Identity as Socially Constructed

[I have been reading Francis Fukuyama’s book on identity– I know, go ahead and laugh at how boring I must be but I like political theory–and he makes the case for human behavior being governed by more than rational expectations. His conclusions about identity being central to the understanding of groups is similar to my own recent work. Fukuyama explains how concepts such as respect, pride, and dignity – related to what Scott Atran calls sacred values –are more important when it comes to solving political conflicts. People will behave non-rationally and even against their own interests to maintain a sense of identity and respect. Considerable research with the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as other groups, support such conclusions. Below is a statement of mine from recent publication to appear in Communication Monographs. Building a theory of communication and ethnopolitical conflicton

The self in identity theory is reflexive and thus can consider itself an object to be named, categorized, and classified. The standard definition of identity as “the psychological attachment to an ethnic group or heritage”  is foundational. But the definition must be extended to include ethnic identity not as fixed categorization, but rather as a fluid and dynamic understanding of self and ethnic background. A discursive approach to identity construction locates the key agency in symbolic and cultural systems that have their own effects and logic. For example, the contemporary discourse of ethnicity might include colonialism and its attendant messages. Groups such as Hutus and Tutsis, Continental Indians, or Palestinians have spent a generation or more constructing concepts of the self by refracting messages from colonial powers back onto themselves. Moreover, these supra-messages about power, agency, identity, and control make for a line connecting colonialism to contemporary ethnic violence.

Contemporary theories of identity have drifted away from universals based on Western values of independence and individualism, and become more fluid and flexible recognizing porous boundaries and multiculturalism. Political conflict groups compete directly for the dominant and most legitimate identity. Moreover, political conflict and identity are significantly intertwined such that the development of one group identity invalidates the other.  That is, this negative interdependence means that the two identities compete directly for political, narrative, and historical acceptance and the success of one disqualifies the other. This is descriptive of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where both groups narrate a similar history that is ideologically polarized. In the case of intractable conflicts this identity conflict continues from one generation to the next passed on by the discursive apparatus available to groups.

Ethnicity is the social construction of an origin story as the basis for a collectivity. The origin story includes claims of territorial rights, physiognomy, and culture. Ethnic groups are “imagined” communities (Anderson, 1991) because they assume a commonality but all members do not interact in the concrete manner of a material community. They are in deep comradeship with vast numbers of people with whom they have no direct contact.  Ethnicity is descent-based with membership requirements based on the symbolic practices of defining boundaries, territory, language, and culture. Yet ethnicity can also be based on commonality of experience because it constructs a unity out of differences. Where race assumes the other is fixed and self-evident, ethnicity positions people in historical and cultural context. Ethnicity is a set of socially attributed characteristics that have identitive value.

Ethnic identity is the result of taking personal experiences and extending them to group experiences. This is how the process of comradeship begins with unknown others. We translate private experiences into the principles of politics. So, one’s upbringing and family are assumed to signify a larger abstract collective. Or if I, and a few people like me, have a particular historical experience then that experience becomes relevant to all others who share something with me.

More on this later.


About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on November 1, 2018, in Communication and Conflict Resolution. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Identity as Socially Constructed.

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