Opinion: Identities and Institutions—The Needs of a New Era

Political scientist Catherine Fieschi believes that new institutions need to be fashioned in order to help societies and communities recreate meaning and purpose in light of new and emerging forms of identities.

Date Posted

3 Nov 2017


Digital Issue 1, 29 Nov 2017


Identity, that most fluid of concepts, is rife with paradoxes. The first is that our identities can both be traps as well as tickets to freedom: we can be reduced by—or to—our gender, our race, our status, our occupation, our religious affiliation. But we can also be empowered by them.

We are drawn to the project of trying to map and fix our identities; to define who we are. But at the same time, we want to reconfigure our identities and change them—what Bauman refers to as “exploding the solid”.

Like communities, identities can be dark and cruel, or the springboards from which we conquer our fears and thrive in the world. We, and those around us, experience both sides of this paradox, often simultaneously. For example, in my research community which deals with risk, I am often the only woman in the room. This can make me feel like a token, or vulnerable in other ways, but also powerful: in that my voice in being distinctive, might also be more impactful.

Many of our discussions on identity arise because we have not yet found, either individually or collectively, a balance between identity as trap and identity as emancipation.

The second paradox lies in how we relate to our identities—what we want to do to them and with them. They are, as the late Zygmunt Bauman1 put it: “that work of art which we want to mould out of the friable stuff”. The search for identity is the ongoing struggle to arrest or slow down the flow; to solidify the fluid; to give form to the formless. As heirs to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on the individual, we are drawn to the project of trying to map and fix our identities; to define who we are. But at the same time, we want to reconfigure our identities and change them—what Bauman refers to as “exploding the solid”. This often means challenging what feels like “the given”, the “inherited” as well as what feels too defined, stifling or dictated by others.

These paradoxes exist because we have different types of identities—constructed and imposed by others, elaborated more privately, and so on. But our overall experience is of our sense of self—not a disciplined, compartmentalised experience, but a churning sea of emotions, aspirations, demands, desires, fantasies.

These two fundamental paradoxes (and there are more or different ways of viewing them) underpin our current historical moment: a moment that is challenging our sense of self and our engrained belief in control. We feel the ground shifting beneath our feet, and an old sense of self—or bundle of identities—waning, but nothing defined has yet emerged in its place. We had just grown accustomed to the notion of multiple identities, when that too is being challenged: And we are loath to admit that a stable definition may no longer be available.


Discussions about identity are not new, but like much else, they seem to have accelerated. We feel that we have entered a new era. Something that was already challenging has become exponentially so under the pressures of what we subsume under the term “globalisation”: accelerated (technological) change and its impact on our selves—individually and collectively; privately and publicly; in the corporate and public sector—but also increased interdependence due to revolutions in transport, communications, trade and finance.

One of the key challenges is that identity has become less and less exclusively defined by a sense of place. Geographical ties have been loosening for a long time: Benedict Anderson pinpoints the beginnings of the shift to the emergence of “print capitalism” and a technological advance (the printing press) that allowed us to bridge distance, and imagine the community that we are a part of as distinct from our immediate community of life, the people with whom we share a space.2

Identity has become less and less exclusively defined by a sense of place.

It is the beginning of the nation state, but is also the beginning of a new kind of relationship to others: a capacity to imagine that we have things in common with people we don’t know. It is the beginning of a certain kind of political imagination that gives rise to new institutions. Anderson’s is a “Big Bang” theory of political change, the aftershocks of which have continued to shape and be shaped by further events and developments—rebellions, wars, colonisation, and, of course, the Industrial Revolution.

Here, at the start of a third, Digital Revolution, we are in a moment both peculiar and powerful, because we are being reshaped at a speed that can rob us of our capacity to process the changes effectively: we are struggling in our policymaking and floundering in our attempts to create new institutions—but are also being challenged in our very capacity to make sense of our realities. We are discombobulated.

Simultaneously, we are also involved in a change that is based on permanent self-curation: the relentless documenting, picture-taking, logging of our experiences. The arranging and curating of who we are for public consumption means that we are constant witnesses to this change. We are back to the paradox of fixity and fluidity: the relentless fragmentation into tiny specks of consumed and expressed existence—pictures, text, articles, thumbs up and thumbs down, holidays, rants—matched only by our drive to relentlessly define, display, frame and fix.

It is in this drive that we also note a fundamental challenge to another point of reference: time, as acceleration gives increasing way to simultaneity. We are becoming multiple in ways we had not anticipated (in chat rooms and blogs, in apps and ‘threads’ our avatars populate our lives with other versions of ourselves); the traditional identities we have held on to in order to give meaning to our lives are being reconfigured at great speed, alongside new emerging ones.

What feels new may not be, and what feels like a “return to” may function or intersect differently, in a new context.


If we think of the different categories of identity with which we are familiar, they look a little like this.

We have personal identities: biographical detail, our physical selves, an inner life. All these are mediated by others, but there is a sense of individual pursuit. These identities develop against a range of possibilities and a backdrop of, what Bhikhu Parekh3 bundles up into “life specifics”. They also involve choice, because we deliberate and define ourselves purposefully. We attempt to become a particular kind of person, and we are shaped by personal and intimate desires, memories, fantasies, fears and so on.

We also have a social identity: through socially embedded, ethnic, religious, national and other groups. We define and distinguish ourselves, and are defined and distinguished by others, on the basis of these groupings. These identities are socially significant because they are the basis of structures of power; they apportion privilege and sometimes, rights. They can be imposed or collectively defined—generally a mix of both. Religion, citizenship, race, class are some examples that come to mind.

Of course, as many have pointed out, we also have a common human identity, but to make the most of that, we need what Parekh calls the “springboard of particularity”—that we are specific humans. Feeling “human” is not enough—at least not thus far—to deliver the kind of self-definition of ourselves that gives our lives meaning. The notion of human rights are an attempt, but not one that has been fully, nor universally, accepted. Crucially, these three dimensions of our identities—personal, social and human—are intertwined and inseparable. They make sense only in relation to each other. Yet each of them faces challenges.

The notion of our common humanity may become more significant as it becomes confronted by existential questions, such as the emergence of artificial intelligence, or fundamental human enhancement, or the realisation of climate change and its implications for all our lives.

Our sense of what counts as the personal, autobiographic or specific is also under challenge by increasing digitisation. The way in which we carry and curate individual memories, the nature of our experiences and how we relate them and display them, how families and their creation and meaning are changing, as are the boundaries of our bodies and the meaning of those boundaries (such as the meaning of age, for instance).

Identities offer us a sense of purpose, by exhorting us to prioritise our efforts, our attention, our care, our attachments and our duties.

Finally, there are the growing challenges to our social identities, which had in modern times been constructed around work, religion, class, gender, politics, ethnicity. Boundaries are dissolving and re-forming both within and between each category (between religion and class, or work and class for instance, but also gender-based roles), with a profound impact on the identities that have served as the organisational bases of our lives.

By letting us toggle between the individual and the collective—our inner self and our outer being—identities, or rather our endless negotiation of our sense of identity, have allowed us to give meaning to or extract comfort, security and meaning from our lives. Identities offer us a sense of purpose, by exhorting us to prioritise our efforts, our attention, our care, our attachments and our duties.


What emerged from the first modern revolution arising from the printing press was a set of institutions: nation states, new forms of religious organisations, new forms of contractual and legal arrangements, and so on. From the second industrial revolution, we derived yet another set of institutions: political parties, work organisations, a certain type of family structure, ideas about the redistribution of resources and the organisation of life in both spiritual and secular terms.

Such institutions were the “trellis” upon which new forms of identity, unleashed by these revolutions, took hold; it is from these two sets of elements combined—the trellis of institutions and the identities that were given direction by it—that we derived our sense of collective purpose. Our challenge now, in the face of the profound changes to existing forms of identity as well as emerging and unknown ones, is to think ahead to the institutions that will act as a new trellis, so that meaning and purpose may once again emerge for a majority of people, and for our communities.

So, the question we need to keep in mind isn’t just: “If we were to wake up in ten years, what kinds of identities will give meaning to our lives?”, but rather: “What are the institutions we need to have in place so that whatever identities do emerge can be meaningful?”

There can be no easy answers, but some key questions may well guide our explorations:

What Will Work Mean in the Future?

A central place has thus far been accorded to work in our social, political and even personal identities. As digitisation and automation overtake our notions of work; and as we move toward a future in which we will likely work less, how do we replace the sense of accomplishment and purpose that work has given us? What will make for productive lives in the future? And how do we think ahead given major demographic changes and the likelihood of longer productive lives and shorter employment spans?

How Will Politics Evolve?

Our political identities are being reshaped by economic and technological transformations that have enabled new types of affiliation, and radically different ways of participating—perhaps quicker to coalesce, but potentially also narrower and more ephemeral. Could identities wind up being substituted by something far flimsier and, potentially in some areas, more and more transactional, such as our preferences? So that we don’t ever encounter what we aren’t already familiar with, or wind up thinking only in terms of silos based on our own echo chambers, biases and purchases?

What are the institutions we need to have in place so that whatever identities do emerge can be meaningful?

As political strategies evolve in the digital age, these have already begun to target voters the way music services categorise users by taste. Our tastes, our choices are already being reduced to algorithms and sold to whoever would like to capitalise (commercially, politically, socially) on what we say we “like”, or “rate”, or “wish-list”. These developments have a way of reducing complex choices to binary ones, and our complex selves to two-dimensional ones—they can lead as we have seen in many places to “colosseum politics”—the politics of thumbs up and thumbs down. How can we create institutions that channel future political participation broadly and constructively, so that we don’t fall into the destructive and simplistic absolutes of such politics?

New, emerging political identities will need to find different channels of expression, containment and meaning. They may also be embedded differently in different communities, or grow out of the experiences that are reshaping ideas about race and ethnicity or gender and sexuality. What duties and privileges will they come with? How will they help to give our existence both individual and collective meaning? And how can our new institutional trellises do justice to their multiplicity and complexity?

How Will We Be Living Differently?

To make sense of new demands and identities that are being shaped by the blurring of identity categories, we should look for clues to the future by looking at how we live, and will need to live, our everyday lives, day in and day out. This means looking at what patterns, needs, rituals and structures are already starting to emerge. We may, for example, observe the blurred edges of family circles into friendship networks; the stretching of age and activity boundaries; the increasingly hazy line between illness and health given the growth of long-term, but manageable chronic conditions in the context of longer lives; and finally the challenge thrown at us by technologies that will challenge the very meaning of the real.

The new ways in which we are learning and connecting: it is in such experiences that new identities will emerge, along with the new practices and new institutions we will need to provide for one another in future. How should this be done: Through the state? Through empowered communities? Effective but diffuse networks? One on one? For decision-makers and public architects, this means different kinds of health care institutions, new forms of education, different types of housing—all to cater to the new forms of existences we will carve out, and the meaning and purpose we will derive from the identities that affirm or re-affirm themselves.


Dr Catherine Fieschi is the Founder and Executive Director of Counterpoint Global, the London-based research and advisory group, and a Visiting Fellow at Singapore’s Civil Service College. Through her focus on contemporary forms of mobilisation, Catherine assesses new forms of risk and their effects on global markets and politics and advises business and political leaders around the world. As a political scientist, Catherine believes that rigorous social and cultural analyses can help leaders make better decisions, in both the public and private sectors.

This article is adapted from Catherine’s keynote address at the Foresight Conference 2017 in Singapore, organised by the Centre for Strategic Futures on 20 and 21 July 2017.


  1. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000), 82.
  2. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, UK: Verso, 1991).
  3. Bhikhu Parekh, A New Politics of Identity: Political Principles for an Interdependent World (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

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