In This Article Identification with Media Characters

  • Introduction
  • Classic Sources
  • Journals
  • Early Identification Research
  • Identification and Other Mediated Relationships
  • Identification in Newer Media (Digital Games)
  • Causes and Predictors
  • General Consequences of Identification
  • Identification, Personal Identity, and Social Identity
  • Identification and Interpretation
  • Identification, Education-Entertainment, and Narrative Persuasion
  • Other Sources

Communication Identification with Media Characters
by
Jonathan Cohen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0144

Introduction

One of the advantages that communication, especially mass communication, provides humans is that it enables us to be part of many experiences to which our immediate environment does not provide access. We can experience many places, events, sights, and sounds through communication with others and media. The details of these experiences through stories, but we can experience them more fully by adopting the perspective of the protagonists who participated in them. Taking on a character’s perspective allows us to see the world through his or her eyes, feeling their feelings and adopting the character’s goals. This allows audiences to produce emotional and empathic responses that create a more meaningful media experience. This is referred to as “identifying with a character,” which means taking on a character’s identity and vicariously experiencing events from within that identity. Identification occurs mostly within narrative texts that invite viewers to adopt the perspective of the characters, as opposed to genres that directly address audience members or in some other way remind viewers or readers of themselves. However, identification can perhaps occur in nonnarrative texts such as sports, reality shows, or game shows, where people become emotionally engaged and can lose themselves in a character or player, adopting his or her perspective, goals, and emotions. It is important to note, however, that identification is one of several ways audiences engage with media personalities, and it should thus be distinguished from parasocial interaction, worship, imitation, or social comparison. Identification requires that audiences forget their own position as audience members and assume the role of a character or player and, for a moment at least, feel as if they are part of the action. Because identification elevates the emotional responses to stories, expands one’s mental horizons by creating new understandings, and provides access to many new experiences, it is a key component of entertainment. By adopting the perspective and identity of a character, people are also removed from their own daily routine and mundane life, another crucial part of being entertained. Identification is thus a crucial component of audience involvement in television and radio serials, movies, and video games, and has been shown to also be an important condition for the effects these media have on their audiences. By sharing perspectives and creating new understandings, one develops deeper and more meaningful communication. Thus the desire to create identification is seen as important in rhetoric and persuasive communication, as well as in the study of entertainment. This bibliography will present many sources that discuss classic sources on identification, provide more contemporary conceptual definitions, and explore the causes and consequences of identification, including its role in media effects research. Included in this bibliography are sources that shed light on identification as defined above, whether or not the sources themselves use the term identification. Over the decades, definitions have evolved and distinctions have become more refined, but many early scholars studied identification under different terms. At the same time, scholars from various subdisciplines of communication, and more so from other disciplines, often use other terms to discuss similar phenomena, but their work is important, nonetheless.

Classic Sources

The term identification was used to describe a psychological process before it became a commonly used concept in media research. First and foremost, psychoanalytic theory saw a (male) child’s identification with his father as a crucial stage of psychosexual development, as described in Sigmund Freud in his Outline of Psychoanalysis (Freud1989 [originally published in 1940]). Perhaps the best description of identification from a psychoanalytic perspective is given in Wollheim 1974, which focuses on explaining the nature of identification as an imaginary process. Erikson 1968 saw identification with various others as typical of adolescents, a way for them to experiment with, or “try on,” various identities and social roles as part of shaping their own self-identity. Building on Freud, Adorno, et al. 1950 posited that a failure to complete this stage is related to the development of an authoritarian personality. Bettelheim 1976 used the notion of identification to refer to the way prisoners come to adopt the worldview of their capturers as a means of survival. Burke 1950 discusses the attempt of a speaker to create identification among his or her listeners as a goal of effective rhetoric, and as a way for speakers to create an emotional bond with, and convince, their audience. Kelman 1961 argued that there are three levels of persuasion, the highest of which is identification, through which audience members are not only convinced to do as asked, but also adopt the persuasive message as their own. Though these classic sources vary greatly, they all view identification as relating to the merging of perspectives and identities, and all see great significance in this process.

  • Adorno, Theodore. W., Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.

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    The authors defined authoritarianism as a personality trait. They presented a theory and many studies trying to explain the roots of why such a trait develops in some people, and they argued that this is because of an incomplete identification with the father, which leaves the person insecure and with an excessive desire for social order and obedience.

  • Bettelheim, Bruno. 1976. The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Knopf.

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    The author, having been a prisoner in World War II concentration camps, observed that prisoners did not only follow the rules of the prison because they were forced to, but also often came to consider the rules, norms, attitudes, and beliefs of their captors as normal. In other words, they internalized the worldview of the Nazis, and this helped them cope in an environment in which they had no control over their lives.

  • Burke, Kenneth. 1950. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Burke continued the Greek tradition in his study of rhetoric and argued that a speaker must create among listeners a feeling of similarity, and thus “identify your ways with his” (p. 55). Identification is defined as co-substantiality, and Burke claimed that in order for a rhetorician to be successful, he or she must make the audience not only understand and accept the message but also share his or her motives.

  • Erikson, Erik. 1968. Identity, youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

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    Erikson discussed the process by which adolescents develop their self-identity. This process involves trying different behaviors, styles of dress and speech, identities, and personas to see how they feel and how others react to them. Successive identifications allow children, adolescents, and, finally, adults to internalize traits, behaviors, and attitudes that become part of one’s identity.

  • Freud, Sigmund. 1989. An outline of psychoanalysis. Translated by J. Strachey. New York: Norton.

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    Original work published in 1940. In this work Freud described his psychoanalytic approach and psycho-sexual theory of development. Freud saw identification as a mechanism through which children cope with the Oedipal complex by taking on the father’s identity, and through which the parents become part of a person’s identity. This notion of identification is the basis of much of the later work on identification by media scholars.

  • Kelman, Herman C. 1961. Processes of opinion change. Public opinion quarterly 25.1: 57–78.

    DOI: 10.1086/266996E-mail Citation »

    Kelman offered a theory of opinion change that is directed at understanding attitudes as a precursor to behavior. One of the three processes offered by Kelman to explain attitude change is the identification of an audience with a speaker. When a speaker is attractive and persuasive enough to make the audience identify with him or her, the attitudes being proposed are adopted by the audience and made their own.

  • Wollheim, Richard. 1974. Identification and imagination. In Freud: A collection of critical essays. Edited by R. Wollheim, 172–195. New York: Anchor/Doubleday.

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    Wollheim’s work is important because, though he continued the Freudian tradition, he extended our understanding of identification and distinguished it from imitation. Like Freud, Wollheim saw identification as a purely imaginative and internal process, whereas imitation is external and behavioral. Identification, according to Wollheim, is like playing a theatrical role of another that we ourselves write based on our understanding of the other. That is, identification is a merging of one’s identity with that of another.

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