We understand identity neither as fluid, fragmented and contingent nor as solid and given once for good. It is rather an ongoing process of intersubjective construction and reconstruction. It is also a category of everyday experience, used by individuals to make sense of themselves in relation to the world they live in and in relation to the others, who may be defined as “similar” or “different”, “us” or “them”. Identity functions also as cognitive schemas – internally stored information and meanings, which serve as frameworks for interpreting experiences.
Since identity for us is rather a process than an end product, we ask not only what it is, but also how it becomes; how it has been formed, maintained and transformed in the course of various life experiences and what are the mechanisms crucial for identity development.
Identity is also a category of continuity. Not only does it provide a sense of who one is, one’s self-conception, it also enables us to stay “the same” over time, despite the changes in one’s life world and broader social context. This maintenance is possible through identity work – a biographical process of identity construction and reconstruction through incorporation of the concerns and logics of various collectivities. People typically are embedded in multiple roles in multiple groups and therefore they experience themselves in terms of grid of intersecting interests, loyalties and responsibilities. As a result, they hold a multiplicity of identities, which may reinforce each other or stay in competition or conflict.
Identity maintenance and transformation is a biographical process. The individuals’ perspectives are formed in part out of the sum of the influence of their past experiences and their subjective perception and processing of this past. Former experiences may either support a productive unfolding of one’s own identity or undermine it. This received past plays into the present as one’s identity is maintained but also actively constructed. At the same time, the present perspective is formed by an anticipation of the future – what the individual sees as the likely outcome of the present in the short and long terms.
We are as much interested in strong, groupist, exclusive identifications as in looser, more open self-understandings, involving some sense of affinity or affiliation, commonality or connectedness to a particular group of people. We focus on the mechanisms of generating collective identities, in particular, European identities, and the process of ‘we’-community construction. Firstly, we look at the experiences of shared features, shared frames of reference and shared social worlds. Secondly, we give attention to the definitions of ‘us’ that are built in contrast to ‘others’, either the culturally different or, more intensely, the incomprehensible alien stranger who is excluded from ‘we’-community.