Social Identity

In today’s Guardian there is an article entitled Who do you think I am? with the tag line “It’s all too easy to categorise people but it isn’t inevitable. We can still consider the alternatives.”

The writer is quite correct so say that:

Identity is a contemporary buzzword

and goes onto list instances of its use. I have been banging on about this casual uncritical use of the term identity. The writer goes on to say:

The everyday meaning of identity is never entirely fixed but there are successful definitions that have particular influence in particular contexts. There are two general definitions of identity in the articles featured in the Guardian. The first appears in articles on ID cards and identity fraud and encapsulates the notion of an individual’s possession of official characteristics, a recognised legal identity to which a bundle of rights (political, economic and social) can be attached. The second is primarily concerned with culture and is often tagged with a national, ethnic or religious complement, “British identity” and, “Muslim identity” being by far the most common. In both cases, identity is construed as a recognisable object, a specific something with a given content that can be tagged with an appropriate label. This in itself is not uncontroversial, though it is not questioned as often as it ought to be.

The writer makes the valid distinction between the rather superficial notion of legal identity and the deeper, more slippery notion, of social identity: the latter tied to the blithely used notion “multiculturalism”.

The problem here is that the writer doesn’t at all offer even the beginnings of a conceptual analysis of what multiculturalism might denote. I understand the writer to be saying (though not using philosophical jargon) that there cannot be necessary and sufficient conditions for the complexity that is social identity – there are multitudinous overlapping collecting features.

We are not, however, condemned to theorising identity as a series of ever receding circles of categorisation: white, English, female, middle-class and so on, each with its inevitable weight of external definition over which we have little or no control.

That’s an eminently sensible approach. The writer then goes onto to say:

There are alternatives. The Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, for instance, emphasises the universal state of flux of which the self is a mere part: you are me and I am you and we are all the world. If that seems just a little too vague and lyrical, then it is worth noting that recent theories of the self which draw on connectionism in cognitive science have very similar conceptions of identity, not “egos in bags of skin” but embodied minds intimately connected to their environment through every vibrant nerve-ending.

The Buddhist conception is also a conception of the self that challenges the Lockean notion. It’s ironic that the writer characterises the Hindu conception as too “vague and lyrical”: and yet there is no indication at all that the writer understands what a connectionist theory of the self is. There seems to be a conflation between personal identity and social identity, identities that, I would grant, are somehow related. This said, I see no entailment between a connectionist theory of mind and an embodied and situated agent.

The writer should check out the discussion at the blog What Sorts of People.