Identity is a word that features in an unusually wide range of discourses from logic to politics. Originally a technical term in theology and philosophy, it became a favorite of mathematicians and policemen before achieving a central role in psychoanalysis in the postwar United States. In the early 1970s, identity migrated into the political arena, where the phrase identity politics has become central to both political and ideological debate in the past four decades.
Identity is multiply derived from French and Latin. Its underlying root is the Latin idem, the same, and its first appearance is recorded in the OED in 1545 in the context of theological debates about transubstantiation. Already by 1570 it is used in a translation of Euclid and will remain a key term in mathematics developing a series of uses in C19 in logic and algebra. More centrally, it becomes an important word in the empirical philosophy of John Locke at the end of C17, where it is used in place of religious terms which are not susceptible of empirical verification, such as soul: “The Identity of the same Man consists . . . in nothing but a participation of the same continued Life, by constantly fleeting Particles of Matter, in succession, vitally united to the same organized Body. . . . consciousness always accompanies thinking . . . in this alone consists personal Identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational Being” (1690). David Hume famously dissented from this overarching view of identity, discerning in the self merely a succession of experiences. It was in an attempt to refute Hume that Thomas Reid best articulates what remains one important current meaning: “My personal identity, therefore, implies the continued existence of that indivisible thing which I call myself. Whatever this self may be, it is something which thinks, and deliberates, and resolves, and acts, and suffers. I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts, and actions, and feelings, change every moment—they have no continued, but a successive existence; but that self or I to which they belong, is permanent, and has the same relation to all the succeeding thoughts, actions, and feelings, which I call mine” (Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 1785).
From the end of C19 and in the context both of modern policing and the ever greater reproducibility of photographs, there are a significant number of compounds that indicate the importance of the documentation of identity in modern states: identity card, identity certificate, identity document, identity papers, identity check. More recently, and increasingly with reference to digital and not analog identities, we have identity theft. The most important and widespread of identity documents is the passport, the use of which is generalized by the end of World War I. From a bureaucratic perspective, personal identity thus takes a national form.
It is just after the end of World War I that Freud turns his attention to the relation between the individual and the social in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). Freud does not use the word identity (Identität) to describe a state, but the word identification (Identifizierung) to describe a process. However, the state of identity is the crucial focus for the Ego Psychology school which becomes dominant in the US in the decades after World War II. Erik Erikson, the most prominent proponent of Ego Psychology, claims, “The study of identity . . . becomes as strategic in our time as the study of sexuality was in Freud’s.” Erikson argues that “[p]sychosocial identity develops out of a gradual integration of all identifications. . . . [H]ere, if anywhere, the whole has a different character from the sum of its parts.” Erikson ranges very widely in his elaboration of the different elements which are integrated into a mature identity, using all of the following phrases: cultural identity, ethnic identity, racial identity, religious identity, sexual identity, tribal identity. It is an indication of the very increased importance of identity in contemporary discourse that most of these phrases seem very familiar, although many of them still do not yet have entries in the OED. Yet for all these inflections, the core meaning of identity for Erikson remained in the tradition of Locke: “the ability to experience one’s self as something that has continuity and sameness.”
For Erikson, the notion of identity as the integration of heterogeneous elements into a unity was not limited to individuals. There was much debate in the postwar era about finding a word that could function as a non-political category for defining a people, given that race had been irredeemably tarnished by Nazi theory. In Childhood and Society (1950), Erikson opted for “national identities” as his preferred term. An indication of the fertility of Erikson’s notion of identity and particularly of his signature concept of identity crisis can be found in Edward Said’s use of the term in 1969 to help characterize the then current moment in “Palestinian experience”: “That is why the present identity crisis is not minimal, but a matter of profound moment” (The Politics of Dispossession, 1994, 15).
In the 1970s, identity emerged as a crucial political term in the phrase identity politics. Its most immediate meaning was an opposition to class politics and reflected struggles both in the Black Power and women’s movements to refuse to subordinate questions of race and gender to traditional definitions of political struggle in terms of class. However, identity was more than just a counter to class; it was an appeal to a different kind of politics in which questions of subjectivity and consciousness were central. Identity here is multiply ambiguous: it is what you can’t help being, but also what you choose to become. As such, it hovers between a desire to choose a different identity and a desire to reject what for Erikson is a struggle and for Locke a simple evidence: the dominant notion of identity itself. Particularly in recent debates about gender identity, one can discern not simply the assertion of new identities, but a further desire to move beyond identity altogether.
This questioning of identity itself has also arisen as the recognition of identities has multiplied in recent decades. One reaction has been the coining of the word intersectionality: “The term intersectionality references the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather as reciprocally constructing phenomena” (Annual Review of Sociology, 2015). Identity politics opened up in the heart of identity a vision of difference and, for many, that vision needs to understand identity as a perpetually shifting construction as individual and world interact.