Identity in question
Identity in question

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Identity in question

3.4 Audio activity

Using audio is a very idiosyncratic practice amongst Open University students. Some listen to them in the car, others on a personal stereo on the train, some while washing up, others at their desk. Flexibility of use is certainly one of their virtues. However you use them, some of the following may be useful guidelines.

  • Read the notes for the activity before you listen. At the very least try and fix in your head or note down the main purpose of the audio and listen out for the key questions of the course.

  • If you can, have a pen and paper handy for short notes.

  • Audio can be stopped and replayed – when something is complex or interesting. It can also be fast-forwarded.

  • After listening to the audio – and this is really the most important thing – spend five minutes organising your notes and thoughts. What are the key points, new ideas, new connections sparked by the audio? Is there anything you need to look up or check over? If you can’t do it now, make a note to do it later.

Listening to audio files

Participants: Dr Kath Woodward, Dr Karim Murji and Professor Wendy Hollway.

While listening to the audio files below you will hear a discussion of the key questions posed about identity in this course.

  • How are identities formed?

  • How much protocol do we have over shaping our identities?

  • Are there any particular uncertainties about identity in contemporary life?

Key points

The key points discussed are:

  • Changing times have led to particular interest in matters of identity.

  • Migration and movement mean identities are changing and people's sense of who they are and where they belong becomes more important.

  • There may be greater uncertainty about identity now than in the past.

  • Identity involves links between the personal, how we see ourselves, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the social, how others see us and the structures that make up the society in which we live.

  • Identity is marked by differences, including how we look, such as the clothes we wear, and how we sound, such as language and accent.

  • Identity requires some personal engagement on our part; we have to take up identities for ourselves.

  • We are constrained by others' perception of us and by the societies in which we live, but we are also able to effect changes, for example through collective action.

Before listening

Think about these questions:

  • What is identity?

  • How are identities formed and what processes are involved?

  • Do we have multiple identities?

  • What sort of changes are there in the contemporary world and how might they impact upon our identities?

  • How might uncertainties create new opportunities for shaping our identities as well as insecurities?

  • Do we shape our own identities?

  • What sort of constraints are there and which structures might influence the identities we have?

The original audio for this course was 30 minutes in length. For the purpose of this web delivered course it has been subdivided into three shorter sections. You may choose to listen to all three audio sections one after the other or you may listen to them at different times. Remember that the notes in the section ‘before listening’ apply to all three sections.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1
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Transcript: Audio 1

[Kath Woodward]
This is DD100 Audio 3A. I’m Kath Woodward and I’m joined today by two of my colleagues on the DD100 course team, Wendy Hollway and Karim Murji. I won’t say any more about Wendy and Karim as this is an audio about identity – I’ll leave them to say a bit about themselves. Wendy, if you were asked about your own identity, what sort of things would you say?
[Wendy Hollway]
Well, you’ve just introduced me in a work context, so I suppose I’d start by saying what I am in The Open University. I’m a Professor of Psychology and that’s relevant because of the approach that I will take to these discussions. But what else would I say about myself? I’m a white English woman and a mother and I suppose I would also like to describe myself in terms of certain personality characteristics. I’m energetic, I’m quick-witted. Somebody described me as charismatic over lunch and I thought ‘Oh, that’s nice.’
[Kath Woodward]
You said several things there. It’s a very short amount of time to say it, but you’ve said things about yourself in the world and about who you feel you are. What would you say Karim?
[Karim Murji]
I think my answer would depend on whom I’m with and where I am, so the answer may not be the same at all times. But, for current purposes, I suppose I might say people often ask me ‘Are you a British Asian?’ and I find these things a bit confusing because I’ve never felt very Asian, even though I might look Asian. I was born in East Africa and I have no conception of myself being Asian until I arrived in the UK and people started thinking of me, referring to me, in these ways. I’d actually never been to Asia in my life until quite recently. And, for people like me, calling yourself British is not very clear. It’s not very clear whether you are British or not because of the whole problem around what British identity represents. But I think it became clear I was British when I went abroad to Europe, or to countries like France, where suddenly it became very clear because of behaviour, but also because of language. But, yes, clearly I was British because they treated me as if I was British.
[Kath Woodward]
I think this shows the ways in which identities are multiple. Even just the very brief description that you’ve both offered suggests that identities are varied and it may be more useful to talk about identities rather than identity, because each of us has several. Also, that our identities change with the context in which we find ourselves. And another of the aspects of identity that we offer in the course – in Block 1, looking at definitions – is that identity links the personal to the social. It links who we think we are with how others see us, as Karim suggested. We’re often aware of who we are through how other people define us and categorize us. It’s also about the ways in which we’re marked as ‘different’ from some people and ‘the same’ as other people. There is also the way in which identities change in different situations and also change across time. I wonder why it is that we are interested in identity at this point in the course, because this is where we start in Block 1 – with looking at the concept of identity. But it’s a work with which we’re familiar in our everyday life. In fact it’s quite a buzzword, not only in academic circles but also in a whole range of different contexts. Why do you think it is that we are interested in identity now? Is it about change?
[Wendy Hollway]
I think that it is partly about change and, although we might exaggerate the fact, there were times in the past where probably people led more settled lives in which their main sources of identity were taken for granted. Now we travel more and we change jobs more and there is a lot more movement and possibility. One example, which I think is particularly striking, is the change in gender relations that has occurred over the last, say, 30 or 40 years in Britain. One of the most fixed forms of identity that each of us felt from very early on was whether we were male or female. I think one of the things that has changed is that women are allowed to be much more like men, and men are even allowed to be quite a lot more like women than they were in the past. Women have more work roles and do similar work to men in many cases. Men are taking on the kind of parenting, caring roles in greater numbers than they were. So, I think that uncertainty has affected our identity in terms of our genders.
[Kath Woodward]
That’s one area of our lives in which change has taken place. Can you think of others, perhaps over a similar kind of period – over perhaps the last 50 years – in which there have been changes taking place that might make identity a more interesting issue at this point?
[Karim Murji]
Well, like Wendy, I think that the issue of movement is quite important because of why identity matters and why identities might have changed. But the kind of movement I’m thinking about takes place on a larger scale. It’s about movement of peoples, movement of goods, movement of consumable items, movement of capital across national borders – perhaps even at a global level. And I think that throws up all kinds of new challenges because what appeared to be stable features of identity, for example our national identity – we might have thought of ourselves as British – no longer seems so settled. For example, look at the relationship between Britain and the EU. It’s not clear exactly what’s British and what’s European. If we think about devolution, it’s not clear that all people subscribe equally to a British identity. In fact, there are multiple identities even within the nation state. And so the idea that nations were imagined communities becomes more complicated because, in fact, there are multiple imagined communities within the nation. And, for example, there might be Welsh people who think of themselves as being Welsh and British or Welsh and not British because British is seen to be largely something that’s dominated by England and the English. So I think movement of people, movement of goods across borders and so on has thrown up new challenges. Sometimes all of this is referred to as globalization, but that throws up new challenges which make identities more complicated and it becomes harder to say where peoples’ loyalties really lie.
[Kath Woodward]
This raises some questions about the ways in which identities are formed in relation to different contexts. Whilst you suggest, Karim, that our identities are changing in terms of national identity and the place that we belong, we also in that context are British or not British, and we are also at the same time mothers, fathers, workers. All of these identities work together in different ways. But this raises one of the big questions that we address in this block, which is what’s going on when we go as far as to say that we’ve taken up an identity? The question, as we form it in the course, is how are identities formed? What sorts of processes are involved? There have been these changes in work, in politics, in movement – movement in different ways – but how do these things influence our identities? And do they contribute to them, and what sorts of things are happening? So, perhaps if we could look now at how we might address this question about how identities are formed in relation to the kind of changes that have taken place. Karim?
[Karim Murji]
I think I’d approach the question of how our identities are formed more from a structural perspective. In other words, while I think there are things people can do to change their own identities, I’m more interested in the ways in which peoples’ identities are shaped or given to them. And we shouldn’t ignore important but basic things such as legal categories of identity. For example, your citizenship – your ability to belong to a nation state – is an important marker of your identity because, for example, possession of a British or European passport has a cachet and a value that other passports would not carry, for example in terms of your ability to travel around the world. So there are, I think, basic things like that, which sometimes go unmarked but are important.
[Kath Woodward]
So the law is, in a sense, a structure too …
[Karim Murji]
Yes.
[Kath Woodward]
… as well as the state.
[Karim Murji]
But I think talking about the state leads us to other ways in which… our identities are shaped or moulded for us. For example, the state or the government uses various kinds of categories of identity. The census is an obvious example that appears in the block. And, although those categories change and are sometimes decided in consultation with people, nevertheless they are not, in a sense, very natural identities. They are not identities that we might feel ourselves to have naturally in terms of how we might describe ourselves. Nevertheless, the extent to which people describe themselves in terms of census categories shows the ways in which those things are interpolating us. In other words, we’ve come to identify with those identifications.
[Wendy Hollway]
I could add to that. I think I said right at the beginning that I’m white English. Of course I grew up not thinking that I was white. I grew up in a part of rural northern England where I didn’t meet a black person for years, I’m sure. And the fact that I was white was completely irrelevant until I started mixing with black people. I remember being on a bus in East Africa where I was the only white person. At that point I was extremely self-conscious of the fact that I was white. By that time I was in my twenties. So these categories are given in language but they don’t necessarily map on to the way we’ve learned to experience ourselves as we’ve grown up.
[Kath Woodward]
So the categories are imposed upon us through the kind of structures – social structures – in which we operate.
[Karim Murji]
They are imposed in some ways, but the fact that we come to live those identities and see them as part of our lived experience suggests that they’re not simply imposed; we must take them on board. And sometimes in taking on board those identities we might refashion them, we might change the meaning of them. So structures can to some extent be changed by agency.
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Transcript: Audio 2

[Kath Woodward]
This illustrates the ways in which our identities are formed in relation to how we perceive ourselves and also how others see us – by the kind of clothes we wear – or how others hear us, and the example of the ways in which we speak. The relationship between how we see ourselves and how others see us is very important in the kind of processes that are involved in looking at how identities are formed; and the ways in which we have some investment in an identity at a particular time. Karim, you started your response with an emphasis on some of the structures which create the possibility of certain identities rather than others. Another dimension of the formation of identity might give more emphasis to the personal element in the equation between the personal and the social. What would you say Wendy – that the sort of examples of ways in which identities are formed might give more emphasis to the ways in which we engage with a particular identity?
[Wendy Hollway]
Yes. I think the way other people see us is hugely important. This starts long before we are language-speaking young people who are beginning to organize and understand the world around us and the way we are treated by other people. It becomes embedded in our experience. And because one of the definitions of being human is that we are self-conscious individuals, we learn a lot about who we are from the way people treat us. As George Herbert Mead pointed out, we have an ‘I’ which is the experiencing part of us and the ‘me’ which is the response to the way we are experienced. And that means that we are very influenced by the people around us who, as it were, hold up a mirror to us through which we see ourselves. It’s the way that they hold up that mirror, but it’s also how we imagine they are responding to us, and both of those things intermingle to create, over time, a sense of our identities. That’s one emphasis – on our social relations with others. But psychologists also emphasize how we develop, particularly through childhood, and how we acquire the basic kind of building blocks of ourselves from the moment we’re born. A lot of this happens without our conscious awareness of it. It’s often joked that however hard we try not to be like our parents we’ll end up being more like them than we think. That’s because it happens at a level that is below conscious awareness. And so through identifications we acquire many of the building blocks that create us.
[Karim Murji]
What I find interesting in what Wendy’s saying is that there are certain identities we may think we have which we take for granted – the most obvious ones being things around gender, perhaps ethnicity, perhaps whether we’re able-bodied or disabled or not. So, for example, we both said that we only recognized ourselves as being white or British when we were somewhere else, where it was brought home to us. I think another point which might be helpful is that Goffman, for example, is often criticized for sometimes suggesting that there are only a certain number of roles or ways in which we can perform these roles and so on. But it may well be that through social practices – through, for example, the practice of consumption – the various kinds of identities or roles are created for us all the time. Other examples are whether we buy our clothes at store type x or y, whether we drive a particular kind of car, where we live in the country, how we speak, what kind of schools people send their children to and so on. All these things are ways in which people can fashion their identity in the social world. But sometimes these options, or these choices, are offered to us through advertising, the media and so on.
[Kath Woodward]
But there are points at which there are severe constraints on how free we are to fashion ourselves in these situations, when you say about the cars we drive and the clothes we buy. But that shifts the emphasis from perhaps the processes – the personal individual level processes of identity formation – to what is available in the social world. When you suggest that there are points at which we might not know what’s happening – we might not be aware of the identities which we are taking up – how else might we look at what’s happening in these situations, Wendy?
[Wendy Hollway]
I think that most of the time we are not aware of the self by which we live. I think it’s very popular at the moment, not just in social science but in broad culture, certainly in the west, for people to say ‘I can be whoever I choose.’ The idea is that through the clothes that you wear and the performances – in a sense, who you enact yourself as being amongst other people –you can create an identity for yourself, which is chosen. Now, psychoanalysis emphasizes this nine-tenths below the surface and I think the implications of that for identity is to say, well, most of the time we are who we are without even being aware that this is what’s going on. And if we tried to change those things we’d be hard put to it, because we’ve never formulated them in language, we’ve never been very conscious of them – they just are.
[Karim Murji]
I also agree that there are limits to what we can do, but I think I’d approach it slightly differently. Sometimes we get the impression – or perhaps it’s better referred to as an illusion – that we can fashion identities in any way we want. But there are things about our lives that are very hard to change. For example, no matter what anybody says, it’s very hard to change physically how old you are – you can lie about it but, nevertheless, it doesn’t change the truth, I don’t think.
[Kath Woodward]
You can use anti-wrinkle cream.
[Wendy Hollway]
But that raises the question of the new technologies which are about manipulating identities. So not only can people have nips and tucks to make them look younger than their chronological age, but they can change sex and pass themselves off as women or men in a way which completely goes against the old idea that a sexual identity is something that is biologically fixed for life. And this has given people new realms of choice, which we wouldn’t have dreamt of until recently.
[Kath Woodward]
This is an element of change that we didn’t identify in the earlier discussion about changes, perhaps over the last 50 years – the advent of new technologies. For example, reproductive technologies have enabled women in their later years to give birth, and women who had thought they would be infertile to give birth. That’s another component in the changes that have taken place; also, communications technology that speeds up the process of communication across the world.
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Transcript: Audio 3

[Kath Woodward]
We’ve looked at some of the ways in which structures – social structures, which are changing – may appear to have shaped our sense of who we are and the ways in which our identities are formed. We’ve also looked at the kind of psychic processes that are going on. We’ve put the spotlight on two different sides, in a way, which is not to suggest that the two are separate and distinct. Because how we feel about an identity is very important in relation to how we construct our sense of ourselves and who we are. But also important is what’s available to us and what the society we live in offers us as possibilities. One of the things which, in looking at how identities are formed, has been difficult to avoid is looking at how much control we exercise over this process. This is another of the big questions that we address in this block. The extent to which we can be seen may be shaped by unconscious forces – as Wendy might have suggested in relation to her iceberg metaphor – and also by some of the social structures that we’ve suggested, which place constraints upon us: either the categories that are created through legal, political, social institutions or the kind of material constraints, those of social class, situations such as poverty, which severely constrain the amounts of autonomy we have in deciding who we are, certainly in deciding whether we can buy products that create our identity. This question relates to our concern with the tension between how much agency we have and how much control is exercised by the different kinds of structures. How much constraint is there and are we as severely constrained as perhaps was hinted at in your use of the unconscious.
[Wendy Hollway]
Well, paradoxically, I don’t think this emphasis on nine-tenths being under the surface and out of the control of our conscious intention ends up amounting to an argument that we aren’t agents of our own lives. Because, I think the unconscious is a very creative source of agency. If we were just produced by our social environment you could read off who somebody was from all the social positions and social relations in which they were contained. And, what’s wonderful about human beings is that they always defy those categories. I think maybe the changes that we’ve seen in the last 30 years or so for gay people in Britain is a good example of this. Because the socialization theory, if it worked, would have turned all little boys into tough ‘I don’t cry’, ‘I love guns’ and ‘I’ll be like my dad’ sort of boys and little girls would have liked to have babies and preferred pink and all those things. Well, we don’t slip easily into those gendered roles and what gay liberation did was take this up at a conscious intentional level.
[Kath Woodward]
That is illustrated in relation to other social movements as well. In terms of gender, you could look at the women’s movement also as having had a transformative impact on the kind of relations that you were talking about earlier as being one of the main sources of change. What would you add to that, Karim, in terms of the extent to which collective action might effect changes in terms of our identities?
[Karim Murji]
What’s interesting for me about thinking about collective ways of changing peoples’ identities is the way in which we can see that ideas about what it means to be a woman, or ideas about what it means to be a man for that matter, ought to be black or white but can change over time. These things are not simply fixed. For example, in the 1980s it was quite common for Asian people to regard themselves as being black: they belonged to groups like the black section of the Labour Party (there’s still something called Southall Black Sisters, which is largely made up of Asian people) and so on. To some extent, that terminology has moved on and lots of Asian people don’t describe themselves as being black any more. But at that time, when African-Caribbean and Asian people all saw themselves as being black, there was something quite powerful being said about identity and identification because we’re not just giving ourselves an identity, we’re also identifying collectively with a group of people. And that group identity also gives us the sense of who we are and what our goals are, what we’re trying to achieve and so on. So I think collective identification, such as the nation or the football crowd or a group of people who are interested in hunting or other similar hobbies are quite powerful ways of thinking about the part both agency and structure play in identity. To some extent we belong to groups because they give us an identity but also, to some extent, we fashion some of the meanings of those identities while we’re in those groups by the ways in which we behave and they behave towards us.
[Kath Woodward]
How important are the names, do you think, in terms of these categories, because Wendy mentioned the gay movement and earlier on you talked quite a lot about the issue of being black and Asian or Asian and British?
[Karim Murji]
There’s a good example in the block of a quote from Henry Louis Gates where he says ‘My grandfather was a Negro, my father was coloured and I’m black.’ Well, if you move on from that, you’d now say you’re a person of colour, because in the USA people like Henry Louis Gates, who’s a black professor in the USA, describe themselves as people of colour.
[Kath Woodward]
So it is important what words we use and the names we use. It isn’t just about merely a label. It actually illustrates how dynamic the process of changing identities is and it also illustrates the ways in which, through taking action, it is possible for people to reshape, reform, identities.
[Karim Murji]
Yes, it is possible but we shouldn’t assume that people can always transform their identities. If we take the example of race and ethnicity, the language may have changed from negro to coloured to black to person of colour or ethnic minority (some are all those) but somewhere along the line the inequalities within groups of people one might broadly label ‘white’ and ‘black’ are still very marked and very clear. So, we can change something about the categories and we can change something about our identities and we can change something about the way in which people might see us, but some of those material factors that you were referring to earlier on do persist – not in exactly the same way, but they do persist.
[Wendy Hollway]
I think language unfortunately only works because it emphasizes the difference between things in one category and things in another. Black means black because of white, in the context of racial difference. But, of course, people don’t fit into those categories. They are extremely fuzzy. In fact they just don’t work, as Hitler found out when he tried to categorize Jews and Arians in the 1930s. It was an impossible task and so he kept on changing the rules, because who we are, even just simply in terms of ethnicity, is massively multiple and complex and words can only fix something which will not be fixed, which is more mixed and fluid than that underneath.
[Karim Murji]
Yes. It operates in complicated ways because, for example, in the wake of devolution in Britain there are now all kinds of people who assert their identity as English. And one of the controversies around the 2001 census categories was a number of people saying things like ‘Why isn’t English a category amongst these things?’ And there is, to some extent, an English nationalism. I think identity does work relationally. We know that some people are black because other people are white. We often assume that one of these terms is dominant – white is dominant, black is subordinate – and to some extent that also works with male/female, able bodied/ disabled and so on. And that’s true, but if we overdo that sense of them and us, sameness and difference, we sometimes don’t recognize the extent to which both sides are themselves internally differentiated. So, for example, white is not a homogenous category any more than black or minority is. But, curiously, if we look at things like census categories, we see that white remains almost undivided, whereas all the other categories are heavily divided and so on. Yet we know that historically, as well as in current times, there are many degrees of whiteness – people who do and don’t belong to whiteness. The example of Jews is a good one because it’s very hard to say whether Jewish people are regarded as being white or not. At various times, particularly in Victorian times, the Irish have been regarded as not being quite fully white. And there are many examples of people of ‘Mediterranean’ origin who, particularly in the USA, were regarded as being black and not as being white at all.
[Kath Woodward]
I think it’s very useful to point out the ways in which, although we have in part offered a definition of identity which is based on sameness and difference, we mark ourselves out as the same as one group of people and different from another. I think what you’ve suggested shows the ways in which this is never as clear cut as it might appear. A category which might seem to be the same, whether this is women or men or black people or white people, is always itself sub-divided and also there are differences that cross these categories. However, one of the ways in which we are seen to belong to one identity does involve the ways in which we mark ourselves out as being the same. And one of the ways in which we mark ourselves out as being the same as some people or different from others is through the kind of symbols we use to identify with a particular position. And these things can be, in some situations, taken for granted but, where we take up an identity, they are explicit – even if they can be misunderstood and misinterpreted. We’ve pointed to the ways in which identities might be seen to be changing, and we’ve looked at a particular period of time. But identities are of concern to us because there are some uncertainties. Some of the uncertainties are the result of changing times, of changing social relations and changing social structures; others are due to the very nature of identity in that it’s always a balancing act between what’s inside and what’s outside. Also, each of us has multiple identities and, even with a very brief discussion, we’ve picked out a whole range of different identities that each of us has, and that some of these may be more certain at some moments than at others. We’ve also looked at the ways in which identities are formed through a number of processes that take place, both inside and outside, that largely involve a link between the two, and the ways in which identities are dynamic, changing and are important to us because we still seek some way of belonging and of finding out who we are. So, thank you very much Wendy and Karim.
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After listening

Make some brief notes in response to the questions above and think about how the discussion in the audio files has illustrated some of the ways in which identities are formed. People both make individual and collective investment in identity positions and are themselves categorised as having particular identities, sometimes not of their own choice, such as through census categories or ethnicised or racialised stereotypes. Structures can be changed through agency, although there are constraints at some times and in some situations which make this very difficult. In the discussion Karim Murji, as a sociologist, cites examples of 'outside' structures in the personal–social interrelationship, whereas Wendy Hollway, as a psychologist, places more emphasis on personal, 'inside' dimensions, including conscious and unconscious forces influencing individuals' experience and sense of who they are. Identity is not always apparent or transparent and we may not always be fully aware of our different identities or of why we have taken up these positions.

An investigation into identity, especially in changing times, raises issues about different relationships and tensions between the personal and the social, structure and agency, conscious and unconscious factors and between sameness and difference. Whilst structures may be very influential in shaping our identities there are always uncertainties and changes which often take place through agency, either that of individuals or collectively through groups of people. Uncertainties can lead to confusion, but change can also create diversity and new opportunities for us to shape our identities. Identity is a dynamic concept that has considerable significance within the social sciences and in our everyday lives.

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