23 Your Identity? Or Everyone Else’s?
This chapter is dedicated to all those who may have struggled with finding their identity throughout their lives or are still struggling! In particular, this chapter is dedicated to those in minority groups who may have found it harder to find a place in this world because of the way society has been conditioned. My best friend from home, Zoe, was an integral part of finding my own personal identity and this Q&A is also dedicated to them. I hope that those reading this Q&A can gain some perspective on identity and how it can change and evolve throughout our lives.
Keywords: Sameness, In-Group, Differences, Self-Categorization, Out-Group
Q: What does identity mean?
A: The rhetorical term “identity” has meant different things throughout time. In contemporary society, identity is best understood as the “condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is; the qualities, beliefs, etc., that distinguish a person or thing.” The emphasis of this definition is on distinguishing ones-self from others. However, the term originated from the Latin term “idem” which means same or sameness. In the late 16th century “idem” or in English “identity,” means “quality of being identical.” The dichotomy of these definitions shows how humans have both an innate desire to find identity in similarity with others, but once in that group of people, there is also a desire to find a way to stand out and distinguish themselves from their group of similar peers.
Q: Why do humans feel the need to find their own sense of identity?
A: Having a sense of personal identity is important to be able to both relate to other people, as well as to distinguish oneself from other people. It is in our best interest to form an identity in order to have agency over who we become and how we are perceived by others. A lot of ‘finding your identity’ comes from the people we surround ourselves with, our in-group, and the people we do not associate ourselves with, our out-group. These groups can help compartmentalize what we do and do not agree with, what we value, and how we want to be perceived. Personally, I am a member of the cross country and track & field team at Wake Forest. Being a member of this team, and being a runner in general, is a large part of my identity. I am able to connect with my teammates through our shared experiences from the team as well as our senses of self in relation to athletics. However, even within this group of people who I share values and ideals with, my identity is not fully captured by this group. I have many parts of my identity that are wholly separate from my identity as a runner. I also identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, which is a big distinguisher between myself and many of my teammates, as our experiences on this are different. While this difference in identity between myself and my teammates is not a choice, it shows how in every in-group the individual members will still have unique characteristics and identities.
Q: Is it normal to try to form your identity around others/based on others?
A: It is normal for your personal identity to be influenced by others. One of the most common instances this happens is with teenagers. Our teenage years are a formative time for our identity and finding people who are a like us seems to be very important. Often, teenagers are trying to fit in with people they want their identity to be like. This can be seen when people do things in order to seem ‘cool’ to their peers, even when they would not usually do that activity. Some of these habits can even outlast the teenage years, like wearing specific clothing items to seem like we keep up with the trends. When younger people, such as teenagers, do not know what their identity is, identifying with others is a way to figure it out. As people get more comfortable with their identity in relation to this idea of “sameness,” they will often try to distinguish themselves from their alike peers in order to construct an identity that is separate from the group but still has the foundation of sameness. This embodies the dichotomy of identity as we think our identity is fully constructed through our own fruition, but in reality, it is created mostly from the people in our lives.
Q: What do you think the journal article “Identity Theory and Social Theory” by Stets and Burke is saying about identity?
A: “Identity Theory and Social Theory” explores the process of identity creation, arguing that identity is formed through group classification and self-categorization. There are two types of group classifications: in-groups, which are made up of people with perceived similarities to yourself, and out-groups, which are made up of people with perceived differences from yourself. Self-categorization is identity based on perceived differences from out-group members. The article presents these distinctions as important because it allows you to form a basis for which to view the rest of the world through. Personally, whenever I go back to my hometown, I notice my peers and I share similar viewpoints on many subjects. As argued in the article this would be because we grew up in similar circumstances which informed our beliefs and attitudes similarly. However, in college my peers come from a wider variety of backgrounds and are therefore informed by different in-group and out-group ideals upon which they have for their own self-categorization. As discussed in the article, this reduces the likelihood that my college peers and I will share the same beliefs and attitudes.
Q: Is your identity inherent?
A: Arguments have been made on both sides of this question, some believing identity is inherent, while others believe it is self-made. A strong advocate for the idea of inherent identity, or identity based on the existence of a soul, is German philosopher, Leibniz. Leibniz believes that identity lies in the notion of a person identifying with spiritual substance. This is based on Leibniz’s definition of a person as a moral and religious being. This argument ties in with the idea of nature versus nurture. Are we born in a certain way that is inherent and cannot be changed? Leibniz would argue yes. While I agree that there are certain parts of humans which are mostly innate, ie. our physical appearance, sexuality, gender etc., in my opinion, most parts of human identity are not inherent and instead are learned or taught throughout our lives. I believe we have far more agency over our identity than just being based on a spiritual substance and “soul” that is stagnant: we choose our identities, and we choose how they define us. For example, I chose to make my identity a runner because that was how I wanted to be perceived by my peers. Running was not a part of my identity; it was my identity. I chose to elevate its importance to the highest level I could in my own mind, and to my peers. This is an example of how people can choose to become the things they are, versus the other option where they can say they do something, but it is not solely who they are. If someone asked me who I was, I would say “a runner,” because that was what I saw myself as. As I grew older, I realized the importance of including many things as portions of my identity, rather than making my identity be defined by one thing. That is why I believe Leibniz view of identity is limiting. If we are to believe that personal identity is based on the soul alone, then there would be no motivation to change to be the best version of ourselves. Leibniz’s argument makes it too easy to claim things like “this is the way we are meant to be,” rather than working towards the betterment of your personal identity.
Q: How do you view the formation of your personal identity?
A: My personal identity has shifted and changed a lot throughout my life based on the circumstances I am in. When I was growing up, I largely based my whole identity and self-worth on performance in running, my peers knew me as “that runner girl.” Then, as I got older and came to terms with my sexuality, being LGBTQ+ became a large part of my identity and running became less of my identity. It is important yet difficult to let go of old identities when embracing new identities. It can feel like a loss of your sense of self. However, this process of change is needed in order for personal growth to occur. Whilst I do believe some things are inherent, I think there is always room for change when it is desired. You can form who you want to be and have complete agency over your life. Similar to how the term “identity,” has changed and evolved in its meaning through time, we as humans will also evolve throughout our lives. At some stage, most of us struggle to form our own identities because we are so concerned with being the same as other and fitting in or being the same as we used to be and fearing change. It is in distinguishing ourselves from our in-group even in the face of change that we are able to find our own identities and core values.
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Gut, Przemyslaw. “Leibniz: Personal Identity and Sameness of Substance.” Roczniki Filozoficzne / Annales De Philosophie / Annals of Philosophy, vol. 65, no. 2, 2017, pp. 93–110. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/90011318. Accessed 23 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 20 Mar. 2021