What is Identity?
In recent years politics has become a contestation between different forms of identity rather than interests. Identity has an almost ideological connotation. It is easy to become lost in emotions and hyperbole without any awareness of its actual role in political theory. Indeed, the earliest political philosophers did not mention identity at all. Even liberals who celebrated individualism did not consider the implications of personal identity, because it involves not simply a sense of the self, but also the group. Identity implies both a sense of personal reflection, but also belonging. It is a recognition of the self, but also a distinction from others.
Identity is a social construct. It has no meaning without an awareness of interpersonal relationships. Identity emerges from the world, but transforms the inner self. It presupposes a relationship with others. The identity of a parent presupposes a child. The identity of the leader depends on followers. Other identities depend on an activity. The runner exists because others choose not to run. Nobody identifies as a sleeper because everyone sleeps. However, some might identify as an insomniac or as a deep sleeper. But again, it recognizes a distinction from others.
Self and the Other
We can imagine some solitary figure alone on an island like Robinson Crusoe. However, unlike Crusoe this person has no knowledge of others and no memory of anyone else. They make music, but they are not a musician. They hunt, but they are not a hunter. Everything they do is simply natural. It is just what they do. Identity depends on the introduction of somebody else. The simple awareness of others necessitates the introduction of institutions to give their relationship meaning.
Every introduction to a stranger fits into some institutional framework in our minds. The stranger is a friend, an enemy, a business associate, a political authority, a priest, and on and on. Modern society has developed multiple, overlapping institutions so a person may have multiple identities. But the stranger forms an identity we impose onto them. Of course, this does not mean the stranger accepts this identity. Identity depends on a careful negotiation between its participants. It is not always a conscious negotiation nor is it fair. People do not choose their identity. It depends on the recognition of others. We can fantasize a new sense of ourselves, but it will ultimately depend on the validation of others.
Identity and Institutions
My notion of identity depends on a more expansive sense of institutions than most. Some institutions form clear identities. The family introduces mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. Congress introduces Representatives and Senators. The Presidency introduces a President. Friendship is another institution. It offers its own context for the formulation of identities and norms. People create institutions to make sense of our relationship to others. Friendship, war, and trade all depend on the construction of institutions to make sense of others and ourselves.
The construction of institutions involves a careful negotiation between those involved. Any person may introduce an institutional framework, but the responses of others will change their perspective. Indeed, the overlap of institutions makes the introduction of distinct institutions into others a common phenomenon. It brings about confusion over social roles and norms. In a classroom, teachers often demand attention from students focused on each other. The conflict involves a negotiation between the school or the classroom alongside others like friendship or courtship. The appropriate norms in these institutions differ significantly so it causes confusion among the participants to determine the proper behavior. The teacher imposes the norms of the classroom, but the students feel social pressure to adopt a competing contextual framework with different norms and identities.
A Careful Negotiation
Political theory suggests a thought experiment commonly referred to as the state of nature. Imagine two strangers meet for the first time outside the bounds of the state or the law. How do they react? Hobbes assumes they attack one another. Rousseau imagines they befriend each other. Locke denies my premise and insists a natural law remains beyond the realm of any state. All three assume the construction of an institution for the interaction between the strangers. Hobbes assumes war is the default position in the state of nature, while Rousseau makes believes friendship is where they begin. Again, Locke believes their behavior is no different than in a political society where law defines fundamental norms and behaviors. But the theorists assume an implicit agreement of institutions, norms, and identities in the state of nature. Reality is quite different.
I have already said the construction of institutions depends on a careful negotiation between its participants. One stranger may assume the other is a friend, while the other expects a physical confrontation. The behavior of the other will affect the specific social context, norms, and identities involved. Eventually both parties will agree on the nature of their relationship and its context. They will impose an identity on others, while they accept one for themselves. But our own identity is a negotiation. It is not a choice. We look for validation from others in the identities we adopt. Yet at the same time we influence the interpretation of our identity. Let us remember that every negotiation depends upon leverage. Both sides have different demands and expectations, but over time the parties often come to an agreement.
Liberalism and Conservatism
Liberal societies confer substantial leverage to the individual. In contrast, more conservative societies confer more leverage to the community. Consequently, liberal societies embrace not simply pluralism, but allow the individual more freedom to determine their own identity. Conservative communities remain more reluctant to recognize divergent notions of identity formed by the individual. Nonetheless, the difference is not an ether/or proposition. Liberal societies do not allow individuals absolute control over their own identity. They still rely on some form of social recognition. In contrast, conservative communities allow for some individual autonomy even though it faces greater constraints. But identity remains meaningless without the recognition of others. Personal identity shapes more than just the individual. It shapes the relationships towards the individual. Identity has meaning through the interaction with others.
So, the emergence of identity politics does not reflect the construction of new institutions, but rather the reinterpretation of existing ones. Indeed, many of these reinterpretations represent a reconfiguration of toxic institutions into something more palatable for the oppressed, exploited, or merely uncomfortable under previous paradigms. Again, this explanation demands a broader meaning of “institution” to include race and sexuality. An institution creates a template or context for norms and identities to form. Typically an institution implies an organization like a school or Congress. But some institutions have a more nebulous construction where they remain in the background. They are present and shape our social interactions, but do not dominate them.
Moreover, institution evolve over time. The norms will change and new identities will form. Conservatives fear new norms and identities undermine institutions, but this is false. Institutions have tremendous resilience. Norms and identities do not define institutions. Rather an institution is a canvas for norms and identities to form. So, institutions can allow for a wide diversity of norms and identities especially in different cultures and time periods. Marriage has undergone a radical transformation from a patriarchal institution into something more egalitarian. Nevertheless, I hesitate to say it has become truly egalitarian. At the same time, it likely will continue to evolve over subsequent generations.
Race offers a true challenge for the explanation of institutions, because it introduces aspects of Western culture many prefer to ignore or deny. Racism was never simply a worldview or a behavior. It was an institution. It was more obvious in some places than others and established different norms in different regions. The Jim Crow era laws and customs of the American South was the clearest example of racism in the United States. But racism existed in different forms in nearly all places. The problem was it did not simply refer to an idea or a behavior. It established a context where the presence of race formed identities and norms. Behaviors can become corrected. Ideas can change. But institutions evolve. They do not easily disappear.
The tension today over racism involves a debate over not just definitions, but classifications. Conservatives argue racism is behavioral. A racist becomes an identity based on behaviors and decisions. They believe the eradication of racism depends on the eradication of behaviors based on race. Moreover, they believe behavioral change depends on an agnostic ignorance of race. Despite their efforts, they participate in the institution of race through their refusal to recognize race openly. Their ignorance becomes a shield from the label “racist.” Yet at the same time, their ignorance leaves them vulnerable to the perpetuation of racism. They refuse to recognize its existence so they become complicit and sometimes even active participants. They cannot engage in antiracism because they deny any knowledge of it. Nonetheless, this brings up an unsettling precondition for the antiracist. Antiracism demands conscious participation in the institution of race in order to recognize racism.
Race as an Institution
Antiracism makes sense when racism is seen as part of an institution rather than a behavior. Ibram X. Kendi among others do not imagine they can eradicate race from the human imagination. Rather they challenge our culture to reimagine the institution once again. They hope to transform the diversity of race into something celebrated rather than feared. Their intention is to redefine not just the norms that underpin conceptions of race, but to reshape racial identity. This is not a radical shift in philosophy or perspective. African American scholarship has a long tradition from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. DuBois to James Baldwin who sought to reimagine black identity. Few believed racism would disappear so they wanted to change the nature of the relationship from something hierarchical into an egalitarian one.
Conservatives, on the other hand, believe they can eradicate racism. They believe the eradication of racism depends on the abolition of race. But they fail to understand the enormity of the task at hand. It does not simply involve the elimination of race from all law. It does not simply involve the education of its citizenry. Indeed, it involves the wholesale examination of all institutions to understand how race has become entangled into different norms and identities throughout the entire culture. Systemic racism implies the incorporation of racial hierarchies into different institutions throughout society. Indeed, it is not limited to police misconduct, but involves attitudes, behaviors, and norms in political, economic, and social institutions. Some of its elements may remain unrecognized for generations.
Likewise many social conservatives view sexuality as a behavior. The rise of different sexual identities alongside the reinterpretation of masculinity and femininity resemble threats because social conservatives fail to understand sexuality as an institution. The emergence of new sexual identities from homosexuality to transgenderism involve an evolution or reinterpretation of sexuality as an institution. It continues to involve a negotiation between the individual and the culture regarding identity, but allows for increased leverage for the individual to decide. Nonetheless, some sexual identities remain taboo. For example, pedophilia is off limits. In many ways, the #MeToo movement has demanded less sexual promiscuity in the workplace especially where a power imbalance exists. Sexual identity remains a negotiation even in a liberal, pluralistic society.
Identity has an important role for political science and theory. Nonetheless, its existence is largely accepted as fact. My aim here is to explain their significance within a wider theory of institutions. Identities do not exist without the recognition of the other. People rely on others to understand themselves. They seek identity in opposition to others, but also through familiarity with them. But it is the recognition of social identity from others that gives it meaning. It is not enough to make music. We want others to recognize us as somebody who makes music. Sometimes identity serves as a tool of oppression. But it also has the capacity for liberation.
A Few Sources
Francis Fukuyama (2018), Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016), Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Jennie C. Ikuta (2020), Contesting Conformity: Democracy and the Paradox of Political Belonging
Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Good, and Yphtach Lelkes (2012), “Affect, Not Ideology A Social identity Perspective on Polarization,” Public Opinion Quarterly
Ibram X. Kendi (2019), How to be an Antiracist