Theories of identity:

  • Essentialism – Physiognomy, Phrenology: Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) founder of positivist criminology- the notion that criminal tendencies and inherited and character is based on the different ratios of the brain.


  • Physiognomy legitimizing racism – superior race, first signs of Nazism and racial stereotyping.

physiognomy Picture1frtyujk
Historical phases of identity:

  • pre modern identity – personal identity is stable , defined by long standing roles in society.
  • Modern identity (19th &  early 20th centuries) – modern societies begin to offer a wider range of social roles. Possibility to start ‘choosing’ your identity, rather than simply being born into it. People start to ‘worry’ about who they are
  • Post-modern identity – accepts a ‘fragmented ‘self’. Identity is constructed

Pre- Modern Identity:

In this period institutions determined secure identities, your identity depending on which role you were playing in society. These secure identities included, farm worker- the land gentry, the soldier – the state, the factory worker – industrial capitalism, the housewife- patriarchy, the gentleman – patriarchy, husband-wife (family)-marriage/church

Modern Identity:
Charles Boudelaire – painter of modern life. Introduces concept of the ‘flaneur’(gentleman-stroller). The idea that identities were formed/reinforced by the items/clothing that you bought/wore. Those seen as the more ‘elite’ members of society would be seen to walk about in their best clothing, to make a point that they could afford it, and that they could afford to not work.
Thorstein Veblen- Theory of leisure class. Theory that you identify who you are through what you buy or wear.
“Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure” – Veblen
George Simmel – metropolis and mental life. Trickle down theory, Emulation, Distinction, The ‘Mask’ of Fashion. Veblen originally theorised that consumer items such as new technologies and clothing when originally released were at a price only those seen as the ‘elite’ could afford, so over time more affordable imitations were manufactured for those less wealthy.  This theory was applied by Simmel within fashion trends, stating that the ‘elite’ would change styles in order to stand out from the middle/working class again and so fashion ‘trends/seasons’ were formed.
‘The feeling of isolation is rarely as decisive and intense when one actually finds oneself physically alone, as when one is a stranger without relations, among many physically close persons, at a party, on the train, or in the traffic of a large city” – Simmel

Post-Modern Conditions:
‘Discourse Analysis’ – Identity is constructed out of the discourses culturally available to us.
Discourses are a set of recurring statements that define a particular culture.Possible Discourses:

  • age
  • class
  • gender
  • nationality
  • race/ethnicity
  • sexual orientation
  • income
  • education
  • etc.

The term “otherness” however is used for those who don’t appear to fit in with the ‘normal’ discourses.

The Post-modern condition:
Liquid Modernity and Liquid Love

  • Identity is constructed through our social experience- Erving Goffman The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). Goffman saw life as ‘theatre’, made up of ‘encounters’ and ‘performances’ – the self is a series of façades

Post-Modern Identity:
Zygmunt Bauman –  “Yes, indeed, “identity” is revealed to us only as something to be invented rather than discovered; as a target of an effort, “an objective””
this is the idea that you can create your own identities. His proposition of ‘liquid’ identities is that we can affect/change our identities knowingly whenever we choose.

(Barbara Kruger/Selfridges, Buy Me.  I’ll change your life/You want it You buy it You forget it, 2006)

“The family trip to a shopping mall is the present-day incarnation of the sacred” – Bauman. This is the idea that whereas in previous years families would have descended upon the church once a week, now families dedicate a day of the week instead to do the shopping and that the supermarket has become the sacred place and not the church.

This idea that you can construct your own identities within post-modern society is reinforced when looking upon social networking sites such as Facebook or Second Life. On Facebook it’s not difficult to construct a completely false/fake identity and network claiming to be that person, so you could really choose your own identity. But on second life you have the ability to completely customise your identity, its an online world where anything is made possible, your character can be anyone or anything that you wish to make it. This gives you the complete freedom to create an identity perhaps you wish you had in reality. I believe it to be a form of escapism, often those who use the site are those who aren’t satisfied with their lives or themselves. But it begs the question where’s the border between what is real life and what isn’t to these people. In some ways you can say its very much real, you create it, therefore it is real. But within the imagination of the users of second life their imaginations can be absorbed into the identities/characters they create because they have the ability to be absolutely anything, which in reality is never possible, therefore it can become their reality or their preferred reality at least. I would say that it isn’t real life at all instead it is an artificial life, for it does not really physically exist anywhere but the mind or in the coding of the internet. It can never be.

“Fun they may be, these virtual communities, but they create only an illusion of intimacy and a pretence of community”- Charles Handy (2001), The Elephant and the Flea, Hutchinson

“In the brave new world of fleeting chances and frail securities, the old-style stiff and non-negotiable identities simply won’t do” –  Bauman