Part 2, 21 Sep 2020

Making Sense of Ourselves: An Historical Account of the Concept of Identity

Danny Sheaf, PhD Candidate


Today, social inequalities tied to gender, race and sexuality are often understood in terms of the experience and expression of ‘identity’. At the same time, this concept has been embraced by consumer capitalism; increasingly associated with individualism, ‘lifestyle’ and personal distinction. This discrepancy highlights an underlying ambiguity in our understanding of identity. I will address this ambiguity in this lecture by investigating the historical emergence of the very idea of identity: its ubiquity, its place in our current conceptual framework, the uses to which it is put and the work it currently does. A key claim of this lecture is that the emergence of identity as a significant concept cannot be understood separately from the philosophical, political, social, economic and ideological field in which the concept is embedded. Accordingly, I will claim that having an ‘identity’ is not an ahistorical feature of human life that we have finally discovered. Rather, the idea of identity is a part of broader historical shift in how we understand selfhood and our relations to others. I will then problematise this conception of selfhood by showing that it leads invariably to a particular kind of individualism that covers-over our communal responsibility for the question of how we ought to organise ourselves.

Recommended Readings:

Beck, Ulrich, and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim. 2002. Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences. London: Sage.

Ulrich Bröckling (2016) The Entrepreneurial Self, London, UK: SAGE