Reflection on identity

Traditional sources/signifiers of identity are largely

– Imposed by society
– Based around place and/or roles in society
– Fixed/static

Traditional sources include

– Social class
– Family
– Education
– Work
– Marital status
– Parenthood
– Religious affiliation
– Club/organisation membership

Modern sources/signifiers of identity are largely

– Self-selected
– Based around personal issues
– Fluid

Modern sources include

– Interests and activities
– Lifestyle
– Sexuality
– Journeys of personal development
– Membership of social tribes organised around shared interests
– Patterns of consumption, eg products and brands

Tensions often arise between traditional and modern definitions and/or between group and individual identities. These tensions can lead to personal misunderstandings, personal alienation and the need to code-switch (NPR, 2013), or to conflict between groups, such as the present divisions over Brexit. In an essay on the role of identity politics in the rise of the new right across Europe, Professor Philipp Hübi of the University of Stuttgart cites research indicating that “individuals who fear a loss of social status can be drawn to extremism”, adding that “studies show that people with traditional values are more likely to harbour [such] fears than progressives” (Hübi, 2017, p.71).

The division between traditional and modern sources/signifiers of identity are described in Brilliant (1991, p.12) as representing respectively the outer and inner aspects of identity – on the one hand social roles, which he says are “like masks or disguises, carefully assumed by individuals in order to locate themselves in a society conditioned to recognise and identify these forms of representation in practice and in art”, and on the other hand the personal aspects or “inner reality”. While it is clearly the case that identity has both outer and inner aspects, the balance between the two in defining identity has shifted dramatically towards a much greater consideration of inner aspects since Brilliant wrote this description, due largely to the emergence of the internet and the rise of now-ubiquitous self-defined social media profiles.

Within this general shift, however, individual identities combine the two elements in varying proportions, with socially conservative people usually placing greater emphasis on traditional sources and social progressives on modern ones. Episode 1 of Grayson Perry’s 2014 Channel 4 series (Perry, 2014) included explorations of identities at the extremes of this polarity – ex MP Chris Huhne, who was unwilling or unable to reveal anything at all of his inner self, and X-Factor contestant Rylan Clark, who struggled to express any sense of himself beyond the self-constructed aspects.

As Grayson Perry’s series also demonstrated, the way identity is expressed in a portrait depends not just on the subject’s own sense of identity, but also on what the portraitist wishes to reveal. School and passport photos, for example, are uninterested in personal aspects of identity and are each only concerned with documenting one aspect of our status and identity – as school pupil in the one case and citizen in the other.

Research and references

Brilliant, R. (1991) Portraiture. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
Hübi, P. (2017) ‘The power of political emotions: on political camp formation and the new right-wing populism’, in Tillmans, W. (2018) Jahresring 64: What Is Different? Berlin: Sternberg Press.
NPR (2013) Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. Available at [accessed 17.01.19]
Perry, G. (2014) Who Are You? Available at [accessed 17.01.19]