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What is identity?

In the first of our discussions we are going to explore what we mean by identity and how this relates to the social groups that we all live in.
Welcome to this Queen’s University course, Identity Conflict and Public Space Contest and Transformation. My name is Dominic Bryan. I’m the director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queens University. I have with me, Milena Komarova from the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, Sam Pehrson from the Centre for Identity and Intergroup Relations, and Neil Jarman, who’s also from the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice. It’s great to have everybody with us. And we are going to talk you through a course which explores the nature of group identities in the public space. We’re going to be looking at the way people move and create identities in the public arena.
And we’re going to be particularly looking at things like demonstrations and parades and the policing of these events in the public space, and how contest and contestation develops in those arenas. So to start with, we’re going to think about what we mean by a group or a social identity. Sam, you are a social psychologist. If we describe somebody as having an identity or a group identity, what do we mean? OK. Well, broadly speaking for a social psychologist, usually the way that identity is understood is that it is a representation of yourself. And that mainly means a representation which is relational. So it’s how you think about you in relation to others.
And usually that kind of understanding of what identity is, is divided into two. So on the one hand, you can think about yourself in terms of your uniqueness. So I can think about what I am in contrast to you and to Neil and Milena, my uniqueness, my distinctiveness as an individual. And usually, we call that personal identity. On the other hand, what probably we’re more interested in this course is something that’s quite distinct from that called social identity. And this is not about my uniqueness. But it’s about what I have in common. What I share with other people. And also what I have different not from other individuals but from other groups.
So rather than being a sense of ‘me’ or ‘I’, it’s a sense of ‘us’ or a sense of ‘we’. And that in social psychology is what we mean by social identity. And those social identities that you have, that an individual has are going to, in a sense, change through the day. So you have more than one social identity. And different identities are going to become important at different parts of your day or your month or your year or your life. Is that fair? Absolutely. So identity is very much something that people are doing all the time, something that they’re creating, reflecting on in a constant flow.
So it’s not something that you have that’s this fixed that you carry around with you as you go about your day and as you go about your life. You’re making sense of what’s going on around you. And that’s a very active, a very fluid process. And that means that, depending on what situation you’re in, what you’re doing, who’s around you, what’s important to you at that point, our different kinds of identities will come to the fore. So really for any of us, they’re infinite different possible ways that we might construct your identity. And the particular ones that are important at any given time. That depends on our context. Now some of my identities, I feel, are more important than others.
I might get very emotional about either being a parent or supporting a football team or a political identity. How does those identities, how do they relate to emotion and how you feel about these things? Well, they’re very much tied up with emotion. And so, obviously, it’s obvious to anybody, the things that happen to you. They make you, you feel emotions about them, you feel angry about things that happen to you. Or you feel affection towards people who are connected to you in some way. When we start talking about social identity, it’s interesting because people can be emotional not only about things that happen to them personally.
But things that happen maybe to other members of their group or to their group as a whole that may not affect you personally. So, for example, the fate of your football team, which is well-known, is Spurs, that what happens to that team or even what happens to other supporters that you will feel passionate about that. Even if it actually has no particular consequence - So I end up feeling a sense of identification for a whole group of people who I don’t actually personally know. That right. But that identity ties me into them in quite an emotional way. That’s right. So you feel emotions about them. You care about those people. You have a sense of solidarity with them.
And similarly, you might have other quite different emotions towards supporters of other teams. But also you not only have feelings about them, but you feel with them. You feel passionate about the same things at the same time. And that kind of sense a feeling, shared feeling with other people is very powerful aspect of social identity.
In the first of our discussions we are going to explore what we mean by identity and how this relates to the social groups that we all live in.
It is an essential part of the human condition that we have a sense of self and sense of who we are. It is how we conceptualise ourselves. Our identity provides us with our understanding of our place in the world.
In the video clip Dr. Sam Pehrson describes our identity as ‘relational’, that is, ‘how you think about you in relation to others’. Sam describes how there are two aspects to our identity:
  1. those aspects that give us our uniqueness in respect to others, and;
  2. our social identity, as Sam explains ‘what I have in common, what I share with other people, and also what I have different, not from other individuals, but from other groups’.
In this course we are predominantly interested in the second aspect of identity, our social identity. It is an essential part of the human condition that we live in groups. Consequently, a large part of our identity relates to the range of social groups that we are in, our place in those social groups, or the social groups that others place us in, and the groups that we are not in. As Sam puts it ‘Rather than being a sense of me or I it is a sense of us or we’.
We all carry with us a wide range of identities. We will ask you to undertake a simple activity which will simply ask ‘who am I?’. It is a classic psychology test that reveals the multi layered nature of all of our identities. But we are also interested in why some identities become more important than others and why we are more emotional about some identities over others. These emotions help bond us to important social groups.
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Identity, Conflict and Public Space

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