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WHATISIDENTITY(ASWENOWUSETHEWORD)?
JamesD.Fearon
DepartmentofPoliticalScience
StanfordUniversity
Stanford,CA94305
email:jfearon@stanford.edu
DRAFT{Commentsappreciated
November3,1999
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ABSTRACT
Thepaperundertakesanordinarylanguageanalysisofthecurrentmeaningsof\iden-
tity," acomplicatedandunclear concept thatnonetheless plays acentralrole in ongoing
debatesinevery subeldofpoliticalscience(for example,debates aboutnational,ethnic,
gender,andstateidentities). \Identity"aswenowknowitderivesmainlytheworkofpsy-
chologist Erik Erikson inthe 1950s; ; dictionary y denitions have not caught up, , failing g to
capturetheword’scurrentmeaningsineveryday andsocialsciencecontexts. . Theanalysis
yields the followingsummary statement. . As s we use itnow,an \identity" refer to either
(a)asocialcategory,denedbymembershiprulesand(alleged)characteristicattributesor
expectedbehaviors,or(b)sociallydistinguishingfeaturesthatapersontakesaspecialpride
inorviewsasunchangeablebutsociallyconsequential(or(a)and(b)atonce).Inthelatter
sense,\identity"ismodernformulationofdignity,pride,orhonorthatimplicitlylinksthese
tosocialcategories. Thisstatementdiersfromandismoreconcretethanstandardglosses
oeredbypoliticalscientists;Iargueinadditionthatitallowsustobetterunderstandhow
\identity"canhelpexplainpoliticalactions,andthemeaningofclaimssuchas\identities
aresociallyconstructed."Finally,Iarguethatordinarylanguageanalysisisavaluableand
perhapsessentialtoolintheclaricationofsocialscienceconceptsthathavestrongrootsin
everdayspeech,averycommonoccurrence.
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1 Introduction
Inrecent years, , scholars s working ina remarkable e array y of social l science e and humanities
disciplineshavetakenanintenseinterestinquestionsconcerningidentity. Withinpolitical
science, for r example, , we e nd the concept of \identity" at the center r oflively y debates s in
everymajorsubeld.StudentsofAmericanpoliticshavedevotedmuchnewresearchtothe
\identitypolitics"ofrace,genderandsexuality. Incomparativepolitics,\identity"playsa
centralroleinworkonnationalismandethnic con ict(Horowitz1985;Smith1991;Deng
1995;Laitin 1999). . Ininternationalrelations,the e idea of\stateidentity"is at the heart
ofconstructivistcritiquesofrealismandanalysesofstatesovereignty(Wendt1992;Wendt
1999; Katzenstein 1996;Lapid and d Kratochwil l 1996; Biersteker and d Weber 1996). And
inpoliticaltheory,questionsof\identity"marknumerousarguments ongender,sexuality,
nationality,ethnicity,andcultureinrelationtoliberalismanditsalternatives(Young1990;
Connolly1991;Kymlicka1995;Miller1995;Taylor1989)
Comparedtorecentscholarshipinhistoryandthehumanities,however,politicalsci-
entistsremainlaggardswhenitcomestoworkonidentities.Duetoin uencesrangingfrom
MichelFoucaulttothedebateonmulticulturalism,thehistoricalandculturalconstructionof
identitiesofallsortshaslatelybeenapreoccupationforbothsocialhistoriansandstudents
ofliteratureandculture.
1
Despite this vastly increased and broad-ranging g interest t in n \identity," " the concept
itselfremainssomethingofanenigma. WhatPhillipGleason(1983)observed15yearsago
remainstruetoday:Themeaningof\identity"aswecurrentlyuseitisnotwellcapturedby
1
See Brubaker and d Cooper r (1999) for r somecitations s to o this s voluminous literature. . For r ameasure of
thespreadof\identity"inacademicdiscourse,Ichartedtheprogressofthewordindissertationabstracts,
whichcannowbesearchedon-linegoingbackto1981.Thenumberofdissertationabstractscontainingthe
word\identity"almosttripledbetween1981and1995,risingfrom709to1,911.Thisincreasehasoccurred
entirelyinthelasttenyears. Theaverageincreasewasabout12%peryearfor1986to1995,whileitwas
roughly atat-2.3%for1981to1985.Someofthisincreasecouldbeduetoanincreaseinthetotalnumber
ofdissertationsabstracted.Ihavebeenunabletogetthesegures,butIdidtrysearchingyear-by-yearfor
aneutral\controlword"{Iused\study"{togetaroughestimate. Bythis s measure,thetotalnumber
ofdissertations abstractedincreased byan averageof.64%peryearfor1981-1985,and 4.4%peryear for
1986-1995. Thusthenumberofdissertationsabstractsusingtheword\identity"hasbeengrowingalmost
threetimesfasterthantherateforallabstracteddissertations.
1
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dictionarydenitions,whichre ectoldersensesoftheword.Ourpresentideaof\identity"is
afairlyrecentsocialconstruct,andarathercomplicatedoneatthat.Eventhougheveryone
knowshowtousethewordproperlyineverydaydiscourse,itprovesquitediculttogivea
shortandadequatesummarystatementthatcapturestherangeofitspresentmeanings.
Giventhecentralityoftheconcepttosomuchrecentresearch{andespeciallyinsocial
sciencewherescholarstakeidentitiesbothasthings tobeexplainedandthingsthathave
explanatoryforce{thisamountsalmosttoascandal.Ataminimum,itwouldbeusefulto
haveaconcisestatementofthemeaningofthewordinsimplelanguagethatdoesjusticeto
itspresentintension.
Thisisthemainpurposeofthispaper,todistillastatementofthemeaningof\iden-
tity" from ananalysis ofcurrent usagein ordinary languageandsocialsciencediscourse.
Themainresultsareeasilystated,althoughafairamountofworkonalternativepossibili-
tieswillberequiredtoreachthem. Iarguethat\identity"ispresentlyusedintwolinked
senses,whichmay betermed d \social" and\personal." In the formersense,an \identity"
referssimplytoasocial category,asetofpersonsmarkedby alabelanddistinguishedby
rulesdecidingmembershipand(alleged)characteristicfeaturesorattributes.Inthesecond
senseofpersonalidentity,anidentityissomedistinguishingcharacteristic(orcharacteris-
tics)thatapersontakesaspecialprideinorviewsassociallyconsequentialbutmore-or-less
unchangeable.
Thus, \identity" " inits present incarnationhasadoublesense. . Itrefers s atthesame
timetosocialcategoriesandtothesourcesofanindividual’sself-respectordignity. There
is nonecessary linkagebetweenthese things. . Inordinarylanguage,at t least,one canuse
\identity"torefertopersonalcharacteristicsorattributesthatcannotnaturallybeexpressed
interms ofasocialcategory,andinsome contextscertaincategories canbe described as
\identities"eventhoughnooneseesthemascentraltotheirpersonalidentity. Nonetheless,
\identity"initspresentincarnationre ectsandevokestheideathatsocialcategories are
boundupwiththe bases ofanindividual’s self-respect. . Arguably y muchoftheforce and
2
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interestofthetermderivesitsimplicitlinkageofthesetwothings.
2
Insection2belowIjustifytheenterpriseatgreaterlength,arguingthatforcontested,
complicated,orunclearsocialscienceconceptswithstrongrootsinordinarylanguage(i.e.,
mostofthem),acarefulanalysisofordinary languagemeaningsshouldprecedeeorts to
legislateadenitionforparticularresearchpurposes. Section3considerstheinadequacyof
dictionarydenitionsof\identity"andverybrie ytracesthehistoricalevolutionofitsnew
setofmeanings.
3
Section4beginstoaskaboutthecurrentmeaningof\identity"bytesting
possibledenitionsagainstexamplesfromusage. Thetrailleadsrsttotheformulationof
aidentityasasocialcategory,and,insection6,toidentityasdistinguishingfeaturesofa
personthatformthebasisofhisorherself-respectordignity(andmore).Inbetween,section
5developsapotentiallyvaluabledistinctionbetweenroleand\type"identities. Sections7
and8drawoutsomeimplicationsoftheanalysisfortwoissuesofconcerntosocialscience
usersofconcept.Insection7Iusetheresultsoftheordinarylanguageanalysistoconsider
how identities bearonthe explanationofactions (politicalandotherwise). . Insection8I
brie yextendtheanalysis of\identity"appliedtoindividualstocorporateactorssuchas
statesandrms.Acentralargumentinrecentinternationalrelationstheoryholdsthatstate
interestsaredeterminedby\stateidentities."Themeaningofthisclaimobviouslydepends
onthemeaning\stateidentities,"whichIarguemightrefertoanyofseveraldierentthings.
Section9concludes.
2 Whybother?
Giventheintenseinterestinidentityandidentitiesacrossabroadspectrumofdisciplines,
onemightinitiallyexpectiteasytondsimpleandclearstatementsofwhatpeoplemean
2
Theaddedvalueofthis statementofthecurrentmeaningof\identity"isnot thedistinction between
\social"and\personal"sidesperse. Thereisalongtraditionofscholarsdrawingadistinctionofthissort,
contrastingvariousformulationsofindividualorpersonalidentity,ontheonehand,andsocialorgroupor
collectiveidentityontheother. Whatisnovelintheformulationderivedhereisthespeciccontentofthe
twosidesofthedistinction(whichcanbeandhasbeenlledinmanyways).
3
Foranexcellentand moredetailedsemantichistoriesof\identity,"seeGleason(1983)and Mackenzie
(1978).
3
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whentheyusetheseconcepts. WhileIhavenotdoneanexhaustivesearch,Ihavenotfound
thistobethecase. Overwhelmingly,academicusersoftheword\identity"feelnoneedto
explainitsmeaningtoreaders.Thereaders’understandingissimplytakenforgranted,even
when\identity"istheauthor’sprimarydependentorindependentvariable.
4
Thisisperhapsnot sosurprising. . Intherstplace,whiletheoriginsofour r present
understandingof\identity"lieintheacademy,theconceptisnowquitecommoninpopular
discourse. Sinceweallknowhowtoemploythewordandweunderstanditinotherpeoples’
sentences,whybotherwithdenitionsorexplanations? Second,inpopulardiscourseidentity
isoftentreatedassomethingineableandevensacred,whileintheacademyidentityisoften
treatedassomethingcomplexandevenineable.
5
Onehesitatestotrytodenethesacred,
theineable,orthecomplex.
Ofcourse,onecanndbriefdenitionsandclaricationsinmanyplaces. Theserun
thegamut,fromsuggestiveglossestosomefairlycomplicatedandopaqueformulations.Here
aresomeexamples,culledmainlybutnotexclusivelyfromtheareasIreadmostin(political
science,internationalrelations):
1.Identityis\people’sconceptsofwhotheyare,ofwhatsortofpeopletheyare,andhow
theyrelatetoothers"(HoggandAbrams1988,2).
2.\Identityisusedinthisbooktodescribethewayindividualsandgroupsdenethem-
selvesandaredenedbyothersonthebasisofrace,ethnicity,religion,language,and
culture"(Deng1995,1).
3.Identity\referstothewaysinwhichindividualsandcollectivitiesaredistinguishedin
theirsocialrelationswithotherindividualsandcollectivities"(Jenkins1996,4).
4.\Nationalidentitydescribes thatconditioninwhich amass ofpeoplehavemadethe
sameidenticationwithnationalsymbols{haveinternalisedthesymbolsofthenation
..."(Bloom1990,52).
5.Identities are e \relatively y stable, role-specic understandings s and expectations s about
self"(Wendt1992,397).
4
See,forinstance,Calhoun(1991)orFox(1985),thoughanynumberofsimilarexamplescanbegiven.
5
Forastrikingexampleofthelatter,seeJamesCliord’s(1988)essay\IdentityinMashpee."Likewise,
Charles Taylor, , after r spending g severalpages s of Sourcesof the e Self: : The e Making of the Modern n Identity
explainingwhathemeansby\identity,"writes: \But t in factouridentityisdeeperand moremany-sided
thananyofourpossiblearticulationsofit"(Taylor1989,29).
4
6.\Socialidentities aresets ofmeanings that anactor attributes toitselfwhile taking
theperspectiveofothers,thatis,asasocialobject. ... [Socialidentitiesare]atonce
cognitiveschemas thatenableanactortodetermine‘whoIam/weare’inasituation
and positions s in n a socialrole e structure of f shared d understandings and d expectations"
(Wendt1994,395).
7.\Bysocialidentity,Imeanthedesireforgroupdistinction,dignity,andplacewithinhis-
toricallyspecicdiscourses(orframesofunderstanding)aboutthecharacter,structure,
andboundariesofthepolityandtheeconomy"(Herrigel1993,371).
8.\Theterm[identity](byconvention)referencesmutuallyconstructedandevolvingim-
agesofselfandother"(Katzenstein1996,59).
9.\Identitiesare...prescriptiverepresentationsofpoliticalactorsthemselvesandoftheir
relationshipstoeachother"(KowertandLegro1996,453).
10.\Myidentityisdenedbythecommitmentsandidenticationswhichprovidetheframe
or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is s good, or
valuable,orwhatoughttobedone,orwhatIendorseoroppose"(Taylor1989,27).
11.\Yetwhatifidentityisconceivednotasaboundarytobemaintainedbutasanexus
ofrelationsandtransactionsactivelyengagingasubject?"(Cliord1988,344).
12.\Identity is s any source of action not explicable frombiophysical l regularities, and to
whichobserverscanattributemeaning"(White1992,6).
13.\Indeed, identity y is objectively dened d as location n in a certain world and can n be
subjectively appropriated only y along with that world. ... [A] ] coherent identity in-
corporateswithin itself allthe various internalized roles andattitudes." (Bergerand
Luckmann1966,132).
14.\Identityemergesasakindofunsettledspace,oranunresolvedquestioninthatspace,
between anumber of intersecting discourses. ... . [Until l recently,we e have incorrectly
thoughtthatidentityis]akindofxedpointofthoughtandbeing,agroundofaction
...thelogicofsomethinglikea‘trueself.’...[But]Identityisaprocess,identityissplit.
Identityisnotaxedpointbutanambivalentpoint. Identity y isalsotherelationship
oftheOthertooneself"(Hall1989).
6
Therange,complexity,anddierencesamongthesevariousformulationsareremark-
able. Inpart, , the e dierences re ect the multiple lineages s that t \identity" has within the
6
ExceptingthequotefromCliordandanessaybyHandler(1994),Ihavehadlittleluckndingdenitions
orglossesof\identity"oeredbyanthropologists,eventhough(orperhapsbecause)theytendtorelyvery
heavilyontheterm(forexample,inFox(1985)\identity"appearsnumeroustimesonpracticallyeverypage
ofthebook,butisneverdened). Thissimplyindicatesthatanthropologiststend d totaketheconceptfor
granted,whichisappropriateiftheymainlyshareacommonunderstandingofwhatitdesignates.Handler
claimsthatthedictionarydenition\approximately"(p. 28)capturesthewaythewordisnowused;Iargue
againstthisbelow.
5
academy. Dierent t researchtraditions { in uenced variously by symbolic interactionism,
role theory,Eriksonianpsychology, , socialidentity y theory,andpostmodernism,to name a
few {haveevolvedsomewhat dierent conventions regarding the term. . Further,perhaps
some of these authors intend merely tostipulate adenitionof\identity" appropriate or
usefulfor theirspecic purposes, , so o some variationmight beexpected withvarying pur-
poses.
Nonetheless,itisalsostrikingthatthedenitionsseemtorefertoacommonunderlying
concept.Almosteveryoneevokesasenseofrecognition,sothatnoneseemsobviouslywrong,
despitethediversity. Thisisalsotobeexpected,because\identity"hasforsometimenow
beenastapleofordinarylanguage.Regardlessofparticularresearchtraditionsorpurposes,
itwouldbeverystrangetooeradenitionof\identity"thatborenorelationtowhatwe
alreadyintuitivelyunderstandbytheconcept.
Thereisanimportantandmoregeneralpointtobe madehereabout thedenition
of social science e concepts. In n contrast to o many y areas in n the natural l sciences, , in social
sciencemostofourkeyconceptseitherderivefromorenterintoordinarylanguage.
7
Power,
rationality,democracy,ethnicity,race,thestate,andevenpoliticsareexamples. Whenoneis
naminganentityinphysicsorbiochemistry,ordeningforthersttimeatechnicaltermor
neologismlike\subgameperfection,"\bureaucraticauthoritarianism,"or\postmodernism,"
it makes perfect sense to stipulate the meaning after the manner of Humpty Dumpty.
8
Indeed,thereisnoalternativeinthiscase. Butwhenatermhasstrongrootsinordinary
language,itispotentiallyveryconfusingtostipulateadenitionwithoutpayinganyexplicit
attentiontotheprior,ordinarylanguagemeaningofterm.
Suppose Istipulate that, , henceforth, by y \table" Imean\chair," andvice-versa. . In
additiontobeingunnecessary,thiswouldrightlybeconsideredaninvitationtoconfusion.
Thereisastrongercaseforstipulatingadenitionforsocialscienceconceptssuchaspower
oridentity,whereitis less initiallyclear what the ordinary languageversion means. . But
7
Typically,theymovebackandforth;seethediscussionof\identity"’shistorybelow.
8
\WhenIuseaword,itmeansjustwhatIchooseittomean{neithermorenorless"(Carroll1992,124).
6
doingsostillrisksseriousconfusiontotheextentthatthestipulateddenitiondivergesfrom
thereaders’unarticulatedpriorunderstanding. Andthereisnowaytoguagethiswithout
rstexplicatingthemeaningincurrentusage. Intheend,socialscientistsmayoftenndit
necessarytoreneandredeneordinarylanguagemeanings. Butwithoutaclearstatement
ofthepriormeaning,eventhestipulatorwillnotknowwhatsheisdoingwiththeconcept.
9
Anotherargumentforexplicatingcurrentusageisthatthemethodcanyieldadeeper
understandingofcontestedandunclearconceptslike\identity."Theintuitionsbehindordi-
narylanguagemeaningsoftenhavemuchinterestingstructure,whichislikelytobemissedif
wejumptostipulatingdenitions.Intheiranalysesoftheconceptof\identity,"bothGlea-
son(1983)andBrubakerandCooper(1999)concludethatthewholesale,chaoticspreadof
\identitytalk"inpopularandacademiclanguagehasdepriveditofany meaningatall.
10
QuotingA.O.Lovejoyontheword\romantic",Gleasonsaysthat\identity"has\cometo
meansomanythingsthat,byitself,itmeansnothing.Ithasceasedtoperformthefunction
of averbal sign"(p. . 914). Brubaker r and Cooper believe that the term has acquired so
manycontradictorymeaningsandusesinsociologythatitshouldbepurgedinfavorofmore
specicterms. Iwillargue e Brubaker andCooperandGleasonaregiving uptoosoonon
bothpopularand\popularacademic"usage.
3 Theconstructionof\identity"
Ifinneedofadenition,onelooksrsttodictionaries. Hereisthemostrelevantentryfor
\identity"intheOED(2ndedition,1989):\Thesamenessofapersonorthingatalltimesor
inallcircumstances;theconditionorfactthatapersonorthingisitselfandnotsomething
else;individuality,personality."Notethatthisdoesnoteasilycapturewhatweseemtomean
9
Oneexampleoftheconfusionthatcanresultfrominattentiontoordinarylanguagemeaningscomesfrom
the useof\rational"inrational-choice-in uencedpoliticalscienceapplications,whereit hasbeen popular
toarguethatcontrarytoconventionalwisdom,phenomenonX(war,genocide,ethnicviolence,etc.) canbe
explainedastheproductofrationalactorsmakingchoices. Butthemeaningof\rational"inrationalchoice
theoryconcernsprimarilytheeciencyofmeansforattainingdesiredends,whereasinordinarylanguage
\rational"alsoreferstowhetheraperson’sendsarecomprehensibleorevenmorallydefensible.
10
SeealsoMackenzie(1978),whoseinitialdismayattheproliferationofidentitytalkinthe1970sBritain
leadshimtospeakofthe\murder"oftheconcept.
7
whenwereferto\nationalidentity"or\ethnicidentity,"forexample. Isnationalidentity
thesamenessofanationinalltimesandplaces,ortheconditionofbeingthisnationand
notanother?Certainlytheideaofnationalidentityentailsanideaoftemporalandspatial
continuityofanation,butthisisn’twhatanessayonthenationalidentityoftheRussians
(forexample)wouldbefocusedon. Noris s nationalidentitythefactorconditionofbeing
dierentfromothernations,butrathersomethingaboutthecontentofthedierences.
The dictionarydenitionalsofails tocapturewhatweintendby declarationsofthe
form \my y identity is [such and such] ...", although \individuality" may come e close here
(\personality"isclearlywayo).MosttellingisthecomparisonbetweentheOEDdenition
andthesocialscientist’sdenitionslistedabove.Whilethereisconsiderableoverlapamong
socialscientist’sdenitions,thereisalmostnonewiththedictionarymeaning.
Animportantpointfollows: Ourpresent t concept of\identity" is recent, , or r atleast
recentenoughthatdictionarieshavenotcaughtupwithcurrentusage. TheOEDdenition
is reporting an older meaning ofthe word that is stillused quite frequently ineveryday
speechbutisnonethelessnarrowerthanourpresentconceptofidentity. Inthisoldersense,
\identity"referstothe(oftenlegal)associationofaparticularnametoaparticularperson{
thequalityofbeingaparticularperson,orthesamepersonasbefore,asin\sherevealedthe
identityofthemurderer"or\acaseofmistakenidentity."Thisusageisstillverymuchwith
us.
11
Forexample,thereisaminorgenreofnewspaperarticlesaboutthetheftofcreditand
other identicationcards that refersto\stolenidentities."
12
Butnotethatthis isa quite
dierentsensefromwhatwemeanwhenwesay\Ican’tdothatbecauseitisinconsistent
withmyidentity"orclaimthat\Ethniccon ictsareparticularlypronetoviolencebecause
theyinvolvemattersofidentity."
11
Mackenzie(1978,25)callsthisthe\bureaucraticusage."
12
Laitin(1998)identiesthisgenreinananalysisofusagebasedonaNexis-Lexissearch. Hereportsthe
followinginstance,from USA Today: : \Authoritieshavecharged d Janetzke, , 40,of Streamwood d with what
amounts to o the theft of another r person’s identity. . Police e say he used d the e name and credit history of a
35-year-oldtruckerfromWood Dale... . and d eventookoutatelephonenumberinhis name. . ‘Hejusttook
awaymyhusband’sidentity,’thetruckdriver’swifesaid.‘It’sjustabigmess.’"Inmyownrandomsample
of40usesof\identity"in majorEnglish newspapersidentiedbyNexis-Lexis,Ifoundthatabout40%t
thedictionary,\mistakenidentity"sense.
8
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