The concept of identity is a loaded and complex one. Have you ever thought to yourself – what is it that constitutes an identity? Is one born with an identity? Does one acquire an identity? Can one’s identity change over time?
Some people may have never questioned their own identity, with their social status, geographical location and racial profile being sufficient to define who they classify themselves to be. Consider for example national identity as a social contract between the people of a nation and its rulers, whereby the latter pledge to rule on the peoples’ behalf, involving a negotiation process through which a sense of citizenship is forged. In Brown’s book ‘Walled States, Waning Sovereignty’ (2010) he talks of how walls serve multiple purposes. They are not simply prohibitive, as means to stop and filter out unwanted invaders, but are also productive, acting as means to fortify national identity and provide security and defense. The question of physical space here remains extremely important. As Nead (1997) mentioned: ‘Social space is not a passive backdrop to the formation of identity, but is part of an active ordering and organising of the social and cultural relations of the city’. We can see that geography shapes and is shaped by social processes. It is critical to identity-formation process.
Today however, understandings of identity are increasingly multifaceted, contested and re-defined. Many do not find categorizations defined by states and societies applicable to their lives, considering their sense of self as a more fluid concept. I believe that this especially of global travellers who may feel a sense of belonging to more than one place and culture.
Questions of what is identity, how it is formed and how it evolves are part of a widely debated subject in today’s media, even without notice. This is evident through the recent rise of right-wing politics across the western world and the questions of what constitutes a pure national subject, discussions around the meaning and manifestation of gender, and as evident in our day to day lives through conversations with friends and colleagues about how they see themselves and others.
In some cases identity may be defined through practice, with certain acts carried out by people resulting in their immediate identification and reiterating their vision as seen from the outside by ‘others’. Yet identity can also be a very personal matter that is maintained through feelings, thoughts and beliefs – demanding little or no practice at all.
Some interesting thoughts I want to pose to you, particularly in our world where identities are increasingly blurred across physical bodies and state lines, include:
- Who (person or collective) works to re-define the notion of an identity
- How does society decide which concepts of identity are accepted or rejected?
- Is there a need for a formal authority to clearly define certain identities for the sake of classification and daily interactions?
- What is the importance of space in discussion relating to identity?
- How may the concept of a European identity change following Brexit (both within and beyond Britain)?