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.
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.
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 http://www.hillebrander.de/fonda.htm
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
Buddhist monk by shaving his head, wearing
distinctive clothing, and performing particular rituals.
These individuals are asserting their
identities as academic
scholars in Cambridge University. They wear these black gowns,
however, only on special occasions.
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
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
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
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.
Landscape and Closeup Teaching Units
that Emphasize Key Theme 5: