What Does Identity Mean? 

Willa Wang, Managing Forum Editor

Where do you usually sit in the Commons? I doubt you always sit in the same place. I believe I can tell you where you sit in Commons by asking less than five questions about your identity: Where do you come from? Are you an athlete? Do you participate in any clubs? What is your major? What class are you in? You could test my hypothesis by asking your friends or classmates these questions. 

Commons is divided into four areas: the main hall, the fishbowl, the arcade and the mezzanine. Where you sit in the Commons is one representation of your identity. Fishbowl always holds language tables. Many international students choose to dine in the arcade. While the women’s rowing team sits next to the fishbowl, the men’s basketball team sits in front of the pizza bar. These are social norms that have been here for a long time. Students with the same social identities sat in exactly the same place five years ago as we sit in today. 

How do you identify yourself? This might be a big question. Having identities doesn’t mean one is labeled or limited by social structures. It’s a way one can better understand themselves. For example, I identify myself as a female, a student, a philosophy and history major, an international student, a library dweller and an editor at The Bates Student. Some of these identities were born to me, such as my biological identities, whether I have single or double eyelids and the place I was born in. 

Some of these identities were determined by myself after my birth, such as my academic interests, my job on campus and my hobbies. In today’s society, one’s biological identity can also be switched with many highly developed technologies if one wants. What does identity mean? What I am discussing here are the identities one has the free will to choose. 

I made a very hard choice in the first month of college at Bates. I signed up for ten clubs at the club fair. I ended up going to three of them for the first meeting. Now the only one I continue doing is writing for The Bates Student. An editor also becomes one of my identities at Bates. One of the reasons I chose to stay is I enjoy the vibe of this club—this is not an advertisement because I am building my argument. 

What does vibe mean? It is a kind of sentiment that only belongs to a certain community. This sentiment can’t be formed only by an individual but needs a group of people to gather. Let’s think theoretically now. According to Émile Durkheim’s “The Elementary Forms of The Religious Life,” there is an improvement to individuals when they become members of society. He introduces two types of lives that correspond to individual and collective life. The first type of life is individual, mundane, boring and everyday. The second type of life is collective, exciting, frenzied and crazy. When individuals become members of society, they step from the first type of life to the second type of life. The moment of the transformation is when what Durkheim calls “effervescence” happens.

What does effervescence mean? “By concentrating itself almost entirely in the certain determined moment, the collective life has been able to attain its greatest intensity and efficacy, and consequently to give men a more active sentiment of the double existence they lead and of the double nature in which they participate.” When people live a sacred and collective life, they feel the existence of each other. Collective sentiments are thus created. Durkheim believes that collective consciousness is the totality of beliefs and sentiments of a community. Collective life is sacred, uplifting and fulfilling in comparison to the profane individual life. 

I guess you must have experienced this kind of collective effervescence before. Identity is not formed when a person is alone, but it is formed when people are together, such as Gala, puddle jump, classes you are taking and parties. They are moments big and small. As long as you are with a group of people, sentiments exist in the air. 

Durkheim believes that individual consciousness is a product, carrier and reflection of collective consciousness. Therefore, when you become a member of a community, this community’s collective consciousness would affect your individual consciousness. Whether you enjoy the collective sentiment of this community thus becomes very important because it would determine your individual thoughts and behavior. 

What I am talking about here is only one type of identity, which is the type, in my opinion, that we have the greatest control on, as if you can choose where to sit in the Commons. Think about yourself: How do you identify yourself? Which identity did you voluntarily choose? Do they bring collective consciousness to you? 


Acknowledgement: This article is inspired by my sociology theory class taught by professor Francesco Duina. We talked about collective consciousness and professor Duina used the way people sit in Commons as an example. I borrow his ideas here.