Investigating Identity

There are many definitions of identity. In the Cambridge dictionary, identity has been defined as ‘who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others’ (Cambridge Dictionary). More specifically, identity relates to the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person (self-identity as emphasized in psychology) or group (collective identity as pre-eminent in sociology)’ (Wikipedia).

Identity is difficult to comprehend because of its many sided facets. Identity cannot be reduced to a single aspect such as nationalism, gender, or religion. Also, someone’s identity is not immutable, but is subject to change in the course of life. Recently, Nathalie Heinich wrote an essay – what our identity is not (Heinich, 2019, in Dutch, short version in English) – starting by explaining what identity is not and then gradually establishing a framework with which identity issues can be understood. One of her conclusions is that someone only becomes aware of his or her identity when some kind of identity conflict is encountered.

Understanding the role of identity is highly relevant for Social Innovation processes because identity conflicts might actually hamper the willingness to progress although there are good, rational reasons to do so. In many cases, perhaps all, the human factor simply cannot be removed from the equation. This chapter explains the role of identity and shows how EMont models can be used to identify identity conflicts and to find remedies to overcome these conflicts. 

Personal Identity

Identity is often framed as a binary concept emphasizing contrasting notions such as ascribed versus acquired traits, or individual freedom versus societal acceptable behavior. Heinich argued that a binary conception of identity does not capture identity issues adequately. Instead, she proposes a three-dimensional model comprised of the following elements: self-perception, presentation and attribution. Self-perception is about the relation with yourself, that is, who you are. Presentation is referring to how you present yourself to the outside world. Attribution is how other people label and approach you. In case of tension between those elements you become aware of your identity, which is felt as an identity conflict, or even worse, an identity crisis. For instance, if  you are part of a religious community, you are supposed to act the part of what is expected from you. But this may be in conflict with your self-perception, that is, who you really are, which might not be tolerated in a particular religious tradition, such as homophilia. You then face a dilemma. You have to deal with the tension between your self-perception and your presentation if you want to remain part of the community you belong to.

The Identity Model shown below can be used to gain insight into the different aspects of identity and to identify possible identity conflicts. The model is a combination of the human cognition and behavior model and the “different Q – same P-R” pattern of change.

Figure: identity model.

The Identity Model is based on the three-dimensional model identity model of Heinich comprised of self-perception, presentation, and attribution. The self-perception part corresponds with a person’s intention (prepare plan and reflect) and the desires of a person, which are related to the person’s reason of being (P-R). The presentation part corresponds to carrying out activities (Q's), which is related to how a person present itself to the outside world, or might be forced to do so. The attribution part corresponds to the ‘pressure to comply’ set by an external party.

The Identity Model shows what happens if a person is forced to comply with the objectives of an external party. When the objectives of the external party are not in line with a person’s individual desires (P-R) this may cause an identity conflict.

The Identity Model can also be applied to the collective identity of groups.

Group Identity

Not only individuals have an identity, groups have a collective identity as well. Group identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a particular group. At its core, the concept describes social influence within a group. We are social creatures, we depend on each other to survive. This is the main reason of being. Groups are essential to survive, they give protection and meaning.




Statement: Group identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a particular group.

Aspect: Cultural Identity, Principle: Determine the right direction, Principle page: Principles and Ground Rules

Statement page Statement
Investigating Identity Group identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a particular group.
Research Philosophy and Process Research approach must be “for you, and with you”, instead of “for you, but not with you”.

Principles, aspects and statements overview


Some Observations

In order for a group to sustain, each member should adhere to the code of conduct of that group, e.g., practices and values. This is sometimes enforced by means of group pressure: follow the rules or you are at risk to be expelled, which can reduce your chances to survive or live a meaningful life. Power is always a factor at play. Groups divide people: us and them. You are part of a group or not. Mechanisms are in place to remain included in a group or be excluded. This is particular the case for groups central for your reason of being for which no alternative groups exists (family, tribe, etc.).

We are part of many groups, each one having its own purpose and identity. Sometimes you feel strongly connected to a group, e.g., family, in other cases a group might cater for your well-being but to be part of such a group is not essential, you might as well join other groups to cater for your needs. Some groups can coexist peacefully. Other groups are more hostile towards other groups for various reasons, including values (religion, dehumanizing), claims on scarce resources or simply having hostility as a core value. These reasons may justify attacking other groups.

Groups might be small or large. In small groups every member knows each other, and you know what to expect from each other. This is not the case in large groups, such as nation states. The question is then: what binds us? A group like a nation state gives us a sense of belonging by sharing a history of place, language, rituals, morality, etc. These aspects binds us, and by means of interaction, these aspects are reestablished. This is our cultural identity, but it also evolves due to changing circumstances, including assimilation of other cultures (Saint Nicolas). In modern western societies the identification of individuals with groups is less stronger than before due to several reasons, including secularization, globalization and embracing neoliberalism policies by government stressing of self-efficacy/empowerment. This can gives a sense of not belonging anymore. For instance, we are less inclined to be part of a nation state, we cannot relate to it anymore as deeply as in the past.

This is not necessarily a desirable trend because it causes people to retreat in smaller groups increasing more us-them contradictions possibly resulting in hostility. (For instance, white supremacists who do not recognize their core values anymore and want to restore them, if deemed necessary, by force) Instead of embracing neoliberalism, a nation state can embrace ethics of care values to restore solidarity principles. In a sense, Ethics of Care is a retreat to first principles to be part of a group to protect and to provide meaning. Ethics of Care can overcome us-them contradictions by stressing/enforcing care (we care for each other) in small groups (family, neighbors) as well as large groups (nation state).




Statement: Ethics of Care is a retreat to first principles to be part of a group to protect and to provide meaning.

Aspect: Ethics of Care, Principle: Co-dependency, Principle page: Principles and Ground Rules

Statement page Statement
Investigating Identity Ethics of Care is a retreat to first principles to be part of a group to protect and to provide meaning.
Responsible Setting for Social Innovation Each stakeholder facilitates other stakeholders in addressing a societal challenge.
Some-thing from No-thing We rely on each other and therefore we should care for each other.

Principles, aspects and statements overview


The relation between person and group identity is a two-way street (see ... social identity). On the one hand, individuals shape the group identity, in particular individuals with implicit or explicit power over other individuals. On the other hand, a group may provide an individual acceptance, guidance and protection thereby evolving an individual's identity over time.

Modeling Group Identity

As is the case with personal identity, a group has a reason of being, which can be expressed in terms of the PR-part of the PQR formula and particular ways of expressing the what and the why (PR) by means of observable how's (Q's). We rephrase the PQR of a group to more familiar terms of an organization, regardless whether an organization has a formal status, such as a commercial enterprise, or not. Informal groups can be seen as organizations in which group members have shared interests and hold no formal or hierarchical relationships to each other. The organizational terms are ‘vision’, ‘mission’, and ‘strategy’ (see Iowa state university: https://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/wholefarm/html/c5-09.html):

  • Vision: big picture of what you want to achieve (R);
  • Mission: general statement of how you will achieve the vision (P);
  • Strategy: one or more ways to use the mission statement in order to achieve the vision statement. Although an organization will have just one vision statement and one mission statement, it may have several strategies (Q's).




















Lees hiervoor: Extending the Human Cognition and Behavior Model
Lees hierna: Taking History into Account



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