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Wolfram Dressler and Sally Babidge

The changes in anthropological theory and perspectives on identity and difference can be explored in the context of three major periods of development: the colonial, postcolonial, and postdevelopment periods. In the colonial era, anthropologists drew heavily on the idea of social evolution located in the works of Herbert Spencer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and E.B. Tylor. In their work, lower-order “savages” (i.e., indigenous people) were thought to evolve socioculturally into higher-order, “civilized” Europeans. In the postcolonical period, the wave of independence throughout much of the developing world led social anthropologists to interpret how different groups came to self-identify with people and situations in a relational sense in an emerging postcolonial context. Ethnographers considered how people identified with certain social and cultural characteristics as being contingent upon their shared understanding of these features in relation to group membership and how others perceived such characteristics. Since the 1990s, social anthropologists have considered conceptions of indigeneity and other identity work with greater nuance, focusing on the layered processes that constitute identity. Recent scholarly contributions have considered how and why people have socially constructed their identities through reflections of self, sociopolitical positions, and culture relative to individual and group experiences in society. In particular, three intellectual streams have begun to reconceptualize identity formation: social positioning, articulation, and transnational identity building.