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Tackling Identity with Constructionist Concepts

1Did you wake up this morning wondering: "What really is my true identity?" Or have you ever seen your favorite television news program do a spot on cultural identity? "Today we ask you the viewer about your cultural identity." Not likely. It is certainly not vital for each of us to be able to expound upon our personal identity issues and definitions (you don't necessarily have to talk about identity to know yourself and to be happy and well-rounded). And yet, with this said, a casual visit to the local "mall" for a dose of people/culture-watching is all that it might take to be reminded of the multitude of social, economic and political institutions that vie every day for a piece of your identity, and the identity of everyone else we share this society with. Some of these identity-mongers can be considered beneficial and welcome influences on our understandings of who we are and how we see the world and life itself. These groups may include your family, friends, religious community and the cultural knowledge or background within which you were raised. Other groups that seek strong identification with themselves or their products include nation states, corporations, entertainment products, political parties and some civic institutions as well. From our observations in the mall, you can see how many aspects of identity have to do with collective identifications common to members of groups, such as those mentioned above. Indeed, much of the recent work in academia on identity analyses how social systems in the current era of late modernity affect identity construction. Yet, if we are to try to glue together a total picture or concept of what identity is, we must also consider the elements of an individual's identity which can be better understood within the unique experiences and feelings of each person. To be sure, it would be a sad reality if the identifications that influence my behavior in the mall encompassed the totality of "my identity".

2To get at what identity is, or might be made of, we can first venture into a tragically brief history lesson on the evolution of the concept of identity. This evolution has been rather drastic over the past few centuries. Chapter One -- Identity before Hegel: in Western society, before the beginning stages of the industrial revolution, you were considered to be born with your identity. It was a mixture, perhaps, of your soul and your situation/position in society and family (i.e. depending on your father's occupation, your gender, ethnic group, etc.). This view varies greatly from the modern, "constructionist" conceptualisation of identity. Chapter Two -- Modern Identity: in intellectual and academic circles much of the constructionist work on identity was begun by Existentialist philosophers such as Nietzsche and Sartre. The most recent inquiries on the issue of identity have been within Cultural Studies and Postmodernist thought. The constructionist view sees identity as "constructed on the back of a recognition of some common origin or shared characteristic with another person or group, or with an idea" (Hall 2). Thus, identity is formed through experiences of, and identification with, certain events, rituals, social institutions and symbols of culture(s) in which an individual was raised and lives. In short, identity is not a given or static; it is an evolving construction within each of us.

3Now that history class is over, perhaps we should highlight three principal concepts from the constructionist's viewpoint on identity. First, cultural environment is of utmost importance to personal and collective identity construction. "Cultural environment" must be seen as encompassing, (1) the plethora of entertainment and information technologies -- cultural spaces that corporations fill with new and reconstructed cultural products --, and (2) more temporal symbolic spaces such as oral and written languages. So, the Power Rangers will have their say in the identities of their young minions, but family heritages will as well, provided that such spaces are available and experienced. Secondly, the amount of cultural/social power that different groups and interests have to influence identity at the individual and collective (group) levels is also a vital element in the identity continuum. The last point is that identity itself is inherently a social phenomenon; it is a product of society, rather than a preexistent element of a being human. Identity is here seen as a way in which people make sense of and understand the self through affiliation and bonds with other people and the signs (i.e., the culture) that societies have created.

4 Manuel Castells, a prolific writer and social observer, offers some compelling ideas about how social structures in modern societies are instrumental in collective identity construction. Castells's hypothesis is that identity construction can be separated into three categories: (1) legitimising identity, which is introduced by the dominant (hegemonic) institutions of society to further reproduce and rationalise their privileges, power and domination vis-à-vis social actors; (2) resistance identity, emerging from actors within cultures that are marginalised by dominant discourses and power relations, and who therefore build "trenches of resistance and survival" against these forces; and (3) project identity, "where social actors, on the basis of whichever cultural materials are available to them, build a new identity that redefines their position in society and, by doing so, seek the transformation of overall social structure" (Castells 8).

5 While Castells's theories deserve more in-depth consideration than can be offered here, for our purposes nevertheless they help to distinguish some of the boundaries and anomalies within identity. Resistance identity, for example, is for me a useful concept for explaining the impact of ethnicity and nationality on how people use various cultural products to build and maintain their identities. In the USA, there are many groups who share common histories, experiences of persecution and discrimination, and culture with other members of the group. African-Americans are the best known and most studied sub-cultural (i.e., not the dominant) cultural/social groups in the USA. Being African-American, or "Black", is experienced by the individual and the group in the home, at school and work, and through the mass media and literature. For Castells, being Black in the USA is a resistance identity which is constructed through negative experiences of bigotry, discrimination and, for some, a lower economic status, and also through positive experiences of Black culture, history and family. Returning briefly to the international scene, resistance identity may also be a reaction to the proliferation of US and English-language cultural products in local settings. With "American" mass media and political-economic dominance (at present in the form of neo-liberal policies), nationalism, regional cultural pride and preservation may involve some resistance to this increasingly intrusive order.

6 We must remember that Castells's typology here deals with collective identity only. This is important to keep in mind, particularly because common stereotypes of people's identities often play on the ethnic and social-economic groups which people may or may not be a part of. An endemic assumption is that an "American", "Black", "Latino", or even a "yuppie" will possess an identity and personality common to their stereotyped groupings.

7One problem with concepts of identity is that it is easy to generalise or overdetermine them.

8 A face-value understanding of legitimising identity, for example, may posit that it is the embodied association and identification with the dominant institutions of society. Yet, if you think about it, most members of society, including members of marginalised groups, possess aspects of a legitimised identification with mainstream society. Most people do identify with capitalist dreams of being important, wealthy and living a specific lifestyle. Furthermore, many people, regardless of ethnicity or other groupings, do participate in the capitalist society, political systems and parties, Western ideologies, religious institutions and values. My point here is not to generalise, but rather to suggest that most people who have or feel some resistance to the dominant society also identify with certain legitimised and accepted aspects of that same society or culture.

9One way to think about the difference between resistance identity and legitimised identity is to consider how members of marginalised groups have access to specialised social and cultural spaces which other groups do not. Blacks have access to the black community, Latinos to Latino communities, homosexuals to homosexual communities. Specific processes of socialisation, identity-building and reaffirmation go on within these groups that non-group members miss out on for a variety of reasons. What members of the dominant society have are opportunities for membership in other specialised spaces that they seek membership in due to interests, unique personalities, physical traits or situational experiences. These cultural phenomena include musical tastes, gangs or civil groups, sports and other school activities, and the list goes on and on. Depending on the level of marginalisation, many members of "resistance" groups may or may not participate in a variety of other identity groups such as these. Furthermore, the type of identification involved may be collective or largely unique to the individual. Even with identities that we may call collective, as with my example of African-American identity, the actual types of identifications, feelings and interpretations that an individual feels with reference to her or his group(s) certainly can vary greatly.

10Another place we might look for a better understanding of identity groups is the wide gamut of communities of interest thriving in cyberspace. The development of online communities-of-interest, which are seen by some writers as allowing breaks from some of the traditional social constraints of modern society, has led to theories and excitement about the postmodern nature of cyberspace. These communities have developed because they allow individuals to express parts of themselves which do not have many outlets in real-world lives. The ability to play with gender and other personal characteristics in chat rooms or MUDs also offers identity variations that are refreshing, exciting and at times empowering for some people (see Bradlee, Lillie). Yet these considerations, like many others that accompany discussions of "post-modern" identity, dwell on the positive. Identity developments can also lead to harmful behaviors and thought processes. The Internet has also grown to offer a plethora of spaces for many people, particularly middle and upper-class men, to engage sexual fetishes, via the use of pornographic Web sites, that certainly can have long-term effects on their identities and perhaps on intimate relations with real people.

11The Internet offers a vast number of cultural spaces that those who have the chance to be online can tap into and identify with. Many of these spaces have been colonised by corporate interests, and more importantly, these capitalist forces are the primary drivers of new software and hardware production that will shape the look and feel, if not the content, of the Net of tomorrow (Schiller). As dangerous and unfortunate as this may be, identity is not yet in danger of being the proxy and total creation of mega-multinationals. Collective identification often has its roots in temporal cultures, tradition, and, for some, resistance identity. The audio-visual and Internet industries might have installed themselves as cultural gatekeepers and producers (a dangerous development in itself), but they cannot create cultural identities so easily. Drawing on the ideas laid out above, we can posit that the individual (whether they know it or not) and the cultural background and family/community influences in which he or she grows up most likely have the largest role.

12Concepts of identity, particularly newer work in the constructionist legacy (the example here being Castells), can serve us well by helping to forge understandings of the role of (1) the individual and (2) group influences in our day-to-day integration of cultural spaces, products and genres into our identities, behaviors and belief systems. Although constructionist ideas are implicitly represented in how much of the popular culture and society articulates "identity", it is all too easy to get caught up in concepts of identity based on bigotry, religious fanaticism or over-generalisation. As you stroll through the mall this week you might then pause to consider, not so much the extent to which our collective selves are casualties of a vapid consumer culture, but rather, I suggest, how to productively conceptualise the complexities of modern identities.