What is relative identity

Right-wing populism

Sascha Nicke

To person

Sascha Nicke is a PhD student at the University of Potsdam in the Department of Social History. In his doctoral thesis, he is researching the construction of identity and processes of change in the formation and development of people's identity.

How do identities develop in modern societies? Ideally, they must either be formed permanently - or there is a fixed, unchangeable essence in humans. How does the right-wing populist concept of identity look out? And why is it so successful at the moment?

Is identity constituted in a process or is there a substantial, unchangeable essence that defines identity? (& copy picture-alliance)


In the "end of history" and the "victory" of the democratic system, as it was proclaimed more than two decades ago, [1] no one currently believes any more. On the contrary, democratic societies themselves seem to be coming under increasing pressure. A crisis of representation is noted due to the rise of (right-wing) populism. [2] The rise and success of right-wing populist [3] forces ensure that values, manners and ways of life that envision the democratic principle of plurality, heterogeneity and tolerance or acceptance in dealing with one another are called into question again. [4] Right-wing populist action is closely linked to the concept of identity. How do right-wing populists define and use the term identity? What are the effects?

Range of ideas from the history of ideas

The term identity is relatively young. In some lexicons of the early 19th century he found explanations of words such as Same or Einsley Usage [5], but as an independent expression it is only used there at the end of the 19th century and is characterized as a "philos [ophic] made-up word", derived from Neo-Latin for "monotony" [6] or "essential unity" [7] stands. In this word meaning of the equality of two or more things, the term can already be found in ancient philosophy in the form of its Greek origin cars, to autonomous[8] as well as in the theological discourse of the Middle Ages in the Latin term identitas or idem.[9]

Through the epistemology developed by Rene Descartes, the identity theory was significantly shaped for modern understanding. With his definition of substance as something permanent that functions as a carrier of its properties in every thing, he prepares the basis for a substantial conception of identity. Because from this it can be deduced that every person has an inherent, i.e. indwelling, essence in which all basic features of himself are anchored. The external appearance, the behavior, is therefore always identical to the inner core of the human being. [10] Despite numerous criticisms and alternative concepts, this "Cartesian substance idea" occupied a prominent position within identity theory until the middle of the 20th century. [11]

It was only from this point in time that an alternative conception established itself within the sciences. Based on Sigmund Freud's concept of identification as a psychological mechanism, with its popularization at the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of ​​a process-based identity spread. The work "Childhood and Society", published by the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, provided final scientific recognition in 1950, in which identity formation is designed as a result of an eight-stage phase model of psychosocial development. For Erikson, I-identity is the feeling of being part of a whole. This feeling is not static, but has to be permanently created by the ego as a process that processes reality. [13] According to Erikson, the concept of identity is experiencing a scientific boom, which leads to an enormous expansion of its uses. One finds it characterized as a synonym for the meaning of life or the concept of the subject, as an equivalent of the soul, nation or culture or as a collective unit of groupings. [14] The notion of a process-based conception of identity established itself in the second half of the 20th century and was finally conceptually expanded in the so-called postmodern era to include the recognition of multiple characters and permanent changeability. [15]

Basically, in the conceptual reconstruction of the history of ideas, two basic concepts of identity theory can be identified: substance and process. Which of the two ideas can be found in today's societies?

Present diagnosis: theoretical concepts of identity

A processual understanding of identity seems to be more suitable for explaining contemporary societies and their actors than the alternative of a substantial definition of identity. This assumption is supported by the developments in identity-themed research areas over the last few decades. In order to be able to visualize the reasons for this, it must first be explained how identity can be constituted in a process-based concept. [16]

If identity is not to be a fixed, given entity, it must be formed permanently. Because the environment functions as a production site for the potential identity categories, in which the potential identity categories are formed in the first place through norms, role models, practices, legalities, language, etc. ] and the socio-cultural ways of thinking and categories of his environment. A twofold process then takes place in the individual: on the one hand, there is the independent incorporation of all experiences and impressions made outside the body, which are stored in the memory as a body of knowledge. On the other hand, situational behaviors are produced through the individual processing of extrinsic impressions and ascriptions as well as intrinsic perceptions. They are applied depending on social requirements, empirical knowledge and self-images. [19] Due to the ability for self-reflection, humans are also able to observe their own actions and accordingly adjust their expectations as well as develop long-term self-images, values ​​and goals. [20]

Process-like identity is understood in the conceptual theory as a temporary, diverse and relative appearance that is formed in relation to the situational environment, one's own self-image and moral concept, the socio-cultural modes of thinking and behavioral norms. The advantage of such a conceptual understanding is that the contemporary complex and multi-layered social realities can be taken into account and the multitude of individual ego forms can be explained in detail. The focus is not on stereotypical and general explanatory models that are based on central categories such as nationality, milieu, gender, etc. The gaze is directed to the delicate, individual constellation. With the help of a process-based identity concept, an understandable explanatory model can be developed that offers a hybrid solution for the tension between individual self-determination and structural effectiveness in identity formation. Because in an age in which the individual is constantly confronted with decision-making situations, [21] the idea of ​​an at least partially self-determined ability to act within specific forms of thought and action appears more plausible than approaches that convey a deterministic image of man and assume fixed forms of identity. The disadvantage of a process-based identity is its relativity, which reduces the functionality of identity. If identitary manifestations vary in relation to the situation, personal constellation, etc. and complex, different ego variants are formed, then long-term and permanent orientation patterns as potential identity categories for the individual are reduced. It is true that medium- or long-term characteristics such as values ​​can also be formed that serve as guidelines for the ego in its self-images and behavior. However, these rarely convey a "secure" permanent place in the world or a permanently valid individual sense of life. It is precisely at this weak point of process-based identity models that the right-wing populist identity design comes into play.

Concepts of Identity in Political Controversy: Analysis of the Right-Wing Populist Concept of Identity

The basic maxim in right-wing populist ideas of identity [22] is the assumption of a substantial essence. Every person is determined by his national affiliation, which is not defined in the understanding of nationality, which could potentially also be changed, but which results from ancestry. [23] A "cultural heritage", "genuine traditions", the "historical past" and the language created a "specific national character" that is closely linked to a certain geographical area and that is transmitted through birth. [24] In this reading, each individual becomes a member of a fate-determined community at birth and thereby receives a specific entity that has grown out of history and tradition. [25] In this perspective, the human being is reduced to this entity, and possible differences between the individual are leveled out. It is assumed that something is genuinely own, which defines every nation or people and which can only be transferred in the form of (blood) ancestry. [26] The advantage of such a substantially determined concept of identity lies in the homogenization of the complex and heterogeneous social conditions into the categories of the "own" and the "other". The multi-layered lifeworlds and subcultures, the large number of individuals and sub-collectives that are found within a society, are hidden and subsumed in a single national-ethnic collective. A manageable world is suggested to the individual in which his (life) meaning is determined. Because what is "own" has to be preserved and protected and defended from deterioration by the influence of "strangers" and "enemies". [27] Be it "multiculturalism" [28], "gender research" [29], the "emphasis on individuality" [30] or "mass immigration and Islamization" [31], images of the enemy and possibilities of demarcation can be found in abundance. These also serve to intensify the homogenization of what is "one's own". Because they can be used to exclude alternative ways of life and values ​​by designing a simplified world in which there is only one "right" one, the individual merges into the collective and the rest is stigmatized as "foreign", "enemy" or "wrong" . [32]

In right-wing populist vocabulary, the concept of identity often functions as a mediator of a völkisch-nationalist ideology in which a clear and unambiguous world is designed. In this lifeworld, the individual roles and tasks as well as the purpose of life of an individual are firmly determined. Principles of homogenization, exclusion and simplification are hidden under the concept of identity - sometimes in connection with a racist worldview. A past that is designed as a "pseudo-traditional" [33] world itself serves as a legitimation recourse.


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