In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Identity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • History of the Term
  • Defining “Identity”
  • A Problematic Term
  • Personhood, Self, and the Individual
  • Social and Cultural Identity
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • National Identity and Citizenship
  • Colonial and Postcolonial Identities
  • Racism and Identity-Based Violence
  • Gender and Sexual Identity
  • Language and Identity
  • Mobility and Migration
  • Transnationalism and Diasporic Identities
  • Globalization
  • Minorities, Diversity, and Identity Politics
  • Postmodern Identities
  • Identification and Biometrics

Anthropology Identity
Melanie Griffiths
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0128


Anthropologists have long been fascinated by how individuals and collectives understand and construct themselves and one another. However, the use of the specific term “identity” has a surprisingly recent emergence in public parlance, and is generally attributed to the psychologist Erik Erikson’s work on psychological development in the 1960s. Prior to this work, anthropologists used other words to describe what would now be called identity. Today, the term has widespread mainstream use and is employed to describe an expanding range of social and political concerns. As the term has gained popularity, so have its meanings shifted. Now, it is used in a multitude of (sometimes contradictory) ways across disciplines, topics, and contexts. The term is attributed to both individuals and groups, and can be used to refer to the religious, political, private, cultural, or ethnic realms. Identity is considered a source of both cohesion and violence, and can alternately represent sameness or difference, be an imposition or a choice, singular or fractured, and static or fluid. There is a particular tension between the idea of an innate, stable identity and the “postmodern” construction of identity as an amalgam of multiple incoherent and unstable selves. The diversity of ways in which the term is employed makes it difficult to define and has led to some calling for it to be abandoned as an etic term. Anthropologists have tended to focus primarily on collective identities, from the ethnic and cultural, to political, religious, or gendered. Increasingly, anthropologists have examined the “hybridity” of identities, in which the idea of rigid group boundaries has given way to the sense of movement between multiple identities. The notion of a stable, inner identity has largely been replaced with recognition that identities are beset with contradiction, fluidity, and contestation. These identity-based tensions are often conceptualized as being products of globalization, postcolonialism, transnationalism, and the formation of diaspora. Anthropologists also call attention to how identities are invented, challenged, and sustained for political and other purposes. This focus includes a wealth of work on identity-based violence, xenophobia, multiculturalism, and social movements known as “identity politics,” in which groups advocate legal recognition of their identities.

General Overviews

Despite the pervasive use of the term “identity” within anthropology, anthropological textbooks and encyclopedias often do not have stand-alone sections on identity, but rather discuss the term through reference to other concepts, such as personhood, socialization, classification, and ethnicity. An exception is Mitchell 2010, a succinct entry to The Routledge Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. There are, however, many comprehensive introductions to anthropological scholarship on identity. The edited volume Appiah and Gates 1995 offers a comprehensive and multidisciplinary overview, with contributions from leading scholars of anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, and philosophy. Jenkins 2008 also provides an accessible but critical introduction to identity debates within the social sciences, covering most of the key topics on the subject (it is also cited under Social and Cultural Identity and Postmodern Identities). Kathryn Woodward has edited two particularly relevant introductions to the concept of identity. The contributors to Woodward 2004 draw on work from various disciplines, focusing on issues of identity relating to gender, class, ethnicity, race, and nation. The later book Woodward 2007 not only provides a broad introduction to the debates, but also includes extracts from key texts and questions for the reader (also cited under Defining “Identity”). The now famous article Brubaker and Cooper 2000 is primarily centered on critiquing the notion of identity as an analytical term, but also offers a comprehensive summary of the history of the term from its inception in philosophy and psychoanalysis to its wider use in social thought (also cited under A Problematic Term and Defining “Identity”). The historical development of identity discourses is also charted by Alcoff and Mendieta 2003, an edited volume that brings together key articles and essays from psychology, culture, politics, economics, philosophy, and history, starting with foundational texts from Hegel, Marx, Freud, and George Herbert Mead (b. 1863–d. 1931), and going on to include contemporary works (also cited under History of the Term). In a similar vein, the edited volume du Gay, et al. 2000 collates key statements on identity from thirty eminent theorists, touching upon psychoanalysis, feminism, colonialism, sociology, and history.

  • Alcoff, L. Martín, and E. Mendieta, eds. 2003. Identities: Race, class, gender and nationality. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Includes thirty-four foundational and key texts from theorists on identity, covering race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, nationalism, and “reconfigurations.” An introduction written by Alcoff provides an overview of many of the key issues relating to identity, including debates over the relevance of the concept and identity-based conflict.

  • Appiah, K. A., and H. L. Gates, eds. 1995. Identities (A critical inquiry book). Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Includes twenty articles on various aspects of identity, including race, class, gender, postcolonialism, globalization, nationalism, sexuality, and ethnicity. Contributors include Jonathan Boyarin and Judith Butler.

  • Brubaker, R., and F. Cooper. 2000. Beyond “identity.” Theory and Society 29.1: 1–47.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1007068714468

    Well-known, influential article that is usually cited in relation to the authors’ argument that the concept of identity has become unworkably problematic. However, the article is also a helpful summary on the broader topic and its development. It is a technical piece and may not be best suited for undergraduates.

  • du Gay, P., J. Evans, and P. Redman, eds. 2000. Identity: A reader. London: SAGE.

    Three contextualizing essays from the editors complement thirty essays from eminent writers, including Stuart Hall, Louis Althusser, Homi Bhabha, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Frantz Fanon, Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, and Marcel Mauss. The book is divided into three parts: “Language, Ideology and Discourse”; “Psychoanalysis and Psycho-Social Relations”; and “Identity, Sociology and History.”

  • Jenkins, R. 2008. Social identity. 3d ed. London: Routledge.

    First published in 1996, with later editions (2004 and 2008) updated to include new material, including postmodern theories of identity. Topics covered include issues around similarity and difference, categorization, self-identification, and role of institutions in identification. Suitable for postgraduates and advanced undergraduates. Targeted for anthropologists, sociologists, and social psychologists.

  • Mitchell, J. 2010. Identity. In The Routledge encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology. 2d ed. Edited by A. Barnard and J. Spencer, 368–369. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    First published in 1996. The two-page identity entry covers the development and ambiguities of the term, cites several key anthropologists writing on the subject, and cross-references a number of related concepts, including ethnicity, gender, and sex.

  • Woodward, K. 2004. Questioning identity: Gender, class, ethnicity. London: Routledge.

    Easily accessible introduction, ideal for students starting out in the social sciences. Draws on multiple disciplines and focuses particularly on identity in relation to gender, class, and ethnicity.

  • Woodward, K., ed. 2007. Identity and difference. Culture, Media and Identities series. London: SAGE.

    Easy to use and suitable for undergraduates, this broad-ranging book includes extracts from the key texts as well as activities for the reader in the form of paragraphs of questions and suggested tasks. Works well as a study guide or reference tool.

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