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Identity and mobility

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Identity is a vastly debated topic in our everyday conversations with family and friends. It often comes up in academic and non-academic discussions on politics, gender, class and race. What is identity? What makes it so important and what happens to it when individuals move across borders is the theme of discussion of this essay. The British sociologist Kath Woodward defines identity as something that “is always related to the world we live in” (Woodward, 2017). Identity is what makes one the same. Woodward argues that for this sameness to exist, there needs to be an other or different. Identity is also contextual, as an individual brings aspect(s) of themselves to the fore that a specific context demands. In this sense, identity is as much as what is being expressed as what is left unsaid or kept inside, which Woodward calls personality. She argues that “Identity requires some awareness on our part. Personality describes qualities individuals may have, such as being outgoing or shy, internal characterisitcs, but identity requires some element of choice” (Woodward, 2000, 16). Building on Woodward’s definition, I argue that identity is a sum of one’s ideas, experiences and view of themselves in relation to others. I attempt to defend the assertion that identity is a co-construction of the individual and society in which they live.

Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, identity, Woodward claims, does not remain static but it is fluid, as it may change with mobility and changing times and circumstances. However, there are core aspects of one’s identity that do not or may not change. This essay proceeds in four steps. First, it attempts to define identity and mobility, and the personal and relational aspects of identity. Then it expounds the relation between mobility and identity, by reflecting on some of my own experiences as an immigrant in the United States. The role of agency and structure is crucial to the debate on identity. The essay explains the extent and ways in which an individual’s agency and social structure shape their identity. Finally, what is culture, and how it relates to identity? I draw on the ideas and theories of Kath Woodward, Jan Blommaert, Anthony Giddens, Owen Sichone, Robert Thornton and other scholars for presenting my argument.

The notion of identity is not easy to pin down. One may define a particular political or religious identity relatively well and easily, but a general definition of identity is rather difficult because of its vast and varied contours. One way to define identity is that it is the performance of a social script. This script changes with the change in place, with where one finds themselves in the world. Woodward argues that identity is always related to the society individuals live in, and “it is always about what’s inside and what’s outside. It’s always a connection between the I and the ME” (Woodward, 2017). Developed by George Mead, the “I” and “Me” theory explains the interaction between individuals and society. In this theory, “Me” is the socialized self or the object self, in other words, the self we are aware of. “Me,” one can also argue, is the passive self that is molded by interactions with others in the community. By contrast, the “I” is a response to the attitude of the community. Additionally, “I” is a subject and not an object of experience. The “I” phase refers to the part of the self which can be identified with impulse, freedom, and creativity; everything which is unique, idiosyncratic, and uncertain” (Link, 2009). This distinction between the “Me” and “I” can also be looked at as the relational and personal aspects of identity.

Identity, Woodward contends, changes with mobility. Mobility is the movement of individuals within and across borders. This movement is not new, as people have for ages migrated from one place to another in search of safety and a better life. In recent years, political conflicts and environmental changes such as floods and droughts have further expedited migration. For instance, the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have displaced millions as refugees and asylum seekers to the West, where they have been experiencing the rise in right-wing populist and xenophobic politics. The example of this type of xenophobia was President Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” which barred the citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States. The ban was inspired among other factors by xenophobia, “an irrational and debilitating anxiety induced by fear of strangers, foreign things and places” (Sichone, 2008, 255). This fear of strangers and foreign things and people is in a way linked to identity.

Besides the experience of xenophobia, with mobility, the individual comes to occupy a new social situation, which includes other groups with different ideologies, skills, laws, norms and ways of life that shapes his or her identity or perception of themselves in a myriad of ways. Here they have to perform a different social script because they come to grips with the fact that some aspects of their identity no longer carry any or the same value that they did in their place of origin. That is because the meanings of one’s particular cultural resources, such as language, for instance, shift as one moves across borders (Blommaert, 2005, 2). Blommaert examines a letter in English sent to him by a 16-year old Tanzanian girl, Victoria, in which she makes grammatical and linguistic errors. He says that to an average Tanzanian, Victoria’s proficiency in English carries the meanings of intelligence and eliteness, but to an English speaking European it does not indicate such values and is even perceived as inadequate. In the new place, the individual formation of identity also comes to depend on the choices and opportunities he or she can avail of. Access to quality education, public services, employment opportunities, religious and social clubs and other resources has the potential, for instance, to change an individual’s identity in the economic and social sense, as it enables them to move up the social ladder. Passport is an example, as the people of some nations, for instance, American citizens, can roam the world for work, education and fun without a visa, but others, for instance, the people of my home country Pakistan, are restricted. My family applied for a visa to the U.S. two or three times to come to see me, but their application was rejected each time.

This brings me to shed light on some of my personal experiences in the identity-mobility context as an immigrant in the United States. Born and raised in a humble and conservative religious family in rural Pakistan, coming to the United States was a dramatic change in my life in many ways. On arrival, my cultural resource pack, such as brown skin color, foreign accent and the less obvious cultural ethos such as respect for elders and patriarchal and homophobic views were juxtaposed with the views and experiences of American classmates. Collectively, my resource pack, at the beginning particularly (and in some ways to this day), created psychological and psychosocial barriers for me with Americans. For instance, I am usually fine with everyday one-on-one individual conversation but I feel lost in group discussions. This is because a lot of times I am unable to follow them and do not get the jokes and references made to American pop culture, society and sometimes history unfamiliar to me. Sometimes I feel exactly what the Dutch Journalist Frederike Geerdink wrote about her experience in Turkey, “I feel reduced to a quiet, insecure woman (man in my case) who sits there with nothing to say; one thing I am definitely not” (Geerdink, 2015, 78-79). At the beginning of my stay, everything seemed strange: the names of people, streets, food, dogs, cats, and the smell of beer. I was surprised that young Americans had no issue in disagreeing with or questioning their elders. Students had no problem in being blunt with their professors in the classroom. Besides this, my classmates were surprised, although they were very polite, about my views toward homosexuals. In 2011, a friend from Spain at the University of Nebraska asked me what would I do if my son turned out to be gay. I do not believe what I said to her: “I will shoot him.” She said that I could not say such things, which I learned over the years that she was right. From years of socialization and reading, I have realized that in the new place one needs to renegotiate their resource backpack with their newly emerging identity. For instance, regarding my homophobic views, I have realized that as Yuval Hariri in his book 21 Lessons for 21st Century says, my sense of justice may have been out of date (Hariri, 2018), and that it needs to change.

It is not hard to know the reason behind these differences and boundaries, as we come from different social situations with different expectations of normalcy and appropriateness of behaviour. Furthermore, we all classify and categorize based on certain characteristics, from more obvious traits such as color and language to the less obvious like political and religious views, no matter where in the world we are. The categories themselves are not problematic but it is the meanings ascribed to these categories because in that one pursues a hierarchy of values. And sometimes these values provide some groups with the justifications for violence against others, for instance in the case of Nazi Germany against Jews. However these boundaries, according to some, are imagined (Thornton, 1987, 6). One can counter-argue that these boundaries may be imagined but their consequences are real. And even if one supposes that these boundaries are imagined and therefore can be changed by unlearning them, the question remains: Who does the policing of imagined boundaries or how are they come into being? Some say it is a co-construction of both insiders and outsiders of social groups. Boundaries become real when a group of people agrees that they are different from others, who also, in turn, see themselves differently to them. This agreement about certain essential characteristics of insiders alienates the outsiders, who have a commonly perceived attribute of their own that estranges those they consider as outsiders.

Therefore, this co-construction of the ‘other’ perpetuates exclusion and generates the ostensibly “real” boundaries. But, if it is true as Thornton claims that these boundaries are imagined, then they can be unlearned and reconstructed in ways that serve the common interest of all. This unlearning is, however, not easy given the vast socioeconomic inequalities among groups. In many ways, these inequalities create both mental and physical frontiers between groups. Unlearning mental barriers would mean ending socioeconomic injustice and ensuring equality for all regardless of who and where they are in the world. These boundaries and conceptions of sameness and difference are also in a way the implication of how we understand the term “culture.” Thornton argues that there is one culture, not “cultures,” and that culture, just like air and water, can be used as a resource (Thornton, 1987, 5-7). Examples of cultural resources are language, food, religion and much more that all individuals should have equal access to, but whether they do in reality is debatable. In most societies across the world, there are deep social and economic fissures because people do not have equal access to resources.

Another crucial point is the role of agency and structure in the formation of identity. In sociology, there are three theories about the structure and agency debate. First, the objectivists argue that the behavior of individuals is largely formed by their socialization in particular powerful and stable structures such as religious, educational and political institutions. These social structures operate at the macro-level (such as through distinct social classes), meso-level (such as religious or familial structures) and micro-level (such as communal and professional norms and rules) (Gibbs). The social structures at these varying levels, the objectivists argue, constrain agency. Second, the proponents of the agency theory or the subjectivists contend that individuals have the free will to make their own choices and shape social structures. The third view is that neither the objectivist (aka structuralist) nor the subjectivist theory explains the social truth wholly. One of the proponents of this theory is the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who gave the idea of “structuration.” Giddens “argues that just as an individual’s autonomy is influenced by structure, structures are maintained and adapted through the exercise of agency. The interface at which an actor meets a structure is termed “structuration” (Gibbs). This reminds me of the election of Sadiq Khan, the son of British Pakistani bus driver, as the mayor of London. If it were left to the role of social structure, Mr. Khan might never have been the mayor of the capital of a former empire that had once subjugated the land of his ancestors. Besides Giddens, other scholars have also contributed to the structure and agency debate. Mead argues that individuals have autonomy in imagining themselves but the have to use existing language and symbols for imagination; Goffman argues that individual can interpret the parts they play but “the parts or scripts have already been written for the role we play,” and  Freud said that individuals can shape their own identities by understanding their childhood experience and that identities are never fixed, but he also believed that “social forces can operate through the unconscious, which shapes our identities” (Woodward, 2000, 18).

In conclusion, when individuals move across borders, their agency is constrained by the existence of new social structures at varying levels. For example, when refugees or asylum seekers migrate to a new country where they can not communicate or write in their language, their agency is severely restricted. Even if they learn the language, they will still not be on a level playing field with the born citizens of that country in terms of educational and job success. Moreover, in the new social situation, derogatory perceptions of the locals further dog their advancement, such as the popular claim, “immigrants take away all our jobs,” in the West goes. There is also a widespread and overblown misperception about the success of immigrants because of their inherent hardworking nature. In South Africa, for instance, refugees from other African countries work hard because their circumstances demand of them to pay rent and telephone bills so that they can keep in touch with family and friends there and abroad, not because they are better workers (Sichone, 2005). By implication, most of these poor migrant workers are exploited by the locals by paying them cash under the table and threatening them to expose their identity if they demand their rights

The same applies to migrants in the West, where most of them work for minimum wages and under extremely dire circumstances. Many take two or even three jobs to barely make ends meet. However, mobility may also empower the agency and provide opportunities to many such as women and progressive people who come to enjoy greater freedom and safety in most countries in the West. Further, as an outsider in a new place one also becomes more conscious of wearing a certain type of clothes, communicating in a certain way and paying attention to the more subtle details such as how to approach a woman and etcetera. There is of course room for exercising one’s agency in most of these things, but there are also some agreed-upon social norms for behaving in a certain way. In short, identity changes when individuals move across borders. People also change with time and age from someone with a set of ideas about the world to someone with different views. It is also true that many hold on to some core aspects of their identity such as faith and language, but even these change in unexpected ways with time. Woodward says, “Identity is… beset by troubles because we can’t always secure our identity and things change. So, it’s always about some resolution between the ‘I’ and the ‘ME’ as Mead says” (Woodward, 2017).

Reference list

  1. Blommaert, J. 2005. Language and Equality. In Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Geerdink, F. 2015. The Boys are Dead: The Roboski Massacre and the Kurdish Question in Turkey. London: Gomidas Institute.
  3. Gibbs, B. J. Structuration Theory. In Encyclopedia Britannica.
  4. Hariri, Y. 2018. 21 Lessons for 21st Century. New York: Spiegel and Grau.
  5. Sichone, O. 2005. Xenophobia and xenophilia – local lessons in globalization. Available: https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2005-02-14-xenophobia-and-xenophilia-local-lessons-in-globalization
  6. Sichone, O. Xenophobia. In New South African Keywords. N. Shepherd & S. Robins, Eds. Johannesberg: Jacana Press. 255-263. Sharon, L. 2009. George Mead’s “I” & “Me.” In Great Neck Publishing.
  7. Thornton, R. 1987. Culture: A contemporary definition. In Academia. Available: https://www.academia.edu/686188/Culture_A_contemporary_definition
  8. Woodward, K. 2017. Woodward on identity: I, me and the world, (Video 1). In Writing your World. Available: https://www.coursera.org/lecture/writing-your-world/woodward-on-identity-i-me-and-the-world-pyxxw
  9. Woodward, K. 2017. Woodward on identity: Roots and routes, (Video 2). In Writing your World. Available: https://www.coursera.org/lecture/writing-your-world/woodward-on-identity-roots-and-routes-zRRCz
  10. Woodward, K. 2000. Questioning Identity: Gender, class, nation. London: Routledge.  

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