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15. Contemporary Views of Identity

What is ‘Identity’?

Identity goes to the heart of why we pursue genealogy and family history. It is well expressed in the popular TV slogan: Who Do You Think You Are?

But: What is identity? The question should be followed by a definition. According to political scientist James Fearon of Stanford University, it’s not that simple. He points out that the concept remains something of an enigma which is not well captured by dictionary definitions.[1]

Brazil Defeat W Cup

Did Brazil lose its ‘identity’ after defeat in the 2014 world cup – or simply feel ‘disappointed’? (1)

Co-authors Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper go further and suggest that: “… the social sciences and humanities have surrendered to the word ‘identity’”. They remind us what George Orwell said over half a century ago: “The worst thing one can do with words, is to surrender to them.”[2] And this is precisely what has happened in the case of ‘identity’. To capitulate in this way has both intellectual and social costs.

The surprise here is that distinguished players within the humanities are not coming to the rescue of their disciplines. In fact Brubaker and Cooper are candidly frank: “… we can do better.”


George Orwell’s warning about surrendering to words has come to pass (2)

Ship of Theseus

One of the main problems with the concept of identity can be traced to the age-old philosophical question about the conditions under which something persists as the same object through time. The paradox is well illustrated in the ship of Theseus. The newly constructed ship is itself; no difficulties here.

However, if we begin to change the planks one by one, at what point does the original ship cease to be itself? If every plank has been replaced, along with the nails that held them together, how could it be the same ship?

We know that the chemical constituents of our bodies are continually changing. As such, are we the same person as we move through time? In the absence of a good answer, philosophers have avoided the suggestion that we have an unchanging internal essence that makes us who we are. This approach has influenced the humanities to the extent that they go to great lengths to avoid “… the dreaded charge of ‘essentialism’”.[2]

Contemporary Misuse


Can honey have an ‘identity crisis’? (3)

‘Identity’ plays a central role in debates on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, state sovereignty, nationality, culture, etc. The term “… tends to mean too much (when understood in a strong sense), too little (when understood in a weak sense), or nothing at all (because of its sheer ambiguity).”[2]

As the meanings of ‘identity’ proliferate, the expression loses its power to communicate the concept it is supposed to represent.

Consider some current examples of poor use:

  • Brazil lost its identity in the 2014 world cup after defeat to Germany
  • The Gators [American football team] established an ‘offensive identity’
  • Chosen beer brands say a lot about identity
  • Honey [yes, the product of bees!] can have an ‘identity crisis’
American Football

Offensive ‘identity’ or ‘strategy’? (4)

Did Brazil and its 200 million people really lose its identity (or simply felt ‘disappointed’)?

Did the Gators not, in reality, establish an offensive ‘strategy’?

Do our choices of beer brands basically say something about our preferences rather than our essential nature?

And did the honey crisis not merely refer to the need for the implementation of an adequate US federal standard for honey?

Heavy Price-tag

However we might justify our overuse, misuse and abuse of ‘identity’, carelessness carries a heavy price-tag. Society pays daily for its shoddy application. According to a Gallup poll, carried out in 2014, 55 percent of workers in the United States get their sense of self identity from their jobs. Blogger ‘Emily’ states that a close friend who recently lost her job lamented: “That … was my whole life. It was who I was”.

Losing your identity brings with it immense pain and confusion. It’s bad enough to lose work but it’s tragic if the victim feels thatwho they aretheir very identity is obliterated. It’s understandable, then, why David Holmes would suggest that the world is entering a new era of anxiety over identity.

Careless use of the word permits the Irish media to encompass the meaning of ‘Irishness’ within a list of opinions, feelings and platitudes.[3] It allows most Americans to believe that ‘doing’ something and ‘being’ something are synonymous. It prompts college kids to say “… the darndest things” on identity.”[4]

Exciting New Vista

Are the humanities not the most appropriate disciplines to provide a solution to the question: What is identity? (article #14 GKIS)

The answer is a resounding ‘No’. Contemporary views of identity are inadequate, confusing and of little use to the genealogist and family historian. End of the road? Not quite.

Despite all limitations hindering the contemporary understanding of identity, modern science has opened an exciting new vista into our ancestral past through human genetics. While writing Shelter and Shadows it enabled author Raymond Keogh to enter a completely new phase, in which his exploration of identity followed a much more rewarding pathway of discovery.[5]


[1] Fearon, J. D. (nd) What is identity (as we now use the word)? Department of Political Science Stanford University. Stanford. here

[2] Brubaker, R. and Cooper, F. 2000. Beyond “Identity”. Theory and Society. Vol. 29: 1-47.

[3] 1916 centenary: eight diverse people discuss Irishness and their identity here

[4] College kids say the darndast things … here

[5] Keogh, R. M. Shelter and Shadows. (To be published in September 2016 as part of The Gerald Keogh Identity Series). here

Photo acknowledgements: Wikicommons (1) Creative Commons Courtesy Agência Brasil; (2) public domain (PD); (3) (PD) courtesy Lama Raheem; (4) (PD) courtesy Herbert D. Banks Jr.

GKIS Gerald Keogh Identity Series

Next: A New Tool for Comprehending Identity here