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- February 6 2007, by Liberty Miller


'Identity' is a thing, a collection of things, or a process used to establish that thing A is the same as thing B.

The word 'identity' has different meanings depending on context; it should almost always be used with a modifier to clarify what type of identity is being discussed.

Most occurances of the word 'identity' are, to be precise, refering to 'personal identity', also called 'individual identity' or 'psychological identity' -- in other words, a person's conception of themselves.

Your personal identity is the collection of things (concepts, ideas) that you use to identify yourself to yourself. This is also called "a sense of identity." (More on this later.)

This is in contrast with another commonly heard use of the word in the phrase "identity theft" -- this 'identity' is the collection of things (pieces of data/information) that businesses and government use to identify that a given person is "who they claim to be." This use of the word is your 'financial identity'; the identity used by those groups which need to collect information about a person so that they can reliably collect money from that person in the future.

Identity has the same root, and a shared meaning with, the word 'identify'. Both words have a base meaning of 'to make identical to', 'to establish that two things are the same', 'to make one thing equivalent to another, in thought or in reality'.

To identify something means to perform a process (often a thought process) to establish (confirm) that one thing is the same as another thing. For example, if you identify someone, you are establishing that that person is the same as the word for that person (i.e. that person is their name; e.g. "that person = John"). Likewise, if you identify some thing, your are establishing that that thing is the same as, or equivalant to, the word that represents it. Or, you could be establishing its sameness to something else besides a word. For example, to "identify stolen goods" means to do something to establish that a collection of things (goods) is the same as the collection of things you know were stolen. Or, if you are identifying a person without knowing their name, you are establishing that that person is the same as a person you remember seeing before. It is the characteristics of the thing you are identifying that make up its identity to you.

Likewise, there is a collection of things that allow an institution, such as a bank, or a health care plan, or a government, to establish that you are the same as the person who has X amount of dollars in their bank, who owes them Y amount of money in taxes from a loan, who had such and such health problem, who was convicted of such and such crime, and so on. This collection of things is your identity to them.

But this use of the word identity does not match well with the pyschological meaning of identity. An institution does not really care about who you are, only the things, such as an identification card, or a name, or a social security number, or a credit card number, that allow them to establish that some person performing a transaction can be properly associated with some collection of other data. In other words, "you" and your personal identity are not really important from a financial identity point of view; only the relationship between a current piece of data about your activities and past and future pieces of data are important. This is why "identity theft" is so easy and common; the small collection of words and numbers used to identify (establish the sameness of) the individual performing a current transaction with the person that performed past transactions is not really the same thing as establishing a person's identity (which is a more wholistic collection of things).

This brings us back to your personal identity, and the perhaps odd-seeming definition given above. In psychological terms, your identity is the set (collection) of all the thoughts, ideas, and perceptions (things) that allow you to determine who you are. This identification process is actually an internal process of establishing that 'you' are the same as something else.

"I am..." means "I am the same as ...".

The theory at work in examinations of identity is one of establishing sameness, primarily with other people, but also with actions, places, feelings, and so on. The assumption is that conceptions of what you are _not_ arise out of perceptions of what you _are_. And conceptions are what you _are_ , or _who_ you are, comes from equating yourself with things (groups of people, a community, an activity, a philosophy, and so on).

The phrase "I can identify with ____." means that you can relate your experience or thoughts as being the same as ______.

A good example of this meaning can be found in the phrase 'identity crisis'. An identity crisis describes the feelings associated with a realisation that you are not, or might not be, the same as the things that you have perviously identified yourself with. For example, if you equated yourself with a sport, say football, and with the team you played with, and you had a realisation that you "are not a football player", or that you were completely unlike the other people on your team, this could lead to a cascading sense that you are not the same person you thought you were (an emotional crisis of identity).



(stopping at 2:21 AM, Feb 6 2007; perhaps more later)