Lately I am stuck up to my eyeballs in essays. I seem to eat, sleep, breathe, and dream essays. The fact that the deadlines are nearing and I will soon be free of them only pushes me toward panic. It does nothing to alleviate the stress. So, since I don’t have time to write much else and academic misery loves company I present you with a thought-provoking piece on the circumstances of the modern identity.
Identity in Modern Sociological Thinking
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, pp.40-41)
The question of ‘why the concept of identity has become so significant in contemporary social thought’ is a question that can be answered in many ways, and there is little doubt that no one answer would wholly suffice. Having said that, the assertion this essay will to put forth is that identity is of eminent concern to modern social thinkers (and, indeed, society as a whole) because modern life places the responsibility for its formation and maintenance on the individual in previously unprecedented ways. The individual is expected to carry out this responsibility in an increasingly pluralistic and uncertain environment this, in turn fosters fear and anxiety. While often unnoticed, it is this anxiety that keeps the concept of identity from fading away.
That identity is of real concern in the social sciences is widely acknowledged. In 2000, Dennis Wrong wrote “one has the impression that ‘identity’ is the most widely used concept these days in the social sciences and humanities from which it has passed into popular discourse (p. 10).” The next year Anthony Elliot beat the same drum in his book Concept of the Self, “the emergent direction of contemporary social theory is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the attention it lavishes upon the nature of the self, self-identity, and individual subjectivity (p. 8).” The year after that it was Mervyn Bendle who said, “the concept of ‘identity’ is central to much contemporary sociological analysis (p. 1),” and this year Lauren Leve (p. 1) made much the same claim for anthropology: “ “Identity” is a key term for anthropological analysis today.”
But what is it about the subject of identity that has gripped the minds and pens of writers and readers today? Could it be just as Lawler (2008, p. 1) claims when she writes that the idea of ‘identity’ is at the core of many of the troubles plaguing contemporary Western cultures? Perhaps, but this runs the risk of reductionism, and as she spent the next 148 pages of her book, Identity: Sociological Perspectives, further interrogating these problems, it is relatively safe to say Lawler would think so too.
Further, the question that is reasonably answered with ‘it’s at the heart of our problems’ is not quite the same as the one that asks what about it, identity, places it at the heart of Anglophone cultural denigration, as Lawler states. It would be more accurate to say that there are concerns with identity itself. Discourses around identity are generally accompanied by cries of ‘crisis’ (Erikson 1968), ‘loss’ (Weigert & Hastings 1977), ‘failure’ (Rose 1987), ‘disorder’ (Kluft & Foote 1999), ‘confusion’ (Tomlinson 1999), and ‘trouble’ (Lawler 2008).
Dennis Wrong (2000, p. 1) states the problem facing many modern individuals and their identity concisely: “identity reflects the freedom and mobility available under conditions of modernity, confronting individuals with a wide array of choices and holding them responsible for those that are made, which inevitably leads to uncertainties, regrets, and illusory sense of achievements, or outright “anomie” and “alienation” on the part of many people.” This has not always been the case, however.
Pre-modern identity was linked to one’s position in the social hierocracy (Baumeister 1991) and essentially fixed at birth. In what Parsons calls ascription (Abbott 1998, p. 23), a person inherited their status from their family, and almost everyone you encountered on a daily basis knew you and the family that spawned you. There was very little you could do to change this, and there was, therefore, no reason to give it much thought. “There was little sense of self-doubt, self-awareness, inner processes, or identity crisis (Baumeister 1991, p. 95).”
This changed with the industrial and democratic revolutions of the 1800s (Bendle 2002). The rise of the industrialized, urban community allowed slack into the societal guidelines and traditional regulations that had maintained the ill-thought and predominantly unnoticed ‘identity’ (for surely they had one even if no one had, yet, thought to investigate it) of pre-modern man.
This relaxing, or outright breakdown (Obeyesekere 1995), of the rules and codes of people’s lives (Bauman 2000, p. 7) provides modern people an almost limitless degree of freedom that was unheard of in previous generations (Baumeister & Muraven 1996, p. 406). This freedom came with a price, however. The modern identity is much more difficult and problematic than the identities of the past (Baumeister 1991, p. 77) because roles are no longer given. They are no longer something an individual is born with and need not expend energy thinking about. They must now be achieved through a series of deliberate demanding choices (Schwartz 2004, p. 110), individual ability, and effort (Abbott 1998). They must be personal and discovered for oneself (Taylor 1994), “sought, striven for, and forged out of fragments (Wrong 2000, p. 11),” by jural individuals (Lambek & Antze 1996, p. xxi). Establishing an identity has become an arduous epic quest.
As such there are some for whom this freedom to choose is instead a burden of choice (Schwartz 2004, Baumeister 1992). However, even for those who do not feel the weight of the task, for whom it is truly considered a right rather than an obligation, it is an ever-present reality. “Individuals must continually strive to be more efficient, faster, leaner, inventive and self-actualizing than they were previously—not sporadically, but day-in day-out (Elliot & Lamert 2006, p. 3).” People are required to exercise creative intelligence (Gross 2005, p. 292), finding or creating the rules to utilise “in a bricolage of their own identities (Lash 1999, p. 3).”
Richard Sennett called this ability to define one’s own individual identity the ‘privatization of personality’ (Abbott 1998, p. 83), and while this does allow people a far wider ability to ‘choose, change and adapt’ their identities, it also increases the pressure to do so (Baumeister & Muraven 1996). This is further complicated by the increased plurality of Western Society, which vastly increases the number of choices that have to be made (Beck & Lau 2005, p. 536) by providing a dizzying array of role, value and identity choices, but few obvious signposts to indicate how to make these choices.
These directional markers have been refer to as ‘value bases’ and are defined as values deemed right or good without any further justification (Baumeister 1991, Baumeister & Muraven 1996). They can, therefore, be held up as exemplary when future identity choices are required. Value bases not only serve to instruct individuals in proper decision making, in doing so they also accord those choices, and the ones making them, with value. Their loss can leave a decision maker uncertain about the right course of action, but also doubting the meaning of their decisions, regardless of what they may be. If there is no right or wrong answer, what does the eventual decision matter? This can lead to a feeling of insipid, vacuous meaninglessness, or identity confusion (Tomlinson 1999) about the choices they face. Schwartz (1995, p. 71) vividly describes the scenario as “Migrants of identity wander[ing] the land, trying on this or that identity, never sure, and perhaps under the circumstances, unable to attain familiar forms of authenticity.”
Constructing a value base is particularly slow and difficult in modern society (Seligman 1998). Unfortunately, detraditionalization quickly and easily destroys them, creating a ‘value gap (Baumeister and Muraven 1996).’ Baumeister (1991, p.6) has called this gap “the single biggest problem for the Modern Western individual in making life meaningful.” He goes on to note “a major part of the modern response to this value gap is to elevate selfhood and the cultivation of identity into basic, compelling values.”
It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss in depth what has historically functioned as value bases. However, Baumeister (1991) has noted the most influential of them to have been religion, morality and tradition. As these have weakened with the encroachment of modernity others have been tested to replace them. Examples include the work ethic, the sacredness of the family, and parenthood (Baumeister and Muraven 1996). The most successful, however, and the one to be discussed here is the elevation of the self into a value base.
Because this puts morality and self-interest in the same basket for the first time (Baumeister & Muraven 1996, p. 410), some critics have called this focus on the self or identity egoism and narcissism. But as Elliot and Lamert (2006, p. 5) rightly state, these terms are too broad to be of use. Such allegations also miss the importance of the social scenario that necessitated the shift in value bases to begin with. Modern society has been struggling with fewer ways of justifying things as right and good (Baumeister 1991). Facing a series of value gaps that rendered decision making more difficult, or rather baseless and base, Moderns looked inward, to their new individualized selves, for something that would give life meaning. They used the self to justify their actions (Baumeister 1992). This had the side effect of intensifying the importance of self-understanding.