Identity in a Global Era: Individual, Collective, National, “Existential” Considerations


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service


30 Jul 2018 – This paper is an overview of a complex topic: “Identity.” “Idenity” is an essential concern in a number disciplines (e.g., anthropology, child development, medicine, politics, psychology, sociology). There is considerable debate within and across the disciplines regarding the nature of identity and its dynamics.

This paper summarizes some major dimensions of identity. The paper is not an academic treatise replete with hundred of references. It is a summary commentary, subject to the limitations of this stylistic genre, but simultaneously its advantages. A quick study!

Definition of Identity

Identity, as defined in the American Heritage   College Dictionary (2004), is a useful starting point for this discussion of the importance, nuances, and vagaries of identity:

(Identity is): he set of characteristics by which a thing is recognized or known. The set of behavioral or personal traits by which an individual is recognized as a member of a group. . . . The distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persistent entity (American Heritage Dictionary, 2004, p. 688).

We assume identity has some constancy, that is a relatively stable set of characteristics fostering self and/or social predictability and certainty. Identity, however, is dynamic and subject to change and negotiation amidst situational demands and requirements. Identity is not constant, enduring, or persistent! Failure to maintain assumed or assigned constancy in identity can be problematic. Vacillating and wavering identity can be labeled a symptom or form of mental illness (e.g. multiple personality, amnesia).

Identities are subject to context dynamics: (1) “multiple;” (2) situational (i.e., a function of “perceived” demands or expectations of the setting); (3) time-limited (i.e., assumed for perceived or imposed specific reasons and/or demands; and (4) dynamic (i.e., continuous negotiation around a core of more constant identities in response negotiation, modification, and/or adjusted for self or others.

Identity is with us every moment, even as we may not be conscious of its multiple “nature” and varying situational presence. We do, however, use identity as an “anchor” positioning us in daily life, helping us to define and negotiate “who” and “what” we consider ourselves to be. “Anchor”(s), of identity can be weighed, raised and lowered, in response to the circumstances occurring or pursued.

There are many “social identity” status and stature indicators/markers: age, gender preference, ethnicity, race, class, physical stature, physical/mental challenges.  Variations in acceptable experiences and expressions of social identity markers often constitute a source of societal conflict.

Different Identities Personal, Cultural, and National

Human beings have many different identities, including personal, cultural, and national identities. Each of these identities commands loyalties since they define and position self. At a personal level, identity can be a source of great comfort or a source of great conflict and difficulty. This is very clear in adolescence when a youth is forming an identity, a process that continues through a lifetime.

At a cultural level, identities enable us to function within boundaries of acceptability and deviance according to various norms accepted through socialization. Similarly, at a national level, our identification with a nation can lead to excessive nationalism, and a willingness to fight and/or die for our country.

Erich Fromm (1955), the brilliant social psychoanalyst, stated this very well:

The problem of the sense of identity is not, as it is usually understood, merely a philosophical problem, or a problem only concerning our mind and thought. The need to feel a sense of identity stems from the very condition of human existence, and it is the source of the most intense strivings. Since I cannot remain sane without the sense of “I,” l am driven to do almost anything to acquire this sense.

Behind the intense passion for status and conformity is this very need, and it is sometimes even stronger than the need for physical survival. What could be more obvious than the fact that people are willing to risk their lives, to give up their love, to surrender their freedom, to sacrifice their own thoughts, for the sake of being one of the herd, of conforming, and thus of acquiring a sense of identity, even though it is an illusory one (Fromm, 1955, p. 63).

Identity Conflict and Contestation

Identity contestation and conflict occurs when there is a disparity between a person’s perceived or group’s “self-assigned” identity status indicators/markers, and those “assigned to us” by others. Variations in “perceived” self-identity status indicators/markers and “assigned” identity status indicators/markers can assume violence and destructive proportions in efforts and struggles to establish and maintain an “identity.”  This is apparent today across many of the status indicators/markers including race, religion, gender preference, and social class.

Identity constructs reality! The value and worth of identities are in constant states of flux and redefinition even as we hold to some identities across time and place. This is true for people and true for collectives. Wars among nations, societies, and tribes have been fought over contested constructions of reality. Beliefs resolve doubt, and doubt is a discomforting state of being. “Immutable” anchors of existence are to be protected and sustained at any cost. . . including death.

Understanding “identity” is essential in a global world in which encounters among different people, cultures, and nations is often a reflex for violence.  We use our constructions of identity — personal or collective – to evaluate others from distant lands and cultures. Do they threaten our identity? Do they contest our existence? Can we accommodate?

Dimensions of Identity: Topical Concerns and Issues

There are many theories and studies of identity formation, change and consequence. I have extracted twenty-two dimensions of identity as an overview of identity’s definition and meaning.

  1. Development

Identity emerges early in life as infants and children are ascribed or assign themselves personal and social characteristics and qualities. There is an inherent impulse to establish identity although this is subject to socialization dynamics. Once a child begins to state their name, and to respond to their name, personal identity is established. Some believe identity formation is a basic human need and drive (Fromm, 1955).

As we develop, our identity becomes a function of our perceptions and the perceptions of others assigned to us. The entire process is cast amid the socialization process of a culture or groups. The socialization process constructs reality and alterations or changes are difficult;

  1. Markers/Labels

Identity markers (i.e., descriptive terms, labels) develop initially within the primary family nexus through the process of observation, modeling, and reward and punishment. The words and labels used are powerful shapers of behavior and the behavior of others toward us, including, age, gender, race, ethnicity, physical characteristics, class,disabilities, etc.

  1. Status

Different identity markers or labels can assume different statuses in terms of respect, admiration, and preference.  Today many of the ethnic, racial, and religious statuses have become sources of violence (i.e., wars) and destructions (i.e., genocide). At issue here is the concept of “equality,” or parity. When perceptions of inequality are present, they can become sources of protest, contention, and violence.

The current popular phrases: “Black Lives Matter!”  “Muslim Lives Matter!” reflect perceptions rooted in the harsh reality of abuses, indifference, and ignorance of the pain, suffering, and trauma associated with various status markers and social formations;

  1. Adolescence/Midlife

The period of adolescence — characterized by “Sturm und Drang” – (Storm, Stress, Longing) becomes a time of testing, refining, changing, and expanding identity. This period is driven by changes in hormones (i.e., testosterone, estrogen, etc.) and peer and “chumship” influences and control. Prior identities must now be negotiated amidst the hormonal impulses and flows.

Hormones also impact midlife identities (e.g., Testosterone diminishes in males bringing a new balance with estrogen. The hormones (i.e., estrogen, estriol, and estradial) diminish in females bringing a new balance with testosterone).

The experience of adolescence in many societies is influenced by peers and “chumship” (e.g., Harry Stack Sullivan). “Chumship” is a form of intimacy for the pre-teen, extending reality beyond immediate family.  A friend becomes a intimate source for exploring the world beyond the family. Anthropologists have documented adolescent identity change rituals and processes. A older classic paper (1935) by Ruth Benedict discusses the power of continuities and discontinuities in culture.

Some theorists (e.g., Jung) belief you need to be around fifty years of age to begin to understand an identity which recognized and acknowledges humanity as whole.  Prior to that, individual struggles for place and position, prevent a broader view and acceptance of a global human identity.

  1. Identity Change

Identity is negotiated throughout the lifetime in response to demands from situations and life contexts.  Identities, and their accompanying meanings, roles and statuses, have differing individual and social value, prestige, and acceptances. Different identities may exist even as we or others see continuity and stability.

  1. Consciousness

For philosophers and psychologists, in particular, the issue of consciousness of identity is of special interest because it assigns agency to the person or society, and thus responsibility and culpability for one’s actions. If we are conscious of who we are in terms of identity(s), the issue of choice and consequence emerges as an important issue regarding moral dimensions of behavior.

  1. Identity and Social Acceptance

For many years, society did not accept different gender identities and considered them both deviancies and disorders. Fortunately, this has changed, as the internet has brought increased awareness of the causes and consequences of personal and social identities (e.g. multiple identity, gender preferences [LBGT], and sexual variations).  While there is not universal acceptance of these human identities, especially among certain religions, there has been welcome progress.   

  1. Language Characteristics

More needs to be known about how language influences identity formation and change (e.g., fluency, vocabulary, grammar, structure, national language variations).  Who am I when I speak Swedish?  How does Swedish shape my thinking, feelings, images about my identity.  What if now I speak in Italian? How does language impact identities, and also identities in situations?

  1. Core

Certain identities held may be more resistant to change or negotiation than others (e.g., race, religion, gender, nationality) because they are central rather than peripheral or situational.

  1. Events

Events impact identity. For example, the assertion, “I am a cancer victim … patient … survivor,” results in new personal and social role identities.

  1. Immigrants

Immigrant identity maintenance and change is a complex process involving the dynamics of acculturation and assimilation.  Acculturation of identity is not a linear process across generations but is subject to complex individual, historical, and social and political forces. Amid the dynamic of acceptance and rejection in a host culture, immigrants often retreat into neighborhoods and communities where similar groups are established.

The experience of “culture shock” in which there is anger toward the host culture, valorization of the immigrant culture, and a retreat to familiar customs, foods, values, and religious practices can become a source of discontent among immigrants and hosts.

  1. Assessment

The assessment of ethnic, religious, and racial identity has been a popular topic of inquiry and numerous scales have been developed. These scales rely on a different measurement approaches including self reports, attitude and value indices, adjective and behavior checklists.

  1. Acculturation

Acculturation, or encounters with different cultures, has a powerful impact upon identities because of the new life-style demands and determinants.  Efforts to understand the acculturation process have produced numerous taxonomies. Rudmin (2003) identified 126 taxonomies of acculturation suggested by researchers between years 1918-2003.  Dina Birman’s (1994) integrated model of acculturation cited in Table 1 demonstrates the possible variations when identity and behavior are added to the conventional four-fold equation.

Table 1:  Integrated Model of Acculturation
 (Dina Birman, 1994)

      Acculturative   Identity                    Behavioral     
      Style                    Acculturation         Acculturation

Traditional                Traditional                Traditional
Assimilated               Assimilated               Assimilated
Marginal                    Marginal                    Marginal
Blended Bicult.         Bicultural                  Bicultural
Instrum. Bicult.        Marginal                   Bicultural
Integrat. Bicult.        Traditional               Bicultural
Ident. Explor.           Traditional               Assimilated

  1. Ethno-Cultural and Racial Variations

There is an urgent need to study the dynamics of identity formation and negotiation in non-Western cultures and among minority groups where the concepts and consequences of personhood, family, and nation vary considerably. It is clear Black identity movements in the United States are seeking to recover and discover a preferred identity consonant with tier past and present situation. The colonialization of their mind and identity (e.g., religions, music, clothing) brings an inner resentment and fury..

  1. Religion

Religion, as an expression of core beliefs regarding the nature and meaning of life, may be a critical identity anchor around which other identities are organized. This raises the question of identity hierarchies or overlaps (think concentric circles, or Venn diagrams).

Religion as an ideology, with fixed beliefs resisting challenge, has made zealous guardians of their religion a dangerous force. This is true across religions, as history aptly demonstrates. Religion wars have killed millions in an effort to assert “I am right, you are wrong.”

  1. Dehumanization

More needs to be understood about identity-formation  dynamics accompanying dehumanization associated inetnetional and unintentional violent behaviors (e.g., torture, rape, murder). How are identities displaced or removed temporarily or permanently to by brutal behavior for both the victimand the perpetrator?

  1. Identity Therapies

There are emerging therapeutic counseling techniques that are effective in  developing positive identities, and especially restoring “ethnic, racial, or religious identities” for people who seek to recover identities (e.g., identity therapies – becoming an American Indian through a rebirth ceremony). Native Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli), have as special therapy called “Ho’opono’pono” designed to return an ill or  wayward individual to the traditional Native Hawaiian identity matrix.

  1. Identity Stressors and Stress States

Individual and/or group identities can be subjected to major stress states and stressors because of denial, deprivation, denigration, humiliation, and/or oppression. The discomforts of stress states can serve as an impetus for identity change or resistance to change.  The issue, however, is whether the stress states and stressors are externally or internall imposed. Colonization looms today, as in the past, as a destructive source of identity stress states and stressors.

  1. Major Identity Issues and Concerns

Numerous issues and topics of debate continue to be present across the various disciplines and discourse communities that study “identity” including:  (1) valid and reliable measurement; (2) individual versus collective identities; (3) consistency versus change in identity across a lifetime, (4) determinants of identity formation (e.g., family life, biology, religion) and identity change and transition; (5)  selfhood identity [e.g, sociocentric, boundary-less, rugged individuality).

  1. Human Identity and Technology Advances

There are many advances (Changes?) in scientific technologies which have dramatic implications for human identity. Consider the following list (Marsella, 2014A)

3-D Printers
Animal parts
Artifical limbs and organs
Coding algorithms
Digitization of all innformation
Gene splicing and replacement
Mass surveillance, monitoring, archiving:  No Privacy
Mechanical Hearts
Organ transplants
Robots (Parts, Partners)
Stem Cells
Surgery: Gender transformation

Ancient civilizations conceived of human-animal combinations: man-bull (minotaur) man-horse (centaur), bird head-human body (Isis), multiple arms (Shiva), and numerous others, Cartoon heroes and heroines add to the imagined identities (e.g., Wonder Woman, Supermanm Green Hornet), and Anime.

So who are we? Traditional ontologies preceded the massive technological developments of the past few decades. Who and what are we? What are the implications for individual and collectives identity.

21:    Symbols

Symbols play a major role in registering, shaping, rewarding and reminding individuals and groups of identities. Consider the Cross, Star of David, Crescent Moon, national flag, or various branding icons of corporations or schools.  Symbols elicit powerful emotions and this process can be abused by groups or nations. The Nazi Swastika was imprinted on endless number of lives, and remains an identity marker among certain individuals and groups .

In athletics, the symbol for a team is designed to reflect the identity, with many favoring “lions,” “tigers,” and “warriors.” No school wants to be called the “slugs,” although there are some examples which may warrant this appellation.

  1. Identifying with Life

Few human beings identify with life, and/or include life in their assertion and communication of their personal identities.  “I am alive! “I am part of life.” I am a representation of life” I am a creature of life.” This failure represents a challenge in a global era, in which humanity has assumed it is master of life, rather than a part of life.

The “Anthropocene Era” is upon us, and the destruction requires a new human identity which embedded in nature, rather than the current view of “Mankind as the master of all things.”

Identity: Tasks and Challenges

The task of developing, negotiating, and affirming an individual and/or collective (e.g., national) identity in a global era is filled with numerous challenges which deny efforts after “meaning  the consequences have critical implications for individual and collective “meaning.”

Today, given global upheavals occurring from war, violence, and natural catastrophes, individual and collective identities are confused, uncertain, and potentially as sources of antagonism and aggression. Amid the confusion and uncertainty, efforts are made to establish an identity by joining terrorstic movements sanctioning violence in retaliation for the destruction imposed oppressors.

  1. Genocide: Destruction of Identity and Existence

Consider the known genocides occurring in Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar, Palestine, Puerto Rico, Syria, Yemen, and various Central American countries that experienced regime changes favoring the United States. The family immigration catastrophe in the United States represents a complete and total disregard for the people involved and also for the “offenses” which caused the immigration flood.

It is important to recognize the absence of protests against the genocides among various groups, societies, nations, and the United Nations, sanctions there continuation. These example of current genocides reveal the many pathways to genocide and the many many “terrorist state” perpetrators and nations hiding behind “legal,” political, economic, and religious covers even as they claims moral justification. Genocides are not simply conducted via wars, aggression, and physical violence.

The pathways to genocide are many, and often subtle enough to escape recognition as genocidal actions. Figure 1 displays the many pathways to genocide. These pathways are typically used as national security strategies and tactics, often disguised as military essential operations.

For example, Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide was on a large scale by he USA in its wars in Vietnam. The tactical excuse was the need to reveal  Viet Cong troops and movements. Agent Orange decimated forested jungle  areas, but remain to days as a source of toxicity impairing agriculture and human lives.  USA troops exposed to Agent Orange have experienced major medical problems, even as the USA continues to suggest AO was possibly responsible.

In the course of invasion and occupation, genocide assumes the pathway of cultural disintegration. There is colonization of mind. Under these circumstances, “identity” becomes a source of conflict and struggle.


There is no simple solution or answer. I have argued humanity is in need of a new individual and collective identity embedded in nature, rather than current identities sanctioned by religions claiming “mankind is the master of nature.”

I have termed this view “lifeism, a view advancinga new ontology, epistemology, and praxiology based upon a cosmological view of all life emerging from the earliest days or creation, and the subsequent fission and fusion of matter and energy (Marsella, 2011; 2014B).   For me, we are part of life in the broadest sense of the word; we are not a separate manifestation or expression. If we accept this identity, perhaps the violence and destruction could be reduced.  Reduced! Not eliminated!


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Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Emeritus Professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus in Honolulu, Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu.  He is known internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 21 books and more than 300 articles, tech reports, and popular commentaries. His TMS articles may be accessed HERE and he can be reached at


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