Manuel Castells: The Power of Identity

“In a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity — collective or individual, ascribed or constructed — becomes the fundamental source of social meaning.”

The Power of Identity is the second book in Castells’ three-volume trilogy on the Information Age:

  • Volume I: The Rise of the Network Society;
  • Volume II: The Power of Identity, and
  • Volume III: End of Millennium.

Identity is people’s source of meaning and experience and should be distinguished from what sociologists have called roles, and role-sets. Identities are stronger sources of meaning than roles because of the process of self-construction and individuation that they involve. In simple terms, identities organize the meaning while roles organize the functions.

The information technology revolution, and the restructuring of capitalism, have induced a new form of society, the network society. (1) According to Castells, these networks are extremely powerful. They include only what is interesting from the point of view of the values or sources of interest that program this network.

Let’s say, the global capitalist network, left to itself, will include in the network companies, countries, regions, people, that enhance the value of this network in money-making terms. This is an extreme situation, but it’s not completely away from what’s happening in the world. Then, people who don’t have this value, don’t have the education, don’t have the infrastructure, don’t have the institutions, what do they do? They cannot live without these networks which provide them with everything and capture any wealth from anywhere through processing everywhere. At the same time, if they cannot actually contribute to these networks, they are switched off.

Castell’s proposes three forms of identity building in the age of the networked society:

  1. Legitimizing identity: introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination vis a vis social actors, a theme that is at the heart of Sennett’s theory of authority and domination, but also fits with various theories of nationalism.
  2. Resistance identity: generated by those actors that are in positions/conditions devalued and/or stigmatized by the logic of domination, thus building trenches of resistance and survival on the basis of principles different from, or opposed to, those permeating the institutions of society, as Calhoun proposes when explaining the emergence of identity politics.
  3. Project identity: when social actors on the basis of whichever cultural materials are available to them, build a new identity that redefines their position.

Legitimizing identity generates a civil society; that is, a set or organizations and institutions, as well as a series of structured and organized social actors, which reproduce, albeit sometimes in a conflictive manner, the identity that rationalizes the sources of structural domination. This is the original conception of civil society, as formulated by Gramsci, the intellectual father of this ambiguous concept. Indeed, in Gramsci’s conception, civil society is formed by a series of “apparatuses”, such as the Church(es), unions, parties, cooperatives, civic associations and so on,  which, on the one hand, prolong the dynamics of the state, but, on the other hand, are deeply rooted among people. It is precisely this double character of civil society that makes it a privileged terrain of political change by making it possible to seize the state without launching a direct, violent assault. (9)

Identity of resistance leads to the formation of communes, or communities, in Etzioni’s formulation. This may be the most important type of identity-building in our society. It constructs forms of collective resistance against otherwise unbearable opposition, usually on the basis of identities that were, apparently, clearly defined by history, geography, or biology, making it easier to essentialize the boundaries of resistance. (9)

Project identity produces subjects as defined by Alain Touraine: The transformation of individuals into subjects results from the necessary combination of two affirmations: that of individuals against communities, and that of individuals against the market. (10)

Watch – Manuel Castells: Communication power in the Network Societies