Identity Crisis

The Hastings Center Report, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Identity Crisis


The psychologist Erik Erickson first popularized the term "identity" in the 1950s to describe the sense of self that individuals are supposed to possess. Since then, the term has taken on so many meanings as to become almost meaningless--or in the words of author Robert Coles, "the purest of cliches."

Yet one meaning that theorists who concern themselves with identity--and its handmaiden, memory--seem to agree on is that the two are not fixed realities, but subjective constructions: identities change to suit revised memories; memories are revised to conform to refashioned identities.

Genetic research has added a new twist to the discourses on identity, as Dena Davis describes in this issue in the article "Genetic Research and Communal Narratives." For many, DNA represents the objective evidence they crave when trying to ascertain once and for all "where they come from" and "who they are." DNA is reliable; it tells us who the father or who the murderer is. Identity in this view is fixed, not fluid. The iconography of DNA and the rhetoric of certitude that attaches to it in the public domain lend genetic research an authority that family trees and narrative genealogies sometimes have trouble competing with. DNA is science, the thinking goes. A family story is not, and is susceptible to the vagaries of memory.

But as Davis shows, genetic research is as much subject to cultural forces as traditional communal narratives of origin. …

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