And so it comes about that we begin to conceptualize matters of identity at the very time in history when they become a problem.
(Erik H. Erikson) 1
The term ‘identity’ figures in the title of this book and plays a large role in its argument. I have already used it freely in the preceding chapter. It is time to give an account of it.
While the term is inescapable in recent discussions of culture, politics and social issues, its currency is of relatively recent origin and dates back no further than the 1950s. 2 The responsibility for the vogue in ‘identity’ talk can probably be assigned to the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, 3 who introduced the term as part of his attempt to apply psychoanalytic categories to social and historical issues. For Erikson, the concept of identity referred to the point at which the demands of the developing individual—the adolescent—were met or failed to be met by the forms of social life in which he or she lived. It was Erikson’s influential thesis that modern American society failed to provide the secure sense of adult identity which was necessary for young people to resolve the various conflicts of childhood and adolescence, and this led to what he called an ‘identity crisis’ in which they more or less literally did not know who they were.
It is unlikely that many who use the term these days would wish to be committed too far in the direction of Erikson’s particular brand of psychoanalytic theory. However, his use of the term to propose a nexus between social life and self-conception was seminal. If there is a defensible core underlying the variety of ways in which the term has been used since Erikson, it is the idea that we come to understand who we are through the resources provided for us by the forms of social life within which we exist. More explicitly: we have an identity because we