1The survey on construction of identity conducted in 2003 by the French national institute for statistics was in many ways a surprising undertaking. What motive could there be for a survey on a topic apparently little suited to statistical analysis and hard to objectify? In this article, Isabelle Ville and France Guérin-Pace reconstitute the stages of the development work for the survey. The programme began with a reflection on identity from theoretical and empirical viewpoints. Contemporary social transformations—those affecting the relationships of individuals to work and the family but also to their spatial environment and their health—were presented to determine the potential value of a survey on identity. Exploratory interviews then brought out the diversity of ways in which individuals define themselves, by their social position, by narration of their life events, by the description of their personality. Respondents report de facto affiliations, which are relatively neutral, but also affiliations that they claim or appropriate and those which are imposed upon them. Drawing on the results of this reflection, the quantitative questionnaire synthesizes the findings of existing surveys and introduces a range of innovations, such as asking respondents to rank the dimensions of their identity and to report experiences of discrimination.
2“You cannot compartmentalize identity, split it up into halves, thirds, or separate sections. I don’t have several identities, I have a single one made up of all the elements that have shaped it, according to a particular ‘mix’that is never the same for two people” (Maalouf, 1998)
3In the spring of 2003 INSEE and its partners  carried out a national survey on the process of identity construction named the Life History survey. That the French national institute for statistics should turn its attention to this topic might, at first sight, appear surprising. Indeed, one may well question its legitimacy for investigating an intimate and private sphere that seems more suited to ethnographic or psychological observation. Hence the need to position this approach in a dual context: first, the broadening of research into the integration of immigrant populations; second, and of far more general significance, the recent transformations of French society and its institutions.
4The project for a national survey on identity construction was launched in response to the analyses by Alexis Spire (1997) and François Héran (1998) concerning the strengths and limitations of the geographical mobility and social integration (Mobilité géographique et insertion sociale —MGIS) survey conducted by INSEE and INED in 1992 (Tribalat, 1996). It should be seen as the result of a conceptual reorientation along two axes.
5The first involves positioning the issue of integration in the general framework of the dynamics of social groups. The growing importance attached to the question of integration of immigrant populations since the 1980s expresses “an insistent preoccupation with the defence of social identities within the nation […]. The debate over the ‘non-assimilable’ nature of certain immigrants or over the breakdown of the supposed ‘drivers of integration’ represented by the school, the army, organized religion, the world of work, and voluntary organizations”, and the need to reaffirm the great republican principles, proof that they can no longer be taken for granted, “reflect primarily the uncertainties felt by many French people regarding their own identity within a society in transition” (Héran, 1998, pp. 5-7). This conclusion motivated the decision to broaden the issue of integration to include all sections of the population likely to encounter difficulties fitting into society, the integration of immigrants being merely one particular case.
6The second conceptual reorientation is part of the general movement affecting the social sciences in recent decades, characterized by the shift from an objectivist approach based on pre-defined groups towards a concern with the subject as actor of the social relationships he creates. As Rosenvallon (1995, p. 200) observes, “Increasingly, analysis of the social must draw more on individual history than on sociology”. This perspective precludes an a priori definition of the criteria of integration. If integration is construed as a specific process “always unfinished, occurring over the long-term and resulting from a multiplicity of essential forms of social connection” (Spire, 1997, p. 6), the need is to examine individual rather than collective indicators and to adopt an empirical approach that takes into account the local complexity of interactions and the plurality of forms of social ties and identification.
7This reorientation in favour of a dynamic and contextualized approach to the issue of integration is justified by the major transformations that have affected French society over the last thirty years. The first part of this article is devoted to these, showing how they help to account for the new interest in identity. We then present the various stages of the development work for the Life History survey. We begin by reviewing the analysis of exploratory interviews conducted to map out this little known field of study and to help design an instrument for collecting quantitative data. We then present the different choices made during development of the survey questionnaire in response to the insights gained from qualitative analysis of the interviews.
I – Identity: a bridge between subjectivity and social structure
8The most decisive recent changes are certainly those which have undermined two key institutions and traditional places of integration: work and the family. In a different vein, equally important is the decline in support for organized religion and ideologies. Other changes, less visible, have nonetheless affected individual trajectories. These include the transformations in geographical mobility that modify the spatial frameworks of life and the relationship between populations and territories, or the advances in biology and medicine that have helped to transform the health landscape and the relationship of individuals to their body and health.
9The changes in the organization of work (flexibility, reduced working time) and their consequences (unemployment, insecurity, exclusion) have been documented at length, but sociologists disagree about the present-day functions of work. Some authors see it as an essential element of social integration (Schnapper, 1997) and as the means whereby individuals exist by and for themselves (Castel, 2001). This central position accorded to work usually goes with an interpretation: of unemployment and insecurity as factors of social exclusion, as expressed in the concept of “disaffiliation” put forward by Castel (1995) or in the experience of “total unemployment” described by Schnapper (1994). For other authors, the twin processes of the differentiation of work and the multiplication of social spaces are raising doubts over the role of work as the main source of socialization and over its current capacity to fulfil its integrative role (Gorz, 1997; Méda, 1995; Schehr, 1997). At the same time, analyses that focus not on populations but on the diversity of individual trajectories tend to qualify the negative responses relating to the transformations of work. Loss of social ties and exclusion can sometimes be offset by the develop ment of new skills and solidarities (Grell, 1986; Rouleau-Berger, 1999; Schehr, 1999) and involvement in other types of activity (Sue, 1994) providing sources of exchange that may contribute to the construction of a positive identity.
10Since the mid-1960s the family has also been the site of major transformations expressed objectively in three trends: declining fertility, increased female participation in the labour force, and diversification of forms of private life (Dubar, 2000).
“The sequence of ‘marriage, childbearing, departure of children, widowhood’ now faces competition from alternative profiles in which divorce is the main factor of diversification”.
12These changes have traditionally been interpreted as the consequences of a triple process of individualization, privatization and pluralization (Théry, 1998). With the individual as the new reference, the family today is no longer defined a priori as a group but as the network which builds up around the individual. This individuation thus devalues the collective norm, which is increasingly experienced as an encroachment upon the private space of personal autonomy. Lastly, the pursuit of self-fulfilment through elective and inter-subjective exchanges is accompanied by pluralism in family forms. However, this framework for interpreting the family in terms of a recentring on the individual and private life does not fit well with the parallel rise in intergenerational solidarity and in the propensity for property-protecting marriage contracts (Théry, 1998). Sociologists disagree over the meaning of the changes affecting the contemporary family. Some discern the emergence of a “negative individualism, the triumph of a purely selfish and hedonistic logic” (Dubar, 2000, p. 74) that could lead to “mass desubjectivization”, through a destruction of the symbolic order of generational places that provides the collective frameworks indispensable to individual lives (Théry, 1996). Others analyse the changes as reflecting a process of individual emancipation in which family and conjugal groups are redefined on the basis of their contribution to realization of the self (Singly, 2000; Queiroz, 1998). This interpretation does not necessarily imply a breakdown of ties with society, but forms part of the dialectic between individual and society.
13A field that has received much less attention is that of the relationship of populations to geographical space. The nature and range of geographical mobility have been greatly modified in recent decades. The spectacular development of transport infrastructures enables individuals to travel longer distances, both for work-related reasons and for leisure and consumption, without increasing the time spent on their daily journeys. On a different scale, international migration flows are also increasing. Furthermore, “the multiplication of stages in family life (departure from, and return to, the parental home, couple formation, separation) brings about an increase in mobility” through a larger number of migration stages (Bonvalet and Brun, 2002). Hence, the distances covered no longer have the same meanings or the same consequences, thereby modifying the relationship of individuals to the territory. The geographical trajectories of individuals are increasingly complex, characterized by more numerous stages and more varied spatial scales. Somewhat paradoxically, the trend to uniformity resulting from globalization of markets has been accompanied by a revival of local and regional identities.
14Since the 1980s, regional culture has gained new prominence through the use of symbols (languages, places), the renewed focus on regional heritage and the promotion of local personalities. As Dumont (1999, p. 133) observes, “The regions have engaged in a real quest for identity. One wonders whether the identity they have forged is virtual or real”. More generally, the process of constructing a sense of territorial belonging among populations that are ever more mobile at the international scale is open to question. Between persons who report feelings of belonging neither to their country of origin nor to their country of destination, and those who report belonging to both country of origin and country of destination, we observe increasing numbers of fragmented or reconstituted identities. Together, they form a whole, a multiple sense of belonging that the individual invests with meaning and that reflects his/her integration. Place of birth and nationality are inadequate for explaining the relation between individuals and their attachment to a territory, the sense of belonging they develop with regard to a particular place.
“The appearance of a place in memory has a primary function of recognition and attachment”.
16The individual geographical trajectory and the meaning invested in places that are experienced, visited or even imagined, constitute essential elements for understanding attachments and individual behaviour (Cristofoli and Guérin-Pace, 2002).
17In parallel with the changes in social structure and in territorial attachment, the health landscape has been modified over recent decades as a result of the “epidemiological transition”. Progress in the biomedical field has improved life expectancy and pushed back the limits of survival, sometimes at the cost of severe impairments.
18These changes have been accompanied by a seemingly paradoxical transformation of health-related practices and policies. At a time when people have never been healthier, both governments and populations are increasingly preoccupied by health questions (Fitzpatrick, 2001). In most Western countries, efforts to reduce health risks take the form of interventions based on psychological models that seek to modify risky behaviours (Ogden, 1996; Crossley, 2002). In parallel with this increased emphasis on personal responsibility (Sontag, 1978), there is a growing medicalization of phenomena that are closely linked to social conditions (obesity, alcoholism, delinquency, violence, etc.) (Fitzpatrick, 2001; Zola, 1972). This mobilization of the subject’s capacity to exercise control over himself (Fullagar, 2002; Petersen and Lupton, 1997) establishes health as a key concept in identity construction, an organizing principle of goodness, virtue and self-control (Crawford, 1994; Woodward, 1997).
“More than ever before, the size and shape of the body act as a marker for inner well-being, and as a ‘cultural metaphor’ for willpower and strength of character”.
20At the level of individual experience, numerous micro-sociological analyses have highlighted the impact of illness on the life trajectory, identity and health status. However, although people have illness or disability thrust upon them, they do not inevitably assume the role of passive victims; instead they learn how to cope with illness and any resulting incapacity on a daily basis, seek to give new meaning to their lives, and at times innovate by constructing and claiming new representations and values (among others, Strauss and Glaser, 1975; Bury, 1982; William, 1984; Charmaz, 1999; for a bibliographical review: Charmaz, 2000; Pierret, 2003; Lawton, 2003). The concepts of “resilience” (Cyrulnik, 2000), “transcendance” (Charmaz, 1999), and “disability paradox” (Albrecht and Devlieger, 1999) have been put forward to account for a phenomenon that runs counter to the cultural representations of illness and disability. For by subjective enterprise and under favourable conditions, people suffering from impairments or illness or, more generally, who have had a traumatic experience, succeed against all expectation in constructing a positive identity.
21The set of structural transformations outlined here has been accompanied by a decline in ideologies (Dubar, 2000), a large fall in religious observance (Donégani, 1998), a collapse in membership of political parties and trade unions, and a decreased participation in every kind of election. This “crisis of confidence” in representative democracy does not indicate that French society has withdrawn into the pursuit of private happiness, but reflects instead a movement of disillusionment with politics. Since the mid-1990s, multiple signs of a return to public action through protest have been observed (Perrineau, 1998), expressed by new forms of involvement and participation. Organized as networks rather than as institutions, the new groups and associations tend to be oriented towards action on specific and, at times, single issues. These movements spring from the practical mobilization of people who originally define themselves more by individual type than by membership of any established collective organization. These “second” identities”—that Ion (1997, quoted in Dubar, 2000, p. 147) has defined as “practical ‘we’s’ for problematic ‘I’s’”—are not based on prior affiliations claimed in a logic of reproduction, but are constructed, on original or renewed lines, in the way of invention (Wieviorka, 2001). The gay movement, associations of AIDS sufferers or of disabled people, are all instances of mobilization around a preference or a distressing condition, with shared personal experience serving as basis for formation of the group.
“It is in the transition to the public space that the actor is created, and that he acquires a collective affiliation that he accepts and lives to the full”.
23These transformations are resulting in a diversification of individual trajectories marked more frequently than in the past by successive breaks and adjustments likely to call established social ties into question. Membership of a social class, or of a political or religious group, seems inadequate today to describe an individual’s attachments to society or to provide the basis for his individualization.
“In our culturally and functionally heterogeneous society, the subjectivity of the individual and the objectivity of the system are moving apart, […] roles and social positions are no longer adequate to define the stable elements of action, since individuals are not living out a programme but seeking to construct a unity from the diverse elements of their social life and from the multiplicity of orientations they carry within them. Thus social identity is not a ‘being’ but an ‘undertaking’”.
25It follows that a focus on the individual—subject and actor of his history—becomes unavoidable for any study of his position in social space. Hence the decision to favour the individual viewpoint, to apprehend this “web of meaning” that each person constructs to give coherence and meaning to the different roles, statuses, affiliations, social actions in which he participates and that make up his identity.
26From the preceding remarks it will be clear that the survey designers adopted an empirical conception of identity, defined very broadly as the meaning given to oneself as an individual. It refers both to content—descriptions of self in specific situations—and to a process—the subjective enterprise in which the person becomes his or her own object of knowledge and which enables him to produce these descriptions and attempt to organize them in a coherent way (Mead, 1934; Goffman, 1959; Strauss, 1992).
27This is a western and contemporary definition of identity. Concepts of the person and of the self are not reflections of a natural entity that needs to be laid bare, but are constructed historically in relation to society’s modes of organization. As Norbert Elias (1991) pointed out, we owe our modern concept of ourselves as autonomous subjects separated from the world and from others to the increased density and complexity of relations of interdependence between individuals. It would therefore be misleading to contrast the apparently subjective in nature—associated with intimacy and private life—with the objectivity of structure and social practices. The subjective enterprise whereby individuals fashion their identity is deeply rooted in the organization of society, and the most intimate self-concepts reflect cultural representations of the notion of person (Chauchat, 1999; Ville and Paicheler, 2000).
II – A qualitative approach to self-description
28An initial exploratory qualitative phase was conducted using semi-structured interviewing  with the aim of satisfying two specific objectives: to catalogue the forms of identity definition that respondents employ spontaneously; and to capture the various themes of identification, the way they are organized and any interactions between them.
29These objectives called for an interview method that was both very general and as unstructured as possible. Because of concern about possible bias introduced by the different connotations of the term “identity”, we deliberately avoided using this word and the interview began with the following question: “Speaking generally, could you tell me how you define yourself? Could you describe the person you are?” The interviewer then fine-tuned his questions in response to the answers received, asking in what way each one enabled the respondents to define themselves.
1 – Three distinct forms of identity definition
30The answers to the general question that opens the interview were analysed to identify three distinct forms of identity definition obtained by this type of questioning. The most common corresponds to a status-based identity (“identité de type statutaire”), to use the terminology proposed by Dubar (2000), which situates the person in his social space.
“Well then, my name is Catherine, I’m 23 years old, and I’m a sociology student. In fact I’m on a sociology masters course…”
32These first answers, somewhat formal, can be a way of dealing with any embarrassment caused by the question. This is sometimes evidenced by the change of tone that follows on directly from this first self-definition. Thus Annie follows on with:
“It’s always hard to analyse yourself… I don’t know… I’ve never really thought about it. I think I’m dynamic, and outgoing, that I find it easy to talk to people, that I’m not a shy person.”
34Here she discloses a private identity, something a small number of people do spontaneously, an identity derived from personal history, not from a position in social space. Within this type of response, two configurations can be identified, one psychological, the other narrative. The first of these presents the “essential” characteristics of the respondents, often in the form of personality traits and personal preferences that account for how they operate in life and interact with others. Here is an illustration.
“I would define myself as someone who’s close to nature. That’s immensely important for me because I need to take my time to function properly! […]. Life in Paris doesn’t suit me because my rhythm is… I don’t like things to go too quickly. I’m the sort of person who has to be able to take their time… The time to think, time to do things. Close to nature, you know, concerned about the environment, in the sense that… It looks like we’re destroying everything. We’ll talk about people now. I’m not like some people, I don’t like everybody… I’m not at all “asocial” or anything, I really like having… For instance, I really like being with small groups of people, I hate it when there’s a big group […]”.
36The narrative form of identity definition, for its part, is a chronological construction, built up through the everyday actions and interactions of the person as a social actor. It is the product of a biographical enterprise of self-narration. In this case the interviews reflect a sequence of events connected by cause-and-effect relationships in a specific context, as shown by the following extract, taken from the start of an interview.
“What I’ve always been is a fighter, because even if it sounds a bit heartless I was lucky to lose my father when I was ten […] He died and from then on I was brought up by my brother, among others, in an extremely close family, by an elder brother ten years older than me. Which meant that from this age I was raised by an older generation, more advanced than my own. What I did first was sport, always individual sports: swimming, walking, climbing, Canadian canoeing (shooting the rapids). In that milieu you didn’t see many women. In the milieu where I was, and among all my friends of the same age, I was already fighting for my place and for the right to speak out. So, all that began really early on, at a time when you just didn’t do that kind of thing. You have to remember that in those days girls didn’t go out on their own, they did as their parents told them. It wasn’t exactly like that with me. This drew me into front line combat for the recognition of women’s rights. And then from 1933-34, with the political movements in Germany and the rise of Hitler, and the woman in the home, the ‘three Cs’—Cooking, Church, and Children—I went on to join the women’s organizations that were antiwar and for women’s rights. This led me to join the Resistance in 1939…”.
38These three forms of identity definition are, of course, dependent on the range of experience and hence, in part, on the age of the respondents. In addition, while they are sufficiently salient to characterize the interviews, the different forms may coexist to varying degrees. It is not rare for people to define themselves essentially on the basis of their social ties, usually those of work and the family, and to add character traits as explanatory elements for their relations with others in one or other of these spheres of social life. In the same way, a primarily psychological self-description can be enriched with biographical events, usually drawn from childhood, to shed light on present tendencies or desires. Each interview is nevertheless clearly characterized by one of the forms of identity.
39It should also be noted that the emergence of status-based identities (administrative categories or social roles) is probably encouraged by the interview situation, at the expense of the psychological and narrative forms, which are more intimate in nature.
40This initial examination of the qualitative material yields numerous insights for development of the survey questionnaire. Thus, although it is not feasible to collect spontaneous self-definitions, it is possible to let respondents describe themselves using the three forms that emerge from the interviews. In addition to identification by the different roles, affiliations and statuses that establish an individual’s position in social space, it is important to capture the identities that originate from the private sphere but which are nonetheless socially constructed discourses on the self. The narrative dimension of identity suggests introducing into the quantitative questioning a retrospective content in terms of life course, as a means of locating events and periods in the chronology of the life history. Information on the psychological dimension, meanwhile, can be collected by asking questions on “personality”, envisaged here as a representation of self. Studying the interrelations between these three modes of self-description gives insight into the way in which the “intimate private self” is anchored in social attachments and individual experiences.
2 – From attachments to affirmation of identity
41The vectors of identification used in the interviews to express objective attachments, roles and statuses are those one would expect. The family occupies a large place, based on both lineage and parenthood, the link between generations being expressed in terms of transmission, reproduction or demarcation. Noteworthy, however, is the absence of the “sexual other”, in particular the other member of the couple, probably revealing the limits of intrusion into private life accepted by respondents. Work also comes up repeatedly as a means of defining oneself, even among people not yet working or who no longer work. Another prominent theme is friends and, more generally, the contribution of contact and confrontation with others in the process of identity construction. Widely evoked too are geographical origins, attachment to particular places, and certain habitual activities such as practising a team sport or travelling. Health, when it is problematic, also becomes a major vector of identity. On the other hand, although they appear to be significant, certain vectors of identification are not evoked spontaneously in some of the interviews but in response to a question from the interviewer. This is the case, in particular, for name, national or regional identification of persons not of foreign origin, and age and sex. These attachments are apparently considered to be so obvious that respondents omit to mention them.
42Moreover, the forms of identification vary from person to person, and juxtaposition of these identifications—often listed, as we have seen, at the start of the interview—is not enough to “reveal” the person. In some instances a hierarchy of different affiliations is expressed. One social role may be given precedence and affirmed while others have a de facto status. The family, notably the role of parent, sometimes constitutes a powerful vector of identity, capable of affecting career choices, as shown in the following interview.
“A good family man… that’s what I try to be […]. I’d rather people viewed me as a good family man than as someone who’s been successful in their professional life but made a complete mess of the rest of their life. As far as I’m concerned we weren’t put on this earth to work! […] I chose a job where I could start early in the morning so that I could finish early in the afternoon and get home for the kids. So I used to go home, even when they were little, you know, I picked them up from the crèche, wiped their bottoms, got their meals ready, put them to bed. When they were older, I did their homework with them. That’s always been my way. I always looked after them. And I reckon I didn’t make such a bad job of it! They’re getting on fine. They’re not stupid, they’re good kids, they’re working well at school. I have a great time with them.”.
44The commitment to the parental role is explained later in the narrative by the respondent’s own family background: a closely-knit family, four brothers who get on well together, loving parents who have managed to pass on values, a warm atmosphere that he wished to recreate. The occupational trajectory, for its part, is viewed as the result of an adaptation to events, more than the realization of a project, work being considered primarily from the financial angle.
45While geographical origin is frequently evoked in the interviews, it sometimes occasions a true affirmation of identity that reveals the underlying process of biographical construction. René, born in Alexandria to Lebanese parents and exiled at the age of four, defines himself thus:
“A slightly trivial formula would be westernized ‘wog’, meaning in fact someone who, culturally, presents all the external signs and probably many of the internal signs, er, of a European, a Frenchman, brought up in,… both the Judaeo-Christian tradition and at the same time in the state school. So, a child of the Republic with Christian values. And in the background a number of things, probably not obvious at first sight, but which come out in extrovert behaviour, ways of communicating, that are really rooted in my Middle Eastern origins.”
47These extracts show clearly that positions in social space weigh differently according to the values and experience associated with them. For each theme of identification formulated in the survey, we need to find ways of distinguishing between de facto affiliations, positions that are apparently neutral for the person, and claimed or appropriated affiliations, which the individual invests with meaning. The questions asked must strike a balance between objectivized affiliations that need to be characterized in detail, and a set of subjective values that, in certain situations, enable a de facto affiliation to be transformed into an affirmation of identity.
3 – Assigned or imposed identities
48People also identify themselves through the reactions of others, or more generally through the positive or negative cultural representations associated with their affiliations or with particular attributes that they possess. An individual’s entire life course can sometimes be interpreted through the prism of stigma. Evidence of this is provided by the interview with a young woman who suffers from obesity, though that term is never actually used. Her physical appearance has a marked effect on her relationships with others, particularly with men, for whom she plays the role of confidante.
“I’ve always found it hard to accept [my physical appearance]. I’ll always find it hard. […] When I look at someone, I see myself reflected in that person, and I don’t always like the reflection of myself that I see. And then I let people think it doesn’t bother me […] I have to make them believe. […] The mug you can talk to, the ugly one. It fits in with the stereotypes […] It’s simple, the good friend you can tell everything to. But naturally it’s affected how I am. It’s created part of my identity.”
50The predominant influence of physical appearance in relations with others is a strong reason for introducing elements on this theme into the survey: objective elements like a record of height and weight, but also subjective elements, relating to the person’s level of satisfaction with his or her appearance and the importance attached to it in different relational situations.
51Here we touch on the relational component of the identity formation process, associated with the views and behaviour of others which, being harder to talk about, occupy a small place in the interviews. From the perspective of our research problem, what matters is less the objectivity of these views than how they are perceived and their impact on the construction of self. Here too we need to objectify the different attitudes and specific behaviours, the types of situation in which they occur, the reactions associated with these situations and their consequences, not always entirely negative. Firstly, the same affiliation, the same personal characteristic, can elicit contrasting attitudes from others; secondly, individuals may be able to “shape” an apparently negative experience to their own advantage.
4 – Between coherence and fragmentation: links between affiliations, self-conceptions and personal experience
52Whether affirmed, imposed or simply given, the various identifications are usually interlinked in the respondents’ accounts. Furthermore, they are also connected to the intimate or private identities, whether expressed in terms of personal experience or of representation of the personality. These links operate differently from one individual to another. An identification may notably serve to reveal other particularities that are harder to express verbally, as is often illustrated by the evocation of a place. The cause-and-effect relationships between identifications and biographical events contribute to the sense of coherence and unity of the personal life course. The way in which the different vectors of identification are integrated varies substantially from one interview to another. While some accounts weave affiliations, life events and self-representations into a coherent whole, giving the impression of a personal biography that is understood and even controlled, others simply juxtapose situations and events, presenting them in a descriptive way, without any explicit linkages, as if ordered by a destiny over which they have no control. Contradictory self-representations are sometimes expressed, reflecting contrasting facets of the same person.
Evocation of place as revealing of identity
53Through a process of association, mentioning attachment to a place may sometimes reveal other sources of identification that are possibly more significant but harder to express verbally.
54Thus the attachment shown by Madeleine to the Ardèche département reveals the difficulties linked to her origins that have marked the family’s history. Her pride in belonging to the paternal line and in claiming this as an anchor point is elucidated later in the interview by the fact that Madeleine’s mother concealed her Jewish origins from her children, thereby simultaneously depriving them of this set of family ties and of their roots in a complete genealogy.
“[…] I do have a place though where I feel I belong, it’s the Ardèche, because when we were little we often used to go back to the house where my father was born. […] It has a history, it’s quite a clear history, for me, because on my mother’s side it’s completely hidden. She doesn’t want to talk about her history, so I don’t have many ties with my mother’s history. I haven’t any, I haven’t any roots in her history, and that’s what I missed too, not that I realized, of course, when I was little, because, well, that’s the way it is, while there, there’s a real history, with a family that’s been there a long time, in, in this village, and it’s a really interesting history, because the family, they set up a milling business and it’s a history of, so it’s a family business, you know, there’s an interesting history that we’re proud of too, so it’s something that’s important.”
56The places of childhood often have strong associations and a powerful affective dimension.
“Memory of place provides a means to visualize the self in the earlier settings of childhood. It refers back to a period of family life”.
58Marie-France, who comes from a village in the Essonne département where she spent all her childhood, uses nostalgic terms when evoking what was clearly a happy past. As the daughter of the village schoolmaster, she enjoyed recognition and protection. This description contrasts with that of her present situation, which is a source of dissatisfaction. Married to a farmer and living in a place she describes as impersonal or even hostile, she has difficulty accepting her loss of status.
“It’s the country, there’s a village of fifty inhabitants, we have a farm at the end of the village. You don’t see anyone, you don’t speak to anyone… In the village… No, no, it’s true! No one has anything to do with anyone else. They’ve all fallen out with each other… You know, like in the village at B.…, years ago, we used to go out and we knew everyone… Whereas here, in the Beauce, it’s different… […]. Oh yes, that, in a village, it’s really good, the schoolmaster’s daughter, I mean, it gives you a certain standing. You’re the schoolmaster’s daughter, I had lots of friends for whom I was the schoolmaster’s daughter, I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Now, of course I do.”
60Thus the evocation of place, an ostensibly neutral topic, goes well beyond expression of the associated cultural roots and values. The appearance of a place in memory has a primary function of recognition and affiliation. As backdrops for the key episodes in identity construction, easily memorized in the form of images and emotions, places are an especially valuable investigation tool, capable of revealing the founding themes of identity. In particular, the existence of a place of attachment offers an alternative reading of the geographical trajectory and introduces an affective dimension.
Self-consistency expressed by causal relationships
61A common way of linking the different vectors of identification is to introduce a causal relationship between them. A vector that is more vivid than the others is used to explain specific situations or personal characteristics that are presented as consequences.
62In this way a past health experience can give meaning to present behaviour and personality, and thus be an important element in construction of self.
“When I was 19 years old, and this is also a part of my personality, so it’s important that I mention it, I picked up a stupid disease that blighted my life for ten years. I almost died and the fact that I almost died and that I saw myself dying and then suddenly came back to life, I realized the value of life. Which means I tend to be a bit of a pleasure seeker in life. I mean the good times, I don’t live them before or after, I live them at the moment and that’s really important. […] That was between the ages of twenty and thirty, so what people do between twenty and thirty, well I didn’t do it, right! And that’s why when I was thirty and I’d got shot of this god awful disease […] I wanted to make up for lost time a bit […] And did I have women! […] It sounds crude, the fact of saying that I’d pick up a bird for an evening like that, OK I know it does but I have to put it like that. For ten years, between the ages of twenty and thirty, I wasn’t allowed to have that, to go with women. It was out of the question with the disease I had, so it’s true that it scars you, being ill for ten years, and that it’s a way for me to know that I’m still attractive to women. Because in the state I was in, no one could have fancied me.”
64According to Bertrand, the illness affected his experience of sexuality and indeed his whole way of life. However, the fact that the illness was identified and eventually overcome permits a degree of detachment and a subjective evaluation of its impact on identity construction, an evaluation facilitated by the psychoanalysis that Bertrand began several years ago.
65In some accounts, the entire biography comprises a remarkable succession of causal relationships. In such cases, the different experiences and roles are presented as resulting from a more fundamental identification, generally a commitment to certain values. We saw earlier for Yvette how the loss of her father was the starting point for her involvement in feminism and the Resistance and how these values became a guiding theme of her life story. Similarly, the particularly chaotic trajectory of François acquires coherence through attachment to the moral and political values that have led him to make certain choices.
“[identity] is a way of living, right, a current of ideas, definitely, followed by choices. Life choices that are consistent as far as possible with a way of thinking. […], a certain code of conduct and an idea of life… moral, ethical choices… right, so identity would be that, getting right inside life choices that are moral, ethical, even perhaps political”
67His political choices have in part determined his occupational history, leading him to give up school before obtaining the baccalauréat (higher secondary school certificate) and to dodge national service. The subsequent changes of direction in his life trajectory are presented as options that are consistent with his convictions. A sense of free will dominates the entire account, where the words “choice” and “choose” occur very frequently. And while his couple, his role as father, his trade union and voluntary activities appear strongly linked to the values he defends, territorial affiliations, viewed as given but not chosen, are barely affirmed as such.
68Coherence, reflecting the organized interpenetration of the different vectors of identity, is not always what comes across, however, in the accounts. Some, on the contrary, are dominated by doubts and contradictions. The interview with Catherine, the young woman suffering from obesity, from whom we quoted earlier, is marked by a deep malaise related to her difficulty in positioning herself in social terms. She reveals two sharply contrasted facets of herself. With her parents, who she idealizes and is afraid to disappoint, but from whom she would like to have received more support and recognition, she is reserved and polite, and tends to “brood and think about negative things”. When she is with her friends, from a background different to her own, she forgets her problems and “has a great time” though still regrets not having any real friends. Catherine’s obesity is linked in a complex way to emotional relationships and to her own self-image, and contributes to her difficulty in constructing a unified identity, as is evidenced by this last remark: “can you be sure of really being what you are?”
69Analysis of the interviews reveals the degree of subjectivity involved in identity construction, through the respondents’ greater or lesser propensity to seek coherence in a disparate set of attachments and situations. To capture these subjective processes, we must design collection tools that make it possible to objectivize the feelings of personal self-consistency and free will, and which allow respondents to express preferences between, or even rank in order, their various attachments and social roles, and to mention any significant biographical events and their perceived consequences.
70This initial exploratory phase illustrates the complexity and diversity of self-descriptions, which go far beyond a catalogue of affiliations and social roles. Individuals apply different logics when attempting to build coherence out of affiliations that may or may not be freely chosen, the values associated with them, and the course of their own history, punctuated by particular events and phases that establish their singularity. Though we recognize that information of comparable richness cannot be obtained with a quantitative approach, we have sought to broaden the scope of questioning to take account of this diversity, so that the respondents can give meaning to their affiliations and to certain events of their personal history by exploring their subjective understanding.
III – Development of the data collection instrument
1 – Themes of identification
71The interviews reveal the broad diversity of vectors of identification. They can be social roles or affiliations (the family, the parental role, work, country of origin, etc.), but also particular events with the potential to establish a social role (a disability, an episode of unemployment, a divorce, for example), opinions, values, or involvement in elective activities (hobbies, clubs). Some of these themes concern the majority, though without necessarily being vectors of identification (work, the family); others concern only a minority (disability, unemployment).
72The first debate between the designers  was over the respective place of objective and subjective questioning in the survey. An extreme position involved taking the option adopted for the interviews, namely to give precedence to the subject, who himself selects the affiliations, roles, events and other factors that are the vectors of his identity, and which are then explored in detail. The opposing position was to preselect a certain number of topics that might contribute to identification and to propose them to all respondents, who may or may not take them up. Though from the outset it appeared unrealistic to organize the questioning entirely around a first general question on identity whose significance may vary considerably between individuals, recourse to “subjective” filters within the topics investigated seemed to represent a good compromise between these two approaches. As an illustration of this, the sections pertaining to health and leisure activities were constructed on the following pattern. A first section provides objective information on health problems and on any activities practised, in the knowledge that the information solicited is oriented by the survey topic. The record of health problems, for example, must include past health experiences or experiences whose connection with health is not always clearly defined (because the persons may consider themselves to be in “good health”, as is the case for obesity, a cancer in remission, HIV-positive status, for example) but which may have major implications for life trajectories and identity. Any mention of “consequences of the health problem” on the subsequent trajectory or involvement in an activity that is “difficult to give up” are “filters” that lead into a set of more detailed questions on each topic.
Architecture of the Life History questionnaire
Architecture of the Life History questionnaire
2 – Affirmed affiliations
74The innovative sections of the survey concern essentially the introduction of questions designed, first, to distinguish between de facto affiliations, appropriated affiliations, and imposed or assigned affiliations, and second, to apprehend the relations established by the person between different affiliations.
75Thus the module on employment is in six separate parts corresponding to different situations: in employment, unemployed, in education, retired, at home, other economically inactive. In each, detailed objective information is accompanied by a set of subjective questions intended to describe the degree of attachment to the work situation and the reasons for this attachment; those in employment mention the aspects of their work that they would like to change in the hypothetical context of a change of occupation, and conversely those they would like to keep unchanged, from a list of criteria (occupation, peers, working hours, pay and conditions, promotion opportunities, position in hierarchy, place of work, employer).
76The section on geographical identity also includes subjective questions that shed light on the geographical trajectories. The aim here is to record the places that are important to people, be they places from the past or the present, places they have visited or not, but also places associated with projects, including those with more symbolic importance, such as the place envisaged for burial. At the end of this module, we introduced an open-ended question on the respondent’s sense of origin, worded as follows: “If asked where you’re from, what would you reply?”
77Claimed identities can, as a rule, be apprehended through membership of clubs and voluntary organizations (associations of local residents, former pupils, retired people, ill or disabled people, etc.), as can the sense of belonging, in real or symbolic terms, to a group (ill or disabled people for people with a health problem, former occupation for retired people) or to a social class, this last information being obtained by an open-ended question.
3 – Imposed or assigned affiliations
78To detect the existence of any imposed affiliations in the field of employment, the respondents are asked for their reactions to criticisms directed on the one hand at their occupation, on the other at their company or organization. Likewise, people unemployed at the time of the survey are asked about the three most negative aspects of their situation (shortage of money, absence of time constraint, sense of being devalued in eyes of others, impression of losing skills, being stuck at home, lack of social contacts, boredom, feelings of worthlessness, number and complexity of official procedures, fear of the future, inability to make plans). When feelings of being devalued exist, the survey asks in whose eyes (household members, other family members, members of partner’s family, friends, former colleagues, others: neighbours, shopkeepers). The person is also asked whether he has concealed his situation from any friends or relatives and, if so, which ones and why. However, a situation of unemployment can be accompanied by ambivalent feelings or even by certain claimed advantages. This is the reason for asking if being unemployed “has made it possible to do things that [the respondent] couldn’t do when working (spend more time with friends and relatives; do things for pleasure: sport, leisure; take up other activities: DIY, homecare, etc.; follow a training course related or unrelated to work, other).
79A specific section of the questionnaire is devoted to identifying any negative attitudes and discriminatory behaviour that respondents may have experienced in different situations because of a particular affiliation or characteristic such as origins, language, name, skin colour, height or weight, a disability, political or religious opinions, sexual orientation. Different objective reactions and the short- and long-term consequences relative to four types of negative attitude (jokes, ostracism, bullying, denial of rights) are recorded for each experience. The consequences envisaged include abandoning a project, withdrawing into oneself, avoiding certain people, but they also include getting closer to others and accepting the challenge to “get on in life”. In the same line of reasoning, the survey attempts to establish whether the characteristic that was a source of rejection or even of discrimination, has in other circumstances given rise to favourable behaviour.
4 – Relations between the different vectors of identity
80For each topic treated, respondents are able to position this potential vector of identification in relation to others. To this end, they are asked to say whether they consider work to be “more important than everything else, very important but no more than other things (family life, personal life, social life), quite important but less than other things, of little importance”. Concerning the different identifications possible within the family, the following question is asked: “A person’s history is made up of couple formations, separations, births of children and grandchildren… Today, personally, would you say that you are primarily…” There follows a list of identifiers that are personalized as far as possible using information recorded earlier by means of computer-assisted data collection: “your parents’ daughter, the wife or partner of ‘first name of current spouse or partner’, a single woman, a divorced woman, a widowed woman, the mother of ‘first names of children’, your grandchildren’s grandmother, simply a woman, none of these things”. Naturally, only options corresponding to the person’s present situation are proposed. This procedure for personalizing the questionnaire was used extensively, notably for the name of spouse and children, places of attachment, occupation, leisure activities, etc.
81Furthermore, the last section was designed to enable people to attribute a relative importance to the different dimensions of identity covered in the questionnaire. In a test version of the survey, we presented respondents with a set of show cards setting out a group of themes and asked them to select the cards they would use to identify themselves. In addition to traditional affiliations such as the family and occupation, the list included more unusual components like “an addiction, a habit” or “a project that’s dear to you”, etc. This procedure yielded interesting results but was impractical due to the length of time it took to complete. The idea of ranking the themes of identification was maintained in the final version of the questionnaire, however, in the form of a closed-ended question enumerating all the topics covered, from among which respondents selected the three they thought defined them best.
5 – The biographical or retrospective dimension
82In addition to the descriptions of people in social space, the insights gained from the interviews argued strongly for including a dynamic dimension in terms of trajectories. In our approach to the narrative forms of self-description we used a specific instrument for identifying individual trajectories according to different points of entry. This is a biographical grid, a tool that has proved its value in various surveys (GRAB, 1999) and which also facilitates the often tedious task of reconstituting dates and events. Thus the Life History survey begins by laying down the groundwork provided by the respondent’s various family events: birth, couple formation, separation or divorce, births and any deaths of children, death of partner and of parents. The family-related events are the easiest to date and can be used to situate other related events in the trajectory, such as events in the residential history, since they are often a motive for relocation. The link with the survey topic did not require exhaustive information on every dwelling occupied but simply on changes in the municipality of residence. From the occupational history we obtain the nature and periods of economic activity but also those of inactivity and unemployment. This set of information is supplemented by a more subjective dimension. This is the respondent’s view of his own history, which was collected in the Biographies et entourage (event histories and contact circle) survey (Lelièvre and Vivier, 2001). This is obtained by asking the respondent to divide his life into “good” and “bad” periods, first from a general point of view, second in terms of financial affluence. Finally, at the end of this section, major events in the life course are recorded to objectify potentially decisive moments.
83As is the case for the different themes of identification, the respondents are asked to give a synthetic vision of their life trajectories. For this purpose we used a device based on work by Leclerc-Olive (2002), in the form of “life lines” that reveal “something about each individual’s essential problems”. These are a series of lines (in different directions, broken, stepped) traced in a space marked out by two orthogonal axes (the vertical axis represents the quality of the experience, the horizontal axis, its temporal dimension) and representing different forms of trajectories. Each person chooses the trajectory which seems to best represent his own history (Figure 2). An open-ended question then allows the person to explain his choice.
84Lastly, the questionnaire also elicits information on the more “psychological” form of identity, strongly represented in some interviews, by means of various subjective items: a list of twenty “personality traits” that the respondents choose to apply to themselves or not, a scale of the person’s sense of free will, and a question on self-consistency.
Conclusion: towards a cross-sectional approach to identity
86The originality of this research instrument lies in its capacity to describe individuals in terms of trajectories as well as of intimate self-descriptions (personality) and of de facto social identifications, either appropriated or assigned. These dimensions are complementary, however, and merely to study them separately would fail to satisfy our objective. The value of the survey lies essentially in a cross-sectional approach designed to link up its different sections. This type of analysis can be performed at the level of specific populations or equally at individual level, within a more fundamental research perspective aiming to highlight the processes of identity construction.
87We can illustrate the cross-sectional nature of the survey questions using two populations particularly concerned by integration difficulties and oversampled in the survey (cf. Box 1).
88For people who are immigrants or of immigrant descent, the survey supplies the traditional data on current nationality (and where appropriate its date of acquisition, previous or other nationality), place of birth, nationality of spouse, and the place of birth and nationality at birth of both parents. In addition to this information on origins, the information collected on residential history can be used to establish the dates of different stays (of at least 9 months) both in France and abroad. Other markers of identity are collected relative to the languages spoken in childhood, those still used and the circumstances in which they are used (with spouse, with the children, in the neighbourhood, etc.), the presence of foreigners in the network of friends. The section on relations with others completes this information by establishing a connection between the sense of belonging, identifications and possible causes of discrimination. More generally, this approach offers independence from the analytical categories used for describing foreign-origin populations, thanks to a set of indicators that includes the longitudinal dimension of trajectories but equally the more subjective dimension that gives meaning to life history and origins.
89People restricted in their daily activities for health reasons are also over-sampled in the survey. A cross-sectional approach allows the experience of illness and disability to be approached in relation to the different life domains and notably to identify the short and long-term impact on family and occupational trajectories. The latter are qualified by subjective appraisal of the consequences of illness and disability in the principal life domains. The effects of stigma on identity can be approached by relating the data on experience of mockery, ostracism and discrimination to the expression of the inner self, be it personality, sense of coherence and free-will, but also any affirmations of identity revealed by the sense of belonging to a community or an organization of sick or disabled people, etc. The survey should therefore enable us to evaluate the scale of the processes described in the sociology of health and to study the factors that increase or decrease the scope for making a fresh start after an apparently negative experience. More generally, the survey findings can be expected to clarify the role of the actors’ subjectivity in the management of their health states.
The sample and sampling design of the Life History survey
The data collection method used for the survey was computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI). This presents two advantages. First, it enables questioning to be adapted to individual experiences through use of filters; second, it facilitates personalized forms of questioning by allowing introduction of characteristics related to the respondent (such as the first name of the partner and of the children) into the wording of the questions, or, in the section on work, the job title of the interviewee.
As is the case for all INSEE household surveys, the Life History survey was preceded by tests on a limited number of households to evaluate the relevance of the questions asked and to improve their quality while ensuring that interviews would proceed smoothly and be of reasonable length. After two fruitful tests during 2001 (including one CAPI test), it was decided, partly in view of the originality of the survey topic and the theoretical problems raised, but partly too for validation of the sampling method, to conduct a larger-scale test to measure the validity of the expected results on a statistically significant population . Furthermore, a series of qualitative interviews (200) was planned with the aim of confirming and expanding on the survey results .
The data collected have been held at the Centre Quetelet since September 2004. The early results have given rise to several publications: Insee Première, 937, December 2003: “La famille, pilier des identités”; Premières Synthèses Dares, 01.1, January 2004: “La place du travail dans l’identité des personnes en emploi”; Etudes et Résultats Drees, 290—February 2004: “Le vécu des attitudes intolérantes ou discriminatoires—des moqueries aux comportements racistes”.
90The general philosophy adopted by the survey designers is thus one centred firmly on the viewpoint of persons and on individual trajectories. The objective is less to characterize individuals on the basis of objective affiliations, but rather to elucidate the competing processes at work in the construction of individual identities.
91This spirit has guided the research teams specialized in the topics covered by the survey and who are now starting to analyse the data. Their aim is to establish links between the different life domains so as to shed light on results that, while sometimes already known in their own field, remain poorly understood because of disciplinary fragmentation and traditional objectivist approaches. The final phase will be to conduct an in-depth cross-sectional analysis of these data. This will involve building objective indicators of position in social space and life trajectory typologies for comparison with more subjective indicators of individuals’ views of their own history.
AcknowledgmentsWe would like to thank the students in the DEA ATEG (Université Paris I), in particular A. Andreu, N. Archambault, E. Gloersen, C. Vacchiani for their work in conducting the interviews. Our thanks also to A. Blum, C. Gousseff, J.F. Ravaud, C. Rollet, D. Ruffin and E. Zucker for their careful reading and constructive comments.
Centre de recherche médecine, sciences, santé et société, Inserm U502, CNRS UMR 8559, EHESS, Paris and Institut fédératif de recherche sur le handicap.
Institut National d’Études Démographiques, UR12, Paris.
Translated from the French by Godfrey I. Rogers.
INSEE’s partners for this project were INED, INSERM, Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs, Ministry of Culture, and the Interministerial Delegation on Urban Affairs.
Twenty-two interviews were carried out in 2000 on 11 women and 11 men aged between 23 and 92 with an average age of 55. The choice of people for interview was guided by the desire to collect information on varied and relatively complex life trajectories. A number of interviews more specifically explored place as a provider of identity.
In addition to the authors of this article, the survey design group included: F. Clanché (INSEE), E. Crenner (INSEE), O. Donnat (Ministry of Culture), F. Houseaux (INSEE) and L. Toulemon (INED).
The Daily Life and Health and Study of Family History surveys, which were attached to the 1999 Census.
Cf. Crenner E., Guérin-Pace F., Houseaux F. (2002).
An agreement was signed between INSEE and INED allowing the survey organizers to conduct 200 interviews with respondents who had given their consent during the survey.