A program of study on

The Development of Personal Identity in a Secular, Consumerist Culture

Developed for use by senior school students, particularly those in Religious Education courses (and for teachers interested in this topic)

Prepared by Professor Graham Rossiter BBI, The Australian Institute of Theological Education.

Click here or the photo at left for an introductory video which talks briefly about the topic and indicates the scope and sequence of the study.  

Audio file icon

Before you start: Listen to this brief audio file.

Click the icon or here for the introductory mp3 audio file.

This audio file explains how the study materials are organised with a combination of audio files together with other presentation material (web pages, powerpoints, slides and videos).

See the special note below about using 2 windows on the site so you can have the audio commentary running while accessing the other content -- pausing the audio commentaries when needed.

Each subsection of the study will start with an introductory audio file -- clearly identified with this
Intro audio file icon

SPECIAL NOTE FOR LOOKING AT THIS MATERIAL: To use the different audio commentaries when working through the material, OPEN UP TWO SEPARATE WINDOWS on this site. Use one window just for opening and listening to audio files, while the second window can be followed for accessing the content. This way, you can move between windows and pause the audio while other material, especially videos with sound, can be accessed.

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1. Introduction: Some scenarios with general observations about personal identity and identity-related issues

These scenarios signpost something of the complexity of personal identity and of processes that affect its development. Of special interest will be looking into the personal/social environments that can have a shaping influence on identity development.

1. Do animals have any sense of identity?
2. Racial identification issues
3. A contemporary identity problem with a political twist. Populist nationalism
4. Popular cultural narratives about life that influence personal identity development.
5. Personal identity development in a family in NZ (from the film Once were warriors )
6. One of Australia's most successful advertising campaigns -- that targeted people's 'identity vulnerability'


1. Cat psychiatry. What can be learned about the interaction between internal genetic determination and social interaction. Where might brain chemistry figure? What are the human implications? How much can 'identity rehabilitation' achieve in repairing damaged identities?

2 Racial identification. Excerpts from a documentary on Polish children stolen by the German SS and given to German couples. Aloszi Twadecki changed from Polish child to German adolescent, back to Polish adolescent and then Polish / German adult. This video highlights a number of identity issues concerned with the ways children build up racial and nationalistic images. Does the school do this by itself? Or does the school's influence depend on its 'echoing' family and local cultural views.


3. The rise of populist nationalism in a some countries in recent years. It can strongly affect the identity of people who follow it. With appeals to people's fears and anxieties, a number of leaders have capitalised on what has been called 'populist nationalism' to extend and reinforce their own political power. There is evidence of how those who oppose them can be marginalised and branded as 'enemies' of the people. In some instances the structures of democracy have been eroded. (There is no video file for this sub-section only the audio file which has some comments on this question)
There is a tendency in this movement to develop a 'cult of the leader' with a 'celebrity star' image, and to follow the leader even when common sense says that such action is foolish. It tends to be anti-establishment and says that it speaks to the 'common people'. It tends to stir up division rather than promote community. It polarises rather than unites. Look up populist nationalism on Google.

4 Popular themes or narratives that can be pervasive in the culture and which have an influence on people's sense of who they are and what they want to be. They function like principal, taken-for-granted themes in the 'identity atmosphere'. The narrative of freedom and individuality started to take off in the 1960s. Today it is at a sort of high water mark in the culture. This is an example of how pervasive narratives or themes in the culture can have a subtle but powerful influence on personal identity development. Advance the slides on the powerpoint in the usual way.

This powerpoint highlights the appearance of the freedom / individuality narrative in media and in life - starting with the experience of very young children. "Having so much choice gets into their blood very early on". Our film and music stars echo the theme. What can you do and buy to express your individuality? The clothing industry taps into this need. What about graffiti? Is it vandalism or is it self-expressive art? Just remember "You can be anything you want"? But will I be a 'copy' or 'authentically me'?

5. Short extracts from the film Once were warriors can be used to show the different paths and processes in identity development that were illustrated by 5 members of the family. It highlights the identity function of externals in dress, tattoos, fighting, appearance and internals like beliefs, values etc.

6. Advertising/marketing focusing on people's identity vulnerability. The example of what was hailed as the 'most successful ad campaign in recent Australian history'. The Australian Turf Club (Randwick, Sydney) Princess campaign. The powerpoint plays automatically with an embedded sound commentary.

Link to word document with more detailed interpretation of the psychology of the campaign.

2. Explanation of a framework or theory of personal identity development that can be used for studying and interpreting various identity-related issues.

This is the central part of the whole study -- A way of looking at and understanding what personal identity is, how it can change and develop, and how its development can be influenced by culture and social interaction

Other key aspects of identity that need study are the dimension of sexuality in personal identity, and issues related to ethnic and racial identity.

This material on the many current THEORIES OF PERSONAL IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT is mainly for teachers to give some idea of their range and their complexity. For our study purposes, the recommendation here is to have a quick look -- and then avoid this stuff and give detailed attention to the simpler, more useful framework for understanding identity below.

This web page describes a framework for personal identity and how it might develop. It gives a scaffold for understanding what identity is, how it develops, and how various identity-related issues might be interpreted. This material needs careful study as it is central to the whole narrative in this program of study. It helps interpret the way personal identity development interacts with cultural elements that can serve the function of being 'identity resources'.

This MS Word file proposes for TEACHERS a summary of ideas on what it means to educate young people in personal identity. It may also be of interest to some students who would like to know more about how a meaningful school education needs to give attention to the important question of enhancing the development of healthy, authentic identities for students by 'resourcing their thinking about identity'.

3. A detailed study of connections between personal identity development and the conditioning influence of a secular, consumerist culture.

There are 3 parts to this material:

Part 1. Background: How scholars came to understand the relationships between religion, the media and marketing/advertising -- and what this might mean for education. This is the backdrop to parts 2 and 3

Covered in Presentation A or click photo.

Part 2. How the complex of commerce/media/marketing/advertising projects expectations of what life should be like -- subtly insinuating a consumerist lifestyle. In doing this, thus consumerist lifestyle comes to have a function like that of religions -- giving people meaning and purpose for life, and influencing their values.

Part 3. If consumerist lifestyle functions like a religion in some ways, what can be learned from making a comparison between medieval Christian spirituality and contemporary consumerist lifestyle. The key to this study is that in both examples, visual imagery has been crucial and central to conveying the 'religious world view'. The argument makes use of the notion of mise-en-scene (the un-written story background) that was explained in Presentation A.


Covered in Presentation B or click the photo

4. Some other identity-related issues: Brief introductions to the topics

4.1 Function and symbolism in clothing; How this relates to personal identity

A word file with other notable quotes from the chapter on Identity in Clive Hamilton's book Growth fetish. Hamilton is a social science researcher in Canberra

4.2 A personal identity sickness: 'Status anxiety' as discussed in the book by the British philosopher Alain de Botton


4.3 Sexual innuendo in advertising. It can target both men and women.
4.4 Some images and cartoons highlighting potential issues with the excessive use of social media.
4.5 OPTIONAL EXTENSION More detailed material than above on the psychology of advertising.

4.6 Potential issues for people whose lives tend to revolve around the use of smartphones



5. The need for critical, inquiring, research-oriented studies in school education.
And, a listing of mini-research projects on identity-related issues that might be undertaken by individuals and/or by class groups.

5.1 The educational need for a critical study of contemporary issues

5.1 Link to the powerpoint presentation that summarises the need for a critical pedagogy in education generally and in Religious Education in particular.

5.2 Examples of students and teachers' work on mini-research projects on identity-related issues

A year 10 student produced this report on Photoshop and the media -- identity implications. It was a student chosen topic for a technology exercise. It looks at the pressure on young people to confirm to current myths about what constitutes female beauty -- and about how photoshopping has been used by media.

This presentation is on the effects of Social Media on personal identity development. (Powerpoint automatic slide show format) It was produced by Sylvia and Rebecca, two Catholic Primary school teachers in Canberra for a postgraduate course task. An mp4 video version is also available.


A ten year old in Year 5 student presents the short findings of her study of 'Bullying' as a text.

5.3 List of mini-research projects that might be undertaken by individuals or class groups

Listing of 24 mini-research projects on identity-related issues that might be undertaken by students individually or as part of a class group effort -- both for study and possibly for assessment purposes

(Alternative Link to MS Word document of this listing.)


6. SPECIFICALLY FOR TEACHERS Implied views of the nature and purposes of School Religious Education underpinning the approach in this study. And a proposed strategy for making Religious Education more meaningful and relevant for 21st century education.

6.1 The view of the nature and purposes of Catholic school Religious Education that underpins this study of identity development in a secular consumerist culture. MS Word document.
6.2 MS Word document proposing a strategy to make Catholic school Religious Education more meaningful and relevant for all students, no matter what their religious disposition or level of religious practice

A short anonymous feedback survey is available after doing any study from this program on identity development in a consumerist culture Takes about 5 minutes

For copy of the survey, contact Prof Graham Rossiter on g.rossiter@bigpond.com It is about what has been learned from this program of study. Also welcome, is any other feedback about the material.