You would be hard-pressed to find a person not familiar with the concept of identity. For an idea that has only been around a little over 100 years, this speaks volumes about its power. Of course, this is not to say that identity as a concept did not exist before, but its significance has changed drastically over the past decades. While it still refers to the compilation of our “memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create our sense of self” the key difference today is in what it implies and how far its influence has extended.
On an individual level, the way we create and represent ourselves has taken a central role in our life. Our friendships, sex-life and our careers increasingly hinge on our ability to present and manage this personal image. Beyond the individual, there are also whole industries that are built and depend on creating, branding, and selling unique “identities” of themselves and their products. Going further, identity has also taken a central stage in our politics. More and more, even our elections come down to the meticulous work of teams of data analysis, marketeers, PR consultants etc. whose job is to create and sell the “right” image of their candidate.
The key here is of course: creating. By now, we have truly embraced the sometimes disturbing, but fundamental fact, that we can only connect with each other through surfaces. The extraordinary success of Facebook and Instagram, built on our unabashed demand for creating and connecting through artificial identities, is a clear symbol of how far we have come in accepting this reality. And while there is a lot to be said about a society like this, there is definitely something liberating in the idea of consciously creating our own identity.
Indeed, to be flexible, to be able to adapt and create our life without restraints are one of the most valued qualities in our society. From this perspective, the freedom to pick and chose who we are is much more than simply liberating, it is a prerequisite, a necessary condition that allows us to take part and be successful in a constantly changing society. But how far does this freedom truly go?
Much of the related psychological literature on identity also centres on personal choice, outlining the development of our identity as an interaction between our individual preferences and our environment. In here, the emphasis is also often on the individual, on our separate selves confronting the outside world, where our choices and experiences co-create our identity. Again, placing choice and individual freedom at the heart of who we are. In this view, restraints on our freedom to choose usually come down to our biological makeup, that defines our abilities and skills and determines the range of possibilities we may realistically strive for.
There is however a different kind of restraint, more obscure, but just as powerful. The boundaries that define what choices are worth considering in the first place: our culture. To see this problem in context let us take an example: To be a fireman is a common, sometimes all-consuming aspiration of young boys at a certain age. Parents however rarely take them seriously. Why? Because we all know that these aspirations are unlikely to last, otherwise many parents may even want to talk their children out of such an idea, but they know they do not have to bother. But again, why? Because parents and everyone else knows, that with time kids will arrive at “more sensible” aspirations and these will soon overwrite their “decision” to be a fireman.
Of course, the social processes that lead us to discard the idea of becoming a fireman cuts far deeper. In a way, much of our life is a constant arrival to “more sensible” decisions. And while individually we are still free to choose as we please, as we move through our social environment, these “free” decisions become increasingly predictable and add up to a clearly visible pattern. This pattern is the shape of our society, our culture, and its limits are also evident in the identities we choose to create.
The emerging work of psychologist Carl Ratner is one of the rare examples that have tried to shed some light on these “hidden” forces shaping our identity. His work aims to explain human behaviour and identity in the context of modern society. His premise is that every one of us is shaped by certain cultural forces and institutions that define the framework within which our choices are made. In this sense, our personal identity is just as much determined by forces pushing down on us from above – such as our political ideologies, economic conditions, war, immigration, technology and religion – than forces shaping us from the bottom up – such as our biology and individual experiences.
While these cultural forces might seem obvious at first, there is a surprising lack of interest when it comes to investigating exactly how they may change our decisions and shape our identities. Our knowledge in this field is still largely limited to abstract theories that rarely dive into the intricacies of our contemporary culture.
To understand the scale of this problem, we may start with a glimpse at how the identities of individuals in “primitive” societies are shaped by their way of life. When we look at people in these tribes, it is clear that the entire psychological makeup of these individuals is shaped by the specific beliefs, power structures, economic conditions and technological development of their society. In hunter-gatherer tribes, where social structure is relatively simple, individual “free” choices also fall according to equally simple patterns:
In these tribes, where life depends on sharing, individuals also adopt egalitarian worldviews and belief systems. The “economy” of these tribes also relies on cooperation (rather than competition) so individuals – depending on skill and gender – also take on social roles that foster this arrangement. Women take on the roles of caring, preparing food and medicine, while men are responsible for hunting, collecting food, crafting and other more physically demanding tasks.
Of course, there is a lot of variation in these cultures and roles are often not as clear cut, but they can still give us a good grasp on how the identities of these individuals were shaped by their social context. However, from the inside things looks quite different: When asked about their beliefs, worldviews and attitudes toward each other, about the nature of their daily work and social routines, we would struggle to find a member of such a society who would question their agency in their decisions leading up to their specific roles in their community.
When we observe our modern life from this perspective it would be hard to deny that our life is just as determined by its context than in tribal societies. The difference is only in scale. Our society has become so complex and our social roles so interconnected that this underlying structure tends to remain hidden.
For this reason, if we are to look for the roots of our identity in our own culture, we often have better luck finding them during times of great change when the pillars of old systems fall, and new ones are built.
According to Ratner the historical underpinning of our modern identity emerged at a definite place and time in history: during the 19th century England and America when our cultural and economic development reached a turning point and brought with it the necessity for a different kind of individual. Prior to this point, internal personality was constructed similar to what today we might call as “character”. In the period leading up to the industrial revolution, personal character was defined in relation towards various moral standards such as attitudes toward citizenship, duty, humility, sacrifice, work ethics, honour, self-control etc. This construction of the self was well suited to guide social behaviour in small scale, community-oriented forms of economic models.
With the industrial revolution, however, where production became more and more fragmented and community lost its original meaning, character was gradually replaced with what we call today as personality. This shift has placed the centre of personal identity inside the individual. From this period onwards personality was increasingly defined by individual differences such as creative, smart, passionate etc. rather than through adherence to the moral standards of the community. This shift was both a necessary consequence and a prerequisite for the proliferation of the current entrepreneurial, specialised, profit-oriented, consumption-driven economic model, which in turn also brought with it a new kind of ideal person: the self-interested individual with his identity centred on emphasising his uniqueness through self-gratification, realisation and confidence.
Ratner’s other, contemporary, example comes from the accelerating changes in the social structures in China triggered by the country’s economic transformation in the past decades. Since the 80’s millions of Chinese citizens experienced drastic changes in their life situations which also led to the construction of a new self-image, especially amongst the rural youth. Traditionally, Chinese culture prioritises collectivistic values, grounding identity in the community roles, family ties and work units. With the institutionalised changes in the labour market, expectations for career development and the proliferation of advertisements idealising western-style consumption habits, the old identities have been replaced with what they call the “enterprising self”. This new personality refers to a calculating, proactive and self-disciplined individual who prioritises self-interests and the fulfilment of individual needs sometimes even at the expense of the larger kin groups.
While in our modern culture these values and attitudes are generally considered positive almost by definition, when viewed from a broader perspective, we can see that their value is rooted in the larger our social context. And this is where our social context feeds into the identities we chose to take on. Not because it actively restrict us from doing something but because we perceive its values so self-evidently true in our social life that we see no need to look any further.
As Ratner’s work is still in its early stages his account of cultural factors is far from complete. However, his work remains to be pioneering in his attempt in taking a systematical look at our contemporary culture, economy and political ideologies and directly connecting them to human psychology.
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