Chapter 1: The Identity Labyrinth

‘Identity’ is more than a household term. Judging by the ceaseless stream of references to this word, transmitted through the mainstream and social media, identity has become the dominant cultural marker of our times. Yet, despite its constant usage, identity is not an attribute that anyone can take for granted. Individuals and groups self-consciously lecture people about how they want to be identified. Among the younger generations it has become fashionable to preface a statement with the words, ‘I identify as …’. That individuals feel obliged to broadcast their identity and to wear it on their sleeves is symptomatic of its tentative and ambiguous qualities. The statement ‘I identify as …’ invites validation but it also hints at the possibility of being misunderstood, misrecognised and even overlooked and rejected.

The statement ‘I identify as …’ conveys the impression that individuals get to decide their identity. And certainly, there is a veritable industry devoted to helping people customise their very own individual identity. Businesses promise to help find the ‘real you’ and provide you with an identity that will allow you to be different and stand out from the rest. Indeed, the imperative of differentiating individuals and groups is one of the main cultural drivers of the never-ending demand for identities. As one media company – appropriately named Identity − explains its mission: ‘In a world where sameness is on the rise, Identity wins by imprinting every project with a visual sophistication and refreshing individuality’.1

Given the importance which individuals and society attach to identity, it is unsurprising that it has become a focus of anxiety and conflict. Indeed, the great emphasis that individuals confer on their identity intimates a sense of insecurity towards it. People who are confident about who they are and understand their place in the world do not feel the need to introduce themselves with the phrase ‘I identify as …’. Nor would they need to precede their comments on the media with phrases like ‘as a working-class woman’, or ‘as a man of colour’, or as a ‘gay author’, or as a ‘Cis white woman’.

Most people have not yet adopted the usage of the cliché, ‘I identify as …’. Nevertheless, disquiet and defensiveness pervade deliberations on this subject. People intuit that identities can be lost and, in the age of digital technology, easily stolen. Businesses have responded to this concern by marketing what they brand as ‘trusted identity’. One company sells a product called Augmented Identity, which it claims is an identity ‘that ensures privacy and trust and guarantees secure, authenticated and verifiable transactions’. The company claims that its product ‘allows us to truly enjoy life – because securing our identity is key to making our world a safer place’.2

Unfortunately, the experience of recent decades indicates that the goal of ‘securing our identity’ tends to elude most of us, most of the time. The problems associated with the project of ‘securing our identity’ are eloquently captured by the idiom of ‘identity crisis’. The term originates from the 1940s and is associated with the work of the psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson observed that many American soldiers returning from the Second World War found that ‘their lives no longer hung together’ and they struggled to find their place in the world.3

Erikson’s concept of identity crisis drew attention to the challenge faced by young people as they attempted to cultivate a stable identity in order to develop ‘the capacity of the ego to sustain sameness and continuity’.4 His attempt to understand and explain what he saw as a difficult but normal developmental phase faced by young people provided important insights into some of the tensions faced by adolescents as they made their transition to adulthood. At the time ‘identity crisis’ was a rarely used clinical term that referred to a phase in the psychological development of adolescents.

In the 21st century, usage of the term ‘the crisis of identity’ transcends the world of adolescents and has insinuated itself into everyday life. Erikson himself was surprised at the ease and the speed with which the concept of identity crisis was reconfigured to apply to a bewildering variety of situations.5 The phrase ‘identity crisis’ ceased to be focused on adolescents struggling to break free from their dependence on their parents and develop the psychological resources necessary for attaining adulthood. In 1965, the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliot Jaques invented the concept of the mid-life crisis. He noted that the crisis occurred around the age of 35 and in some cases lasted until a person reached 65 years of age.6 The last decade of the 20th century saw the invention of a new age-related crisis, the ‘quarter-life crisis’: a condition of anxiety about the future, which afflicts people in their 20s.7

In 1968, Erikson reflected that during the previous 20 years, identity’s ‘popular usage has become so varied and its conceptual context so expanded that the time may seem to have come for a better and final delimitation of what identity is and what it is not’.8 However, instead of the meaning of this word being clarified and its usage confined to a limited range of circumstances, its application has continued to expand and expand.

When Erikson cautioned his public about the promiscuous use of identity in the 1960s, he pointed to what now seems like a relatively few examples. A few years later the term ‘identity crisis’ was used to describe the predicament faced by individuals of all ages, minorities, ethnic groups, women, and public and private institutions. Even America was said to face a crisis of identity. By the late 1970s, the very term ‘identity’ was almost always associated with a problem if not a crisis. The coupling of identity with crisis has continued to expand and is used to highlight the challenges faced by just about any institution, person, group or idea. To take some random examples featured on Google: ‘The Identity Crisis of Sustainable Development’,9 ‘The Identity Crisis of Feminist Theory’,10 ‘The Identity Crisis of the Ultra Rich’,11 ‘The Online Identity Crisis’.12

Back in 1968, Erikson also drew attention to the emergence of a phenomenon that would become far more prominent in the decades to follow. He pointed to an unprecedented explosion of identity-talk by the 1960s counter-cultural movement as well as by other sections of society. ‘We are witnessing an exacerbated “identity-consciousness”’, he stated. He added:

For whereas twenty years ago we gingerly suggested that some young people might be suffering from a more or less unconscious identity conflict, a certain type tells us in no uncertain terms, and with the dramatic outer display of what we once considered to be inner secrets, that yes, indeed, they have an identity conflict – and they wear it on their sleeves.13

Erikson’s claim that the inner secrets surrounding people’s internal identity conflicts were transformed into public statements anticipated the emergence of a culture where many people do wear their identity on their sleeves. Suddenly people’s personal troubles were hurled into the public domain. The sociologist Erving Goffman, in his influential study, Stigma (1963), invented the phrase ‘politics of identity’. Goffman portrayed identity as a ‘public performance’.

But not even Erikson could have imagined the phenomenal ascendancy of what he characterised as identity consciousness. His reference to the wearing of identity on your sleeves was a metaphorical one. Today, people literally wear their identity on their sleeves. With so much at stake, many regard the identity they wear on their sleeves as a precious, private possession. The imperative of protecting the ownership of one’s identity has in recent years led to an explosion of outrage directed at people who supposedly appropriate the hairstyles, clothes, the food recipes or the tattoos associated with other people’s identity. These disputes about cultural appropriation often touch on petty details of what people look like.

With so much emotional, financial and political investment in identity it has inevitably become a site of conflict. Media commentators often draw attention to the heated rows that surround the politicisation of identity. However, disputes over identity are not confined to the political sphere; they play a prominent role in many spheres of public and private life. Take the case of Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis players of recent times. She was vilified for arguing that it was not fair for trans-women to compete in women’s sports. In response to her comment, Navratilova was dropped as ambassador by the LGBT sports body, Athlete Ally for her views.

Navratilova had stated in a tweet that ‘You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women’. This statement was condemned by Rachel MacKinnon, a trans cyclist, who denounced Navratilova for trading ‘on age-old stereotypes and stigma against trans-women’.14 Sections of the media were at a loss to know who to support in this conflict: Navratilova, a well-known advocate of lesbian and gay rights, or MacKinnon, a vociferous proponent of trans rights. The question of who is and who is not a woman has turned into a highly polarised dispute between some feminists and lesbians on one side and trans activists on the other. Evidently the statement, ‘I identify as …’ does not always resolve the matter of how we want to be seen.

With so much attention focused on identity, it is easy to overlook the fact that it is rarely clear what is meant by this term. During the past 50 years numerous commentaries have underlined the elusive and imprecise usage of the word ‘identity’. A review of the concept in 1972 complained that Erikson’s use of identity ‘means something quite definite’ but it was ‘terribly elusive’. The reviewer wrote that the ‘subtlety of Eriksonian identity helps account for the vagueness that soon enveloped the term, for his ideas are of the sort that cannot bear being popularized without at the same time being blunted and muddied’.15 The psychiatrist Robert Coles noted in the 1970s that the terms identity and identity crisis had become ‘the purest of clichés’.16 ‘Identity is a rather bewildering concept, not least because it is associated with an incredible range of behaviour and human faculties’, wrote the sociologist Sarah Moore.17

The social psychologist, Roy Baumeister contends that despite the ceaseless references to identity, ‘we lack a clear idea of what identity actually is’.18 Numerous explorations of the meaning of identity allude to its multiple and often nebulous usage. One study of the concept of identity suggests that it is the very ambiguity of its meaning that permits its usage in a wide variety of situations.19 It seems evident that lack of precision about its use has not inhibited the growing importance of the term because it offers a cultural idiom or metaphor through which individuals and groups believe they can gain meaning about the human condition.

The ease with which the concepts of identity crisis and identity have been detached from their clinical settings points to a wider demand for a concept that can be used to illuminate the human predicament. Originally definitions of identity emphasised the sense of sameness and continuity felt by individuals towards themselves and their place in the world. Since the 1960s the term has been used as a synonym for ‘who you are’, ‘how you see yourself’ and ‘how others see you’. At the same time identity is frequently portrayed as something external to a person that must be found. The search for an identity often conveys a consumerist impulse of finding the right fit for yourself. So, too, does the idea of experimenting with identities. The concept of identity experimentation communicates the idea of choice. Identities that are the product of experimentation often refer to relatively superficial aspects of life such as hair colour, style of clothes, genre of music, or the ribbon or wristband you wear.20

Since the 1970s numerous experts have drawn attention to the increasing demand for the concept of identity. John Marx, a sociologist, noted that in the mid-1970s there was a ‘precipitous upsurge in both public and scientific preoccupation with questions of identity’. He added that ‘“Identity crises” are held responsible for almost every conceivable kind of dissatisfaction and disagreement – ranging from generational and marital discord to foreign policy and international relations’.21 A decade later, in the mid-1980s, a group of sociologists pointed to the rapid growth in the everyday usage of the term ‘identity crisis’. They concluded that ‘we know of no other concept that emerged so rapidly and visibly both as a technical term and stock cultural coin’.22

Since the 1980s interest in identity has exploded. Time and again scholars and commentators point to an increase in demand for identity. Towards the end of the 1990s, the renowned sociologist Stuart Hall observed that ‘there has been a veritable discursive explosion in recent years around the concept of “identity”’.23 At the beginning of the 21st century, the political scientist Leonie Huddy echoed the same refrain: ‘interest in the concept of identity has grown exponentially during the last decade or so within both the humanities and social sciences’.24 A few years later Zygmunt Bauman, one of the leading sociological voices of the post-war era, reflected on what appeared to him to be the sudden prominence of identity in public discussions. He commented:

It is a puzzle and challenge to sociology – if you recall that only a few decades ago ‘identity’ was nowhere near the centre of our thoughts, remaining but an object of philosophical meditation. Today, though, ‘identity’ is the ‘loudest talk in town’, the burning issue on everybody’s mind and tongue.25

In his discussion of the ‘puzzle’ of identity, Bauman made a crucial point that is often overlooked by commentators. He wrote that if the 19th century ‘classics of sociology’ had ‘lived long enough to confront it’, they would be interested in ‘this sudden fascination with identity, rather than identity itself’.

Identity has become a central theme in western societies because it provides a cultural framework through which people can define themselves as individuals and also as part of wider social constituencies. Gerald Izenberg contends that, between 1940 and 1950, the problem of the self was ‘fundamentally redefined as that of personal identity’.26 In a similar vein, the sociologist Ralph Turner wrote that identity provided a psychological narrative for the age-old problem of human alienation.27

Other features of human existence, such as the meaning of belonging to a community, an ethnic group or a nation, have also been redefined as an identity issue. The widespread usage of phrases like ‘parenting identity’ or ‘professional identity’ indicates that what is at stake is not just the redefinition of the self, but also the impulse to give meaning to it in a wide variety of institutional settings. The historian Peter Mandler has drawn attention to the ‘linguistic drift’ of the use of this term as the meanings attached to identity slipped away from its original meaning. He uses the term ‘vernacularisation’ to highlight the way social science concepts like identity become integral to everyday language and lose touch with their original meaning.28

Identity is best grasped as a cultural frame through which a variety of different concerns can be interpreted and communicated throughout society. In everyday language and communication, it works as a rhetorical idiom that captures the mood of uncertainty and insecurity that many of us experience in our everyday life. For many, identity is not merely a problem − it also constitutes a promise of validation and self-realisation. Those who seek salvation in the affirmation of their identities are supported by an impressive body of academic literature that provides a positive spin on what Erikson described as the problem of ‘exacerbated identity consciousness’.29 Individuals are encouraged to construct or invent their identity and to experiment with it.

A surprisingly new phenomenon

People living in the 21st century can easily imagine that concern with identity has been a constant dimension of the human experience. In numerous instances, commentaries portray society’s preoccupation with identity as the contemporary version of an age-old problem. Such observations are based on the premise that the search for identity or the impulse to gain validation for it are inherent to the human condition. From this standpoint, the problem of identity transcends different historical epochs and different cultures.

Most accounts treat identity as an eternal feature of human history. The distinguished social scientist Shmuel Eisenstadt asserted that constructions of collective identities ‘have been going on in all human societies throughout history’.30 A Handbook of Identity Development stated that ‘identity has become an anchoring concept for the understanding of sameness and differences across human communities’.31 Others qualify their representation of the problem of identity as integral to the human condition with the proviso that the intensity with which the issue preoccupies people varies in different historical circumstances. One study stated that ‘in every age men ask in some form the question: Who am I? Where do I belong?’ It added that ‘the degree of awareness and the kind of emphasis with which these questions are asked vary at different periods’.32

This tendency to presume that in every age identity preoccupies human society also extends to reflections on identity politics. Both supporters and opponents assume that identity politics has an age-old history. One critic claimed that ‘before the identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s, there was the identity politics of the 1930s and 1940s’.33 A fervent advocate of identity politics dismisses the belief that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. He exhorted his opponents to ‘pick up a history book’ and added, ‘identity politics is as old as America itself’.34

In recent times, the American political scientist Frank Fukuyama has claimed that ‘human societies cannot get away from identity or identity politics’.35 Fukuyama contends that identity grows out of the ‘distinction between one’s true inner self and the outer world of social rule’. He asserts that people’s inner self constitutes the foundation for human dignity, which in turn is always in search of a positive recognition from others. He believes that the tension and disjunction ‘between one’s inside and one’s outside’ provides the basis for the formation of concern identity. The author contends that the idea of identity was born during the Reformation, when Martin Luther valorised the inner self over external institutions.36

Undoubtedly, Luther’s affirmation of people’s conscience and inner life played an important role in freeing individual from external constraint. But Luther’s focus on people’s inner life did not lead directly to a demand for recognition from other people or institutions. His exploration of his inner self, like those of others who followed him, may have led individuals to raise questions about their selves, but that had little in common with the way that identity has been conceptualised during the past 50 or 60 years. In contrast to the current era, where identity is often coupled with the consciousness of difference and uniqueness, in Luther’s time identity referred to sameness.

Martin Luther would have found the contemporary conceptualisation of identity incomprehensible. Luther’s predicament was framed and interpreted by him and his followers as a ‘crisis of faith’ and not a crisis of identity. As Izenberg points out, ‘faith was a matter of divine truth and theological, not psychological need’.37 The tension between inner self and external conditions was dealt with through a moral orientation that could be answered through existing universal terms. Luther was not interested in finding his ‘true self’ or acquire a unique identity but to find a way of living up to the expectations of universally valid moral commitments. Indeed − as we argue later in this book − it was the unravelling of moral authority, which was most dramatically expressed through a crisis of socialisation, that has led to the rise and rise of identity consciousness and the tendency to perceive the problem of the self through the optics of an identity crisis.

It is important to realise that concern with the self – which is a recurrent theme in history – was not until the post-Second World War era framed through the medium of identity. Erich Fromm, in his Escape From Freedom (1941), used the concept of identity in relation to his concern with what he saw as the loss of the individual self in totalitarian societies. However, identity as ‘substantive self-definition, self-definition as something, which purportedly determines what I believe and do’, came into ‘common usage with work of Erikson’.38

Erikson wrote that the concept of identity emerged in response to the problems faced by individuals in the interwar era and the early 1940s. ‘And so it comes about that we begin to conceptualize matters of identity at the very time in history when they become a problem’, he stated.39 He added, ‘for we do so in a country which attempts to make a super identity out of all the identities imported by constituent immigrants’.40 The problems to which he alluded were particularly noteworthy in the United States, and the social and cultural concerns of this society significantly influenced the way that the crisis of identity was portrayed and perceived throughout the world. This point is confirmed by a rigorous study of the semantic history of identity, which concludes that the formal conceptualisation of identity emerged first in the United States in response to a growing concern about what it meant to be an American.41

Far from there being a universal concern to ‘possess an identity’, this issue was absent in public deliberations throughout most of human history. Sigmund Freud famously talked of his Jewish identity in a speech in 1926 to refer to his inner self. His passing reference to identity can be construed as an acknowledgement of his ambivalence about his place in the world and anticipates the subsequent usage of the term. Arguably, it was the ambiguous position of Jews within European societies that led Freud to attempt to find a way of accounting for the Jewish dimension of his personality. Up to this point the very rare references to Jewish identity in published accounts referred to the need to preserve continuity with a Judaic distinct tradition.42

Izenberg points out that the first exploration of identity in the contemporary meaning of the term is to be found in Virginia Woolf’s interwar novel, Orlando. He argues that it was the disruption to people’s sense of who they were caused by the First World War that led to questions being raised about the meaning of identity.43 However, it would take until the 1940s and 1950s for the idea that identity was in crisis to crystallise and gain widespread public recognition.

The most authoritative account of the historical specificity of identity is provided by Marie Moran’s Identity and Capitalism (2015). Moran offers a compelling case for her argument, that identity is a very new idea and it ‘never “mattered” prior to the 1960s because it did not in fact exist or operate as a shared political and cultural idea until the 1960s’.44 She points out that ‘until the 1950s, or even the 1960s and 1970s, there was no discussion of sexual identity, ethnic identity, political identity, national identity, corporate identity, brand identity, identity crisis or “losing” or “finding” one’s identity’. My own research into identity-related concepts indicates that, insofar as writers referred to national identity in the 19th century, their aim was to underline the sense of moral continuity of a community. As one Scottish clergyman stated in 1844; ‘Upon what principle then, can the moral feeling of nations be explained, if not that of national identity which we are attempting to establish?’45

In the 19th century identity was essentially a moral construct and possessed a meaning that is very different from that of today. Our examination of the database of Google N Gram Reader indicates that in the 19th century concern with the stability and continuity of identity was often captured by the concept of moral identity. In its 19th century usage, this concept linked moral authority to an idea of identity that conveyed a sense of stability and immutability. Moral identity referred to its quality of sameness and continuity. Theologians and conservative commentators used this phrase to underline the importance of historical continuity. As a tract issued in 1827 by the American Unitarian Association indicated, ‘the moral identity once broken, all other continuity goes for nothing, all other sameness is illusory’.46

It is only since the 1960s that identity has become a central category of the social sciences and is widely cited in both academic and popular monographs. Matters were different before the Second World War. For example, the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, published in the early 1930s, ‘carried no entry at all for identity’. It did have an entry titled ‘Identification’, which dealt with fingerprinting and other techniques of criminal investigation.47 Whatever the significance of the demand for recognition, it was not perceived or represented through the medium of identity at this point in time. In contrast to 1930, the 1968 edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences carried a substantial article on ‘Identity, psychosocial’, and another on ‘Identification, political’.

Although it is not possible to fix a date when identity emerged as an influential concept, all the evidence indicates that it was during the 1950s that identity became a rhetorical idiom through which people came to know and understand themselves and construct an understanding of what it means to be a human. The subsequent expansion of identity-talk was paralleled by the growing authority of psychology. It was the authority of psychology that provided the symbolic and intellectual resources necessary for propelling identity consciousness forward and providing an answer to the question of what it means to be a human.

Thinkers try to answer the question from the symbols historically available to them. Traditionally, answers came from mythical, religious, theological, humanistic, philosophical, and everyday world views. In the past century, the rise of psychological and social sciences provided yet other symbols and models for addressing this question… ‘Identity’ became the translation of this era’s answer to the seminal question.48

Although in recent times identity has mutated into a cultural attribute, in its early phase it worked as a moral and later as a psychological concept.

Even in the field of psychology, it took some time for identity to become an important focus of interest. There is no diagnostic category for identity in the 1953 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. The 1980 edition introduced the category of ‘Gender Identity Disorder’, and in 1994 ‘Personality Identity Disorder’ replaced ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’.49 In the 1994 DSM, ‘Identity Disorder’ was downgraded to ‘Identity Problem’ on the grounds that apprehension over one’s identity was so widespread that it could be considered as part of the new normal. In 2003, ‘Identity Problem’ was removed altogether, presumably because it was so widespread and normal that what clinicians had to worry about were those people who did not have such problems.

A 2010 review of the PsychoInfo noted that 54 per cent of all published material on this database that contained ‘identity’ as a keyword had been published in the previous decade, that is, after 1999. It indicated that 80 per cent of all identity-related articles were published between 1989 and 2010. Less than 4 per cent of articles with keyword ‘identity’ were published before 1970. The author of this study concluded that between 1970 and 2010 the previous interest of psychology in personality and character had been steadily displaced by identity.50

The relatively recent interest of psychology in the topic of identity indicates that reflections on the internal life of an individual or with the self have only been interpreted through the concept of identity since the late 1960s.51 More fundamentally, even people’s reflections on their selves need not be conducted through psychological concepts. The self has not always been a psychologically informed phenomenon. ‘The mistake commonly made in histories of psychology is the assumption that all self-objectification must necessarily be psychological in character’, writes Kurt Danziger in his study of how psychology developed its language.52

It is not possible to grasp the true significance of western society’s adoption of the rhetoric of identity without situating it within a wider historical context. The current tendency to eternalise this development coincides with a propensity to overlook the specific features of the predicament facing individuals in 21st century society. A sensibility of historical amnesia dominates contemporary intellectual culture, which encourages a tendency to read history backwards.

Without attending to the historical dimension of the ascendancy of identity rhetoric, its analysis will tend to fail to capture the underlying cultural, social and political trends that have sustained its growing influence. To capture the distinct features of the cultural conflicts surrounding identity and its politicisation it is essential to logically reconstruct the historical influences that have led to their crystallisation.

The importance of a historical dimension for the topic of this study is also essential since what people think about identity and how it is conceptualised are themselves historically contingent. In its earliest formulation in the 1940s, the search for identity was often depicted in negative terms. Erich Fromm, who played a pioneering role in the development of the identity concept and was the first to use the term in relation to a crisis, argued that it was the loss or the weakening of the self that created the need to ‘feel a sense of identity’. He feared that the need for identity tended to encourage conformism. In his The Sane Society (1955), Fromm expressed his concern about people’s need for a sense of identity in the following negative terms:

What could be more obvious than the fact that people are willing to risk their lives to give up their love, to surrender their freedom, to sacrifice their own thoughts, for the sake of being one of the herd, of conforming, and thus acquiring a sense of identity, even though it is an illusory one.53

Fromm’s statement reflected a widely shared consensus that feared that the need for a sense of identity might become a driver of the kind of destructive passions that led to fascism in the interwar era. William Whyte’s bestseller, The Organization Man (1956), drew a direct link between the conformist ethos prevailing in American society and its growing preoccupation with individual identity. Whyte’s views were characteristic of the attitude of critical commentators in the 1950s. Such sentiments stand in direct contrast to the more celebratory tone of post-1960s identity politics.

Taking a long view of developments, the historian Eric Hobsbawm explained that ‘until the 1960s’, the ‘problems of uncertain identity were confined to special border zones of politics’.54 Although the politicisation of identity has its origins in the 1960s, the term itself only acquired usage in the 1970s. To understand the genealogy of the usage of the term ‘identity politics’ we consulted the Nexis database of newspaper and periodical sources. The first reference to this term in a news story was in The New York Times on 24 June 1990.55 By this time the term was widely used on campuses and by political activists but it had not yet acquired a noticeable presence in mainstream public life. There were 8 references to it in 1992 and 25 the year after. In 1995, it rose to 143. In 2000 there were 331 hits for ‘identity politics’, rising to 1140 in 2010. From this point onwards there was a steady year-on-year increase to 8923 in 2017, after which the number exploded further.56

The changing perceptions of identity

Most commentaries of the ascendancy of identity tend to attribute its pervasive influence to the rapid pace of social and cultural change in what is often characterised as the post-modern era. This theme had already been emphasised by a member of Erikson’s intellectual circle, the psychologist Kenneth Keniston, in the early 1960s. Keniston believed that in the rapidly changing world experienced in the United States it was difficult, if not impossible, to socialise young people to the point that they could gain stable identities. ‘If growing up were merely a matter of becoming “socialized”: that is of learning how to “fit into” society, it is hard to see how anyone could grow up at all in modern America, for the society into which young people will someday “fit” remains to be developed or even imagined’, asserted Keniston.57

Keniston concluded that in a rapidly changing world the previous patterns of socialisation need to give way to a more explicit and conscious emphasis on identity formation. ‘Oversimplifying’, he stated, ‘we might say that socialization is the main problem in a society where there are known and stable roles for children to fit into; but in a rapidly changing society like ours, identity formation increasingly replaces socialization in importance’ (my emp.).58 Keniston noted that even the ‘achievement of identity’ becomes ‘more difficult in a time of rapid change’.59 The main problem to which Keniston alluded was the absence of a stable system of values and ideals through which young people’s identity could gain definition and acquire stability. He wrote that ‘one of the chief tasks of identity formation is the creation of a sense of self that will link the past, the present and the future’. But what happens when ‘the generational past becomes ever more distant, and when the future is more and more unpredictable’? Keniston’s response to this question was that in such circumstances ‘continuity requires more work, more creative effort’.60

During the past 60 years different versions of the thesis linking a supposedly rapidly changing world to the crisis of identity have been constantly reiterated by academics and media commentators. It is as if every generation of commentators feels compelled to attribute the status of omnipotence to the autonomous power of change. Change itself is depicted as an all-powerful force that destabilises or decentres people’s identities. It is often represented through a language that hints at a fundamental rupture with the past. Terms like Globalisation, Risk Society, New Modernity, Late Modernity, Post-Modernity and Liquid Society draw attention to a runaway world of ceaseless change and fluidity that continually unravel individual and social arrangements.61

Arguments about the impact of rapid change often focus on its disorienting impact and influence on identity formation. They frequently refer to the impossibility of stable identity formation. The following statement clearly illustrates this approach:

Perhaps stability and continuity in personal identity was true in the past – although that seems unlikely – but it is increasingly difficult, if not possible to achieve in the rapidly changing contemporary world. A stable, continuous personal identity over the entire life-cycle seems not merely atypical, but socially pathological and retarded in a post-industrial, post-modern world.62

From this perspective a stable identity is not merely impossible to achieve but it is also undesirable to possess in the so-called post-modern world.

Previously the loss of stable identity had been presented as a problem. In more recent times the difficulty of adopting a stable identity is frequently portrayed as a positive development by commentators whose preference is for identities that are constructed or invented. Post-modernist writers dismiss what they depict as traditional ideals of the self and of identity. They assert that ‘the fixed subject of liberal humanistic thinking is an anachronism that should be replaced by a more flexible individual whose identity is fluid, contingent, and socially constructed’.63 Within the academic world – where these sentiments exercise considerable influence – such writers make a virtue out of the destabilisation of identity.

The claim that the post-modern condition undermines a ‘unitary conception of identity’ is often justified by pointing to a variety of social and cultural developments that have altered the structuring of society. Robert Dunn points to the disruption of traditional hierarchies, the influence of media consumption and the proliferation of lifestyles. He contends that ‘a series of changes involving migration, transnational capital, communication technologies, and cultural exportation … have been destabilizing identity in the West and throughout the world’.64

Explanations that dwell on the fluidity and instability of identity frequently imply that it is something that is chosen or invented. From this standpoint, identity is a pre-existing entity waiting to be constructed. This argument was forcefully advocated by Bauman, who contends that identity is ‘revealed to us as something to be invented rather than discovered’.65

Not everyone agrees that the project of inventing identity is on balance a positive development. Critics have drawn attention to the compulsive imperative of identity construction that leads individuals down a neurotic consumerist path. The sociologist Charles Lemert has pointed to the pathologies of inventing yourself through body surgery, therapies and sexual experimentation. He raised concerns about Internet lives ‘who essentially lose themselves in the self-transformation they undertake trying to catch up with the world’. He described this as a ‘disturbing trend of early twenty-first century life’.66 This sentiment is echoed by Anthony Elliott, who writes of a ‘reinvention craze’ driving people to undertake painful and expensive procedures to alter the way they look and ‘re-create their identities’. Examples of these ‘reinvented identity practices’ are cosmetic surgery, superfast weight loss diets and body augmentation.67

Cultural narratives of identity that emphasise its fluid and decentred character are implicitly and sometimes explicitly challenged by representatives of groups founded on an essentialist claim to identity. So, paradoxically the declaration of individual construction and choice best expressed through the rhetoric of ‘I identify as …’ coexists with an outlook that perceives identity as destiny. It seems that many individuals and groups simply cannot let go of the conviction, that though sometimes elusive, they are born with or into a pre-given identity. Paradoxically, the fantasy of invention and reinvention of identity runs in parallel with the belief that we ‘are born this way’. Lady Gaga’s 2011 hit, ‘Born This Way’ captures the fatalistic sensibility that people are born to identify as gay or lesbian. From this perspective sexual orientation is biological destiny and not a matter of choice. As she puts it in her song; ‘there ain’t no other way’:

Oh there ain’t no other way

Baby I was born this way

Baby I was born this way

Oh there ain’t no other way

Baby I was born this way.68

Groups that are wedded to their collective identity often insist that there is something naturally or culturally pre-given in their identity. The trend towards this fossilisation of identity is most systematically expressed by those who draw on biology and genetics to legitimate their identity status. For some time now there have been attempts to discover a so-called ‘gay gene’ that would endow this form of sexual identity with the legitimacy of science.69 While some have claimed that there are genetic markers that co-relate with homosexuality, others have suggested that the origin of sexual orientation is epigenetic in character. Epigenetics focuses on the way that environmental factors can modify people’s genes and potentially influence human attitudes and behaviour.70

Many members of the gay, lesbian and trans communities embrace the genetically based version of sexual orientation because they believe that it normalises and validates their identities. Since the turn of the 21st century adherents of the claim that people are ‘born this way’, and their sexual orientation is genetically based, have often adopted a fiercely dogmatic orientation to those who question their view. Those who challenge the view that sexual orientation is innate have become targets of anger and abuse. In 2012, the actress Cynthia Nixon provoked a backlash from the gay community when she told The New York Times that homosexuality was a personal choice for her. One gay blogger, John Aravorsis, reacted to her supposedly anti-gay comment by asserting that ‘every religious right hate monger is now going to quote this woman every single time they want to deny us our civil rights’.71

Identity has become a focus of heated controversy. Some perceive it as an outcome of choice; others as naturally endowed. Many groups and individuals regard their identity as the defining feature of their existence, while others attach little significance to it. Certainly, the view that identity is fluid and is an accomplishment to be realised or chosen exists in an uneasy relationship with an essentialist, fossilised account that emphasises its opposite. Since the 1970s supporters of identity politics have played an important role in contributing to the ascendancy of an essentialist version of identity.

Identity: a problem of normativity

Explanations that associate identity-related problems with the consequences of the rapid pace of change have a point insofar as they draw attention to the challenge that people face when forced to adapt to new circumstances. However, rapid change has been a continuous feature of the modern era and was widely commented on a long time before the emergence of the idiom of identity. Explanations that attribute causal significance to change cannot account for the fluctuating perceptions of identity during the past century. Such theories cannot adequately explain why it shot into such prominence in the early 1970s, and why it has become so thoroughly politicised since the 1990s. Change itself is not simply an autonomous and objective phenomenon. It is perceived and interpreted through a system of meaning. How change is perceived is fundamentally a cultural accomplishment, as is the significance that communities and individuals attach to identity.

Stable identities are underpinned by clarity about meaning, which in turn draws on authoritative moral guidance. Without such guidance, people’s identities become decentred. Identity, and the crisis that often surrounds it, is inextricably linked to the confusion that often envelops conflicts of moral norms.

Erikson wrote at length of a ‘normative identity crisis’ facing adolescents. The chapters that follow show that the crisis of norms is not merely confined to adolescents. The most useful way to understand the phenomenon encompassed by the term ‘identity crisis’ is as a sublimated expression of the unravelling of moral authority and the crisis of socialisation. Often, it is through the experience of an identity crisis that people and groups become aware of the absence of an authoritative moral authority that could give guidance and meaning to their lives. Erikson drew attention to this development when he noted that ‘cultural identity’ required that ‘certain fundamentals of morality’ be taken ‘for granted’.72

Identity and the crisis that often surrounds it, as well as its politicisation, are inextricably linked to the confusion that frequently envelops conflicts over moral norms. This process is particularly evident in the domain of socialisation and, as we argue, it is the way that socialisation is managed that creates the conditions for the crystallisation of the contemporary form of identity crisis and the potential for its politicisation.

Concern about identity, and the political controversies that surround it, constitutes one of the defining elements of the current zeitgeist. But a long time before identity became such a prominent public and political issue, the confusions surrounding it had become a matter of concern to those who feared that its loss could pose an insurmountable challenge to the healthy conduct of public and private life. Decades before the term ‘identity crisis’ was invented in the 1940s, psychologists, educators, political commentators and policy makers devoted their energy to tackle this, as yet unnamed, problem facing individuals in society.

Concern about character and personality, the mass man, the alienation of people from society, the apparent attractiveness of totalitarian ideology, the growing influence of a conformist culture, the difficulty that adolescents had in making the transition to adulthood were some of the themes that touched on issues which were eventually voiced through the term, the ‘crisis of identity’.

The meaning of identity has fundamentally changed over the centuries. Historically, identity has been associated with the characteristics of sameness and continuity. This outlook was articulated by the philosopher William James in his The Principle of Psychology (1890). James stated that:

The sense of our own personal identity, then, is exactly like any one of our other perceptions of sameness among phenomena. It is a conclusion grounded either on the resemblance in a fundamental respect, or on the continuity before the mind, of the phenomena compared.73

However, since it was first formulated by the ancient Greeks in this manner, identity’s meaning has undergone important alterations. Whereas throughout most history, identity conveyed the connotation of sameness and continuity, in recent decades it has become associated with the imperative of differentiation. The contrast between continuity and constant construction, invention and reinvention of identity allows us to understand what is its most interesting and distinct feature in the 21st century. It has also become a prominent feature of identity politics, where the segmentation of identity groups into new ones has led to the proliferation of different groups.

Whereas for pre-modern and many modern societies the qualities of sameness and continuity were held in high regard, in our times the quest for flexibility, differentiation and difference has acquired positive connotations. As Baumeister noted, ‘the increased desire for identity appears to be an increased desire for differentiation not continuity’.74 The impulse towards differentiation is to a significant degree encouraged by the cultural valuation of individuality. The consciousness of the individual self was the precondition for the emergence of a sense of identity. However, the intensification of the consciousness of the individual self did not directly lead to the growing interest in identity. As we discuss in the chapters to follow, for a variety of reasons the meaning of the self altered, as it became bereft of moral clarity and began to understand itself through the medium of psychology. As the type of individuality valued and sought changed so did the way that people understood their self.

The American social critic Christopher Lasch noted in the 1970s that the kind of individuality with which people identified had altered. He commented that individuality which was realised through work and vocation had given way to one that sought fame and aspired to celebrityhood regardless of achievement.75 Although some scholars trace the origins of this trend back into the 19th century, it was in the late 1960s and 1970s that the trends outlined by Lasch acquired systematic and culturally dominant form.76

The detachment of individuality from achievement encouraged the process of differentiation from others. Since the scope for the acquisition of genuine differentiation is relatively limited, the quest for it heightened concern with one’s identity. ‘The obstacles to the individuality created by living in a modern collective society make the appetite for differentiation difficult to satisfy’, concluded Baumeister. He added that ‘the quest for identity expresses that problem and that appetite’.77

The shift from gaining identity through work and achievement to an aspiration to be affirmed regardless of achievement has significantly contributed to the destabilisation of identity. In comparison to the early 20th century, it has also endowed the self with a relatively passive quality. It – far more than the impact of rapid change – has contributed to disorganisation of the individual sense of identity. A strong sense of self and a stable identity is accomplished through active work. ‘Identity is safest of course, where it is grounded in activities’, commented Erikson. He believed that it was through the acquisition of vocation and work that young people resolved their identity crisis.78

The relationship between a sense of active agency and the development of a stable identity is well explained by the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt stated that people’s identity is realised through action. She believed that it is action that discloses our unique identities. She wrote that ‘in acting and speaking, men show who they really are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world’.79

The contemporary world has become estranged from Erikson’s and Arendt’s version of an identity developed through the act of agency and work. Today identity is often perceived as bestowed by nature or by membership in a particular community. In contrast to its previous version, personhood has acquired a strikingly passive form. In western societies, identities are treated as sacred and ready-made objects that need to be validated and esteemed regardless of someone’s accomplishment. The obligation to respect identity has acquired the character of an ideological dogma in relation to group identities. In such cases identities are conferred by either nature, institutions or cultural conventions, rather than earned.

The main driver of the problems under discussion is the detachment of identity from normativity. It is the detachment from moral norms that has lent identity an unstable, arbitrary and fluid form. Most accounts claim that the fluidity of identity is a consequence of the post-modern condition and the rapid acceleration of change. While these conditions influence the forms that identity assumes, I contend that the decisive influence on the problematisation of identity is a lack of clarity about the moral values that underpin the self. As the philosopher Christine Korsgaard pointed out, ‘you can’t maintain the integrity you need in order to be an agent with your own identity on any terms short of morality itself’.80 According to Korsgaard, normative standards provide the principles through ‘which we achieve the psychic unity that makes agency possible’. Psychic unity with society’s moral norms provides the normative resources for what Korsgaard characterises as self-constitution, the possession of which is the precondition for a dynamic sense of identity.81

What is generally referred to as the crisis of identity should be interpreted as a response to the unravelling of moral authority. In turn, the weakening of moral authority has both undermined the status of adulthood and led to a crisis of socialisation. The significance of this development has acquired its most striking expression in society’s struggle to endow meaning to people’s identity. This development was eloquently explained by the sociologist Peter Berger and his collaborators in their classic study, The Homeless Mind (1974). The authors of this text drew attention to the weakening of what they characterised as the ‘identity defining powers of institutions’. Their emphasis on the difficulty that society’s institutions had in providing norms and values through which individuals could lend meaning to their values drew attention to what would – with the passing of time − turn into one of the greatest problems facing public life. At the time, they wrote:

Stable identities (and this also means identities that will be subjectively plausible), can only emerge in reciprocity with stable social contexts. Therefore, there is a deep uncertainty about contemporary identity. Put differently, there is a built-in identity crisis in the contemporary situation.82

Almost half a century later the ‘deep uncertainty’ about identity to which they referred has become a far greater source of conflict and tension than the authors could have imagined in the 1970s. Erikson’s crisis of identity has become a source of conflict and is one of the main drivers of a process that frequently goes under the name of a culture war. As we shall see, surprisingly this conflict begins around disputes about how children should be raised and socialised.

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