Interpreting Identity, Part IV

View Part I, View Part II, View Part III


Analysis of the Identity Paradox


The problem that From Rupert’s Land to Canada exemplifies is one Fearon associated with the use of identity in academic circles generally. Identity, at once familiar and obscure, has come to signify a variable with supposed explanatory properties that on closer inspection proves to be a conceptual ‘black box’ that is in turn in need of explanation.[1] There may be significant content inside, or, as Gleason, Brubaker and Cooper have argued, there may be nothing at all.[2] At some point, if the assumption that identity matters is to remain a primary argument — in history and historiography or any other area of the social sciences and humanities — then it is reasonable to assume a definition of the variable must be formulated.

Fearon attempted as much in 1999. He compiled a list of fourteen different definitions of the term, gleaned from academic works written between 1966 and 1992 and chosen for the “remarkable” range, complexity, and difference that they exhibited.[3] Operating on the assumption that because the word identity allows a wide range of meanings yet is easily applied in “everyday discourse,” Fearon posited that semantic logic was in place. Further, he argued that, even if the increasingly diffuse nature of identity’s meaning is read as reflective of an increasingly fractured post-colonial, post-structural, or post-modern condition, a core concept must be ‘identifiable’; some meaning must lend identity functionality and explain its popularity as a verbal sign. After engaging in an essentializing exercise reminiscent of Locke, Fearon demonstrated that “a short and adequate summary statement” that captured the range of meanings his sample displayed could be devised.[4] However, the result of Locke’s similar attempt to wrest a definite sense from identity — from a different but equally diffuse set of perceptions with as many permutations — should be kept in mind. The synchronic winnowing-down of contesting definitions to one representative concept, though admirable, ignores the diachronic dimension. The passage of time is as important as the separation in space to the creation of analytical difference.[5] The Humean objection still has resonance: given an ongoing propensity for practicing linguistic freedom, how can the multitude of different perceptions of identity that human beings are demonstrably capable of inventing be reasonably constrained by a single static definition? The history of identity indicates that it cannot.

The question then is, what are historians to make of identity? Clearly the word is problematic. That a relatively ‘new’ term (semantically speaking), figures so ubiquitously in the humanities and social sciences with so little attention paid to its highly flexible nature raises questions as to the viability of its historiographical application.[6] First, as Fearon notes: “Identity is a new concept and not something that people have eternally needed or sought as such. If they were trying to establish, defend, or protect their identities, they thought about what they were doing in different terms.”[7] Second, given that “identity is socially constructed and historically contingent,” the presumption that present concepts of identity can be applied transhistorically and transculturally — so as to study ‘identity formation’ in people originating in Red River who travelled to other centres for example — rests on an assumption that it is possible to supply an unambiguous definition of identity.[8] However, to date, the best attempts of analysts from a variety of disciplines to unravel the complicated interconnections between contending definitions of identity have succeeded in establishing only that “We are still confused, but on a higher level.”[9]

Application of the logic of linguistics reveals that the inescapable paradox at the heart of the identity problem lies in the word itself. To define identity is to “identify the essential qualities” of identity — in short, to identify identity (see Semantic Equation: Identifying Identity below).[10]

midentity squared

Semantic Equation: Identifying Identity


A conundrum arises from the fact that the nature of the word’s intension (“the set of properties that characterizes all and only members of the extension of the word; the extension is all the things that the concept, word, or phrase applies to”) leaves it insoluble in its own terms.[11] It is simply not possible to effect disambiguation using an ambiguous term.


Circumventing Paradox through Historical Method

It is possible to develop an alternate appreciation of identity by picking up on a cue from Gleason. He modified his comment that, “a good deal of what passes for discussion of identity is little more than portentous incoherence,” by calling for “confidence in the traditional critical skills of the historical craft.” With their application, he maintained, “historians can make a contribution to better understanding of a significant problem.” He advised that a first step to dealing with the identity problem included being “highly critical in assessing the way others talk about it.”[12] A critical assessment of the examples cited in this paper indicates that no diminution of the vagueness of the term has taken place as a result of historical inquiry, nor is any amount of critical evaluation likely to resolve differences over identity’s use. As Joan Wallach Scott has observed, “Those who would codify the meanings of words fight a losing battle … Neither Oxford dons nor the Académie Française has been entirely able to stem the tide, to capture and fix meanings free of the play of human invention and imagination.”[13] It is not feasible to legislate the removal of identity from academic lexicon; and historiographically dishonest to expunge the term from existing text. However, the problem of the proliferation of identity work can be turned to advantage. If the obfuscating twists of identity’s linguistic knot cannot be undone and laid out in a straight line, then — as Alexander III of Macedonia’s reaction to the impossible knot devised by Gordius of Phrygia suggests — the productive course is to note the substance from which the knot is made (see illustration below).[14] Because there is no shortage of material on identity, its consistency can be evaluated.

Gordian knot

Piotr Pieranski’s  knot, from illustration in Keith Devlin, “Untying the Gordian Knot,” The Mathematical Association of America. Sept. 2001, devlin_9_01.html (accessed16 Mar. 2005). Physicist Piotr Pieranski has devised a computer program that demonstrates it is mathematically possible to construct a ‘knot’ (shown in the illustration) resistant to algorithmetic ‘untying.’

Disagreements surrounding the term identity are significant in that the complex pattern they generate obscures what is a very simple association. Contest is the one constant associated with identity.[15] In all of the works from all of the disciplines that I examined there is a straightforward correlation between the two. Uniformly, whether a discussion is about identity as an attribute or a term, something is being overtly or covertly contested: perhaps control of territory, land use or resources; possibly control of populations, communal groups or family members; or, in some cases, control of knowledge, ideologies or discourse.[16]

Perceiving discussions of identity as signals of contest opens up a number of possibilities for future study. There it is an opportunity to enhance appreciation of what it means to invoke identity as an attribute of individual people and populations regardless of what meaning is intended or taken for granted. If identity as word and concept cannot be considered a stable, objective and therefore useful ‘fact,’ it still has historiographical utility when recognized as both socially constructed, and as a semantic device which signals the creation of a subjectively determined difference.[17]


Understanding Identity as a Signal of Difference

Findings from other academic disciplines furnish a useful theoretical basis from which to work towards making use of identity in texts. As a starting point, it is important to recognize that identity exists as a response to contest — not as an independent, finite and bounded ‘thing.’ Currently, as the term is often used, identity serves to give a name to a ‘consciousness of affiliation’ among people with like interests. However, as Brubaker and Cooper point out, such a “soft definition” easily leads to the conflation of identity with terms like community.[18] I find it more useful to think of identity as an abstract attribute that is 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 is therefore separate from, but dependent on, a consciousness of affiliation.

The relation between identity and consciousness of affiliation appears to arise as follows. Consciousness of affiliation enables the formation of a group, an entity that is presumed adequate to meeting a challenge posed by another affiliation of individuals who are perceived to be unlike in interests. The reason for forming a group entity is straightforward. An encounter with a group perceived to hold different interests leads to the presumption of a difference in intent. Intent is often read as indicative of core values which in turn dictate group norms.[19] In the face of such a potentially destabilizing occurrence as the threat of outsider imposition of different norms, choosing to align as a group and repel intrusion is a “strategic practical action.”[20] Creating traditions and adopting group symbols confirms the existence of a group for its members. Adopting or assigning a group name makes the existence of the group appear tangible. The group is then perceived to represent a collective entity. This entity is imagined; its attributes likewise are imagined. The attributes are imagined by group insiders and outsiders. The attributes may include ideas about history, lineage, tradition, territory, and language. There will be stories and myths to give expression to these ideas. Ideas about the group held by insiders and outsiders will display some overlap and some divergences.[21] The collection of ideas about the group — a diffuse assemblage — add up to its identity.

To take the explanation further, it can be remarked that a group’s identity is a diffuse attribute marked by a similarly diffuse term: identity. What invoking identity as an attribute of a group introduces are ‘ideas of difference.’[22] Rather than thinking of identity as an attribute that demarks a definite “line” or a symbolically tangible if “permeable boundary,” it is perhaps more helpful to visualize the ‘ideas of difference’ as a cloud-like vapor.[23] Because there is nothing solid about a group identity the attribute resists definition. The attribute is, however, ‘sensed.’ On that basis, identity as an attribute is accorded a presence. The attribute gains status and is realized, in that political and economic policies are designed to accommodate groups with identities.

There are responses and counter responses to the invention and intervention of identity as an attribute of an individual or group in human relations. Avowing or ascribing an identity — a form of ‘name calling’ — is active. Ideas of difference can be both self-perpetuating so that an identity may seem stable and, conversely, as constantly modifying, thus lending identities the appearance of instability. Ideas of difference may be generated retroactively in response to a perceived threat; but invoking identity may also be a preemptive move. Through exercising human agency to effect a change in identity it is possible to negotiate a change in position with respect to potential conflict. Whether an identity as an attribute of an individual or a group appears stable or not is entirely dependant on the perspective from which it is viewed.[24]

In the formulation I have outlined, identity as an attribute is neither the “boundary that defines the group,” nor “the cultural stuff that it encloses.”[25] Rather, invoking identity as an attribute functions as a device by which boundaries are marked. Oppositional contests between bounded groups and moments of open cooperation with intergroup blending figure in historical process — both activities exemplifying human agency. When identity as an attribute is introduced to create a distinction that claims/ proclaims a difference, what is of principal interest to the historian is not where this difference-generating device came from, or whether its use is innate or learned — that is the purview of psychology and sociology. Likewise, questions as to the varieties of difference-generating devices, the kinds of boundaries signaled, or whether these exist separately from their imagining are well attended within anthropology, geography, and philosophy.[26] It is my contention that what matters to the historian is when the difference-generating device was used, where that happened, and why: in what contest were human beings actively engaged?

A number of studies from a variety of disciplines point to the explanation for identity’s current ubiquity residing in the fact that there are numerous sites where contest can take place and that in the present there is a great deal of activity at these sites (see chart below).[27]


Sites of potential contest in historiography where ‘identity divides’ are likely to occur.

Note: It is important to be alert to when and where identity signals a contest that is historical and when and where it becomes historiographical, and as well to understand when the issue is theoretical and when it is actual. It is therefore desirable to have a model in mind that clarifies where contests that might potentially generate ‘identity’ divides are likely to occur. One such model is supplied above. A review of the description of the history of ‘identity’ in Red River covered earlier in this exposition illustrates its application. The description includes ‘identity’ contests at two levels. At the primary level there is a contest between present-day historians who wish to order a description that employs ‘identity’ and their past subject(s) who did not necessarily order themselves along the same lines. There is also a contest between historians — past and present — and their readership over the logic of the ordering.[28] These contests may include individuals engaged in related contests at the supranational, national, regional, and group scale. At the secondary level there is an indeterminate — in many instances unstated and unknown — number of combinations of professional/ personal contests between historians and readers; between historians and mediated sources (principally written documents); and between mediated sources and the actual sources (who were primarily oral communicators). As is the case at the primary level, these secondary contests may include individuals engaged in related contests at the supranational, national, regional, and group scale.


Historiography provides examples of identity (as an attribute that is presumed to distinguish one individual or group from another individual or group on the basis of a difference in their association to something else) figuring in past discussions — particularly as it relates to nationalism, rights, and citizenship. Historical anthropological, geographical, and sociological findings confirm that at any time contests may take place at different levels and at the individual, community, national, and supranational scale.[29] At the lower end, something little more than a pique between otherwise friendly neighours may see a divide marked off: the Smiths may be perceived as different from the Joneses by virtue of the car they drive. This distinction may not find its way into the historical record. It is when the divide becomes extreme — when, for example, in the 1870s the Hatfields were perceived as distinct from the McCoys — that the generation of identity as an attribute marks a site of interest to the historian. That a past group of people has been clearly marked off as ‘different’ in historical sources is a signal of a sizable contest. Discovering when identity as an attribute was invoked to mark a divide allows the historical context to be investigated. Questions can be asked about the relation of time-specific circumstance to choice, consciousness, and strategic alignment.[30] The degree to which contests were time-dependent instances of continuity or examples of change can be assessed.


View Part 5

[1] Fearon, “What is Identity,” i.

[2] Gleason., “Identifying Identity,” 914.

[3] Fearon, “What is Identity,” i.

[4] Ibid., after noting that identity has a double sense, one that is personal and one that is social, Fearon supplies this summary statement: “As we use it now, an ‘identity’ refer [sic] to either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and (alleged) characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) socially distinguishing features that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or (a) and (b) at once). In the latter sense, ‘identity’ is a modern formulation of dignity, pride, or honor that implicitly links these to social categories.”; see also S. Hall, “Ethnicity,” 11-15 on the “destabilization” of modernism and the repercussions for identity discourse.

[5] See, for example, Gries, “Identity and Conflict,” 8.

[6] In addition to Gleason and Fearon see Lewis D. Wurgaft, “Identity in World History: A Postmodern Perspective,” History and Theory 34, no. 2, Theme Issue 34: World Historians and Their Critics (May, 1995): 67-85; Jan E. Stets, and Peter J. Burke, “Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory,” Social Psychology Quarterly 62, no. 3 (2000): 347-360; and Abdelal et al, “Identity as a Variable.”

[7] Fearon, “What is Identity,” 10.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Herman Bausinger, “Intercultural Demands and Cultural Identity,” in  Language, Culture and Identity, ed. Torben Vestergaard, (Aalborg: Aalborg University Press, 1999), 23.

[10] “define,” Langenscheidt’s New College Merriam-Webster English Dictionary (New York: Langenscheidt, 1996); and “define,” 28 February 2005.

[11] “definition,” 28 February 2005 [wording has been modified as of viewing 1 March 2010; check history].

[12] Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 931.

[13] Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 28.

[14] The knot was made of rope, Alexander sliced through it with a sword.

[15] James Cargile “paradoxes,” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford University Press, 1995). Oxford Reference Online 28 February 2005, notes that a paradox is by definition a conflict contest; see also Bennet, Northern Plainsmen, 225; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “On Difference,” 236; Joanne Nagel, and C. Matthew Snipp, “Ethnic reorganization: American Indian social, economic, political, and cultural strategies for survival,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 16, no. 2 (April, 1993): 203-235; and Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 168, 186; see also S. Hall, “Ethnicity,” 9.

[16] See Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 168, 173, 176-179, 182, 187.

[17] S. Hall, “Ethnicity,” 10-11; Wen Shu Lee, “Patriotic Breeders or Colonized Converts,” 11-33.

[18] Brubaker and Cooper, “Beyond ‘identity’”; see also Brow, “Notes on Community,” 1; and Part I, this presentation for definitions of community.

[19] Donnan and Wilson, Borders, 40; Gries, “Identity and Conflict,” 6, 8, 9, 10; Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 175, 176, 183, 188; Bennet, Northern Plainsmen, 186; C.S. Walley, cited in Hall, “A ‘Perfect freedom’,” 148, in outlining a ‘model for the illumination of participant values in goal setting’ in turn relies on the findings of Bruce .J. Biddle on role theory, identities, and expectations.

[20] T.F. Gieryn, quoted in Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 178, see also 168, 175, 183, 185; Nagel and Snipp, “Ethnic reorganization,” 204-207, 222; Sanders, “Ethnic Boundaries,” 330, 332, 337, 338; and Bennet, Northern Plainsmen, 70, 85, 15; as in Bennet, Peter Hayes Gries, “Identity and Conflict,” 3-4, 7-8, 14-15, drawing on social identity theory, argues that “inter-group identity dynamics do not inexorably lead to conflict” – co-operation is equally possible. In fact, in his view, “the cards are stacked against a competitive outcome.”

[21] Gries, “Identity and Conflict,” 14-16; Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 170, 182, 184; Sanders, “Ethnic Boundaries,” 327; Nagel and Snipp, “Ethnic reorganization,” 224, 226.

[22] Gries, “Identity and Conflict,” 6; Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 174, 177.

[23] See Donnan and Wilson, Borders, 22; also, Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 176, 187.

[24] Gries, “Identity and Conflict,”4, 6; Bennet, Northern Plainsmen, 168; Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 172, 181, 184; Nagel and Snipp, “Ethnic reorginization,” 203, 204, 212, 214, 226; Sanders, “Ethnic Boundaries,” 328, 333, 336, 348.

[25] Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, 15; see also  Sanders, “Ethnic Boundaries,” 328.

[26] See Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 171-172, 183; “the identity theory of mind,” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Simon Blackburn.

[27] Collier, “Researching Cultural Identity”; and LeCompte, “Framework for Hearing Silence,” note that this ‘identity divide’ exists between the researcher and subject as well.

[28] Brow, “Notes on Community,” 1, observes that “culturally constructed versions of the past are authorized to shape a people’s sense of identity. Representations of the past are an equally prominent feature of hegemonic struggle in modern industrial societies.”

[29] Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 183, 184; Sanders, “Ethnic Boundaries,” 339, 340.

[30] See Bennet, Frontier Plainsmen, 65; and Sanders, “Ethnic Boundaries,” 338.



Published 1 March 2010

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