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Unpacking Identity for Environmental Campaigns

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

There seems to be a need to unpack the layers of identity in order to see how they fit into environmental campaigns.  When Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser wrote Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity, they clearly had many things in mind.  It strikes me that the caliber of conversation we’ve had so far on this site suggests that the right people have gathered to do this job of clarifying all the ways identity plays an important role.

I would like to start things off with a couple variations on the meaning of identity that are relevant to any effort to promote large-scale social change (such as what the environmental movement must successfully do in order to transition to a sustainable society).  Each of these comments will be a mere snippet of what could be said, intended for stimulating discussion about the various ways that identity plays out in social and political behaviour.

Life Stories

Each of us has what personality researcher, Dan McAdams calls a “narrative self” that can be analyzed through the telling of his/her life story.  The factual accuracy of this story is less important than the way it is constructed, what is included/omitted, and which values/priorities are most central to the story.

The narrative self is a highly sophisticated self-concept that helps constitute who a person is beyond dispositional traits (e.g. shy, introverted, etc.) and situational factors that change over time (e.g. college student, waitress, etc.).  The culmination of all three of these elements influence a person’s personality and identity.

Affinity Groups

Human beings are profoundly social, so much so that anthropological researchers are prone to call us “ultra social” because our interdependence with other human beings is so central to our survival as a species.

It is possible to understand a person’s identity through the lens of affinity groups, those being the categories that stand out as key to understanding who they are.  Examples include religious affiliation (I am a Christian), political affiliation (I am a Democrat), professional affiliation (I am a lawyer), along with myriad configurations of personal expression (e.g. a love of soccer, gun owner, bird watcher, etc.).

Each of these affinity groups defines a boundary for membership with some kind of “out group” that represents those who definitely don’t belong.  An athiest would clearly stand outside the group of Christians, for example.

Moral/Political Worldview

Another vitally important notion of identity arises through the value systems that shape how people see good and bad in the world.  George Lakoff, in his seminal work Moral Politics, described at length the value systems that make sense of conservative and progressive political thought and behavior.  He observed that vastly different worldviews (constituted in the foundational experience of family life) explain why conservatives support gun ownership, oppose abortion, support the military, oppose market regulation, and so on… while progressives take the opposite positions across the board.

The role of value systems has gone unnoticed by environmental campaigns, in part because human morality has been presumed – rather than thoroughly investigated – in the design and implementation of most environmental campaigns.  And yet, as I work with various organizations as a consultant and professional trainer, I find time after time that people generally don’t know how to recognize their own values.  Nor do they demonstrate an understanding of the values that stand in opposition to theirs.

This aspect of identity has not been adequately studied for its relevance to our work here, something I plan to ameliorate in the work Tom and I are currently doing.

Expanding the List

These are a few key elements of identity that I consider to be relevant and important to environmental campaigns.  There are more that I could suggest, but would rather ask you to add to the list as well as build upon these brief descriptions.  The better we understand what we’re talking about with identity, the more fruitful will be our discussions of how to incorporate it into environmental campaigns.

Joe BrewerUnpacking Identity for Environmental Campaigns