Lecture 2: Identity


Essentialism argues that our biological make up dictates our identity. This is supported by Phrenology which is a type of pseudo science that says our character is based on the ratios of different sections of the brain. If one section is too big, or too small then this will make us behave ‘abnormally’.

Building on this idea Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), an Italian criminologist, rejected the idea that crime was just a characteristic of human nature, and developed a theory called ‘Positivist Criminology’. This new theory held that ‘defects’ in physical appearance will be a guide to criminal behavior, as criminality is inherited. So called ‘defects’ included large and protruding jaws, flattened or ‘hawk shaped’ noses, sloping foreheads; as he believed that criminals had devolved rather than evolved, and so their appearances were more primitive. This led to a notion of ‘grades of intelligence’, which argued that the more vertical a person’s profile was (the line from their forehead through their upper lip and chin) the more intelligent they were, and the more of a sloping diagonal gradient there was, the less developed they were.

Grades of Intelligence

This physiognomy legitimizes racism as it perpetuates a white-european ideal, similar to Hitler’s aryan ideal during the Holocaust, where by stereotypical jewish features were discriminated.

The racial categorizing of people based on facial characteristics also took place during Colonization in places like Rwanda, where ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ people were treated differently by their Dutch invaders. These categories stuck with the Rwandans and led to the genocide in 1994, based on the discrimination of facial characteristics, and resulted in millions being murdered.

Bosch’s work, such as ‘Christ carrying cross’, as with most European art shows Jesus as a white european, with the ‘ideal’ facial profile described above, and depicts the evil characters with facial defects, such as stereotypical ‘jewish’ noses, and protruding chins etc. This continues to perpetuate the idea that what we look like dictates our identity, and how we behave.

Bosch’s ‘Christ carrying cross’ (16th Century)

In contrast, Chris Ofili’s work, for example ‘Holy Virgin Mary’, doesn’t comply with white european stereotypes, portraying the mother of Jesus as black. This, shockingly, caused great offense at an Exhibition in New York in 1999, to the extent where it was removed from the show. Demonstrating that even in recent times, people have strong prejudices linking appearance to identity.

Chris Ofili – ‘The holy virgin Mary’ (1996)

Historical Conceptions of Identity:

Premodern Identity

-was stable (could not change it very easily) e.g. were born into an identity

-dictated by institutions such as the state, the church etc,

-or dictated by job you did, and this was generally passed down through generations.

Modern Identity

– (During modentity and industrial revolution)

  • Identity became something which was constructed by clothes/lifestyle.
  • The ‘flaneur’ developed (translated as ‘gentleman stroller’) a man of leisure who was interested in seeing and being seen. Similar to Veblen’s notion of ‘Conspicious Consumption’ – the consumption of goods for other people to see them do so, for example fashion.
  • Fashion became more prominent, rich people wanted to show that they did not need to work and were out in the day not in work clothes but in their best outfits; to show they had a desirable lifestyle.
  • Simmel’s ‘trickle down theory’ is based on emulation and distinction. Applied to fashion its explains that the lower classes try to emulate the rich people to create a more desirable identity. As this happens the rich feel the need to distinct themselves from the people who are imitating them, and so have to change what they wear. This theory can be said to explain how fashion works; constantly reinventing what is ‘current’ as fashions trickle down to the more common shops.

Caillebotte – ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’ (1877)

Post Modern Identity

  • Post modern identity can be explained through discourse analysis, which is the idea that identity is constructed out of discourses culturally available to use. A discourse is something that ‘defines’ us, e.g. age, class, gender, race, sexual orientation, education, income, nationality etc.


  • Humphrey Spender in 1937 produced ‘work town project’ which was an observational photographic documentary of the working class in the north (Bolton). Spender was an upperclass Southerner, and so arguably the work was condescending, and perpetuating stereotypes held by the rich southerner’s, of how the working classes in the North live.

Humphrey Spender – image from ‘Work town’ project

  • Martin Parr’s work, although he describes it as ‘celebratory’, is also arguably condescending, in the way he chooses to arrange his observational photography. His collections are often done in a humorous nature, for example ‘The last resort’ which documents people holidaying in Merseyside, or ‘Ascot’ which seems to be indicating that people of a lower class are masquerading, in fancy clothes, as upperclass. The images are loaded with stereotypes.

Martin Parr – ‘Ascot’ (2000)

Race and Ethnicity

  • Chris Ofili an artist of Jamaican heritage, who was brought up in Manchester, deals a lot with racial stereotypes, and black identity in his work. For example his piece ‘No woman, No cry’ (a nod to jamaican culture, through Bob Marley) is said to be about the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence murder which happened in 1993, and the racial discrimination surrounding the way the justice system dealt with the case.

Chris Ofili – ‘No woman, no cry’ (1998)


  • Tracey Emin’s ‘Everyone I have ever slept with’ (a piece which embroidered many names onto a tent) was a very controversial piece which actually is naming everyone she had ever shared a bed with, but was viewed in the sexual sense. Emin’s piece raises the issue of how controversial it is for a woman to have sleep with many people; she might be labelled as a ‘slut’, yet a man in the same position would not be as looked down on for this behavior.
  • Wonder-bra’s advertisement ‘Cant cook? Who cares!’ seems to suggest that a woman’s job is either to cook, or to be an object of sexual pleasure for a man. Wonder-bra argue back that the advertisement is liberating for women – insinuating they don’t need to serve men.

Wonderbra – ‘I can’t cook. Who cares?’ (1999)

Gilian Wearing’s  photographic series ‘Signs that say what you want them to say, and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ (1992-1993) also investigates discourses and stereo types by examining the idea of public and private identity.

Identity today

Zygmunt Bauman (1925) holds that identity today is presented as something to be invented rather than discovered, and is the target of effort, and an objective.

We are encouraged to believe we can be who we want to be, and not to let our discourses dictate our future. For example ‘rags to riches’ celebrities who have gone from being born in deprived situations to being incredibly wealthy, public figures, e.g. Leighton Meester – a US actress who was born in a Texas prison while her mother was serving time for smuggling drugs, and Jim Carey who was forced to get a job in a factory aged 12, in order to help feed his family. These cases do show that in post-modern society we have the ability to change our identity and the way others see us, despite being born into certain situations.

Identity in the digital domain

Andy Hargreaves (1951) explains how today, rather than using solitary moments to contemplate, or reflect we turn to our mobile devices as a comfort blanket, checking to our messages or social media to see if someone needs or wants them.

This can be seen in the way many people are putting more and more value on Facebook as a measure of identity. For example in the way people use ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ as a mark of popularity. Facebook allows people the opportunity to artificially construct an image of themselves and enables a person to project an identity to their peer group, one which might not be accurate. This encourages people to live through social media, as it is a much easier way of controlling their identity, rather than interacting in the real world.


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