Few people have noticed that the everyday use and meanings of the word “identity” are essentially new. The last (and most famous) thinker to pay attention to this was Kwame Anthony Appiah. He spoke about this in lectures given as part of the prestigious John Reith Radio series on the BBC in 2016. According to Appiah, people have many identities in the context of globalization promotes self-realization in the family and society, politics and profession, in business and virtual reality, on a national and planetary scale. Before that, it was possible to find only a few authors who recognized and reflected on the novelty of the modern concept of “identity”: William James Millar Mackenzie, James Fearon, Rogers Brubaker, Frederick Cooper, and Philip Gleason. There is no doubt that each of them wrote on this topic in different decades, but this was never followed by widespread recognition of the novelty of the concept. This fact points to the deeply ingrained idea that the term “identity” has always meant what it means now, and identity as such has always had meaning.
The Core Argument
The authors, who noticed the novelty of the modern concept of “identity,” mostly took their observation out of brackets. They perceive it as inappropriate or interfering with accurate socio-scientific analysis or, as Appiah notes, as exciting but too tricky to solve. It is evident behind such a statement lies the premise that the novelty and complexity of the word “identity” are separated from modern identity problems. The issues of religious, gender, racial, sexual, and national identity are complex and problematic; such is not the very use of the term “identity” to mean “who I am” or “who we are.”
The keyword analysis shows that it is necessary to consider identity, not as an internal, universal, and permanent property of individuals or groups. It is viewed not as a changeable, flexible social structure, as is often assumed today, but as a modern classification technology that classifies according to what is considered essential for an individual or group. Given this, identity cannot be seen as the conceptual equivalent of race, nation, or ethnicity – contrary to the well-known opinion of Brubaker and Cooper. Identity is one of the ways of thinking (and now, perhaps, the dominant one) in which these and other “fictions” materialize and crystallize today.
What will happen if these provisions of Appius are used against him? In this case, the “typological assumption” that “everyone is a representative of a racial type” does not formalize a specific, already existing identity in essentialist racial terms. It already underlies the very (modern) idea of what it means to have an identity. The very concept of identity is a powerful modern linguistic tool for the “typological assumption” of Appiah. It allows, based on essentialism, to occupy (or assume that others occupy) not only racial but also gender, sexual, religious, and many other cultural positions.
Why did the idea of identity capture, fixing, and structuring a person or group appear only in the middle of the last century? These essentialist views of the individual and the group community were so common, familiar, and shared that there was no need for any unique concept or language to distinguish them. In the 1950s and 1960s, some changes brought these essentialist ways of understanding into the spotlight, giving them a new meaning and giving rise to the apparent need to name and protect what had previously gone unnoticed. According to the cultural-materialistic method, to understand what happened, we must consider the contexts of the use of the new term “identity,” which will allow us to explore the social and political incentives and motivations that contributed to the explicit emergence of the idea of identity or influenced how it develops and is used today.
It is noteworthy that this term has acquired different forms in two different contexts. The “personal” and “social” meanings known to us today have been formed. Most importantly, the cultural-materialistic analysis in this section shows that the idea of identity, designed to express and consolidate the essentialist understanding of individuals and groups, appeared only when these previously unremarkable essentialist meanings were in the spotlight due to their commercialization or politicization. In these contexts, modern definitions of personal and social identity were born, which the current generation of philosophers is now aware of.
Concluding the above, there is no need, as Brubaker and Cooper advise, to abandon the concept of identity. As Appiah urges in his final lecture by Reith, there is no need to rethink it in a non-essentialist manner. Scientists and activists demanding an equal world should look at the changes in the use of identity as a category of practice in the capitalist context. They should promote the best interpretations and ways to apply them. The historicization of identity proposed in this study allows us to limit its power and consider it an idea that we can use to strengthen solidarity and political mobilization. Assuming that this idea encourages the intensification of disagreements through oppression and isolation or supports the logic of consumerism in capitalist societies. In this case, it should be deliberately left in the past. The political potential of keyword analysis considers language a place of political struggle. He reinterprets people as active creators of meanings who have the collective ability to describe, explain and change their world.