MAS 965 · Signalling identity
Instructor: Judith Donath

02.12 · introducing identity



1. Please read the essays listed above.

The concept of identity is at first thought simple, but grows more complex the more closely we consider it. How do we characterize people when we meet them? What are the qualities we look for - and what are the signals that indicate these qualities? The three readings address different aspects of this problem.

Simmel is writing about the question of how do we make sense of the social world - we know so little about each other, yet form a complex mental image. The types (or prototypes or stereotypes) he discusses - how do they arise? What happens when someone fits mostly in a category, but not quite - do we change our impression of them to fit our existing categories, or do we change our categories?

Holland and Skinner are writing about why we care about identity and how do we form a collective notion of social types. Identity tells us how we expect the person to act toward us, and how we should act towards them. It gives us a metric to then judge their behavior. The discussions about social types not only clarify and codify these types in the minds of the discussants, but also serve to bolster the communities norms.

Butler is critiquing the use of identity categories, in particular, gender categories. Is gender a physical quality? A social quality? A fundamental and essential aspect of a person or is it a malleable performance?

2. As we have discussed, the basic model of social identity perception is that one observes something about the other, matches these observations somehow to an internal model of the social world, and determines the "type" the person is. Write a brief essay describing how each of these essays addresses this model - how does Simmel formulate it? How do Holland & Skinner observe it? How does Butler say it is used?

3. Create three written portraits. You are going to write three descriptive essays about three different people. I would like you to write what you observe about them and what beliefs about them these observations lead you to. Be as aware as possible about how you are making these connections. Some of your impressions may be very strong, others quite conjectural - be clear in your writing what you firmly believe and why, and what seems more guesslike.

The first portrait essay should be about a stranger you are observing. The second essay should be about someone you know, done from memory. The third essay should be about someone you don't know, but that another person is describing to you. You are free to ask questions of the describer (and you should write down what you asked and why).

Readings are available outside of room 392 - or ask Veronica ( 2. Observe something. 3. Then, draw something.

Please submit the URL of your critique and sketch online by Tuesday evening. Copies of the readings are available outside of E15-392.