An immediate issue is that “identity” is in common usage across mass media, popular culture, news platforms, academia and the third sector. This broad usage means that the term is imbued with pre-existing interpretations. People who have never studied identity can have strong views on its nature, and people who have studied identity tend to focus on elements relevant to the discipline or approach that they have studied. All of this can present challenges for teams working on projects where identity is at the centre of the workflow.
Another issue is that professionals bring different interpretations of identity depending on their professional background, expertise, objectives and remit. For example, a researcher’s definitions and objectives can differ to a caseworker or policymaker. This can present a barrier to getting on the same page in a project environment. Given that there are many different ways to define and think about identity, it is advisable for professionals at all levels to review and acknowledge the features of identity that are pertinent to all conflict contexts.
The following exercise has been designed in order to distill down multiple views and observations on identity into some core conflict-relevant insights.
Exercise: Defining Key Identity Features
- Preparing the exercise: Write several features of identity on multicoloured card, leaving some cards blank.
- The purpose of this exercise is to think about creating an “ideal hand of cards” that relate to the group’s collective experience and the identity features you discuss.
- Start off by sharing the information on the cards provided to your group.
- Use the cards to talk about features of identity you have encountered, or expect to encounter, in your work. Be aware of the different views of the other participants and question yourself and them on how their profession (e.g., NGO, artist, academic/researcher, policymaker, informant) may be influencing their choices and insights.
- Think about what features are most relevant in different cultural and conflict contexts. Are there any that apply to all contexts.
- You may find that you have statements about identity that are not included in the cards. Use the blank cards to write down your own features or uses of identity.
- Present your “ideal hand” to the wider group at the end of the exercise, explaining how the statements fit together to produce a shared framework for thinking about, and working with, identity and conflict.
INSIGHTS: The Complexity of Identity
When conducting the above exercise, there are several key insights about identity to keep in mind. These may influence the identity framework produced by the group.
- Multiple nature. Identity is not one-dimensional and can incorporate many aspects simultaneously. For example, gender, age, religion, class, nationality, sexuality, family, hobbies and many other characteristics can form one’s identity at once.
- Self/society connection. Identity entails a link between a person’s sense of self and the way that society views them. This connects internal and external components that impact upon identity.
- Structure/Agency dynamic. Identity involves an interplay between structure and agency. People have some control (agency) over defining their own identity. Equally, identity can be imposed upon people by structural factors such as culture, politics, economic situation, or religion. The extent to which people have a choice in defining and expressing their own identities is dependent upon how strong or limiting these structural factors are.
- Emotional basis. Identity is deeply felt. It can evoke strong emotional feelings and reactions in people, that can sometimes lead to certain behaviours and actions.
- Embodied quality. Identity manifests in everyday practices, rituals, behaviour, bodily gestures and habits.
- Fluid mobilisation. Identity can be mobilised by individuals and groups for a variety of different ends.
- Analytical and cultural bias. As with the Structure/Agency dimension noted above, it is important to realise the extent to which external factors (e.g. foriegn policies of other nations, oppressive government or law or social/cultural factors) are impacting an individual’s or population’s ability to shape identity. Seeking to attain an ethnographic or “locals point of view” perspective can be critical to gaining an understanding of the factors and dimensions in play that offsets analytical and cultural bias.