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Richard Jenkins “Social Identity”

January 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Jenkins, Richard 2008. Social Identity. London; New York: Routledge.

Identity Matters

As a very basic starting point, identity is the human capacity – rooted in language – to know ‘who’s who’ (and hence ‘what’s what’). This involves knowing who we are, knowing who others are, them knowing who we are, us knowing who they think we are, and so on: a multi-dimensional classification or mapping of the human world and our places in it, as individuals and as members of collectivities (cf. Ashton et al. 2004). It is a process – identification – not a ‘thing’. It is not something that one can have, or not; it is something that one does. (5)

[…] where identity does appear to be an emotional matter – and hence capable of influencing actions – this does not seem to be inevitable, or natural. Identification has to be made to matter, through the power of symbols and ritual experiences, for example. (6)

 

Similarity and Difference

Identity can only be under-stood as a process of ‘being’ or ‘becoming’. One’s identity – one’s identities, indeed, for who we are is always multi-dimensional, singular and plural – is never a final or settled matter. (17)

[…] for sociological purposes identification can be defined minimally thus:

• ‘Identity’ denotes the ways in which individuals and collectivities are distinguished in their relations with other individuals and collectivities.

• ‘Identification’ is the systematic establishment and signification, between individuals, between collectivities, and between individuals and collectivities, of relationships of similarity and difference.

• Taken – as they can only be – together, similarity and difference are the dynamic principles of identification, and are at the heart of the human world. (18)

 

A Sign of the Times

In international politics, to take another example, identity seems to have become a symbolic public good the defence of which asserts a legitimacy that is beyond criticism or opposition. Reified into a sacred and holy apotheosis, identity is something to which everyone has a right. (29)

 

Understanding Identification

One of the assumptions that much social science has in common with the ‘everyday thinking’ of ‘common sense’ or ‘common knowledge’ is a radical distinction between the individual and the collective. This means that collective identity and individual identity are typically understood as different kinds of phenomena, and the relationships between unique individuality and shared collectivity tend to be unexamined or treated as axiomatic. (37)

In this book I adopt another approach. This perspective, which is not dramatically new, argues that:

• with respect to identification, the individually unique and the collectively shared can be understood as similar in important respects;

• the individual and the collective are routinely entangled with each other;

• individual and collective identifications only come into being within interaction;

• the processes by which each is produced and reproduced are analogous;

• the theorisation of identification must therefore accommodate the individual and the collective in equal measure. (37-38)

There is nothing collectivist about this: the individual is, in fact, placed at the heart of the enterprise (although not more so than the collective). What Mills calls ‘society’ – and I call the ‘human world’ (Jenkins 2002a: 3–5) – is the field upon which the individual and the collective meet and meld. (38)

Leaning heavily on Erving Goffman and, to some extent, Anthony Giddens, I suggest that the world as constructed and experienced by humans can be best understood as three distinct ‘orders’:

the individual order is the human world as made up of embodied individuals and what-goes-on-in-their-heads;

the interaction order is the human world as constituted in relationships between individuals, in what-goes-on-between-people;

the institutional order is the human world of pattern and organisation, of established-ways-of-doing-things. (39)

Appropriating the methodological distinction between groups and categories, a distinction can be made between a collectivity which identifies and defines itself (a group for itself) and a collectivity which is identified and defined by others (a category in itself). (43)

Identification is something over which struggles take place and with which strategems are advanced – it is means and end in politics – and at stake is the classification of populations as well the classification of individuals. (45)

[…] identity is a strategic concept in broaching these questions:

• Although identities are necessarily attributes of embodied individuals, they are equally necessarily collectively constituted, sometimes at a high level of abstraction. In identification, the collective and the individual occupy the same space.

• If identity is conceptualised in terms of process, as identification at work and at play in the interaction order, the distinction between structure and action may be avoided.

• If those processes are conceptualised as a perpetual dialectic of two analytically (but only analytically) distinct moments – the internal and the external – then the opposition between the objective and the subjective may also be sidestepped.

• Since identity is bound up with shared repertoires of intentionality (such as morality) and interactional networks of constraint and possibility, it is an important concept in our understanding of action and its outcomes, both intended and unintended.

• The  institutional order is, at least in part, a network of identities (positions) and of routinised practices for allocating positions (identities) to individuals.

• There is a direct relationship between the distribution of resources and penalties and identification: identity both is a criterion for distribution and is constituted in terms of patterns of distribution (means and end again).

• In the internal and external moments of identification a necessary connection is made between domination and resistance and identification.

• The classification of populations as a practice of state and other agencies is powerfully constitutive both of institutions and of the interactional experience of individuals. (46-47)

 

Selfhood and mind

Thus the meanings of the word ‘self’ parallel the general meanings of ‘identity’ discussed in Chapter 2: there are the core features of similarity, difference, reflexivity and process. This is no coincidence. It leads me to propose a definition of the self as an individual’s reflexive sense of her or his own particular identity, constituted  vis-à-vis others in terms of similarity and difference, without which she or he wouldn’t know who they are and hence wouldn’t be able to act. (49)

Reflexive interaction doesn’t just introduce the wider human world into the individual’s interior world. Without language there is no distinctively human interior world. Without the stimulus of interaction with others there would be nothing to talk about or think. (The) mind is thus simultaneously ‘internal’ and ‘external’. (58)

 

Embodied Selves

In Mead’s social theory, ‘mind, self and society’ are not different kinds of thing. ‘Society’ is relationships between individuals, and individual humans cannot exist outside those relationships. Without relationships human mind and selfhood would not exist. For Mead, selfhood is intrinsically interactional, emerging out of the reciprocal relationship between the individual dialogue in the mind between ‘I’ and ‘me’, on the one hand, and the individual’s dialogue with others during interaction, on the other. ‘Society’ is a conversation between people; the mind is the internalisation of that conversation; the self lies within and between the two. (64)

‘Mind’ is not just ‘cultural’: in some senses it is ‘culture’. We can be ‘of one mind’, but it makes no sense to say that ‘we are of one self’. This suggests that (the) mind and the self are not ‘things’ or ‘objects’, other than grammatically: they are processes. The mind and the self are perpetually in motion, even if it sometimes appears to be slow motion. They are perpetually in a state of ‘becoming’, even if what becomes is similar to what has been. (69)

Selves and minds are not definitively private essences of individuals, ultimately causally prior to their behavior. […] Selfhood does have its own particular status, however, in that it can be thought of as a primary (or basic) identification (69).

Mentioning gender and ethnicity in this context emphasises that primary identifications are neither fixed nor timeless. Identification is something that individuals do, it is a process. As decades of interactionist sociology have documented in detail, even the reproduction of the status quo requires perpetual work of one sort or another. What’s more, primary identifications are only resistant to change, they’re not set in concrete. Change is routine in the human world, occurring for all kinds of reasons, and selfhood, gender and ethnicity are in and of that world. To characterise selfhood as a primary identity – perhaps even as the primary identity – doesn’t imply that it is simply or only individual. (70)

 

Groups and Categories

Logically, inclusion entails exclusion, if only by default. To define the criteria for membership of any set of objects is, at the same time, also to create a boundary, everything beyond which does not belong. It is no different in the human world: one of the things that we have in common is our difference from others. In the face of their difference our similarity often comes into focus. Defining ‘us’ involves defining a range of ‘thems’ also. (102)

The two facets of collectivity are often conceptualised together: collective self-identification derives from similar behaviour and circumstances, or vice versa. This understanding of collectivities dominated sociology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and still informs much contemporary social theory. It underpins most, if not all, attempts to apply models of causality to the human world, allowing regularities in behaviour to be translated into the principles which are believed to produce that behaviour. (103)

This might suggest that there are two different types of collectivity, and hence two different modes of collective identification. In the first, the members of a collectivity can identify themselves as such: they know who (and what) they are. In the second, members may be ignorant of their membership or even of the collectivity’s existence. The first exists inasmuch as it is recognised by its members; the second is constituted in its recog-nition by observers. Nadel is, however, correct to emphasise (1951: 80) that these are not two different kinds of collectivity. They are, rather, different ways of looking at interaction, at ‘individuals in co-activity’. He is equally right to insist that neither is more ‘real’ or concrete than the other: both are abstractions from data about ‘co-activity’. These different kinds of abstraction provide the basis for the fundamental conceptual distinction between groups and categories. (104)

By this token a group is simply defined sociologically according to a more specific criterion – mutual recognition on the part of its members – than a category, which may, in principle at least, be defined arbitrarily, according to any criteria. (104)

Group identity is the product of collective internal definition. In our relationships with significant others we draw upon iden-tifications of similarity and difference, and, in the process, generate group identities. At the same time, our self-conscious group memberships signify others and create relationships with them. Thus categorisation, no less than group identification, is a generic interactional process, in this case of collective external definition. I have, for example, already suggested that the identification of others – their definition according to criteria of our adoption (which they may neither accept nor recognise) – is often part of the process of identifying ourselves. (105)

Scientific notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘truth’ derive their epistemological power in part from their ground-ing in procedures of categorisation. In turn, assumptions of objectivity and truth underpin the bureaucratic rationality that is the framework of themodern state. The categorisation of individuals and populations that is the stock in trade of the social sciences is one way in which humans are constituted as objects of government and subjects of the state, via censuses and the like. The reference to taxation in the definition of ‘category’ quoted earlier was apposite. More pointedly, ‘objective’ knowledge about the human world provides one basis – whether that is its rationale or not – for the policing of families and the private sphere which characterises the modern state (Donzelot 1980; Meyer 1983). (107)

Membership of a category is not a relationship between members: it doesn’t even necessitate a relationship between categoriser and categorised. Any inter-personal relationships between members of a category only involve them as individuals. Once relationships between members of a category involve mutual recognition of their categorisation, the first steps towards group identification have been taken. (108)

 

Symbolizing belonging

In summarizing what might otherwise be vast amounts of information about people, condensing it into manageable forms, the symbolisation of identification also allows us, sociologically and in everyday life, to think about and to model – in other words to imagine – collectivities and the relations between them. Symbolisation permits the necessary abstraction of individuals and collectivities, and of the relationships between them, which is the constitutional basis of the notion of ‘society’. Among the most important aspects of the symbolisation of identity in this respect is that it allows individual diversity and collective similarity to co-exist within the human world. There is no need to wonder about why people who ‘are’ the same don’t all ‘do’ the same. (143)

“All our knowledge of our fellow men is in the last analysis based on personal experience. Ideal-typical knowledge of our contemporaries, on the other hand, is not concerned with the other person in his given concrete immediacy but in what he is, in the characteristics he has in

common with others.” (Schutz 1967: 193) This resembles closely my proposition that individual identification emphasises difference, while collective identification emphasises similarity. (145)

 

Institutionalizing Identification

Similarity and difference being irretrievably entangled in each other, where the emphasis falls depends on the point of view. Difference is no less socially constructed than similarity: both are ‘culturally arbitrary’, to use Bourdieu’s expression, but neither, to remember W. I. Thomas, is less ‘real’ than the other. (157)

• An institution is a pattern of behaviour in any particular setting that has become established over time as ‘the way things are done’.

• An institution has intersubjective relevance and meaning in the situation concerned: people know about it and recognise it, if only in the normative specification of ‘how things are done’. (157)

The habitualisation or routinisation of behaviour brings with it two important practical advantages:

• Choices are narrowed to the point where many courses of action or ways of doing things do not have to be chosen (or, indeed, rejected) at all.

• Since we don’t have to think and decide about every little aspect of our daily lives, space for ‘deliberation and innovation’ is opened up: there is no need for every situation to be perpetually encountered and defined anew. (158)

 

Identity and Modernity Revisited

Resistance, whether spontaneous or not, can be a potent affirmation of group identification; organising is necessarily so. We can, however, only resist categorisation if we know that we are being categorised. One development that may be definitive of the early twenty-first century is the massive expansion and extension of individual and population surveillance and monitoring that has been made possible by new information technologies and science (e.g. Norris et al. 2004; Norris and Wilson 2006). Politically legitimated by collective crises of security inspired by new forms of political violence, this ‘new surveillance’ may also serve other more routine and long-term state projects. We are being recorded, categorised and archived by organisations in the public and private sectors, in ways of which we may only be dimly, if at all, aware, and with which we are increasingly required to collude in the pursuit of our routine everyday lives. (205)

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