Identity and the Past

Chappell, Geoffrey. 2017. “Identity and the Past” Meeting of the Minds Graduate Student Journal 1 (March). doi:10.5281/zenodo.400351.

Keywords: Identity, Heritage, Memory, Relic


A perfect emic understanding of an individual or community other than oneself is impossible; we must nevertheless strive to understand communities on their own terms. Crucial to that is an understanding of a community’s identity; if we are to know them, we must attempt to know how they know themselves. A major ingredient in a community’s identity lies in their understanding of the past, and that is where this paper will concern itself.

We are often unaware of the residue of the past, of the centuries of tradition that underlie our actions and our perceptions. The mixing of time goes unnoticed in our daily lives, only occasionally thrust to the surface when we learn some new aspect of history that resounds in our own present lives (Lowenthal, 1985, p. 185). These mostly unconscious, sometimes conscious, implants of the past play a significant role in the construction and maintenance of identity.

Before proceeding allow me to lay out some definitions. Terms like memory, heritage, history, relics, and identity are used quite loosely by several different disciplines within the social sciences. For clarity, I will provide working definitions here. For this paper, I consider ‘identity’ to be what an individual or community believes about themselves, what role and characteristics they ascribe to, and consider as distinguishing them from others. Identity making is therefore situated within a view to the internal and the external, and is oft preoccupied with difference making, boundary definition, and comparison.