Introduction: who needs ‘identity’?

Hall, S. (2011). Introduction: who needs ‘identity’?. In S. Hall, & P. du Gay (Eds.), Questions of cultural identity (pp. 1-17). SAGE Publications Ltd,

While there is on one hand a "discursive explosion" around identity, the concept has also been constantly critiqued - a "paradoxical development." Hall's essay is grounded in questioning why further debate about identity is necessary - for whom is it for? He posits two possible responses.

The first focuses on the deconstructive, anti-essentialist critique of identity. These critiques are not interested in finding "truer" versions of identity theory, but to subject key concepts in identity theory to erasure. Here, there is a paradox, where identity is considered "no longer good to think with" without reconstruction, but there is no better or truer replacement, and so we continue using the same theories to think with (what Derrida calls double writing). Identity is "an idea which cannot be thought in the old way, but without which certain key questions cannot be thought at all" (pg. 2).

The second deals with the issue of where the concept of identity becomes irreducible, where a complete account of identity can no longer be achieved through reduction. This second answer focuses on "identity politics," in terms of how modern political movements relate to identity.


Hall supposes that identity questions arise when attempting to "rearticulate the relationship between subjects and discursive practices" (pg. 2). He proposes that both the politics of exclusion and subjectification to discursive practices is a question of identification. Identification is "constructed on the back of a recognition of some common origin or shared characteristics with another person or group, or with an ideal, and with the natural closure of solidarity and allegiance established on this foundation" (pg. 3). A discursive approach to identification sees it as a construction, never completed, and always in process.


Identification is "a process of articulation, a suturing, an over-determination ... never a proper fit, a totality" (pg. 3). Identities are never unified or stabilized, but fractured and "multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions" (pg. 4). Hall argues that "identities can function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude, to leave out, to render 'outside', abjected. Every identity has its 'margin', an excess, its something more" (pg. 5).

For Hall, identity is a meeting point, a point of "suture." The suturing occurs between the discourse attempting to hail every individual into specific social practices and the processes which produce individuals as subjectivities (with consciousness and agency). Identities are "points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us" (pg. 6). An "effective suturing of the subject to the subject-position requires, not only that the subject is 'hailed', but the subject invests in the position, means that suturing has to be thought of as an articulation, rather than a one-sided process" (pg. 6).

He discusses Butler's gender theory, which critiqued essentialist and one-dimensional identity politics in feminism that saw "woman" as a singular and essentialist category. Hall points out that the category of woman, like all identity categories, is based on the notion of excluding "different" women and "'by normatively prioritizing heterosexual relations as the basis for feminist politics'" (pg. 16S).