Identity Essay

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The question of identity is linked to the model that governs a correctional institution and the overall system of justice. Despite changing and multiple identities associated with those subject to the administration of justice in society, some notions of identity prevail. It is these enduring versions of identity that dominate the administration of justice in society that warrant exploration. Pluralistic standpoints including race, gender, class, and sexual identities are lodged within the narratives on crime and justice. Notions of identity are closely linked with citizenship and embodied in police, court, and/or prison practices, policies, and texts. However, differences in identity tend to be reduced to sameness by way of the systems of justice. This normative application alters notions of dignity, responsibility, fairness, and freedom within a framework of the justice system.

The concept of identity has a history of change and fluctuations. It has long been presented as “in crisis” through George Herbert Mead’s presentations of “self,” including the “mutable self” and the “protean self,” among others. It has also appeared through Erving Goffman’s “presented self” and Charles Horton Cooley’s looking-glass imagery. The indication of these approaches that the idea of the self and identity is a social construct subject to perpetual change is far from new. This history is well acknowledged in a world of mobilities and the associated boundary shifts. These dimensions ensure that identity and indeed citizenship are not well bounded. Herein lies the difficulty of the notion of identity when applied in structured organizations such as correctional institutions or systems. The administration of justice in society is afforded little flexibility, thus a normative application of identity prevails. It seems the problem lies not with the existence of the boundaries that may be necessary but with their nature.

The notion of identity remains complex and dynamic. It is fluid and at times difficult to grasp. Identity is located at the interface between self and society. Thus, identity is changeable because the identity space changes. People have multiple and changing identities depending on their circumstances and conflicting demands. Identities are increasingly multiplied in the contemporary world where people more frequently cross borders for a variety of reasons. One can be born of parents from different parts of the world, reside in one nation and be a citizen of another, belong to a particular social class, or have a particular sexual identity. A person’s identity can relate to some or all of the above and additional standpoints that constitute multiple identities. Nonetheless, systems of justice tend to remain limited in interpretations of identity.

The outdated notion of identity being primarily based on appearance or citizenship is problematic. It seems, however, that both appearance and/or citizenship underpin or dominate assessments of identity by law enforcement agencies and, consequently, the administration of justice in society. In Australia, for example, the identity of an offender is defined primarily by appearance. This broad assessment reduces difference to sameness in categories such as “Caucasian,” “southeast-Asian appearance,” or “Asian appearance.” Designed to avoid racial profiling, these categories fuel stereotypes that are not reflective of self-ascribed identity. Identity assigned by another may be intentionally or unintentionally discriminating.

Bruce Arrigo, Heather Bersot, and Brian Sellars provide numerous examples of assigned and misappropriated identity. A case in point is delinquent youth with immature development who are charged with a criminal offense, identified as adults, and consequently tried in an adult court. Judgments often take into consideration the youthfulness of the offender; however, it is a case-by-case application dependent on the perspective of the ruling judge, and variations in length of sentences are inevitable. Other examples noted by these and other scholars include inadequate acknowledgement in the justice system of mental health issues, sexual identities, and the importance of relationships in terms of gender and identity. Feminist-inspired reformers and scholars concerned with the issues of race, class, and gender have been influential in terms of identity of incarcerated females, but gender discrimination prevails. It seems that penal policies do not have the flexibility to address multiple identities. These examples run counter to notions of fairness and responsibility within a framework of the justice system. Categorizing the other may lead to advantage or disadvantage, but either way is not helpful in the administration of justice. This application of identity is stigmatizing and marginalizing, thus narrowing notions of dignity, responsibility, fairness, and freedom. It highlights that the kept (the incarcerated or punished) and the keepers (police, prison, and court authorities) have different perspectives on identity.

The existence of subcultures in terms of identity presents as a marker and locus of criminalization. For example, the construction of identity through gang members’ particular style of grooming and use of language is observable but is unlikely to represent the individual members’ true identity. This form of cultural identity may nurture criminal networks but does not eliminate within-group violence, as evidenced by Mafia groups. The commonality or sameness associated with the idea of identity suggests belonging to a particular group or more broadly a nation and is therefore linked with citizenship. However, these constructs have shifting boundaries, making one’s identity a dynamic project rather than a static completed state.


  1. Arrigo, Bruce A., Hearther Y. Bersot, and Brian G. Sellars. The Ethics of Total Confinement, A Critique of Madness, Citizenship, and Social Justice. American Psychology-Law Society Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  2. Ferrell, John. “Cultural Criminology.” In Criminological Perspectives, Essential Readings. 2nd ed. E. McLaughlin, J. Muncie, and G. Hughes, eds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003.
  3. Hannah-Moffat, Kelly. “Sacrosanct or Flawed: Risk, Accountability and Gender-Responsive Penal Politics.” Current Issues in Criminal Justice, v.22/2 (2010).
  4. Plummer, Ken. “The Flow of Boundaries: Gays, Queers and Intimate Citizenship.” In Crime, Social Control and Human Rights, From Moral Panics to States of Denial, Essays in Honour of Stanley Cohen, David Downes, Paul Rock, Christine Chinkin, and Conor Gearty, eds. Devon, UK: Willan, 2007.

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