Identifying “Self-Identification”

How has the meaning and use of ‘self-identification’ evolved since it was originally invented to solve administrative problems? How should reasonable people respond when someone identifies theirself as something they aren’t?


Self-identification is a term commonly used in activist circles which has seeped through the public consciousness in recent years. For example, certain groups are only open to those who self-identify as LGBT. ‘Gender’, which is how you ‘play the part’ of your sex in society, is no longer considered a matter of biology, but is instead, it’s claimed, a matter of self-identification.

Other individuals have also sought to self-identify as something other than what their biology suggests. Rachel Dolezal has claimed that she self-identified as a black person even though she has two white parents.

And then there are the otherkin who self-identify as non-human. The claims of Dolezal and the otherkin have been almost entirely rejected, but the claims of people who are biologically one sex but identify with the other have been accepted by some, but rejected by others. See, for example, the reaction to Dame Jenni Murray’s recent comments.

I don’t want to engage in those particular debates. Instead I want to take a step back, and look at how “self-identification” is used.

My view is that part of this debate goes away when we properly analyse the meaning of the term “self-identification”. Self-identification has been used in three different senses: (1) what I’ll call ‘evidential’, (2) as a ‘tie breaker’ for policing boundaries, and (3) normatively, to make claims on others’ treatment of the identifier.

Let’s look at the evidential uses first.

Suppose you are running a club for, and only for, lesbian, gay and bisexual students. How do you know whether someone is eligible to join? It would clearly be a massive intrusion of privacy of ask people to submit pictures of them having sex, and even then this would not be conclusive. Straight people might find themselves having sex with someone of the same sex and homosexuals might not be sexually active.

So instead you just ask people whether they identify as lesbian, gay or bi. That’s the evidential sense of self-identification. On this use, the mere self-identification is not what makes one gay or straight. One is sexually attracted to people of the same sex irrespective of how one self-identifies.

Of course, the difficulty with self-identification in that sense is that it can be abused. For example, 1 in 6 of the students voting for Cambridge Women’s Officer election are men. (I sure did. One man, one vote, sez I.  And RON needs all the help s/he can get.- Ed)

Now let’s look at when self-identification works as a ‘tie-breaker’.

Categories are social constructs that we create for our benefit. Take Scott Alexander’s example of “fish” and “mammal”; they are not natural kinds but are categories that biologists have created. That does not mean that there are no differences between a salmon and a dog; there obviously are. But that those differences make them fall into these two categories, rather than (for example) them falling into categories based on other differences, like ‘fast swimmer’ and ‘slow swimmer’, is a matter of social convention.

Now we have focal cases of fish and mammals. Fish swim in the sea and mammals live on land and have hair (that last bit is to distinguish them from reptiles). But that does not cover every case. Whales are mammals and yet live in the sea (but they do have tiny hairs). Whales share some of the characteristics of the focal instance of mammals but also some of focal instance of fish. So how do we decide in which category they fall? We need to use a tie-breaker. The tie-breaker that biologists have decided we use is phylogenetic (I also had to look that up on Wikipedia).


Calling this a fish is hateful.

When it comes to sex, most people think of the focal case of a women as having XX chromosomes, ovaries, a vagina and female external characteristics. But not all people that we consider to be women have these. For example, androgen insensitivity syndrome leads to XY people looking completely female. So something else is needed to properly account for the way in which we use the term women.

Scott Alexander sees the transgender movement as seeking to switch from using chromosomes as the tie-breaker and instead use self-identification as the tie-breaker. Why would we do that? Because the purpose of the classification is help serve humans, and this would, so the argument goes, best be done by taking self-identification as the tie-breaker.

Two points on that. First, self-identification does not in any way change reality; rather it is about how to set the boundary of the penumbra of a category which is socially constructed. Second, self-identification is only worth using where there is a tie to be broken – where the usual biological markers of sex point in different directions. Scott points to evidence to suggest that this is what is going with trans people.

Finally, let’s look at the normative sense of “self-identification”.

Like self-identification as tie-breaker, self-identification in its normative sense it is actually capable of changing in which category someone falls. But, unlike the tie-breaker, and like the evidential use, it has wide application and does not just have effect when a tie needs to be broken.

It is on this view of self-identification that the claims of Rachel Dolezal and of the otherkin relies on. The otherkin identifying as a lion is equally human as the rest of us. There is no tie to be broken. Yet their claim is that the mere act of self-identifying as being of another species makes them so. How can this be justified?

One possibility is that they are calling for a redefinition of concepts so that there would now be two ways of defining species membership: (i) the usual biological way or (ii) self-definition. But there seems to be no reason why we should redefine our concepts like this. It is one thing to call for self-identification as a tie-breaker, but it is quite another to think that it should be used to redefine concepts in such a radical manner.

The other possibility is by appeal to dualist conceptions of personal identity, especially those of a Cartesian variety.

What makes it the case that I am the same person as the picture of 13-year-old me? This question is what philosophers articulate conceptions of personal identity to answer.

There are broadly two types of answers to this question. One is that I am the same biological organism as the one represented in that picture. The other is that my mental states or immaterial soul is what connects me now to that 13-year-old. These latter types of views are known as ‘dualist’. They imagine that our bodies are something we ‘inhabit’ but our ‘real’ selves are something else.

The sorts of claims made by the otherkin and Rachel Dolezal implicitly rely on such views of personal identity. Notwithstanding the above argument about tie-breakers, the transgender movement relies on rhetoric which echoes such views (“a girl in a boy’s body”).

I will be addressing why such views of personal identity are wrong in a subsequent essay. But the point of this essay was that self-identification has shifted from being an unproblematic concept to one which is dependent on very controversial metaphysical assumptions.

Rajiv Shah is a PhD candidate in Law at the University of Cambridge.

Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to the Quad. Our featured photo of Rachel Dolezal is by Aaron Robert Kathman and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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