual. We connect with others such that they become an essential part of who we are.

Collectives have varying form over time. They can come together and disperse, forming and deforming identity.


Classic identity

The classic approaches to identity tend to be simpler, easier, and open to criticism. I know who 'I' am most of the time and do not worry about who I might also be.

The appearance of individual identity is, in classic psychology, something that appears to happen over time and in infant stages, as in Freud's theories and Lacanian psychoanalysis.

'Finding the self' is a game that we play in therapy and religion. It is assumed that if we did deep enough and cure the fractured layers, then a beautiful 'real me' will emerge.

Critical identity

In the deconstructive and perhaps irreducible annals of postmodernism and critical theory, the question of identity hazes out into deeper questions of difficult detail. Identity is not a thing but a process, a continuing response to external stimuli.

Identities are constructed through difference. Contrast leads to separation and opposition from which identity emerges. I am created by others and otherness.

In order to recognise myself, I have to be separate from my self. The mirror is an early such means of separation.

Identities are created through the process of identification. You interpellate me and I accept the subject position. And as I invest in that role, I increasingly accept and adopt its rules, benefits and limitations. And what you say is driven by culture and ideology.

Identities are emergent, appearing in the inter-subjective space between people as they speak. I realize who I am and then change that realization with each conversation. Power creates and destroys. I am shaped and reshaped each day.

Identities are imperfect. We have bounded rationality and limited time. In seeking closure on perceptions and concepts, we draw the line in the sand and say 'this is me', even though we may know that this is limited.

Most of the pages in this section on identity are based on this more complex position and explore more recent considerations.


Language is shot through with identity. First, there is the shady identity of the person who is speaking that may emerge through the words spoken. Then there are the other identities named and created in words. In writing, Barthes claims the death of the author to liberate the reader from guessing at what is intended.

Language creates unities. Each word describes a separate thing, and without separation a word is not possible. To name something, we first have to perceive and conceive of its separation from other things.

Language enables and creates differences and opposites. Black makes white. Good makes bad. I make not-me and not-me makes I.

Language is also time- and context-dependent. Although the dictionary provides basic definitions, the meaning of words, both individually and in combination, changes with the situation, the person and the moment. What I said yesterday means something different when I think about it now.

In the end, 'identity' is a word. It, in itself, is subject to variation in interpretation. So hey! -- you can be who you want to be! Just like that.

See also

Maturana, H. and Varela, F. (1992), The Tree of Knowledge, Shambala

Hall, S. (1986). Introduction: Who needs identity? in Questions of cultural identity, eds. S. Hall and P. Du Gay, London: Sage


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