Situated Identities

In his acclaimed work The Lucifer Effect (New York: Random House, p. 321), the psychologist Philip Zimbardo offers this observation on the nature of identity formation:

Our personal identities are socially situated. We are where we live, eat, work, and make love. It is possible to predict a wide range of your attitudes and behavior from knowing any combination of “status” factors – your ethnicity, social class, education, and religion and where you live – more accurately than by knowing your personality traits.

Our sense of identity is in large measure conferred on us by others in the ways they treat or mistreat us, recognize or ignore us, praise us or punish us. Some people make us timid and shy; others elicit our sex appeal and dominance. In some groups we are made leaders, while in others we are reduced to being followers. We come to live up to or down to the expectations others have of us. The expectations of others often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Without realizing it, we often behave in ways that confirm the beliefs others have about us. Those subjective beliefs can create new realities for us. We often become who other people think we are, in their eyes and in our behavior.

Subject though human beings are to the pressures of groups, to the molding capabilities of culture, and to the Weltanschauung of time and place, they nevertheless retain some power of transcendence, however limited.

There is something in us which knows that the verdict of others is not necessarily ‘true’ or ‘right,’ that appearances can conceal or distort as much as they reveal, that ‘what is’ is not necessarily ‘what ought to be.’ An identity can be imbued as much by this spirit of questioning and opposition as it is by any tendency to conform or assimilate.

To call one’s society into question, to stand apart from any prevailing formation, to imagine a better and more decent life, is to some extent to transcend the moment of one’s existence. Another way to put this is to say, with Whitman, that ours is a life “both in and out of the game”: we are situated in a historical moment, fated to live out our life in a particular culture, but through it all we have one eye on the eternal, can see above or beyond things or far into the distance.*

*For an interesting analysis of freedom and transcendence, see David L. Smith, “‘Beautiful Necessities’: American Beauty and the Idea of Freedom,” in the Journal of Religion and Film, October 2002.