Identity and Membership

Authored by: Dorien Van De Mieroop

The Routledge Handbook of Pragmatics

Print publication date:  January  2017
Online publication date:  January  2017

Print ISBN: 9780415531412
eBook ISBN: 9781315668925
Adobe ISBN:


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When talking about a person’s identity, people tend to refer to some kind of core of a human being, and, in essence, attempt to answer the compelling question ‘who this person is’. On second thought, though, one soon realises that grasping the complexity of a person by answering a single question is quite an absurd endeavour. There are many reasons for this, the most obvious being that people change in the course of their lives, enacting different identities. Some of these identities have a certain chronological sequencing (e.g. child, teenager, young adult), while others may remain constant our entire lives (e.g. woman, Caucasian). Others may be present simultaneously, but are typically drawn upon in specific contexts (e.g. mother, wife, friend, employee), or they may gain a more or less prevalent status, occurring throughout a number of different contexts (e.g. American). But even interpreting this variety of potential identities as complementarily defining who a person is – or rather may be – means barely scratching the surface of the great complexity of the identity of a single person. After all, we think of so much more when we try to voice who we are: we may be fans of a particular soccer club or music genre and (sometimes) dress, speak and act accordingly; we may surprise ourselves sometimes because we arduously defend feminist viewpoints in a specific conversation even though we did not perceive ourselves as feminists at all; or we may speak with a pronounced Welsh accent and this may sometimes highlight our Welsh identity, while at other times it may not. In light of this vastness and fluidity of potential identities that may all be relevant to a single human being, it becomes quite clear what identity is not, namely:

… identity does not signal that stable core of the self, unfolding from beginning to end through all the vicissitudes of history without change; the bit of the self which remains always – already ‘the same’, identical to itself across time.

(Hall 1996: 17) In other words, instead of looking at the identity a person has, we view identities – in the plural – as the result of a constantly negotiated process, meaning that:

… identities are never unified and…. increasingly fragmented and fractured; never singular but multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions. They are subject to a radical historicization, and are constantly in the process of change and transformation.

(Hall 1996: 17)
Identities are thus viewed as multiple and fragmentary constructions closely related to the specific way they are situated in their local interactional contexts. This view will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

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