Fast Facts: Identity


Featured Image: A Tibetan monk at the Tashilhunpo Monastery. Credit: Antoine Taveneaux.

  • Although identity has many definitions, it can generally be thought of as those characteristics by which someone is known to others.
  • A big part of identity is the roles people have, like doctor, lawyer, mother and friend, but also the groups one belongs to, like a religion, nation or a group of friends. When someone identifies with another person or group, they aspire to their values, beliefs, attitudes and other characteristics.
  • Even though it takes a lifetime to discover who we are, adolescence is seen as an important stage of life for figuring out one’s identity.
  • Research shows that identifying strongly with certain groups contributes to one’s sense of belonging and raises self-esteem. But other research has shown that greater identification with a particular group tends to foster more discrimination against other groups in that category, like an ethnicity or religion.
A young woman from Gambia. Image: Ferdinand Reus.

A young woman from Gambia. Image: Ferdinand Reus.

  • Both individuals and groups seek to positively distinguish themselves from others in a way that garners them “recognition.” The social philosopher G.W.F. Hegel believed a liberal (free) society was one where there was equal agreement among citizens to recognize each other and each other’s dignity.
  • Groups sometimes form strong identities in their quest for more political rights. The Hawaiian Renaissance in the 70s was a cultural revival of Native art and politics that continues to influence their efforts for more equality.
  • Psychologist Henri Tajfel showed that people associate into groups very easily, and can even identify with groups they’re randomly assigned to. People can identify with each other for sharing the same preferences for art and for wearing same colored T-shirts.
  • Psychologist Michael Berzonsky suggested that individuals have three different identity styles, or ways of approaching identity. A normative style means someone largely adopts the goals and standards of their family/community, and highly values security and tradition. An informational style means a person thoughtfully seeks and evaluates info about themselves in order to update their own understanding. Diffuse/avoidant styles avoid conflicts about values and identity. They define themselves more by reputation or popularity, and change situation to situation for self-centered, even hedonistic goals.
  • That normative style is thought to be adaptive as adolescents get the hang of things, while the informational style gets more helpful as we mature.
  • Many believe that a person living across different cultures can have multiple cultural identities, which come with their own different sets of attitudes, expectations and behaviors.
  • Some believe that it’s possible to identify with all of humanity. A dramatic example includes those who rescued Jews during WWII, and who reported a sense of “belonging to one human family.”

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