Identities are Created Through Relationships
I’m listening to this really interesting podcast by Bob Blakley and Phil Windley. What really struck me was where Bob said “thinking of identity as an artifact all by itself is unsatisfactory because we can talk about an identity and the attributes of an identity leaves out important details about how identities are created and how they evolve…relationships are the landscapes in which identities exist.” I think this is interesting, but I’m reading a paper about ethnomethodology and information security. One of the claims it makes is that meaning is created through conversation, and that a history of conversation and shared reference points gives us an ability to converse in meaningful ways. When someone says we’re talking past each other, what they may mean is that the conversation lacks sufficient shared context to be meaning-full.
So I’d like to fuse these ideas, and propose that identity is created through relationships. That without relationships, identities actually don’t exist. In the pathological cases of solitary confinement or hermitage, identity is severely stressed or destroyed.
I think people understand this instinctively, although perhaps not formulated as I’ve said it. Who a child spends time with shapes them, for good or ill. What parent doesn’t ask to meet their children’s new friends? The relationships create identity. As people age, and intimate relationships end either by breakup or death, people say they feel like they’ve lost a part of themselves.
As regular readers know, I’m concerned about the impact of replacing personal relationships with dossiers, algorithms and their implementations, like background checks, the use of credit scores everywhere, etc. Dossiers and databases are fed by organizations with whom we have a relationship. But the relying parties often have no relationship with us. They start their relationship defining us by the contents of dossiers, and it impinges on our sense of self. Our identities are set aside. There’s no relationship, there’s no conversation, and we feel either elated — “they like
my file me!” or dejected “what’s wrong with me?” This displacement also drives the emotional response to identity theft. We’re upset that the person or organization we’re talking to is confused about who we are. They’re confused because the dossier is confused, and the dossier is confused because of a web of relationships which are hard to see or understand. The relationship re-creates our identity.
The third place I’d like to look is the rise of new forms of ‘loosely coupled’ technological relationships, perhaps first created by usenet, and now visible in places like Tribe, Facebook or MySpace. Here, we see people presenting their identity — in part — by how many ‘friends’ they have. There’s also an element of restoration of older identities — reconnecting with a boy scout troop, high school friends — all relationships that contribute to identity.
In “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” the idea is that we create personas to control relationships. From lawyers to doctors to waitstaff or auto mechanics, people present a view into their identity that makes sense. I would question if I want to give business to an auto mechanic who was reading the Harvard Law Review when I came in, or a lawyer who was reading a Chilton’s repair manual. People present themselves in certain ways to control the perception of ‘who they are,’ and so a professional relationship develops in the right way.
I also want to look at privacy in the sense of Schoeman’s “Privacy and Social Freedom.” Schoeman looks at privacy as essential to freedom because it allows us to explore ideas without having to ‘answer’ for them. If we have a conversation with a friend, we need to worry less about saying dumb things, because the conversation is private. We explore and shape our identity within relationships and through those we’ve chosen to trust.
So next time someone talks about identity or identity management, ask yourself, what are the assumptions about the relationship? And when you hear someone talking about ‘customer relationship management,’ as yourself what identity they seem to want to manage.
Photo: Which one, by BeViewed.
[Update: Corrected spelling errors, including someone’s name. I am the king of spelling errors today!]