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Mervyn F.


The crisis of ‘identity’ in high modernity

ABSTRACT The concept of ‘identity’ is central to much contemporary sociology, re ecting a crisis that manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, there is a view that identity is both vital and problematic in this period of high modernity. Secondly, while this awareness is re ected in sociology, its accounts of identity are inconsistent, under-theorized and incapable of bearing the analytical load required. As a result, there is an inherent contradiction between a valuing of identity as so fundamental as to be crucial to personal well-being, and a theorization of ‘identity’ that sees it as something constructed, uid, multiple, impermanent and fragmentary. The contemporary crisis of identity thus expresses itself as both a crisis of society, and a crisis of theory. This paper explores the diverse ways in which ‘identity’ is deployed before turning to case-studies of its use by Anthony Giddens and Manuel Castells. This strategy demonstrates the widespread and diverse concern with identity before exploring how problematic it has become, even in the work of two of the world’s leading sociologists.

KEYWORDS: Identity; globalization; Giddens; Castells; psychoanalysis


The concept of ‘identity’ is central to much contemporary sociological analysis. This concern with identity is indicative of a crisis that manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, there is a pervasive sense that the acquisition and maintenance of identity has become both vital and problematic under high modernity. Secondly, while this awareness is re ected in many substantial studies of contemporary society, their accounts of identity var y widely and are often radically under-theorized and incapable of bearing the analytical load that the contemporar y situation requires. This has arisen because of the imperative under globalization to theorize people as possessing identities that are extremely adaptive to social change. As a result, there is an inherent contradiction between a valuing of identity as something so
British Journal of Sociology Vol. No. 53 Issue No. 1 (March 2002) pp. 1–18 © 2002 London School of Economics and Political Science ISSN 0007-1315 print/1468-4446 online Published by Routledge Journals, Taylor & Francis Ltd on behalf of the LSE DOI: 10.1080/00071310120109302

intellectuals. issues relating to identity are present throughout Lemert’s (1999) collection of readings. From the outset it was a concept with roots in psychoanalysis. This concern increased markedly through the 1980s and 1990s. This strategy enables us to demonstrate the widespread and diverse concern with identity before exploring how problematic it has become even in the work of two of the world’s leading sociologists. the body. multiple. Consequently. and Webster (2000). postmodernity. As Baumeister (1999: 3) points out. THE UBIQUITY OF ‘IDENTITY’ In this section and the next. In a very in uential study. identity is invoked signi cantly in discussions of the role of narrative in society. before then turning to in-depth casestudies of two theorists. A concern with identity has become pervasive since the 1950s and 1960s when Erikson (1968) rst popularized the notion of ‘identity crisis’ and Goffman (1963) explored stigma as a ‘spoiled identity’. globalization. while Calhoun (1994) has explored their implications for social theor y. and a theorization of ‘identity’ that sees it as something constructed. Halci. Woodward (1997) provides an accessible survey of the ‘crisis of identity’ at both the individual and collective levels. and social inequalities. a search of a leading psychological database found over 31. [re ecting] how the self has actually changed in recent histor y to become more dif cult. and important to explore’. Within social theory. The crisis of identity involves a crisis of ‘identity’. The contemporary crisis of identity thus expresses itself as both a crisis of society. social movements. psychology and sociology and is now ‘the most widely used concept these days in the social sciences and humanities’ (Wrong 2000: 10). the study of masculinities (Connell 1995). and a crisis of theor y. especially in the sections relating to recent decades. impermanent and fragmentar y. we shall explore and conceptualize the diverse ways in which ‘identity’ is deployed. who have made identity central to their analyses of globalization. Bendle fundamental that it is crucial to personal well-being and collective action. Identity also has a central position in feminist social theor y (Grif ths 1995). challenging. nationalism. Anthony Giddens and Manuel Castells.000 items on the self published over two recent decades (Baumeister 1999: 1). uid. and of youth and adolescence where Baumeister (1996) shows how detraditionalization increases choice . intimacy. this concern with identity re ects ‘a broader social trend in which the individual self has become a fascinating problem.2 Mervyn F. to include not only individual but also collective forms of identity. In Browning. cultural pluralism. Gergen (1991: 38) highlights Erikson’s remark that ‘in the social jungle of human existence there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity’. Gitlin (1995) has shown how identity politics has impacted profoundly on American culture. Wrong (2000) explores the notion of ‘adversarial identities’ and their relationship to multiculturalism.

Identity can be claimed . psychiatry in the early nineteenth centur y sought to provide the insane with the sense of personal identity that would incorporate them into the individualist society that was emerging. both in its institutional form and its cultural representations. with memory in complex and unpredictable ways. Hacking (1998) and Prager (1998) demonstrate that identity and ‘identity’ are constructions linked. Drifting in a post-industrial society and stalled in adolescence. Their identities ‘are propelled by contradictor y social imperatives which may destroy the unity of the personality’ (McDonald 1999: 204). Lash and Morris (1996) explore the crisis of identity in terms of the detraditionalization characterizing high modernity. In this fashion. with the rise of discourses of pathology and institutional structures that make the relevant diagnoses possible. Similarly. itself an ironic reversal of Goffman’s theor y of stigma. This interrelatedness of representations of identity in mental health and popular culture is a feature of modernity.). repressed. fragmented nature of such identities . psychologically. injured or excluded by others’ (Rose 1999: 268. . a major area where there are dual crises of identity and ‘identity’ is mental health. emph. only to the extent that it can be represented as denied. Predictably under high modernity. Touraine (1997: 81) relates fragmentation and loss of identity to demodernization . identities are seen as stalled. As Gauchet and Swain (1999) show. . this notion that identity can break down into sinister ‘alters’ has spread throughout culture and ‘the idea of a second self – of a horrible other living unrecognized within us. so that ‘one’s hidden injur y becomes the ground for a claim of valued identity. Elliot (1996: 5ff. and historically. Stone (1998). they struggle to establish coherent identities and constructive relationships with others.add.) explores ‘the ambivalence of identity’ under postmodernity. . . the sense of uncertainty detected in the external world of the risk society is directed inwards to create a sense of an unstable and untrustworthy self. with society’s ‘rites of passage’ failing and crucial transitions not being made. In high modernity this is exempli ed by the ‘politics of victimhood’ pursued in the confessional mode. (Stone 1998: 330). Increasingly. Central to this disorder is ‘the literal splitting of identity into various parts and pieces (the alters). each displaying a distinct sub-personality’. while Kayatekin and Riccio (1998: 91) relate these processes to globalization and argue that ‘the partial. their identities can no longer be constructed ‘within the imager y and culture created by producers and employers’. In turn. and identity increasingly breaks down to produce ‘dissociative identity disorder’ (Kluft and Foote 1999). McDonald (1999: 203) argues that for many young people marginalized by globalization. anxiety and stress increase. while Heelas. . based on new identities that MacDonald (1999: 218) is optimistic will emerge as marginalized groups respond to globalization.The crisis of ‘identity’ in high modernity 3 but problematizes identity formation. Depression. creates the possibility of imagining and participating in projects to change’ the system. This requires an ‘imagining [of] new ways of living’. or loosed somehow into the world beyond – is central to the vision of [contemporary] Gothic’ (Edmundson 1997: 8).

and gender [with] postcolonialism. Valverde (1999 345) describes how politics in the USA is conducted ‘largely in identity-based claims . with the histor y of identities recapitulating the histor y of capitalism’s global conquests. This history in turn has produced various diasporas. [and] the question of who “owns” or appropriates the past is a question of who is able to identify him. These dynamics nd their re ection at the level of histor y and theor y. Appiah and Gates (1995: 1) address ‘the formation of identities and the problem of subjectivities’. . Friedman (1994) also relates the formation of identities to globalization. identity is discussed in terms of hybridity. but is there a ‘crisis’ here. . CONCEPTUALIZING THE CRISIS There is an obvious need to bring some order to this variety of applications of the concept of ‘identity’. the ability to de ne ‘identity’ in a exible fashion makes it possible for groups to carry out essential ‘gate-keeping’ functions. double consciousness and subalternity (Moreiras 1999). while the global dimensions of a crisis of identity are described elsewhere as ‘a social fact arising from the collapse of the Western Imperium and the subsequent collapse of its well-exercised theory of world culture’ (Lemert 1997: 125). In fact this variety and imprecision is in itself an important component of the problem. ight. within a politics of identity involving ‘multiple intersections of race. . exile and forced migration . . nationalism. and if there is. Indeed ‘displacement. residual and undertheorized concept. transform the terms in which identity needs to be understood’(Gilroy 1997: 329). Bendle Elsewhere. and ethnicity’. Bauman (1992) has addressed similar issues in terms of ‘soil. for which the construction of viable identities is a fundamental issue. arguing that its foregrounding of certain European theorists and their preoccupations with aspects of industrial society systematically undervalues the signi cance of the identity politics of gender. regulating their membership and . Connell (1997) makes a similar point in his critique of the formation of the reigning canon of classical social theory. . Marginalized groups [deploying] experiential and historical knowledges of oppressed identities to further their claims’. race and ethnicity in the reconstruction of the discipline within the framework of global imperialism. blood. Politically. and it must concern sociology because analysis in these various areas is profoundly weakened by an excessive and uncritical reliance on what has become a politicized. ‘history is the history of identity. of which institutionalized sociology has been an important bene ciar y.or herself and the other at a given time and place’. class. a result of the exceptional plurality of meanings the term can harness’. Within such social ux. As Gilroy (2000: 98) puts it: ‘the new popularity of identity as an interpretative device is . sexuality. For Friedman (1994: 85).4 Mervyn F. and identity’. . should it concern sociology or is it just a problem for psychoanalysis and psychology? Indeed there is a crisis.

(2) In contextual terms that var y with one’s social situation. Here. multiple and transient. and even psychoanalysis is deployed in a constructionist manner by theorists like Judith Butler. providing a multifaceted experience. its under-theorized and received position in discourse also means that people can invoke ‘identity’ in a positive and compelling fashion without being required to specify adequately the meaning they attach to the term. understood as stories one tells oneself about who one is. identity is synonymous with the ‘core’ of personhood with which the actor is endowed. racial. Suitably modi ed to encompass the literature reviewed here. All but the last are generally constructionist in commitment. (4) In terms of one’s subjective sense of self. (3) In cultural categories re ecting contemporar y conceptions of identity. And where it is theorized. (7) In psychoanalytic terms. as we shall see below in the cases of Giddens and Castells. At the level of the individual. they all generally occupy the conceptual space de ned by the opposition between constructionism. where identity and the self are felt to be constrained by unconscious structures of the mind. There we will demonstrate that it is not possible to simply treat ‘identity’ unproblematically as a received concept from psychoanalysis or psychology – it has become far too integral to sociological analysis and therefore requires adequate critical analysis and theorization. foundational and de ning characteristic. and essentialism. Moreover. its theoretical provenance. This core may be conceived literally as a deeply embedded.The crisis of ‘identity’ in high modernity 5 position in the political eld. Extreme versions of constructionism. or the source of its positive valorization. which is devalorized. reject the notion of a core altogether and see identity as entirely a product of discourse and as inherently fragmented. it is generally in terms of the tradition of American egopsychology that has become fundamentally problematic. plastic and manipulable – the rst view would be characterized as essentialist and the second as constructionist. This is particularly the case as identity and globalization increasingly play their roles as the organizing polarities of social analysis under high modernity. which is valorized. The various approaches to identity can also be seen in terms of ‘depth’ or ‘surface’ models of analysis. (5) In terms of the social performance of self-hood. and this re ects a prior belief that the former leads to progressive social outcomes while the latter reinforces oppression. (6) In terms of ‘narratives of the self ’. The dominance of constructionism can be seen in a recent text (Finnegan 1997) that provides a convenient summar y of how ‘identity’ is variously analysed in the social science literature. It also facilitates a theorization of humanity as endlessly adaptive and plastic. this indicates that identity may be seen: (1) In terms of similarity and difference involving social. While it is not possible here systematically to state the theories of identity that underlie all the works cited above. possibly based on notions of an ‘inner life’. . ethnic or gender categories. or (more usually now) as something rather more super cial. ideological commitments. associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism.

Bendle the exemplars are Michel Foucault or. Indeed. which reasserts precisely the irreducibility of the ‘core’ or ‘kernel’ constituted by Lacan’s notion of the Real (Zizek 1999). This situation is exacerbated because originally the notion of ‘identity’ explicitly contained the idea of subsisting self-sameness. Taken together. CASE STUDIES Some impressive efforts have been made systematically to incorporate theories of identity into comprehensive analyses of contemporar y society.g. particularly where it plays a major role in the analysis of globalization.6 Mervyn F. in psychoanalysis)’ (Baumeister1999: 3). In this section we shall explore several prominent accounts that reveal both the strengths and weaknesses presently found in contemporary theorizations of identity. rather than being satis ed with waiting for the next. more recently. identity is central to Giddens’ . this range of complex. by the turn of the twentieth century ‘the self was viewed as a vast inner continent that could only be explored with considerable dif culty and possibly with expert help (e. . Butler. and why arguments uncritically built upon it are problematic. a signi cant reaction to this is presently emerging from the ‘Lacanian left’. Interestingly. (2). Historically. as we shall see below. (3) The breakdown of hierarchies. models that emphasize an almost unlimited degree of fragmentation. and the potential for radical social change all provided access to new identities to be pursued in this world. Several of the major notions of ‘identity’ noted above are integral to the sociology of Giddens (1991: 32) and his analysis of ‘risk society’ in the period of high modernity: ‘transformations in self-identity and globalization . uidity and plasticity of the self are in tension with this core notion. their decline meant that identity and its de nition must be based on shifting and non-absolute foundations. . the rise of individualism and social mobility. (4) A new exibility of self-de nition: whereas identity had previously been de ned in terms of rigid and predictable social structures and processes. the current crisis of identity may be related to four problems of the self that characterize high modernity: (1) The problematizing of selfknowledge: whereas in the pre-modern period the self had been regarded as transparent and rather uninteresting. Consequently.. The valorization of human potential: modern secularization placed a high priority on achieving selfrealization in this world. interrelated issues illustrates the conceptual burden that is being carried by the term ‘identity’. an issue which Erikson himself recognized right from the outset as corrosive of this entire approach to understanding the self. whose performative theory of gender formation underpins much contemporary identity politics. are the two poles of the dialectic of the local and the global in conditions of high modernity’.

when the child receives ‘a sort of emotional inoculation against existential anxieties. re exive modernization and the emergence of post-traditional societies embedded within a global system. Where self-identity falls into crisis through illness. Giddens (1991: 38) draws on ideas from the egopsychology associated with Erikson – ‘identity’s architect’ (Friedman: 1999) – and the object relations theor y of Winnicott to argue that what they call ‘basic trust’ ‘forms the original nexus from which a combined emotive-cognitive orientation towards others. . In this fashion. to deal with such crises. The essential period is childhood. This prospective stance towards one’s life is accompanied by an ongoing or retrospective ‘narrative of the self ’ understood as those ‘stories by means of which self-identity is re exively understood’ (Giddens 1991: 242). In this area. emerges’.’ relating to future threats and dangers (Giddens 1991: 39). ambivalence and contingency [that] is forced upon us with the relative decline of institutions and organizations in this age of re exive . In a related analysis. in turn. In this fashion. . Lash distinguishes between the construction of identities in the ‘simple’ modernity of earlier periods and the re exive modernity of the present time. becomes a central feature of the structuring of self-identity’ (ibid. According to Giddens (1991: 5): ‘The more tradition loses its hold. and the more daily life is reconstituted in terms of the dialectical interplay of the local and the global. the reliability of others. high modernity relies upon the intervention of expert systems of trained professionals. society is disempowered and deskilled in vital areas of intimate life and the acquisition and maintenance of identity becomes both increasingly problematic and the preserve of external and impersonal expert systems. possessed by traditional societies. the object-world. and in the surrounding social environment. ‘re exively organized lifeplanning . anxiety or alienation. This in turn involves the ‘sequestration of experience’ by these expert systems as individuals and civil society lose the capacity. Central to Giddens’s notion of self-identity is trust. is ‘the self as re exively understood by the individual in terms of his or her biography’ (Giddens 1991: 244). deviance. This trust delivers an empowering con dence in the continuity of the self. . Whereas social actors in the former come under the sway of pre-given rules sourced in social institutions. Other analysts have called this apparatus of identity management the ‘psy-complex’. A stable self-identity is established as the basis for ongoing interaction in a constantly changing and unpredictable world. which relieves sustains a sense of ‘ontological security’ in the face of ‘the chaos that threatens on the other side of the ordinariness of everyday conventions’ (Giddens 1991: 37). this is no longer possible in re exive modernity. and selfidentity.The crisis of ‘identity’ in high modernity 7 theor y of individuation. the more individuals are forced to negotiate lifestyle choices [from] among a diversity of options’. . de ned as a institutional and discursive ‘network of speculations about the behaviour and mental states of individuals and as a range of attempts to regulate how people behave and think’ (Parker 1997: 123). People must live with the ‘risk .). Self-identity.

what exactly it is that shifts.). as Heelas (1996: 4) explains. In a detraditionalized society. They must innovate rules in a bricolage of their own identities’ (Lash 1999: 3). rather than being at stake for discursive controversy. critically re ect upon. are being shaped by the con icting trends of globalization and identity’. On the other hand. but to all traditions. In this type of analysis. or socio-biological identities. the emphasis shifts in the theorization of identity: identity is no longer seen as involving the self ’s non-re ective and unquestioning ‘inscription’ within a tradition. change and development. Rather than being something arrived at in a predetermined way and then sustained. following the contours of each culture. transformed material foundations of life. and lose their faith in what the traditional has to offer’ (ibid. or forms the substrate upon which the shift takes place is left unclear. For example. and consequently. and our lives. national. It involves a shift from the non-re ective. Castells (1997: 2) believes that this profound transformation is being powerfully challenged by ‘the widespread surge of powerful expressions of collective identity’. As with Giddens. Bendle judgement’. questioning those discourses which serve to legitimate the order of things’. where ‘people have acquired the opportunity to stand back from. Lash offers a similar analysis in a major study of the various aspects of ‘detraditionalization’ in high modernity (Heelas. and of historical sources of formation of each identity’. however. and increasingly make use of the media and telecommunications . identity is constructed under the conditions of re exivity. They may be progressive or reactionary. we have ‘the network society’. space and time. religious. Lash is suggesting that identities are constructed in a pragmatic fashion out of whatever material lies at hand. highly diversi ed. Upon what psychological substrate such a transient construction rests and how it mobilizes the energies that are observably necessary to maintain an integrated personality in dynamic conditions of social change is not explained. These identities are ‘multiple. the transformation of capitalism. . be they gender. and characterized by exibility and instability of work.8 Mervyn F. territorial. identity appears many times as a key component of the social dynamics discussed by the various authors. There. . On one hand. network forms of organization. a ‘culture of real virtuality’ based on complex media systems. individualization of labour. Indeed. and the rise of new cosmopolitan ruling elites. Lash and Morris 1996). Again. and the demise of statism. identity becomes an ongoing project of construction. ethnic. ‘individuals must nd the rules to use to encounter speci c situations. identity forms one of the organizing polarities of Castells’ (1997: 1) analysis of the Information Age: ‘our world. in traditional societies those who attempt to speak out-of-place are invalidated: ‘Identities are inscribed. passive level of acceptance and acquiescence to the meta-level of active re exivity and critique. rather it is seen in terms of the self ’s acquisition of a re ective and critical capacity not only with respect to the particular prevailing tradition. generated by technological revolution. By invoking Levi-Strauss’s notion of ‘bricolage’. the authorial taken-for-grantedness of identities precludes .

The crisis of ‘identity’ in high modernity 9 systems. and late modernity: namely. and by themselves. which involves the construction of new identities that imply the transformation of the overall social structure. with their precise relationships re ecting the prevailing level of social development. In this fashion. Identity is therefore seen as an active process of construction. and the remainder of his book is an attempt to explore this possibility in its . and Castells (1997: 7) de nes ‘meaning’ as ‘the symbolic identi cation by a social actor of the purpose of her/his action’. is the most important. which supports systems of domination. are not built any longer on the basis of civil societies. which re ects the struggles of those marginalized by those systems. resistance identity. and construct their meaning around this internalization’. Individual identity is constructed on the basis of cultural attributes that are given priority over other sources of meaning by the actor herself. and subjects. At present. and while dominant social institutions and social roles may be primar y sources of meaning. in this sense. at the heart of the process of social change. civil society composed of the market and its legitimizing institutions. This echoes Lash’s ‘bricolage of identities’. Indeed. constructed through a process of individuation’. Castells (1997: 7) cites Calhoun (1994) to the effect that self-knowledge is always a construction made in encounter with others. takes a different route to the one we knew during modernity. and invokes Giddens (1991) to claim that ‘identities are sources of meaning for the actors themselves. which seek to stand outside of markets and communities. if and when constructed. In these two sets of triads. these identities ‘challenge globalization and cosmopolitanism on behalf of cultural singularity and people’s control over their lives and environment’ (Castells 1997: 2). the related notions of project identity and the transformative subject appear as the superior forms emerging out of the others. Castells’ model of identity postulates an individual constituted by a primary identity that is self-sustaining across time and space and that organizes subsidiar y identities and social roles according to criteria of meaning. and project identity. Apart from Erikson and ego-psychology. Castells is proposing a radical communitarian politics of identity as the path towards full subjecthood. the particular form any identity might take is a question of power relationships and Castells speci es three main types: legitimizing identity. but as prolongation of communal resistance’. These three types of identity give rise to three corresponding modes of collectivity: respectively. communities formed through collective resistance to marginalization by market processes. are committed to the project of social transformation rather than just resistance. However. that are in the process of disintegration. subjects. community. to globalization (Castells 1997: 11). the second form of collective identity formation. Overall. it is the central hypothesis of his book that ‘the constitution of subjects. (Castells 1997: 10) Subjects. while constituting ‘the collective social actor through which individuals reach holistic meaning in their experience’. they only form part of an individual’s identity ‘when and if social actors internalize them.

Re exive awareness . as we shall see in a moment. gay rights and feminism. around more progressive principles of social life. the self may be exhaustively de ned in terms of cognition and re exivity: ‘to be a human being is to know . both analytical and continental. . and the reasons for. militias. if asked. agents are normally able. . Absent however. environmentalism. . a belief that oppression. exploitation and suffering. particularly with respect to the third ideal type of identity formation – that of project identity – which is presented as emerging most forcefully in the face of considerable adversity. Bendle various guises. . both what one is doing and why one is doing it . As McDonald (1999: 210) puts it. struggle and resistance can lead to personal growth and empowerment. . There is also a strong element of romanticism in these theories of identity. religious cults. which gives abundant evidence of the power of non-rational forces (Glover: 1999). such a sense of identity ‘seems to be most powerfully present when expressed as an experience of suffering or the inability to make sense of identity’. psychoanalysis suggests a more sombre outcome. is the crucial historicism of Marxism. commonality of interests. and by important streams of psychology. CRITIQUE We turn now from a critical review of these representative modernist theories of identity to some further critical comments about them that are best treated together. To adopt a Durkheimian . Although this generally accords with the ‘cognitive revolution’ in psychology and narrativist theories of identity construction. the behaviour in which they engage’. there is a voluntarism operating at two levels: at the level of the individual constructing the relevant identity. including guerilla movements. . position is resolutely rationalistic and while identity can be seen as plastic and uid. Giddens’s (1991 35). . .10 Mervyn F. which links revolution and liberation with the internal dynamics of history and reason. Instead. Giddens’s model also represents a major shift away from classical sociological theories of identity formation. but also by Nietzsche and major streams of modern philosophy. to provide discursive interpretations of the nature of. it is essentially a retreat to a Cartesian view of the self that was undermined not just by psychoanalysis. and at the aggregate level of individuals working together to achieve change. Castells’s model shares much with the analyses of Touraine and Dubet. is characteristic of all human action . It is also inconsistent with our growing knowledge of the role of the emotions (Elster: 1999) and the historical experience of the twentieth century. One detects in this type of formulation an echo of the utopian Marxist notion of a revolutionar y workingclass consciousness emerging out of a shared experience of group identity. It is found ‘among groups who are dominated and for whom subjective experience is a problem more than a resource [and where] there is a struggle for subjectivation that points to a recomposition of the social world’.

and by marginalizing traditional sociological approaches. traditional expectations nor shared systems of norms. environmentalism. without which a person’s self is profoundly weakened and easily threatened. one has an “inner sameness and continuity” which others can recognize and which is so certain that it can unselfconsciously be taken for granted’ (Coles 1970: 165). this sense of identity accrues from birth and especially in the second and third decades. This is a very good example of how sociology cannot uncritically appropriate key terms from psychoanalysis or psychology without the risk of importing fundamental dif culties into their analysis. Both these models place a strong emphasis on socialization and the reproduction of the social system. . Indeed. and risk management under uncertainty. This is signi cant because Erikson (1968: 22) always insisted on the central conception of identity theor y – that identity is ‘a process ‘located’ in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture’. it is not clear that an adequate awareness of the constraints associated with the vital integrative and existentially constitutive role played by the presence of a stable core identity exists in the work of Castells. his formulation derives much from Erikson. Giddens.The crisis of ‘identity’ in high modernity 11 formulation for the purposes of illustration. is embedded in a shared system of norms and values which guide decision-making in an open system of organic solidarity and conditions of ongoing change and increasing complexity. . this model of the re exive strategic actor is easily accommodated within the ideology of the new ‘mode of social management’. the traditional personality was embedded in a comprehensive system of collective expectations about behaviour within a closed system of mechanical solidarity. cults. At the very least. feminism. militias. but rather information derived from the environment by the actor and processed according to rules of calculation. Erikson recognized the essential need for a subjective sense of continuous existence and a coherent memory. that is. Giddens’s alternative model assumes that the primary determinants of behaviour are neither social institutions. reference to this meaning – a person’s sense of sameness and continuity’.. strategic assessment of constraints and opportunities.g. providing the individual with bedrock con dence ‘that somehow in the midst of change one is. This seems a signi cant retreat for sociology. Although Castells claims to be concerned with collective rather than individual identity. identi ed by Touraine. ‘where strategy and exibility replace norms and function’ (McDonald 1999: 208). The modern personality. instrumental rationality. gay liberation.) impact upon this process of intergenerational identity formation in a manner that supports the progressive outcomes they favours. etc. on the other hand. Moreover. as Yankelovich and Barrett (1971: 126) make clear: ‘Whenever Erikson discusses identity he makes . This conception of the continuing self-sameness of identity is central to this entire stream of thought. or the many other writers cited above who assume an optimistic view of the self ’s . Castells and those who follow this approach would need to show how the various social movements discussed (e.

This tradition developed primarily in the USA under the in uence of Anna Freud. . Indeed. By allowing the term to become generalized and imprecise. ignoring the psychoanalytic insight that such an ideal view of the ego is in effect a form of narcissism. In succumbing to this lack of theoretical rigour and choosing to ignore the potential existence of deeply embedded. which re ected a vastly different experience of modernity throughout the twentieth centur y to that which prevailed in post-war America and is much more likely to conceive of the self in terms . ‘identity’ becomes an elastic categor y that can be made to accommodate whatever requirements the overall argument demands of it.12 Mervyn F. it utilizes a very shallow and under-theorized model of the human personality that radically generalizes the notion of identity. identity or identities are taken fully to constitute the self. However. which therefore has no real presence nor inhers in any thing other than these transient and uid identities. It also postulated that the ego possessed a degree of freedom from psychic con ict that made rational adaptation to the environment possible without disabling disturbance from irrational psychic forces. possibly repressed or unconscious constraints on psychological and social adaptation. Bendle capacity to adapt to the challenges posed by globalization and its effects. This position contrasts with the European tradition of thinking in this eld. Such constructionism is a strength in so far as it avoids pessimism about the intractability of social problems and provides for maximum human adaptation and hope for the future. they tend to assume an extreme plasticity of the self that dissolves any real conception that there exists an ongoing core or substrate to the personality at all. Indeed. Whereas psychoanalysis had previously emphasized the dif culties that the ego faces in attempting to minimize anxiety in the face of ongoing psychic con ict. The goal of therapy therefore became the attainment of a strong. healthy. it is nowhere’(Brubaker and Cooper (2000: 1). it loses all conceptual power. . A further point arises. the constructionist tendency to relieve ‘identity’ of any suggestion of essentialism and to make it uid and multiple ‘leaves us without a rationale for talking about “identities” at all and ill-equipped to examine the “hard” dynamics and essentialist claims of contemporary identity politics . Heinz Hartmann and then Erikson and modi ed the psychoanalytic model by maintaining that the ego could become autonomous and equivalent to the id in the determination of behaviour. well-adapted ego. Indeed. if identity is ever ywhere. ego-psychology asserted the ego’s capacity freely to adapt to internal and external challenges. This becomes a particularly important issue when identity is theorized to be fragmented and multiple and the question arises as to what sustains a continuity of self in a world where such continuity is increasingly imperative. these theories re ect the nal decay of the ego-psychology that has signi cantly in uenced their development. dissipates its analytical power and is particularly weakened by the absence of an adequate depth psychology with its alertness to profound and possibly intractable psychic con icts with important implications for the identities concerned.

In fact. As Lacan (1977: 236) points out: ‘it is hardly a question of adapting to [reality]. Lacan emphasized the extent to which the ‘self ’ and ‘reality’ are not ‘natural’ entities but products of the symbolic order. ‘natural’ developments within human histor y to which people unproblematically can adapt. Rather than viewing identity as a comparatively unproblematic project of adaptation to social change. especially those analyses that regard detraditionalization and globalization as unproblematic. and so the problems that exist there exemplify the depth of the problems that exist generally in the sociological use of ‘identity’. Lacan’s criticized ego-psychology because its stress on the ego’s adaptive function overlooks the ego’s own state of alienation and also relies on the assumption that ‘reality’ itself is an unproblematic realm to which adaptation can be made. and therefore lack any ‘natural t’ that can be legitimately pursued through therapy. In particular. practical and discursive consciousness. Moreover. Giddens (1984: 41) offers his ‘strati cation model’ of the mind as consisting of a ‘basic security system’. Possibly the most in uential critique of ego-psychology was that undertaken throughout his career by Lacan. the boundaryless nature of globalist expansion and the radically unproblematic ‘plastic self ’ are prime expressions of the imaginar y psychic register. Indeed. Instead. Indeed Lacan’s own position and the in uence he has had not only within psychoanalysis and other elds but within postmodernism and post-structuralism generally cannot properly be understood in isolation from the ego-psychology that he so vehemently attacked. for Lacan – following Hegel on this point – reality is substantially a product of the ego’s own projections and misrepresentations. Giddens wants his model of the self to possess a ready capacity for adaptation to large-scale external change and therefore gives little recognition to the constraining signi cance of internal psychological con ict and ambivalence. at least as it is understood within the psychoanalytic tradition. . he recognizes no signi cant role for the unconscious at all. Indeed. since it assists in the construction of that ver y reality’. the original psychoanalytic tradition is alert to the trauma of social change: ‘Sensitized to the ravages of weak and threatened egos [it] sees identity in this sense as a tremendous achievement – made horribly clear in those who lack it’ (Yankelovich and Barrett 1971: 126). but to show that [the ego] is only too well adapted [already]. Of the sociological theorists discussed here. Giddens makes the best effort to relate his analyses to leading psychological and psychoanalytic work in this area.The crisis of ‘identity’ in high modernity 13 of con ict and tendencies towards fragmentation. Much of the sociology discussed here could even be seen as a projection of fantasies about the nature of the world and the self that are taken as realities. who saw it as the antithesis of true psychoanalysis. are consequently radically de-natured. The same point could be made mutatis mutandis with respect to sociology. if this situation is ignored and adaptation is nevertheless pursued then the therapist is placed in a dif cult position in which her own vision and relation to ‘reality’ is accepted as given. In Lacanian terms.

). the living organism. because he (mistakenly) takes this to imply multiple forms of agency within the consciousness of the self. Instead. the agent (and ‘mini-agency’). which ignores the limitations to such empowerment identi ed painstakingly over many decades by the psychoanalytic and other traditions that are prepared to explore the depths of the self. the main problem of life is managing paranoid anxieties that one’s ver y existence is endangered. Although Winnicott moved away from Klein. In fact. the ‘overall human subject’. beset by anxiety and guilt. However. Giddens draws not only on ego-psychology but also on Winnicott’s object relations theor y to discuss ‘ontological security and existential anxiety’ in his major work on identity (Giddens 1991: 35ff. dynamic. ‘does not make sense’. It is therefore dif cult here to resist Mestrovic’s (1998: 83) claim that ‘Gidden’s alternative to Freud is completely vague and amounts to a cognitive. as unstable. and uid. Like Klein. ego. however. he emphasized that the earliest years are absolutely critical if this tendency is to be overcome and crucial here is the quality of mothering provided. psychoticlike terrors. an idealized vision of human empowerment’. (Giddens 1991: 49–51) This is good example of the loss of theoretical rigour that characterizes contemporary discussions of identity. and as always responsive to “deep” analytic interpretations’ (Mitchell and Black 1995: 88). The ‘I’ has no image. and lacks a sustaining sense of self. and super-ego. and the self – all bound together through the operation of ‘re exivity’. to invoke a dark vision of the mind ‘as beset with deep. the actor. She developed her own system in terms of what she called the ‘paranoid–schizoid’ position. in which the person is torn by internal con ict. By the ‘agent’ or ‘actor’ I mean the overall human subject located within the corporeal time-space of the living organism. He focused on the type of psychopathology he called ‘false self disorder’. which arises in the earliest years and serves to protect the self from anxiety and fear of malevalent invasion and violation by splitting the self and the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ segments. who was his supervisor. In his use of psychoanalysis. his own system never shed this emphasis on the intractably tragic dimension of the human person. The self. It is the sum of those forms of recall whereby the agent re exively characterizes ‘what’ is at the origin of his or her action.14 Mervyn F. he offers his own conception of personality structure: The ‘I’ is an essential feature of the re exive monitoring of action but should be identi ed neither with the agent nor with the self. Bendle Indeed. Giddens (1984: 42) concluded that the psychoanalytic structure of id. the image. The self is the agent as characterized by the agent. Maternal failure . We nd in this one short passage the following notions: the ‘I’. as the self does. Winnicott had begun his psychoanalytic career as a follower of Melanie Klein. Klein’s view of the human person had moved a long way from Freud’s. he tends to mis-state or downplay considerably the implications of the theories that he invokes. is not some kind of mini-agency within the agent. rationalist caricature of the agent [that constitutes] an ideological catch-all. For Klein.

he himself invokes – has for the complexities of child-rearing and identity formation under globalization. Finally. has a ver y different intent from that proposed in object relations theory’. ‘identity’ is a cultural and historical artifact peculiar to Western modernity and re ecting underlying processes of social change. . Again Giddens’s problem parallels that of Castells. in addition to these problems produced by an insuf ciently critical appropriation and application of psychoanalytical theories in sociology. That theory emphasizes above all else the profoundly important role for healthy mental development played by parents and expecially mothers in child-rearing – can this role really be taken up by ‘caretakers’ in a globalized society? (Giddens 1991: 39) And is the psychological cost worth paying if the only results are low-paid. Object relations theory follows psychoanalysis generally in focusing on the most intimate areas of human life. identity only became a major issue in Western societies from around 1800. psychoanalytic theor y. the decline of feudalism. after all. In this he parallels Castells’ situation described above. it is actually quite a distance away from his own position. in the shadow of the Enlightenment. there is the underlying issue of the historicity of ‘identity’ itself. in this model there is no romantic valorization of such psychic fragmentation. These continue to be only partially understood and many of their most critical dynamics may be far more intractable to radical change than advocates of globalization might like. . with its sophisticated theories of discourse and ideology should be alert to. with its underlying optimism and expectation that human beings can adapt readily to radical social change. which are seen as pivotal for the healthy development of human identity. As Baumeister (1986) shows. As Elliot (1994: 74) summarizes his assessment of Gidden’s work in this area: ‘Giddens’s whole vocabulary of self-organization . and needs fully to confront the implications that object relations theory – which. Despite Giddens’s invocation of this type of psychoanalytical theory. a problem that sociology.40). Signi cantly. the . stable identity as a relatively unproblematic undertaking. has always problematized all such notions that the self can be ‘normalized’ like this. While the psychoanalytic tradition stresses the deeply rooted fragmented nature of self-experience and the self ’s profound underlying anxiety and dread at the threat of dissolution and engulfment. and sees such issues merely metaphorically in terms of ‘emotional innoculation’ and ‘protective cocoon’ (Giddens 1991: 39. including object relations theory. Whereas Giddens regards the construction of an ongoing. the Industrial and Democratic Revolutions. insecure jobs in a global labour force? As Elliot (1994: 75) concludes: ‘Giddens’s theor y pays too little attention to the ways in which social systems of modernity dis gure and warp the unconscious constitution of the self’. In fact.The crisis of ‘identity’ in high modernity 15 creates a lacuna in the child’s psychological development from which it can never fully recover and which expresses itself in a split between the ‘true’ and ‘false’ self that cannot be reconciled – lack of integration and discontinuity of experience come to characterize life. Giddens pays little real heed.

community.) were delegitimized.. This situation was then compounded by the in uence of Foucault and Lacan and the rise of poststructuralist and postmodern theories of the identity that emphasized uidity. Bendle erosion of religious authority and the rise of Romanticism. moral virtue. . The underlying value consensus of society was disintegrating and it became increasingly incumbent on the individual herself to fashion an integrating worldview. by the 1990s the concept of identity had become so variegated that it was crippled by a lack of conceptual rigour. employment. whilst those that had provided a sense of differentiation (ancestry. Identity is a theory of the self associated with an inadequate contextual framework and with a concept that injudiciously blends reality and unreality’. creating a crisis of identity for a vast section of society. What was required was a model of the self that provided a sense of continuous personal self-sameness over time while allowing for adaptation to rapid social change and differentiation. social rank. . psychoanalysts from other schools systematically attacked ego-psychology’s theoretical foundations. As Baumeister (1986: 265) concluded his study of the histor y of the concept of identity: ‘a nal reason for the problematic nature of identity can . as we have seen above. fragmentation and multiplicity. and there was a general shift towards neuroscience and psycho-pharmacology in the study and treatment of mental illness. Modernity destabilized and delegitimized existing external social structures: factors that underpinned a sense of continuity (geography. cultural and psychological preparations that might normally have been expected to precede its formation. religion.16 Mervyn F. gender. be suggested. which has now become so acute for psychoanalysis as well as for our civilization as a whole’ (Yankelovich and Barrett 1971: 14). Consequently. etc. Subsequently. there has been a ‘hyper-differentiation’ under high modernity and globalization that makes a stable identity even more desperately sought after and more dif cult to achieve. etc. This process intensi ed during the twentieth century and was exacerbated by the apparently irresistible expansion of postwar capitalism and consumerism. etc. Erikson’s interdisciplinar y approach exposed him to claims that his work lacked rigour. Critiques came from various quarters: Marxists and other radicals attacked ego-psychology’s simplistic political understanding and its assumption that adaptation to society was a worthy goal.) were destabilized. . It is therefore a fact of some signi cance for the assessment of the theories of identity of Giddens. feminists detected gender bias. . that Erikson’s status quickly declined after this high point of in uence in the 1960s (Friedman 1999). class. . Castells. Modernity produced a mass middle class whose sudden af uence outpaced the social. It was also within this context that Erikson rose to great prominence. ranking with Anna Freud and Heinz Hartmann in a 1966 poll as one of the three most outstanding psychiatrists or psychoanalysts of their time – a result notable for their shared commitment to ego-psychology and ‘the problem of the continuing “I” .

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