Public Release: 

Identity, politics and Obama -- does 'who we are' still matter?

The SAGE Handbook of Identities

SAGE Publications UK


IMAGE: The SAGE Handbook of Identities. view more

Credit: SAGE Publications Ltd

London (19 March, 2010) - A groundbreaking new handbook released by SAGE this month brings together the vast and interdisciplinary field of identity research, culminating from a huge four-year, £4million ESRC funded research programme on Identities and Social Action. The SAGE Handbook of Identities is edited by professors Margaret Wetherell, Professor of Social Psychology at the Open University, UK and Director of the Economic and Social Research Council Programme in Identities and Social Action; and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Dean's Professor of the Humanities at Syracuse University.

The publication marks a seminal moment in the history of this multi-disciplinary field. As Mohanty points out, with "the first African American head of State in the USA, the politics of identity is once more propelled to the forefront in the public domain". Throughout the election process, the legacies of racism, civil rights and marginalization became newly relevant, and Obama's appointment resonated with the aspirations of millions of marginalized people, both in the United States and internationally.

His appointment does not obliterate the legacies of the past, but it does seem to invite the possibility of change. And this is not the first time our expectations have been disrupted. Wetherell, discussing the complexities of describing identities in a mobile, post-colonial world, uses the example of young British men held in Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of terrorism. With "their Brummie accents, their nostalgia for Scottish Highland shortbread and their interest in the football results," these young men defy traditional categories as much as Obama.

The concept of identity has become increasingly complex. As recently as the 1950s, scholars were first tentatively drawing on the explanatory power of such concepts as national identity. The field of enquiry quickly took on a dual focus, however, being concerned with both the identity of groups and personal understandings of selfhood. The field of study also became increasingly unsure of what might define either person or group. Identity ceased to be seen as static, and became shifting and negotiable.

Despite the complexities and contradictions of identity politics, movements based on its solidarity have undoubtedly had enormous success to date and remain, Mohanty argues, key to current confrontations with power, from the Zapastistas of Mexico to the Muslim feminists of North Africa, identity underpins alliances working for social justice. Identity remains a powerful political force, and the debates around Obama's appointment underline that, at the same time as it draws attention to the complexities of identity itself.

The SAGE Handbook of Identities offers an unparalleled resource for understanding the current state of thinking in the field. It reviews the current theoretical frameworks for understanding identity and describes the formative forces for constructing personhood, such as biology, culture, schooling and the media. The demarcation lines - and intersections - between gender, social class, ethnicities, sexualities, indigeneities and disabilities are also examined, along with 'sites and contexts'. It also explores the dynamics of identity found in areas such as in neo-liberal working lives, in family life and sibling relationships, in social movements, in migration and nation-building and in specific identity conflicts.

Whilst the editors acknowledge that some current critics want to move 'beyond identity' altogether, they provide a compelling argument for its continuing use in understanding the rich legacy of academic debates and political activism they describe. Identity, they say, is 'good to think with'. The SAGE Handbook of Identities captures some of the best of that thought at a fascinating moment in time, and will undoubtedly inform the thinking of the next generation of scholars.


The SAGE Handbook of Identities edited by Margaret Wetherell (The Open University) and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Syracuse University) is published by SAGE. Available in hard cover: Hardcover ISBN: 9781412934114 £90.00

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SAGE is a leading international publisher of journals, books, and electronic media for academic, educational, and professional markets. Since 1965, SAGE has helped inform and educate a global community of scholars, practitioners, researchers, and students spanning a wide range of subject areas including business, humanities, social sciences, and science, technology, and medicine. An independent company, SAGE has principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC.

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