Anthropologists need to be very cautious when talking about ‘identity’. For several reasons.
Firstly, ‘identity’ is such a catch-all term that almost anything can come within its compass. A seemingly empty vessel fillable with almost any content, it can be used as a general framing device for a surprising range of ethnographic data. Some might think this a strength of the term, its versatility and possible extension being of potential benefit to social anthropology. After all, they might argue, key concepts are always inherently vague. The trouble is, adopting this style may well lead to us anthropologists imposing our notion of identity upon unmarked aspects of others’ cultures. The danger is that we may extol or assiduously analyse a part of others’ lives which they themselves regard either as of little importance, or as not just restricted to themselves but common to many. We start to find symbols where none at present exists. Perilous procedure this, for the resulting ethnography may tell us more about the imaginative power, the classificatory ingenuity of its author than about the way the people studied regard themselves. And who, may I ask, is more interested in studying anthropologists themselves than in studying what they have to say?
Secondly ‘identity’, as an abstract noun, may well make some think of an entity with clear boundaries to be traced and sharp contours to be defined. It may well make some think of an entity fixed in time or coasting through it, impervious to vicissitudes. Yet it was Fredrick Barth (1969) who argued over thirty years ago that identity is essentially relational: that to study an identity, one must look at what it is defined against, and how that definition may change over time. Thirdly, as a noun, it may appear to some as agent-less, autonomous and sufficient unto itself, as though benefiting from a preordained independence. This does not square with the ethnographic record (see, e.g. Eriksen 1993). Fourthly, as an abstract noun, it tends often to be used in the singular, as though plural identities were the exception, not the commonplace that they here are. Among other commentators, MacClancy (1996) has underlined the fallacy of this misuse. Fifthly, ‘identity’ is usually regarded as an unproblematic category, rather than as one fragmented in nature and constantly challenged. MacClancy (1997) exposed just how untenable that position is in the contemporary world.
For all these sorts of reasons and in these contexts, ‘identity’ is a very tricky concept for anthropologists to employ. It appears to be an unjustifiably arbitrary manner of delineating others’ lives in academic terms. An over-simplifier of complex realities its use runs the risk of turning the abstract into the substantial, of sculpting a shape out of the almost formless, and of playing fast and loose with the temporal dimension. Of course this does not mean we should not study how others deploy the concept. Far from it. Being aware of these potential pitfalls should make us more sensitive to the ways others use the term.
Perhaps then, best for anthropologists to study others’ exploitation of ideas about identity but to talk among themselves of ‘modes of identification’. The change is not merely semantic. It has numerous advantages. First, it shifts attention from the static to the dynamic, from focussing on a particular point in time to watching the evolutions of the processual. Second, it takes us from an over-concern with the singular to a challenging emphasis on the plural: I say challenging, because it forces those who wish to claim a solitary mode of identification to argue their case, to persuade us why they think there is only one such mechanism operating within their research area. Third, its use pushes aside a pseudo-autonomous ‘identity’ for the sake of reintroducing, in a fully integrated manner, the roles, motivations and actions of agents in any identificatory process. On this account ‘identities’ do not simply exist, as though floating independently through the ether rather, individuals or groups initiate or perform actions in particular contexts for identificatory purposes. Fourth, by making us observe how the locals shift and swerve, trying to negotiate the deployment of these modes, study of them helps us overcome the above worries about imposing categories on others. For what we would be doing here is not foisting categories of our own device on the locals, but observing the ways they use their own categories, to what end, to what effect. Here we would be tracing the means employed by others to isolate an identifiable identity within the global flows of today, which otherwise threaten to carry all with them. I recognize that it is easier to conduct this kind of research in areas where local notions of ‘identity’ have become deeply politicized than in places where political conflict has not taken quite that form.