Musings on identity – a social scientist’s perspective

When SPRITE+ originally put out a call for expert fellows linked to any aspects of the TIPS agenda, I filled in the form from my own perspective – a social scientist, focused on links between language, identity, and belonging. In my own research, identity is a “squishy” thing, constantly evolving, linked to the communities we feel connected to. Of course, I was aware of identity theft, proof of identity, etc., but I somewhat feared that the way I consider identity might very much be in the minority within the project community…but is it?

Over the past year or so, since the beginning of SPRITE+, I have had the opportunity to engage – both through SPRITE+ events and through our own, project-organised meet-ups –  with NGOs, researchers, and companies. As part of these exchanges, I have begun to reconcile the various aspects of “identity”. Proving “who you are” is not as static as it might seem, and we heard examples of this from the transgender community and the refugee community as part of our meetings. On a personal level, as a European immigrant, I also had to wrestle with the idea that “Proof of Settled Status” is not given to the individual who might need the proof, but lives, intangibly, in a computer only, an unsettling (pun intended) concept. If I extrapolate (from my, and other research) that our identity is confirmed, as least in part, through a sense of belonging, then what does it do to someone’s sense of belonging if a government is unwilling to hand the individual the tools to prove that they do, indeed, belong? I suppose this is where the “Trust” and the “Identity” aspects merge and become blurry, raising questions around power imbalances within the TIPS agenda.

In fact, our group is called “Digital Technologies, Power and Control”, and as such has strong links to social justice ideologies – how can, does, and should technology support our identity? When we use social media, for example, we not only create a digital footprint, but we curate our identities through every photo we post, every comment we make. Essentially, we build an online portfolio of ourselves – our “selves”, our identity. If our sense of identity changes, while legally, the Right to Be Forgotten (UK: Right to Erasure) is in place, in reality, erasing or changing our identity to one that corresponds better to our current sense of self is a lot trickier. Technology, however, also gives us the opportunity to affirm our identity – for example through assistive technologies that allow us to access content, goods, places, or knowledge that might otherwise be out of reach. It also has the power to connect, support and galvanise marginalised groups, to facilitate that sense of “belonging” that is part of our identity, and potentially, to support activism which may help address power imbalances that are in place.

While our project is still grappling with what the various aspects of the TIPS agenda mean for the marginalised groups we are hoping to work with, it is clear to me that, in order to understand identity, companies and corporations need to engage with those who identify with that identity – with all the “squishiness” that entails.

2 thoughts on “Musings on identity – a social scientist’s perspective

  1. Thanks, it has made me think deeper into the concept of identity, and how fluid it is over our lifetime and the numerous interwoven facets to it. In a world increasingly dominated by online identity, and all the security and social impacts that are happening, it will become increasingly important to understand the landscape of identities and how we protect them and use them safely in various domains. Identity is indeed far more complex than we realise. Here are some of the identities it got me thinking about, all these identities influence and changed each other:
    Unique biological identity markers – face, fingerprints, iris pattern, palmprint, vein patterns, ear shapes
    Internal self-identity – how we fell about ourselves, our inner thoughts and inner voice, unexpressed beliefs, what we mentally hide from the world
    Projected identity – our clothing and footwear, hair-style, the jewellery we wear, tattoos, make-up, the way we move, our body language, our speech
    Physically perceived identity – how others visually perceive us, hear us, respond to us (with or without prejudice), engage with us
    Official Government identities – our birth certificate, address, passport, National Insurance (social security) number, NHS (health/medical) number, driving licence number
    Service identities – the accounts we have with businesses, banks, financial institutes, utilities, insurance companies, retailers
    Public and private online identities – social media, online shopping feedback, online chat, posted pictures and videos, our digital footprint, the online breadcrumbs we leave behind
    Family identity – where we fit with our family, our family role, our family responsibilities
    Community identity – how we engage with our neighbours, engagement with our local community, our hobbies, the groups and sports we engage with, interaction with the local authority, interaction with local healthcare
    Workplace identity – the work we perform, the interaction with colleagues, our influence in our trade, our productive achievements
    Cultural identity – our ethnic background, our cultural beliefs, our religion, the food and drink we create and consume, the music we like
    National identity – pride (or not) in our country, our part in national culture, our wider ethnic influence

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    1. Thanks for your carefully considered comment – you are absolutely right, when I wrote the blog post above, this was in parallel to a more formal literature review (or at least, the introduction to one) which outlines the various aspects of identity as they connect with our work – or *should* connect, in my humble opinion. I have done a fair bit of work around what you call “physical perceived identity”, although I think it goes beyond the physical, into ways in which identities for certain groups are constructed by the media, and disseminated to the wider public. This is pervasive, and touches on “fake news” for example. I haven’t yet finished the literature review yet – the more I think, the more stones I turn over, the more identity-related content pops up…but I’ll keep you posted!

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