Identity (social science) , Narrative , Essentialism

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

January 2000

Beyond 'Identity'

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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...
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