Essay P4

Like an “identity mosaic”, people select and combine identity elements for transactions during the course of everyday life


LEAD AUTHOR: Emrys Schoemaker

Photo of three women and one man

Mosaics: traders and customers, sons and daughters, male and female

…I am an artist. My identity is in my art. What am I without my art? And then there was this big form that I had to fill…. My expression is my art and that has no age, no gender and no address.

Sumitra, female puppet maker, urban Delhi

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.

Jairam, former farmer in rural Karnataka

The presentation of identities

In the accounts above Sumitra and Jairam describe in two very different ways how they present multiple identities, and their relation to identity artifacts. Indeed, our sub-title here is a playful reference to one of sociologist Erving Goffman’s most well-known books, “The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life,”1 in which he describes how people perform differently according to the context they are in.

Sumitra and many others we spoke to value identity cards for the way they help them in their presentation of identity in everyday life. So Sumitra places her artisan card above all others because it allows her to showcase her most valued identity, that of being an artist. Although she described valuing her ration card, voter’s card and Aadhaar card, none of these represented the aspect of her identity that mattered most.

Jairam, meanwhile, describes how different identities—as a citizen, a bank customer, and a welfare recipient—are all made visible through different identity artifacts. These identities, many of which exist prior to their credentialing, are embedded in social lives and disclosed, selectively, in the interactions of everyday life.

In the Identities Project we consciously avoided focusing on a single credential, even though our research location was India and our research included Aadhaar, regarded by many as one of the most successful “single” identity initiatives. In doing so, we were struck by how often we heard stories of the active, strategic management of what we came to call the mosaic of identities. Let us be clear: in using a plural framing and in offering a term like mosaics to describe identity, we aren’t describing an individual masquerading as someone else, or fraudulent presentation of oneself to another. Rather we are highlighting the decisions and choices about which elements of everyone’s selves are to be foregrounded, at what times, in what circumstances.

Of course, people do not have full, individual control over this performance of disclosure and presentation, but nor are they passive. Look at these two examples, in which Sumitra feels that her most valued identity is her artist self, an identity that other credentials cannot capture. Jairam, on the other hand, highlights how it is specific interactions that determine which identity credential, and the identity elements that each credential contains, that are made salient and visible in any specific transaction.

A significant insight from this is that whilst the performance of variable aspects of an individual’s identity mosaic are an intrinsic part of being human, control over this plurality is only realizable to the extent that people have the agency to manage, select, and negotiate these multiple elements of identity. In this sense, the implications of credentials for individual agency over the presentation of identity is a critical dimension of understanding the complexity of identity technologies in everyday life.

People deploy and present variable aspects of their identity mosaics according to the demands of particular contexts, and these are made visible in different ways by different artifacts. Sometimes these are tacit and almost anonymous, such as interactions that do not require credentials but in which identity is communicated through other forms such as dress, speech, and body language. At other times these are more explicit, and we focus on these interactions where the verification of identity requires some form of credential. The World Bank distinguishes between two forms of identity system,2 namely functional, that serve specific purposes and foundational, the kind that serve as universal multipurpose systems capable of supporting the entire range of needs for legal identity across all applications. The scale and visibility of Aadhaar has prompted particular interest in foundational identity schemes that serve multiple purposes.

Devi holding some of his ID cards

Devi shows elements of his identity mosaic

At the same time there is a growing awareness of the need to design identity systems to meet the needs and realities of users. The World Bank convened Principles of Identification for Sustainable Development includes commitment to designing systems that are robust, which means “a statistically unique and verifiable identity for the course of an individual’s life, from birth to death, with safeguards against tampering (alteration or other unauthorized changes to data or credentials), identity theft and other errors occurring throughout the identity lifecycle.”3 This commitment envisages an identity credential that reflects the unique diversity of an individual’s identity over the duration of the use of the identity credential. The Principles go on to state a commitment to designing systems that are interoperable and responsive to the needs of various users, that are “flexible, scalable, and meet the needs and concerns of end-users (individuals).”4 Yet these aims, of a singular identity that is responsive and accurate over the credentials lifecycle, seem to be inherently in tension with the reality of the way individuals manage and perform the elements of their identity mosaics.

Sumitra and Jairam’s descriptions show that the identities that people hold and wish to present are neither static nor singular. These insights, surfaced across each of the four essays in this section, are not new. Rather, they are in line with long-established sociological arguments5 that individuals strategically manage identities such as age, location, gender, occupation and so on and that they perform these context dependent identities in order to be seen in the best possible light. Respondents described how at different times they are wives, workers, patients, and Indians, with different artifacts required in specific transactions related to each identity.

Changing lives, changing identities

Jafar: I wanted the card to have the village address on it. I wasn’t sure how long I would stay in Delhi and the Aadhaar card can be made only once for all over India. Now if I get it done here and then have to cancel, it might be a problem. Actually, there was another reason as well. I had decided that I’ll make a voter ID card of Delhi and the Aadhaar of the village…because we have land in the village also so I might require an address proof. It is on that address that the electricity bill comes on my name. This was an advantage. My father and brother don’t have any ID documents of the village. They have lived in Bengal all their lives, so all their IDs are from there. So no one from my family has any village address proof, I mean no male family member. All the women have village IDs, men don’t. I am the only one.

In this account, Jafar describes the various identities and relationships that he holds, and how they have evolved as he moved around. People have different identities as their life changes, from shifting relocations to changes in family status. Changes in identity that result from people moving locations, such as relocating for work, introduce complexities outside the frame of a singular, universal identity. Jafar’s description of the way his identities have shifted following his movements were a common experience for many of the people we spoke to, especially for people such as migrant laborers. Indeed, Jafar himself pointed to his experience at the Migrant Rights Centre coordinator to describe how many people moving for work often wanted to retain their old identity credentials, the “informal” village council certified identity letter, despite also applying for identity credentials in their new urban location in order to access benefits. As Jafar 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. In this case, people need multiple credentials to reflect the multiple contexts in which their relationships exist.

The changes to individual identities that result from changing location can cause complications, because credentials rarely accommodate the dynamism of people’s lives. As we will argue in essay V2 (migration) location can be an important aspect of an individual’s identity, manifest in the address recorded in an identity system or on an artifact. Changing one’s address requires updating credentials, yet many hold multiple addresses or lack a single permanent address.

For example, much like Jafar’s description above, Daphne, a nurse in Assam, described how she struggles to reconcile changes in her address with the singular address that most credentials demand: For me I feel sometimes giving a permanent address is not always possible. Sometimes we shift places like in my case I have my EPIC [ration] card and the address is somewhere else and now we have shifted to somewhere else. Now that is a problem. For Daphne, as for Jafar and the migrant workers, changing locations involves assuming new identities which is often in tension with the singular demands of identity artifacts.

People’s identities also change as their family and social context changes. Many of our respondents described how marriage introduced new identities and social roles that caused complications in the use of identity credentials. For example, Riddhi, a tea stall owner in rural Karnataka, described how when she got married she moved from her home village in Gadag to Madhugiri: I shifted to Madhugiri and registered on my husband’s ration card, but kept my name on my parents’ card also. I didn’t want to remove it. Having her name on two ration cards reflects Riddhi’s continuing relationship with her family as well as her new relationship with her in-laws. Although this multiple credentialing contravenes the function of the ration allowance it reflects Riddhi’s multiple identities and the contexts in which they are important. Separation and divorce were also described as significant changes that introduced new identities. Shailaja, for example, described how after her husband left and she had moved with her daughter to the city she had struggled to get proof of her address and been unable to get new ration cards. As Shailaja said:

We were all together in the village, and from the same [ration] card, they used to get it [rations]…. My husband, my mother-in-law. Someone would go and get the ration from the depot after showing the card. There was no problem. It’s only after coming to Bangalore that I have had so much difficulty. I have to purchase everything from the regular shop.

Although Shailaja struggled with her responsibilities as a single mother, she described how getting new identity credentials in her name and not her husband’s was an important part of demonstrating her independence and realizing her ability to look after her daughter. For Shailaja, her changing status and associated identities required her to present different identities in the new contexts of her life, differences that her existing identity credentials couldn’t easily accommodate.

The negotiation of identity visibility

Madappa: See and understand for yourself Madam (showing his list of documents). This is the first page, which is our application letter for a loan. This is my wife’s photograph. People have to see who the beneficiary is. Then here are the photocopies of all my ID cards. I have to add those three documents which she mentioned.

Interviewer: So you are really helping your wife obtain this loan…?

Madappa: I will be doing the business…but since this loan is only available to women, we are applying through her. I am taking all this effort with submission of application and documents. But finally I will be doing the business. She cannot do much. It is physically exhausting…. So I decided to step in and submit the application myself. See? This is her sign and this is her photograph… you can see she is selling berries and peanuts. But all this running around, she cannot do.

In this account, we see how Madappa, a pavement vendor in rural Karnataka, describes applying for a micro-enterprise loan in his wife’s name. He gathered the documents that proved his wife was not a proxy applicant for the loan, but he was also careful to ensure that there was nothing in it that would “officially” reveal that he would be the actual beneficiary. In fact, as he went on to describe, he was willing to make the extra effort of submitting his documents on another day, because his son (who had written out the application letter) had signed his own name, rather than have his mother sign it. We heard many descriptions like Madappa of negotiating transactions through managing different identities, which were often combinations of different aspects of identities, such as gender, marital status, religion or ethnicity.

The specific account given by Madappa describes how a single person actively manages diverse identities, including those of other people, incorporating them into single transactions. This example shows the control over identity, one’s own and others, can be manifestations of the exercise of power. Indeed, this example might be easily understood as the form of fraud or creative applications of the rules that singular identity credentials could help to address. Yet we also heard people articulating concerns about the consequences that a single identity system might have for their ability to control other people’s knowledge of specific identities.

These descriptions of the way people negotiate the demand for specific identities and the management of diverse, overlapping identities also brings to the fore questions of privacy and information management. In negotiating specific transactions, we saw how Madappa was careful to control the visibility of his wife and his own identity in very conscious ways. Similarly, we heard accounts of how individuals are careful to manage the specific information that their artifacts reveal. For example, Ishmat Begum and her husband Mansoor Ali, in urban Karnataka, in describing the informal loans that they had taken from a moneylender, were happy to reveal to us how much they had borrowed, the interest they had to pay and how much they still owed, but were very careful to limit public knowledge of their indebtedness as well as the identity of their lender in order to protect that relationship. They described how during the time of their daughter’s wedding they tried to limit public knowledge of their financial situation, as Ishmat said, We were in such a state that even they could not see our condition and helplessness. Such was our condition during my daughter’s wedding. Ishmat’s description highlights how they navigate revealing different aspects of their identity in different contexts. For example, whilst they were comfortable describing to us their financial situation and even showed us their loan book, they kept careful control to make sure we didn’t know who the lender was. This description of managing information shows how people selectively disclose aspects of their identity in different contexts. Ishmat and Mansoor were happy to share with us details about their financial identities, but very careful to protect their identity as trusted borrowers in their relationship with their moneylender.

Singular identity systems such as Aadhaar are characterized by their networked nature—that is, aspects of individual’s lives such as health, financial, and electoral data are linked through foundational identity systems. This has raised concerns amongst activists about the consequences of potential and actual data breaches and breakdowns in individual privacy. Yet the newness and complexity of these systems means people’s understanding of them is still developing, so we asked respondents about potential implications for their ability to manage identity visibility. Ayesha, a community health worker living on the chars islands on the Brahmaputra river in Assam described how health information was particularly sensitive. As she said, Pregnancy is very sensitive, especially for the fourth or fifth pregnancy. People are ashamed, they tell their doctor but keep it private from their community until maybe the sixth month. Ayesha went on to speculate that if pregnant women knew their pregnancy status was linked to other information held in other contexts they might be reluctant to engage with their own doctor and health services. Ayesha’s account, and those of others who shared similar sentiments, highlight how networked identity systems pose challenges for the capability of individuals to manage the visibility of specific identities they hold.


People perform identities according to the context they are in, and commonly present aspects of themselves that intersect according to the demands of the specific transaction. People we spoke to were mindful of the different identities brought about by changes in their life, and of the often competing demands of different situations, yet were forced to negotiate the manner in which performance and artifacts made these identities visible. Respondents described how at different times they perform different selves, with different artifacts required in specific transactions. New identity systems have implications for how identities are made visible and accessible, and raise concerns about their consequences for individual’s ability to manage the way they present themselves in everyday life, especially in the management of personal information such as income status or pregnancy. This mosaic lens can help designers and policymakers build technologies that are sensitive to the ways in which people present themselves in everyday life.

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

  2. World Bank, “World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends” (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2016), 194.

  3. World Bank, “Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development: Toward the Digital Age” (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2017), 12.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990).