The Problem with Identity

This is a series of questions that circle back on one another. I do not have answers.

Anthropology seems at odds with itself. As a discipline, it’s charged with understanding people from their own cultural perspectives, maintaining that meaning arises from use. Thinking through these tenets, it leads to a tension between intention and interpretation. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of identity and personhood–who someone is, how that “who” comes into being, and who has the power to determine who the “who” is.

This is a problem of whether to position self-identity, or social-identity, as the ultimate authority on “who” someone is. It’s a problem of intent vs. uptake. If you insist you are a certain person, but no one else agrees or treats you as such, then in what sense are you that person? If what you assert to be true isn’t engaged with as such, is it still true? Who has the power to define the individual, the individual themself or the society within which they form their identity?

We must, of course, consider power structures in this minefield of contested meaning. If someone without power in a given structure insists upon their identity, anthropologists typically side with the oppressed person. But this seems at odds with the charge to understand meaning within cultural contexts. If the cultural context denies someone’s personhood, how do we determine meaning and identity?

A concrete example might be helpful. Let’s talk a little about gender.

U.S. culture currently operates within a binary system of gender, although that’s slowly changing to include trans categories. Within the system, trans-identifying individuals are erased. This is oppressive. It’s epistemically, metaphysically, and ontologically violent.

But if an outside anthropologist were to observe the current state of social structural affairs, would they acknowledge the person claiming a trans identity, or the larger culture that denies such an identity exists? Again, intent vs. uptake, meaning-in-use vs. structural categories, self-identity vs. social-identity. And who says the anthropologist has any power to make that determination, anyway? Who should have the power? Everyone? Should there be no categories? Without social categories, there are no identities.

So we’re back with the reality we all live in: contested categories of being, and assertions of identity as primary vs. assertions of social categories as primary. Who gets to determine who is who? Who gets to be a “who”?

Should anthropologists limit the definition of meaning-from-use to arise within each community? How, then, do we define a community? And who gets to define it? Borders are fluid social constructions, themselves. We arrive again at nihilistic relativism, which is hardly a functional way to engage in life. The go-to for anthropologists seems to be turning toward the margins and giving them voice. Asking those oppressed by the dominant power structure who they are, what they believe, and what their practices are. But within the margins, who decides who belongs? How is consensus determined? Must one prove one’s oppression and identity to those with whom one self-identifies? Once marginalized communities gain recognition and power from the perspective of the formerly-dominant structure, is there a rush to the margins, to identify with previously marginalized communities? Do those who were already at the margins push back? Who gets to determine who is marginalized? Does this lead to exclusions within exclusions?

And if no one polices identity, how on earth are we supposed to relate to one another? “People” is so broad it functionally erases all the identities we should be honoring. Or is honoring identity only necessary when some identities have been oppressed or erased by dominant identities? In a society where all types of personhood are equally valued and respected, does the need for identity politics vanish? Is everyone simply one-of-many?

It’s hard to quiet my structural brain, which insists upon categories, however fluid, to understand western cultures. But then, again, we arrive at the question of who has the power to define those structures. By consensus? By making space for those who have been oppressed by the current power structures to determine a new structure, and new categories, or lack thereof? How do we build and maintain communities that aren’t exclusive?

Perhaps the key is to first recognize everyone’s personhood, and then move to the various ways in which everyone defines that personhood (the many identities that coalesce within each of us to shape our personhood). And lastly & continuously, to honor and respect those identities as equally true.

I still think there’s tension in privileging identity or social norms, and in relying on one person’s or group’s use over another’s to arrive at cultural meaning. Listening to the marginalized is important in any consideration of social reality. Anthropologists strive to consider the cultural definitions and identities of the margins as equally valuable, if not more so, than those of the mainstream’s. All this I believe, and yet on an abstract level I’m still puzzled by who has (and who should have) the power to define. To make meaning.

We all have the power to be, but what our being consists of still largely depends upon cultural context. And whether that should be the case or not seems to be the unanswered question of identity as a way to change social structures. If all identities were to have equal validity, what will culture look like? Would there be such a thing as identity? Would difference exist? Be necessary? Since identities get at least some of their meaning from existing cultural context, to what extent do they have the potential to alter that context and make entirely new structures?

Around and around we go…



Filed under Gender Trouble, Power

5 responses to “The Problem with Identity

  1. I really like this question. I think that if anthropology is attempting to describe, as best it can, the way reality functions, the question isn’t *which* one matters but *how* the two matter. That is, what is the interplay of individual and cultural, and how does that interplay work in any particular culture that the anthropologist is studying? To try to side with one view of identity or the other would seem to me to attempt to cut off a part of reality for the sake of theoretical consistency. I draw on my background in rhetoric: Each word is a category, but individuals can and do push the meaning of a word. Sometime cultures or groups within a culture adopt the individual’s use of the word; sometimes they don’t. But language grows and changes because of that individual/cultural dialogue. It’s what keeps languages alive. I think of identity as a dialogue (to think of it positively) or a tension (to think of it more negatively) between individual and culture. In a culture (like ours) that generally treats gender as a binary, what can we learn from the growing tension between that tendency and the pushback of individuals that they don’t fit that binary? What does the resistance *and/or* acceptance of this pushback tell us about the culture? Why does the binary matter to the culture (what function does it serve)? Why does breaking that binary matter to the individual(s)? It tells you a lot about the culture that some people treat the challenging of that binary as mental disease, as moral disaster, as spiritual breakdown, as choice, as political act, as accurate description of biological forces, as healing, as empowering, etc. For me, the primary question is almost always, “How does it function? What difference does it make?” I think that when we know the answer to that, we’re in a better position to make choices (individually and culturally) because we better understand the consequences of defining things in this way or that. Very cool stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like your reframing- “how the two matter” makes a lot more sense and creates more room for exploration and, as you say, dialogue. We need to flip this. Your comment should be the post and my post should be the (ill-thought out) comment. 🙂


      • Thanks for the kind words, but we can’t flip it. If you don’t write the post, I don’t come up with the comment, so your question gave birth to mine. Instead of calling your stuff “ill-thought out,” I’d labe it “generative.” :~)

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Voicing the Voiceless | Contemporary Contempt

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