Identity and belonging

Every human being has an idea of who they are – an identity. Our identity is very much about whom we belong to and which values we espouse. It is human nature to identify our own group as being more homogeneous than it actually is. Self-reflection is therefore an important quality when it comes to prevention.

  • Identity

    Identity is a complex and loaded term with many and partly conflicting perspectives on what it entails. One common denominator is that identity is about “being yourself over time”, i.e. that there is something stable and recognisable. This can be applied to both individuals and groups.

    An essentialist or dynamic identity?

    The notion that identity is linked to something stable over time can be interpreted in different ways. A static or essentialist approach to identity requires an unchanged core, unaffected by external influences. The idea of a dynamic identity requires the individual to develop and be shaped by external forces.

    Group identity requires several people to share some fundamental common features that bind them together.

    There are also many stances in between. Yet when the identity concept is applied to groups, these differences come to have significant consequences. A group identity or collective identity requires several people to share some common features that bind them together and create a sense of belonging and solidarity. The question then becomes whether this is based on inherent attributes (e.g. ethnicity), characteristics that are assumed to be very stable over time (e.g. shared traditions), or even more open categories such as shared interests and common practices (e.g. occupation).

    In other words, ideas about group identity can be linked to an essentialist or a dynamic approach to identity. This is of significance when it comes to ideas about belonging and solidarity. If the criteria for being part of a we group are founded on characteristics linked to biology or assumed, unchanging traditions, it makes it very difficult for new members to join this group.

    Cora Alexa Døving describes how a “thin identity” based on factors that people from very different backgrounds can share or unite over can be more inclusive than a “thick identity”, which requires them to bond over things that are inborn or inherited and therefore very exclusionary.


    Author: Claudia Lenz

  • Intercultural competence

    Identity thinking focuses on similarity. Anything that is different quickly becomes a deviation, a misfit or an interference. In the context of group perception and group identity, the notion of “similarities within” and “differences between” groups tends to be a dominant belief. Intercultural learning questions this premise.

    If we are to acknowledge diversity, we must also acknowledge that which is different. But what does it actually mean “to be different”, and who is “different”?

    We are prone to conflating the terms “diversity” and “multiculturalism”: those who are different are the strangers, those with a different ethnic/cultural background. Yet in this perspective lies a trap: those who are defined as being different become more foreign than they actually are or feel they are because the focus is on that very foreignness.

    Those who are defined as being different become more foreign than they actually are or feel they are.

    So what about the “we” group? If diversity is interpreted as differences between groups, it can lead to differences within the group not being recognised or acknowledged. Ideas about homogeneous, stable and exclusive group identities can be an obstacle to creating a climate of generosity and transparency, because different beliefs, ways of life and demeanours are seen as deviations – or even “betrayals”.

    Ideas about homogeneous, stable and exclusive group identities can be an obstacle to creating a climate of generosity and transparency.

    In other words, the idea of rigid group identities and clear-cut group affiliation is at odds with a pluralistic and democratic culture of diversity, even within a social group or community.

  • Static identities and group-based hostility

    Growing up in a climate with a static group concept of “us” versus “them” deprives both those who belong to or are placed in the insider group and those who belong to or are placed in the outsider group of the opportunity to express their individuality and participate in the community as who they are. If we regard “I” as the antithesis of the hostile, dangerous and ugly “other”, we force ourselves to maintain this concept of the other in order to sustain our own self-image.

    This has been reflected in research into group-based hostility as presented in the report Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination. A European report (2011): The need for an enemy image goes hand in hand with the need for self-glorification and for the unambiguous and “pure” in terms of identity and belonging. Of course, notions and feelings of group identity can be legitimate, functional and necessary when an individual is trying to find their place in a complex world. Yet this same complex world requires an ability to reflect on and adjust these notions.

    Diversity is neither a threat nor something that should be celebrated; it is a fact that we deal with all the time to a greater or lesser extent.

    Efforts to combat racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance towards certain groups must challenge static and exclusionary ideas about identity and belonging. However, this is not just about exposing how wrong bigotry is. It is important to highlight and make room for positive alternatives: diversity is neither a threat nor something that should be celebrated; it is a fact that we deal with all the time to a greater or lesser extent. Diversity involves challenges, uncertainty and maybe also frustration. But even more important than that, it offers the opportunity to develop without being locked into rigid ideas about ourselves and “the others”.

  • Reflecting on our identity

    In her 1991 book “Stranger to Ourselves” Julia Kristeva writes:

    Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, […] By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself. A symptom that precisely turns “we” into a problem, perhaps makes it impossible, the foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unnameable to bounds and communities. (p. 1)

    What she is talking about is the need to be open to self-reflection, self-criticism and surprises when it comes to who we are. The aim is to:

      • be able to look at ourselves from an outside perspective
      • accept that there are sides to us that we are less comfortable with
      • deal with the unknown, the uncertain, through our own presence

    These may sound like lofty philosophical musings, but they most certainly apply to everyday experiences. We create habits in the way we interact with ourselves just like we interact with others. But these habits can be changed.

    Our identity requires us to be strangers to ourselves. (Julia Kristeva)

    In terms of prevention, it is particularly important to look at how recognising our less agreeable traits can help us to work on those very traits, to change aspects of our attitudes, feelings, thoughts and actions.

    For example, there is probably not a person in world who does not harbour some sort of prejudice. But that does not imply that we should accept our prejudices. On the contrary, it is not only the ideologically committed “racist” or “anti-Semite” who poses a problem; all prejudices play a part in sowing division and shutting people out. The challenge, therefore, is to not simply accept these prejudices as normal but to seek to deal with and adjust them to minimise their divisive effects.

    Our psychological projection mechanisms come into play when the “other” becomes the bearer of the problematic traits that we do not want to or are unable to recognise in ourselves or in our community. Our capacity for critical self-regulation crumbles, and maintaining an idealised image of me/us becomes more and more dependent on the “negation” in our perception of the “other”. A vicious circle begins to emerge.

    Self-reflection surrounding our own identity can help identify and limit the mechanisms of groupthink.

    Our ability to reflect on ourselves and our own identity can help reveal and dismantle the mechanisms of groupthink. By considering other ways of constructing perceptions and knowledge of ourselves, we can create a defence mechanism against aggressive projections as they manifest themselves in prejudice formation and group-based hostility.


    Author: Claudia Lenz

  • Litteratur

    Brubaker, Rogers, Cooper, Frederick (2000). «Beyond ‘Identity’», in Theory and Society 29.

    Bråten, Stein. (2000) «Modellmakt og altersentriske spedbarn.» Sigma Forlag, Søreidgrend.

    Døving, Cora Alexa. (2010). Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: A comparison of Imposed Group Identities. Tidsskrift for Islamforskning, (2).

    Dewey, John (1910). How we think. Boston: D.C. Heath & CO. Publishers.

    Hall Stuart (2000). ”Who needs Identity”, in du Gay, P., Evans, J. and Redman, P. (eds), Identity: a Reader, IDE: Sage.

    Helseth, Hannah (2007). «Kunnskapsstatus om kjønnsrelatert mobbing blant barn og unge.» Høgskolen i Nesna.

    Henriksen, Holger. (1993) Samtalens mulighed – bidrag til en demokratisk didaktik. Holger Henriksens forlag, Haderslev.

    Huber, Joseph (red.) (2012). «Intercultural competence for all. Preparation for living in a heterogeneous world.»Pestalozzi series No. 2. Council of Europe Publishing.

    Kartlegging av kunnskaper og holdninger på området rasisme og antisemittisme. Undersøkelse blant elever (trinn 8-10) i osloskolen gjennomført for Utdanningsetaten i Oslo. Perduco: 2011.

    Kristeva, Julia (1991). Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Schulz, Wolfram m.fl. (2009): Civic knowledge, attitudes, and engagement among lowersecondary school students in 38 countries, ICCS International Report.

    Slåtten, Hilde, Norman Andersen og Ingrid Holsen (2009). «Nei til ”Homo!” og ”Hore!” i ungdomsskulen: Lærarrettleiing om førebygging og handtering av kjønnsrelatert mobbing, homofobisk erting og seksuell trakassering.» Hemil-senteret, Bergen.

    Slåtten, Hilde (2016). «Gay-related name-calling among young adolescents: exploring the importance of the context.», Universitetet i Bergen.