Essay P1

People have always had, and managed, multiple personal identities


LEAD AUTHOR: Emrys Schoemaker

Photo of ID cards, credit cards, etc.

People hold multiple forms of identification

Nalin: Once I faced a problem during the election time. I could not find my voter ID for voting, and so when I went to vote, they (authorities) said bring any ID document, like an Aadhaar card, bank passbook…. Previously, identity was established with help of Gram Pradhan at the Panchayat level, but today identity is established with help of IDs, and without that it would be impossible to establish one’s identity. If it is required, then it’s OK that we have to get ID documents. When there is some government work, schemes, some urgent need then IDs becomes very important.

Researcher: So if someone would ask you, how would you prove that you are a citizen of this country without any ID document?

Nalin: In that case, the question would arise from where the person has come. The old system was good and the Gram Panchayat could verify who is whom. The Gram Panchayat used to cross verify and used to vouch for someone whenever required. But now, Aadhaar and other ID cards are used for many other programs. Now the system has changed, all these things are a part of the new system.

Nalin Kumar, dairy shop owner, Delhi

In this interview Nalin describes how he uses different ways of verifying who he is, in this case to prove his identity as a citizen in order to vote. Nalin highlights how identity artifacts are layered onto existing relationships, and how different artifacts are used in specific interactions.

In order to explore diverse ways in which people prove who they are, we view identity as always relational and performed to an audience1 rather than purely individualistic, and view technologies as embedded in social contexts2 rather than as isolated phenomena. If you don’t see identity as multiple and performed, you can’t see individual agency, improvisation or vulnerability. If you don’t see technologies as always embedded in social contexts and practices, you fail to design for effective use. Thinking about identity technologies in this way can help policymakers and designers build systems that build on people’s experiences and thus be more successful.

Many of the people we spoke to described how their sense of identity was embodied in various aspects such as their work, background, and public reputation.

I am a puppeteer and I make dolls and puppets. I am a Rajasthani artist. This is my identity. My art. I am a Rajasthani artist. This is how I will be known and this is how I am known…. Without this, I have no other identity.

Ganga, puppeteer and craftsman, Delhi

Ganga’s matter of fact description of “how he is known” is complex and dynamic, pulling in elements of time and change against static descriptors of gender, family, and occupation.

New proofs and established practices

In the past, whenever Nalin needed to prove who he was—for example, when it was time to vote or enter into a financial transaction—his identity would be verified by the Gram Panchayat (the local authority) of his village, who would use longstanding personal relationships to keep tabs on all the families in the village. After big changes such as huge population growth and rapid urbanization, India and other nations have turned to more formal systems of identification, yet as our research shows, these still rely on many of the same underlying social structures and relationships. For example, nowadays, when Nalin needs to prove who he is, he may show an official identity card with his photo or fingerprints. But in order to get that card, Nalin still had to go to his village Gram Panchayat in order to verify the first “seeder” identity credential. Most new identity systems require baseline verification of individuals that are used to “breed” further additional documents, and these baseline verifications are often rooted in relationships, such as Nalin’s community council, that people have managed for a very long time. These seeder identities contain dynamics and nuances that are only visible by taking a deep dive beneath the surface.

Some new identity technologies, such as state based foundational systems, are intended to combine multiple identity artifacts, replacing different credentials with a single, universal proof. However, the reasons people used different credentials in the past endure even as new identity systems are introduced. For example, we asked Jairam, a former farmer in rural Karnataka, to describe which of his multiple credentials was the most important.

Jairam: Important? At the time of elections, voter’s card becomes important to me. Now at the bank, they are asking for the Aadhaar these days, so the Aadhaar becomes important. Ration card is a necessity too. When I have to buy my ration, I have to take the ration card with me.

Similarly, Bashim, a rickshaw driver in urban Delhi, described how the Aadhaar card has been layered across ones that were considered important in the past.

Bashim: Earlier the ration card had value, after that they made it the voter ID. So its (ration card) value got diminished. They then made it the voter ID, the one that you get made and use for voting, right? After that, they made it the Aadhaar card. Now in the Aadhaar card, there is punching (collection?) of everything; of eyes, signature, finger prints, everything about the whole body is there. In the sense, of your whole body (inaudible) in the Aadhaar card. It does all the same things. The only thing is, in one you have the address, every part of your body is in there, and it has the photo for your ID card.

The endurance of established identity management practices means that new identity technologies and systems are not “greenfield” implementations, but are layered over existing understandings, practices, and relationships. Thinking about the multiple ways people identify themselves as “authentication repertoires” reveals the long- established ways that people prove who they are, and the context into which new identity proofs will be incorporated. These established practices can enable as well as hinder the successful adoption of new identity systems.

Identities though transactions

I went through a red light, and the policeman stopped me. I told him I hadn’t seen it, and also that my tuk-tuk was old and the brake lever was damaged. That made the policeman angry, and he asked me if I was trying to kill the passengers!! He demanded to see my papers, the driving license and the vehicle registration. I had photocopies, but the policeman was angry and used his phone to take photos of the documents and then fined me 100Rs. I was afraid because that was the last 100 rupees in my pocket. I have no money with me now and I don’t know what to tell the owner of this rickshaw.

Ramesh, rickshaw driver, Delhi
Poster headlined 'Walk out talking, get your sim activated now'

Digital Authentication for SIM registration

Although many claims for the use of identity credentials emphasize their potential to empower individuals, for example to “participate fully in their society and economy” (Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development)3, our research showed that the use of identity credentials is always within the context of relationships characterized by power and the provision of a service or benefit. Ramesh’s account reveals how different individuals exercise power in the transactions they engage in. Indeed, our focus on the socially embedded nature of identity credentials reveals the importance of power in the use of identity credentials. Paying attention to who determines the nature of verification helps illuminate the nature of those power dynamics.

People who provide a service or benefit are in positions of power and are able to determine how people prove who they are. Indeed, our respondents commonly perceived the need to verify who they are as something that is demanded of them in exchange for something they need and over which they have little control. Remember how Nalin Kumar described going to vote, and who determined what credential he could use: when I went to vote, they (authorities) said bring any ID document, like Aadhaar card, bank passbook. It wasn’t Nalin who decided how to verify his identity, but the electoral authorities. Similarly, Jafar described how others were in positions of power in providing access to artifacts and determining which form of credential was accepted.

When people are asked to prove who they are, the form of proof, the particular credential, is determined by the person or institution that is demanding verification. In other words, when people have to prove who they are it is usually in a context where the balance of power lies in the other party to the interaction. Recognizing the nature of power in relationships can help suggest how new identity technologies may be incorporated into everyday life and the interactions that people seek to undertake.

Multiple ids for multiple contexts

At the time of elections, the voter’s card becomes important to me. Now at the bank, they are asking for the Aadhaar these days, so the Aadhaar becomes important.… When I have to buy my rations, I have to take the ration card with me… it is BPL and I can access facilities from it.

Jairam, ex-farmer, Garudahali, Karnataka

People use different credentials in different contexts. In the account above Jairam describes how he uses his voter card, Aadhaar card, and ration depending on the context of the transaction he is undertaking. Similarly, respondents such as Jubina, a female nurse from Assam, described how to attend college or a conference she has to show her nursing identity card, while to obtain a SIM card she has to show a different identity card. Our research shows that people use multiple identity credentials to negotiate different contexts, as well as the same credential in multiple contexts. We saw how many discrepancies between how the state intended versus how people actually used identity cards. For example, some shopkeepers and streetsellers described how the same identity card served multiple purposes, from using the PAN card as a photo identity card for train travel as well as to make cash deposits in the bank to the use of driving licenses as proof of driving ability, general identity, and proof of age. One young female Assamese student described how she’d only ever used her driving license to enable entry to local pubs. People negotiate different contexts using multiple IDs, and use IDs in unintended ways.

The value of recognizing that people enact different identities according to context is that it highlights the complexity of managing identification as well as revealing cases where the use of multiple identities can be transgressive as well as empowering. The use of multiple identities is commonly linked to illegal and transgressive use, reflecting the belief that a single credential is sufficient to reflect a singular identity. Indeed, when the World Bank recommends digital ID, it argues “the priority should be to confer identity for all, either through a universal foundational scheme or through harmonization of the multitude of existing functional systems.”4 In India Aadhaar has been promoted by the Government of India as a single solution to a wide variety of authentication contexts.

Our research also found many examples of how multiple identities are linked to transgressive use. For example, it was not uncommon to hear accounts of people using multiple forms of identification to illegally obtain benefits, such as Alok Arora describing manual laborers: Most of them will have Delhi cards. They have dual voting rights. They have a card here, they’ll have one in their village. This is illegal, shouldn’t be.

Yet our focus on the context of identity use and the history of how people have verified who they are also showed how empowering maintaining multiple credentials can be. For example, Jafar Akbar described how migrant laborers were keen to retain old “village proof” credentials—a document vouched testified by the local panchayat—even as they obtained new credentials such as ration cards.

If we have to make any document, passport, land related documents we have to go back to the village. So the village address proof is very important. They said they definitely would like an additional Delhi ID so that they have access to resources and benefits here, but the village ID they can’t let go of.

Jafar Akbar, Migrants Rights Centre Coordinator, Delhi

For these migrants, as well as many other identity groups, maintaining multiple credentials was important to demonstrate ties to multiple locations and the identities and relationships found in those locations. People also have multiple credentials because identity shifts as people’s lives change. For example, when Riddhi, who works in a small tea stall in Madhugiri, got married, she moved from her home village to Madhugiri. Although she obtained new identity proofs such as Aadhaar card, ration card and voter ID, she had not yet applied for the old voter ID card to be terminated. As a result she has two voter IDs, one from the previous address and the second from her present address in Madhugiri.

The significance of specific credentials is determined by the value or salience of a credential in context. Respondents described how Aadhaar gained importance only as the demands for it grew. For many of our study participants, there was no “single-most” important ID card or document. As one respondent in urban Delhi said, “Each and every ID card for me is important. The bank passbook is important when I am in the bank. I get my food from my ration card and the BPL card gives me health benefits.” Respondents we spoke to described how they prioritized their identity artifacts according to the benefits the credential provides access to. For example, ration cards, BPL certificates, PAN cards, and bank documents were ranked higher than driving license and membership cards. For many, national identity credentials such as passport or Aadhaar were viewed as an aspirational identity artifact, rather than something that could give them immediate benefit. Significantly, as income and occupation influence how people value different benefits and transactions, so too do these variables play an important role in determining how they value particular identity cards and documents.


Identity technologies mediate the everyday interactions that people experience. If policymakers and designers of identity systems understand this they can see how new artifacts are always incorporated into existing relationships and practices of identity verification. Nalin’s management of the way he proves who he is, and the extent to which this is deeply embedded in relationships he values, is a reminder that people have always had and managed identities in diverse ways. Approaching the design of these technologies and systems with the recognition that they will be incorporated into existing perceptions, practices and relationships will provide information that designers and policymakers can use to make their technologies and systems more successful.


  1. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (London, UK: Harmondsworth, 1978).

  2. Chrisanthi Avgerou, “Information Systems in Developing Countries: A Critical Research Review,” Journal of Information Technology 23, no. 3 (2008): 133–46.

  3. World Bank, “Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development: Toward the Digital Age” (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2017).

  4. World Bank, “World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends” (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2016), 196.