Theories of Identity

Theoretical Underpinning of identity:

A person’s identity is made up of a series of layers that come from a combination of genes, early nurture and experience as an adult.

Humans are a species that has more capability for conscious thought (as far as we are aware) than any other species on outer planet.  Susan Black says, ‘Humans belong to the group of conscious beings that are carbon-based, solar system dependent, limited in knowledge, prone to error and mortal’ (Black, 2018). As part of our make-up we have an identity, which is part physical, part psychological and part social. Erickson, a behavioural psychologist working in the 1050’s  (quoted in Black, 2018) defined identity as ‘either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and (alleged) characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) socially distinguishing features that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or (a) and (b) at once).’  That is, he is saying that identity is a social construct dependent on the groups you belong to and the things you are interested in. Black, however, argues that the physical identity of a person is equally important and asks, ‘How much alteration can a biological entity sustain while remaining recognisable as the same individual and maintaining its traceable identity?’ (Black, 2019).

Maintaining your identity is important and is emphasised in the multiple stories from around the world of lost, stolen or fake identities both couched as history and as fiction, often in folklore. This means names (as a crucial part of our identity) are central and finding out that our name is ‘fake’ may be very traumatic. Our name and heritage are our base, our bedrock and it should not be made of sand! The importance of our perceived heritage can make a profound impact on who we are.


Our initial identity comes from our genes. Our genetic code is very similar to that of  chimpanzees and the other great apes who are tribal species where the strongest aim to be the leader of the tribe and may be very aggressive in obtaining that goal but when they get there they will often protect the weaker members, while still remaining aggressive to outsiders.


Behaviour is believed to be caused by environment. As humans we absorb the stories that flow around our culture to make sense of who we are and what we want to be. In Europe this follows on from the Ancient Greek tradition of individuality featuring a strong person who aims to be a moral leader. This probably developed from the need to be an entrepreneur, because of the limited pastures and need for each small group of people to be self sufficient. Aristotle shows that individuality was key. There was also frequent engagement with foreigners and different beliefs systems and values that allowed further for the development of individuality (provided you were rich and strong enough). This is thought of as the ‘independent construal – the inherent separateness of distinct persons. (Markus and Kitayama, 1991)

This was very different from ancient China with its wide pastoral areas and need for large projects and grand schemes. Group harmony was paramount rather than individuality. Harmony came from people who knew their place in life and stuck to it. Confucius was a major exponent of this. Identity is part of a group! This concept continues to hold in much of the  Eastern world even today and may lead a very different views of  of who you are and how you should interact with others with a need to consider multiple perspectives and seeing things in a wider context rather than as single objects and a simple right or wrong in the Western world. This as described as the ‘interdependent construal – the fundamental connectedness of human beings to each other’ (Markus and Kitayama, 1991).

There are similar variances in other cultures even on a relatively small scale. Southern USA males are often said to be more belligerent than northern ones, northern Chinese people who live in small communities are said to be more individualistic than southern ones who rely on large communities to work the large paddy fields.

These theories of the development of identity are very broad based and obviously do not explain individual variation but may well underpin some of it.


A person’s identity consists of an internal interpreter which makes up stories to explain why things happen and the underlying emotions and drives. In the modern world, especially in the west, there is an assumption that you can (and should) be a hero. A star of your own story. Be perfect. There is a (wrong) assumption that everybody thinks like you do. This has led to a massive ‘wellness’ industry. It is true that meaningful core projects (work, hobbies, religion – it varies from person to person) do act to improve our well being and are essential to our sense of self identity. However, the self (your identity) is formed from series of overlapping layers that often seeks validation from others. Your ‘self’ changes depending on where you are, your role and on how other people are treating you.

The onset of personal computers and the internet was a game changer. You are visible and have to be the best at everything, perfect or others see that you are not! The problem is that we end up judging others very harshly. No time or space for the underdog. We lose sight of the fact that we a a social species and depend on others and also that what we do impacts on a lot of people. Individual responsibility is a myth. This has led to the development of a new pattern of identity especially in the younger generations. The selfie people, where the ambition is to be known!  Social media plays on that, and also on a the (very basic) need for tribal approval.


How much of our personality is due to genetics? How much nurture? Behaviour is a combination of situation and genes.  People are not all the same. Identity is a core part of your person and is undoubtedly partly secondary to your background. Showing a person’s identity therefore becomes complex. A simple snapshot can only show a fragment, but will a million images tell anything more?


Black, S. (2018). All That Remains. [Place of publication not identified]: BLACK SWAN.

Markus, H. and Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), pp.224-253.

Storr, W. (2017). Selfie. London: Picador.




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