Who am I? It’s a question most of us will have asked at some stage in our lives. And if you’ve failed to find a clear and conclusive answer, you needn’t worry. Our self-identity is extremely elusive and malleable. This has to do with our fascinating ability to adapt and change. For example, we act and feel differently when we meet with friends or family than when we’re in public or at work. And how we see and define ourselves keeps changing at different stages in our lives.
For this edition’s focus topic, the UZH Magazin editorial team spoke with UZH researchers about how we become who we are. Who we are isn’t up to us alone. Our self-image is also shaped by our environment. To be accepted by those around us, we submit to social patterns and adapt to fit the mold. This is particularly challenging for young people, who are yet to find their identity and place in the world. It is evident in the many, many selfies they post to social media. These self-portraits are often believed to express our own self and unmistakable identity. However, the research of educational scientist Clarissa Schär shows that these pictures aren’t a manifestation of our individuality but of what is considered as accepted, as most young people strive to conform to certain roles and norms.
One of the central elements of who we are is our gender. And yet our gender identity is more complex and diverse than the conventional understanding of man and woman. “Masculinity and femininity aren’t absolutes,” says psychiatrist Dagmar Pauli, “you can be more or less masculine or feminine.” Fixed categories that define our gender identity are problematic especially for trans people, whose biological gender doesn’t correspond with who they feel they are. This conflict causes many trans people great suffering. Gender researcher Katrin Meyer questions the need to legally define people via their gender and believes a third, non-binary category, the so-called zero gender, should be introduced for official documents in Switzerland, as was the case in Germany.
What role do our genes play when it comes to developing our identity? The research of social genomics expert Michael Shanahan explores the interface between biology and the environment. He has come to the conclusion that these factors mutually influence each other. The way they interact ultimately shapes who we are and who we will become.