How to think about social identities

What is involved in having a national or racial or sexual identity? What do we mean when we say that a person has a Canadian or a Haitian identity? How can we best think about the mental frameworks and models that serve as lenses through which people understand themselves and their places in history?

Most basically, an identity is a set of beliefs and stories about one’s home and one’s people. These ideas often involve answers to questions like these: Who am I? What groups do I belong to? How did my group get to the current situation? Where did we come from? And perhaps, who are my enemies? So an identity often involves a narrative, a creation story, or perhaps a remembrance of a long chain of disasters and crimes. Identity and collective memory are intertwined; monuments, icons, and flags help to set the way points in the history of a people and the collective emotions that this group experiences.

Identities are interwoven with narratives and folk histories. They have to do with the stories we tell each other about who we are; how our histories brought us to this place; and what large events shaped us as a “people”. And, as Benedict Anderson so eloquently demonstrated in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, these stories are more often than not fictions of various kinds, promulgated by individuals and groups who have an interest in shaping collective consciousness in one way or another.

Identities are also often closely linked with performances of various kinds — holidays, commemorations, funerals and weddings, marches and demonstrations. It is not surprising that historians like Michael Kammen (Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture) give great attention to monuments and celebrations; these are the tangible items that contribute to the formation of an identity as an American, a Black Panther, a Serb, or a Holocaust survivor.

There is an interesting corollary question: are there requirements of consistency that appear to govern the contents of a national or racial identity? If a person’s identity involves adherence to the idea of gender equality, does this imply that the person will also value racial equality? If a person values loyalty to his friends, will he or she also be likely to value promise-keeping or truth-telling to strangers?

We might expect consistency among the elements of an identity if we assumed that individuals are reflective agents, weighing and comparing the various components of their identity against each other. This kind of mental process might be expected to lead individuals to notice a similarity between “equality between men and women” and “equality between Christians and Muslims”, and might adjust his bigoted beliefs about Muslims in order to make them more compatible with his beliefs about gender equality. If, on the other hand, we think of individuals as unreflective and dogmatic, then there may be less ground for expecting a gradual adjustment of beliefs into a more consistent whole. On that scenario, the components of a person’s identity are more similar to the likes and aversions of the palate than the considered judgments of morality.

Finally, it is also clear — as the theorists of intersectionality have demonstrated (for example, Patricia Hill Collins; link) — that most of us possess multiple identities at the same time. We are Irish, European, lesbian, working class, anti-fascist, and Green, all at the same time. And the imperatives of the several identities we wear are often different in the political actions that they call for. Here again the question of consistency arises: how are we to reconcile these different calls to action? Is there an underlying consistency of values, or are the orienting values of one’s anti-fascism largely independent from one’s commitments to a pro-environmentalist agenda?

It is clear that various kinds of identities are highly relevant to politics and collective action. Appeals to identity solidarities have powerful effects on mobilization and political activization. But given that identities are not primeval, it is also clear that identities are themselves the subject of political struggle. Leaders, activists, and organizations have powerful interests in shaping the content and focus of the identities that are realized in the groups and individuals around them.

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