“What I am, is What I am”: Key Identity Theories (Now with added Gauntlett)

There’s a new Toure section at the end looking at the way black identity studies helps everybody think and write about identity!

I have added a David Gauntlett section at the end of the piece to help students with the new AQA Media Studies specification (2017). David Gauntlett himself does not know why he has been selected as the face, and name, of identity theory in the new specification but these are some good arguments that you can make, using both Gauntlett and the other theorists below.


Very useful for MEST 3 of the old spec Media A level. Also useful for anyone who wants to know some answers to some of the biggest questions around.

Who am I?

Why do I feel this way about myself?

Whose fault is it!


Remember folks. Received wisdom has it that Media Studies is a soft option. The exam paper is soooo easy. Hopefully you can detect my sarcasm through the typed word.

If you are looking at a question like:

“To argue that audiences have their identities shaped by the media they consume is

simply to insult them.  People are much smarter than that.’’  Does your case study

indicate that people are ‘much smarter than that?  (REAL EXAM QUESTION).

You might be tempted to throw your hands in the air and give up (and head straight to the New Digital Media question) but there are three things that will save you.

Firstly, the key word in the quotation is “shaped” which indicates that the identity is not given to the audience but that the media has an impact on how the feel about their identity and how they express their identity.

Secondly, it’s not that “people are smarter than that”. The real answer is that people, and the media’s relationship with audiences, is more complicated than that.

you need some good identity theory ammunition to help you make sense of the case study material that you have found. It is all well and good knowing who the writer and director of the BBC’s sitcom Citizen Khan is (Adil Ray by the way) if you haven’t worked out how it might affect the identity of British Muslims watching the show.


BBC 1’s Citizen Khan. Five series made (2012-2016). Responses have ranged from letters of support, death threats, newspaper articles praising it and condemnation in the House of Commons. Obviously, the key identity group (British Muslims) feels that their identity is affected in some way by the media product.

So here are some useful ideas to start to apply to your case study group, whether self-selecting (fandoms etc.) or accidents of birth and situation. Many of them come from sociology or political science but they really help with the identity question.

Tajfel and Turner: In-Groups and Out-Groups.

Henri Tajfel and his student John Turner’s sociological work in the late 1970s seems tailor made for the youth-culture style tribes of the era. Mods, rockers, punks, skins, hippies and goths (alongside a myriad of street-cultures) all exhibit close-knit group behaviour. Can sociology explain this? And how would media representation and consumption help shape it?


Mods and Rockers: Two early style-tribes and the birth of a moral panic.

What Tajfel and Turner found, in experiments under laboratory conditions, was that, given a few pieces of information (selected at random) people readily formed groups. There was a process and it had effects.

The first part of the process was social categorisation: What made your group a distinct identity in the first place?

This led to social identification: Could you tell other members of the group apart from everybody else?

Finally, there was social comparison: How did your group compare to everyone else?

Your group was the in-group (literally, to quote the old Dobie Gray song “I’m in with the in-crowd”) and rivals belonged to the out-group. You hate them. You can’t see any similarities between yourself and them (little differences become huge) and nobody in your in-group is in any way like them.


In the case of a style tribe this worked beautifully. If you felt dispossessed and alienated in the late 1970s then you could become a punk. The alienation gave your group an identity. The British punk scene gave it a look (it is interesting to note that the earlier New York punk scene did not have a cohesive style, it was much more of a set of approaches to making music – often very different from each other) and finally you could compare your tribe with everyone else.


If you felt that your sub-culture was better, it had better music – was more edgy and threatening, then you would become more deeply immersed in it. If not, if you felt it had got stale, sold-out and been co-opted by the mainstream, then you could adapt it and move on. The slide from punk to goth or new-romantic in the 1980s shows that in the case of these self-selecting groups, there are points when people become disillusioned and move on to a newer, more exciting, in-group.

When EastEnders started, in 1985, it featured a character called Mary the Punk. If your anarchic style-tribe becomes part of a post-tea-time soap then it’s time to take out the safety pins and buy a new wardrobe.


When your subversive identity group has gone mainstream.

http _a.amz.mshcdn.com_wp-content_uploads_2014_12_New-Ro-port-sm-crop-1.jpg

Time for a new look.

For a more recent example the Afro-Punk movement builds and in-group identity out of music and style designed to highlight individualistic and outsider status. It offers a way of recognising others who think like you and helps to shape the positive identity-reinforcement that members of the in-group have. Their group status makes them feel confident and as if they have agency in the world. As one Afro-punk wrote on her online blog:

“I see Afropunk as a home for activists, creative minds and people who don’t stand by society’s standard. We, as people, fight for justice for all and bring to light different ways of life.” Shanelle Tiffany Jacobs.


For someone who belongs to an immutable group. Who hasn’t chosen the identity then it is more difficult. You will still have an in-group bias (which asserts that all the members of your group are better than your rivals) but you haven’t got an escape. You can’t leave the group. So, you develop a problematic relationship with media representations of your group.

Say, for example, you are Italian American. For large parts of the twentieth century the pre-dominant representation of people who looked, and sounded, like you was a criminal one – the mafia. There were Italian American gangsters in the paper, in films, in the radio-serials and as the villains getting beaten-up by Superman and Batman. You might well feel ashamed by the criminal connection, feel that it had nothing to do with you. You might suppress your identity markers; speaking a different way, even changing your name.

Poster - Scarface (1932)_07.jpg

Scarface (1932): Italian-ness linked very firmly to gangster-ism.

On the other hand, you might embrace the macho nature of the representation, playing up the Goodfellas, wise-guy image. Or you might find alternative in-group heroes from your culture. Singers like Frank Sinatra or Madonna, actors like John Travolta, or Sylvester Stallone. These people become your in-group status talismans which give you special status. Eventually there are enough of them that your group has the confidence to express itself freely so there is even more media representation (a virtuous circle).

If you belong to a group, and the media makes you feel good about your group, then you feel happy. If your group are presented negatively then you feel bad.

Got it?

Stryker: Identity Salience.

So, we have a model for feeling good or bad but what about the reason why one identity comes bubbling to the surface anyway? We all have multiple identities. What makes one so special that it dominates all the others.

Sheldon Stryker’s 1980s work comes to the rescue.

Stryker says that we all have multiple identities, but some come higher on a hierarchical list than others. For some people their religion is more important than the city they live in for example. The higher on the list, the more likely we are to dress, talk and behave according to that identity. This is a mixture of salience (importance to the individual) and commitment (how much energy and time they put into the identity). This is also linked to the way identity is recognised by others.

Let’s look at an example. Blackness is not something that can be wilfully put-on or taken-off. Therefore it is high on the salience scale. However, a Rastafarian can, through commitment to hair, clothing, speech, music and religion put another identity even higher up the scale. When people describe the individual, they describe them as a Rasta, not simply as Black.


Levi Roots: The Reggae-Reggae Sauce Magnate. British-Jamaican. Businessman. Rastafarian. Black. Saucy. Which identity is highest up the salience hierarchy?

Media images of your group helps to shape the way that outsiders recognise the members of your group.

Stryker’s work also fits well with the term “intersectionality”, coined by the Black feminist lawyer Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 and building on the work of bell hooks.

Intersectionality looks at how some identities interact with others. For example Blackness and gender. Which identity is more important in the hierarchy? Does one trump another? Is that because it is the identity which leads to the most difficulties for an individual?

“Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. (…) But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm.” (Crenshaw 1989)

If you think like this then the big identity groups (the cage of identity – gender, sexuality, race, class and age) become important. Especially in combination.

Althusser: Interpellation.

A simple one this so I won’t spend too much time on it.

Louis Althusser’s term interpellation is simply the way that a media text seduces the audience into a set of beliefs about the world. It is closely linked to ideas concerning stereotyping.

This interpellation (seduction) is not the real world but it may well lead us to change our behaviour as we react to it as if it were the real world. Thus the fantasy-construction of a media product may lead to people re-creating elements of it as part of their identity display. Product-placement in film and television, does not happen by chance.


Marcuse: Identity limitation and False Needs.

Last, and not least, on our whistle-stop tour of identity theories is Herbert Marcuse. He was a Marxist academic who, post-war, wrote about the effect capitalism had on identity creation.

He theorised that capitalism wanted to limit identity formation, to prevent people from becoming true, fully-formed, individuals, to control us. And the best way to control people was by creating “false-needs” and then selling them stuff.

The media, especially advertising, was highly complicit in this process. Defining groups, telling them what they needed and then selling the cure. Conformity and obedience came from consumerism. This consumerism was driven by a shaping of identities.

The recent (last weekend’s) positive reception to the Ikea T.V. ad is interesting. It is progressive that an avert sells itself without needing white cast members however the aim of the advert is convince people to consume. In doing so they join the homogenous consumer identity which erases other identity differences.


To sum up:

How does the media product affect the way the group identifies itself, perceives differences with other and whether members of the group feel positive or negative? Tajfel and Turner.

How does the media product help move the active membership and display of the group identity forward? Stryker.

How does the media product try to convince the audience that the way it represents the identity group is truthful? Althusser.

How does the media product try to get the members of the identity group to drop the display of their own, part-formed, identity and consume just like everyone else? Marcuse.

Now for the Gauntlett bit . . .


David Gauntlett (born 15 March 1971) is a British sociologist and media theorist. His earlier work concerned contemporary media audiences, and has moved towards a focus on the everyday making and sharing of digital media and social media, as well as the power of making in general, and the role of these activities in self-identity and building creative cultures.

David Gauntlett does not know why the AQA specification has chosen to name-check him as the key theorist! He did write a book (Media, Gender and Identity – published in 1998 and re-written in 2008) but he is very aware that his work was rooted in earlier media environments (his 1998 writing focused on women’s magazines) and that his, more recent, writing has looked more at the used of new media technology for collaborative media creation.

This is an extract from Gauntlett’s book “Media, Gender and Identity.”

In the extract he writes about fluidity, construction and negotiation.


This is another teacher’s take on this section. Useful for extended reading.


He did a recent lecture at the BFI about this issue; which you can see here.


“Possibly, or probably, whoever wrote the specification was thinking of my book Media, Gender and Identity (2002, second edition 2008), which is certainly relevant in this context, and which I am told is liked by some Media Studies teachers. That book also includes helpful explanations of other theorists on the list, such as Judith Butler. But it’s also rather an old book now, and therefore isn’t talking about today’s media landscape.”

Useful Gauntlett quotes:

“In my talk at the BFI conference, then, I sought to show what Gauntlett things you could talk about which would be both relevant and recent. It turns out this is ok, because although I don’t package what I do at the moment in terms of ‘identity’ and ‘representation’, the work is still about those things, but in different ways. Making is Connecting is all about how people build a stronger sense of self-identity through creative practices – in other words, through creating their own representations – and make meaningful networks and relationships through that creative work.”

“We should look at media not as channels for communicating messages, and not as things.

“We should look at media as triggers for experiences and for making things happen.”

“They can be places of conversation, exchange, and transformation.”

“Media in the world means a fantastically messy set of networks filled with millions of sparks – some igniting new meanings, ideas, and passions, and some just fading away.”

He sums it up as (sorry for including some repetition).

“Theories of identity [associated with representation]’ from me would be the ideas around:

→ People having a route to self-expression, and therefore a stronger sense of self and participation in the world, through making & exchanging online

→ “Media [made by all of us] … can be places of conversation, exchange, and transformation”

→ “a fantastically messy set of networks filled with millions of sparks – some igniting new meanings, ideas, and passions, and some just fading away”.

→ The need for better “platforms for creativity”

So it’s still the idea of people building their own sense of self-identity, but through everyday creative practice.”

This means all YouTube vlog or other bloggy media can be looked at, using Gauntlett as a guide, under the banner of “platforms for creativity.”

Extra! Extra! Read all about Touré!

This is really useful.

Touré has taken Michael Eric Dyson’s work on black identity (which is similar to Stryker) and tweaked it. What is really useful is that you can see that this identity work transfers easily between the study of any non-voluntary identity grouping. The way people respond to their own identity, and the mediated products which speak to them, or for them, is an important part of the way identity and media intersect.

If you are studying an identity group and the media it would be worth thinking about whether there is an introverted, ambiverted or extroverted display of identity membership.

It’s still not simple though. Introverted display may be due to fear and marginalisation, or confidence and security. Hugely extroverted displays may be also be part of a part of majority confidence or the final defiance of those pushed to the edges. You’ll know if you look closely.

Oh and please like, comment, leave feedback or follow me. This will help me improve my service to you and make this a more useful thingamabob!

One thought on ““What I am, is What I am”: Key Identity Theories (Now with added Gauntlett)

  1. Pingback: New Touré stuff! – Mr G's English, Film and Media.

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