The Identity Toolkit

by Antonia Case on December 1, 2013

Sum yourself up in a couple of words. Users of social media do it to introduce themselves online. “Surfer, father, writer, film director.” “Yogi, vego, humanitarian.” “Banker, golfer, traveller.”

You’re unlikely to see someone list their personal ideals, the goals to which they strive, or the principles that govern their behaviour – “Integrity, Love of Virtue, Equality, Freedom.” Why is this?

The way we define ourselves has altered over time, and probably not for the better. Today we classify ourselves into groups – norms and averages – like sociologists. “Mother, part-time graphic designer, photographer.” We don’t think of ourselves as pursuing an ideal, or a standard of perfection or excellence. We are not what we wish to be, only what we already are.

“I’m a banker.” Indeed, you work in a bank. “I’m a surfer.” That’s true, you like to surf.

There was a time when ideals formed the basis of the study of society. Author Daniel J. Boorstin in The Image argues that American historians were once preoccupied with ideals. The struggle for US independence and for the Constitution was written about as a struggle for the ideals of liberty, of democracy.

But in the past century, social scientists threw away the “individualised portrait” in favour of collecting statistics, or “facts” about people to derive medians and averages.

With this data, social scientists built up group caricatures of people in society: the junior executive, the suburban housewife, the artist.

These oversimplified sociological concepts were very helpful in building images, be it for advertisers, marketers, social reformers and so on. “Such caricatures became the image into which an individual was expected (and often tried) to fit,” writes Boorstin. “These soon dominated the ways in which literate Americans thought about themselves. Americans tried to fit themselves into the social science images.”

This subtle change in the way individuals began to define themselves was a godsend for the advertising industry; conversion rates soared and profits ballooned.

Imagine the difficulty of selling a pair of men’s shoes to men pursuing the ideal of virtue; or selling an overpriced car to a woman inspired and driven by the ideal of charity or peace.

Instead, advertisers were able to split the populace up into nice little groupings and hit them hard with images that appealed to their sense of identity.

The “banker/golfer” sports a luxury watch and drives a prestige car. The “yogi/humanitarian” wears bamboo slacks. The “surfer” has a closet-full of surf-branded clothing. A fashion brand portraying “designer” types attracts artistic folk.

Boorstin writes: “Naive emphasis on ideals had at worst tempted men to unrealistic pursuit of an abstract standard of perfection: emphasis on modes and images now tempts us to pursue the phantoms of ourselves.”

Indeed, like a dog chasing its tail, we are intent on collecting images and forming an identity that represents what we already are.

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