thoughts on identity

Let me make a bold claim: Part of what seems to bind us to collectives is our identity. Identifying ourselves in certain ways can mean that we see ourselves not with a choice about whether to be part of a social collective but part of a collective by necessity of who we are.

Such a thought, given a lot of work and attention to sharpen it up, can, I think, help us to overcome what seems to me to be a wrongly voluntarist leaning in philosophical theory’s of collective action. Further, it may be able to do so without descending into a oppressive collectivism. What I mean by this is that, many of the theories of collective action, for example Gilbert’s collective commitment account, rely on free choices to be part of a collective. This seems fine in philosophical abstraction, but when we look at the real world, and real examples of how people feel they are bound up in social groups, we find that people feel bound to groups that they do not choose as well as ones that they do.

In a previous post about football I noted that it seems strange that we might see the actions of the a football team as our actions because there does not seem to be any mechanism whereby we pass our agentive authority over to the group. The government, however flawed the system may be, seek a mandate to govern for us, a mandate to act for us (whether they successfully achieve this is another matter). The F.A., on the other hand, engage in no such attempt. Perhaps the solution to finding the source of the F.A.’s collective authority is the notion of identity. Perhaps there is something in the fact that we see ourselves as English Nationals. This may be for some a positive affirmation. For others it may seem like an external force, an identity that they do not wish to have inflicted upon them. For most it probably seems like a neutral brute natural fact – just how it is. Either way such an identity exists, even for its critics. Perhaps, to experience oneself as part of a collective identity, like this, is to feel that one is bound up in collectively committing to the acts of that group (in some sense) whether one wants to be or not. Or at least, one is bound up in this collective identity unless one actively rebels against it.

Notions of identity start to come apart when we look to the edges. That is, when we look to the people who might be defined (externally and/or internally) as belonging to multiple groups or not properly belonging to any. In this context the article Mixed Race Looks by Ronald Sundstrom in Contemporary Aesthetics, about people whose racial identity crosses boundaries is very interesting.

As Sundstron says: “Simmering beneath the growing public recognition of multiracial identity are questions about the legitimacy of mixed race, multiracial, or biracial as social categories, and further questions about the ethics and politics of those identities.”

Of particular interest is where Sunderstron says that mixed race people may be asked to identify with the oppressed ‘mono-ethnic group’ in order to collectively  fight for justice:

“multiracial persons strategically identify with their non-white monoracial groups in those contexts that matter, such as when encountering racism directed at those groups, or when participating in an event where the mass of spectators consider the monoracial identity of the participating multiracial person or persons to be historically or politically salient. … When individuals who could otherwise exit the group or who, according to presiding standards, do not even belong to the group, stand in solidarity with an oppressed ethnoracial group, they stake an ethical position and perform an invaluable political act that advances the group’s interests.”

I think Sunderstron probably overestimates the extent to which such a choice can be voluntary, as a mixed race person living in the UK I have always thought of myself as Black, not because I choose to do so but because it is the category that others have defined me as belong to. Still I think he is right, in so much as, forming identities, and making choices about which identity models to promote, effects the posibilites of collective action (Note: that, in the UK at least the notion that the category black included all non-whites inc’ Asians was certainly an intentional political project)


About Joseph Kisolo

Philosopher teaching Ethics & Epistemology @ NottsUni and interested in in Social Ontology. Outside academia interested in climbing, design, geekery and radical social justice.
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One Response to thoughts on identity

  1. I appreciate your comments about identity and collective action, Joseph. I agree that it is too easy to social identity as voluntary, and to over look the social and psychological forces behind ascribed identities. I don’t take those forces lightly, nor their hold on our pysches and bodies. Yet, those ascriptive forces aren’t the end of the process, since there needs to be some degree of uptake of the identity on the ascribed. As you write, Joseph, some “feeling” of association is required, and as every parent knows, the rebellion of children and the necessary messiness of life has a grand way of, confusing, interfering, or mixing up the transmission of memories, histories, and of course identifications. Some of this is sad and unfortunate, but some of it is grand and creative. I would also add that it is narrow and naive to think that all these transformations will be or even always should be progressive or aligned with the interests of oppressed communities. I should say I hope they will be so aligned, and argue that some sort of responsibility to the oppressed ought to be expressed and acted upon by mixed-race individuals and movements; I make this argument in a chapter, “Responsible Mixed-Race Politics, in my book _The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice_. This hope is but a hope, but it is open to the view that the expansion of life is equally creative and destructive.

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