Zones of Identity

Zones of identity are the aspects of the immediate social world that a person identifies with so strongly that the person does not feel complete without it or them. So a person is not fully that without something that is outside his brain, and so there is no getting around the fact that the social sphere is every bit as real as the psychological one, much less the neurological one, even if, obviously, a person might survive without one or another zone of identity, however diminished a life it would be, but it would also be difficult to conceptualize what a person would be without some one or another zone of identity, whether that is occupational or the comfort of having a family hearth to return to at the end of the day, that being the place where one is truly “oneself”.

A good example of a zone of identity is provided by that wonderful Beatles movie “It’s a Hard Day’s Night”. Richard Lester, the director, combined slapstick humor, the life of celebrity, what with pretty girls and swooning fans, and old-new jokes (an elderly man is a “clean old man”) and the use of some Beatles songs as part of the soundtrack rather than shown in performance, with closeups of these four cleancut young men (which is what they were at the time) in performance, absolutely in the grasp of their own performance and the squealing responses to it. This is what the movie audience would take away: not just the lighthearted cheerfulness of what the Beatles did and what they were, but also that they were, as the phrase goes, in their element, never more fully themselves than when they were performing, which is a trite remark to make about musical artists, but is also true of more pedestrian occupations.

Consider the case of a busdriver. How far does he extend his identity when performing his occupation? He might extend it only so far as to the skin of his bus. He is the master of his domain in that he is in charge of all activities that go on within his bus. He sees to it that passengers put in their fares and will sometimes let by a person who seems confused or is jamming the aisle on a busy part of his route. He will tell students that they are being rambunctious and will know where a pregnant lady who regularly rides his bus gets off. The streets he rides through are externals to his domain. He navigates them but they are, literally, outside, seen through windows. On the other hand, perhaps the busdriver sees those streets as his terrain, the beginning, middle and end of his route, each block with its own aura, he the one to slow down for traffic or be patient with double parked trucks just as he is with slow to move passengers. Maybe he is adept at switching back and forth between his consciousness of the interior of the bus and the streets that are exterior.

There are many studies of bus drivers. That may be so because it is very easy to tell an introductory class to climb on a bus and observe how it acts as an independent social system. So scholars have found that it makes a difference whether people load in the front, in which case they pay up front, or load from the rear, in which case they pay when they leave the bus at the front, and that makes it easier to charge by the length of the ride. Busdrivers are also analyzed for the amount of stress they endure. All I want to add to that is that the busdriver decides whether the social system with which he is engaged ends with the frame of the bus or pushes out into the streets through which he passes.

I can say what the zone of identity is for a teacher because I was one for many years. I would stand outside the classroom while the students went in and then I would enter and roll out one of the mental tapes I had constructed over the years that I had selected to be that day’s lecture and I delivered it with the appearance of spontaneity, just as if I were thinking these thoughts for the first time, just like a stand up comedian who goes through his monologue also as if he is just being conversational. I would splice in new examples of the points I wanted to make from what I had read in the New York Times that morning so as to make the lecture even more off the cuff and “relevant” even though, as I often say, the basic principles of sociology don’t change and have been in place ever since people became people. I would look around the expanse of the lecture room to see if students were paying attention and if I felt I was losing them I would not go into flop sweat, the way a young comedian or lecturer would; I would alter the tape and move to another subject or try to say the same thing differently. I was in my element in that I cared about what I was explaining, thought I had some illumination to provide, and some students noticed not just that but that, after a while, they could say what I was going to say because I always supplied lists of causes and consequences and types of social organization, as when I suggested there were five or whatever distinctive ways in which government affected the population. That was my method and it followed from my belief that what students got from a teacher was not a discussion whereby the students shared their ignorance but how a mind which was experienced in thinking about such matters went about organizing his thoughts. The performance was therefore very much an extension of myself and I was more truly myself than I think I was when changing diapers, though that too was a zone of comfort, a responsibility the importance of which filled up part of my time away from classrooms, and while very different, also filled out my imagination so that I thought of myself as having at least these two identities, each one gratifying in its own terms.

I am, of course, not the first one to discover that a different place can reveal a different identity and allow an alternative identity to dwell there, Charles Dickens, in “Great Expectations”, creates the character of Wemmick, who is a clerk to the lawyer, Mr. Jaggers. He is the one who supervises giving Pip his portions of money and also, over the years, becomes Pip’s confidant. Wemmick invites Pip to his home, which is built like a castle, even with a moat around it, as if to actualize the idea that every Englishman’s home is his castle. There the usually subservient and compliant Wemmick comes into his own, presiding over his hearth and capable of giving sound advice. We arise to our surroundings and when the surroundings change we become different people.

Not being a novelist, however, it is very important to be careful to specify what is being said. Identity is not a zone of control, however much the law would protect Wemmick’s castle from being invaded except by police carrying a judicial warrant to do so. A zone of control refers to the people who can be ordered around by a person. A general controls how his soldiers are deployed and where they are sent into battle. A business executive controls the lives of his or her employees to the extent that is allowed by employment law and custom. A zone of identity, on the other hand, refers to the parts of the social landscape which support a person’s sense of himself as an autonomous figure. A general feels himself as in command when he is mounted on a horse or sitting in a jeep while accompanying his men so as to size up the situation and to move them along, or it may be that the general is sitting in a palace giving orders on how his air fleet is to be used in the Battle of Britain. An executive may or may not feel comfortable moving outside of his executive suite. President Trump is in his zone of identity when he is tuned into “Fox and Friends” or at a campaign rally but, apparently, is not comfortable when he receives his daily intelligence briefing, which other Presidents are reported to regard as the most momentous part of their day. Zones of control are objective; zones of identity are subjective although very real for the person under consideration.

Eating habits, which are usually thought to be just customary in that every ethnic group likes the cuisine in which it was raised, is more complicated than that because calling something a custom does not explain how the custom works. I once took a bunch of mostly Italian American students on a tour of New York’s Chinatown. Some of them were horrified at seeing roasted pigs hanging in a butcher’s window, and when we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch some could not find anything on the menu they would consider eating. I suggest that their stomachs clamped down because there were no aromas or scenes familiar from their mother’s kitchen. You have to relax into a place in order to eat there, or else you have to think of yourself as willing to move out of your comfort zone and think of eating as an adventure. Dining at an ethnic restaurant is therefore an expression of your zone of identity rather than merely a way of doing something in a fashion that is usual for you. Don’t you remember the first time you went to a fancy restaurant and couldn’t concentrate on the food because you wondered whether your table manners were sufficient for the occasion?

Would a person survive without that extension of the self into social life? I am not at all sure, any more than I can fathom what it would be like to be a disembodied soul resident in some abstract heaven. How could a person still be a person in any meaningful sense if they could not feel the breeze or have thoughts or adventures other than as part of the universal soul? Similarly, what would it be like to be a person who has not claimed some realm or limit of social action as the sphere in which he or she expresses himself and therefore, the place or social situation on which his or her self relies? Ever since Jane Goodell, I have been unable to imagine a mountain gorilla without his wives and children beside him in his leafy retreat, and I cannot imagine Archie Bunker without his little two story house or Donald Trump without Trump Tower. We all need both our retreats and our sites of engagement.