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Identity: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis

Posted by Scott Pollock
25 November 2015 - 1:19pm

Over the past several months I have been investigating the process through which Ontario’s Ministry of Education developed their revised Canadian and World Studies curriculum.  This research, which is on going, has led to many interesting findings, one of which I would like to focus on here, in the hope that others will find it interesting (and hopefully respond to my developing ideas).

So, without further ado, I would like to offer some thoughts on the way in which Ontario’s social studies and history curriculum addresses the development of student identity. There is much I like about the revised Canadian and World Studies curriculum in this regard. There has been, for example, a concerted effort on the part of the curriculum writers to ensure that students “can see themselves in the curriculum” and that the positive contributions of various groups are recognized.  This is an achievement worthy of applause.  As readers of this blog are likely already aware earlier Ontario curricula all too often focused upon the achievements of a narrow range of people (mostly white, male and of European descent) and implicitly or explicitly depicted other groups as unimportant, if not out right inferior.   

While I do see a great deal of progress within the revised Ontario curriculum there are two problems I would like to highlight.  First, while a wider range of groups appears in the curriculum their placement is, to put it mildly, inconsistent.  Women, for example, seem to walk on and off the stage of Canadian history in the grade 10 course.  They appear in the course’s first unit (WWI-1929) but seem to largely disappear during the 1930s, only to reappear as factory workers during WWII, and then disappear again during the 1950s.  While this on-again, off-again portrayal of women’s history is an improvement from much older curriculum, which excluded women all together, it is actually a step backward from the 1999/2000 Ontario curriculum which devoted proportionally more space to women’s history.  More importantly, it also continues the long-standing trend of discussing women’s history only when women are involved in the development of the Canadian state.  Similar observations could be made about many other ethnic groups and communities.

A second problem I see with the curriculum is that identity is treated rather un-problematically.  Women and First Nations, for example, are treated as unified groups of people.  Given the fragmentation of many of these categories within contemporary historical scholarship their treatment as unified categories of analysis is somewhat troubling.  Even more concerning, from my point of view, is the assumption that the students studying the curriculum should “see themselves” as a part of these groups. Why do I take issue with this? It is not because I disagree that many students see themselves within these concepts, it is instead because there seems to me to be an opportunity that is being lost when they are presented as given.

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (1994) has argued our identities are a combination of our personal identities (e.g., my conception of myself as kind) and collective identities (e.g., race, gender, nationality). Both types of identity are formed dialogically, so we do have the opportunity to make choices about who we are and will be, but our society provides much of the material out of which our identity will be formed. In particular, Appiah believes that society provides us with life plans or scripts.  These are the lose, collective identities that define acceptable modes of behaviour for particular groups.  So, for example, Appiah believes that “there are some scripts that go with being an African-American or having same-sex desires.  There will be proper ways of being black and gay, there will be expectations to be met, demands will be made” (p. 163).  Obviously these scripts can be positive (as many of them are in the revised Ontario curriculum), but they are nonetheless constraining and largely taken for granted, and it is these aspects of them that concerns Appiah.

How else might the curriculum have addressed the issue of identity? I would argue, with apologies to Joan Wallach Scott from whom I’ve adapted the phrase, that we should look at identity as “a useful category for historical analysis”.  What do I mean by this? Well, first and foremost, I would like to see us move beyond the idea that students should (only) see themselves reflected in the curriculum and towards the idea that students should also investigate the process through which identity (their own included) is developed.  There would be many ways of going about this, but I would expect that it would require students to engage in historical perspective taking as they try to understand how people in the past conceived of themselves and why, to apply concepts of continuity and change as they investigate the factors that have changed the meaning of categories like “woman” or “First Nations”, and to use the concept of historical significance as they consider the way these categories shape their own self-concept.  Taken together this will create a curriculum, which not only encourages students to see who they are, but to think explicitly about why they are as they are, and (hopefully) who they would like to be.

Works Cited

Appiah, K. A. (1994). Identity, authenticity, survival, multicultural societies and social reproduction. In A. Gutmann (ed). Multiculturalism (pp. 149-165). Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images World War One: women factory worker. Stretcher bearers.


Identity as a useful category for historical analysis

I agree it's important for students to understand that identity, like class, ethnicity, or gender, is an ongoing social, relational, and dialogical construction. A simple way for them to approach this would be to ask them how they saw themselves as adults when they were six-year old, how their friends saw them, and how they see themselves as adults within five or ten years. All sorts of clichés would surely appear.

Interesting that women would surface in the curriculum only when "they were involved in the development of the Canadian state." This raises the issue of the development of the Canadian state and of the national identities it sought over time to impart on its citizens - and which, of course, they constructed in part on their own terms.

I also think there should be further reflection on the concept of "category" and its usefulness for historical analysis. Are "categories" different from "clichés"? Why do historians generalize attributes by putting historical actors into categories?

For an example of stereotypes contained in high school history texts in the past, have a look my "The Genealogy of Stereotypes: French Canadians in Two English-language Canadian History Textbooks," Journal of Canadian Studies / Revue d'études canadiennes, 42, 3 (Automne 2008): 106-132.



Thank you for your thoughts

Thank you for your thoughts Jose´ and for the reference to your paper on stereotypes.

You raise an interesting point when you ask: "are categories different from cliches" and "why do historians generalize attributes by putting historical actors into categories?". I would agree, with what I take to be your implication, that categories do run the risk of becoming cliches or stereotypes. This is why I see it as so important that students be invited to think about the use, both historically and in contemporary society, of categories such as race or gender. While I do not discuss it in my original post, I also wonder if a re-orientation of K-12 history and social studies curricula in this more reflexive, critical direction would provide an opportunity for different narratives (as opposed to the nation building narrative that still takes up much space within many curricula) to be told.

I also wonder to what extent other provincial curricula make un-problematic use of concepts like race and gender? While I have had the opportunity to examine the curricula from some other provinces, I have not looked at any of them in the same depth as Ontario's (perhaps some other readers will join in the conversation).