At its heart, identity has to do with what makes us unique as well as what makes us similar to others; and, by extension, what makes us individuals and what makes us belong to larger collectives (see Jenkins, 2008). The apparent paradox suggested here is resolved if you think about identification as a process by which we determine the ways that we relate to other people — how we balance the qualities we share with others and the differences between ourselves and others.
In this regard, identity is neither essential nor necessarily stable. As Dowling and McKinnon argue, identity is
something that changes with time, something we construct, something that is closely connected with operations of power in the contemporary world, whether at the level of global politics or that of the politics of everyday life. Here, scholarship is more likely to think about identity in the plural and imagine how human beings inhabit multiple identities in the course of daily life. (2014, p. 628)
Human geographers work with various theoretical approaches toward identity (including, to name a few, feminist, Marxist, post-structuralist, and psychoanalytic theory). Many human geographers borrow loosely from social theorists and sociologists, theorizing identity as relational and socially constructed. We’ll focus on the second part of this description in the next section of this lesson; for now we turn our attention to what it means for identity to be relational.
To say that identity (or, as we will see, identities, plural) is relational is to argue that identity is not founded on some unchanging, essential kernel of selfhood, but rather on people’s social positions relative to one another. This happens through a careful balancing act in which we recognize what differentiates ourselves from others, as well as what creates commonalities between us. Following Hall (1996), we might argue that identity forms through processes that force us, often unconsciously, to reconcile our social positions relative to others—and these processes create social spaces of inclusion and exclusion.
Consequently, in discussions of identity we often hear or see lists of traits that might describe a person. Consider, for example, the designations on forms given out by human resources departments, doctors' offices, or even the US Census Bureau. On any one of these, people might be asked if they are male, female, or intersex; Black, White, Asian, Latino, Native American, or Middle Eastern; man, woman, transgender, or nonbinary; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, agnostic, or atheist; abled or disabled; working class, middle class, upper-middle class, or upper class; straight, gay or lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual; elderly, middle-aged, a young adult, teenager, tween, or preschooler—and this list is far from exhaustive.
Yet notice that each of these sets of traits coalesce around some broader social category. That is, each of the items above reflects some aspect of sex, race, gender, religion, dis/ability, class or socioeconomic status, sexuality, or age. We could add other broad categories such as ethnicity (e.g., Italian American, Pakistani British, etc.) or nationality (i.e., the state in which one claims the right of citizenship), among others.
The point here is that, given a list of categories, anyone can tick off a series of boxes that theoretically indicates some aspect of their identities. How strongly we feel about any of these descriptors may change depending on any number of things—for example, who is in the room, the event or circumstances under which these descriptors are relevant, whatever is happening in the world at large, and so on. For some categories, we might not feel that any of the available options reflect who we are. Finally, how relevant one’s particular position is at any given moment is affected by several factors, many of which are beyond our control. We will revisit this point in the next section of this lesson.
Further complicating our identities is the fact that they are complex and multilayered. Think back to the first exercise in this lesson: was any single answer that you provided sufficient to fully identify you? Chances are, your immediate response is something like, no, it is the collection of those things that makes me who I am.
Consider the various categories (e.g., sex, race, age, religion) presented above. In any given moment we all occupy some position within each of those categories. A person might be simultaneously -- and among other things — Asian (race), Christian (religion), queer (sexuality), a woman (gender), American (nationality), and middle-aged (age). Someone else might be White, Jewish, straight, nonbinary, Israeli, and a teenager. A third might be White, agnostic, straight, a woman, and middle-aged. All three of these individuals are complex people whose life experiences may differ — or be similar — in part as a result of their relative social positions.
One important point to bear in mind is that we can in no case reduce anyone to a single aspect of their identity (no one is ever just a man, just Black, just an atheist, and so on). As Hall puts it, identities “are never unified and, in late modern times, increasingly fragmented and fractured; never singular but multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic discourses, practices and positions” (1996, p. 4). And as we will see in the next section, we cannot say definitively what any given identity means because identity is neither natural nor essential.
Dowling, R. and McKinnon, K. (2014). Identities. In R. Lee, N. Castree, R. Kitchin, V. Lawson, A. Paasi, S. Radcliffe, and C. W. J. Withers (Eds.), The Sage handbook of human geography (pp. 627-648). Sage.
Hall, S. (1996). Introduction: Who needs “identity”? In S. Hall and P. Du Gay (Eds.), Questions of cultural identity (pp. 1-17). Sage.