On Identity

Identity is a result of a social norm. Hence, it exists outside of a human being.

Identity is generated in relation to another human or thing. An identity comes into existence once one can identify ourselves as different from another human or object.

To illustrate the example of identity as being outside of a human and not within, in the sense that it exists in relation to another being, I shall use a hypothetical example. Suppose that you are all alone, stranded on an island like Robinson Crusoe. You have always been like this, alone since you can remember. Now, if someone were to ask you who you are, you would not be able to understand the person since you don’t speak the language (another social fact in the Durkeimian sense.) But let us imagine that you speak the language and you are suddenly asked by something, like god or some voice from the heaven, as to who you are. You will not be able to describe yourself in relation to other human beings, like saying that you are a brown woman, you are French or Pakistani, because these things won’t exist.

One of my students argued that there would still be a “core” identity to this stranded Crusoe. She argued that the core would tell you, if you are stranded, to not kill another human being. But there is no other human being on this island, and if there would be one who suddenly enters the island, we cannot be sure that this “core” would tell the stranded Crusoe to not kill the person.

The Crusoe would still exhibit behavior similar to humans in some sense (like hunting because of hunger) and would develop an identity in relation to other objects (like trees, stones which don’t move, and animals). So there would be an identity, but not in relation to other humans. And this identity would still be a construct, outside of our Crusoe.

Another of my students asked why she can identify herself as different from her own childhood self? For example, you are naive and stupid when you are a baby and now you know that you are smarter than the baby you were, that you are different. The distance here is time, I argue, and this distance makes it appear that we are different now from our selves in the past. This again goes on to demonstrate that identity is a construct; that while you do remain the same physically, you can still differentiate yourself from who you were in the pictures of your childhood.

Notes from the discussion class I teach at Sciences Po Paris, Spring 2017.

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About Shreya Parikh

I am Shreya. Project Rethought is my attempt to rethink my own observations as a brown woman of Indian origin. I currently live in Paris where I teach at Sciences Po Paris and Parsons Paris-The New School.
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