Publication Date

April 4, 2016


Current Events in Historical Context

You know something odd is happening when, instead of conventional memes or funny-looking cats, dozens of photos of ID cards suddenly show up in your social networks. First surfacing in November 2015, this unusual thread of identity documents had a specific purpose: it was a response to an alleged demand by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump that the country register its Muslim citizens and require them to carry special ID cards. Muslim citizens responded creatively: using the hashtag #MuslimID, they uploaded photos of their ID cards to Twitter and Instagram.

The #MuslimID campaign showcased the many ways American Muslims serve their country and community, through military ID badges, driver’s licenses, congressional and university passes, diplomatic passports, and attorney registration cards. “Efdal,” a software engineer, shared photos of herself wearing a hijab: “I am proud of my identity and wear my ID everyday.” “Amanda,” on the other hand, described herself as an “entrepreneur, mom of two, granddaughter of Union Founder, AMERICAN.” Sami H. Elmansoury shared his grandfather’s certificate as part of the team that launched Apollo 11 in 1969.

Using ID cards to combat prejudice and segregation isn’t new. As with the #MuslimID campaign, citizens of various nationalities in the past have repurposed ID cards to assert citizenship and advocate for inclusion, resisting IDs’ original function as instruments of surveillance. Similarly, governments the world over have recognized their power as symbols, using them to enfold individuals into national membership, not simply to control and monitor their populations. As such, ID cards have become icons of a relationship between citizens and the state—a relation that’s contentious, not static.

Professor María Eugenia Ulfe (Pontifical Catholic Univ. of Peru) holds up an enlarged ID card created by Peruvian artist and activist Giuseppe Campuzano (1969–2013) during an April 2014 rally in support of gay marriage in Lima. The ID belongs to Campuzano’s DNI (De Natura Incertus) collection in Museo Travesti del Perú. Karen BernedoID cards are formidable primary sources. In one portable artifact, they combine technologies of identification developed over centuries (including personal signatures, names and surnames, photos, and fingerprints). Identity cards belong to the realm of technologies we use every day. They have accompanied us for a very long time, acquiring different forms and meanings with one common purpose: to fix our identities and to provide authorities with a tool to authenticate them. To historians interested in the genealogy of biometrics, ID cards offer an opportunity to explore broader issues of citizenship, not only through a top-down analysis, but also by examining subaltern groups’ use of them to claim recognition or inclusion. Such strategies have included producing counterfeits or modifying the various traditional personal categories that appear on ID cards. The history of ID cards involves policy makers, private actors, and individuals. It also incorporates issues of manufacture, stabilization, and circulation. In a broader sense, IDs reveal the tensions between assimilation and segregation, empowerment and invisibility, and oppression and conformity. The global presence of ID cards also allows us to trace how they have been reconfigured and adapted to local settings.

Originally designed by 19th-century professional police and biometric experts, ID cards were a tactic of imposing order on a world changing rapidly under industrialization, global migrations of people, and a rise in urban crime. Where there were once myriad categories of identification—based on traditional and informal face-to-face recognition practices—these small documents helped reduce and stabilize the methods of identifying different segments of the population, especially those considered criminal. At the same time, however, they reinforced the idea of individualism—that each person had a unique identity, as the only one who possessed a certain combination of these categories. This semblance of uniqueness, along with the documents’ portability, contributed to authorities’ and biometric experts’ perception that they were effective in tracking down human targets. In the early 20th century, Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, and other identity documents inspired a constellation of new forms of personal IDs, manufactured by such nongovernment entities as political parties, private companies, and civic associations. These documents paved the way for universal registration, thus becoming powerful wellsprings of social and political rights for underrepresented groups in the last decades: think of the movement to allow undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses. Yet ID cards did not lose their roots in surveillance. Throughout the 20th century, they continued to be used to target minorities and perpetuate exclusion, sometimes with horrifying results (for example, in Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and Rwanda during the final phase of the civil war).

Governments have also continued to take full advantage of the capacity of ID cards to integrate minorities and to curb inequality and segregation. The most ambitious of these projects is underway in India, where the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) plans to grant personal documents to approximately 1 billion people to provide social services and universal health care. In California, authorities are granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in order to prevent them from being expelled from the country and to provide them the opportunity to obtain work permits. The New York municipal identification card (IDNYC) includes benefits such as free passes or discounts to museums, theaters, and parks, as part of a more ambitious plan to integrate immigrants into the community. For a significant number of beneficiaries, this will be their first identity document after having spent a lifetime invisible to authorities, institutions, and even fellow nationals.

Though authorities seem to embrace civil registration as the main purpose of IDs, over the past decades identity cards have generated much controversy among underrepresented groups, for they can establish and legitimize categories of personhood that signal a vulnerable status. They can be a way to claim the protection of the state. For example, in a foundational study, anthropologist Gaston Gordillo examined “ID-paper fetishism” among the Toba and the Wichí in the Chaco province of Argentina. As has been done with many other indigenous groups, the state issued “certificates of good conduct” that granted the holders temporary protection from abusive landowners and army officers looking for workers and recruits.1 Repeated contact with these papers, and recognition of their inherent benefits, showed the Toba and the Wichí that they could avoid violence and mistreatment by showing identity papers to strangers.

Native Americans and indigenous populations have also appropriated the idea of identity documents to subvert their subordinate status. Members of the Iroquois Confederacy, for example, refuse to use either American or Canadian passports. Instead, they have designed their own passports, which serve not only as a reminder of their struggle for sovereignty but also meet international security standards. (Canadian authorities, meanwhile, deem these papers “fantasy documents.”)2 In recent years, members of the transgender community have demanded the right to change their sex or name on their ID cards, posing challenges to the binary legal system and inciting public debates. This initiative was backed by the Bolivian government a few months ago, when President Evo Morales approved the Law of Gender Identity, allowing more than 1,500 transgender citizens to modify gender markers in their personal documents. The reluctance of other governments to update official categories reinforces the vulnerability of the transgender community. Civic associations like the Fundación Santamaria in Colombia have started to develop unofficial ID cards on which transgender sex workers provide their chosen identity, including their current name but no designated gender. The group has been successful in negotiating with authorities and hospitals to acknowledge the alternate ID card and provide basic health services, such as free HIV tests.

These are just a few examples of how ID cards (or such of their components as fingerprints, mug shots, signatures, or official categories) have possessed multiple, contested cultural and political meanings. Our optimism regarding the ways ID cards are empowering people in different parts of the world and encouraging them to demand social and political rights should not make us forget that identification is not yet a definitive tool of citizenship. Identification—as well as the devices and artifacts designed to register people’s identities—will continue to serve as an arena of encounter as much as one of dispute between formerly invisible populations and those who seek to keep them in the shadows.

is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow associate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. He holds a PhD in history from University of California, Davis (2015). Currently he is working on his first book, focusing on the emergence of an early biometric state in Peru.


1. Gaston Gordillo, “The Crucible of Citizenship: ID-Paper Fetishism in the Argentinian Chaco,” American Ethnologist 33, no. 2 (2006): 162–76.

2. Sid Hill, “My Six Nation Haudenosaunee Passport Is Not a ‘Fantasy Document,’” The Guardian, October 30, 2015,

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