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Orthodox accounts of identity assume that the self is something autonomous (being stable and independent of all external influences). Cultural studies draws on those approaches that hold that identity is a response to something external and different from it (an other).


In orthodox European philosophy, at least from Descartes’ writings in the 17th century, it has been assumed that the self (ego or subject) exists as an autonomous source of meaning and agency. Descartes himself found that the only thing that he could not doubt was that he existed, and that this existence took the form of a “thinking substance”. This notion of the autonomous subject, sure of its own identity and continuing throughout the individual human being’s life, was dominant not only in philosophy, but also in political through (notably as a grounding assumption of liberalism).

The idea was questioned however by Scottish philosopher David Hume, in the 18th century. Hume observed that the contents of his consciousness included images of everything of which he was thinking (either directly perceiving or recalling in memory). There was, though, no image of the self that was supposedly doing this perceiving and remembering. Hume therefore proffered what was commonly known as the “bundle theory” of the self, such that the self is nothing more than a bundle of sense impressions, that continually changed as the individual had new experiences or recalled old ones.

In the late 19th century, Emile Durkheim posed a fundamental challenge to liberal individualism. The liberal presupposed the primacy of the individual, and thus that society was composed out of individuals (brought together, for example, in a  social contract). In contrast, Durkheim argued that the individual was a product of society (not that society was a product of individuals). His point was that a modern understanding of individuality was a product of that particular culture. In pre-industrial societies, all members of the society would be similar in attitudes, values and norms. In contrast, in industrial society, with its high degree of specialisation, individualism occurs because people live distinctive lives with distinctive experiences. 

Erving Goffman (1959) suggests that the self is a product of particular interactions, in so far as the individual’s capacities, attitudes and ways of behaving changes as the people around him or her change. Alone, a person is either not self-conscious, in so far as he or she is aware of how he or she would appear to some more or less specific other. The self therefore has no stability, being almost as fluid as the self proposed by Hume.

Psychoanalysis opens up a further series of questions against the orthodox view of identity. For Freud, identity rests on the child’s assimilation of external persons. The self is structured through the relationship of the ego, id and super-ego. While the id is the instinctive substrate of the self, and the super-ego, crucially, is the constraining moral consciousness that is internalised in the process of psychological development, the ego may be understood either as the combination of the id and super-ego, or as an agency separate from these two. The latter is, in the current context, possibly the more interesting, for it suggests that the is never self-identical.

For Jacques Lacan, self-consciousness emerges only at the mirror stage (at approx. 6-18 months). Here the infant recognises its reflection as a reflection of itself. It therefore comes to know itself, not directly, but through the mirror image. The self emerges as the promise of control in the face of the fragmentation that occurs as the child is separated from the mother. The child enters language through the imposition of the law by the father, with the “no” that prohibits incest with the mother. The child desires the mother in order to regain a primal unity. This is a desire to disobey the father’s prohibition, and yet it must be repressed. Thus, Lacan can argue, the unconscious is structured like language. In effect, this is to argue that the self (or the subject) is positioned by language, which is to say that it is positioned as always repressing its own lack of unity.


Louis Althusser’s structuralist version of Marxism offers a parallel account of the subject, albeit now as a product of ideology. Social institutions such as the church, education, police, family and mass media “interpellate” or hail the subject again positioning him or her within society.

The work of Michel Foucault may also be interpreted through the centrality of the question of identity. Thus, in his early work on madness (1971), he analyses how madness is conceived differently in different ages. For Foucault, madness is socially constructed and specific, and historically variable social practices exist to constrain it. Yet, crucially for the 17th and 18th centuries, madness is also the other, in comparison to which the same and rational define themselves. The identity of the dominant group in society therefore depends upon its construction of its own other.

Structuralist and post-structuralist questioning of the nature of self-identity, as found in the work of Lacan, Althusser and Foucault, may also be linked to an identity politics. The recognition that identity is not merely construct, but depends upon some other, opens up the theoretical space for marginal or oppressed groups to challenge and re-negotiate the identities that have been forced upon them in the process domination. Ethnic identities, gay and lesbian identities and female identities are thus brought into a process of political change.