24 The Ability of Identity: An Ever-Changing Word

Braxton McNulty

For all of you who have struggled with finding your identity or do not know what it is, this is for you. While that may pertain to a lot of people, this is specifically for college students as those four years you spend away from home can lead to changes in what you believed your identity to be which can be confusing. Even if you are comfortable with who you are, it is important to spend time analyzing yourself to get a good grasp on how your experiences in life and the groups you are a part of have shaped you into the person you see currently.

Keywords: Self-image, Definition, Characteristics, Alignment, Recognition


When I look at the role of identity in today’s society, it has a variety of meanings and they all revolve around who somebody is as a person with their actions and choices. My interest in the word came from looking at how I believe my identity has changed from when I came to Wake Forest in 2018 to now where I am a junior. Identity in college is mostly concerned with social rank. Greek life is extremely prominent here and when I joined a fraternity freshman year, I viewed myself as having a higher status than other guys outside of my fraternity. That was the mindset that a fair amount of people had in my fraternity and I bought into that originally. However, that mindset has changed as I have gotten older. I am happy that I joined my fraternity as it has helped me have a great experience in college so far. However, my identity is much more than just that as I have made a conscious effort to do things outside of the Greek system. Broadly speaking, identity is mainly connected to an individual’s ethnicity/race, sexuality, role in society, privilege, and political views along with personal characteristics. The concept of the word has changed over time and I believe that rhetoric influences the word because identity can have a variety of definitions. The word is so hard to define exactly because identity is ever-changing based on setting and understanding your identity is a challenging but empowering task.


Individuals can come up with quite elaborate definitions on how society influences identity currently and throughout history. The concept of place connects to the building blocks of how somebody is structured as a person. Kenneth Burke was a literary theorist who developed the notion of identification which occurs when somebody tries to persuade someone else as you either identify with that individual or not. Furthermore, the role of the word in modern society connects the most with my experiences around what my identity is in college. While somebody’s personal definition of what identity is may be different from what other people look at identity as, rhetoric serves as the means by how individuals persuade others to be looked at in certain ways. This matters because it is the basis of how relationships are formed in society.


The concept of place is crucial in helping to develop an individual’s identity with how they act and the things they believe in. Identity comes from the places and spaces people have been around as that is where one starts to develop their true characteristics. Specifically, place is a combination of space and meaning while space is technically a geographic location. People eventually develop a symbolic meaning with a physical space after spending a fair amount of time there which is known as place making theory. That notion suggests that a place has been quite influential to the formation of a person’s character. The theory helps define areas that people want to be a part of. For example, I became a lot more connected to nature around my home in New Hampshire during quarantine last summer. Since I was not allowed to be inside with my friends, we spent a lot more time doing small hikes around our hometown and going fishing which is where I realized how important the outdoors is to me. While I do not know where I will be post-graduation, I need a place where I will be able to spend time in some form of nature as it is a form of relaxation. Most people are not going to stay in the exact same place for their entire lives and even if they do, those places will go through their own changes. Identity can differ based on the variety of places people may find themselves in for whatever period of time and that may not stay the same throughout.


Throughout history, there has always been ambiguity around what identity means based on its environment. Philip Gleason talks about how in a philosophical sense, identity can be looked at as what makes somebody unique as all people are technically different physically and based on their ideals. During the 1950s, Erik Erikson started developing theories about the word and the role it plays in more modern times. He says that identity is, “A process ‘located’ in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture, a process which establishes, in fact, the identity of those two identities” (Gleason, 914). A person is going to develop their identity through the interactions they have in a wide range of settings which is going to vary for everyone as nobody is going to have the exact same experiences in life. This can also be looked at from a global perspective as there are a variety of cultures all over the world. Even though people will develop their distinct identities, it is still important to look at the group experiences individuals go through and the other people they go through those experiences with. For me in college, the group experiences I have had with members in my fraternity and on the hockey team at Wake Forest have shaped my identity as those are the two main cultures I am a part of. It is worth nothing that Gleason looks at identity today through the eyes of working adults and not college students. However, Kenneth Burke’s analysis on rhetoric and especially identity can be applied to humans more generally.


The fact that an individual’s identity changes so frequently results from the fact that people base it off of where they are in the moment. How a person will shape themselves uniquely in terms of what they believe in and how they want to be looked at connects to Burke’s notion of identification shows the need all humans have to develop their own identity. From there, identification is the inclination of a person or group to want to connect with outsiders who have similar beliefs. Personally, I went through the process of identification when deciding to join my fraternity as I viewed it as guys I wanted to associate myself with for the rest of my time in college. Before joining a fraternity or sorority, a person goes through rush which is where they meet people who are in different Greek life organizations. From there, the organizations decide who they want to join their group and then, the people decide where they want to go based on which places want them. For me, I decided on my fraternity because I looked at it as the group where I could see myself fitting in the best. As I have gotten older, I have started developing my own unique identity that is not just based off of the perception that my fraternity as a whole gives off. When looking at myself, I have changed from the group identity mindset that I had when I joined my fraternity to now wanting to have more of my own distinct identity.

There are also instances where different places can also strip away identity. Unlike what I have been talking about so far, this shows how certain settings can break down your identity instead. For example, Jeffrey Bennett’s essay talks about how men who have sex with other men are forbidden from giving blood. However, some men go through “passing” which is where gay men lie about their sexual background to give blood. Gay men go through the “passing” process because they want to change the perception of their identity as an at-risk male. Bennett says, “What is striking is the idea that donation is something that is nearly impossible to imagine outside the bonds of community” (Bennett, 30). Being a gay man itself can already lead to issues in terms of how others look at you and for some, not being able to give blood even further ostracizes you from social communities. They do not want to let others define their identity as somebody who cannot partake in the special act of giving blood. When looking at the setting of giving blood, people give gay men the identity of not being able to give blood while those who undergo the “passing” process are trying to change the identity that they are getting. This shows how even when looking at one specific example of setting, there are still differences in how people look at the identity of one group which connects to how hard it is to define the word.


A major component to how somebody’s identity is structured comes down to the people in their life with which generally alters throughout different stages of life. Jan Stets and Peter Burke discuss how identity in a group setting compared to a personal sense may not always be the same. Furthermore, the way people perceive their role in society may not be the same as how others look at you. When looking at identification socially, “People behave in concert within a group which they identify” and “Individuals who use the group label to describe themselves are more likely than not to participate in the group’s culture, to distinguish themselves from the out-group, and to show attraction to the group in their behavior” (Stets and Burke, 226). While identity is mostly looked at from a personal point of view, it is severely influenced by the people individuals surround themselves with which are mainly like-minded people. A lot of social identity also comes from within the workplace. The Boston Blog describes that in order to have the most inclusive/productive workplace, businesses should hire people with different social identities to have a diverse community. Social identities can overlap, and it is also key to see how they relate to your level of power/privilege. It is instrumental to have at some grasp on your level of power/privilege as that will influence how others perceive an individual’s identity which puts them at a good social standing.


Overall, identity has quite a broad definition, but it is severely influenced by the setting the word is looked at in along with how one perceives the idea. The places people go and the groups people surround themselves with are the ones who directly impact an individual’s identity. Furthermore, a person’s identity can be shaped by the words they hear, and the fact that not everybody is going to interpret them the same way is why rhetoric is needed. Lastly, identity can exclude people from different communities. For me personally, when I was looking at colleges to attend, I knew that I needed to go to a place where I could learn more about my identity. I felt that in my hometown, I was surrounded by too many people who were like me in terms of beliefs and morals. I needed to go to a school where I would be able to be around people who had different identities than me as it would help me understand who I was truly as a person. This is something I feel like I have accomplished so far at Wake Forest. Even though I addressed how I did not like that my identity at school mainly comes from my fraternity, the group has allowed me to broaden my horizons when looking at my identity because I have been able to associate with others who are extremely different from me. Now, I have more of an understanding on what is important for me in life going forward as I near the end of my time in college.

Works Cited


Bennett, Jeffrey  (2008) Passing, Protesting, and the Arts of Resistance: Infiltrating the Ritual Space of Blood Donation, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94:1, 23-43, DOI: 10.1080/00335630701790818

Chandler, Leigh. “Your Full Self: Social Identities and the Workplace.” YW Boston, New Media Campaigns, 27 Oct. 2020, www.ywboston.org/2020/10/your-full-self-social-identities-and-the-workplace/.

Charland, Maurice (1987) Constitutive rhetoric: The case of the peuple québécois, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73:2, 133-150, DOI: 10.1080/00335638709383799

Gleason, Philip. “Identifying Identity: A Semantic History.” The Journal of American History, vol. 69, no. 4, 1983, pp. 910–931. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1901196. Accessed 26 Mar. 2021.

Stets, Jan E., and Peter J. Burke. “Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 3, 2000, pp. 224–237. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2695870. Accessed 26 Mar. 2021.


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Braxton McNulty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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