Interpreting Identity: A Case Study of Semantic Paradox in Red River Historiography, Part I

Previous versions: Norma J. Hall, “Interpreting Identity: A Case Study of Semantic Paradox in Red River Historiography,” paper presented to History 7001, Ph.D Seminar, instructor Lewis R. Fischer (St. John’s NL.: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2005); and Norma J. Hall, “Contesting Identity: A Confrontation with Semantic Paradox in Historiography,” paper presented to Writing New Histories of Indigeneity and Imperialism: A Workshop (University of Manitoba, 21 May 2008).






[A] fundamentally static notion of identity … has been the core of cultural thought during the era of imperialism. Throughout the exchange between Europeans and their ‘others’ that began systematically half a millennium ago, the one idea that has scarcely varied is that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ each quite settled, clear, unassailably self-evident [italics in original].

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism[1]

This e-text challenges the idea that identity is static by examining the problem of a lack of clarity surrounding the defining and naming of a particular subject population in historiography.

I highlight the problematic nature of the word identity (hereafter adapting the convention of italicizing identity where it is being discussed as a typographical symbol — the word as it appears on a page of text — so that for the purpose of this text the phrase ‘the word identity’ is signified as identity).

I explain why the problem exists, and propose to turn the problem to historiographical advantage.

I demonstrate that to investigate identity, with the intent of discovering exactly what concepts it is tied to, and which of these can be regarded as essential to describing its meaning in historiography, is to discover contrast and contradiction. Over time, use of the word has generated complex patterns as difficult to unravel as the proverbial Gordian knot. Attempts to fix identity by clarifying definitions and their conceptual underpinnings have failed to prevent the appearance of new convolutions or to undo existing confusions.

While work dedicated to delineating the meaning of identity undertaken by researchers in other academic fields is useful, it is my contention that, for the historian (and I am speaking only of the historian), engaging with identity at the level of definition is an elaborate exercise in avoiding the point. The promise for future historical analysis does not lie in examining identity as an attribute per se. Rather, the potential rests in recognizing its utility as a semiotic sign: the utility rests in being aware of what is signified by acts of calling into being an identity (by which I mean an abstract attribute presumed to distinguish one individual or group from another individual or group on the basis of a difference in their association to something else).

In the text that follows, to differentiate between identity as an abstract attribute and identity representing the phrase ‘the word identity’: where the conceptual side of identity is being discussed the word is not italicized. Unless otherwise indicated, the meaning intended for the non-italicized word is that stated at the close of the above paragraph:

identity is an abstract attribute presumed to distinguish one individual or group from another individual or group on the basis of a difference in their association to something else.

Where the word is meant to signify some other meaning, an alternate definition is supplied in parenthesis. These alternative examples of multiple meanings are further differentiated by colour coding. This is confusing, I know, but raising an alarm about the inherently confusing nature of ‘identity talk’ is what this text is about.

Typographical Key to intended meaning:
identity (italicized) = ‘the word identity’
identity (not italicized) = an abstract attribute presumed to distinguish one individual or group from another individual or group on the basis of a difference in their association to something else
identity (accompanied by parenthetical definition) = alternate meaning
identity (accompanied by different parenthetical definition) = a different alternate meaning


My approach to terminology is based on that of historian Philip Gleason, social theorists Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, and political scientist James D. Fearon.[2] As these researchers have shown, identity is difficult to discuss clearly. The word has a wide range of meanings and possible interpretations.

My organizational approach reflects the findings of the aforementioned researchers regarding difficulties that arise when identity is discussed without firm parameters: the term can lead everywhere and nowhere.[3]

I have limited the range of my investigation by framing my inquiry along lines set out by Gleason twenty years ago. Tracing the semantic history of identity in a case study that parallels his work, I survey a range of literature addressing identity formation. However, where Gleason paid special attention to American historiography, I focus on one facet of Canadian historiography in which preoccupation with the ‘issue of identity’ (how to classify people of mixed origins and affiliations) has become increasingly visible.[4]

I begin with a brief introduction to the history of the avowal and ascription of identity in Red River Settlement, 1810-1870, to indicate the kinds of problems that are associated with historiographical investigations of identity [see below for an explanation of the terms avowal and ascription].[5]

I then describe the conceptual problems that identity as a word presents in the humanities and social sciences in general; noting their historical origins; sketching their progress through to the end of the nineteenth century; then turning to Red River historiography to trace semantic changes that coincided with the historiography’s formal beginning and continued through to the present.

Defining Avowal and Ascription:

Avowal = “the perceived identity enacted by the self or group members in a given communication situation.”

Ascription = “perceptions of others’ identities and self’s perception of identities attributed to self by others.”[6]


Referencing Red River historiography supplies a means of instancing conceptual variations through time and of demonstrating identity’s lack of straightforward semantic advance while maintaining a sense of chronology.

My study, much like the work of Brubaker, Cooper, and Fearon, validates Gleason’s observation that the ambiguity of identity renders its explanatory value suspect. However, drawing on cross-disciplinary identity work undertaken over the past two decades, I emphasize the relation of identity (word and concept) to contest. Ultimately, I conclude that awareness of this relation allows the historical investigation of context to represent a meaningful contribution to the understanding of identity formation.

Identity Divide


Identity DivideAdapted from Mary Jane Collier’s definition of avowal and ascription, “Researching Cultural Identity: Reconciling Interpretive and Postcolonial Perspectives,” in Communication and Identity Across Cultures, 132-133, and from Sandra Wallman’s social boundary matrix illustrated in Hastings Donnan and Thomas M. Wilson, Borders: Frontiers of Identity Nation and State, 23.

Donnan and Wilson, Borders, 22, following Sandra Wallman, J-K. Ross, and Anthony Cohen, stress that “all social boundaries … are characterised by an interface line between inside and outside as well as an identity line between ‘us’ and ‘them’.” Thus identity becomes the site of relational contest over the meanings imputed to ‘us’ and ‘them’ generated on either side of the divide. Further, they observe that “This interface is between two systems of activity, of organization, or of meaning and … is liable to be characterized by ambiguity and danger.”


View Part II


[1] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), xxv.

[2] Philip Gleason, “Identifying Identity: A Semantic History,” Journal of American History 69, no. 4 (March, 1983): 910-931; Rogers Brubaker, and Frederick Cooper, “Beyond ‘identity’,” Theory and Society 29, no. 1 (February, 2000):1-47; and James D. Fearon, “What is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)?” unpublished paper (3 November 1999), cached at (20 January 2005). Brubaker is a sociologist, Cooper a historian. Fearon based his paper on their findings.

[3] See Gleason, quoted in Fearon, “What is Identity,” 7, also 1-2, 37 n. 50; and Brubaker and Cooper, “Beyond ‘identity’,” 1, 34.

[4] See, for examples, J.M. Bumsted, Thomas Scott’s Body, and Other Essays on Early Manitoba History (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2000), 13, 23; Frits Pannekoek, “Metis Studies: The Development of a Field and New Directions,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, ed. Theodore Binnema, Gerhard J. Ens, and R.C. MacLeod (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2001), 111-112, 119; Heather Devine, “Les Desjarlais: The Development and Dispersal of a Proto-Métis Hunting Band, 1785-1870,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, 129.

[5] See also chart, “Identity Divide,” above. Note that Red River historiography is linked to studies on Western Canadian history, fur trade history and ‘Métis studies.’ My selection of texts is based on criteria set in Norma Hall, “Admitting Enigmatic Identities: Towards studying Métis participation in Transatlantic Shipping as an aspect of North American Aboriginal history from 1815-1914,” essay, History 7000, Memorial University of Newfoundland (13 Dec 2004), of which the original version of this paper was an extension. I focus on works that use the word ‘identity’ with the exception of those included for the purpose of contrast.

[6] Mary Jane Collier, “Researching Cultural Identity: Reconciling Interpretive and Postcolonial Perspectives,” in Communication and Identity Across Cultures, edited by Dolores V. Tanno, and Alberto González (London, UK: Sage Publications, 1998), 132-133.

Published 28 February 2010


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