On ‘Identity’

Florian Coulmas is Professor of Japanese Society and Sociolinguistics at the IN-EAST Institute of East Asian Studies at Duisburg-Essen University. He has published numerous books, including ‘An Introduction to Multilingualism’ (OUP, 2017) and ‘Writing and Society: A Introduction’ (Cambridge University Press, 2013). In 2016, he was awarded the Meyer-Struckmann-Prize for Research in Arts and Social Sciences. For the past three decades he has served as Associate Editor of the ‘International Journal of the Sociology of Languages’, during which time he has observed the steadily increasing use of the concept of identity in both general and scholarly publications. His latest publication, ‘Identity: A Very Short Introduction’, was published in February 2019.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Florian Coulmas: I am and have been for several decades one of the editors of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language. Over the years, the number of submitted papers that in one way or another deal with questions of identity has steadily increased. This is one of the sources of my interest in identity. Another is to do with the fact that my children’s grandparents came from four different cultural backgrounds, and they were born in a country of yet another one. They were born and grew up in Japan, a country whose leaders have cultivated a strong sense of national identity ever since it was forced at gunpoint to open up to intercourse with the West and they felt compelled to adopt an ideology of ethnic nationalism to spur modernization. Helped by the fact that the Japanese population is relatively homogeneous, this ideology took root easily and is still felt strongly today. That you cannot be a “real” Japanese if you don’t look Japanese and speak Japanese, is considered a matter of course by many. The experience of living in Japan has taught me that the barriers of national and ethnic identity outsiders have to scale if they want to be accepted as members of the community are higher in some places than in others.

RB: Your recent book Identity: A Very Short Introduction provides a survey of the many faces of the concept of identity. Is there an overall definition of what is meant by the term identity?

FC: References to identity have become ubiquitous. One reason for this is that my identity is my identity rather than yours, and it is up to me to say what it consists in. We encounter the term in many fields of scientific inquiry as well as in the media and everyday speech. A restaurant which tells you that its menu is your guide to your “gourmet identity” surely has something else in mind than Timothy J Oliver who informs you in The Guardian that “A new British identity is key to Brexit’s success”. Mary Ann Evans’s identity is known to fewer people than George Eliot’s, which is a puzzle about proper names and assumed identities. When in International Affairs Helene Sjursen writes “On the identity of NATO” she does not deal with names or people or anything tangible. Does laser eye colour change affect your identity? How about sex reassignment surgery? The former no, the letter yes? These questions and many others are to do with identity, and if we review them all, Humpty Dumpty comes to mind, who famously said: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Many people seem to have taken this principle to heart. Yet, it would be too easy to dismiss the inflationary use of the term as a fashion of sorts and an arbitrary use of important sounding terminology. “Identity” is an index of our time. Many people find it important, even if they are not always sure what it is. This fact alone makes it important.

An overall definition? If I gave one, I would almost certainly invite reproof for ignoring this aspect of the concept or that. If you twist my arm, I would say identity is about repulsion, something that allows me to say this is mine, not yours; ours, not theirs; deserving of my/our loyalty, attachment and respect, and, by implication, to discriminate others.

RB: What are the factors behind the contemporary understanding of identity?

FC: Identity, or better, the assertion of identity, is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Not that in the past thinkers have not grappled with questions of identity from various points of view, such as logic and epistemology; however, in the twentieth century, the specialised concern of philosophers became an issue everyone had to deal with. The European Enlightenment, and the American and French revolutions it inspired made individualism, autonomy, self-accountability and equality the ideational foundations of a new social order, which wasn’t God-given but created by the people themselves. These are principles if no illusions that have not been realized in many places, but as normative values they became more effective in the twentieth century. People feel compelled to have an identity or to commit themselves to one. This is especially true in Western societies, from where the concept spread around the world. Without an identity, you cannot be a citizen. The state cannot tax you, draft you for a military service, or enforce compulsory schooling for your children. You cannot partake in the political process (vote), own property, or enjoy any other civil rights. In short, in order to function properly, modern states require a unique personal identity for each citizen, which it is obliged to respect and protect without discrimination.

Nowadays, we tend to take it for granted that these provisions hold for everyone. However, if we just recall the Holocaust and other recent genocides; if we review the civil rights movement in the US and what it has accomplished only since the 1950s; if we remember that Swiss women gained voting rights in 1971 and the Apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end in 1994; and if we know that under Japanese law, compulsory education does not apply to children of foreign nationalities; if we take all of these into consideration, it is evident that equality for human beings has been a long time coming. In fact, it has not been realized in many ways, which is the principal reason why “identity” has migrated from the individual to the collective level.

This is where repulsion makes itself felt as a constitutive force of identity. “Because I am an X, I am entitled to enjoy these privileges, rights, and advantages.” “Being a Y, or being branded as a Y, I also want to enjoy these privileges, rights, and advantages (and maybe others).” From here it is a short step to “being an X, I don’t want my daughter to marry a Y, live next to a Y, or have anything to do with a Y.”

But isn’t being proud to be an X, Y or Z a perfectly normal and a good thing? This cannot be affirmed without qualification. Identity is a double-edged sword, supporting discriminated individuals by enabling them to associate with a group, on one hand, and dehumanising multidimensional persons by reducing them to unidimensional Xs and Ys, on the other.

RB: Are they different from any past understandings of identity?

FC: “Identity” is an ideological notion. It is very difficult to imagine what people in the past believed, took for granted and used as a conceptual foundation of their world view. However, if the number of publications about identity and the level of attention paid to identity issues today and, say, a century ago are any indication, we cannot fail to see that the obsession with identity is a recent intellectual current. In former times, people did not worry that much about their identity. At the bottom of it, in my opinion, it is the marketization of social life. Everyone has to sell their own skin in the market, and how can you do this without an identity?! Everybody has to be someone. Brand yourself! The least you can do is put a tattoo on your arm or behind your ear, unique – like everybody else. In a feudal society where the life courses of many were largely predetermined by birth this wasn’t so.

RB: What are the core components of identity theory and social identity theory? Are there areas that link the two theories?

FC: Identity theory is about the body and mind problem. Social identity theory is about the individual’s belonging to a social body and intergroup relations. What both theories have in common is that under the scrutinising eye of modern science the constancy of the bodies in question has dissolved into thin air. A naïve conception of our identity as individual persons rests on the assumption of permanence in time; and that our life is framed between birth certificate and death certificate reinforces this view. Similarly, if we think of a social body – an ethnic group, a city, a party, a club – we assume that it existed thirty years ago and that it exists now, ignoring the fact that only parts, or maybe nothing, of what existed so-and-so many years ago exists today. The challenge for both theories is to conceptualise an identity without an essence. We know that both our body and our mind change incessantly as we grow old and that social bodies acquire and lose members all the time. Thus, in both cases we are dealing with indefinite and fuzzy entities to which we ascribe an identity.

RB: What makes up an individual’s identity and what distinguishes the concept of identity from that of personality characteristics?

FC: “Reinvent yourself!” is a slogan that well characterizes our age, the age of neo-liberalism. You are asked to reinvent yourself in accordance with your own identity. Marketing agencies using slogans of this sort do not seem to perceive the fundamental contradiction they embody. At the core of the concept of identity is immutability, as for example the agency that issues passports and other identity cards insists. Yet, presumably, you can reinvent yourself by changing the colour of your hair or going on a diet. This is a matter of self-control, what you want to be, and what kind of identity you want to present to others.

Personality traits, by contrast, are used by psychologists to characterize people. Whether you are melancholic or cheerful, taciturn or loquacious are properties that are hard to change deliberately. Recent research assumes that there is a very small number of personality traits, maybe just five or six, that combine to make a person what she or he is. The identity you put on the stage of society is the icing on the cake.

RB: What are the most important features used to mark off individual and collective identities?

FC: On the individual level, it can be anything, name, birth order, education, bodily features – the born long distance runner. Inborn and acquired features can be put at the service of identity formation. However, some features are more difficult to escape than others, and these are features that are employed to stigmatise others and to mark off boundaries separating our identity from theirs. Societies differ with respect to the features that are used explicitly or implicitly to discriminate groups. If you are black, there are social environments and situations where you cannot refuse to accept the colour of your skin as part of your individual identity, which, like it or not, in certain societies also defines a collective identity. Religion, gender, language and citizenship are other important features that can be used, and frequently are used, for the purpose of repulsion.

It is important to emphasise the potential mood here, the possibility of employing these features for marking identity, precisely because they are often presented as inescapable. In his book Identity and violence, Amartya Sen aptly speaks of the “illusion of destiny”, the illusion namely that we are prisoners of race, sex, gender, ethnicity, you name it, and therefore compelled to “defend” us against those who threaten our hallowed identity.      

RB: What is language maintenance in regards to identity and how is this related to language shift?

FC: This is a matter of choice, a choice heavily influenced by ideological currents. Once again, the language identity-nexus is a Western ideologeme. In Western countries, once universal education was envisioned, people learnt that learning another language is a huge task, that a native speaker cannot be matched, that the state speaks to you in one language, the national language, which is your mother tongue.

The nation state established a language regime that made government, law, school and, in many cases, church speak the same language and at the same time lead to the standardization of that language. As a result, language became a potent marker of identity, which it wasn’t, for example, when Erasmus of Rotterdam travelled from one place in Europe to another. Linguistic nationalism prioritised language over communication, that is, speaking your mother tongue “correctly” over making yourself understood to others. Borders became less permeable. In combination with the postulate of equality, the fetishization of the national language, languages as such came to be venerated as treasured heritage, giving rise to the notion that if one language is valued, so should be others. Linguistic minorities thus came into existence, and language maintenance both by migrants and indigenous groups became an issue.

It is instructive to look at societies outside the Western world where cultivated monolingualism is less frequent and adjusting one’s linguistic behaviour to the interlocutors and the situation at hand handled more pragmatically. It is in Western societies, specifically in target countries of migration flows from south to north, that language maintenance or shift is framed as an ideologically charged problem of identity.

RB: In a world of rapid global change are our identities in a state of continuous flux?

FC: Yes, so it seems, and this is why some scholars would prefer to eliminate the term “identity” from the vocabulary of the social sciences. So far, the opposite has happened. “Identity” appears in more and more contexts with different meanings and nuances. Identity can be invoked to defend the oppressed or to justify oppression. It may underly pride and self-respect or contempt of others. The concept suggests self-sameness and can be adapted as needed and desired. The difficulty of pinpointing its core meaning, or perhaps, because of its versatility, identity has become an apparent fixture in the quicksand of the present time.


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