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One has the impression that "identity" is the most widely used concept these days in the social sciences and humanities from which it has passed into popular discourse. In academic sociology, where it is probably most ubiquitous, entire sessions at the annual meetings carry titles like "Identity Construction and Representation" or "Culture and Identity: Selves in Western Culture-History," both real examples. A sociology editor at a leading university press told me the other day that she was swamped with manuscripts entitled the "social construction of ... " this or that, from which one readily concludes that "The Social Construction of Identity" serves as an all-purpose title in current sociology, closely approximated indeed by the first session title cited above. If one could work in a reference to "culture," as in the second example above, one would have covered just about all of the major catchwords that pervade the discourse of social science and social criticism today. "Culture" is, of course, of more an cient provenance than "identity" and "social construction," but it has recently been revived as an all-encompassing label for nearly anything and everything human beings do in association, although half a century ago when I first encountered sociology as a student the field's most advanced practitioners were severe critics of its use as a blanket monocausal term borrowed from anthropology.
Though it has a long history in philosophy, the term "identity" first became widely used in social criticism and commentary in the 1950s. Its origins were in the writings of psychoanalysts as its obvious relation to the important psychoanalytic concept of "identification" suggests. As the more or less stable product of the plural identifications that shape individual character, or at least that segment of it called the "ego" by Freud and his followers, it had a special appeal to those psychoanalysts concerned, in contrast to more orthodox Freudians, with the social and cultural determinants of personality. Erik H. Erikson was more than anyone else the theorist responsible for the popularity of the concept. There is a less than accurate tendency among sociologists to treat the identity concept as a product of Chicago symbolic interactionism, understandable in light of its obvious congruence with that school's emphasis on the self as formed through interaction with others. I recall Erving Goffman in the early sixties expressing to me his admiration for Nigel Dennis's 1955 novel Cards of Identify and being impressed when I told him I had once spent an evening in Dennis's company. One of Goffman's more influential books, Stigma published in 1963, is subtitled "Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity." Goffman drew heavily in his sociology on satirical novels about contemporary life, but he was not the creator, nor ever claimed to be, of identity as a sociological concept. Harry Stack Sullivan's "significant other" which has also passed into popular discourse (mainly as a euphemism for "lover") is another concept of psychoanalytic origin that is frequently misattributed by sociologists to George Herbert Mead, the father of symbolic interactionism.
Sociological appropriation of the term perhaps accounts for the fact that nowadays identity is mainly used to refer to social identities, that is, to identities acquired by membership in organized groups or recognized social categories. The relevant groups or categories are most commonly those of race, gender, or ethnicity to which individuals are initially and more or less permanently ascribed at birth. Erikson regarded identity as an individual's not necessarily fully conscious sense of self, reflecting the continuity of her! his life-history and …