Apr 09, 2020 The Jerusalem Post


Answering questions

It is difficult to imagine something so integral to human existence that has less clarity than the concept of identity. And while there are many theories that inform our understanding of identity, there is also something intensely personal that helps us to better grasp this phenomenon.

Answering questions to help us better understand ourselves (such as what can I know?; what should I do?; and for what can I hope?) provides some of life’s more challenging moments.[1] Struggling with these questions, although seldom done publicly, occurs throughout people’s lives as they consider their place in the world. These questions are a variation on questions that many ask of themselves at various stages of their life—who am I? and where do I fit into this world? Dr. Seuss clearly understands the quest to find the true You as one of life’s more enduring challenges.

What is Identity?

Identity emerged in the twentieth century as a seminal philosophical, cultural, and psychological concept. Stage theorists constructed rational articulations of the identity development process positing that human beings traveled through life stages as they matured into adulthood. Erik Erikson, the father of modern identity theory, described a series of psychosocial crises that people struggle through, allowing them to progress along a normal trajectory of identity development.[2] That individuals would progress through sequential stages of development was a commonplace theory in this time period, including Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development,[3] and Kohlberg’s depiction of moral and ethical development.[4]

Has anyone ever asked you about your identity? It isn’t a particularly easy prompt to respond to. Instead, perhaps, consider: what are some of the core identifiers which describe who you are?

In no particular order—I am David, I am Jewish, I am Australian, I am male, I am the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, I am a family man (a husband, a father, a son, and a brother), I am a Jewish educator, I am a Zionist, and I am a global citizen. These are some of the core aspects of my self that constitute my identity. At various moments in my life, and even in a given day, I elevate different parts of my self to the fore. My personality is rather constant, but even that might fluctuate depending on specific circumstances that I find myself in. These are the labels by which I consider myself, and I believe others may see me. These might be just labels and yet as a whole they constitute who I am in this world. Collectively these labels form my identity.

Before reading any further, write down your answer to the following:
What are ten identifiers that you feel best describe your self?
Then consider for yourself: What are the ten words which other people might use to describe you? Other theorists favor a more individual approach towards identity development. They describe identity as being more personal, situational, and ascribing people with more agency and freedom than the more rigid construct of stage theory. As Carl Rogers wrote:

People are just as wonderful as sunsets if I can let them be… When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner’… I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.[5]

Contemporary discourse favors an understanding that individuals actually have multiple versions of themselves—namely multiple identities. As Turner and Tajfel (1987) described in their articulation of social identity theory:

A person has not one, ‘personal self’, but rather several selves that correspond to widening circles of group membership. Different social contexts may trigger an individual to think, feel, and act on the basis of his personal, family, or national level of self.[6]

Although the core character of individuals is constant, the self brought to various tables might vary greatly. Leon Wieseltier describes identity this way:

Not my identity but my identities. There is a greater truth in the plural. I feel like jumping out of my skin—and so you should. I hear it said of somebody that he is living a double-life. I think to myself: just two? The absence of coherence is not yet incoherence.[7]

Accepting that human beings have multiple versions of themselves leads us to understand that identities can also be hybrids. For some people the hyphen may be useful in signaling a combination of two identities (e.g. American-Jew or Jewish-American),[8] but even that is insufficient for many people because of the multiplicity of ways in which people increasingly define themselves. In what has been referred to as the saturated self, some have suggested that in the twenty-first century, largely but not only due to technology, there has been even further expansion in the range of selves that people present because of the many new relations that people are engaged in (including those real, virtual, and imagined).[9] In this framing, people’s identities can best be described as multiphrenic, pieced together from the multiplicity of worlds that they find themselves in.

The multiple versions of individual selves, the hybridization of these various selves, and the fluidity at which people can transition between these various versions all contribute to the complexity of articulating identity today.