On Identity

What makes me me? This question could be asked by a two year old. But it’s really hard to answer! I’ve been pushed to think about it a little more deeply as I tutor a course in ethnic nationalism.

In the West, we tend to think of individuals as self-contained. That is, they are contained within a unique body, they have a unique mind, they are independent and free. But not everybody thinks that way.

Richard Handler (1994) suggests the idea of individual ‘identity’ is a peculiarly modern and Western notion and that it’s not really a very useful cross-cultural concept. He points to Whorf’s description of the Hopi from the south western United States, who “consider that human thought acts routinely as a force in the outer world” rather than being somehow contained within the brain of a physically contained human body (ibid p31). And he draws our attention to Clifford Geertz’s description of repetitious naming practices in Bali that “mute the…details of personal biography” pointing instead to the continuousness of the unchanging cosmos (ibid p33).

I’m pretty happy to have the idea of the self-contained individual shaken up a bit. It makes me think about the way the Bible talks about Christian’s being ‘in Christ’ or the church being ‘the body of Christ’:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
Ephesians 2:19-22

Handler, R (1994) ‘Is “Identity” a Useful Cross-Cultural Concept?’, in J. Gillis (ed.) Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, Princeton University Press, Princeton.


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