Who am I? The role of identity in postmodern culture

by Lin Yung Cheng

Although many say that  identity issue is an obsession of XXI century (or maybe the whole period that we call postmodernism) we keep trying to define what an identity is, and our identity as well. It seems like  a big problem in a world that everything is uncertain and relative. However the question of identity doesn’t seem misguided. The one that can be the problem is the answer.


What is identity?

What exactly is an identity? The simplest explanation is – the answer to the question  Who am I? It seems as a cliche, but the truly it is a very difficult question. The identity itself is a complex phenomenon that is subject to many changes and it is build of the personal characteristic of the individual and the cultural values of the group¹.

There are two schools of identity. One says that it is generated by external conditions (Chicago school) and other that it is generated inside the self (Iow’s school). It seems that the answer is somewhere between those two schools.

The term identity was brought to the popular discourse by American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. His most known work Childhood and society (1950) describes 8 stages of psychological development from childhood to adulthood. “During each stage, the person experiences a psychosocial crisis which could have a positive or negative outcome for personality development².” The development is based on the conflict between superego (society) and id (personal needs). – we can see the influence of Sigmund Freud. However, Erikson was the first psychoanalyst who declared that  ego is the center of the self not, like Freud thought, id. Ego has to be the mediator between superego (outside world, culture) and id (instinct and emotional needs). In every crisis of those 8 stages ego learns how to mediate between those two elements that are influencing on identity.

psychosocial stages summary table

source: www.simplypsychology.org

After Erikson other scholars started to define two types of identity shaping, eg.:

  • personal and social identity by Jonathan Turner
  • two type of self-conception – external and internal in social psychology
  • self conception and self image by Ralph Turner.

Self conception is based on the continuum of the self. That means, the person sees him/herself as an integrated entity in the past, present and future. It is also associated with  memory of the past generations – ancestors and rootedness which is the same as the sense of belonging.  The  external self conception is based on the social roles and associated with  social actor term, first used by Canadian anthropologist and sociologist Erving Goffman ( The presentation of the self in everyday life, 1959).  In this work Goffman demonstrate how the person plays roles in society and why.

However, R. Turner distinguishes also the self image (Social psychology, 1990) that is like a  photo – the image of the person in instant moment. In contrary, the self conception is changing slowly and develops to the complex, consistent  and stable fullness. In the impression of the entity it is something that you can not get rid of³ – that means something given.

As we can see, we can distinguish 2 kinds of identity:

  • internal
  • external

The first one is based on the inner world, it can be called personal identity and it can be correlated with id and unconsciousness. The external identity is a social identity, so it is consisted of  social roles that are “played” by the person as a social actor. It is correlated with superego  and fulfilling the expectations of society. Between those parts of identity there is ego that needs to mediate.

However, in my opinion the self-conception is something different than that characteristic of identity. As the name says itself, it is correlated with consciousness, because the word “conception” indicates concept, idea. Also it means the act of conceiving, so it refers to something basic, to the beginning.   And as I mentioned, the entity has an impression, according to  Turner, that self-conception is something that is given, something that you can not get rid of easily. Summering, in my opinion, self-conception is a core of identity and it is located somewhere between the internal and external identity. The task of ego is to learn about this core and try to reconcile it to the social and internal world. The internal world is understood here not as a place of the core but more as  id – the part of the self that contains instincts, archetypes, fantasies and emotional needs. So we can understand it as part of the self not as a self itself.

Meanwhile, the self-image is something instant. It can be associated with the role of a social actor, however the social role can be played for a long time, so it is not identical to it. Self image can be similar to the Proteus effect but not limited to the virtual world. According to Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson, avatars used in virtual reality have influence on person’s behavior in real life.

In 2 experimental studies, we explore the hypothesis that an individual’s behavior conforms to their digital self-representation independent of how others perceive them— a process we term the Proteus Effect. In the first study, participants assigned to more attractive avatars in immersive virtual environments were more intimate with confederates in a self-disclosure and interpersonal distance task than participants assigned to less attractive avatars. In our second study, participants assigned taller avatars behaved more confidently in a negotiation task than participants assigned shorter avatars♠.

According to this study the perceiver can determinate the behavior of the subject, who is trying to fulfill his/her expectations. And this can refer not only to the virtual reality, but also to the real life and in that case the Proteus effect is determining the self-image.

As we can predict,  mental health of a person is correlated with the proper development of the self. Any disorder of the balance between the elements of the self, according to Erikson, can lead to the diffusion of  identity – the lack of integration and synthesis of ego.

The entity in this state only has separate roles, he/she is lost in their selection and reconciliation with each other. He/she also has difficulty adjusting its limited equipment to perform selected or imposed roles. Thus he/she loses sense of continuity of the self. This condition also results in reduced immunity of the unit to environmental pressures♣.

The role of identity in postmodernism

Postmodernism is a period of western culture that was created in the philosophy, art and literature in the second part of XX century. It was born in consequence of II World War and the collapse of big ideologies that were supposed to lead to the utopia of rationality, invented during the period of the Enlightenment.  That leaded to the rejection of grand narratives or “metanarratives” – the conception of the world or history order that leads to the “end of the history”, fulfillment of utopia and triumph of rationality (Hegel, Marx etc.). This kind of approach generated  skepticism and irony.

However, according to the postmodern philosopher – Jean-François Lyotard, the end of metanarratives can be a great change that leads to the small narratives, life stories. There isn’t one truth, actually there is no truth, because everything is in constant change. There are no criteria of judgment – everything is relative. This should lead to the tolerance and admission for all narratives.

This idea is of course the answer to modernism, to which postmodernism is referring as post, trans or  negation. And so, if the modernism is crystallized and stable, postmodernism is fluent and changeable. If  modernism is conservative and rational, postmodernism is liberal and doesn’t believe in rationality (if it’s emotional? it’s a bit to easy to say,  remember that it is negation not something different, so it needs the relation). In conclusion, postmodernism can not exist without modernism. Quoting Sigmund Bauman, “Postmodernism is just modernism entering to the adulthood♥.”

Furthermore, postmodernism is concentrated on the self-observation and on the self generally. Its narcissist overview can refer to the so called obsession of identity.  But it doesn’t mean that the postmodern identity is well defined. As everything is fluent and unstable, so is seen the postmodern identity that can be called, by Robert Jay Lifton, as Protean self (from the Greek god Proteus that changed his form).

Proteanism is a XX (and XXI) century phenomenon, that is global.  It contains the integration and disintegration of the self correlated with dislocation – there are no limits, no territory, no authorities to tell the people what to do. That means there is no system, only a lot of subsystems♦.

That’s why the Protean self needs to adapt and change, it needs to be fluent as the world that we live in. However, those circumstances can lead to the  diffusion of  identity, when the self is concentrated on the self-image more than the self-conception. In that way its identity is based on the played social roles, it doesn’t have the core. And this, as we remember, can lead to the lost of “sense of continuity of the self” which can reduce immunity to environmental pressures.

A person is disintegrated, so he/she is alienated because of the fear of losing her/his autonomy. That generates isolation and egocentrism at the micro and lack of tolerance, ethnocentrism at the macro level. This type of the self is pathological and we can call it a Trickster self because of its fluency and changes, but to distinguish it from the Protean self (that is not pathological, it just adapts to the circumstances of postmodern culture). As the second one adapts and changes in the process, the first one tries to play different roles at one time and it does not have the core, so it loses the self-conception and self-awareness (the person can not answer the question Who am I?)

So as we can see, at the one hand, the postmodern culture develops the changeable and adaptable Protean self, but at the other hand, it can generate the diffusion of identity that leads to Trickster self and identity crises correlated to the obsession of identity. And this seems to be the problem that postmodernism has with identity. That also explains its obsession about it.

The postmodern threat of modern fanatic identity

The postmodern fluency, lack of system and relativism supposed to be the answer to modern conservatism, the cult of rationality and totalitarianism that evolved basing on those ideas.  Modern rationalism, since Enlightenment, claims to pure rationality◊.  The nationalism – ideology based on modern values – was a big threat after the WWII. That’s why an undefined identity seemed to be a good idea to fight this threat (as an opposition to fanatic identity, which in postmodernism is identical to nationalistic identity). Declaring that everything is relative and there isn’t one truth supposed to block the possibility of repeating the horror of another global conflict. That’s why the postmodern identity is afraid of declarations and sharp boundaries, heading to cosmopolitanism.

This of course leads to the world that we know today – liberal, open, based on international agreements such as European Union. But it can also lead to opposite values because of identity’s diffusion that generates lack of tolerance, confusion, search for stability, that in paradox can lead to looking up to the past, nationalism, etc.

Strong identity – is it the end of postmodernism?

As we could see, the fanatic identity is not actually based on modern, nationalistic values like, eg. crystallization, sharp boundaries or rationality. It is often correlated with identity diffusion and the lack of core, so it is a weak identity that fears of loosing its autonomy, what leads to lack of tolerance and alienation. Opposite to it is not undefined but strong identity which contains: 

  • Strong ego (self awareness) as a mediator between super ego – social world/culture and id – inner world and emotional needs.
  • The presence of the core – self-conception – that allows entity play social roles but with out loosing the  continuum of the self, its integration.

In that case we have an identity that is not ego(ethno)centric and tolerant to others, because it doesn’t have a fear of loosing its autonomy. Also the obsession of defining itself disappears, because the feeling of integration of the self is present.

However, we must ask the question, is this type of identity is still postmodern identity? On the one hand, the Protean self can be a strong identity that is adaptable to changes (and somehow it seems that the strong identity needs to be like that). On the other hand the postmodern values can generate undefined, relative identity, without its core (Tricster self). Those values are the negation of modern values that lead to fanatic identity. Meanwhile the strong identity should be based on the other values, that are not related to modernity. It needs a totally different discourse that allows development of a core and ego.


¹J. Nikitorowicz, Pogranicze tożsamość edukacja międzykulturowa, Trans Humana, Białystok 1995, p. 67.

² Source: simplypsychology.org, 14.9. 2017.

³ J. Nikitorowicz, op. cit., p. 70.

♠ N. Yee,  J. Bailenson, The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior, source: vhil.stanford.edu, 14.9.2017.

♣  J. Nikitorowicz, op. cit., p. 73.

♥ S. Bauman, Modernity and the ambivalence, New York  1991, p. 214.

♦R. J. Lifton, The Protean Self, Chicago and London 1993, p. 16 – 17.

◊ Ibidem, p. 15.

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