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The notion of identity is one of the most important aspects of being human. A person’s identity is a complex social construct with a range of meanings that continuously evolve. The simplest explanation of what identity is, is that it describes who a person is or the qualities of a person or group that makes them different from others.


Etymology of the word identity

The term identity comes from the Latin word idem, which means, “repeatedly the same”, and refers to unique characteristics by which a person, or thing, is always recognised.



self-identity is personal characteristics or attributes that distinguish an individua


Social identity

refers to a group of people marked by a label such as African, South African, Swazi, Christian, single-mother, lesbian, teacher or taxpayer and distinguished by rules deciding membership and characteristic features or at-tributes – for example, beliefs, desires, moral commitments or physical attributes. These two notions are intimately related.



he state of being “other” or different – is used to refer to perceptions of “us” and “them”.


A trait

A trait is a characteristic or quality that that distinguishes an individual or group from others. Some identity traits are innately inherited and ascribed, whilst other aspects of an individual’s identity are acquired or achieved


Inherited traits

Inherited traits are the genetically inherited from parents or ancestors. This includes physical attributes, for instance skin, hair and eye colour, and physical abilities, for example, musicality or athletic aptitude. It also includes predispositions, such as susceptibility to certain diseases and emotional characteristics
Individuals have little or no choice over inherited and ascribed identities and these traits are generally rigid, unbending and difficult to chang


Achieved traits

An achieved status is based on an individual’s qualities, abilities, potential and choices. It is dynamic, unstable and continuously self-changing.



Nationality refers to the identity of an individual based on the country in which a person was born or naturalised (has become a citizen of)
Of all the social identities, it is the most basic and inclusive identity that every living human being possesses.


The concept “nation”,

The concept “nation”, originated in Europe in the late eighteenth century.
People who shared culture-specific aspects such as language, religious beliefs, history and appearance, formed pow-erful and influential political units called nation-states.
Modern-day states include diverse com-munities within their borders, which challenges the idea of national homogeneity and give rise to what is called multinational states.


Multinational state

a sociocultural construct that comprises individuals who “imagine” themselves to live in unityion: it is an imagined politi-cal community”s imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members- meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. Although the idea only exists in the minds of people, nations are an integral part of the political landscape and an intrinsic aspect of social identity.



Feeling loyal and devoted to a country is termed nationalism. The effect of national-ism is a powerful force to reckon with. As a political ideology, nationalism can be a constructive and unifying form of patriotism – the glue that binds people together. It can, however, in an extreme form, become a destructive chauvinistic force



Ethnicity is usually defined in terms of a kind of sociocultural ethos, character or disposition. Ideas or perceptions about ethnic groupings involve concepts of race, ethnic identity, ethnic symbols and relationships among ethnic groupsIt is difficult to precisely define the notion of ethnicitAnthropological perspectives on the nature and basis of ethnicity can be grouped into three schools of thought:
1 Primordialists
2 Instrumentalists
3 Constructivists



regard ethnicity as a primitive collective identity, determined at birth and deeply rooted in ancestry, history or biological traits.



argue that ethnic identity is symbolic and can change. It is superficially created as an instrument used and exploited by leaders and others in the pursuit of their own interests.



believe ethnicity is a fluid and subjective identity that people construct, through various means including conquest, colonisation or immigration.



the process that leads to the emergence of a new ethnic identity.


The term sex

refers to the biological differences between males and females determined at conception. On a genetic level, males have one X and one Y chromosome, and females have two X chromosomes.



Gender focuses on how concepts about masculinity or femininity are upheld in societies. It is a social construct that involves norms, attitudes and activities that a society deems appropriate for each sex category. Comparison between communities reveals that there are wide variations in ideas about how many genders exist



Sexuality is the way in which sex and gender is individually expressed and also an important focus for anthropological research. Human communities have diverse ideas about sexuality and how it is constituted. Just as sex and gender do not always align, neither does sex and sexuality. People can identify along a wide spectrum of sexualities from heterosexual to homosexual, to asexual, etcetera.


Identity politics

Identity politics is a generic term that describes the organisation and mobilisation of groups on the basis of shared characteristics, to pursue economic, equality, political and cultural goals for people who share that identity. Bound together by their shared identity, activist groups express their concerns and claim recognition and respect. These groups either demand inclusion or seek autonomy, sometimes even to the extent of complete political separation