In recent years, the world has experienced a proliferation of ‘-isms’. Nationalism, sexism, racism, and extremism, to name a few, provoke debate like never before. Moments like Brexit, the advances made by the LGBTQ+ movement in recent years, the resurgence of explicit white supremacy and the exponential growth of the Black Lives Matter movements have exemplified the centrality of identity within modern society and politics. One phenomenon that runs through all these affairs is an increasing inclination to favour a solid, proud “identity” over anything else: the identity of the British; the identity of the sexual minority; the identity of the white, and the identity of the people of colour.
Identity, as defined by educational psychologists Vander Zanden and Pace (1984) is “an individual’s sense of placement within the world.” It is a set of beliefs and qualities through which an individual or a certain group defines itself. Collective identity is established based on various criteria such as race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and sexual orientation. Although identity is a difficult concept to examine owing to its inherently fluid nature, its explanatory role in recent developments is telling and has prompted its use as a lens through which to study various social phenomena.
A consideration of identity’s pervasive role in shaping contemporary society allows for elucidation of why it is increasingly used in conceptual and analytical frameworks. Owing to processes of globalisation and migration, present societies are becoming increasingly culturally diverse. In this context, identity is a major underlying cause of social divisions. Those marginalised by globalisation and migration – ordinary people affected severely by the 2007-08 global financial crisis and low-skill workers replaced by cheaper migrant workers – underwent an indignity which has contributed to an accumulation of anger and distrust towards migrants and foreign states. On the other hand, those with mixed backgrounds often suffer an identity crisis in their efforts to integrate and have their cultural heritage recognised and respected.
Consequently, people have become increasingly willing to accept socio-economic costs to recover their proud identity or to establish an identity recognised by the majority, something Francis Fukuyama – author of Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition – discusses. For example, Brexit voters favoured recovery of a truly sovereign British identity over the socio-economic advantages of being a member of the European Union. Supporters of Donald Trump were willing to bear his controversial words and deeds without any clear socio-economic advantages, simply in the hope that his nationalistic approach would “Make America Great Again.” Discourse surrounding identity has also been exploited by opportunistic politicians seeking to bolster support from their constituency. As a result, whilst in retrospect equality movements of Gay Liberation and second wave feminism during the 60s and 70s are the subjects of warm celebration, the concept of equal and universal rights is alarmingly becoming a subject of heated political debate. It is therefore unsurprising that the LGBTQ+ movements and the BLM movement are more alert than ever.
Identity politics shape national conversations and decision-making, diverting the attention from social, economic, security issues to more abstract notions of belonging and community. For example, just as Brexiteers were willing to tolerate economic risk in return for a stronger sense of nationhood, Seoul was ready to scrap the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), an intelligence-sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan that plays an important role in the trilateral defense alliance between US, Japan, and South Korea, during the 2019 Japan-South Korea trade dispute over a long-running historical feud on Japanese wartime forced labour. Because this historical issue lies at the heart of South Korean identity, Seoul was more than willing to risk security costs of ending the intelligence pact despite the threat of an increasingly hostile North Korea.
Increased tensions between certain social groups with differing cultural identities give rise to hatred, division and isolationism. This hinders international cooperation on global problems requiring global solutions. Beyond this, there are also psychological costs for the individual. As the notion of equal and universal rights is increasingly undermined, individuals with mixed identity or those of a minority identity are likely to suffer from identity crises. This essentially means that an increasing number of individuals will feel dislocated and alienated from the wider world in which they live. Avoiding this will be essential in protecting distinct identities, safeguarding the mental health of the population en-masse and establishing a more harmonious global society.
“Identity” is a psychological, political, and sociological topic simultaneously. It is at its heart an individual matter, but also a collective matter – both national and international. Therefore, I expect various thought-provoking articles to be published throughout this issue, offering insights into the nature, causes, and solutions of contemporary identity-related problems from different viewpoints. A discussion around identity is necessary to better understand current affairs from a broader perspective and to articulate effective responses to the issues presenting themselves at this momentous time.
Ju-Hyun is a third year BA War Studies student at King’s College London. She also spent a year studying abroad at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Her particular interests lie in international security not only in a military sense but also in a global health sense.