Identity Biopolitics and the Customer

Peter Stannack
4 min readJan 10, 2021

If Your Customer Doesn’t Know Who He/She/They Are, How Can You?

You can only know yourself in terms of what you do and who you interact with. There’s no real escape. Sorry ‘bout that.

Identity theorists generally define identity as an internalized set of shared meanings that provide shared expectations for individuals in social roles. Most suggest that there are three bases for identity; role identities, group identities, and person identities.

Role identities are based on meanings and understandings attributed to positions they hold in reciprocal relations within social structures — e.g., parent-child or partners within the family, employer-employee within the workplace. Roles are negotiated tacitly and overtly.

Group identities are based on meanings attached to memberships or affiliation with specific groups in society — e.g., a MAGA ‘resistance unit’, a street ‘gang’, a community ‘group’ or a ‘class’ of ‘friends’.

Person identities are based on the meaning of -generally a prime characteristic that constitutes them as differentiated, unique individuals — e.g., being artistic or musical or a hard worker or kind and compassionate or tough minded.

Clearly, this is open to interpretation which is a different matter,

People talk a lot about identity politics these days. The idea that voter identities are under attack as traditional role, group and person identities shift in response to economic and cultural pressures.

Events such as the unexpected Republican win in the USA, and the result of the Brexit Referendum in the UK are seen as being responses to shifts in the identity of the voter and his or her inability to reconcile how they see ‘themselves’ as citizens of a country in opposition to the leadership of that country.

But what happens when your customer can no longer see him/her/themselves as a customer of your company, despite all you spend on brand building and consolidation.

What happens when your customer elects to belong to a genetically defined group, which transcends all your data gathering approaches.

At some point after the completion of the amazing Human Genome Project, when one version of the human DNA sequence had been established, an interesting neologism emerged. This was ‘to sequence the genome of a representative across different categories. The genome of rice has been sequenced. As has that of tomatoes, silkworms, and people living in Iceland. The genomic sequence gives us a new type of identity-forming material from which we can — well- identify ourselves

A DNA molecule can be sequenced because it consists of a linear array of four different nucleotides denoted adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine(C). Their sequence matters in roughly the same way as the sequence of letters matters for these words on your screen.

But how can identity — in terms of health and disease, personal life characteristics, histories, biographies, families, and their narratives be meaningfully related to genetic sequences? And will it be?

Because if there is one thing humans like to do, it’s transfer responsibility for their actions to someone else. Whether it’s a partner, a supervisor, a team member or someone else. And while there may be a formal incompatibility between a life and a sequence, it may be that the ambiguity of the term ‘sequence’ gives us the opportunity to find someone- or something else to blame for our perceived failings

And while it might be a little much to suggest that people establish such a relationship across the categorical differences when they narrate biographies and actions while referring to their genes? But what kind of thinking is emerging culturally within the burgeoning sequencing industries worldwide? In the early 2000s, genome sequencing was still an expensive, cutting-edge technology, limited predominantly to prestigious research institutions. Then the rapid development of sequencing technologies during the 2010s, and big data technologies, made the production of genomic data not only faster but also far less expensive and therefore increasingly accessible for clinics, smaller universities, private enterprises, and -ultimately- individuals

Of course, we can see concerns at a political level. Michel Foucault’s writings redefined biopower and governmentality against the backdrop of genetics. The ghost of eugenics haunts government. By coining concepts such as geneticisation or redefining pre-existing terms such as biosociality or biocapital, Abby Lippmann, Dorothy Nelkin and Susan M. Lindee , Sarah Gibbon and Carlos Novas among others, discussed the ongoing developments in microbiology predominantly at the macrolevel of society itself.

But what happens if your customer begins to define their own identity through genetic testing? And the results of such a test, are in conflict with your brand?

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