Questions about who we are, who we can be, and who is like and unlike us underpin a vast range of contemporary social issues. What makes our families so important to us? What do the often stark differences between how we self-identify and the way others see and define us reveal about our social world? Why do we attach such significance to 'being ourselves'?
In this new edition of her popular and inviting introduction, Steph Lawler examines a range of important debates about identity. Taking a sociological perspective, she shows how identity is produced and embedded in social relationships, and worked out in the practice of people's everyday lives. She challenges the perception of identity as belonging within the person, arguing instead that it is produced and negotiated between persons. Chapter-by-chapter her book explores topics such as the relationships between lives and life-stories, the continuing significance of kinship in the face of social change, and how taste works to define identity. In particular, the updated edition has a new chapter on identity politics, as well as carefully compiled guides for further reading that reflect the broad importance and impact of these ideas, and the fact that, without understanding identity, we can't adequately begin to understand the social world.
This book is essential reading for upper-level courses across the social sciences that focus on the compelling issues surrounding identity.
Steph Lawler is is Reader in Sociology at Newcastle University, UK.
1. Introduction: identity as a question
2. Stories, memories, identities
3. Who do you think you are? Kinship, inheritance and identity
4. Becoming ourselves: governing and/through identities
5. I desire therefore I am: unconscious selves
6. Masquerading as ourselves: self-impersonation and social life
7. The hidden privileges of identity: on being middle class
8. Identity politics, identity and politics
Afterword: identity ties
1 Introduction: Identity as a Question
However it has been posited in our times and however it presents itself in our reflections, ‘identity’ is not a ‘private matter’ and a ‘private worry’.
(Bauman, 2009: 4)
What is this thing – this identity – which people are supposed to carry around with them?
(Billig, 1995: 7)
‘Identity’ is a difficult term: more or less everyone knows more or less what it means, and yet its precise definition proves slippery. In popular culture, it tends to be explicitly invoked only when it is seen as ‘being in trouble’. So we are accustomed to hear of ‘identity crises’, in which people are not quite sure who they are. Films such as Identity or The Bourne Identity signal identity’s absence or its pathology. Milan Kundera’s novel Identity (1999) is precisely about a perceived absence of, or misunderstanding about, identity, as both primary characters are in important ways unable to recognize each other. Various crises are said to provoke anxieties in people knowing ‘who they really are’. In all these examples, identity is foregrounded through its apparent loss or instability. That is, it becomes visible when it is seen to be missing. This emphasis is mirrored in some academic accounts, in which it is argued (implicitly or explicitly) that identity has become an issue because rapid social changes have led to identity disease (see, for example, Bauman, 2004).
Yet there is a problem with casting identity as something to be considered only when it is in trouble, and that is that ‘normal’, everyday processes of identity-making can too easily become obscured. Put differently, when identity is considered only in terms of an obvious and manifest loss or insecurity, forms of identity which appear not to be lost, insecure or in other ways problematic can be left untheorized and unexplored. They can stand as the normative dimension against which apparently trickier kinds of identity are measured. An emphasis on identity as trouble or as in trouble underlines a belief in a normative (silent, non-troubling) identity, but it also underlines a belief that taken-for-granted forms of identity are unworthy of sociological or other scrutiny.
Against this, one of the central premises of this book is that identity itself is worthy of sociological exploration. This includes the taken-for-granted, supremely ordinary aspects of identity in which all of us are engaged all the time. I want to try to challenge the divide between normal and abnormal forms of identity and to argue that all identity-making is an accomplishment. There is no silent, untroubled, normal or natural identity.
Nevertheless, it is clear that those occasions when identity is seen to have gone wrong, to cause trouble or to be trouble, can cast light on what gets to count as normal or normative forms of identity. It is in the ‘breaching’ of rules and norms that those rules and norms can be most clearly seen (Garfinkel, 2004). In this respect, it is worth considering the ways in which notions of identity are at the heart of many of the contemporary ‘troubles’ of Western1 – and especially anglophone – cultures. When we see trouble, we usually look to identity – ‘what kinds of people do this?’ All kinds of issues, from criminality, to school failure, to an inability to be socially mobile, are attributed to some failing in the person’s self, or identity. This can look like an individualizing move, in that social issues become located within individual persons. However, it is my argument here and throughout this book that identity itself is a social and collective process and not, as Western traditions would have it, a unique and individual possession.
This book is about some of those identity troubles, and it takes them as lenses through which to look at identity itself. It is my argument that looking at responses to identity troubles/troubled identities can tell us a great deal about what gets to count as normal or normative forms of identity. Throughout, I want to consider identities as being socially produced. That is, I consider how, through what mechanisms and in what ways, we can be said to achieve identity. Instead of seeing identity as something located ‘within’ the person – a property of the person, we might say – I consider it as something produced through social relations. As the title of the book implies, I take a specifically sociological approach to the issue of identity. While not all of the theorists or perspectives discussed here are distinctively sociological, my aim has been throughout to use the various works discussed here to develop a sociological analysis. This is about more than just offering a(nother) disciplinary perspective. Taking a sociological approach, I argue, enables the development of an expanded and fundamentally social and collective approach to identity, in contrast to the individualist and psychologistic perspectives that have tended to dominate discussions of this issue.
This chapter is in five parts. In the first, I briefly consider some of the history and context involved in thinking about identity. My aim here is not to provide a thoroughgoing history of the concept, but to highlight some of the key issues. I then discuss some preliminary forms of definition of the term ‘identity’, moving on, in the third section, to consider how identity depends on processes of identification and disidentification. In the fourth section, I discuss some of the problems inherent in seeing identity as an individual attribute – something owned by the person. Finally, I outline the structure of the book.
Why identity? Why now?
It is clear that, in the last decade or so, there has been a proliferation of texts that have taken ‘identity’ as their focus. To what extent does this represent a radical departure in social thought? Stuart Hall (1992) has argued that various developments within twentieth-century social thought have forced an attention to identity. He is referring in particular to developments such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, and what is often termed the ‘linguistic turn’ – a turn to attention given to language as something that does not simply carry meaning, but makes meanings. These developments have not simply highlighted issues of identity: they have problematized identity.
These theoretical developments have been linked with developments in the social world in which, several commentators have argued, questions of identity have become more pressing over the last fifty or so years. Bauman (2004), for example, argues that, with the collapse of apparently fixed and stable identities around gender, nation, etc., there is more of a social fluidity – and insecurity – around identity. Or, more accurately, he argues that the fluidity and insecurity that have always existed around identity have become more apparent. We no longer believe the ‘hoax’ that identity is stable, because social changes such as the collapse of nation-states, globalization, and shifts in family form have made its instability obvious. Bauman notes that the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology showed little interest in explicitly theorizing identity because ‘the problem of identity’ was not a problem of their time: it was not a troubling issue. It has become so, he suggests, because ‘identity’ is now seen to be in trouble: ‘You tend to notice things and put them into the focus of your scrutiny and contemplation only when they vanish, go bust, start to behave oddly or otherwise let you down’ (Bauman, 2004: 17). For Bauman, then, theoretical concern with identity stems from a social concern with identity. Put simply, he argues that sociologists have newly become interested in identity because it has newly arisen as a concern in the social world. As he argues:
[O]nly 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. It would be this sudden fascination with identity, rather than identity itself, that would draw the attention of the classics of sociology were they to have lived long enough to confront it. (Ibid.: 16–17)
Bauman presents a dystopian picture of the contemporary world as one in which we are all cut loose from everything (good and bad) that would anchor us: we live, he suggests, in a time of instant gratification and consumerism, in which loyalties and commitments are always contingent, so that we end relationships with little thought. Bauman’s essay depicts us as disconnected from one another, relying on the virtual communication of the internet and the mobile phone rather than doing the difficult work of maintaining relationships that last. For him, our short attention spans mean that we constantly crave the new in all things. Within this space of choice and consumption, the question ‘who am I?’ – a question that makes sense only when there is seen to be...