At some recent conferences, the issue of identity has cropped up a few times – usually with the underlying assumption that each individual has a core identity. It’s a seductive idea – and one that I’ve seen permeate organisational human resources, the self-help movement and research fields.
The inference taken from that assumption is that our identities are independent of our location or context, that work done to change an identity in one environment will “stick”, transferring to other environments.
But it’s not true. Our identities shift all the time – and our behaviours along with them. They change by location, by environment, by role we’re playing.
Harry Eyres’ recent FT article after a meeting with Amartya Sen hints at this here: “Many hats, not just one”.
To give an example of how plural such affiliations can be, Sen writes that “the same person can be, without any contradiction, a South African citizen, of Asian origin, with Indian ancestry, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a jazz musician, a doctor”, and so on.
(My daughters know that my nationality depends on the shape and size of the ball being used on the screen and whether the sticks on the pitch are 100 metres apart and very tall, or 22 yards apart and waist-high. My patterns of behaviour and attitude will change depending on whether I see myself as being sibling/consultant/facilitator/mentor/offspring or parent.)
That shift between identities can be subtle – but I’ve often thought that, when we want to stress or un-stress a particular behaviour, one of the ways to do so is to look at the roles that generate it – and use that understanding to develop new approaches or interventions.
I love Sen’s phrase in the article “viciousness of single identity politics” that boils someone down to a single role on which a group focuses. By looking farther afield at their other roles, we give them more humanity in our own eyes as well as giving us and them more choices to look at.