Thursday, 8 April 2010

Personal Identity and the Formation of a Concept of Self

One of the things that I’m exploring, in both my novel and in my thesis, is the idea of identity: what it is; how it is developed; and how it changes throughout a person’s life. This search for self-discovery is a common theme in fiction, particularly so where issues of race are involved. Sherman Alexie, for instance, has built his whole career on writing about characters who are caught between two cultures, trying to find out who they are, who they ally themselves with, and where they fit into the world they inhabit.

Sociologists tell us that identity can be described in a number of ways, including as an external perception of the individual by those around him, as a contrast to an Other, and as the individual’s own perception of self. Though these definitions are interconnected, for the purposes of this discussion I will primarily focus on the last.

There are many factors which contribute to our perception of self, including nationality, race, gender, social class, occupation, family position, personality traits, age, religion, and political allegiance. Each of these factors will have a greater or lesser degree of importance to each individual, playing a greater or lesser role in the way in which the individual sees himself.

Some of these factors, such as ethnicity and gender, are genetically imposed upon us at birth, and only through extreme measures like gender reassignment, can they be altered. Some, such as age, occupation, education, and family position change naturally over the course of a lifetime. Many others, including nationality and political allegiance, are subject to voluntary change. On a physical level, one can choose, or at least affect the appearance of, hair and skin color, and the shape of one’s body. In addition, there are factors which may come and go during our lives, such as involvement with social groups and activities. Sometimes these involvements are short-lived or ephemeral, particularly when they are inspired by celebrity or fashion. Often, however, when these involvements become true passions, they become as much a part of who we are as those factors we inherit, possibly more so because we have chosen them and desire to be seen as belonging to a group of like-minded adherents.

In the modern world, one can choose to align oneself with any number of options, developing and reinventing identities at different points in life. One can choose to be a member of the Women’s Institute, a Goth, a Christian, a supporter of Manchester United, a writer, a cyclist, a care giver, a rugby player, a Conservative, or indeed any combination of an almost unlimited number of possible identities. In his essay, ‘Popular culture and construction of postmodern identities’, Douglas Kellner writes that identity has become complicated by an ever-increasing number of options. The expanded possibilities with which people, today, are faced can lead to anxiety ‘[f]or one is never certain that one has made the right choice, that one has chosen one’s “true” identity’ (p142).



On Being an Other

Kathryn Woodward (1997) describes identification as ‘…the process of identifying with others, either through lack of awareness of differences or separation, or as a result of perceived similarities…’ (p14). As it relates to belonging, identity involves an emotional investment with or attachment to a group, and this leads on to the formation of the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. As the number of possible social allegiances expands, however, Kellner asserts that so does the individual’s need to be recognized by other members of the group to which he belongs (p142). Referring to Riesman et al (1950), he writes that the individual ‘is dependent upon others for recognition and thus for the establishment of personal identity’ (ibid). The individual’s view of himself is shaped, in part, by the group’s perception of the individual and by the perception of people outside the group. Because others recognize us as being part of the group, we come to see ourselves in the same way. Conversely, we are also recognized as not belonging to certain other groups. In this way, identity is determined as much by the groups with which we associate ourselves as it is by the groups with which we don’t: it is determined as much by what we are not as it is by what we are.


Growing up in the United States, my own identity was not defined so much by my status as an American, as by my status as a western American. Of even reater geographical importance was the state in which I was born and raised. In America, my identity was largely shaped by my allegiance to Idaho; in Idaho, my identity was refined still further by my allegiance to the northern part of the state. In the UK, however, where I am instantly recognized as an American, my nationality now plays a more significant factor in the way I define myself. This aspect of my identity sets me apart from those around me, and although it is not something which I have deliberately sought to cultivate, I have found that this perception of Otherness has increased, not decreased, in the more than two decades that I have lived here. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it has played an even greater part in the way in which I see myself. Though this self-perception waxes and wanes, after living more than half my life in the UK, I see myself more as an American now than I did at any time prior to 2001. This part of my identity is influenced not so much by my similarities with those around me, as it is by the differences.

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Identity in Traditional Societies

In traditional societies, identity is largely fixed from birth by a set of established social roles. The individual is subordinate to the group, conforming to the roles and expectations which have developed over millennia for the benefit of the community as a whole. Writing about individuals born into traditional communities, Kellner states that ‘[o]ne was born and died a member of one’s clan, a member of a fixed kinship system, and a member of one’s tribe or group with one’s trajectory fixed in advance’ (Lash and Friedman, 1992). In this system of predefined roles and fixed identities, he asserts, there is little opportunity, expectation or desire for change, and ‘[i]ndividuals did not undergo identity crises, or radically modify their identity’ (ibid).

Although Halahtookit was half white, it is my belief that he would have identified himself solely as Nez Perce and would not have experienced the level of cultural anxiety expressed by many contemporary people of mixed-race. What is more, while he was raised with the absence of a biological father, it is my assertion that his traditional society would have filled that void with surrogates. In addition to this, oral history reports that the Nez Perce experience of the Corps of Discovery was by in large a positive one. One can assume, therefore, that Halahtookit learned about Clark and the circumstances of his birth via the oral tradition of passing on tribal history. Otis Halfmoon describes Clark’s son as a ‘tie’ which the Nez Perce had with Lewis and Clark and that this tie was one of the reasons the Nez Perce worked to preserve good relations with the white trappers and settlers who followed. http://lewis-clark.org/content/content-article.asp?ArticleID=991

(A full discussion of Native American Identity and Blood Quantum will follow)



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