Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Carsten Rene´ Jørgensen, PhD


Presumably, in some form or other, human beings have always asked themselves such questions as: Who am I? Where do I belong? etc. But at times of swift cultural change and social dislocation questions like these are brought to the fore and become increasingly difficult to answer. People in pre-modern societies didn’t speak of identity and social recognition of identity. This is not because they didn’t have (what we call) identity or because they didn’t need recognition, but because these issues were experienced as relatively unproblematic and therefore not necessary to be thematicized as such (Taylor, 1991, p. 48). According to the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1995, p. 81) “identity as such is a modern invention” in the sense that “at no time did identity ‘become’ a problem; it could exist only as a problem, it was a ‘problem’ from its birth.” Similarly Lichtenstein (1977, p. 130) says, with reference to Locke, that“ the problem of personal identity could only become a philosophical and psychological issue when it was no longer considered self-evident that what constituted a person was divine origin—man‘s endowment with an immortal soul from which is derived his unalterable identity.” In modernity, collective and institutionalized frames of identity building are dismantled (Bauman, 2001, p. 92).

Partly as a consequence of the progressive individualization process, individuals are expected to construct their own unique identity. Moreover, problems of identity have been privatized and defined as exclusively individual problems or manifestations of psychopathology that call for purely individual models of (psychological) understanding and treatment. As Bauman (1995, p. 82) put it, “identity entered modern mind and practice, dressed from the start, as an individual task.” Furthermore, we are told, that if we find it difficult to create our own identity it is our own personal problem. But, in reality, identity problems are also related to elements of modernity.

            … but is it really?

People with a mature identity have found an adaptive balance between, on the one hand, the need for autonomy, separation and interpersonal differentiation and, on the other hand, the need for attachment to- and intimate relations with- others. In their attempt to develop an adaptive identity, people living in late modern societies must navigate between the extremes of uncompromizing individuality and total belonging or social integration, where “the first is unattainable, while the second, like a black hole, will suck in and swallow up whatever floats near it” (Bauman, 2005, p. 30). The road to identity in late modern society is like “a running battle and an interminable struggle between the desire for freedom [the for separation, individuation and autonomy] and the need for security [the need to belong, to be part of a community and to be attached to others], haunted by fear of loneliness and a dread of incapacitation” (Bauman, 2005, p. 30). The dilemma of human identity is, as Lichtenstein (1977, p.13) has succinctly formulated it, that “outside a relatedness to another one it collapses. Only by contrasting themselves one to another can human beings become separate, can they acquire or create an identity.” At the same time, every unique individual needs others to reflect on and recognize his or her identity. It is not possible to form, nor define or sustain a personal identity without intimate relationships to others of significance. As the German philosopher Honneth (1995, p. 131f) has argued, the self-image of the individual depends upon the possibility of being continually recognized and backed up by others and “the experience of being disrespected carries with it the danger of an injury that can bring the identity of the person as a whole to the point of collapse.” The individual “comes to feel that ‘I am the doer who does, I am the author of my acts,’ by being with another person who recognizes her acts, her feelings, her intentions, her existence, her independence” (Benjamin, 1988, p. 21). This need for social recognition of one’s identity is related to the fact that humans are fundamentally social beings. We infer who we are by observing how we are perceived by others and how others react to us and, as observed by the classical social interactionists (cf. Cooley, Mead), we can only maintain a stable view of ourselves and the world if “we receive—or at least think that we have received—a steady supply of self-verifying feedback from others” (Swann, Rentfrow, & Guinn, 2003, p. 369).

Again, this is why the balance of nurture and nature is so strong. The biological predisposition is there, but if it is not reinforced or reinforced negatively it will have a disastrous effect and has a chance to spin things for the worse.

Identity is not something we are born with, nor is it an inner ‘core’ that is easily ‘found’ during the course of development. Human identity is open ended, not determined by pre-given inner structures, and one can conceptualize social organization as a collective effort to provide and maintain stable identities for its members. Lichtenstein (1977) envision human culture as a collective effort to provide workable identity configurations for its members. Humans are compelled to construct or acquire an identity and in so doing, they depend upon culture and each other. Even though we do not have an innate identity we enter the world with an inborn capacity to develop our own individual identity and individuality. This capacity is only realized when we have the chance to do so in interaction with others and with the support of cultural moorings and societal institutions. Our personal identity is always articulated through concepts (and practices) made available by society, cultural narratives (including transcendental or religious narratives), schools and other social institutions, mediated by family, authority figures, peers and friends (Appiah, 2005, p. 20).“As contexts of identity, societies vary along one main dimension—that is to say how directive or restrictive they are in defining identity” (Baumeister, 1986, p. 252). In a historical perspective, late modern society represents a relatively loosely structured context for the construction of human identity.

Modern cultures and societies pose a special problem for human identity development in that they “insist on self-made identities, ready to grasp many chances and ready to adjust to changing necessities” (Erikson, 1959, p. 93). In late modern society the individual is given a wide range of possibilities for identity development and each individual is required to define his or her own identity (Baumeister, 1986). At the same time identity development has been turned into a perpetual search for—and experimentation with—different identities. Individuals are expected to liberate themselves from representatives of older generations, outdated traditions and social institutions. This is a highly demanding task and may be experienced as both liberating as well as highly confusing. The most important psychological task in adolescence and the early years of adulthood, where borderline disorders are typically diagnosed, is the formation of a personal identity that is unique, stable, flexible, and adaptive. In more traditional cultures one has access to rituals, which are often extensive. Here the transition between childhood and adulthood and one’s identity tends to be determined by society. In modern western culture, identity development is largely a do-it-yourself project, an individual task that calls for individual choice and an ability to carry the responsibility for these choices. Modernity has freed the individual from inherited identity, and identity has been transformed from a matter of ascription, to an individual task and achievement. According to Foucault (1997, p. 262), there is only one practical consequence to be drawn from the idea that the self is not given to us: “We have to create the self as a work of art.” Identity has become a never ending reflexive project one has to work on and the late modern individual is obliged to search for itself in itself (Gross, 1999). This is yet another highly complex and demanding task and only the more resourceful individuals will be able to complete it.

As described by Giddens (1991), human identity has been dis-embedded and we all have to find our own individual strategies to re-embed our identity. In societies with a high rate of social change, values and norms for adaptive role performance that were valid for older generations are no longer useful. As a consequence, especially adolescents are given the particularly stressful task “to forge a personal identity without being able to rely on models from the previous generation” (Paris, 1996, p. 90) or without indeed being able to rely on stable, generally accepted and validated societal models. Today, acquisition of identity involves the creation of modes of life that are defined in terms of roles and social functions that have not previously existed” (Strenger, 2004, p. 514). Societal guidelines, restrictions and pressures have been loosened immensely and the individual has an unprecedented freedom to construct his or her own life. But this freedom has also increased the burden on the individual to find a stable inner or outer base from which to make choices (Baumeister & Muraven, 1996). Even though we no longer have access to stable and clearly defined rules of choice, we have to make a great deal of them. As the number of choices continues to grow, negative aspects associated with the process escalate, and the individual then runs the risk of becoming over-loaded (Schwartz, 2004).In particular, individuals without the psychological resources required for making numerous choices can be tyrannized by the newly obtained freedom.

Free choice as an ideal, only makes sense when some issues are experienced and defined as being more important than others (Taylor, 1991). Faced with major and self-defining choices, humans therefore seek a single, unimpeachable criterion from which the correct or optimal decisions can be logically derived (Baumeister, Shapiro, & Tice, 1985). According to the prevailing cultural conceptions of selfhood we are supposed to find these criteria in the self and our personal identity. Personal identity is conceptualized as an inner source of morality and people are told by the new moral code of selfhood “that they should look inside themselves to find the sources of value and the answers to moral   dilemmas”(Baumeister & Muraven, 1996, p. 410).

            .... but what the hell does this even mean?!?!?

In accordance with predominant neo-liberal conceptions of man and society [keep in mind there is nothing that says this is the right conception, just that this is a currently accepted conception], our understanding of human psychology presupposes the existence of a self-contained and more or less constitutionally given self, which is “organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastingly both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background”(Geertz, 1984).Our main focus is a more or less autonomous individual capable of accepting responsibility, whilst the social and cultural context is assumed to have secondary significance. Facts about the individual are conceived as being facts that are more or less independent of the individual’s physical and cultural environment. The widespread belief, that the answer to complicated questions and problems in life lies within, and that our personal identity is required to “contain answers or meta-criteria that can be used to generate answers” (Baumeister, 1986, p. 26) has potentially contributed to the development of identity problems.

As argued by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, this modern western conception of the person is, “however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures”(Geertz, 1984). We have not always had the strong sense of individuality and personal identity that reigns now (Baumeister, 1997). Additionally, from the standpoint of a more communitarian concept of man and society (Taylor, 1991), it is only possible to develop a stable and valid identity if one has acquired essential social and cultural resources, and has been firmly integrated in society.

There is no such thing as a pre-given inner self or identity, rather the social, embodied and situated, or embedded nature of an individual and his or her identity is emphasized. Similarly, hermeneutic theory (Gadamer, 1975) has argued that humans are fundamentally historical beings; they are always already situated in a social context and partly constituted by culture and prevailing understandings of self and the world. In a world where religion, the state, tradition and social institutions have lost a substantial part of the legitimacy and power they previously used to structure, regulate and give meaning to individual lives, human identity has become an inner Heimat or home. Personal identity serves as a surrogate of community, “of that allegedly ‘natural home’ which is no longer available” (Bauman, 2001, p. 151) in the individualized and globalized world. The new and in some cases severe social and psychological problems that ensue from changing societal conditions are individualized and personal identity is seen as a kind of private medicine for collective maladies (Jørgensen, 2002; Bauman, 1995). Bauman (1995) has argued, that identity is the name used when people seek an escape from uncertainty. Personal identity is an important inner resource in the individual’s efforts to navigate in an increasingly complex world. It functions as an inner frame of reference and supports the experience of the world and one’s individual life as coherent, meaningful and guided by an inner logic. Thus, while becoming more difficult to create, the importance of having (access to) an adaptive identity has increased immensely.

I find this section to be quite interesting. Personal identity is not entirely all that personal after all. Personal identity is often a collective identity influenced by a whole manner of things especially your immediate environment and society/culture influencing that environment. I doubt this surprises anyone greatly. At least not if you’ve been with me for long.

Everyone always talks about identity as if it’s this tangible thing like I should know what it is. Like I should be able to point to it and say, yes, that’s me. But I can’t and I always feel like there’s something wrong with me. I’ve honestly had quite a bit of block when it’s come to writing and posting this series because it’s created a lot of anxiety in me. However reading the different perspective of renowned psychologists it seems as if there is much debate on this topic. In fact many don’t believe that at all. That belief is actually a cause for some of these identity issues in the first place because it doesn’t actually work that way! Well that’s a relief. Part 3 tomorrow…

P.S. I’m going on vacation next week but I’m going to try and set up posts for you if I can.  


  1. What you write and for what I have read so far-finding your page via the facebook page and from something's of assurance that everything that I'm thinking n feeling is something real and someone else out there understands exactly what is going on for the most part if not more! . Thankyou for your great writing and knowledge to share this.... it's one less person alone who knows someone out there understands. -ang.

  2. Hey Haven,

    Ever read some of Baudrillard's work? You might find it quite interesting in the context of the article you posted.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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