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University of California, Los Angeles
From the SelectedWorks of Rogers Brubaker

January 2000

Beyond 'Identity'

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Available at: http://works.bepress.com/wrb/2

Beyond ``identity''

University of California, Los Angeles; University of Michigan

``The worst thing one can do with words,'' wrote George Orwell a half a century ago, ``is to surrender to them.'' If language is to be ``an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought,'' he continued, one must ``let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.'' 1 The argument of this article is that the social sciences and humanities have surrendered to the word ``identity''; that this has both intellectual and political costs; and that we can do better. ``Identity,'' we argue, tends to mean too much (when understood in a strong sense), too little (when understood in a weak sense), or nothing at all (because of its sheer ambiguity). We take stock of the conceptual and theoretical work ``identity'' is supposed to do and suggest that this work might be done better by other terms, less ambiguous, and unencumbered by the reifying connotations of ``identity.'' We argue that the prevailing constructivist stance on identity ^ the attempt to ``soften'' the term, to acquit it of the charge of ``essentialism'' by stipulating that identities are constructed, £uid, and multiple ^ leaves us without a rationale for talking about ``identities'' at all and ill-equipped to examine the ``hard'' dynamics and essentialist claims of contemporary identity politics. ``Soft'' constructivism allows putative ``identities'' to proliferate. But as they proliferate, the term loses its analytical purchase. If identity is everywhere, it is nowhere. If it is £uid, how can we understand the ways in which self-understandings may harden, congeal, and crystallize? If it is constructed, how can we understand the sometimes coercive force of external identi¢cations? If it is multiple, how do we understand the terrible singularity that is often striven for ^ and sometimes realized ^ by politicians seeking to transform mere categories into unitary and exclusive groups? How can we understand the power and pathos of identity politics? Theory and Society 29: 1^47, 2000. ß 2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

2 ``Identity'' is a key term in the vernacular idiom of contemporary politics, and social analysis must take account of this fact. But this does not require us to use ``identity'' as a category of analysis or to conceptualize ``identities'' as something that all people have, seek, construct, and negotiate. Conceptualizing all a¤nities and a¤liations, all forms of belonging, all experiences of commonality, connectedness, and cohesion, all self-understandings and self-identi¢cations in the idiom of ``identity'' saddles us with a blunt, £at, undi¡erentiated vocabulary. We do not aim here to contribute to the ongoing debate on identity politics.2 We focus instead on identity as an analytical category. This is not a ``merely semantic'' or terminological issue. The use and abuse of ``identity,'' we suggest, a¡ects not only the language of social analysis but also ^ inseparably ^ its substance. Social analysis ^ including the analysis of identity politics ^ requires relatively unambiguous analytical categories. Whatever its suggestiveness, whatever its indispensability in certain practical contexts, ``identity'' is too ambiguous, too torn between ``hard'' and ``soft'' meanings, essentialist connotations and constructivist quali¢ers, to serve well the demands of social analysis. The ``identity'' crisis in the social sciences ``Identity'' and cognate terms in other languages have a long history as technical terms in Western philosophy, from the ancient Greeks through contemporary analytical philosophy. They have been used to address the...
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