Proportionately historians are underrepresented — almost absent — from the study of identity as a concept. The emphasis in anthropological, sociological, and geographical studies has been on understanding the nature of the ‘identity divide’ itself: how people relate to it and how they situate themselves with respect to it. One of the most valuable insights that can be taken from these studies is that invoking identity is how boundaries are made visible. That visibility suits identity to historical analysis — though historians would do well to steer clear of the using term, as it does nothing to enhance clarity. What I mean as writer by using identity in a text may not be what you as a reader think I mean and vice versa, were the tables turned, because I cannot know what you believe the word means. In this presentation alone the word appears more times than I wish to count, and the meaning has varied, requiring that at least four additional and very different definitions be set out in instances where — were this not a piece in which I was making a particular point about the slipperiness of the term — eliminating the word and relying solely on the meaning supplied in parenthesis would probably have enhanced clarity.
Nevertheless, recognizing identity as a signal of contest enables examination of when, where, and why ideas of difference came to the fore or receded from view. In terms of historical analysis, how that difference is described or defined and whether the difference is called an ‘identity’ or something else is not of central importance. What matters is that difference becomes an issue in some contexts and not in others. Those contexts need to be examined. Simply ascribing a name to a subject group because the name is ‘old’ is not a means of ensuring historical accuracy, achieving better description, or maintaining objective neutrality. One must ask: what contest did the name arise from? What relation does use of the name perpetuate? In terms of reflexivity: if it is necessary to perpetuate that relation linguistically to support one’s argument — why is that so? How is this different from othering? What would charting the identity divides that one’s work creates, or supports, say about one’s relation to historiographical debate? If, as Said remarked, “the challenge is to connect [past texts] with the imperial process of which they were manifestly and unconcealedly a part,” then understanding uses made of identity — in past contexts, but most particularly in one’s own present text(s) — matters.
Published 1 March 2010