April 11, 2016

Identity: who are we? Who are you?


The Oxford English Dictionary defines Identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” So we already have ontological connotations with the term “identity” if it is remembered that ontology is a Philosophical study of the state of being or of existence. We exist and we know that we exist because we think or even doubt (I think; therefore, I am: Descartes!) although existence itself is a complex notion because there are questions about evidence that proves or disproves whether or not something either exists or not at a particular time. Identity itself is a definition of this existence that is contextual and situational and can change at any particular time, and it can be constructive: we can develop multiple identities and apply a particular identity at any given time depending on the circumstances.


But specifically, what does it mean to have an identity as a researcher? What does it mean to have an identity as a Ph.D. candidate and does this change depending on the research circumstances? What do we say when we are asked for an identity? Is this related to the discipline we identity with or a general research design? Are we attempting to limit ourselves if we define ourselves with a particular identity?


Is identity a product of the social, political and cultural influences of research and academia? If we define ourselves as a particular methodologist, are we really aligning our identity with our personal frameworks of research preferences, or are we aligning the definition of our own identity with the needs within and influences upon the academic sector?


I am beginning to think that as a researcher, as a Ph.D. candidate, our identities change as we further develop our research interests and really explore the methodologies and philosophies that can drive the design of our research. We can begin defining ourselves a particular way based on our understanding of the time but as we explore the literature and really get to grips with what is out there we can change our positions. Sometimes, as I found, we can incorrectly define ourselves in the conscious state of being based on our current understanding of ourselves, but in the subconscious we actually have another identity but we have not come to realise this yet. It kind of makes me think that we already have a definite identity but is hidden in the subconscious or the metaphysical part of our being and it takes something to bring this to the conscious level of understanding. But this brings up another question: in what way do we know that the identity we have at a particular time is our true identity? That’s a difficult question to answer and can really only be answered based on what we know and are aware of at a particular time.


Do we identify ourselves at the philosophical level or at a methodological level? Or at the level of discipline? If I say that I am an Educational Researcher what would that actually entail? What assumptions would people have? What assumptions would we have about ourselves? What if I was more specific and say that I am a Critical Realist Educational Researcher? Well that would suggest that I carry out research within the critical realist perspective and nothing else, but would that in itself provide as a limitation that I refuse to view the world in any other way? Would that mean an immediate dismissal of other perspectives such as Positivism? Relativism? Structuralism and Post Structuralism? Modernism and Post Modernism? Complexity Theory?


The problem with defining an identity is that it doesn’t actually represent who we are at that particular time. I could say that I am a Critical Realist Educational Researcher but who is to say this is definite? Complexity theory complements critical realism, so what if I find out that in the context of my research complexity theory complements critical realism? Would I define myself as a Complex Critical Realist Educational Researcher?


Let’s go outside of the context of research and pose other questions about identity. When a person says they are English and represent English values, what does that mean? Is that subjective or can what they represent be generalised across the entire English speaking population? What about those who say they are British? What does it mean to be British? When a person says they are British can they really represent English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish (and all points in between) traditions and values? What does it mean to have a value anyway and in what way is a value defined and represented?


When you really think about the idea of identity (specifically in the context of being a Ph.D. candidate) this isn’t an easy concept to define. But I think it needs to be thought about because I have the belief that there is a relationship between the way we define ourselves (our identity), the way that we understand the world and the state of being (ontology), the way that we come to know about the world and that state of being (epistemology) which therefore leads to the way that we explore the world and interact with the world (methodology).


Interesting stuff! There is much much more to identity than I have said here but I just wanted to touch on the subject in the context of being a Ph.D. researcher.


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