Stuart Hall (1992) argued that ideas about identity have changed throughout history.
He argued there were three main concepts of identity which fitted three main historical eras:
- Pre-modernity – individual identities were not regarded as unique, but rather related to the great ‘chain of being’.
- Modernity and the sociological subject – individuals were seen as unique and their identities linked to broader class structures, genders and nation states.
- Postmodernity – postmodern subjects have multiple and fragmented identities.
Identity in Premodern societies
In premodern societies people’s identities were largely based around the position they were born into, and was determined by traditional social structures and religion.
People were not regarded as being unique individuals in their own right, but rather as part of the great chain of being and a person’s identity was ascribed dependent on their place in that chain.
Individuals thus had little scope to change their identities as they moved through life, they were largely set at birth, and established by their social class and gender.
The Enlightenment Subject
During the Enlightenment (16th to 18th centuries) a new conception of identity emerged with each individual coming to be seen as having a unique, distinct identity of their own which was not part of the great chain of being.
Hall suggests this concept first came from Descartes who had a dualistic conception of humans, with each individual mind being separate from every other mind, as evidenced in his well known phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’.
From the Enlightenment onwards individuals were seen as having unique identities with distinctive consciousnesses and were seen as capable of working things out for themselves on the basis of logic and reason.
The Sociological Subject
As modernity progressed a number of complex social and political structures emerged, such as companies and nation states.
Individuals increasingly became connected to these complex local, national and increasingly global structures and the concept of identity started to become more social, as individual identities were more an more related to things such as class structures and nations.
For much of modernity these structures stitched the individual into them, stabilizing both individual identities and the societies which they inhabited.
We see this approach in the Functionalist theory of identity, although this may have been over romanticized and uncritical, and we also see it in the symbolic interactionist approach to identity, the latter perspective allowing for much more individual freedom than the former.
The Postmodern Subject
With the shift to postmodernity identities become more fragmented. Individuals no longer have a clear sense that they have just one identity, rather they see themselves as having multiple, overlapping and sometimes contradictory identities.
According to Hall identity has become decentered: individuals can no longer find a core to their identity. Identities are more likely to be constantly changing, fluid, and thus more uncertain.
Social changes and the fragmentation of identity
A number of social changes have lead to the increasing fragmentation of identity:
Globalisation means that people are now increasingly communicating with others in faraway places and, even if they are unable to leave their location, individuals no longer have to construct an identity based on the specific place they are in.
Individuals living in Asia are able to identify with bands or sports teams in Europe and America, just by adopting dress styles and the appropriate ways of speaking.
Granted, the spread of consumer culture may have lead to more homogenization of culture globally, but from the perspective of the individual constructing their identity there is certainly more choice than in modern times, and the capacity to construct multiple identities at once, combining both the local and the global.
Politics has changed to become less about social class and nation states and more about identity politics. New Social Movements have emerged around such issues as ethnicity, gender and identity and green issues, which has fragmented the political landscape.
Feminism has played an important role in changing identities because it opened up the historically private realm of the private sphere to scrutiny, debate and ultimately change.
In modernity men and women largely accepted their given gendered identities, but since early Feminism challenged domestic roles such as the ‘housewife role’ as an identity that had to be linked to women, and also challenged it for being inherently unsatisfying, every aspect of identity linked to sexual relationships and family life has come up for ongoing negotiation.
Hall argues some individuals and groups respond to the above postmodern fragmentation brought on by globalisation by reaffirming national identity.
We see numerous examples of this ranging from civil wars which want to break up countries along imagined ethnic lines (Yugoslavia for example) and we see it, possibly, in Brexit.
Signposting and Relevance to A-level Sociology
Hall’s conception of identity means that traditional sociological perspectives such as Functionalism and even social interactionism will struggle to explain the nature of identity in postmodern society.
This material is mainly relevant to the Culture and Identity option.
Hall, S. (1992). The Question of Cultural Identity. In: S. Hall, D. Held and T. McGrew (Eds.), Modernity and Its Futures. Milton Keynes. Cambridge: Open University Press.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.