Understanding identity in terms of markets

How we define ourselves is a complicated question. We seem to know exactly who we are, but when we try to define who we are, it becomes increasingly difficult. Popularly, the issue which expresses its self is that of language. I can say that my name is Lawrence, but what makes me different from other people called Lawrence? I studied philosophy at university, but what makes me different from other people who studied philosophy at university? I like reading French authors, but what makes me different from other people who enjoy French authors? I have explored this issue before, so I shan’t place my energies here in the problems with language and specificity in defining our ‘I’ uniquely.

It presents its self to us that when we define ourselves, we have to draw on things in the world, and to our relation with them- ‘I like cheese’, ‘I value the works of Virginia Woolf’, ‘I vote Labour’, and so forth. In order to define ourselves, we have to opt to be a part of something. If we choose to reject being a part of those things which make up the world we are in, we are defined by our rejections too. If I say ‘I do not vote Conservative’, it seems to create a different description of my personality than ‘I vote Labour’.


Our identities are formed in the social realm, for it is only in the social realm that our identities really matter. It is true that they matter most importantly to us first, but if there was nobody else in the world, we would not need to define ourselves. If only two objects existed, ball (A) and ball (B), and both were moving, there would be no way to describe one as fast and one as slow because we need further details, relation points, by which to define their speeds and places in the world. This is the point at which humans now seek definition by participation- participation in the objects and ideas of the world creates the counterpoints against which we define our selves. Our identities, upon adding further detail, become axiomatic relations. If we add a stationary ball (C) to balls (A) and (B), we could define the speeds at which they move by the distances they cover in the same amount of time away from ball (C). This, you may have noticed, is simply general relativity.

It is evident that the greater the number of reference points, the better we can describe the speeds of balls (A) and (B), as well as various other characteristics. In much the same way, the greater the number of reference points in our worlds (for your world will be different from mine since it will include different objects, experiences, beliefs etc), the more specifically we can define our identities. Think of how differently the socio-political climate was in Britain when politics was thought of as a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives, and when it was a three-horse race between Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats, with people pushing for the equal inclusions of the Green Party and UKIP. People felt that there was better scope through which to identify their beliefs because there were a larger number of ideology systems through which they can adopt ideas as representations of personal beliefs.


This can be seen as a form of what we could label ‘market identity’, a system of self identification through which we adopt a label for our self based on that which is available to us. It has the benefits that it gives us humanly needed socialisation through shared belief (as with religion); and makes it easier for us to fit into the world through a greater likelihood that a group will represent our feelings. One difficulty is that the greater number of groups there are, the more we exclude ourselves from when we make a choice. This is an important problem to keep in mind because our current global society is so greatly informationally connected that the number of beliefs and ideologies in the world is rapidly expanding.

Any social scientist will tell us that we are very much part of a consumer society now. In the 1970s, people would try to understand each other by asking what they do for work. In 2018, however, we are more likely to understand each other by asking what they enjoy. This has created a society in which market consumerism helps us shape who we are in the world, to greater and greater degree. The options which people have to choose from regarding the clothes they wear or the food they eat have multiplied, thanks to the demands of a greater number of identity groups. This open market has created enough choice for it to be the more modern point of self identification. Social platforms enhance this- Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, are all full of communities of people who network over food choices, book choices, fashion choices, in specifically created genres.

high street

This means that for the first time, ‘market identity’ is a form of self definition regarding every single aspect of who we are. However, one thing to keep in mind is that point of references in the world will never truly define who we are, they merely help us get closer to who we are. One complication to this is that external conditions effect what reference points exist in the world. For example, a struggling economy will have highstreets full of shops catering to lower incomes, henceforth providing a different style and quality of material culture through which we can adopt reference-point identities. If the pound took a steep drop, high end bars, restaurants, clothing shops, and so forth, will face closure. This will change the shopping lists of our market identities. This also shows that financial and class limits restrict us. A vibrant economy, then, is one in which people are more free to define who they are.

We also see that high streets design the products they sell before we know about them, in the same way that political groups are designed by the people in them, and how religions predate our existence, and are therefore firmly established in type and kind before we assume as part of who we are them. Trends also happen to be important considerations, for example, because of the tastes and lifestyle choices of celebrities, and businesses choosing to market those things. That which is available is therefore decided not only by the worth of an economy, but also by the desires of those who have greater influence than us to create a market.


Sartre believed, like Jaspers, that the objective world subsumes us, making us more like the objective world than our actual identities. His answer was to turn the identity we wish to be subsumed by into an objective form in the world. Now that social influencers, celebrities, brand marketers, commodity experts and so forth, are creating the objective world at large, we must ask- have we reached an age in which economists could be some of the best minds at understanding identity?


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