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Key Theme 5: Expressing Identity

Who am I? What group do I belong to? Who are my friends? Who are my enemies? What is my identity?

The sense of identity is not unique to humans. All animals protect themselves. To do so, they have to be able to distinguish between members of their own species and “outsiders.” They know, in some sense, to what group they belong and who their enemies are. So our need for identity probably has deep roots in our biology. In the animal world, identity can be a matter of life and death. An antelope that cannot distinguish between hungry lions and other antelopes will not last long. Much the same is true in the human world. Among your own family and friends, you will generally find protection. Among aliens, you will often find indifference, sometimes even hostility. So, knowing your identity is like knowing where your home base is. All humans need to know to which groups they belong.

Being able to think about your identity, however, is rather different. This requires language. So it seems likely that only humans can be aware of their identity. Being conscious of your identity also allows you to manipulate it, to change how others perceive you. (Some animals such as chameleons “camouflage” themselves, but this appears to be instinctive behavior.) Evidence from the paleolithic era of people deliberately manipulating their personal identity includes bodily ornamentation, such as painting the body with pigment of ochre, a type of colored earth.

Marks on the body, such as paint, tattoos, scars, or piercings, make powerful statements about who you are. Are you of high status or low? A man or a woman? A hunter or a potter? A factory worker or an executive? In all societies that we know of hair styles, clothing, facial makeup, and gestures act as markers of identity. Even today, people can immediately tell a lot about one another by looking at dress, hair, makeup, and posture.

Awareness of our identity is important because it helps us make our way through the world. Knowing who we are helps us know what we need to do, what is expected of us, and how others will react to us. It is intimately associated with our sense of well-being and self-respect. Many soldiers have died defending flags. Though a flag might seem to be a piece of cloth to some, it might be a potent symbol of family, honor, or national identity to those who fight for it. So identity is a powerful motivator in all human societies, and that is why students of history must take it seriously.


The flag of Morocco is a powerful symbol of national
identity for the people of that country.
R. Dunn

To get a sense of how important our sense of identity is, try to think of what it would be like if you suddenly lost your identity. Imagine if you forgot your name, and lost all documents proving who you are. This idea has provided the plot of a number of good movie thrillers, including “The Wrong Man,” “The Net,” and “Memento.” What would you do? How easy would it be to survive, even in a modern society? In many earlier human communities, those without an identity were made outcasts. One of the worst punishments anyone could suffer was to be banished from one’s family or foraging band. Without an identity you lost your rights to land, friendship, and support.

Alfred Hitchcock

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller “The Wrong Man,”
Henry Fonda plays a man whose life is shattered
because he is wrongly identified as a criminal.

Henry Fonda Gallery

Throughout history people have used many different ways of expressing and thinking about their identities. In small communities, the sense of identity has normally depended on knowing your family, your “kin.” The sense of kinship could be extremely complicated. Modern anthropologists who study small-scale societies often have to draw up complex maps to trace the kinship links between different groups and to show how they intermarry or exchange gifts. On your father’s side you might inherit rights to one piece of land and on your mother’s side to another piece. Other relationships might determine who you could marry, what occupation you could have, and so on. Knowing who you are meant knowing your kin relationships to other people.

A sense of place has also been important in establishing identity. The landscapes of a person’s home country were an intimate part of his or her sense of belonging. For indigenous people today, a sense of having a homeland is vital for survival. The land is often a symbolic “mother” or “father,” and people may identify themselves with a particular mountain, desert, forest, or river. For travelers or exiles, yearnings for one’s home country may sometimes seem unbearable.

About 10,000 years ago, human communities began to grow larger, and many new kinds of relationships appeared. Kinship alone could no longer describe all the types of identity that individuals had to be aware of. New markers of identity began to overlay the basic sense of family and place. In large villages people might feel a sense of closeness to their neighbors even if they were not family. Sometimes, people tried to preserve a traditional sense of family by claiming that all members of a particular community shared the same distant ancestors. Rulers and chiefs might use this extended sense of kinship to claim a role as symbolic father or mother of their people. Anthropologists often define the term “tribe to mean the largest group of people that claims descent from a common ancestor. A tribe may be divided into smaller kinship groups called clans and even smaller ones, perhaps of only a few generations, labeled lineages.

In large, settled communities, where people came to live together in the thousands, this way of thinking lost its potency. New markers of identity appeared as people found themselves dealing more frequently with complete strangers. Members of different trades often identified themselves by their clothing and costumes. Soldiers and officials wore uniforms. So did butchers and bakers. In many societies, people showed what social class or profession they belonged to by what they wore. For example, in some societies, only aristocrats were allowed to carry weapons or ride horses. Even today, many Roman Catholic nuns wear the “habits,” or distinctive clothing, of medieval nuns. Judges in Britain and other countries still wear the white wigs that eighteenth century aristocrats sported.

As people traveled more, they became aware of belonging to huge communities, most of whose members they would never meet. They identified themselves as members of those communities in many different ways. Peoples’ religion, for example, advertised who they were and with whom they shared loyalties. Members of one religious group might wear their hair short, while others wore it long or covered it with caps or veils. In warfare, the clothing soldiers wore identified which side they were on. Many a war has been fought over identities expressed in clothing and ornamentation—think of the War of the Roses in fifteenth century England (1483-85). The two sides in this struggle adopted roses as their symbols of identity and loyalty, one faction a white rose and the other a red one. As societies became larger, central governments almost always expressed their power and prestige in the monuments they built and the art they sponsored. The Egyptian pyramids, the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the tattoos of a Papua New Guinean clan leader all express a sense of political identity.


This Korean man identifies himself as a
Buddhist monk by shaving his head, wearing
distinctive clothing, and performing particular rituals.

R. Dunn

Graduation Walking

These individuals are asserting their identities as academic
scholars in Cambridge University. They wear these black gowns,
however, only on special occasions.

R. Dunn

Language has been one of the most powerful markers of cultural identity. Visitors in a foreign city who speak the same language will often find instant rapport and feel a sense of trust. This is a reason why merchant or business groups have often preferred to deal with members of their own linguistic community. In nineteenth century Russia, villagers who migrated to big towns in search of work often sought out “zemlyachestva,” or communities of fellow villagers, who might look after them.

In the modern world, we all have multiple loyalties and identities, not just one set of them. Taken together, they make up our overall sense of identity, which tends to be fluid and adjustable, not fixed. We have coexisting identities as children and parents, members of ethnic or religious groups, citizens of countries, affiliates of political parties, or fans of particular football teams. The way we express identity often depends on particular social contexts or situations. For example, an American teenager whose immigrant parents speak little English is likely to express one social identity at home and a somewhat different one at school. Or, a family may feel a strong, positive sense of identity with the neighbors on its street, but in a dispute with a neighbor over the location of a property fence, family bonds take priority.

Large numbers of people may be part of groups that one scholar has named “imagined communities.” These are groups whose members by and large do not personally know one another and that exist as much in people’s imagination as in real relationships. Imagined communities create a sense of what the group’s “home” is. The modern nation-state is one of the most powerful of these imagined communities. You are identified as a citizen of this or that state, and you have the right to that state’s passport. Like all imagined communities, the modern state lives in our mind but is also very real to us.

In time of war, it is dangerous to identify yourself as a member of an enemy state. Members of the same state feel a common sense of identity because they share things like subjection to a set of laws, liability to military service, obligation to pay taxes, observance of national holidays, or study of a standard history curriculum in school. Often, people express a deep emotional attachment to their national identity. And governments usually do everything they can to encourage their citizens to identify with the state, particularly in times of crisis. The way of thinking, or ideology that we call nationalism is the modern form of identity that links citizens powerfully to their own governments.

Constructing accounts of history is one of the most powerful ways of creating an imagined community. Reading and thinking about the history of groups to which you belong is a way of identifying yourself with the other members who came before you and with their ideals and beliefs. To identify yourself as a Roman Catholic during the religious wars of sixteenth-century Europe was to identify yourself as an enemy of Protestantism and its goals. To identify yourself as a citizen of the Soviet Union during the Cold War meant identifying with the ideology of socialism. The individuals who wrote great national histories in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, such as Thomas Macaulay in Britain or Charles Beard in the United States, helped create in millions of readers a powerful sense of “belonging”. This is why the teaching of national histories has been so important in the modern world. Governments understand perfectly well that the way people think about the past affects the way they think about the present and where they place their loyalties and affections. And in a crisis they know that citizens who have a strong sense of national identity will fight, even die, for the national state.

Uncle Sam
Uncle Sam with Flag, 1898 Photograph
Uncle Sam as a symbolic
representation of the United
States dates to the War of 1812.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Reproduction number LC-USZ62-77900

History serves not only national identity, but other identities as well. It may even help create new and powerful ways of thinking about identity. For example, the gendered history of recent decades has thrown into relief the historical role of women’s groups and the shared sense of identity that communities of women have possessed. Twentieth-century historians devoted to Marxist ideology have written books about working class life that helped create a sense of solidarity among industrial workers. Ethnic groups from African Americans to Aboriginal Australians to French Canadians have felt empowered by histories describing the trials and achievements of their own imagined communities.

This discussion of identity and history raises a final question relevant to the study of world history. Is it possible to write a history that creates a sense of shared identity among all humans, the largest imagined community of all? Surely, this should be one of the underlying goals of world history teaching and learning.

Why Do We Need to Understand This Key Theme?

  • Knowing who we are greatly influences how we behave and how others behave toward us. A sense of shared identity expressed in many forms and situations has been a powerful shaper of human action throughout history. It can motivate people as powerfully as the desire for wealth or power, and it can lead to both horror and heroism.

  • History as a discipline is very much about identity. Learning about the past means learning about the identities of many sorts of communities and how those identities may have appeared, changed, and vanished. Understanding the historical identities of those communities to which we feel we belong is a powerful way of defining our sense of identity in the world. In studying world history, teachers and students may wish to ask whether they can feel a sense of identity with the whole of humanity, the “imagined community” that is the subject of world-scale history.

Key Theme 5

Landscape and Closeup Teaching Units that Emphasize Key Theme 5:

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