Understanding the Concept of Identity

Identity is a tricky idea to pin down. Many people think of identity as simple and fixed, but it’s not. Many other people think that identity is changeable and malleable, but even they misunderstand how and why identity is changeable and malleable, and end up using the word (and the idea) poorly. Let’s start with a few things that identity isn’t, to help us figure out how to think about what all it can be.

Identity is not:

Fixed — identity is not something that remains the same throughout one’s life. It changes over time. It can also change from situation to situation, over very short spans of time.

Singular — identity is not something of which a person has only one. There isn’t a “true” self that exists within a person, with everything else being layers of interpretation. One’s identity can be one thing in the morning at breakfast, and another thing in the afternoon during class, yet both are still fully identities.

A possession — identity is not something that someone owns. It is created in the interplay of people, and is therefore made and remade constantly.

Controlled by any one person — identity is not held in the control of a single entity, and therefore is not subject to definition by any one entity (even the person claiming the identity).

Lots of people want identity to be a noun because nouns are real and concrete. They’re things. I can own a thing. I can say it’s mine, and tell you how to treat it, and make the rules about it. There’s a feeling of intimacy with an identity because it seems definitional, and if something defines me, I want to be the one in control of it. In order to have more control of it, I want it to be fixed and concrete. When it’s fixed in form just the way I like it, then I can be comfortable with it defining me. And that cycle of justifications becomes a self-supporting set of arguments. But what if we break that cycle? What if we crack it open at the moment when an identity defines someone?

Identity is not:

Definitional — identity does not make a person who they are. It does not shape, or limit, or solidify someone in a particular form, or category, or manner.

If identity doesn’t define us, then what does it do? If it’s not who we are in a definitional sense, then what is it, and what does it mean to say “I am an X, a Y, or a Z”? Well, if it’s not telling me what something is, the best it can be doing is telling what something is like. It can describe, rather than define.

Identity is:

Descriptive — identity attempts to capture what something means in a given context. By doing so, this understanding of identity acknowledges that context is never absent, and it is always shaping the thing it contextualizes.

If we understand identity as descriptive, rather than definitional, then it becomes easier to understand all of the things above that identity is not. Descriptions aren’t fixed; they can vary from person to person. Descriptions aren’t controlled by one person; some people love cheesecake, while others hate it. If we can now wrap our heads around some of those things identity isn’t, what else can our understanding of identity as description rather than definition tell us about what identity is?

Identity is:

Fluid — identity changes across time and space. Who I am tomorrow may not be very much like who I am today due to a whole host of factors.

Situational — identity can vary from one situation to the next. In the context of my friends, I may know myself as a fun and funny person, but in another context of a conversation with my boss, I may be very serious and focused. I’m one me, but my identity in each situation is different.

Communicative — identity is the result of people’s ideas, words, and actions interacting with one another. I can send out a message by wearing a shirt with a logo on it, but how that shirt is given meaning by someone else is beyond my control. I send out the message, others take it in and interpret it, just like linguistic communication.

At this point, some people may be throwing their hands up and thinking, “if identity is just a description, and it’s all so variable, then what does it matter?” Well, it matters quite a lot because, even though identity is not a definition in some existential way, people still pretend or misunderstand that identities define, and then they layer other meanings on top of those definitions. In other words…

Identity is:

Operative — identity does stuff.

If I decide that the way I describe you is somehow fundamentally who you are, then I can use that identity as a justification for all sorts of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, actions, etc. Even further, if I have some sort of power that I can wield, my feelings and beliefs can become actions that affect you greatly. So, while identity is descriptive, rather than definitional, we shouldn’t let ourselves fall into the trap of thinking it is unimportant. Likewise, we shouldn’t fall into the other trap of using the often inappropriate importance given to identities to try to prove that they are definitions.

More Key Terms and Big Ideas
Habitus—Norms, in Other Words
What’s a Theory?