Multiple social identities

Follow-up thoughts on identity inspired by Jofish’s comment that we each have a spectrum of identities ranging from multiple personal identities to multiple public personas, and an Economist review (subscriber-only unfortunately) of Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, by Amartya Sen (see the P.S. for a relevant quote from the review).

I should have figured this out without prompting – in the first identity construction post, I even “equated social identity with community membership.” And we are all members of multiple communities, so the extension to having multiple social identities was obvious. Oops.

One upshot of this along the lines of the remixing identity post is that we are always performing a delicate balancing act with our identity, not just between our private identity (or identities) and our social identities, but also among the various social identities that we have. We’ve all experienced the weirdness when we bring our different social communities together; there’s always that hesitation, as we’re pulled in conflicting directions by our default reactions with the different groups. We can’t just “be ourselves”, because there are multiple selves involved. The canonical case is when our parents show up at a get together with our friends; the person that we are with our friends is very different than the child our parents still see us as.

All communities have different rituals, different ways of viewing and interacting with the world. So navigating among them requires a certain Latour-ian diplomacy. They require changing ourselves to fit in, being flexible enough to adapt to local conditions. Some people with a strong sense of self don’t want to change, so they find one community that accepts them as that self and never leave. Others, like myself, tend to be social butterflies, flitting from group to group trying out different identities but never sticking with any of them.

Different communities also make different demands on their members. One of the reasons I enjoy playing ultimate and other sports is that all I have to do is show up and play hard. There are no other expectations of me. It’s a nice change of pace from the rest of my life where I live with the (often self-imposed) expectations of greatness. In ultimate, I’m just the tall gawky guy, as opposed to “Eric Nehrlich, child prodigy!”

Because of the variety of multiple communities (and therefore multiple public personas) we can belong to, we are always choosing who we are. The quote from the Amartya Sen review makes the excellent point that even caste and creed do not fully determine one’s identity; one can choose (to some extent) how one is seen. One can embrace one’s genetic and cultural heritage, one can deny it, one can be indifferent to it. And each of those choices will produce a different identity with respect to that heritage. And if that holds true for qualities we are born with, it can only be more true for voluntary community associations.

Of course, this is mostly a long-winded way of saying that I’m still trying to figure out who I am. But this multiple social identities perspective provides a new way of examining what my membership in each of my communities means to me. I’m definitely most at home with the TEP types. Sixteen years (SIXTEEN YEARS!) hasn’t changed that yet. But I sometimes don’t get to indulge the grandiose philosophical side of myself with them; hence the blog. The chorus was nice as a way of expressing the right brain. Sports as a way of indulging the inner jock wanna-be. My work identity continues to evolve. Et cetera.

The multiple social identity perspective also provides a good hint of when I should leave a community; when I feel that it is no longer helping me be the person I want to be, it’s time to leave. It was hard to say goodbye to the Bay Area, but I think it has been good for me to explore new aspects of my identity, as well as determine which aspects I value enough to keep with me. For instance, I probably won’t join a chorus here; I had been pretty much ready to leave the chorus anyway and invest that time and energy elsewhere, as I had accomplished all that I wanted to as a singer.

Of course, the tricky bit is that it is often hard to let go of aspects of our identity that are holding us back despite no longer being relevant. For instance, I still tend to be a wallflower; earlier this week, Betsy Weber from TechSmith was in town visiting Fog Creek. She really likes the management training program idea, and wanted to interview Sumana and me about it. I demurred, feeling bashful, while Sumana jumped right in, as you can see at the TechSmith blog. I couldn’t even say why I didn’t feel comfortable; heck, I talk about myself all the time on this blog (although I have editing rights here, I suppose). But for some reason, being broadcast felt very intimidating and put me right back to being a horribly introverted socially awkward teenager. There’s always stuff to work on.

Anyway. I do know that I want to increase the blogging component of my identity. Given my days in tech support, even though I’m sapped by the time I get home, I want to feel like I’ve done something requiring thinking. I’ve had several ideas floating around for a while that I just need to spend the time and energy to turn into a post. We’ll see how that goes.

A relevant quote from the Amartya Sen review:

Allegiances, first, routinely jostle each other: family against work, work against ideals, ideals against community, and so on. You cannot successfully bundle them into smooth packages with a single all-purpose label, Muslim or Western, without sacrificing something of yourself that matters. …

Mr. Sen challenges three particular claims about attachments of caste, creed or community: that they are imposed – by birth, or however – rather than chosen; that they dominate other affiliations; and that they alone give individuals an “identity” – a sense of who they are. Together these claims add up to denying choice about the kind of person you wish to be. Mr. Sen calls that denial “the illusion of destiny”. You could equally well call it the refusal of personal responsibility.

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