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If I was living some considerable time ago and was asked this question depending who I was I would have said I am Inuit named Bob. An Inuit was then a Inuit.

These days given the intense interest in identity and identities across a broad spectrum of disciplines your identity is under attack by whatever you, buy, eat, and view.

Since we all know how to employ the word one might initially expect it easy to find simple and clear statements of what people mean when that ask how are you and there would be need for explanations?

So why Bother? So that we don’t all end up Categorized as Consumers.

Identity is acquiring a highly successful life of its own in ordinary language and many social science disciplines.

In popular discourse identity is often treated as something ineffable and even sacred, while in the academy identity is often treated as something complex and even ineffable.

In our world of today’s Interconnections it is being ignored with your Identity being connected and linked to likes that are decided upon by computers.

Therefore it is not so surprising when ask the question one might answer the question“who are you?”entirely differently in different circumstances.

It has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign of contact.

So what does this word mean as we use it now?

I argue below that the word “identity” as used today has two distinct but intertwined meanings.“social” and “personal” identity.“

Social – American,” “French,” “Muslim,” “father,” “homosexual,“worker,” “professor,” or “citizen” as identities.”

Personal identity is a set of attributes, beliefs, desires, or principles of action that a person thinks distinguish her in socially relevant ways and that (a) the person takes a special pride in; (b) the person takes no special pride in, but which so orient her behavior that she would be at a loss about how to act and what to do without them; or (c) the person feels she could not change even if she wanted to.

I will argue, the (a) meaning applies, so that for usage in ordinary language personal identity can typically be glossed as the aspects or attributes of a person that form the basis for his or her dignity or self-respect.

Used in this sense, “identity” has become a partial and indirect substitute for “dignity,” “honor,” and “pride.” 

This is perhaps not true.

Almost every one evokes a sense of recognition, depending on the context.

For example,

If asked by ISIS I would be inclined to say a Muslim to save my head, not my dignity honor or pride. In some situations I might even give my social security number.

So what is Identity these days.

Is it how I define who I am?


Is it how one answers the question “who are you?”


Is it the sameness of a person or thing at all times in all circumstances?


Is it the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something
else; individuality, personality,” “national identity” or “ethnic identity?

What ever it our present understanding of “identity” lie in the academy. 

A concept which is now quite common in popular discourse as our identities are going out the window into BIG Data.

So here is my first cut at a definition.

An identity is something that fits as X in the sentence “I am an X.”

In logical terms, an identity is a predicate that applies (or may apply) to a person, that is, a quality or property of a person.

Whoops that not good enough!

Since X allows things that clearly would not qualify as “legitimate” (that is, recognizable to usage) so identities, even take on a  broad sense of the word.

For example, consider X = a person with nine fingers, or X = a person with a moles on my right arm, or X = a person who saw the dentist last Tuesday.

So an identity must be a particular sort of predicate attachable to a person.

The same might be said of national identity, if I change national affiliations.

So I still need a qualification on the definition that says an identity is an X that

Lets try again.

One might have multiple identities, understood simply as answers to the question “who are you?”

In ordinary speech and most academic writing, “identity” means either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and allegedly characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) a socially distinguishing feature that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or, of course, both (a) and (b) at once).

This isn’t enough either.

For example, if you lose a finger we would say that you are the same person as before; if you suffer from an advanced state of Alzheimer’s, we might not.

I might say that a crucial part of my identity is that I like to listen to rock, but if I stopped liking this music I would not think that I was literally a different person –I would not imagine that I ceased being Elvis even though I might understand my identity to have changed.

In this philosophical sense, personal identity is those predicates of a person such that if they are changed, it is no longer the same person, the properties that are essential to him or her being that person rather than being merely contingent.

Consider, then, a simple definition that says an identity is just a social category, and to have a particular identity means to assign oneself to a particular social category or perhaps just to be assigned to it by others.

Is that it?  No!

To begin with, a social category is a set of people designated by a label (or labels) commonly given to, or used by, a set of people.

Social categories have two distinguishing features.

First, they are defined and by implicit or explicit rules of membership, according to which individuals are assigned or not to the category.

Second, social categories are understood in terms of sets of characteristics – for example, beliefs, desires, moral commitments, or physical attributes – thought typical of members of the category, or behaviors expected or obliged of members in certain situations, as in the case of roles, such as a professor, student, or police officer.

”While identity-as-a-social-category captures much of what academics often mean by the term, this simple definition does not cover all that we mean by the word. In particular, “an identity is a social category” doesn’t work when we use identity in the sense of personal identity, which may be formulated in terms of a group affiliation but need not be.

So Social categories are socially constructed, but social categories change over time and are historically contingent.

Social categories generally are objective social facts beyond the reach of any one
individual to change.

Still don’t quite know who I am.

Even when the word does refer primarily to a social category – nation, gender, sexuality, for instance – it can mean somewhat more than just “social category” because of an implicit linkage with the idea of personal identity.

This is getting rather confusing. 

Because to ask about identities of such-and-such people is often to ask about the social categories in which they placed themselves (or were placed by others) and how they thought about their content or rules of membership.

In many cases it might be clearer and better to use “social category” rather than “identity.

The identity of a thing (not just a person) consists of those properties or qualities in virtue of which it is that thing. That is if you changed these properties or qualities, it would cease to be that thing and be something different.


I thought I knew who I was when I started this Post and who are you to say I am not what I am in the first place. Maybe I need a spliff  to find out, on the other hand you can rest assured that Doctor Livingston I presume is long gone.