The Sociology of Personal Identification

Brensinger, Jordan; Eyal, Gil

Systems drawing on databases of personal information increasingly shape life experiences and outcomes across a range of settings, from consumer credit and policing to immigration, health, and employment. How do these systems identify and reidentify individuals as the same unique persons and differentiate them from others? This article advances a general sociological theory of personal identification that extends and improves earlier work by
theorists like Goffman, Mauss, Foucault, and Deleuze. Drawing on examples from an original ethnographic study of identity theft and a wide range of social scientific literature, our theory treats personal identification as a historically evolving organizational practice. In doing so, it offers a shared language, a set of concepts for sensitizing researchers’ attention to important aspects of personal identification that often get overlooked while also
facilitating comparisons across historical periods, cultural contexts, substantive domains, and technological mediums.


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Sociological Theory

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January 21, 2022