Identity and Identity Politics

A Cultural Materialist History
Marie Moran


Introduction: Identity Is a New Concept

In the attempt to explain and evaluate the late twentieth-century prominence and appeal of identity politics, many have found it useful to historicise their emergence and evolution, thereby revealing that identity was not always central to politics,[1] or demonstrating identity politics to be a recent response to or consequence of other political and economic shifts.[2] In what follows, I will offer a more radically historicist approach; one that offers a fundamental reframing of the issues by drawing our attention not just to the historical specificity of identity politics in advanced capitalism, but to the historical novelty of the very idea of identity itself.[3] To avoid confusion, let me be clear at the outset that the claim I will invite the reader to consider is not that questions of individuality, subjectivity and personhood are in any sense novel – of course, they are not. Rather, I suggest that the widespread refraction of these concerns through the analytical and popular idiom of identity is novel and recent, dating only to the middle of the last century. Beginning from this starting-point, and deploying a cultural-materialist methodology, I trace the evolution of the idea of identity as a category of practice in the social and political contexts of its use in contemporary capitalist societies, demonstrating how the ‘social’ and ‘personal’ senses of identity that now predominate are intrinsically bound up with the social changes that have accompanied them. While these claims about the historical novelty of our current uses of the concept and the word ‘identity’ are challenging, I believe that this perspective is not only well-founded, but also the source of new and fruitful insights about the operations and problems of identity in the twenty-first century.

Let us begin with what will be, in our identity-saturated times, the unsettling point that before the 1950s, almost nobody talked about or was concerned with identity at all. A trawling of popular books and magazines, corporate and business literature and political statements and manifestos published before the middle of the twentieth century reveals no reference to identity as we now know it – there was quite simply no discussion of sexual identity, ethnic identity, political identity, national identity, consumer identity, corporate identity, brand identity, identity crisis, or ‘losing’ or ‘finding’ one’s identity – indeed, no discussion at all of ‘identity’ in any of the ways that are so familiar to us today, and which, in our ordinary and political discussions, we would now find it hard to do without.

The same, startling point holds in relation to the founding figures of sociology and psychology and the giants of the literary canon, whom we imagine to have reflected on questions of identity for centuries. Closer reading of the works of William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, George Herbert Mead, Georg Simmel, W.E.B. Du Bois and Sigmund Freud, to take a sample few, reveals the stubborn fact that none of these writers widely credited with discussing or explaining identity ever actually referred to ‘identity’ themselves. Though the term routinely appears in more recent discussions, summaries and reviews of their work, this is typically without any acknowledgement or awareness of the fact that the original authors rarely if ever deployed the term, and never in the manner in which it is used today. (The advent of book digitalisation makes this claim remarkably easy for the sceptical reader to check; and indeed, I have already carried out a painstaking review of works now assumed to be ‘about’ identity, demonstrating that while these writers certainly considered questions of individuality, subjectivity and interpersonal relationships, they did not, contrary to contemporary wisdom, explicitly construe their subject matter as a question of ‘identity’.)[4]

This is not to suggest that the term ‘identity’ was never used prior to the 1950s. Where the term was used, however, it was in a very particular sense, and what we would now see as a very narrow sense, to mean the sameness of an entity to itself, as in ‘oneness’, or the exact sameness of two separate entities, as in the phrase ‘an identity of interests’. Consequently, where the term ‘identity’ does appear in older texts now assumed to be ‘about’ identity, it is almost always incidental, and never the subject of any substantive discussion in itself. The only exception to this is in studies in analytic philosophy, and some currents in metaphysical philosophy, where philosophers puzzled, as they continue to puzzle, over the persistence and sameness of an entity – whether human or inanimate – over time. See, for example, the work of analytic philosopher W.V.O. Quine on identity inFrom a Logical Point of View, and of Enlightenment philosophers David Hume and John Locke inA Treatise of Human Nature andAn Essay concerning Human Understanding, respectively.[5] In each case, the ‘problems of identity’ discussed are at a significant remove from our current conception of identity, focussing as they do on the ‘persistence conditions’ of persons, whether material (the body), ideal (the soul) or psychological (memory).[6] This is sometimes referred to as ‘numerical identity’, and as Shoemaker observes today, ‘[n]on-philosophers, when offered a discussion of identity, are often puzzled and disappointed to find that it is identity in this “logical” sense that is under consideration’.[7] While there are certain continuities between this philosophical or logical sense of identity as the sameness of an entity to itself and our current uses of the concept – which I shall discuss shortly – it remains the case that what was discussed by these earlier philosophers was not ‘identity’ as we now know it.

Within a very short space of time, however, all this was to change. In the 1950s, discussions of identity in a sense we now easily recognise started to appear, and indeed, proliferate, to such an extent that, by the decade’s end, the author of On Shame and a Sense of Identity could claim that ‘the search for identity has become as strategic in our time as the study of sexuality was in Freud’s time’.[8] In the 1961 preface to the widely-read The Lonely Crowd on changes to the American ‘social character’, Riesman referred directly to ‘the current preoccupation with identity in this country’, something he did not have cause to comment on a mere eleven years previously.[9] By the 1980s and ’90s, identity was completely embedded in the popular, political and academic lexicon – the language of ‘identity politics’ was de rigueur in activist and academic spaces; questions of cultural, racial, gender and sexual identity dominated the social sciences, arts and humanities; and self-help books elevated the search for one’s ‘true’ identity to key psychological status. Meanwhile many noted that the word itself had become inflated and overused. Even by the 1960s, Gleason claimed, ‘the word identity was used so widely and loosely that to determine its provenance in every context would be impossible’, while as MacKenzie put it, identity is a word that ‘express[es] everything and nothing about personal and social anguish in the last third of the twentieth century’.[10]

What are we to make of this? The dominant narrative is that there has been a huge growth in attention to experiences and expressions of identity over the latter decades of the twentieth century, with many even identifying the emphasis on identity and identity-politics as key features of our supposedly new ‘post-industrial’, ‘network’ or global societies.[11] The underlying – and at times explicit – assumption here is that our concern with questions of identity is at least as old as modernity, but has achieved particular prominence in the late twentieth century as societies have transitioned into these new forms that have consequences for how we see, value or engage our identities.[12] People’s identities, it is assumed, have always mattered to at least some very minimal extent, but for better or for worse, the experience and expression of identity has become more prominent in recent years, trumping alternative political, social and cultural concerns.

Importantly, this postulate allows commentators to believe that what is at stake in the explosion of ‘identity-talk’ – if they consider it at all – is a popularisation of the concept. But this is to miss the key point just established: it is not merely that identity is now discussed more than it was previously, but that prior to the 1950s, identity was simply not discussedat all in the ways it is now. Though, from our current vantage-point, we tend to perceive the contemporary emphasis on identity as a simpleincrease in the use of the term ‘identity’, corresponding to certain ‘real life’ changes, what is in fact at stake in our notions of personal and social identity are substantivelynew uses of the term.

Only very few people have noticed that our contemporary uses and senses of the word ‘identity’ are themselves substantially new, the most recent and prominent of whom has been Anthony Kwame Appiah in the prestigious 2016 BBC Reith Lectures. Prior to this, I could identify only a handful of authors who have explicitly recognised and puzzled over the novelty of our current concept of identity: W.J.M. MacKenzie,[13] Philip Gleason,[14] James Fearon,[15] Roger Brubaker and Frederick Cooper.[16] The fact that each of these authors has written on the subject in different decades, without any widespread acknowledgement of this novelty of the term in the interim, points, I believe, to the deeply entrenched notion that the term ‘identity’ has always more or less meant what it means now, and that ‘identity’, as such, has always mattered.

Even for these writers who have noticed the novelty of our current concept of identity, however, the response has been mainly to bracket this observation, as either irrelevant to or obstructive of the real social-scientific analysis,[17] or, as Appiah has suggested, as an interesting question that is nonetheless too complex to engage. The assumption, of course, behind this bracketing of the observation is that the novelty or complexity of the word ‘identity’ is quite separate from what we view as the problems of identity today; that although questions of religious, gender, racial, sexual and national identity are complicated and problematic, the very use of the term ‘identity’ torefer to ‘who I am’ or ‘who we are’ is not. But it is precisely this assumption that I want to challenge.


Identity as a Contemporary Keyword

Identity, I suggest, can be usefully viewed as a ‘keyword’ in the sense intended by Raymond Williams; that is to say, a complex and contested word whose problems of meaning are inextricably bound up with the problems it is used to discuss.[18] Routinely mistaken as a simple glossary of terms, Keywords in fact articulates a sophisticated ‘cultural materialist’ account of the relationship between language-change and social change, that views the changing meanings of a word as materially tied to the changing values, beliefs and practices of its use. As Bennettet al. explain,

For Williams the point was not merely that the meanings of words change over time but that they change in relationship to changing political, social and economic situations and needs. While rejecting the idea that you could describe that relationship in any simple or universal way, he was convinced it did exist – and that people do struggle in their use of language to give expression to new experiences of reality.[19]

The liminal theoretical and methodological approach of Keywords is developed more fully inMarxism and Literature, andCulture.[20] In these later texts, Williams challenges instrumental accounts of language that treat signs as fixed products in an ‘“always-given” language system’, arguing that ‘usable signs’ are ‘living evidence of a continuing social process, into which individuals are born and within which they are shaped, but to which they then actively contribute, in a continuing process’.[21] Language, within the cultural-materialist paradigm, is both symbolic and material; a constitutive human process in the double sense of making the person as much as the social world in which she operates. It is on these grounds that Williams argues for recognition of ‘an active social language’ that should be understood neither in purely idealist, constructivist terms, ‘[n]or (to glance back at positivist and orthodox materialist theory) [as] a simple “reflection” or “expression” of “material reality”’. He continues:

"What we have, rather, is a grasping of this reality through language, which as practical consciousness is saturated by and saturates all social activity, including productive activity. And since this grasping is social and continuous ... it occurs within an active and changing society.... Or to put it more directly, language is the articulation of this active and changing experience; a dynamic and articulated social presence in the world.[22]"

Tracing the historical inter-connections between changing words, concepts and social contexts[23] – that is, treating language as the social articulation of an ‘active and changing society’ – forms the basis of the cultural-materialist methodology. According to this cultural-materialist approach, then, the recent novelty and profusion of use of the word ‘identity’ is intimately connected to, and provides insight into, the social issues and concerns it has been used to discuss, and from which it has been generally assumed to be separate. It suggests that the explosion of use of the new senses of identity represents an active attempt by users to grasp and engage a changing social reality. More than a simple popularisation of a word and concept, then, the idea of identity should be viewed as offering a new way of framing and shaping historically persistent concerns about selfhood, others and the relations between them, as these are themselves undergoing change. Against the grain of dominant assumptions that ‘identity always mattered’, what this also suggests is that the very possibility of construing oneself as ‘having an identity’ – whether personal or social – is an historically novel formulation.

This, of course, should not be taken to mean that people had no conception of self or grouphood, prior to the emergence of the word ‘identity’ into popular and political discourse. There can be no doubt that it is part of the human condition to recognise the unique individuality of the self, and to recognise similarity to and difference from others, and it is part of political behaviour historically to draw on those human and social capacities in powerful ways, in order to subordinate or empower, or in order to create conflict or unity. But the point is that we now use the word ‘identity’ to describe and capture these features of human and social existence, that is, the experience of being a particular person, with recognisable features (what we now specify further as personal identity), or to be a member of a particular social group (what we now specify further as social identity), where we did not before. And the use of the word ‘identity’ to describe these experiences, including the widespread tendency to refer to different social categoriesas identities, is not neutral or innocent but is performative: it does something to how we understand them.

To grasp this more fully, let us look, as the Keywords method suggests, at what is at stake in the transition from the earlier, very narrow philosophical sense of ‘identity’ as the sameness of an entity –any entity – to itself, to the senses with which we are familiar today, namely, ‘personal identity’, and ‘social identity’ respectively. Carefully reviewing the uses of the term ‘identity’ over centuries, relying largely but not unconditionally, as Williams did himself, on the historicalOxford English Dictionary,[24] we see a number of important shifts in meaning. These meaning changes are – as is often the case with keywords – ‘masked by a nominal continuity so that the words which seem to have been there for centuries, with continuous general meanings, have come in fact to express radically different or radically variable, yet sometimes hardly noticed, meanings and implications of meaning’.[25]

Firstly, rather than reference an abstract formal property of an entity (any entity), namely, its ‘oneness’ or sameness to itself, ‘identity’ now references a substantive human property or attribute – something which may be personally or collectively possessed, or indeed, lost.[26] Secondly, there is a transition from an endogenous understanding, where identity is understood in terms of the relation of an entity to itself, to an exogenous one, where an identity derives significantly from its relation to others. Thirdly, there is shift in emphasis from continuity or sameness of an entity, to difference or distinction of that entity from others. These new emphases are now present in the two clearly distinct senses of social and personal identity with which we are so familiar today.

But the use of identity today to refer to a distinctive self (personal identity) or an embodied social category (social identity), though different from its earlier uses, cannot be entirely separated from them. Williams was especially attentive to the persistence and continuity of older meanings in a changing word, and to the ‘process through which new ways of exploiting the meaning potential conventionally available in a word cumulatively alter the meaning of that word.’[27] Following his lead, we see that identity, with its older connotations of one-ness and same-ness, offers us a very particular way of thinking about what it means to be a distinct person, or part of a social group. Specifically, it allows or prompts us to class individuals or groups as of a particular, singular type: it offers a way of saying ‘I really am this kind of person’, or ‘you really do belong to that group’ – what philosophers call essentialism. Despite, therefore, being routinely treated today as a substantive property of individuals and groups – ‘my identity’, ‘Islamic identity’, ‘sexual identities’ – it is in fact the case that identity functions lexically as a device that classifies according to what is considered essential to a particular person, type of person, or group.

This point is clarified by a comparison with the category of ‘race’, to which the category of ‘identity’ is often – erroneously – likened. We see that unlike ‘race’, which categorises and supplies the criteria for categorisation, identity functions as an ‘empty’ classifier that works to categorise someoneas of a particular kind, but does not specify what that kind is. Indeed, again unlike race, any attribute can provide the basis for an identity, so long as it is considered essential to or definitive of those who are then considered to ‘have’ a particular identity on that basis. The list of potential ‘identities’ is therefore literally infinite – there is conceivably no human feature or choice that cannot form the basis of an ‘identity’. And what designation of an identity – any identity – masks isthe very operation of the category of identity itself in enabling the kind of essentialist thinking that poststructuralist accounts of ‘identity’ are so opposed to. That is, it is the designation of some socially salient features or personal preferences as anidentity specifically, and not just as an accidental, contingent or historically pertinent feature of personhood or grouphood, that invites such typographical categorisation, and gives rise to the now almost-inevitable scramble to ‘deconstruct’ such supposedly pernicious essentialism in how we understand ourselves and others.

The Keywords analysis reveals, therefore, that we should view identity neither as an intrinsic, universal and perennial property of individuals or groups, ‘something that people have always had’, nor indeed as a fluid, unfixed, social construction, as is routinely stipulated today,[28] but rather as a modern classificatory technology, that categorises according to what is considered essential to an individual or group. On this basis, identity cannot be considered to be conceptually equivalent to ‘race’, nation or ethnicity, as Brubaker and Cooper famously argued it could, but is one of the ways of thinking (and arguably the currently dominant way) in which these and other ‘fictions’ materialise and crystallise today. To use the terms of Appiah’s argument against him, the ‘typological assumption’ that ‘everyone is a representative of a racial type’ does not shape some supposed pre-existing identity in essentialist racial ways, but is embedded in the very (modern) notion of what it means to have an identity in the first place – the notion of identity is itself a powerful contemporary lexical vehicle for Appiah’s ‘typological assumption’, as it allows us to inhabit (or assume others to inhabit) not just racial, but also gendered, sexual, religious and a myriad other cultural positions in essentialist ways.[29]


3    Identity in the Social and Material Contexts of its Expression

Of course, essentialist ways of thinking about selfhood and grouphood are not, in themselves, anything new – indeed, ‘essentialism’ has offered for centuries a largely unremarkable way of thinking about what it means to be a particular person (defined by some immutable core traits) or part of a particular group (identifiable by necessary shared features). This, indeed, is the point of Linda Nicholson’s largely convincing book, Identity before Identity Politics, where she traces the various forms of biological, cultural and psychological essentialism that animated the politics of race and gender in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[30] But what she misses, as the title of her book indicates, is that these essentialising ways of construing personhood and grouphood were not understood in terms of the idiom of identity, nor were gendered or racial social categories understood as identities, until roughly the mid-twentieth century, the point in time to which she – not uncoincidentally, as we shall see – dates the emergence of ‘identity politics’. In short, and contrary to her key claim, what I am suggesting here is that therewas no identity before identity-politics.

The question now is, given the longevity of essentialist ideas about self and grouphood, why is it that the idea of identity only emerged to capture, fix and frame these in the middle of the last century? What I want to suggest is that, up to this point, these essentialist ways of thinking about personhood and grouphood were so unexceptional, so commonplace, so ordinary, that there was no need for a particular concept or language to distinguish them. But then, in the 1950s and ’60s, something happened to move these essentialist modes of understanding into the spotlight, investing them with a new significance and power, and giving rise to an overt and urgent need to name – and defend – the previously unremarkable.

In order to understand what happened, we must look, as the cultural-materialist method suggests, to the contexts of use for the new term ‘identity’ in order to explore the social and political pressures and motivations that could have contributed to the explicit emergence of the idea of identity, or exerted a formative influence upon the particular ways in which it has developed and come to be used today. What we find is that the idea of identity emerged in two key spaces in Western, liberal, capitalist societies – namely, in the proliferation of new practices and norms of consumerism that we now refer to as ‘the consumer society’, and, as just referred to, in a series of new social movements around gender, race and sexuality that we now refer to as ‘identity politics’. Importantly, the term acquired different inflections in these two contexts, evolving, respectively, the ‘personal’ and ‘social’ senses as we now know them. Crucially, what the cultural-materialist analysis I will develop in this section suggests is that the idea of identity only emerged to express and consolidate essentialist understandings of selves and groups at a point in time when those previously unremarkable essentialist understandings were accentuated or stressed through their commercialisation orpoliticisation, giving rise, respectively, to our contemporary senses of personal and social identity in these contexts. What this cultural-materialist analysis also shows, therefore, is that what is at stake here is not how social changes associated with post-industrialism and consumerism ‘impact on our identities’ as is routinely supposed to be the case, but how the very construal of personhood and grouphood in terms of ‘(having) an identity’ relates to a capitalist way of life.[31]


3.1  Personal Identity in the Consumer Society

Let us look, first, at the emergence of the language of identity in the burgeoning contexts of consumption of the post-war ‘boom’ years of the twentieth century, beginning in the US. The story we usually hear is that the advent of the consumer society in the Western capitalist world dramatically affected how people formed their identities – where once identity-formation occurred through family role, employment or political affiliation, from the 1950s, we are told, identity-formation occurred primarily through consumption.[32] But this story, of course, assumes the idea of identity, as we now know it, to have preceded this era of consumption in order to have been changed by it – which I am arguing it did not.

What is important to recognise, however, is that this era of consumptiondid have an impact on people’s sense of self and their relation to others, that would eventually, I suggest, be captured in the notion of identity. The great theorists of the consumer society are instructive here – not because, as many assume, they discussed the impact of consumption on identity, which they did not, but for their analysis of the way in which consumption had become explicitly bound up withprocesses of social emulation and distinction by the 1900s – specifically through conspicuous consumption, as Veblen argued in his theory of the new leisure classes, or through fashion, as Simmel argued in his analysis of the expanding fashion industry.[33] As the twentieth century progressed, particularly through the postwar boom years, these consumption-based practices of imitation and differentiation – of ‘equalisation and individualisation’ as Simmel put it[34] – once the sole domain of elite groups, became extended to other social groups too, including previously-excluded working class families. Indeed, by the 1960s, the commercialisation of social practices of emulation and distinction – that is, the marketing and sale of commodities to people as a way of expressing themselves and their relation to others – had become completely central to the operation of advanced capitalist economies. As Marcuse of the Frankfurt School observed at the time, ‘People recognise themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment’.[35]

As these consumerist motivations and pressures continued to develop, they gave rise to a need to find a language to express the new social relations they were generating. Furthermore, since these changes in consumption practices tended to suppress and displace class conflict[36] – though not actually-existing class inequality – it was likely that this language would emerge in ostensibly ‘neutral’ or non-class terms. This likelihood was exaggerated by the pressures of the McCarthyite repressions in the ’50s, and the construal of class interests as ‘Communist’ and anti-American. Indeed, it was in just this context that the idea of identity, with its capacity to connote both an essential sameness with and difference from significant others, emerged to offer a perfect vehicle of expression for these relations of social emulation and distinction. It seems likely that the term ‘identity’ was to a certain extent made available or accessible by the psychologist Erik Erikson, who, around this time, was starting to use the term (or more specifically, ‘ego-identity’) as a category of analysis to describe how an individual forms her sense of self in relation to societal influences. But what I am concerned with here, and what I am describing, is the emergence of the idea of identity as a category of practice, and how it was shaped in relation to the societal context of its development and use. In this respect, it is arguable that it was the motivations and pressures of the consumer society, rather than any psychological consideration of the relationship between self and society, that gave rise to the need for and shaped the everyday use of the term. The consolidation of the now-iconic individualistic American outlook during this period meant further that these everyday uses of the term to articulate relations of social similarity and difference were likely to be expressed in a distinctively personal form, leading to the development of the notion ofpersonal identity as an especially attractive mode of self-conceptualisation in everyday life.

Interestingly, the prevalence of anti-Communist sentiment and the hegemonic support for the fulfilment of the ‘good life’ through capitalism that characterised this boom period meant that any liminal resistance to the consumer society and its pressures would be diverted instead into the more socially acceptable resistance to the ‘mass society’. The question of how one could maintain a sense of individuality in a context of corporate standardisation and repressive social homogeneity became a cultural preoccupation (real or contrived), animating many popular books and films of the time, including Man in Grey Flannel Suit,The Organisation Man, andThe Lonely Crowd. The emergent notion of identity must have here offered a very useful way of viewing the self, with the sense of ‘personal identity’ in particular offering a vibrant antidote to the perceived grey uniformity of the ‘mass society’ – the possibility of being different by (simply) ‘having an identity’.

Significantly, here, we see that the idea of personal identity invited the problem which it was assumed to settle. Once people are persuaded that they ‘have’ an identity in the first place – in part by its very invention – they are motivated to try to find it. In the ‘consumer society’, the ‘psychological’ or personal problem of finding an identity finds a ready solution in practices of consumption which allow for the construction of that identity, thereby ‘finding’ and ‘marking’ it at the same time.

Crucially, then, while the idea of personal identity offered a (superficially class-neutral) means of asserting individuality and difference in a mass society, in so doing, it also encouraged participation in mass consumption, which had deeply homogenising effects. As Adorno argued of American capitalism, ‘the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardised production of consumption goods’, but this is concealed under ‘the manipulation of taste and the official culture’s pretense of individualism’. He continues, with echoes of Simmel’s critique of fashion, ‘the identical character of the goods that everyone must buy hides itself behind the rigor of the universally compulsory style’.[37] In this consumer capitalist context, identity must have presented itself as a very useful concept indeed, as it proffered a means of obscuring the basic sameness engendered by the relentless logic of the commodity behind a vision of ‘individual’, but ultimately class-based, distinction. The idea of identity in its personal sense, we may conclude, has proven very useful for the capitalist class too.


3.2  Social Identity and Identity Politics


The second context in which the term ‘identity’ began to be deployed with increasing regularity and ease was in a series of so-called ‘new’ social movements that emerged in the 1960s, at least partially in response to the failure of the race and gender-based civil rights campaigns to achieve full equality for oppressed groups. While the emergent idea of identity evolved its ‘personal’ sense in contexts of consumption, here, as we shall see, different inflections and nuances in the historical development of the idea gave rise to identity in its ‘social sense’, which, while still expressing social relations of sameness and difference, nonetheless differed insofar as it emphasised group oneness, cohesion and solidarity over individual distinction. While such emphases were hardly new to group-based politics, their expression in terms of the emergent idiom of identity was, and would prove central not only in the 1960s transition from civil rights to ‘liberation politics’, but also in the development of what we now know as ‘identity politics’ more generally. Against the contemporary tendency to refer toall group-based or ostensibly non-class politics as ‘identity politics’, what this history suggests is that the term should be reserved for referring only to those politics that explicitly mobilise around the concept of identity, thereby distinguishing ‘identity politics’ proper from both earlier phases of group-based activism, in which the term ‘identity’ was meaningless, and later phases in which the term, while meaningful, nonetheless does little or no conceptual or mobilising work.

To return to the historical narrative, as the 1960s progressed, anger at continued inequality and exclusion, combined with a growing frustration with the politics of ‘integration’, ‘progress’ and ‘polite protest’ that had characterised the civil-rights campaigns,[38] led some activists from the women’s and African-American movements to foment an alternative type of politics based on liberation from oppression. Although from our current historical vantage-point there is a tendency to collapse the different kinds of feminist activism of the 1960s into a single phase (the so-called ‘second wave’), and equally though not as consistently to collapse the African-American Civil Rights and Black Power movements into a single movement, as part of the ‘long movement’ thesis,[39] there are clear grounds, as many have argued, for distinguishing these two phases of activism. While the distinction could be – and has been – justifiably made in terms of differing aims (inclusion versus revolution) or differing tactics (reformist versus radical), I want to focus here on the role the emergent idea of identity played in this transition. The claim is not that liberation politics were themselves entirely new, with similar aims and understandings at least intermittently informing the political thinking and actions of these movements historically – perhaps most obviously in the long history of Black Nationalism – but that what was new was the very effective use made of the idea of identity in powerfully formulating the aims and mobilising the actors in the 1960s campaigns.

Why was the idea of identity so useful to these movements, or, to put it in the terms of this cultural-materialist study, what were the political pressures and motivations that precipitated and made sensible the use of the term ‘identity’ in this context? A key challenge facing these excluded groups in the aftermath of the civil-rights campaigns was how could they self-consciously form and bond together as a group in order to mobilise against their oppression, without in the process calling up and re-affirming the supposed biological or racial deficiencies that had marked them out as a distinctive group, deserved of unequal treatment in the first place. I suggest that the idea of identity emerged here to resolve this conundrum, as it presented a way of understanding social difference in positive terms – that is, not in terms of ‘natural’ or biological difference, an idea that was successfully discredited in the civil-rights movements, but instead in terms of shared culture and experiences.

Recall here that identity is an endemically essentialising device that serves to identify someone as of a particular type, without specifying what that type is. Significantly, that ‘type’ can be derived psychologically or culturally, and not just biologically (as certain rejections of ‘essentialist accounts of identity’ wrongly assume today). In the postwar years, anthropological notions of ‘culture’ as a key influence on group formation were already widely in circulation and appreciated, both as they emphasised shared cultural traditions, experiences and ways of life rather than hereditary type, biological function or skin colour as the defining markers of group membership, and as they fed into a positive discourse of cultural diversity as something to value and promote, in the process providing an important postwar alternative to ‘race’ as a means of social classification. Interestingly, and challenging the still-persistent assumption that the notion of identity ‘originated’ in Eriksonian psychology, we see that Erikson himself acknowledged his indebtedness to Margaret Mead for her work on culture in developing his own account of identity [40] – lending further weight to the argument that ‘identity’ should be regarded neither as a pre-existing concept, nor one that emerged fully formed in 1950s psychology, but rather as one that offered a useful lexical vehicle of expression for already-developing modes of social understanding across a number of domains in the mid-twentieth century.

By the early 1960s, then, disillusioned with the politics of formal equality that inadequately accounted for the group specificity of various forms of oppression, some African-Americans and women began to actively rely upon notions of cultural essentialism to more fully understand the oppression they experienced, and how they could challenge it. The language of identity must have seemed ideally adapted to such a purpose: by allowing them to refer to a shared history, way of life and even perspective or outlook, identity not only had explanatory power but also political potential, as it encouraged a strengthening of in-group solidarity and the expression of group-based pride. As the decade progressed, some activists began to explicitly use the idea of identity to connect these notions of group integrity and cohesion to a critique of oppressive systems and institutions, and to use this sense of shared oppression, solidarity and pride as a means – indeed, as a necessary and primary element – in mobilising against them. The idea of social identity was born as a category of practice, and with it, a new form of politics – ‘identity politics’.

This history and claim is illustrated by closer examination of the Black Power Movement (BPM) and Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), though shortage of space means I shall concentrate on the former. Examination of the key texts of the BPM reveals that the notion of identity was central to the newly articulated philosophy and goals of Black Power, while remaining completely absent from the discourses of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) which it had at least partially displaced.[41] Black Power was the most recent incarnation of the separatist Black Nationalism movement that had existed since the 1800s, emphasising in its various manifestations the will to achieve cultural pride and economic power through Black independence and self-determination. In this latest iteration, as emphasised by both Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), it particularly relied on – indeed, developed – the notion of identity in its social sense. In the defining text of the BPM, Kwame and Hamilton explicitly defined Black Power as ‘black self-determination and black self-identity’,[42] and made the case that this achievement of Black Power was a ‘vital first step’ in a bigger project of ‘deal[ing] effectively with the problems of racism’ in American society.[43] Deeply critical of what they saw as the assimilationist impulse of the CRM, they sought instead a radically altered society, based on a rejection of the ‘white’ values that promoted racism and ‘material aggrandizement’,[44] and the institution instead of new social structures premised on economic equality, full political participation, and cultural liberation. ‘While we endorse the procedure of group solidarity and identity for the purpose of attaining certain goals in the body politic’, they wrote, ‘this does not mean that black people should strive for the same kind of rewards (i.e. end results) obtained by the white society. The ultimate values and goals are not domination or exploitation of other groups, but rather an effective share in the total power of society’.[45] Crucially, therefore, we see that the idea of identity was important not for how it could be used to promote racial hierarchies or even black supremacy, but for how it could help achieve a new social order characterised by equality, freedom and justice for all.

Although the first expression of ‘identity politics’ is widely attributed to the founding statement of the Combahee River Project, who wrote that ‘focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics’, and that ‘the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity’,[46] it seems to me that the founding statements of the BPM captured this political impetus at least a decade earlier. In order to end racism – defined as the deliberate and systematic exclusion of Black people from participation in political and economic life – Ture and Hamilton wrote that ‘Black People in the United States must … challenge the very nature of the society itself’, and that crucially,

To do this, we must first redefine ourselves. Our basic need is to reclaim our history and our identity from what must be called cultural terrorism. … We shall have to struggle for the right to create our own terms through which to define ourselves and our relation to society, and to have these terms recognised. This is the first right of a free people, and the first right that any oppressor must suspend.[47]

The claim I am making here is not the facile one that the transition from the CRM to the BPM saw a shift in something called ‘African-American identity’, but that the very use of the concept of identity in its social sense was part of what enabled the shift in political thinking and approach that powered the BPM. The change in self-conceptualisation facilitated by the notion of social identity gave the claims of Black Nationalism broader appeal to a new generation of activists, and encouraged some radical conclusions: instead of seeing group members as wrongly denied their individual rights on account of their skin colour, members of the BPM understood themselves as a group constituted by a shared experience of oppression rooted in racism, colonialism and capitalism. Emancipation would not come from pleading for equal treatment within these systems, but from overthrowing them.

We see a similar emphasis on social identity in the emergence of the WLM. Again, whereas participants in the Women’s Rights movement did not use the term ‘identity’, focusing instead on the principle and language of political equality with men, ‘Women’s libbers’ tended to see their oppression – and also the sources for resistance to it – in terms of the idea of a specific female identity.[48] The notion of social identity at work here offered alternative ways of thinking about what it meant to be a woman, without relying on – and indeed, explicitly rejecting – discredited and dangerous notions of biological essentialism. It nonetheless replaced these with cultural essentialism – shared experiences, outlooks and values – with the result that, during this period of ‘identity politics’, the Sisterhood was indeed powerful.

To conclude here, what this history shows is that the idea of identity in its social sense – as well as the tendency to refer to different social categories as identities – did not pre-exist but emerged as a key part of what we now know as identity politics. Furthermore, it was put to radical egalitarian use in a way that seems, or is deemed to be, almost unimaginable today.[49] But how has this come to pass? And is there any potential for the idea of identity to be put to such solidaristic, redistributive and even revolutionary ends today? What I want to argue here is not so much that there was once a ‘good’ identity politics that has been displaced by a ‘bad’ version, but that these tensions and tendencies are inherentin the very notion of identityitself, as it evolved what I have described as its social and personal senses over the period of its emergence and consolidation in the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, as the cultural-materialist perspective underlines, the contexts for its emergence have shaped not only the senses of the term but also which of them is likely to predominate. In the transition from ‘organised’ to neoliberal capitalism, it is clear that the social sense of identity has become subjugated to the personal, evident in, amongst other things, the easy slippage between ‘identity politics’ and niche markets (consider such examples as the ‘pink pound’, the ‘grey dollar’ and the exploitation of black identity-politics by such corporations as Avon in the 1970s), and the emergence of a strangely libertarian version of identity politics which focuses on the individual rights held by the self-conscious bearers of certain ‘identities’ over any sense of group solidarity and power.[50] Ultimately the intensification of market processes and rationales under neoliberalism has exaggerated the personal sense of identity over the social to such an extent that we have now reached a point in time where identity operates primarily to facilitate consumption on a global scale, while at the same time informing a version of representation politics that remains compatible with the political-economic architecture of neoliberalism.[51] This, indeed, is a long way from the aspirational identity-politics of the 1960s and ’70s. Does this mean we should give up on the concept of identity entirely? I address this question briefly in the conclusion.


4    Conclusion

The argument of this paper has been twofold: that the idea of ‘identity’ as we now know it is historically novel, and that its emergence and evolution has been bound up with the lived culture of contemporary capitalism. The first claim is challenging, as it encourages a rethinking of an intellectual and social history to which many readers will be wedded. However, it is perhaps worth pointing out here that the sceptical reader need not accept the stronger claim that ‘identity’ is historically novel in order to engage with the claim that identity is currently bound up with the lived culture of contemporary capitalism – all she need recognise is that the use and meanings of the term ‘identity’ have changed significantly in the second half of the twentieth century, and that these changes are bound up with the altered social order in which they have come to prominence. Acceptance of either the stronger or weaker version of this claim is entirely in keeping with the cultural-materialist methodology upon which this study is based, evident from – among other things – the opening lines of Williams’s Culture and Society, which begins with a discussion of five earlier ‘keywords’ that provide insight into a changing social context. ‘In the last decades of the eighteenth century’, Williams wrote,

…and in the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of words, which are now of capital importance, came for the first time into common English use, or, where they had already been generally used in the language, acquired new and important meanings. There is in fact a general pattern of change in these words, and this can be used as a special kind of map by which it is possible to look again at those wider changes in life and thought to which the changes in language evidently refer.[52]

The five words to which Williams here refers are ‘culture’, ‘industry’, ‘class’, ‘art’ and ‘democracy’. It is a similar recognition concerning the novelty of uses of our current concept of identity that provided the motivation for this study, with – I hope – similarly fruitful consequences for contemporary political and sociological analysis of the uses of identity and identity-politics.

Having explored the ‘wider [historical] changes in life and thought’ to which the changes in the uses of ‘identity’ refer, let me conclude with some brief comments on how the approach elaborated here allows us to go some way towards addressing the value of identity to progressive politics.

In the aftermath of Brexit, and in the wake of Donald Trump’s triumphant election campaign – both of which attributed their success to their focus on the concerns of the ‘silent majority’, the forgotten (white) working class – theorists and commentators from left and right slammed the supposed false promises, dead-ends and blind spots of ‘identity politics’. But we must recognise that the term ‘identity politics’ is a multi-accentual sign today, and can be made to signify any number of political positions, from the radical redistributive and recognition-based politics of Black Lives Matter, to campus debates about trigger warnings, to even the xenophobic, White-supremacist politics of the ‘alt’ (read ‘extreme’) right. In such a context it is important to clarify the concept of identity animating these or any other struggles going under the name of identity politics, remembering that unlike the personal sense of identity, which tends to dovetail with the social logic of a virulently individualist free-market capitalism, the idea of social identitycan be andhas been used in struggles for cultural and economic equality, in which battles against racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity are recognised to be structurally intertwined with the battle against capitalism.[53]

Rather than throw out the concept of identity, then, as Brubaker and Cooper advise, or reconceptualise it in non-essentialist ways, as Appiah urges in his final Reith lecture, scholars and activists seeking a more equal world should, I suggest, remain attentive to the changing uses of identity as a category of practice as it is deployed in a capitalist context, promoting those understandings and uses that will offer the best hope of achieving these ends. Historicising ‘identity’, as I have done here, allows us to diminish its power, and instead view it as an idea that we can choose to use in order to foster solidarity or political mobilisation according to our needs, as Gayatri Spivak has argued in her defence of ‘strategic essentialism’,[54] or indeed, an idea we can choose to leave behind, when it encourages a hardening of divisions in an exclusionary and oppressive manner, or promotes a logic of consumerism, possessive individualism or class-blindness in capitalist societies. This, then, is the political impetus of Keywords, which views language as the site of political struggle, and refigures people as active meaning-makers with the collective capacity to describe, interpret and therefore change their world. As Williams writes, and as I hope applies to this offering, a keywords analysis

 … is not a neutral review of meanings. It is an exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion, which has been inherited within precise historical and social conditions and which has to be made at once conscious and critical – subject to change as well as to continuity – if the millions of people in whom it is active are to see it as active: not a tradition to be learned, nor a consensus to be accepted, nor a set of meanings which, because it is ‘our language’, has a natural authority; but as a shaping and reshaping, in real circumstances and from profoundly different and important points of view: a vocabulary to use, to find our ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history.[55]



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[1] See, for example, Zaretsky 1995; Fraser 1997; Nicholson 2008.

[2] See, for example, Scatamburlo-D’Annibale and McLaren 2004; Castells 2004; Fraser 2013.

[3] In so doing, this paper draws on and develops some of the arguments set out in my book, Identity and Capitalism (Moran 2015).

[4] Moran 2015.

[5] Quine 1980; Hume 1984; Locke 1979.

[6] See Shoemaker 2006 for an extensive treatment of this issue.

[7] Shoemaker 2006, p. 40.

[8] Lynd 1958, p. 14.

[9] Riesman 1961, p. ix.

[10] Gleason 1983, p. 918; MacKenzie 1978, p. 101.

[11] See, for example, the summary provided by Kumar 1995, p. 122.

[12] For some explicit articulations, see Kellner 1995; Bauman 2004.

[13] MacKenzie 1978.

[14] Gleason 1983.

[15] Fearon 1999.

[16] Brubaker and Cooper 2000.

[17] Such ‘real’ analysis is understood to require, alternatively, capturing or distilling the true meaning of identity (MacKenzie 1978; Fearon 1999) or throwing out the term and replacing it with other concepts better suited to the analytical tasks currently poorly performed by the ‘blunt, flat, undifferentiated’ vocabulary of identity (Brubaker and Cooper 2000, p. 2).

[18] Williams 1983, p. 15.

[19] Bennett, Grossberg and Morris (eds.) 2005, p. xvii.

[20] Williams 1977; Williams 1981.

[21] Williams 1977, p. 37.

[22] Williams 1977, pp. 37–8.

[23] This should be recognised as distinctly different from more-idealist ‘postmodern’ or discourse-theory approaches, which explore the relationship between word and concept, bracketing the social referent which is of such central importance within a cultural-materialist methodology.

[24] For some of Williams’s reservations on the OED, see Williams 1983, pp. 18–19.

[25] Williams 1983, p. 17.

[26] This is particularly evident in the commonplace ways in which identity is discussed today – when, for example, the ‘identity’ of an African-American woman or a non-cis gender youth is discussed, it is never assumed that what is at stake here is the question of whether that person is the same person they were yesterday and will be tomorrow (their sameness to themselves, or continuity over time), but rather their inhabiting or possession of a particular set of self- and social understandings of the kind of person they are or are assumed to be.

[27] Williams 1983, p. 8.

[28] This poststructuralist account of ‘identity’ presents regularly as a contradiction in terms – for if one is convinced by poststructuralist accounts of subjectivity and grouphood as inescapably multiple, unstable, contingent and all the other routine qualifiers, then surely the most useful conclusion would be that ‘identity’ is not a good word to use to describe either.

[29] Appiah 2016, Reith Lecture number 3, ‘Colour’.

[30] Nicholson 2008.

[31] It is worth noting some limitations of method in what follows. Given the cultural-materialist concern with the very broad thematic of the relation of language-change to social change, it is inevitable that the story told – especially in such a restricted space as this – will involve some historical shortcuts and omissions. While the broad brush-strokes and summary style may be regarded as simplistic, I hope this is mitigated by recognition that the intention is not to provide a fine-grained historical analysis but to sketch out how it came to be that the idea of identity emerged as a category of practice in the mid-twentieth century, a task to which the cultural-materialist approach articulated here is eminently suited.

[32] Slater 1997; Sassatelli 2007.

[33] Veblen 1925; Simmel 1957.

[34] Simmel 1957, p. 550.

[35] Marcuse 1991, p. 11.

[36] Agger 1992; Zaretsky 1995.

[37] Adorno 2005, p. 280.

[38] Ture and Hamilton 1992.

[39] Cha-Jua and Lang 2007.

[40] Erikson 1950, p. 13; see also Gleason 1983, p. 925.

[41] Compare, for example, the speeches of Malcolm X, who refers explicitly to ‘racial identity’, ‘black identity’ and ‘African identity’, with the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., who never uses the term: <> and <>.

[42] Ture and Hamilton 1992, p. 47.

[43] Ture and Hamilton 1992, p. 39.

[44] Ture and Hamilton 1992, p. 40.

[45] Ture and Hamilton 1992, p. 47.

[46] Combahee River Collective 1979, p. 365.

[47] Ture and Hamilton 1992, pp. 34–5; emphasis added.

[48] Compare, for example, the founding documents of the National Organisation for Women (NOW), which do not refer to identity at all, with the national monthly US newsletter the Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which regularly does.

[49] Mohandesi 2017.

[50] Chasin 2002; Feitz 2012.

[51] Hilary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign is a case in point.

[52] Williams 1963, p. xi.

[53] Duggan 2003.

[54] Spivak 1987.

[55] Williams 1983, pp. 24–5.