Definition of Identity

According to my (albeit limited) readings, identity is a hot topic in the psychology, sociology, anthropology, folklore, and other realms of study. This makes sense, right? Because how we define our sense of self  potentially defines how we see/interpret/comprehend the world around us; it colors our actions and scopes our interests. Identity and sense of self are big. However, I’ve come to realize that identity is in no way the same thing as sense of self.

Identity is a representation of that self, as far as I can tell, but not the self itself. If you get what I mean.

Common definitions

All that aside, I’ve begun working on my definition of identity, the same way I went about doing it for appropriation. So first, the common definitions of identity are as follows:

  • Merriam-Webster: (1a) Sameness of essential or generic character in different instances. (1b) Sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing : oneness. (2a) The distinguishing character or personality of an individual : individuality. (2b) The relation established by psychological identification.
  • The Free Dictionary: (1) The collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable or known. (2) The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group. (3) The quality or condition of being the same as something else. (4) The distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity; individuality. (5)  Information, such as an identification number, used to establish or prove a person’s individuality, as in providing access to a credit account.
  • Wikipedia (philosophy): identity (also called sameness) is whatever makes an entity definable and recognizable, in terms of possessing a set of qualities or characteristics that distinguish it from entities of a different type. Or, in layman’s terms, identity is whatever makes something the same or different.
  • Wikipedia (social science): an umbrella term used throughout the social sciences to describe an individual’s comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity.

According to these definitions, identity is about the individual; about the unique properties, qualities, characteristics that make one autonomous. Okay, I can go with that.

Academic definitions

Then I started looking at more academic sources of information.

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Your identity in this sense consists roughly of what makes you unique as an individual and different from others. Or it is the way you see or define yourself, or the network of values and convictions that structure your life. This individual identity is a property (or set of properties). Presumably it is one you have only contingently—you might have had a different identity from the one you in fact have—and one that you might have for a while and then lose: you could acquire a new individual identity, or perhaps even get by without one.
  • According to Markus and Kitayama [1], self has two major “constructuals,” you can have an “independent” view of the self, or an “interdependent” view of self, which can “influence” and “determine” the “very nature of existence” (224). Essentially, it boils down to this (as found in summary table on pg 230):
    • Independent: internally-defined through thoughts and feelings, separate from social context, bounded and stable, determined to be unique, etc
    • Interdependent: externally-defined through status and relationships, connected with social context, flexible and variable, determined to fit in, etc
  • Oring [2] has a similar idea as the common definitions by stating that “personal identity is shaped from experiences that are unique to the individual as well as from those common to a collection of individuals” (212).

I have two books coming from Amazon that should also help me define identity: Hebdige’s book on subculture, and Turkle’s book on identity in the age of the internet. So I’m excited to read those.


In the meantime, while waiting for these books, what are my thoughts on (personal) identity? Well, it seems to me that identity must and is interdependent as well as independent. When alone, I think, see, interpret myself and my actions as one way. However, once in a social setting (i.e. I am no longer completely alone), I begin to interpret my thoughts and actions in ways I assume others may interpret them. As such, my identity and understanding of myself shifts.

That said, I agree that identity is a collection of characteristics, skills, qualities, etc, that make one an entity, as with the common definitions. Since I also agree with the academic definitions about interdependency, especially as we are never truly alone but are members of the culture in which we live, my definition of identity must keep this in mind. There is something to be said about having a collection of qualities, experiences, etc, which are unique to an individual but also to a community of individuals, as Oring states.

Working definition of identity

All right. So it’s now time for me to bite the bullet and determine a working definition of identity. I am mainly focused on personal identity, rather than individual identity or communal identity, though they do have influencing roles, so there is that. I do believe identity is about being unique, yet influenced by the community/culture. So my definition of identity, in terms of this capstone project about the overlap between identity and appropriation, goes something like this:

Identity is the unique set of experiences, qualities, characteristics, thoughts, behaviors, etc, that recognizably define an individual or collection of individuals, and the relationships occuring between them.

Phew. Here’s hoping that Hebdige and Turkle have definitions that similarly relate! Those of you who took the time to read this massive post, what are your thoughts? Those of you who have a stronger anthropology, folklore, psychology, and/or sociology background, am I on the right track? What are the seminal papers on identity and the self in your field?


  1. Markus, H., and Kitayama, S. 1991. Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. In Psychological Review 98 (2), 224-253.
  2. Oring, E. 1994. The arts, artifacts, and artifices of identity. In The Journal of American Folklore 107 (424), 211-233.

4 thoughts on “Definition of Identity

  1. This definition of identity as being both what makes an individual unique and also what brings a community together is very interesting. I might describe it more as a means of defining the relationship between a person and a community. To feel complete as a person we need to know where they stand among peers, to feel both a part of a community and at the same time individual. To me, identity is the way in which we express our understanding of our place in society. For, although we are all unique individuals, it is the others with whom we can identify that shape our own identities. So I would argue that identity is more about relationships between individuals than the individuals themselves.


    1. @Sarah – Do you feel that “identity is more about relationships between individuals than the individuals themselves” is a reflection of the individual identity or the personal identity? That is, when you say individual, do you mean an autonomous entity, or do you mean a potentially private self-definition?

      This is perhaps something I need to work out in my definition, as well. I feel you are correct, that identity is very much about the relationships (interdependency) between individuals. However, in order for interdependency to occur, there has to be some semblance of an individual, independent identity present to exert some sense of influence over the other individuals, and vice versa.

      Does this make sense? Is my definition addressing this, or should I continue to tweak it?


  2. This reminds me of something from yesterday’s lecture in History of Philosophy.

    The early Christian neo-Platonists said that Christ is God’s self-knowledge. Which means that self and self-knowledge (identity?) are two different things. Our self-knowledge takes form in ideas, stories, objects. God’s self-knowledge took the form of a man.

    This reading suggests that identity, as something separate from self, has personal as well as communal implications. My knowledge and understanding of who I am will have a relationship with who I am, but it’s not the same as who I am, because my knowledge is not perfect.


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