How can we make sense of social phenomena like being “out” as queer, varying how salient that identity is depending on whether we’re in an LGBTQ+ bar or with queerphobic family, or having strongly-felt and clearly expressed identities invalidated? These are example phenomena addressed by Robin Dembroff and Cat Saint-Croix‘s new paper, “Yep, I’m Gay”: Understanding Agential Identity.
Their idea is to bridge what we take ourselves to be (self-identity) and what others take us to be (social position) using the concept of agential identity.
Agential identification with a particular social group follows this pattern:
- You self-identify as a member of the social group.
- You make that self-identity externally available
(a) consciously or unconsciously;
(b) by behaving a particular way and/or displaying perceivable features; and
(c) those behaviours/features manifest or are intended to manifest social properties associated with the group.
- You accept or allow that others take you as belonging to the group.
Self-identity isn’t necessarily established effortlessly and it depends on the people around you. Dembroff and Saint-Croix draw on Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account in which we decode which groups we belong to by tuning into the norms which seem relevant to us – even if we disagree with those norms. The extent to which this process is deliberate, they argue – for instance, in terms of how much research someone does on a particular social group and its history – can lead to stronger or weaker self-identity. We may not even have a name for a particular identity; it’s possible to be polyamorous or bisexual without using those terms or even being militantly opposed to “labels” (see also: label aren’t glitter).
Agential identity involves some attempt to broadcast self-identity. Dembroff and Saint-Croix explore variation in how this can be done and emphasise that the social processes involved are often complex. For instance, agential identity can vary in how salient it is (pp. 583-584):
“consider a gay teenager who comes out to his parents, but otherwise acts conservatively at home in order to minimize the salience of his gay identity. This same teenager might, in other contexts, deliberately talk and behave in ways that persistently signal and emphasize his gay identity.”
A strong self-identity and salient attempts to establish a matching agential identity may not be taken up in a particular context; someone could persistently signal their trans identity in all contexts but it is only accepted in LGBTQ+ spaces and ignored by transphobic colleagues. Agential identity depends on self-identity and consent to belong to a particular social group – these are key conditions – and expresses preferred social group membership. However, that preference may not be accepted.
‘What are labels for? They’re not glitter, darling, and if you say “identity politics” then you can tootle off right now to your intellectual dark web videos and Spiked columns. What they do is they help me to understand myself, help other people to understand me and help me to find other people who are like me. Categories are not harmful unless you’re put in one unwillingly. Unless you actually think my sexuality, my gender and my disabilities are something to be ashamed of?’
—Penny Andrews, Identifying As Non-Binary Isn’t About Being ‘Special’ – It’s Just One Part Of Who I Am
I had tried to avoid engaging in grand metaphysical “ism” talk, but it seems that resistance is futile! So here are brief thoughts, in the context of theorising gender.
I reckon we can assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. It is also true when we theorise about ourselves.
Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).
The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance communism, feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or an intersectional composition thereof. It’s not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.
For more on epistemic relativity, ontological realism, and judgemental rationality, see Archer et al. (2016).
‘To my mind, no one has yet improved on Marx’s 1843 definition of Critical Theory as “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” What is so appealing about this definition is its straightforwardly political character. It makes no claim to any special epistemological status but, rather, supposes that with respect to justification there is no philosophically interesting difference between a critical theory of society and an uncritical one. But there is, according to this definition, an important political difference. A critical social theory frames its research program and its conceptual framework with an eye to the aims and activities of those oppositional social movements with which it has a partisan though not uncritical identification. The questions it asks and the models it designs are informed by that identification and interest. Thus, for example, if struggles contesting the subordination of women figured among the most significant of a given age, then a critical social theory for that time would aim, among other things, to shed light on the character and bases of such subordination. It would employ categories and explanatory models which revealed rather than occluded relations of male dominance and female subordination. And it would demystify as ideological rival approaches which obfuscated or rationalized those relations. In this situation, then, one of the standards for assessing a critical theory, once it had been subjected to all the usual tests of empirical adequacy, would be: How well does it theorize the situation and prospects of the feminist movement? To what extent does it serve the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of contemporary women?’
Nancy Fraser (1985, p. 97). What’s critical about critical theory? The case of Habermas and gender. New German Critique, 35, 97-131.
‘We are assigned a sex, treated in various ways that communicate expectations for living as one gender or another, and we are formed within institutions that reproduce our lives through gender norms. So, we are always “constructed” in ways that we do not choose. And yet we all seek to craft a life in a social world where conventions are changing, and where we struggle to find ourselves within existing and evolving conventions. This suggests that sex and gender are “constructed” in a way that is neither fully determined nor fully chosen but rather caught up in the recurrent tension between determinism and freedom. […] Gender theorists who call for gender equality and sexual freedom are not committed to a hyper-voluntarist view of “social construction”…’
Judith Butler, in New Statesman
‘The fight against gender oppression has been joined for centuries, perhaps millennia. What’s new today, is that it’s moving into the arena of open political activism. And nope, this is not just one more civil rights struggle for one more narrowly defined minority. It’s about all of us who are genderqueer: diesel dykes and stone butches, leatherqueens and radical fairies, nelly fags, crossdressers, intersexed, transexuals, transvestites, transgendered, transgressively gendered, intersexed, and those of us whose gender expressions are so complex they haven’t even been named yet. More than that, it’s about the gender oppression which affects everyone: the college sweetheart who develops life-threatening anorexia nervosa trying to look “feminine,” the Joe Sixpack dead at 45 from cirrhosis of the liver because “real men” are hard drinkers. But maybe we genderqueers feel it most keenly, because it hits us each time we walk out the front door openly and proudly. And that’s why these pages are only going to grow. We’re not invisible anymore. We’re not well behaved. And we’re not going away. Political activism is here to stay.
‘So get out. Get active. Picket someone’s transphobic ass. Get in someone’s genderphobic face. And while you’re at it, pass the word: the gendeRevolution has begun, and we’re going to win.’
Riki Anne Wilchins, In Your Face No. 1 (Spring 1995)