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Catarina Fróis

Identification and anonymity:
two sides of the same coin.


In a society marked by urban growth, the creation of egalitarian and uniform forms of identification that keep up with people’s increasing mobility, crime-fighting policies, the creation of surveillance systems, the need to profile consumers, markets and trends, etc., we have a whole range of mechanisms that allow us to know more about people’s actions, whereabouts and habits, in a world where technology and science play an ever growing role in the way we relate to each other. Therefore, in this presentation we will strive to put in contrast the two following basic ideas: the need for identification against the need for anonymity, considering these two issues as pertinent in the analysis of contemporary societies and in the way people interact with each other. These phenomenon’s are not considered independent or contradictory. We think of them as parallel, ways of interact and communicate within society, much to the style of goffmanesque presentation of the self (cf. Goffman, 1959); an important part of an individual’s reality as a social being. Interdependency in this case means, in our view, that new technology for individual identification is accompanied by new forms of attaining anonymity, both processes simultaneously validating each others strategies.

The first part of this paper will make an overall view of the chapters contained in the book Documenting Individual Identity, edited by Jane Caplan and John Torpey (2001). It is used here mainly as a reference that may help us understand the modernization of identification procedures in an ever more complex society. The contribution of this book to this theme is all the more important. It helps us to understand that this phenomenon is not so external to the subject him/herself, as we might initially suppose. Even considering that the different processes of identification are external to the individual – in the sense that what we are dealing with here specifically is not the subject presenting him/herself, but the variety of mechanisms allow us to know him/her – we admit that the vast array of documentation, of physical evidence that can be used to identify a singular body, tell us nothing about who we are as subjects with a personal history and life experience. They are, in effect a fundamental part of our movements and everyday experience, of our attire, of the everyday objects we carry around; all of which are essential in the relationships we maintain with others. The ways to identify a person develop in different directions as we move forward in time and consider different cultural and historical settings. It may be important to list the signs that identify a subject: a registered name, marital status, place of residence. Later on, passports are introduced (internal and external) to somehow control the movements of citizens within and beyond the frontiers of their countries of origin – these matters were up to a certain time a concern in the perspective of State sovereignty. Other technologies have been developed in this process: fingerprint records, anthropometric measurements, the attempt to establish physical patterns that may somehow allow ‘predicting’ deviant tendencies or propensity for relapse; decoding human DNA; surveillance by closed circuit television cameras; the use of the body as a source of visual identification through the deciphering of the elements that make it unique. We found that processes of identification have becoming increasingly complex with time, keeping up with various social transformations. The increasing mobility of individuals, the development of communications and information technologies, the demographic growth and urban density, contribute, among other factors, for such transformations. This issue is not merely a question of the ‘legal’ or ‘official’ identification, but also of the need individuals have to identify them and others by means of social and moral control. In our view, it is the conscience of this need that originates the discussion of control-freedom, which we translate in this essay into identification-anonymity. Even if there are different motives that contribute for our need to know the identity of those interacting with us, can mean that it assumes different features. Therefore, while we find that there is a wide range of ways to identify us, at the same time we realize that the simultaneous need to act ‘incognito’, to remain anonymous, and as such, unidentified, is also the result of the factors described previously. In other words, the mechanisms that promote identification are the same ones that make anonymity desirable.

The second part of this presentation will take a closer look at anonymity, focusing especially the way it is experienced in those self-help groups denominated “anonymous”. We then propose a brief analysis of the notion of anonymity in the social sciences so that we can next discuss this concept in view of the empirical information collected during fieldwork with associations that make anonymity a rule, approaching the idea of the possibility of anonymity in a face to face context. The data used for analysis was almost entirely researched for my Ph.D. in Anthropology during fieldwork carried out between October of 2002 and March 2005 with Families Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous in the Lisbon area, Portugal. Here I will discuss the way anonymity proves to be fundamental in the course of the action, assuming specific and apparently contradictory features. Anonymity is considered a guarantee and a condition of inclusion of the members in these associations, at the same time that is considered a therapeutic vehicle in itself. It applies both inside and outside the group. This means that anonymity is respected within these groups as to who and what is revealed there. Even considering that members in these groups are identified by a first name, anonymity is nonetheless observed in the sense that it isn’t always possible to recognize who a person really is through that person’s name. Outside the meetings, anonymity is used to guarantee the confidentiality of what is said, by whom, and even the membership of subject a or b.

Identification and anonymity can therefore co-exist, and the point is to distinguish between the different types of identification – legal, emotional, physical – and the type of anonymity we are dealing with, considering that anonymity is partial, relative and limited in space and time. In the case of anonymous groups, we will try to describe the role played by anonymity, not just as a rule, but as a necessary element which becomes the leitmotiv that makes relationships possible, effective and specific. Anonymity becomes a choice that people can apply to themselves, to the identity they want to communicate, physically present or otherwise. It is a choice and an option that determines the whole action. I will try to show that there is more to anonymity than the difficulty in attaining it in an environment of sophisticated detection and identification technology. Based on the collected data during fieldwork, we arrive at two kinds of conclusions: individuals find ways to ‘escape’ surveillance by one hand and in the other hand, in physical presence of others they adapt themselves and their personal information and direct it to a specific goal depending on the situation.