What is Identity?

Sean McCloud, Ph.D., Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte

What is Identity? What are the histories, relationships, choices, and happenstance events that make us who we are? Why do we think and do what we do? And what are the factors that encourage us to change our identities over our life course? In this class, we examine these questions through autobiographies, films, documentaries, and scholarship focusing on the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, and other ways that we identify ourselves–and others identify us–in the contemporary United States. Topics could include (but are not limited to) autobiography and memory; joining and leaving religions (conversions and deconversions); social class and the issue of being liminally “betwixt and between” class cultures; how  the social force of community, friends, and family relate to our tastes; and how being socially marked racially, sexually, and socio-economically both enables and constrains us in our projects of self-identity construction.

Possible/partial list list of readings

  • Sherman Alexie, “Why Chicken Means so Much to Me” and “Every Little Hurricane”
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (excerpts)
  • Gary Comstock, “What is Autobiography?”
  • Gina Crosley-Corcoran, “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person”
  • Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir (excerpts)
  • Stephanie Lawler, Identity: Sociological Perspectives (excerpts)
  • Elaine Lawless, “Rescripting Their Lives and Narratives: Spiritual Life Stories of Pentecostal Women Preachers”
  • W.E.B. Dubois, “On the Coming of John”
  • Alfred Lubrano, Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams (excerpts)
  • Sarah Pike, “The Work of Memory in Neopagan Identity”
  • Ann Swidler, “Settled and Unsettled Lives”
  • Sonsyrea Tate, Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam
  • Robin Globus Veldman, “How Evangelical Subcultural Identity Sustains Climate Skepticism”
  • Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  • Eviatar Zerubavel, Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology (excerpts)

Possible media

  • People Like Us: Social Class in America
  • Worlds Apart (film account of a memoir by a woman who leaves her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing)
  • Malcolm X: Make it Plain