Why Should We Care About Identity?

I’m excited that next week i will be sharing the Identity Project work for the very first time in a conference session. This is very early stage work, but i feel it can already provide some useful challenges and insight. As part of my preparation for the session, today i am considering how ‘Identity’ fits into the broader jigsaw: or to put it another way, why should we care about identity?

As a reminder, i am running ‘The Identity Project’ through Q3 and Q4 2022 to interview 50 people about the three identities central to who they are, and then exploring how those identities formed, how they interact, and who gets to see them all, as well as a range of other questions about online vs face to face, and the mechanisms and timeframes for identity to change.

One simple answer is that we should care, because people care: in all my interviews so far, people have been deeply invested in the questions. A number have spent hours preparing, and most people say they could talk for much longer. Identity, to state what may be obvious, is seen as deeply personal, and something that shapes our everyday thoughts and action. Although interestingly not universally seen as precious.

In prototype work like this, one of the things i seek to do is to discover what everyone sees broadly the same, and where divergent opinions can be found. How precious our identity is is one of those areas of divergence.

Some people see it as owned, precious, and fragile. Others describe it as held by others, disposable in the moment, and robust, with all the permutations thereof. This in itself is important, because change is often an act of violence against identity, itself held within systems of reputation, power, and connection, and hence it indicates that change is harder for some than others, perhaps because of how closely their identity is tied into their work.

Some people describe themselves as an open book, some describe wildly separated identities (indeed, ones that would come together at great personal cost), whilst others typically say that a small group of their most trusted friends or family get to see them all. They typically name one to three people. This is important as a lens onto the roles of trust, but also the ways that identity may be held separately and hence give access to different communities.

This notion of separation is one of the reasons i came to this research in the first place: identity gives access to communities, and within those communities to our ‘sense making’ entities. 

With conversations about inclusion, diversity, equity, and equality, at the fore in many Organisations, it’s interesting to hear how people describe their own views, hopes, and fears, about ‘bringing their whole self to work. Potentially a better language would be ‘bringing your safest self’, or ‘bringing the relevant self’ to work. Even in my preliminary interviews, some people actively describe tensions and fear about the ‘discovery’ of an identity, or the supposed desire to ‘pull’ it into the limelight. Not least because some people are not sure of what their identity is right now. For some, they know what they have left behind, but not what they have found.

We can tie the Identity work out to the broader work on Culture: as culture is a tribal phenomena, and a belief based one, identity is relevant, because some forms of identity are themselves collective. This view, of culture as identity, can give us some insight into change as well: perhaps we can focus more on change as an evolution of identity, as opposed to an evolution of structure.

This work is very early stage, but so far is providing the interest and insight that i had hoped for: indeed, more so than i had hoped for. I feel lucky to hear these stories, and privileged to share them.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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