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Who is to define your identity?

To categorize people into different groups seems to be not only a fundamental function of human cognition, but also of our whole society: child vs. grownup, man vs. woman, black vs. white… Based on such categorizations, we assign rights and duties as for example the right to vote or the monthly fee we have to pay for our health insurance. How people get categorized by others, however, does not necessarily accord with how they categorize themselves.

A New York Times article I stumbled upon some days ago prompted me to do some research on the internet. This resulted in a vivid example of such “categorization disagreement”: race in the U.S. census. Until 1950, census takers were sent out by the government to record data on the residents of the USA. They categorized people into different racial groups based on their appearance. Later, the U.S. government changed their way of data collection: they began to assess their residents by letter. This meant that people now categorized their race themselves. This new self-assessment had a huge impact on the statistics on race. For example, between 1940 and 1990, the Native American population increased by 455 % (up to almost two million). Even though there is more than one reason for this rapid population growth, research shows that self-assignment of race is the most important factor. Another example: in the 1910 census, 65.5% of Puerto Ricans were categorized as “white” by census takers. In 2000, 80.5% of Puerto Ricans categorized themselves as “white”. As shown, this is not due to an actual growth of the white population, but rather due to differences in race classification. (For more census statistics, see here and here.)

Until 1950, the U.S. government obviously took the question of race as a biological, “scientific” question – in the sense that it was taken as something that could be objectively “measured” by looking at the colour of another person’s skin. In the course of time, the U.S. government allowed people more and more to take part in the assessment of their race by letting them choose their race categories themselves, and also by including additional categories that were supposed to better fit to people’s own representation of their race. Hence, the question of race became more a social than a biological matter – and more a matter of choice than of “objective” measurement.

This development of the U.S. census mirrors a general development in western societies: today, we see belonging to a race and ethnic group as a fundamental part of a person’s identity (in the social science meaning of the term). And we’ve got the intuition that people should be allowed to build up their identity themselves. We do not want census takers to “steal” her Native American identity from a woman by categorizing her as “white” just because she is “objectively” very light-skinned. Correct? Such a shift from a biological reductionist to a social constructivist view point can be observed in other domains as well. For example, we now distinguish between “gender” and “sex”, to allow for the fact that a certain sex does not automatically go along with a certain sexual identity.

As a social psychologist I cannot help being politically liberal. Hence, I appreciate this development. However, I wonder: How far can we go with letting people assess their identity themselves? Should this be fully independent of their genotypic and phenotypic attributes? Imagine I would have grown up in an African American community and identified fully with their culture. Would and should this allow me to categorise myself as “black “– despite me getting ridiculously pink as soon as a single ray of sunlight gets hold of me? Would it be “true” if I ticked “black” on a census form? Or is all this only about finding the right mixture of biological and social parts of categories? Do we need a social vs. a biological distinction (like gender vs. sex) in more domains?

Please share your thoughts!

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23 Comment on this post

  1. “Every one wants to be special” and no wonder when governments accept that for some groups special consideration is needed for distribution of rights (welfare, land etc.) or to restrict rights, of course. So does biological vs social (self) identification provide the fairest way to distribute rights? Throws up all kinds of issues as you indicate. The indigenous Australians is an instructive example where exclusivity seems to be based more on community definition and acceptence into the skin group or wider Aborigional community. Biological ‘testing’ would be abhorrent. But I’d contest the way identity us defined will go through phases as rights are distributed and a swell of discontent from the excluded forces redefinition. I’m not solving it here, but you can see why an ethical position on this should be important to formulate on the basisis (at least) of intergenerational equity).

    1. Nadira Faulmueller

      Please don’t get me wrong. I am totally aware of how problematic the term “race” is (from a scientific point of view) and I know about the problems arising from labelling (from a psychological point of view). Perhaps I should have made my position more clear: “Such a shift from a biological reductionist to a social constructivist view point can be observed in other domains as well. … I appreciate this development.” (see above).

      Race is a good example for the question I want to raise and I think this question remains unanswered even if we see race as a social construction: Individual people, groups, and whole societies do categorize others. And some categorization in certain domains will always be necessary when a society wants to assign rights and duties to specific groups of people. Should everybody be allowed to categorize themselves when it comes to domains important for their personal identity? Or should there be “objective indicators”? (If we rejected skin colour or other biological factors as an indicator for race/ethnicity should we use religion or language instead? This might not solve the problem…) Is it all about science revealing the “true” elements of a category?

  2. I am reminded of the issues the Swedish association for afro-swedes (an organisation for people in Sweden with a background in Africa) apparently had when a white South-African wanted to join. That caused some upset, perhaps because it made the implicit categorisation within the organisation of “African” as black rather than coming from Africa rather visible (extra painful for a fairly PC organisation). There have been similar situations when battered transsexuals have wanted to join women’s shelters – do they belong or not?

    Identities need to be acknowledged by others to really work as identities. If I self-identify as X but nobody can be convinced to treat me as X, then it is debatable if I really have X as identity (maybe a self-image, but not really an identity). But there might not be a need for many people to agree with my X-identity for it to be worthwhile and useful to me. Otherkin do not need that many web-friends to feel their identity as a dragon in a human body affirmed, despite the scorn of the rest of society.

    Conversely groups might recognize this and act as gatekeepers of identity: they might demand a certain allegiance in exchange for the identity. Sometimes this might be formal as in family membership (consider the Jefferson-Hemings controversy) or clan membership (tribal membership controversies), but I suspect much of it is informal agreement to meet certain standards (being a “true” academic, socialist or Scotsman). It seems that the real ethical issue here is how strict these demands can be. If it was just a fair trade of rights and obligations I don’t think there would be an issue, but often the emotional and self-image aspects put the individual at the mercy of the gatekeeper groups.

  3. The subject in hand has always been a controversial one indeed. What defines ‘race’? There is no such thing really, by all means we will all have biological differences but there is only one human race in this world. The ideology of ethnicity and race is an entirely man made dogma created to be just another form of what seems to be a human need to label, which as you mentioned is of course a ‘fundamental function of human cognition’. In this article the concept of race seems to be given a lot more significance than necessary in terms of scientific attributes, which i consider to be redundant. “Race” or ethnicity is a purely social concept, the mere fact that one is a few shades lighter or darker than another bears no actual significance to a person’s actual identity, this perception is purely through observed stereotypes within certain ethnic groups, which in modern times are mostly inaccurate. I disregard and highly disapprove the concept of ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ being acknowledged as part of a person’s unique identity. This is only damaging and leads to more unnecessary social divides. Humans should not be categorized from anything involving biological ethnicity. I have witnessed situations where people who were born and raised in the UK as well as their immediate ancestors, are considered “black” african and are increasingly upset from being labelled and connected to a country they know next to nothing about, stating that they are as ‘british as a white person’ and should not be labelled or judged based on their skin color because they do not identity as ‘africans’ but are forced to tick the box when confronted with forms for work/university that require this. I believe the least unsuccessful and problematic method of recording such information should relate to nationality only. Why should a ‘white’ south African not be able to identify himself as african, when that is indeed his nationality/ethnic group? Why should the lightness of his skin render him unable to identify with his country where he was brought up and raised? This sense of identity(concerning ethnic groups) should be a personal choice and should ceased to be monitored by anyone other than the individual it concerns. Your article seems to view this form of labeling as something that is almost essential or even necessary, one could of course argue that records of a persons nationality may be useful but for a form of categorizing involving skin colour/physical attributes seems to be primitively unessential and problematic, especially in times when a fight to successfully bury racism is at hand. The social divide between certain ethnic groups will not erase if it supported by the government.

  4. Coming from a part of the world where no one has ever asked me for my “race”, I cannot help but asking a naive question: why do we at all need race to be censed? If it is needed in order to facilitate access to universities, etc., to disadvantaged races, would not it be enough to guarantee a fixed number of places to people coming from less literate backgrounds/less wealthy families, etc.?

    1. I don’t understand why racial identification has to be seen so differently from other types of identification when it comes to monitoring equal opportunities e.g. in admittance to a university as a student, or educational attainment in state schools, when there is clear evidence that race makes a difference, even when controlling for other variables. If, for example, school teachers are discriminating against black boys or Pakistani girls, they need to be presented with data. Is identifying your racial background really more problematic than having to reveal your socio-economic background or family literacy level? If we want racial groups to have equal status in practice, don’t we all need to be comfortable with our racial backgrounds as an intrinsic part of our identity and use them to reduce stereotyping? Is it naive to say race does not play a part in our values, beliefs, behaviours, choices, etc? Our cultural backgrounds are generally accepted to affect all these things. Can we really separate race from culture, and why should we want to?

      1. Rachel, there can be infinite discriminations. I often feel discriminated because I am vegetarian. At the last conference I attended (5th to 12th January), Catholics felt discriminated because they had to skip the 6th January’s mess. Picnics in May discriminate people who suffer because of allergy… Would you cense all possible variables? This is by definition impossible, thus one needs to focus on crucial issues (and I do not think that race is among them). Alternatively, one could define the general principle of Non-Discrimination without having to unfold all possible cases.

  5. Some genetic populations have a greater susceptibility to particular diseases. And these populations seem to correlate rather well with the popular understanding of races. e.g. from wikipedia:

    “Cystic fibrosis is the most common life-limiting autosomal recessive disease among people of European heritage.

    Sickle-cell anemia is most prevalent in populations of sub-Saharan African ancestry, but it is also common among Latin-American, Indian, Saudi Arab, and Mediterranean populations such as Turkey, Greece, and Italy.[7][8]

    Tay-Sachs Disease is an autosomal recessive disorder that is more frequent among Ashkenazi Jews than among other Jewish groups and non-Jewish populations.[9]

    Hereditary hemochromatosis is most common among those of Northern European ancestry, in particular those of Celtic descendent.

    Lactose intolerance is another examples of single gene genetic disorders that differ in frequency between populations”

    So from the perspective of trying to ensure a country has the right balance of healthcare provisions to provide for its citizens, it seems reasonable to take these genetic factors into account. Of course, for the most accurate picture, a government would know about the entire genetic makeup of its citizens and could look at genetic risk factors directly, without having to classify anyone as being in a particular group. But doing this would no doubt be incredibly expensive and challenging, and could raise bigger issues than simply using racial groups as a guideline. This is similar to a government knowing how many people smoke so they can roughly calculate how many people will get lung cancer (even though many smokers will not get lung cancer, and some non-smokers will).

    1. Does the US government cense smokers or drinkers? Does it cense people with high-pressure? If not, your reasoning is only an after-thought.

      1. If it does not, then all that means is that the US government can’t claim the *census* is at all for biomedical purposes. Which I doubt it claims anyway.

        It doesn’t mean collecting race data (and indeed smoking/drinking etc) *can’t* be for biomedical purposes, merely that the current methodology of the *census* is not aimed at that. Other surveys presumably are aimed at health.

        1. Matt, I thought your medical examples were meant to explain why it is useful to include race in the census. If there are other biomedical surveys which include race because of the reasons you mention, I can see your point. But, as for the census, could we go back to the main question, i.e., does it STILL make sense to cense race? Would not other indicators be more reliable and of greater general utility (i.e., able to yield information useful for several purposes)? The last time I have been censed, for instance, several questions focused on whether I had accesss to a sewage system, drinkable water, etc.

  6. Not the first time someone’s mentioned Haidt… at the risk of some digression, I find this bit interesting: “As a social psychologist I cannot help being politically liberal.”

    I appreciate you’re being a bit flippant, but it’s an atrocious argument. Imagine: “As a member of group X, I cannot help being of political affiliation Y.” Try a few nouns for X and Y and you’ll soon persuade yourself that the “cannot help” bit is (a) wrong and (b) a piece of explaining away. [Imagine, for instance, the claim, backed by similarly compelling statistics, that “As a US Senator for South Carolina in the 1910s I cannot help being pro-segregation.” We’d all be quick to point out the flaws in that one…]

    Mostly, though, I’m kind of intrigued at the complacency with which Haidt’s arguments have been received. Usually, statistics like those among academics showing gross statistical underrepresentation regarding an important source of social diversity are greeted with much soul-searching and attempts to improve diversity. But with this one, everyone just smiles and winks. But why should we think political diversity doesn’t matter at all, given the lengths we go to to ensure diversity in so many other ways? One obvious response is that politics is chosen and race and gender aren’t. But religion and cultural affiliation are chosen (at least partly) and we go some ways to being sensitive towards those forms of human diversity. Why should politics be any different? [given that politics is only partly chosen, too…] I suspect the reason is that politics might actually matter… and that being inclusive of forms of diversity that are unthreatening to you is easy, whereas being inclusive of forms of diversity that challenge you is hard. Just as embracing racial diversity was stressful and difficult for many white people brought up in the Jim Crow era American South, I don’t expect modern liberal academics would find it easy to embrace political diversity in their own institutions.

    But I also think universities need to address this one. Where important, elite institutions are so alienated from large sections of the population, bad political karma emerges. The reason people tolerate elites like us is because we bring something important to society. But where large swathes of society – correctly – perceive elites to be completely failing to represent their perspectives, they get angry, and if they have a good case (and Haidt has shown they do) then it undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the discrimanatory institution(s). Personally I think this is a really important issue of practical ethics for universities.

    PS – I feel somehow obliged to add that I do not self-identify as a conservative. I usually call myself a moderate or a liberal (UK sense).

    1. Why assume institutions are discriminatory, rather than it being the case that conservatives are generally less inclined towards seeking careers in academia?

      1. Matt wrote: “Why assume institutions are discriminatory, rather than it being the case that conservatives are generally less inclined towards seeking careers in academia?”

        That’s possible. But (1) I note that most on the academic left completely reject similar arguments in the case of, for instance, women occupying senior positions in private sector companies, black people entering academia, or students from disadvantaged backgrounds (incl racial minorities) entering tertiary education, and; (2) “generally less inclined towards seeking careers” might explain a bit of a gap between the proportion of conservatives in the population and the proportion of conservatives in academic. But this is a *huge* gap.

        I can certainly see how you could produce the staggering political homogeneity of the social sciences via a sort of Schelling tipping argument.* That sort of account would suggest the macro-scale uniformity is an unintended consequence of fairly weak individual preferences for fellow travellers. [Though that causal explanation still wouldn’t justify the homogeneity, normatively – we observe a staggering lack of representation of a very important dimension of social diversity in key public institutions. Schelling’s model involves individuals expressing private preferences through private transactions (buying and selling houses). Yet it strikes as us leading to socially undesirable consequences (segregated neighbourhoods). Even though on some metrics no one is doing anything “wrong” most of us (me, too) find the distributional implications of that behaviour normatively unjustified. And the academic case would be worse, since academics are hiring and promoting (or not) their “neighbours”, rather than just choosing to move on if the “neighbours” change.]


        1. Well, with women and ethnic minorities etc, we have no reason to think that there is any particular reason for them to not be interested in academic research. But research requires considering new arguments and new data, which seems to be generally in opposition to conservative thinking, at least conservative in the literal ‘resisting-change’ sense of the word.

          1. That claim’s based on more stuff from Haidt et al, that conservatives are generally psychologically less open to new experiences.

          2. Interesting. But (1) there’s no reason why new arguments and data should oppose rather than endorse conservative *political* thinking. It depends. You only get that equivalence between new research and political leftism is you accept some sort of progressivism, which conservatives don’t, so I don’t see why they should buy your argument, and hence why they would be put off. (2) Hostility to new ideas doesn’t seem to stop conservatives from being entrepreneurs, which is a far wilder ride than academia is, so I find the argument kind of weak. (3) Academics resist change in a big way (eg Kuhn) and the institutions are large and slow changing, so if anything I’d have expected over-representation of a conservative turn of mind in academia, and you need to remember that this is quite different from political conservatism – a person with a conservative turn of mind brought up as a Marxist will probably remain one, rather than magically become a political conservative… (4) Even if it were true that political conservatives – in general – had a preference for things other than non-academic careers, you’d need some sort of amplifying mechanism to turn that preference into the staggering levels of under-representation we see here. [The physical sciences and medical sciences have less of this bias – if Haidt’s explanation for his data were good, you’d think that they’d have the same sorts of conservative/liberal ratios. But they don’t.]

            To me – having moved from a physical science setting to a social science setting – it’s blindingly obvious that there’s a huge amount of bias against conservative and even moderate views. I find it fascinating to hear social scientists try to justify it. [At the same time, social scientists are from noticibly more privileged backgrounds than physical scientists… it’s all a bit disorienting.]

            1. (1) I would say that historically, new arguments (at least in science) have opposed conservative thinking, especially if based on religion (e.g. Copernicus and Darwin). It has also, to a great extent, supported progressivism by supporting the rights of women, ethnic minorities, gay people, and also animals. Generally, the more we learn, the more we realise that boundaries have been social constructs rather than there being any intrinsic reason for various groups to automatically be considered superior to others. Science has generally been pro-egalitarian rather than pro-hierarchy.

              I’m not sure what you mean by conservative *political* thinking. Do you mean in terms of economics? Because that is one area where, to me, it is far from clear whether science supports being more progressive or liberal (obviously this depends on what one takes to be the morally optimum outcome, but if we assume ‘promoting well-being’ to be the goal, then to me it seems that the best economic position would be one that both allows a degree of economic growth and innovation, but without allowing the distribution of wealth to be excessively unequal). I would suspect there to be more conservative academic economists than conservative scientists, though maybe they would seek work in conservative think-tanks as an alternative to state-funded academia.

              (2) Perhaps we again need to distinguish between social and economic conservatives in this regard? Social conservatives may be put off by the uncertainty of science, or the challenges the evidence presents to their worldview. Perhaps economic conservatives simply object to doing state-funded jobs?

              (3) Slow changing in comparison to what?

              1. “I would say that historically, new arguments (at least in science) have opposed conservative thinking”

                But science is not where we observe the huge under-representation of self-identifying conservatives – we see that in the social sciences. And I don’t think science supports progressivism by supporting the rights of x, y or z because science isn’t normative. Science has zero to say about, for instance, affirmative action. And it’s neither pro nor anti- egalitarian because science isn’t the sort of thing that can form intentions in that way.

                In terms of conservative political thinking I guess I mean social conservatives and people of a neoliberal bent in economics (since these are usually opposed to the state-led progressivism with which I identify the academic left) as well as people of a Bismarckian or Burkean inclination who think that historical circumstance is a crucial dimension of politics (as opposed to the more abstracted, decontextrualised and principled reasoning deployed by liberals). [But I actually think the economists we’re talking about aren’t necessarily “conservatives” per se; they just have to form an alliance of convenience with conservatives to oppose all those Guardian reading hipsters.]

                While I agree that there’s a lot of disagreement about which way economics points politically (and it is far more normative than natural science because of the subject matter – monetary economics bears a proximity to politics and policy in a way in which cosmology or cloud physics don’t) I don’t agree that every other research field is inherently progressive or left-wing. It may be that sociology, human geography, political theory etc have developed that way, but maybe that’s just because they’re populated overwhelmingly by people who are developing research programmes stuctured around left-wing thinking. That process would obviously put off conservatives from joining academia. But note that we would normally think this is a problem – is a significant minority don’t enter a field because of institutional bias, we usually think that’s a reason to try to do something about the bias.

                I don’t think (2) is very strong – some of the biggest social conservatives I know are scientists (actually they love the comparative certainty of science compared with the uncertainty they see in other walks of life) and when I worked at the NZ Treasury there were a fair few libertarians who justified their jobs on the basis that it was better that they grazed on the largesse of the state than someone who might try to expand the state. They could at least provide a voice against state expansion.

                On (3) – compared to organisations that face competitive pressures to innovate.

    2. Nadira Faulmueller

      Thank you for your comment, Dave. I follow the discussion between Matt and yourself with great interest.

      My sentence “As a social psychologist I cannot help being politically liberal.” was not intended to be more than a flippant joke. Of course I see that as an argument it is complete nonsense.

      That I nonchalantly wrote down this joke, however, is quite revealing indeed. It might well be that I’d get upset over a similar joke coming from “the other” political side. The bias amongst my own peer group towards political liberalism, however, seemed to be no problem to me. Independent of whether or not there are good arguments for defending this position, I have to admit that on my side there was a great deal of mere thoughtlessness going on when I made the joke. I now realize that I did not think “unselfish” enough about Haidt’s findings and also that it is absolutely debatable if the liberality-bias is a no more than a little foible… Thanks for making me think, Dave!

      1. Hi Nadira – thanks for your reply, and sorry about the digression… but I do think it’s interesting and I’m glad you think so too. I think it’s interesting because if it turned out that judges, senior BBC staff or senior civil servants, for instance, were all card-carrying Tories or Republicans, academics would be the very first people to complain about political bias. But they like to pretend there isn’t a problem in their own sector. I don’t think they’d regard conservative political bias in (say) the BBC or legal system as a “little foble”. As it is I think many social science academics regard left-wing bias as simply the “natural” view that emerges if you educate intelligent people, in spite of the obvious problems with such a view.

        [The reason this irritates me is because I’d love to write more with social scientists but find this a barrier. As I said earlier I’m a moderate, but by the standards of climate change social science that places me quite far from the mode of the political distribution…]

  7. Nadira Faulmueller

    Thanks to all others as well! I really enjoy hearing your opinions on this complicated matter.

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