A Theory of Identity


Narrative Construction of Identity

     Recent studies of identity within the framework of “narrative psychology” have yielded models which differ on key points from the information-processing models adopted by most social psychologists. Narrative theories reject the prevailing notion that identity can be mapped as a collection, cluster, or hierarchy of self-schemas, in favor of the view that it is organized as stories or discourses, in which plots, characters, dialogues, symbols, and metaphors serve as the crucial organizing and meaning-bearing elements. Narrative psychologists share the conviction of many cognitive psychologists that the human brain/mind has evolved to automatically construe aspects of experience via story structures, a view which converges with the argument by phenomenologists that humans cannot order experience without plot structures, regardless of whether lives or history “really” have any order or not.

     Narrative theories differ, however, in which features of story structure they emphasize. Jerome Bruner sees plot structure as bringing coherence to the multitude of characters and actions animating a life story. Hubert Hermans draws on Bakhtin’s theory of the “polyphonic” novel to account for the way a person’s self appears distributed among the characters in his or her life-narrative, such that “the” self does not coincide with any single figure, but is organized as the dialogue among them. My model emphasizes the crucial role played by “key” symbols and metaphors in orchestrating plots and dialogues, and especially in eliciting emotions and linking them to conceptual interpretations. Dan McAdams incorporates all of these narrative elements, and much of his work investigates themas and scripts – constructs he develops from Henry Murray and Sylvan Tomkins.


     My "study of lives" investigations seek to extend Erik Erikson's theory of identity development in late adolescence and early adulthood, and of the organization of identity.  Erikson believed that development proceeds through eight transitions -- each potentially a psychological "crisis" -- through the span of life.  These transitions occur when biological, emotional, and cognitive growth, often coinciding with new social demands and roles, disequilibrate a perviously-adaptive psychological organization, and require the child, adolescent, or adult to create a new form of organization.  While children have self-conceptions that guide and integrate their psychological functioning, identity per se does not come into existence until adolescence.

     During adolescence, physical and sexual maturity combine with new social roles to disequilibrate the late childhood personality organization that was anchored mainly in identifications with what we now term "role models" (and also in dis-identification with negative models).  At the same time, the acquisition of what Piaget termed formal operational thought makes it possible to think about systems of ideas and beliefs, enabling and forcing adolescents to ponder the values they'll live by and way of life they want to live and live for.  Especially in societies that prolong adolescence with apprenticeship or education -- creating a "psycho-social moritorium" -- this can initiate a period of questioning, experimenting, and searching for meaning ("Who am I?") that Erikson believed to be developmentally positive.  An "identity crisis" can enable an adolescent to discover and develop new sources of strenth and creativity, richer forms of friendship and love relationships, and new commitments to activities that become a life's work.  Most importantly, it can facilitate a more "wholistic" integration of personality, in which all of one's inner life is accepted ("owned," to use our current pop psych term) and given expression in a life-style confirmed by one's culture (or at least by one's sub-culture).

     Some adolescents decline the quest, clinging to social conventions and their childhood identifications, "foreclosing" their identities (in Marcia's terms) and limiting their growth.  A few plunge into such turmoil that their "identity confusion" becomes a debilitating form of psychopathology.  But for most, Erikson believed, a "crisis of identity" brings the potential for significant psychological growth.  He also emphasized that identity crises contribute to societal change and renewal, as they bring youth to critically examine prevailing social institutions and cultural values.

Personality and Identity

     For Erikson, then, identity organizes and integrates an individual's personality.  Personality consists of the emotional tensions, motives, and states of good feeling and dysphoria which an individual characteristically and recurrently experiences.  Identity provides (mythic) interpretations for these, a technology for managing them (for restraining, eliciting, and expressing them), and a model for integrating one's inner world with one's culture in a way that affirms both. In my first study of narrative identity (Self Representation), I adopted a two-level theory of personality based on the "culture and personality" model of psychological anthropologist Robert LeVine, who had followed Gordon Allport and Kurt Lewin in distinguishing between deeper "genotypic" and more surface "phenotypic" levels of psychological organization.

     These theorists did not intend "genotypic" to refer literally to inherited traits. Rather they suggested that by analogy to biological genotype and phenotype, some abiding personality characteristics shaped early in life by the interaction of environment and inherited temperament -- "gentoypic" -- may not be expressed in overt -- "phenotypic" -- behavior.  Complementarily, some overt "phenotypic" behaviors may not express deeper "genotypic" motives, but simply represent relatively stable responses to social situations and roles.  They also intended the genotype - phenotype distinction to take account of the operation of "defense mechanisms":  that some deeper motives and anxieties may be transformed, repressed, or even reversed (by "dissociation," "projection," "reaction formation," "counter-phobic defense," etc.) before they are expressed in thought and behavior.  These theorists thus believed that one's personality is to a large extent organized by a set of deep or "genotypic"-level emotional tensions, and by the mostly-automatic mechanisms which typically restrain, amplify, or transform them into overt or "phenotypic" thought and behavior.

     Erikson's key insight was that this organization is not just formed by deep drives and a set of defense mechanisms, but by identity:  by the values and style of life a person chooses to live for.  And: that identity plays the crucial role in integrating the individual's inner life into a set of social roles and shared culture.  What Erikson recognized and described, that life-narratives clearly show, is that identity paradoxically integrates personality by differentiating it:  by embracing some genotypic-level features as "ego-syntonic" and belonging to one's self (so they are expressed phenotypically), while at the same time rejecting other features as "ego-dystonic," as not belonging to one's self, but usually attributed to others.

Identity:  "Me" vs. "not-Me" Oppositions?

     Erikson theorized that identity consists not just of a set of self-concepts, but of an entire belief system or world-view, and that this is fashioned as an ideology that positions the person in a social world.  As an ideology, identity "positions" the individual by defining the stances s/he takes towards highly-salient and significant figures -- often mythic and stereotypic figures with whom the individual identifies, including Gods, prophets, political leaders, stereotypes of one's in-group, and ideal images of one's self.  These figures provide important Me or self representations, while dis-identifications with other figures -- including Devils, delinquents, sinners, stereotypes of ethnic out-groups , and abject self-images provide key not-Me or anti-self representations.  His biography of Martin Luther, for example, describes three identity "elements":  a "mute," who falls silent before religious authorities as had Martin as a child before his father; the rebel "spokesman" son who posted his theses on the Wittenburg Church door as a challenge to the Pope; and the "father" who argued that rebellious peasants were, "not worth answering with arguments... The answer for such mouths is a fist that brings blood from the nose," much as Martin's father had bloodied him with his fists.  Luther's identity, Erikson writes, consists of a configuration of these three elements, each a relation or dialogue between figures of authority and rebellion.  That is, while the authorities and rebels in Luther's life were certainly real, as "mute" he was psychologically positioned in contrast to "spokesman" and "father" not-Me figures that represented other (ego-dystonic) aspects of his own personality.  And when he was rebel "spokesman," he opposed "mute" and "father" not-Me figures that similarly represented disowned parts of himself.  In an early recognition of the multiplicity of self-representation, Erikson regarded Luther's identity not as any one of these elements, but as the configuration of the three.

       Erikson repeatedly emphasized the role of "not-Me" or "anti-self" representations -- though he did not use these terms -- in implicitly constructing a person's identity by means of contrast and opposition.  His writings -- following the Frankfurt School's studies of Nazi anti-Semitism -- suggest that "not-Me" or "anti-self" representations typically are animated by the projection of emotions, motives, or self-images that the individual seeks to deny in him/her-self.  The Frankfurt School (first Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom, then Theodore Adorno and collaborators in The Authoritarian Personality) theorized that anti-Semitism took psychological shape as a splitting of self:  with positive and admired characteristics embraced as an "Aryan" Me, and negative and feared characteristics rejected (as "ego-dystonic") and represented as a Jewish not-Me.  As Joel Kovel describes (in White Racism) American racism often takes shape by a similar splitting of self:  with positive and admired characteristics embraced as a "white" Me, and threatening wishes and abject self-images projectively represented as a "black" (lazy, aggressive, overly-sexed) not-Me.  Life-narratives suggest that explicit self-conceptions -- notions of who one is and what values one lives for -- remain amorphous and vague until contrasted with the values and figures one stands against, and that anti-self figures are nearly-always constructed by projection of one's own negative qualities.

     While authoritarian personality types may especially rely on out-group stereotypes to organize this splitting of self, and may hold to the splits in especially rigid ways, life-narratives suggest the splitting -- or differentiation -- is inherent to the structure of identity for everyone.  Authoritarians may express hostility toward the "immoral" out-groups that represent their own capacity for immorality, while others may empathize with and seek to defend those they psychologically use to represent their own weakness and vulnerability.  Some people may admire and seek to emulate the others they psychologically use to represent positive qualities they feel they lack.  In Mimesis and Alterity anthropologist Michael Taussig explores the seemingly-universal process by which people vicariously seek to contact and copy (not-Me) others, in the (often-unrecognized) hope of acquiring healing / strengthening / creative powers.  Life-narratives suggest that identity perhaps inevitably makes use of a society's major fault lines -- the existence of social groups that are stronger and weaker, richer and poorer, white and black, Muslim and Christian, more and less moral, etc. -- to represent the inner fault lines that differentiate personality into Me vs. not-Me oppositions, and that personality thus comes to be organized as a social structure.

     Claude Levi-Strauss argued that all mythic meaning systems are built of binary oppositions, and this appears true of identity, especially when seen in life-narrative interview texts:  every emotionally-important Me attribution appears to be defined by an equally emotionally-charged not-Me figure.  Explicit self-representations, then, derive much of their meaning from an implicit system of Me vs. not-Me oppositions.  As George Kelly recognized, most people make use of a small set of binary oppositions to create stories about their lives, their life-histories, and the worlds they inhabit.  An individual's core set of binary oppositions then can be viewed -- following Levi-Strauss -- as a "deep structure" which "generates" the multiple stories which comprises the "surface structure" of his/her life-narrative.  [See my "The Raw and the Bland" for a narrative analysis demonstrating this deep structure / surface structure relationship.]

Structurally-ambiguous "Key" Symbols

       While plot structures (J. Bruner, D. McAdams) and dialogues (H. Hermans) certainly play crucial roles in structuring life-narratives and identity, my analyses of study-of-lives interviews show the centrality of "key" metaphors and self-symbols, which play an integrative role analogous to cultural "key symbols" (i.e., Christ on the cross; Tibetan mandala images, etc.) as described by anthropologists Sherry Ortner, Victor Turner, and Clifford Geertz.  Typically involving vivid imagery, these symbols evoke strong emotions and link them with sublime meanings, thus serving as crucial "junction boxes" of affect and cognition.  The fact that emotions can evoke the symbols, and the symbols can evoke the emotions, makes it possible to construct symbolic-metaphoric systems for managing affective states -- or at least for creating the illusion that we can control our affective states.  Key metaphors and symbols appear to serve as the lynch-pins by which identity, as a world-view and ideology, organizes and integrates personality.

     Further, key self-metaphors and symbols often appear to be "structurally-ambiguous," in the manner of well-known figure-ground reversible optical illusions, or of the octave relation (and other relationships) in tonal music.  This makes it possiblef for identity-defining Me vs. not-Me contrasts to be represented as alternate interpretations of them.

     Consider the middle figure in Boring's number/letter illusion, to the right, which can be a "13" in the context of the sequence of numbers, or a "B" in the context of the letter sequence. This structured ambiguity could enable a person to articulate a life history in a discourse of letters, which establishes him/her as a "B"-type person and not a "13"-type person.  The individual's (genotypic-level) personality may encompass both "B" featues and "13" features, but the former can be embraced and the latter rejected by narratively emphasizing that s/he is a letter-type person and not a number-type person.
    Or consider the "old woman" and "young woman" in this famous illusion.  Unlike Boring's letter/number illusion, when one sees the "old woman" it can be difficult to make the "young woman" appear, and vice versa.  When the "old woman" appears as figure, the "young woman" recedes into the ground, but remains implicitly present and can serve as a representation in an implicit stream of thought.  That is, a narrative may call out "young" features of a self-symbol like this, evoking "youthful" emotions, while concealing the "old" features and denying feelings associated with decline. Repression and unconscious thought may operate by this kind of structurally-ambiguous representation.

     Amos Tversky has shown that according to his "feature-matching" theory of similarity, two objects in a set can be simultaneously perceived as the most similar (because of the number of features they share) and the most different (because of the number of features they do not share) of those in the set.  This makes such pairs especially suited to serve as key symbols organizing self-representation, because the shared features can evoke (or be evoked by) an affect or motive, and the unshared features differentiate it into contrasting forms.  They thus can differentiate the central affective or motivational tension animating one's personality into a positive form embraced as Me, and a negative form rejected as not-Me.  [See the discussion of the key symbols "Tofu" and "junk food" in the life-narrative of Sharon, Chapter 4 of Self Representation, and of the use of contrasting terms built from the Arabic w * q * f root (to timidly "be brought to a halt" vs. to courageously "stand up for/to") as a key self-representational motif in Hussein's life-narrative, Chapter 4 of Culture and Identity.]

Multiple Identities

     Many psychologists, following Erikson, have assumed that individuals typically develop a single coherent and consistent identity, or at least that they should do so in order to achieve healthy psychological integration.  Post-modern theorists have rejected this notion, arguing that the self's coherence is but an illusion, and that seeking to maintain it rigidly freezes the fluidity of human desire and relationships.  Selves, they believe, are continually formed and re-formed in the flux to conversation and social interaction, without an "authentic," or "real" self existing behind them.   Social psychologists also have emphasized the multiplicity of self-conceptions -- or "repretoire of self-schemata" -- tailored to the many social roles and situations in which people typically behave.

     While Erikson never wrote of people developing multiple identities, he emphasized that identity typically consists of a configuration of "identity elements," each a stance or style of personality -- as in his biography of Martin Luther.  As summarized above, Luther shifts among three stances toward figures of authority:  submission, rebellion, and identification, andwhichever he takes up at a given point in time is defined in contrast to figures representing the other two.  To use Hubert Hermans' terms (which Erikson does not), Luther's identity consists of the structure of dialogue among these three "I positions."

     Life-narratives show people to articulate and shift among a small number of self-representational discourses (typically two or three), each defined in contrast to and often in "dialogue" with the others.  In some narratives, an ideal identity is defined in contrast to one of more abject self-representations [see my discussion of Mohammed's life-narrative, which defines his ideal "pious Muslim" identity against his former "soldier" and "delinquent" identities, in Chapter 3 of Culture and Identity].  Other narratives shift between two or more discourses, each of which defines both ideal and abject self-representations.  Faith, for example, narrates her life-story as a Pygmailion-like transformation from the dirty and crude working-class culture of her youth to her clean and refined life as a rising-star in a fast-track career, but then shifts discourses and rejects the middle-class world as phoney and plastic and embraces the "true grit" authenticity of a tough working-class style [Chapter 7 of Self Representation].  And Hussein portrays himself in a "discourse of modernity" as en route from the primitive and disempowering world of his traditional youth to a cultured and empowering urbane life, and then reverses this in a "discourse of tradition" which sets him in flight from the corrupt, alienating, and disempowering urban existence toward the natural, healthy, and empowering world of rural tradition [Chapter 4 of Culture and Identity].  Remarkably, most of the narratives I have analyzed appear to organize shifts between abject and ideal self-representations, or between identity-defining discourses, with figure/ground-like reversals in structurally-ambiguous key symbols, metaphors, and motifs.

Self-Representation and Music Cognition

     In most of the life-narratives I have elicited, structurally-ambiguous metaphors and symbols set out something akin to key-defining "octave relations" between abject and ideal self-representations, which appear to serve as the elementary units and building blocks of identity.  I believe that this musical analogy can be taken in a strong sense (as did Levi-Strauss):  that humans use the same cognitive processes which underly the formal organization of tonal music to create selves and cultures.  As Leonard Bernstein argued in his Harvard Lectures on music and generative grammar, while linguistic meaning comes in literal and figurative/rhetorical forms, all musical meaning is rhetorical, generated by the precisely-structured ambiguities of the tonal system.  I believe identities are similarly rhetorical in structure, generated by structurally-ambiguous symbols and metaphors.

     Musical relations -- which make music "meaningful" -- use the psychoacoustic properties of tones, but once a scale as been established the notes comprising it have properties (e.g., G being the "dominant" note in the key of C) that the tones as psychoacoustic events do not.  The scale in fact sets up a space-time-causality system, in which each note is heard as a tensionful degree of "departure from" and "return toward" the tonic tone, a system which is not simply linear but appears to be represented in a helix-like or toroidal mental structure.  This is a perfect example of an emergent system, in which musical relations among notes in a scale have emergent properties that the tones as psychoacoustic events do not possess.  Not only do different tones have the same musical meaning (all tones an octave apart are the same note), but a tone's musical meaning changes depending on the scale ("C" is the tonic of the key of C, but the dominant of the key of F).

     Rhetoric creates a similar emergent level of meaning, and it is with rhetorical relations that humans create cultures and identities.  The majority of psychologists who currently study "self" err in using simplistic information-processing models in the assumption that people build up self-schemata from inferences about their behavior or from self-attributions made in response to social cues and pressures.  They thereby fail to recognize identity's rhetorical organization.  It is as if they were trying to develop a theory of music by studing only statistical associations among tones (i.e., psychoacoustic events), preventing themselves from ever discovering the existence of the scales that make musical meaning possible. They often delight in showing self-schemata to be erroneous or biased, missing the fact that identities are fundamentally mythical and designed not to map reality with scientific accuracy but to create life's meanings, manage emotional tensions, and perform public self-presentations in accordance with one's culture's aesthetic.

     Like a musical scale, symbolic octave relations define the space-time-causality system within which a person experiences him/her-self as continually in motion, such that s/he interprets characteristic emotional-motivational states as a sense of departure from and return toward the "tonic" tones.  The main story-lines of a life-narrative resemble a set of melodies (usually variations on a small set of themes) which can be performed as a system of emotional/motivational self-management:  to interpret dysphoric or distressingly-meaningless feelings and transform them into characteristic positive states of meaningful affect and striving toward one's "authentic" ideals. Typically this is accomplished by symobilically re-positioning one's self from an abject self-representation to an ideal one, by enacting scripts or rituals associated with the main themes of their life-narrative.  As the elementary units and building blocks of self-representation, symbolic octave relations thus enable identity to orchestrate one's emotional life and self-presentations.

     One advantage of this musical analogy is that it avoids many of the more controversial notions associated with psychoanalytic and structuralist theories.  It also links the model to contemporary work in cognitive science, such as that of Lehrdahl and Jackendoff, who have incorporated much of Heinrich Schenker's generative theory of music composition. Their theory emphasizes that a listener non-consciously performs simultaneous multiple interpretations on the surface score of a composition. At any point in time, a "selection function" (similar to that Jackendoff believes operates in linguistic and visual processing as well) "compares the current possibilities and designates one as salient... [and] this one will be heard as the structure of the music up to this point, and it will generate anticipations of what is to come."  Disconfirmation of an anticipation results in neither a breakdown of interpretation nor a resort to defensive maneuvers as predicted by many theories, but produces a shift by which one of the alternative interpretations is designated as salient, so that, "suddenly the whole previous passage changes structure like a Necker cube..."  The affective meaning of a composition thus derives in part from "the realization or violation of one's expectations," and in even larger part from "all the tensions engendered by the unconscious presence of conflicting structures."  As Jackendoff later points out, this model parallels Daniel Dennett's "multiple drafts" view of consciousness.  This can account for how identity organizes personality by differentiating it:  how one might be explicitly a "B-type person" (recall the letter/number illusion above) at the same time s/he implicitly is a "13-type person" -- the latter perhaps represented "ego-dystonically" in emphatic assertions that s/he is not a "13-type person."

     In his 1890 Principles of Psychology, William James wrote of the “division of the man into several selves,” based on “the distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares.”  He puzzled over how the “I” could maintain a sense of continuity through the flux of changing “Me” representations, and offered a seemingly silly analogy: the relationship of the “I” to its “Me-s” resembles that of a rancher to the herd of cows he has branded: “The individual beasts [that is, the “Me-s”] do not stick together… Each wanders with whatever accidental mates it finds.”  But the brand “symbolizes the characters of warmth and continuity, by reason of which the judgement [of unity] is made… Each brand, so far, is the mark, or cause of our knowing that certain things belong together.”  If we give a narrative interpretation to his “self-brand” -- as the key symbols or motifs of a life history -- James’ analogy might well be on the right track.  If the self-brands have the character of scale-defining octaves, then it is conceivable that every thought could carry the mark, not so much as a signature scrawled into a corner of each frame of consciousness, than as an implicitly-perceived key-signature framework that makes self-representational thought possible.

The Limits of Identity

     A final, important point on subjectivity and change. The life-narratives I have elicited provide self-representational systems by which respondents strive to interpret their subjective experience.  But their experiences are hardly confined to the meanings the discourses articulate.  Indeed, their experiences continually break through the bounds of their discourses, and they live in a near-continual state of "dissonance" -- as do we all.  They cannot always masterfully perform the melodic and harmonic scores they have written, and this creates lapses, lacunae, silences, and innovations, that can spur them to refashion elements of their representational system as well as to cling to them.  In addition, their discourses project them out into the world, toward new encounters and novel experiences, some of which may not "fit" the meanings their identities provide, and which may well lead to change and transformation.

     A life-narrative collected at a single point in time yields but a still photograph, and cannot be used to assess how open or closed a person may be to change, development, or involution.  No cross-sectional investigation can do that, because too much fluidity is built into personality -- much more than recognized by most psychologists -- to predict how an individual will respond to novelty.  As a system of integrated multiplicity, personality remains fundamentally open.  Not only do contrasting identities organize our personalities as dialogue and dispute, but our subjective experience continually eludes, escapes, and overflows the confines of the discourses we design to render it meaningful.  As Erikson recognized, identity guarantees no stability, and at some historical and life-historical moments, it leads beyond its own boundaries.