GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

3.3 Identity: An Introduction

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Much like culture, identity is a slippery concept. In its most basic form, we think of identity as answering the question “Who are you?” — but this is a far more complicated question than it first seems.

Exercise 1:
Consider the question “who are you?” Set a timer for 30 seconds. Use that time to list as many answers for yourself to that question as you can. Don’t think about your answers as you list them; just go with whatever comes to mind during the time allowed. Do not move on to the next exercise until you have completed this one.

Exercise 2:
After finishing the exercise above, consider your response. How many answers did you come up with? Did you run out of time, or were there more answers you could have provided? Are there commonalities or patterns that you notice within your answers? Do you give equal weight to all of your answers? If not, which ones do you prioritize? Do you think your answers would stay the same regardless of who was asking? Do you think your answers would stay the same regardless of where you were when you were asked? For both of these last two questions: why or why not?

As you may have discovered in the exercises above, it is difficult to pin a person’s identity to a single answer. If you were to compare your answers with other students, you might find that there are several different ways that people respond to the question.

Perhaps because of this complexity, the question of identity is a thread that has wound its way through the humanities and social sciences. A substantial corpus of scholarship has developed around identity in a number of disciplines, including philosophy (luminaries such as Plato, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and Kant are just a starting point; see also the work of Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Daniel Dennett for vastly different perspectives), psychology (see, e.g., the work of Freud, Erikson, or Tajfel), anthropology (see, e.g., the work of Anthony Cohen, Nigel Rapoport, or Martin Sökefeld), and sociology (from Erving Goffman to Sheldon Stryker). More recently, fields such as cognitive science and neuroscience have taken up identity as an area of research (see, e.g., Bechtel, 1988; Clark, 2000; Pickersgill et al., 2011; or Sheepers & Derks, 2016).

There is no clear consensus on what identity means or what about it is worthy of studying: a philosopher might be concerned with identity as some essential quality, or with the sameness of a thing to itself (does a person remain identical over the course of life?); a psychologist might define it as a person’s sense of self that emerges during adolescence; and a sociologist might emphasize a distinction between personal identity and group or collective identity.

Given the wide array of perspectives on identity, there has been considerable debate about its effectiveness as an analytical tool. Just as we saw with culture, some theorists argue that identity is a meaningless or analytically useless concept because it accounts for too much of human experience, and suggest that it should be jettisoned entirely in favor of other, more precisely defined terms such as “self-understanding,” or more processual terms like “identification” (see, e.g., Brubaker & Cooper, 2000). Despite the theoretical critiques leveled at identity, it remains an important concept within human geography, particularly within the subfields of cultural geography and political geography.

Identity in human geography


Geographers borrow from sociologists and social theorists, including the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall, whose later publications provided a major theoretical framework for the ways that human geographers think about identity. Hall combined strands of discourse theory and psychoanalytic theory to argue that identity is multiple, contingent, and always in a process of becoming rather than a state of being. Yet while Hall is a prominent figure, some geographers overlook serious theoretical discussions of identity and instead rely on looser, less articulated notions that come from a wide variety of theoretical perspectives (see Dowling & McKinnon, 2014 for a deeper discussion).

Despite this eclectic approach, we generally agree on a few basics: first, that identities are relational (that is, they are based on the positions we occupy in various social categories), but also complex, and socially constructed (that is, they depend in part on dynamic external factors). Geographers rarely talk about the formation of identity (this is better situated within the domain of psychology), but many would argue that identity results from both internal and external processes (i.e., self-identity and categorization, respectively). The remainder of this lesson will explore these aspects of identity in greater detail. The final section of this lesson will consider the role of place in identity.

Recommended Reading:

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.


Additional References:

Bechtel, W. (1988). Philosophy of mind: An overview for cognitive science. Erlbaum.

Brubaker, R., and Cooper, F. (2000). Beyond “identity.” Theory and Society, 29(1), 1-47.

Clark, A. (2000). Mindware: An introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science. Oxford University Press.

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.

Pickersgill, M., Cunningham-Burley, S., and Martin, P. (2011). Constituting neurologic subjects: Neuroscience, subjectivity and the mundane significance of the brain. Subjectivity, 4(3), 346-365.

Scheepers, D., and Derks, B. (2016). Revisiting social identity theory from a neuroscience perspective. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11, 74-78.