Science Talk: Identity and its Significance

The plenum of the Science Talk

Event data

20. 3. 2017
Bundesministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Wirtschaft
Aula der Wissenschaften
Science Talk - Podiumsdiskussion
Elisabeth J. Nöstlinger-Jochum, Moderation
Univ.-Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Josef Christian Aigner, Institut für Psychosoziale Intervention und Kommunikations- forschung, Universität Innsbruck
Mag. Dr. Andrea B. Braidt, MLitt, Vizerektorin für Kunst und Forschung der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien
Postdoc-Ass. Dr. Simone Caroline Egger, M.A., Institut für Kulturanalyse, Universität Klagenfurt
Univ.-Prof. Dr. Alexandra Kautzky-Willer, Gendermedizinerin, Medizinische Universität Wien, Wissenschaftlerin des Jahres 2017

Once again the event series, “Science Talk”, took place in the Aula der Wissenschaften on March 20, 2017. This time, the topic was: “Everyone is everything?! How identities emerge and what significance they have.”

 Univ.-Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Josef Christian Aigner (Institute für Psychosocial Intervention and Communication Research, University of Innsbruck), Mag. Dr. Andrea B. Braidt, MLitt (Vice-Rector for Art and Research at the Academy of Fine Art, Vienna), Postdoc-Ass. Dr. Simone Caroline Egger, M.A. (Institute for Cultural Analysis, University of Klagenfurt) as well as Univ.-Prof. Dr. Alexandra Kautzky-Willer (Head of the Gender Medicine Unit, Medical University of Vienna, Scientist of the Year 2017) had been invited to take part in the discussion.

The panel discussion was moderated by Elisabeth J. Nöstlinger-Jochum (Ö1), who opened the discussion by asking Prof. Aigner how identities are to be understood.

Introduction and Definition

In the context of this topic, he was reminded of his dissertation, which he wrote on identity formation 37 years ago. He found it nice to return to his initial topic at a time when he is approaching the end of his university career. At that time, he examined the alienating mechanisms of society and the working environment. According to Prof. Aigner, it is important to bring the term into this discussion; after all there still are alienating factors for our identities, be it the gender identity or the generation identity.

Due to various mechanisms, an alienation from ourselves can occur, in particular through a type of reflection which separates us from other people. If someone from the country uses the Viennese underground, four out of five people reflect in their mobile phone. The mobile phone, which is not a “you”, thereby does not enable an “I”, and consequently no identity. For various identities a rapid “Entichung” (“removal of the ‘I'”), “Entduung” (“removal of the ‘you'”) and at the same time a “Verichung” (“excess of the ‘I'”) can be observed.
Science Talk Identity
From left to right: Moderator Nöstlinger-Jochum, Prof. Aigner and Dr. Braidt

Prof. Kautzky-Willer, as a specialist in gender, comments on the gender identity from the standpoint of  gender medicine. As known, this science is  based on the biopsychosocial concept. She personally would describe identity as the unique whole of a person, which is put comprised of partial identities which are shaped by self-perception.

Identity is a dynamic process – after all it develops in the course of one’s life,  is shaped by experiences and can also change. Gender medicine aspires to perceive people holistically, i.e. not only the biological features (sexual characteristics) but also the interaction between biology and environment (experience and social factors).
According to Kautzky-Willer’s experience, these areas are inextricably linked to each other and interact over an individual’s lifespan. Scientifically this is reflected in the area of the epigenetics – the environment can change the biology (the body), which is even hereditary. Needless to say, there are also conditioning phases, which, from a biological point of view, are particularly significant (e.g. pregnancy, early childhood and puberty). Identity can also be understood as belonging to groups with their specific features, according to Prof. Kautzky-Willer. In this regard, the gender is the strongest feature.
In terms of the survival of  humans as living beings, certain features have further developed. Foreign identites are partially forced upon us by social standards, expectations and gender roles. Of course this should be rejected, as the central issue of gender medicine is always equal opportunities and fairness for everyone.

Fr. Postdoc-Ass. Egger, due to her scientific background, stated that identity is to be considered from a cultural studies perspective. According to Egger, the already mentioned aspects are of interest in a broader context for her. Originating from the biography, many aspects are presumed to condition us. It is a characteristic of the post-modern age that we are partly confused, intimidated, sometimes alienated from each other due to the multitude of possibilities which can, however, also open doors to new opportunities for us. In addition to the innate sexual features she stressed the significance of the inherent environment and the family in particular.

Everyone has a certain shaping habitus, parents, school and other forms of education give us the certain capital so that we can position ourselves. There is not only one, but a number of facets of identity which made us individual, which, however, always has to deal with the collective, the community. In the case of identity, there is a permanent negotiation process of the identity.

Gender identity

Nöstlinger-Jochum wanted to know from Mag. Dr. Braidt if artists have a special identity. In art, according to Mag. Dr. Braidt, the crisis-proneness of the identity has been an issue for a long time. Referring to the already mentioned ideas, she mentioned the performativity of gender identity in particular. This was outlines in the early 90s by Judith Butler and also assumes that identity is a process and always has to be produced anew.

The ultrasound image does not define “whether male or female”. In affirmative processes, the masculinity and the femininity have to be produced post-natally again and again. Not only does the entire environment of the child (parents, kindergartens, etc) take part in this, but also the person himself/herself (with choice of dress, etc.) Furthermore this concerns what type of femininity or masculinity we would rebuild time and again. It is important to state that these processes only partly occur consciously.

One cannot put on the gender identity like a coat in the morning; it is rather produced by gestures, facial expressions and partly through conscious processes.

She believes that artists use their identity performances deliberately and intentionally.

Prof. Kautzky-Willer explained the medical significance of a gender which is not unequivocally defined. She is already happy if gender is taken into account in medicine and gender sensitive treatment is provided. With most people the hormonal, genetic and emotional gender corresponds with the external and internal gender characteristics. But small variations concerning this exist, as well as intersexuality. As already mentioned, she is glad if note is taken of gender as regards the effects of medication in treatment. For various illnesses there are significant differences. This knowledge is very important for transgender and gender dsyphoria.

The feeling that my emotional gender matches my biological gender is incredibly important. The will to adjust the external gender has to be very great to take on the onerous procedure of a gender reassignment. The psychological strain of these people is enormous, and in this one can see the significance of gender perception by society. 

Dr. Braidt pointed out that the psychological strain can not only arise from internal, but also from societal expectations. Society often assumes ideal-typical conceptions of the norm of identities. If someone does not comply with the standard, they will, sooner or later, suffer in various ways. Especially in the case of gender identity, this is enormously important you realise this with your own insecurity when you see a person whose gender is not completely clear.

We accept the binarity of man and woman as givenand this plays a significant role for communication, etc in everyday life.

Currently the various binary gendered things are being viewed in the course of the “Non-Binary Universities Project” – the best example being, of course, toilets, where one has to choose the one or the other door. But some people do not want to decide – here strong normative rules exist.

The plenum of the Science Talk
The plenum of the Science Talk

Is transgender a passing fad?

In this context, Prof. Kautzky-Willer disagreed with Mag. Dr. Braidt – tolerance is “in”, there exists a danger that this will be used playfully. There is an enormous increase in the number of teenagers who visit the transgender outpatient clinic. But nine from ten visitors primarily only want to interrupt puberty with gender reassignment medication and do not mainly strive for gender reassignment surgery.

It has to be seen as positive that there is protection up to the age of 16 and that opposite-sex hormone therapy is forbidden until this age. Gender reassignment surgery has recently been prohibited for those under the age of 18. Ultimately, only one out of ten would fully carry out this adjusting operation, which can practically be due to the modernity of transgender.
This can also be witnessed with androgynous models and figures such as Conchita Wurst; it is a passing fad, according to Prof. Kautzky-Willer. In reply to Nöstlinger-Jochum, she states that more man-to-woman transformations among adolescents are performed than vice versa.

Prof. Aigner agreed with Prof. Kautzky-Willer from a psychotherapeutic perspective. True transgender people feel that something is “not quite right” already from an early age. This early pressure causes a high level of suffering. In both medicine and psychotherapy, there is, to date, no physicality (i.e. body therapy does not exist). He also does not share the view that identity always has to be newly created. It has rather to be newly re-balanced (as Erik Erikson postulated).

As a result of human development, identity always has to be re-discovered. Something similar to a constant certainty exists that that which one feels within corresponds to how others see us. Here, a balance has always to be created.

He does not agree with the arbitrariness of everything being newly producible/changeable – it is rather connected to alienation.

Mag. Dr. Braidt strongly disagreed with Prof. Aigner in this context.

It is not the case that, for example, intersex people believe that being intersexual or transgender is currently “in” and that they can simply go to hospital to be operated on. Until recently, it was much more the case that the medical profession operated on those who could not clearly be assigned to one gender at a very young age. As a result, a gender dysphoria often developed later. This is not about arbitrariness. We do not consciously create our identity every day; much occurs unconsciously.

Prof. Kautzky-Willer took up this issue and reported that when the penis was injured in the course of a phimosis operation, an artificial vagina was often formed and the child was then brought up as a female. Subsequently, the child received all the environmental influences of a female upbringing as if she had always been female. There is the famous example of the twin brothers, one of whom was brought up as a girl. However, she was unhappy all her life (without knowing this background) and ultimately committed suicide. This confirms that gender is obviously not only constructed.

Identity of the homeland

Postdoc-Ass. Egger also regards the homeland as flexible and this also has to imagined as a process. Beyond the topic of transgender, the binary man-woman system has also gained momentum. This contains considerations as to how men behave, what masculinity/femininity mean today. Nowadays women have other employment biographies, have to be more mobile. This raises the question of where one feels one belongs, what homeland means. This could also be friends and the smart phone, which enables a network to the homeland to be maintained, can be considered an important tool.

This can have a greatly stabilising effect for identity – to know that one belongs to certain places or people.

Flight is also a central topic – there are around 60 million people searching for a homeland who expereince an extreme identity crisis. Refugees have to negotiate with themselves as to how to be in the new society, what values are important, etc.

Hr. Prof. Aigner refuted this with the “core self” from the self-psychological theory of Heinz Kohut from Vienna. He postulated that every person is born with a core self, a potential to develop. This already contains all the possibilities of this individual. Binarity is in the meantime “liquified” according to Aigner.

Already in 1905, Freud made a significant contribution in this context by dispelling masculinity/femininity. He personally assumed gender to be part of the core self, according to Prof. Aigner – after all one comes into the world as a man or a woman in different bodies. As such he is a supporter of a limited constructivism which does not deny the physical differences as is often the case today in genderism.
Science Talk Identity
From left to right: Mag. Dr. Andrea B. Braidt, MLitt, Postdoc-Ass. Dr. Simone Caroline Egger, M.A., and Univ.-Prof. Dr. Alexandra Kautzky-Willer.

The significance of education

According to Prof. Kautzky-Willer there are, despite the changeabilty, there is a certain genetic basis. Lifestyle can have a great influence and can offset certain advantages or disadvantages of gentics. The epigentic influences also play a role here – sexual hormones have an influence on other hormones but too little is known in this context. Biology certainly plays a great role, there is an “equipment basis”. Emotional and social resources provided by the envoronment, however, contribute greatly. It is important whether a person is trained, encouraged. According to Kautzky-Willer, the gender differences in performance can often be the result of different promotion of skills.

According to Postdoc-Ass. Egger, education has a central value in the formation of identity. The question of to which milieu one belongs, what education one has, obviously have a great influence. Education is a fundamental key, for example, of whether one has access to appropriate schooling.

Prof. Aigner asked whether this means that if the education is higher, identity increases? Postdoc-Ass. Egger replied that the question is whether there is an offer – of course the creativity of a young refugee in Lebanon could be encouraged by schooling. Possibly this child is also supported strongly by his parents in the formation of his identity. On the other hand, an Austrian primary school child, who receives little support from his parents and is confused by teachers could already experience an identity crisis at the age of nine. Naturally diverse factors interact but the possibility to be supported and encouraged in that which one does best is of importance.


Fr. Nöstlinger-Jochum then directed the topic to the existenzialists for whom in the context of identity, authenticity is also very important. In reply to the question of how authenticity is dealt with within gender studies, Mag. Dr. Braidt stated that in particular the adoption and appropriation of the expletive “queer” by the lesbian and homosexual movement has made the expletive powerless. As a result the word has stopped being insulting and authenticated.

Prof. Aigner considers authenticity to be  “the measure of freedom in which one can live identity”. This means not having to adjust in order to receive recognition.

According to Mag. Dr. Braidt some feminist theories have exposed authenticity as a privilege of masculinity. Femininity involves maintaining a female masquerade to which women are partially condemned. Prof. Aigner refuted this statement as biased ideology; in psychoanalysis he has seen many deflections in men, much to the detriment of their health.

Fr. Mag. Dr. Braidt stated that authenticity has much to do with being relaxed. It is about simply being without having to think too much. Here Postdoc-Ass. Egger added: the feeling of being understood, of being relaxed is also an indicator for homeland.

The sense of belonging, of not having to assert oneself, the familiar environment is a fundamental security – homeland. Every discussion on identity raises the issues of inclusion and exclusion. I can only know who I am when it is clear to me who I am not.

After these appropriate conclusions the audience were invited to ask questions.

Translation German-English: Donna Stockenhuber


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Science Talk Identität Science Talk Identity Johanna Bickel CC BY-SA 4.0
Das Plenum des Science Talks Das Plenum des Science Talks Johanna Bickel CC BY-SA 4.0
Science Talk Identität Science Talk Identity Johanna Bickel CC BY-SA 4.0