Topic: A Sense of Identity in the wake of the Christchurch Earthquake (2011) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper on personal identity was written by Debbie McCauley on 20 March 2011 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

The concept of personal identity has changed significantly over the years through traditionalist, Enlightenment, modernist and post-modernist theorists. Post-modern thinking endorses the view that a personal identity is not a given once and for all, but rather is in a state of constant transformation. This essay examines the history of identity theory, the aspects of identity that are more open to change with relation to the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, and the empowering or destabilising effect this has on the individual.

The forging and understanding of one's identity is not a new concept but has been around since the dawn of time. Traditionally, identity was believed to be determined at birth with changes only occurring throughout rite-of-passage journeys (Chimisso, 2003, p. 18). In some societies an individual’s relationship with God was brokered by the church and religious ideology permeated personal identity. In others, a pre-determined lifelong role, such as hunter or gatherer, limited any change to the constancy of personal identity.

In contrast to the traditional concept of identity, René Descartes (1596-1650) gave his famous maxim “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes as cited in Grayling, 2005, p. 188). He was able to define his personal identity, indeed his very existence, by the fact that he was an isolated thinking entity, one unprejudiced by his relationship to his ‘body or to relationships with others’ (Chimisso, 2003, p. 7).

The period known as ‘The Enlightenment’ or the ‘Age of Reason’ (c.1660-1789) viewed personal identity in scientific terms, believing it to at the very centre of the inner core and unchanging throughout a person’s lifetime. As Stuart Hall (1932- ) explains;

The Enlightenment subject was based on a conception of the human person as a fully centred, unified individual, endowed with the capacities of reason, consciousness and action, whose ‘centre’ consisted of an inner core which first emerged when the subject was born, and unfolded with it, while remaining essentially the same. (Hall, 1992, p. 275)

Theorists G. H. Mead (1863-1931) and C. H. Cooley (1864-1929) did not consider the identity present at birth, but viewed its development in relation to the self and society. They believed that the inner core was in a constant process of formation, influenced by interaction with others. Both theorists were ‘significant in developing an understanding of the self as a social product’ (Bruce & Yearly, 2006, p. 144). This is similar to Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) theory that the infant is not wholly formed at birth, but must learn in relation to others (Hall, 1992, p. 287). This modernist view of personal identity is a fluid one that is socially constructed from interaction, one where ‘identity defines itself in relation to other identities’ (Chimisso, 2003, p. 40) and each identity affects the other.

Post-modern concepts of identity pinpoint a loss of stability and fragmentation with relation to identity formation as traditional identities are swept away. This loss of stability is caused by the constant state of renewal that the identity finds itself within. As Hall (1992) states; ‘The fully unified, completed, secure and coherent identity is a fantasy’ (p. 277).

Society has seen the increase in choice open to individuals and as a result the concept of identity has increased in importance as the points of difference between cultures and peoples lives have lessened in the phenomenon known as globalisation. Anthony Giddens (1938- ) explains that ‘as different areas of the globe are drawn into interconnection with one another, waves of social transformation crash across virtually the whole of the earth’s surface’ (as cited in Hall, 1992, p. 278). The impact of globalisation on cultural identity, with its sweeping changes, vast array of choices and immediacy is the cause of much of this instability but could have a positive effect and lead to the ‘strengthening of local identities or to the production of new identities’ (Hall, 1992, p. 308).

At no time in history has human identity been so influenced by increasing globalisation, the consumer society, information technology and media culture proliferation. There has been a radical change to the concept of human identity and how it can be constantly transformed. Hall (1992) describes this ‘free-floating’ identity that results from the ‘cultural supermarket’ effect of globalisation: ‘as the systems of meaning and cultural representation multiply, we are confronted by a bewildering, fleeting multiplicity of possible identities, any one of which we could identify with – at least temporary’ (p. 277).

Reflexivity is a state of cause and effect where the reaction of a person to stimulus continuously influences their identity formation in a perpetual cycle. Giddens believes that this ‘awareness of different identities, and the possibility of changing one’s own, has led to individuals reflecting on their own identities’ (Chimisso, 2003, p. 19). This is borne out by the proliferation of people seeking self-analysis through self-help books and therapy and the concept of identity as a journey, always on-going, never reaching completion.

As we have seen, the concept of personal identity is a complex topic due to the multifaceted nature of humanity. Identity can be defined as personal experiences that make one separate and unique. According to Vladimir Rimskii (2011) ‘identities are sources of meanings, values, and reasons for the social actions they perform’ (p. 80). The many features that are said to contribute to one’s personal identity include; gender, social, familial, national, professional, appearance, ethnic, historic, educational, geographical, socio-biological, religious and linguistic aspects. These are all open to change, but some to a greater degree than others. Hall (1992) states that ‘The argument is that the old identities which stabilised the social world for so long are in decline, giving rise to new identities and fragmenting the modern individual as a unified subject’ (p. 274).

When the 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch on 4 September 2010, the nation was, to some extent, in a state of shock and then relief that no lives were lost as in the Pike River Mining Disaster of 19 November 2010 when 29 people died. It was not until the loss of many lives in the earthquake of 22 February 2011, that the country was galvanised into action and a national unified identity was reinforced. The Christchurch earthquake has become one of the ‘shared experiences, sorrows, and triumphs and disasters which give meaning to the nation’ (Hall, 1992, p. 293). The immediacy of the rescue efforts and international offers of help also served to reinforce the identity of a global village.

New Zealand, being geographically isolated islands, already has a strong sense of national identity, shared by those from this country who are travelling or living overseas. This national identity may have different meanings for individuals depending on their circumstances, experiences and various other identities. ‘People are not only legal citizens of a nation; they participate in the idea of the nation as represented in its national culture’ (Hall, 1992, p. 292). This shared identity was no more aptly demonstrated than by the ‘five thousand New Zealanders who attended a service in London's Westminster Cathedral to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in last week's devastating Christchurch earthquake’ (Todd, 2011, para.1). Many of those overseas also celebrate Waitangi Day, and a pilgrimage to Gallipoli on ANZAC day is common.

One aspect to affect the ‘narrative of the nation’ (Hall, 1992, p. 293) was the mass-media coverage of the Christchurch earthquake where live footage of rescues, personal tragedies and devastation helped generate a collective memory of the disaster. This event will become part of the shaping of New Zealand’s shared history and experience, binding people’s national identity together. As Chimisso (2003) explains; ‘the sense of a shared past or of a collective memory functions as social cement’ (p. 44).

The historical local identity of Christchurch has been shattered with many iconic buildings destroyed or damaged beyond repair which may necessitate the city constructing a new identity. Mayor Bob Parker has pledged to rebuild the Christchurch Cathedral, a source of identity for many Christchurch residents (NZPA, 2001, para. 1).

The country has been galvanised into a large scale national project. For example, the Western Bay of Plenty Sikh and Indian community reinforced New Zealand’s multicultural identity when they raised $10,000 for the Prime Minister’s Christchurch Earthquake Appeal in just 48 hours. ‘They are all very concerned about people overall, with sympathy for our Christchurch family’ (Scragg, 2011, p. 6). This is an example of people working together to solve a larger problem. With common objectives, differences between people can disappear.

Social identity has been influenced to a large extent by new technologies. Bill Ralston wrote in his Listener column that on the day of the Christchurch earthquake he used mobile phones to contact family in the affected area, Facebook, had TV3 playing on the television, TV1 on live stream on his computer with his wife and son also trawling news websites on their computers, information from Twitter, from bloggers and from National Radio in his car when he left the house. ‘That dark day the full range of communications meshed into one giant information stream that almost immediately united the country to do what it could for Christchurch’ (Ralston, 2011, p. 13). People were able to contact one another via these new technologies which also play a huge part in modern social identities.

National and social identities are open to change because of the effect of events and communication technologies. Other aspects of personal identity seem not so open to change. For example, one’s linguistic identity would entail time spent learning another language, a professional identity would involve retraining in another field, ethnic identity is not easily changed, and historical identities are also hard to change, depending on whose point of view they are written from. The second wave of feminism from the 1960s has seen gender identity facing changes in the stereotypical characteristics that have traditionally defined male and female. As we have seen with the current recession and natural disaster, one may have no control over such things as being made redundant with businesses closing, destroyed or relocating overseas, perhaps necessitating a new construction of professional identity. An identity that has become easier to change with the advent of cosmetic surgery is appearance; however traditional body changes such as tattooing and piercings have been around for a long time.

The vast array of possibilities for change to identities may have a destabilising or empowering effect on the individual. In some cases it may have both effects. For example, the immediacy of the destabilising effect of the earthquake on the population of New Zealand, and more profoundly, Christchurch, may end up being an empowering situation as victims see the nation’s willingness to come together to provide help and resources to support them, they may come to rely on help from strangers and develop a strong neighbourhood identity and, as a result of business closure, they may experience new job opportunities.

In practical terms, the idea that changes to identity could be destabilising or empowering surely rests upon how much control the individual has over the situation. Redundancy may have a destabilising effect, but if the individual is able to take control and retrain in another area the effect may be empowering. The destabilising effects on identity are discussed by Rimskii (2011); identity is ‘constantly changing, enabling the individual to adapt to changes in the society, and leading to the coexistence of different identities at one and the same moment in time. In some cases, this leads to crises because the adaptation of identity lags behind the changes in reality’ (Rimskii, 2011, p. 80)

Personal identity has changed over the years from the traditional, allocated at birth idea, to the post-modernist theory that identity is ever changing and developing. It has looked at national identity and social identity, two aspects of identity that are open to change and discussed if this possibility of change is empowering or destabilising for the individual and concluded that it could, indeed, be both.

by Debbie McCauley (March, 2011).



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