Saturday, November 17, 2012

Identity as Social Technology

I've been thinking lately about the idea of identity. And it's occurred to me that most of what we talk about as part of identity is less about "who you are" than about what aspects of yourself you choose to emphasize to connect with others.

Here's an example: anybody can mix whole wheat flour and water, roll it out and add oil, then cook it, eat it, and enjoy it. They could even share the word roti for describing it. But that's just something you eat. It's part of what you do, but not part of your identity.

For me, it's also part of identity because eating roti is a piece of social technology I use to connect myself with other people. It reminds me of my grandfather and of other members of the Gill family. In some sense, it connects me to non-Gill Punjabi who also, presumably, feel a certain emotional and family as well as dietary connection to rotis

Another example: let's say you listen to a song. You may like it or dislike it, but it's only part of your identity if you see your attitude toward the song as being a part of my belonging in a larger group. You may be subconsciously using your dislike for country music, for example, as a way to connect to other urban, sophisticated people and to distance yourself from rural populations in the South and West. Or you may be emphasizing your connection to a certain ideological group by emphasizing your appreciation for related music.

In any case, it seems like whether we're talking about stories, food, values, or practices,the point of most of what we associate with identity is to connect with others.

Which is why I'm a bit puzzled at how much people today seem to want to find a totally unique identity. I mean, every person is already unique--it seems to me that the point of most elements of identity is to counterbalance your natural isolation by building stronger bonds with others.

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