The following is a practical implementation of Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. ”
— Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals[1]

What we believe and feel to be true and right can be seen as our individual identity. Although our concrete actions might look ambiguous, they do or should root in a consistent set of maxims. Once our contradicting actions stem from contradicting maxims, we are “acting out of character”, we are not being true to ourselves or might not have yet realized or discovered who we are. Trying to find out ourselves who we are is a constant process and part of who we are. Adopting conflicting maxims, identities, due to forces outside ourselves, however, is to be avoided, as the consequential behaviour can not only lead to unfortunate effects for ourselves and society, but also demonstrates power structures acting upon the individual which should be avoided.

Working my way through different readings and remembering all the other papers and occasions which involved discussions of multi identities, well, I could not keep my mouth shut, I reckon, because I get the strong feeling (motivation?) that we are making a mistake here.

(Skip directly to the/ my videos below on the same issue if you want ^^)

Let’s stop this multi-identity madness. It is causing real problems for society and ourselves. I am calling for a paradigm shift, away from accepting multiple identities as a (natural) fact towards promoting having one identity everywhere all the time. If we as scientists and scholars merely describe and analyse the different identities or roles we all seem to have, we are not only cementing this situation, we are also promoting it and fostering it, giving ourselves and everyone else an alibi for acting lile this and we are actively creating and sustaining a world, where people actively adopt different identities, because they are being taught that this is natural, unescapable and that they are expected to behave accordingly.
We should be aware of the existence of multiple identities, we should understand why this happens – and we do both. But we should also study the negative consequences for society and the individual and(!) we should study and promote a change for the better.

Or of course we can alternatively consciously decide to take the role of the passive observer. “Oh look, this child is going to put a fork into a socket. I predict she is going to die. Oops, just happened. Anymore tea anyone?”

We do not have different identities. BUT: Our brains are constantly busy trying to understand the world. Unfortunately the world is very complicated, so we have two systems in our brains working (Kahneman 2012), sort of cleaning up the mess this world is in. Our brain arranges the world we perceive, it applies structure, order to it, it groups things into categories. This makes it easier for us to function. The problem with this is, however, that without us realizing, we oversimplify, we generalize and thus make things more alike in our perception than they actually are (see Tajfel and Wilkes 1963 on stereotypes once again).

Let me give you an example:

As a teacher we have twenty students. If we choose to evaluate every student individually in every aspect relevant to our teaching, things get pretty difficult and complicated, this would take up a lot of time and energy. So instead we categorize. We actively produce segments, chunks. Boys here, girls there. Those good at maths and those who struggle. Rich kids, poor kids etc. We try to apply some sense of order, structure to a heterogenous group to make life easier for us. By this, however, we make generalizations, which in effect tend to be wrong when appplied to any one individual. But as most of this happens unconsciously, we are not even aware of the unjustice we are doing to every single child.

Now our study of presumably different identities within an individual is based on the same principle. We see the world, the world is difficult, we try to impose some form of structure. Analyzing the character of an individual takes years for professional psychologists. We as educators don’t have the skills and the knowledge and time. So we make this analysis of the individual easier for us by creating different categories within the individual.

So what I am saying is this:

1) We do not have different identities, unless we are diagnosed with schizophrenia.

2) We are all, everyone of us, not only very complicated but also totally individual.

3) Although we are animals built in a way that we automatically categorize, we should be aware that this leads to a multitude of wrong perceptions and practical problems for society and the individual.

4) Apparant inconsistencies within an individual are normal in our lifelong journey of development and self-discovery.

5) Instead of cementing these inconsistencies by giving scientific explanations like theories of different identities, we should learn how to help our students, to become more consistent, to find out who they are, who they want to be, to liberate them, to empower them, to be who they are without fearing social recrimination, and help them to face and embrace their own imperfections, their own facettes, their own ambiguities.

(Those of you with a good auto-translate might be interested in an earlier article I wrote on this: http://www.schwindenhammer.com/2013/11/05/lehrer-mussen-milieustudien-ignorieren/ )


Having spoken about identity, let me now try this: I will note what identity is, why we develop identity, what might be the problem with the display of different identities, and what we should consequently do. I will back this up with yet another (passionate?) video, summarizing all this below.
What is identity?

Gee sees it like this:
When any human being acts and interacts in a given context, others recognize that person as acting and interacting as a certain “kind of person” or even as several different “kinds” at once. […] The “kind of person” one is recognized as “being,” at a given time and place, can change from moment to moment in the interaction, can change from context to context, and, of course, can be ambiguous or unstable. Being recognized as a certain “kind of person,” in a given context, is what I mean here by “identity.” In this sense of the term, all people have multiple identities con- nected not to their “internal states” but to their performances in society.” (Gee 2001, p.99)

Why do we develop different identities?

We develop different identities by learning about different social contexts and learning how to behave in different social contexts. Thereby we learn and adopt different identities. Let me quote Hanks on the learning aspect of this:
Learning is a way of being in the social world, not a way of coming to know about it. Learners, like observers more generally, are engaged both in the contexts of their learning and in the broader social world within which these contexts are produced. Without this engagement, there is no learning, and where the proper engagement is sustained, learning will occur.” (Hanks in: Lave and Wenger, 1991)


Now a student on the course I am currently taking, mentioned a coworker, saying “his reactions on the inside are different to the behaviour he shows on the outside.”

So he is not acting upon who he is (on the inside), but what he believes others expect him to be. He is pretending to be different from who is is, because he wants to belong to the group and being how he truly is would risk his participation in the group.

This is what I believe to be the normal case of multiple identities and I see this as a sometimes passive/ unconscious and sometimes active/ conscious influence of society on the individual and I believe this is a display of power and wrong.

It is a (I believe well studied) mechanism of forcing the individual to comply with the expectations of society. There are reasons for this, even good reasons. I nevertheless believe this is wrong, as I believe nobody has the right to dictate upon others what or who or how they should be.

Consequently, we should try to create a community in which everybody can be who they are without fear of being judged or excluded. We have to help people to develop a sense of self, of being able to participate in society without the need to corrupt their own identity.


For your viewing pleasure, please look at these two small videos, making a hopefully passionate and educated plea for the above.



Gee, J.P. (2001) Identity as an Analytic Lens for Research in Education. Review of Research in Education, 25, 99-125.

Kahneman, D.. 2012. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Books.

Lave, J. and E. Wenger (1991) Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge England ; New York, Cambridge University Press.

Tajfel, H. & Wilkes, A.. 1963. Classification and qualitative judgement. British Journal of Psychology 54: 101-143.


  1. Hi Dirk,

    I really appreciate this post and it’s a subject that has come up frequently. The use of ‘identity’ and our perception of ‘identity’ is important. I talk about this with my pupils all the time particularly in the ‘performing arts’. Pupils are so uncomfortable within themselves that they prefer to hide behind a ‘character’ and media platforms. They change their behaviour in certain situations which then affects their social skills and can cause confusion. I understand behaviour different to identity but it is all connected. In Scotland the education system is structured around 4 capacities to enable young people to be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. As a teacher I believe it is important to inform young people that it is ok to be who they are and to embrace their ‘identity’. In a world where teaching at times can be seen as a ‘performance’ I makes sure that I am true to myself and enable a connection to happen rather than keep pupils in the dark or at a distance.


  2. Dear Linzi,
    Thank you so much for your comment! Maybe it takes people like you (and me) working with and having children to truly understand the troubles we have and cause as a society with identity. Thank you for having understood 🙂

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