On personal identity and the effects of privilege

Once human beings have met physical needs such as for food, warmth, and safety, the need for creating a personal identity comes strongly to the fore.

The intensity of this urge to create a personal identity is remarkable considering that personal identity is rather abstract.

The sameness of human beings, considered honestly, overwhelms any desire to be unique. The entire diversity in the human species grows out of the slimmest sliver of genetic difference, and even the genetic makeup of apes famously differs from all humans by only a small proportion.

Surprisingly, the urgency of the question "who am I?" is actually due not so much to the importance of defining who an individual is as to the importance of determining the structure of the group. Because human survival depends so much on social groups, the personal identity of individuals takes on life-and-death importance as it shapes the dynamics of the group.

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The need for creating personal identity has several facets. Most obvious is the need to be an "in" member of a group, where membership in the inclusion group necessarily persists as an indelible personal characteristic not based upon present performance, although it may be based on past acts, rites, or achievements. Family or clan affiliation has met this need for most people over the span of human history.

All other factors being equal, a person who becomes leader of the group might be the person who has ties to the most members of the group.

In contemporary society the need for an inclusion group can sometimes be partly met by more contrived associations such as employment in a corporation, but because membership in a group such as a corporation is not indelible and always depends on present performance, the mixing of the native instinct for social inclusion with business reality causes stress for many contemporary urbanites.

Once membership in the inclusion group is settled, then the next identity need to arise is to be classified as approved by other members of the inclusion group. Every group has a value system by which members judge others in the group, in terms such as honor, valor, "coolness", and so on, depending on culture.

The judgment of outsiders is generally felt to be sharply less important than that of insiders. Interestingly, the judgment of immediate peers is often felt to be more valuable than that of higher ranking members in the inclusion group.

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A third identity need is to define rank. More than simply finding a position in a vertical hierarchy, this refers to gaining inclusion in an elite or privileged subgroup within the larger inclusion group.

For relatively fluid societies, the fulfillment of this need for inclusion in a privileged subgroup drives much economic activity.

Membership in a privileged subgroup is nearly always controlled by existing members of that subgroup. A person seeking admission will therefore be obliged to do the bidding of the existing members.

The greater the interest that members of the larger group have in joining the subgroup, the greater the power exercised by the members of the subgroup over members of the group as a whole. The right of members to control access to the privileged subgroup is what converts privilege into power.

In some societies, a car may be a symbol of having been accepted within a privileged subgroup; in other societies having a specific taste in fashion may do the trick.

Regardless of cultural background, the basic human need to be included in a privileged subgroup, and to be recognized by the whole group as being included in that subgroup, is a powerful motivator.

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Personal identity, which we can define as the precise location of an individual within the structure or network of relationships in a group, is the electromagnetic force that holds the group together and determines its behavior.

Just as sexual attraction is a strong glue for holding couples together, personal identity is the glue that maintains the structure and cohesion of social groups. In other words, the dynamics of personal identity is arguably more significant for social groups than it is for individuals.

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What is the root of privilege? How does it originate and how is it maintained? Why do elite subgroups fall out of privilege?

The question of what constitutes an elite or privileged subgroup and how those subgroups originally form and establish their rank within the larger group is an interesting one.

At first we might think that a subgroup derives its privilege based on its power to wield influence and to command resources.

On closer thought, however, it seems that the influence and power come from the privilege, not the other way around. Perhaps one feeds the other, but it seems that privilege precedes power. Often we see people who are not intrinsically powerful or capable, but who nevertheless wield power because of privilege that they have somehow inherited or received.

A student of history might observe that privilege propagates as social order transforms. The subgroup with highest privilege in one social order may turn out to have inherited privilege from a subgroup that had relatively high but not necessarily the highest privilege in a previous social order. A small society that developed on an island after a shipwreck might have an elite that descended from one of the officers of the ship, but not necessarily from the captain.

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When a person gains membership in an elite subgroup, the person can exercise power based on that association. Once secure in that privilege, the person may then exert a kind of personal power or attractiveness and charisma over those who remain outside the circle of privilege.

Charisma strongly influences choices about privilege. People who have privilege or whose parents had privilege in one domain often acquire it relatively easily in completely unrelated domains, partly because of charisma.

In other words, charisma also flows out of privilege and the secure knowledge of privilege. What exactly is privilege?

While at first it might seem that privilege is based on personal qualities (the word aristocracy comes from Greek for "rule by the best"), in reality privileged people do not necessarily show exceptional ability, other than what might have come as a result of opportunities afforded them by their privilege.

Instead, it seems that privilege is basically a function of the network topology of relationships in the group. If all the relationships, formal and casual, in a group are graphed, then the members with privilege will likely be positioned in the densest regions of the graph.

For example, the leader of a group is one of the only members of the group that by definition always has a tie to every other member of the group. Likewise, all other factors being equal, a person who becomes leader of the group might be the person who has ties to the most members of the group.

We note that the principal factors in determining who leads are not necessarily leadership abilities or character, but rather position in the social network. Network position derives from the structure of the network, which in turn is built out of the individual identities of its members.

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Title and category play an important role in explicitly defining the characteristics of identity.

Some identities and relationships are exclusive. For example, the identity "is a spouse of" is generally only true for two persons at a time in a group.

Each explicitly recognized form of identity carries a certain weight and set of rules for how other types of identity can be formed in its presence.

Title and category have great importance in most groups because social behavior is often predicated on those titles. A famous illustration of this is Japanese grammar and lexicon, which depend directly on knowing the identity and resulting relationship of the interlocutors in the conversation.

More generally, the identity "is son of", when applied to a leader, does not increase the likelihood of becoming "is leader of", applied to the group as a whole (at least not in sophisticated societies). However, the identity "is chief advisor to" might do.

The weight carried by each identity relationship can obviously differ in terms of where it places a person in the framework of the group. A single connection in the grid can weigh more than a suite of others.

The added weight accrued through connection to a particular person is the essential measure of that person's privilege.

Put succinctly, a person's privilege is the simple summation of the weights carried by all the relationships that make up that person's identity.

That principle can be observed in many networks. The search engine Google makes use of it. Their software assigns a "PageRank" to every page based on how many other pages link to it. The importance of a page depends on how many other pages have links to it. Links from important pages have greater weight and also increase the importance of the pages they link to.

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Identity is fluid because it changes according to the social context of the individual. Just as identity defines relationships, the nature of the set of social interactions in a person's life is what makes up that person's identity.

Personal identity is composed essentially of social routines and protocols rather than personal characteristics. The question "who am I?" is answered ultimately not by looking within, but by taking into account the facts of relationships and actions.

Michael Webb, 2003

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