This essay was written for a social science assignment in 2010 as part of a dual Journalism and Arts degree. It provides a simple introduction to well known authors Foucault, Jenkins, Goffman and Mead. The full bibliography exists below.

Identity is our understanding of who we are and who other people are, and reciprocally other people’s understanding of themselves and of others (which include us) (Jenkins 2004:5). This statement suggests that identity is not fixed, but is an ongoing game of negotiation.

Where, or who, would a human be without an identity? If a human doesn’t have an identity, how would it know how to behave, or what to do to survive?

Every action we take is motivated by our need to balance our individuality with our need to belong – our personal identity versus our social identity. It is a concept often defined by our properties of uniqueness and individuality, alongside our shared qualities from the associations we make with groups and the relationships we have with others.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the suggestion that identity is not fixed, but rather an ongoing game of negotiation between the self and the society around it. Identity, for the purpose of this essay, is defined as “our understanding of who we are and who other people are, and reciprocally other people’s understanding of themselves and of others (which includes us)” (Jenkins 2008).

In this essay evidence will be presented to show that identity, achieved through a series of evolving identifications and performances, is a fixed sum of parts. Psychological and sociological definitions of identity explain it to be the combination of self esteem, self concept, personality traits and moral character. These are flexible qualities depending entirely on their surroundings, or rather their processes of identification (Jenkins 2008) with their surroundings, but their sum is a fixed sense of self – or identity.

Fixed elements of both personal and social identity such as ethnicity, sex, birthplace and relationships are the basis for the remaining elements of our identity. These elements remain fixed but for there to truly be a self there must be a social environment (Goffman 1990) to reflect that self – or to provide processes of identification (Jenkins 2008) which form an identity.

Self esteem, self concept, personality traits and moral character evolve into an identity which best negotiates survival (Darwin) in the modern world – survival drives all social development. The only perspective any of us have is that of a socially adapted human, but rare cases of babies being raised by animals (Gesell 1941) may have given us an insight into the significant effect of socialization in early childhood (Gesell 1928-74). It is a common theory that nature and nurture are inseparable (Mead 1996), but additionally we learn how to build on our biological self through social and cultural interactions. We build on nature with nurture.

Identity as a whole is our sense of self and sense of others in relation to ourselves, therefore “individuals identities are, then, emergent properties of their categorical memberships” (Byron 1996). Groups give us a sense of sameness and a sense of difference, other identities to relate to and those which now become binary opposites. If identity is simply an act of identification then of course it will adapt to its surroundings, but the self will always be a fixed point of reference despite changing social environments.

Theorist Erving Goffman (1990) defined the self as a performance to others while Michel Foucault talks of the self as a work of art with ‘aesthetic values’ and ‘stylistic criteria’ (1984). To accept this concept that the self is a performance, we must accept that the actor is always the true self performing an identity.  These lines of thinking all seem to support the idea that the self is constructed, and therefore can never really be the true self.

If the elements of our self are performed to others intentionally then they must be false. These flexible elements which make up our identity are performed intentionally like an actor performs a play, therefore our sense of self is a separate and fixed element while our identity is the performance.  Self esteem, self concept, personality traits and moral character – the elements of identity – are nothing more than a sum of our performances, carefully constructed by that which must be our true self.

The evidence presented in this essay shows that identity is a performance which is constructed by the self, the fixed core of identity from which self esteem, self concept, personality traits and moral character are built. We can only ever see the self from our own perspective; therefore the self is a never changing basis for identification. Humans perform the social identity which is needed to survive in their social environment meaning there must be a true core self to construct this performance.

A significant number of authors such as Reginald Byron, Richard Jenkins, Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault have proved that identity is fixed through their conclusions that the self is a performance, a carefully constructed act. This points to the existence of a performer. The true self, separate to the performance of an identity, can only be discovered through further research into the performer and those qualities which remain scientifically and socially fixed despite their surroundings.



  • Byron, R. 1996, Identity. In A Barnard & J. Spencer (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology,  pp. 292. London: Routledge.
  • Foucault (1992) [1984]. The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality: Volume Two. Tr. R. Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, pp. 10-11.
  • Goffman, E 1990, The presentation of self in everyday life, Rev edn, Anchor Books/Doubleday, New York.
  • Jenkins, R 2008, Social identity, 3rd edn, Routledge, London.
  • Mead, GH 2006, The mechanism of social consciousness, Alexander Street Press.
  • Shlionsky, H 1943, ‘Wolf Child and Human Child: By Arnold Gesell, M.D.’, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, no. 12, pp. 427-9.