Role identities, narrative identity, and change

In the question period of an ASC panel about identity change and desistance, an audience member commented that in looking at this relationship, we should remember that we all change our identities. She rattled off a few examples of her own identity changes, largely focusing on role identities and also on a transition from rebellious teen to matured adult.

I have been thinking about this comment since. In the moment, I wanted to object to it, but I’m not sure why. I think part of it is that I’m not sure we change our identities so frequently – but I think we need to distinguish more clearly between “role identities” and the type of identity that is more personal and enduring. Role identities have, to some extent, existing definitions and blueprints for behavior. Individuals can also adopt more idiosyncratic role identities by taking those existing blueprints and individualizing them to meet their own needs or purposes. For example, a person working as a nurse may take on the definition of this role that focuses on health care and promoting healthy behavior in others, but still smoke cigarettes regularly. She may do this by saying that smoking cigarettes helps her to be a better nurse because nicotine gives her more focus and energy for her tasks, or by saying that yes, she smokes and this is at odds with her health-promotion role, but she does so knowing the risks and making an informed choice, which is in line with her beliefs about patient autonomy. In this way, behaviors that initially seem to fall outside of conventional role identities can be accommodated without too much cognitive dissonance.

Role identities can certainly change as we move between different positions and relationships. Some roles are far more enduring than others – “mother” may be a role occupied for the rest of one’s life, whereas employment-related roles may change from year to year. We may internalize these role identities to varying degrees. I may “perform” the role of a nurse when I am at work but shed that role when I leave, or I may come to see being a nurse as an important part of my life and perhaps a reflection of my core values. In my life story – as in narrative identity theory – I may draw on past experiences to highlight my capacity for caring for others as a sign that I was always meant to be a nurse. In this way, being a nurse may be a reflection of some underlying core value that I hold (being a ‘caring person’), a theme that may repeat throughout my life story, rather than just a role that I have stepped into for a short time but may leave in the future.

This is why I partly disagree with the idea that we all change our identities so frequently. Thinking about this from a narrative identity perspective, we may add scenes or themes to our narratives as we go along, but the big shift in perception required to “re-story” our lives is not an easy task. It requires a reinterpretation of past events, at the minimum, or perhaps even a discounting of events once thought to be important, in favor of highlighting different episodes that show some other personal trait or value. For a desisting offender, this may involve reckoning with serious trauma or transgressions and finding a way to either see these events in a different light or downplay their seriousness in the overall narrative. It also involves remembering and identifying episodes that show some glimmer of the prosocial traits or values that the desisting individual now wants to highlight – not only dredging up these memories, but stitching them back together into some sort of coherent tale that accounts for past deviance and present/future ‘goodness.’

These ideas are important not only identity theories of desistance, but for other explanations of criminal careers. Theories that emphasize structural “turning points” like marriage, parenthood, employment, education, and others would benefit from incorporating some of the role identity literature to elucidate the meaning of these roles, both conventionally and as adapted and individualized by desisting (or persisting) offenders. It is not enough, surely, to just sign a marriage license – instead, it is about the shared and personalized definitions of what it means to be in a marriage and to have or be a “husband” or “wife.” It is not enough to just give birth to a child, it is about the meaning attached to “motherhood” and how a woman conforms to shared definitions of “good motherhood” or adopts an idiosyncratic definition that leaves room for continued law-breaking or substance abuse.

For narrative identity theorists, we could think more about how role identities may eventually be internalized and woven into the narrative fabric. In some ways, work on narrative identity in criminology has become too focused on individual agency and has moved away from its symbolic interactionist roots – in studying how individuals re-story their own lives, we have lost focus on the fact that narratives are not just a product of individual story-telling, but incorporate characters and themes appropriate to the culture and time-period in which the narrative is told. This could include cultural and period-specific meanings attached to certain social roles – it would be interesting, for example, to look at desistance narratives from past time periods and compare them to contemporary narratives, or to do cross-cultural comparative research on desistance narratives to better see the “patchwork” nature of life stories situated in time and place.

2 thoughts on “Role identities, narrative identity, and change

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  1. I especially like your comments on changing identity with new relationships – marriage, employment and parenthood, for example. The sociological life-course theory that I study definitely shows identity changing over time … but not “rapidly.” Along the usual American life-course, these change maybe only once a decade or so!

    1. Thank you, John! I think that understanding these changes *truly* over the life-course has been overlooked in criminology. The time period of most concern is, of course, the criminal career, and for most people that ends fairly early in life. I am very interested to examine identity change, esp. through identity narratives, both very early on and late in life – for example, I think another area of study that has been overlooked is the experience of elderly people transitioning from incarceration back to the community. How do they make sense of their lives? How do they “renarrate” life at such a late stage? On the practical side of things, how do they make arrangements and access needed resources/care after such long periods of incarceration?

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