Mystifying Multiple Identity

T.K. Oommen

By Amartya Sen
Allen Lane an Imprint of Penguin Books, 2006, pp. xx 215, price not stated.

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 10 October 2006

Professor Amartya Sen interrogates a large number of ideas in currency in the contemporary world including the tendency to categorize individuals and communities based on one overarching identity, clash of civilizations, multiculturalism, the presumed superiority of the West, terrorism emanating from religious fundamentalism and the like. As a review is constrained by limitations of space I shall rest content by discussing some of them.   One of the points which comes for persistent comments in the book is the phenomenon of multiple identities. (In fact identity, role and value orientation are often conflated but I shall let that pass). This is an obvious fact; indeed commonplace. Even if one confines one’s analysis to the institution of family it is clear that a woman can be at once a wife, mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, daughter, daughter-in-law to list a few. If the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is widely perceived to be tension generating, the relationship between mother and daughter is usually not. As the canvass of an individuals’ sphere of activities expand to neighbourhood, work, recreation and worship her ‘identities’ increase. And it is indeed simplistic to identify an individual in terms of one master identity or role and hence one need not labour this point.   What is true of individuals is also true of groups and communities. But there is a critical difference; while the integrity of the unit of analysis remains intact in the case of individuals, the group/community gets distributed into different categories. A religious community usually belongs to different linguistic groups and regions, classes and occupations, age and sex groups. To categorize a group/community exclusively in terms of one of the above features is not to deny that it has a conglomerate of attributes but to highlight its differences with other similar groups on a particular attribute. Thus different classes, age-groups, races, religious communities, linguistic groups, occupational groups etc., are juxtaposed. But they do share critical minimum common attributes. Thus a religious community has shared canonical rituals in spite of its numerous internal differentiations.   Given the announced purpose of the book (although it arrives rather late) it is necessary to ask and answer the question which of the identities are instrumental in fomenting violence? Sen writes: ‘The subject of this book—ideas of identities and their relation to violence in the world—is closely linked…’(pp.149-50). It is absolutely clear that the ...

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