You are here: Resources > FIDIS Deliverables > Privacy and legal-social content > D13.3: Study on ID number policies > 
ID numbers from a social perspective  Title:
 Summary of the sociological approaches


ID-numbers: Symbols of Bureaucracy


Isabelle Oomen, University of Tilburg, TILT 


Over the past centuries, Western societies have become more and more rationalized and this process is still ongoing. The process of rationalization took place in various domains, for example in arts, science, technology, economy, and politics. Rationalization in one domain enabled or accelerated rationalization in other domains. Rationalization of art resulted not only in using perspective in drawing, but also the use of pointed arches to span larger spaces. Science was, in this period, established as an empirical-theoretical founded science which stressed the use of rational thinking and testing theories in the empirical world. Inventions like the steam-engine and smallpox vaccine were made possible by the rationalization of technology. The invention of the steam-engine enabled, amongst other factors, the rationalization of economy, i.e. the transition of a traditional to a capitalistic economy. Political rationalization resulted in the formalization of the state. Formalized states have the form of a political institution with a unique combination of properties: 1) a written constitution, 2) a judicial system based on this constitution, and 3) a corps of civil servants that is specially trained and restricted to regulations. At the end of the 18th century, two revolutions took place, one economical (the Industrial Revolution) and one political (the French Revolution). Both revolutions were not only a result of rationalization, but also a catalyst to rationalization. Although the Industrial Revolution started in England and the French Revolution took place in France, they influenced all Western societies.


Economic rationalization resulted in standardization which, on its turn, led to both the expansion and internationalization of production. A first phase of globalization was created when the consumer culture, which was developed through standardization, increasingly crossed the borders of states, nations, and their traditions. The political rationalization and the formalization of the state took the shape of nationalism. Nationalism is both a component of and a reaction to globalization and the ‘process of modernization’. By the turn of the century, the nation was represented as a unique and essential unity, the living body of its citizens. The idea of the nation state was consciously constructed by the state through a wide range of cultural manifestations that contributed to a deliberate policy. Rietbergen noticed that: 


‘All over Europe, traditions were ‘invented’ to give citizens a feeling of centuries old solidarity. All over Europe, history was rewritten or written anew from the point of view of the state as the natural structure in which the nation and the community expressed itself politically. This new past was then glorified by governments as a unity factor by emphasizing the importance and results of a commonly fought battles, the role of great men – rarely women -, and the glorious feasts of the past, now presented as a ‘national’ past of the nation’s shared heroism’.


The main goal of these nationalizing campaigns was to secure internal cohesion and peace by creating unity. Both internal cohesion and peace were seen as necessary preconditions to pursue well-founded foreign policies and to maintain a leading position in the increasingly expanding world market. A general feeling of community among people would support the ruler’s claims to sovereignty and the pretensions to power of those who led ‘the nation’. The ideology of the nation state was propagated by all means possible by governments in order to advance solidarity.


In order to establish who is part of the nation state and who is not, the government needs to identify its citizens. The necessity of identification is twofold: 1) in order to carry out its most fundamental tasks (i.e. tax collection, provision of social services, control of movements, etcetera), the government needs to know who is obliged or entitled to what and thus needs to identify its citizens and 2) as a nation state is a state of and for particular ‘peoples’ defined as a mutually exclusive group of citizens, identifying a person and establish his or her nation state membership is to create a social group and hence solidarity. For the monopolization of the rights of the states, the procedures and mechanisms for identifying persons are essential because the notion of national communities must be codified in documents or files rather than merely ‘imagined’. This stimulated techniques that uniquely and unambiguously identified each and every person from life to death (i.e. last name, given names, date of birth, town or city of birth, full names and birth dates of parents, partners, and children, etc. were all written down in documents)  transforming states into administrative organizations. Bureaucracies were constructed, designed to implement this regime of identification and to scrutinize persons and documents in order to verify identities. Bureaucracies are, according to Weber, the ultimate example of rationalization, which he defined in terms of five elements: 1) efficiency, 2) predictability, 3) quantifiability or calculability, 4) control through substituting human judgement by nonhuman technology, and 5) the irrationality of rationality. Bureaucracies are controlling both the bureaucracy’s clients and their employees. The government provides only certain services, and not others and one must apply for the services on a specific form by a specific date, and one will receive those services only in a certain way. In offices, each task is broken up into a number of components, and each office is responsible for a separate portion of the task. Employees in each office handle only their own part of the task, usually following the rules and regulation in a predetermined sequence. The structure of bureaucracies is in such a way as to guide people or even to force people to choose certain means to ends.


For these administrative purposes, it was necessary to distinguish people by identifying them uniquely and unambiguously, so ‘cards’ and ‘codes’ were developed. Cards, i.e. passports and identity cards, are the mobile versions of the ‘files’ governments used to store knowledge about their citizens. Therefore, the document held by the individual as ID corresponds to an entire series of files. This also holds for codes, ID-numbers and file numbers for example, but they have additional characteristics. Because codes are numbers, and hence made up of digits, they have no meaning in themselves until that meaning is communicated. ID-numbers are symbols of identities in, at least, the bureaucratic culture. Shiraev and Levy defined culture as followed:


‘Culture is defined as a set of attitudes, behaviours, and symbols shared by a large group of people and usually communicated from one generation to the next. Attitudes include beliefs (political, ideological, religious, moral, etc.). Behaviours include a wide variety of norms, roles, customs, traditions, habits, practices, and fashions. Symbols represent things or ideas, the meaning of which is bestowed on them by people. A symbol may have the form of a material object, a colour, a sound, a slogan, a building, or anything else. People attach specific meaning to specific symbols and pass them on to next generation, thus producing cultural symbols’.


According to this definition, ID-numbers are symbols because they only have meaning which is bestowed on them by people, i.e. one has to know that a particular number is an ID-number. This relates to the second characteristic: ID-numbers themselves are not important, but the information attached to this number, i.e. the quantity and nature of the files the ID-number refers to. Three types of files can be attached to national ID-numbers for three different purposes. The first and foremost purpose of ID-numbers is that they are used to distinguish among individuals and to identify the individuals uniquely and unambiguously: ‘who is this?’ or ‘is this the same person?’ The information used to identify individuals can be name, address, date of birth, place of birth, and a photograph. These types of files are passports or identity cards, but can also be the registration files at local or national level. Often, these files also include additional information like the names of the parents, children, partner, or other relatives along with the marital status of the individual. The second purpose of the usage of ID-numbers by the government is that the government has to carry out its most fundamental task. The basic questions here are: ‘what obligations has this individual to the state?’ and ‘to which services is this individual entitled to?’ For the collection of taxes, the provisions of services, and the control of movements of the individual, the government holds files containing information about individuals. Personal information in these files are, for example, income, entitlement to state benefits, criminal record, etc., along with personal information that identifies the individual. The third type of files are the files that are held by third parties, like banks hospitals, and health insurance companies. They can also use the national ID-number to identify an individual, which is regarded to be more reliable than other forms of identification.  


Although an ID-number should uniquely identify the individual, it also depersonalizes that individual, i.e. the individual is no longer referred to by personal characteristics like a name, address, or date of birth, but by a number. The use of ID-numbers, instead of personal identifiers, can cause alienation of that individual from the state whereas the state’s intention was to embrace their citizens by giving them a national identity. On the other hand, the use of ID-numbers can enhance the knowledge the government has about its citizens. Attaching more files and more types of files to an ID-number, enhances the linkability of the separate files and hence the possible knowledge the government or a third party has about the individual. 



We have seen how the economic and political rationalization of Western societies have led to the emergence of bureaucracies and the intention of nation states to embrace their citizens. For both the fundamental tasks the government has to carry out and the wish of the government to create a national unity, it was necessary to distinguish individuals by identifying them uniquely and unambiguously. Therefore, ‘cards’ and ‘codes’ were developed. ID-numbers symbolize the identity of individuals, as well as all other files attached to this number, enhancing the linkability of the files and hence the possible knowledge about individual. ID-numbers don’t create a notion of unity among citizens, but they create a notion of privacy loss instead. This is what Weber called ‘the irrationality of rationality’. So, ID-numbers are not only symbols in the bureaucracy, but also symbols of bureaucracy. 




Berry, et al. 2002 

J.W. Berry, et al., Cross-Cultural Psychology. Research and Applications (2nd edition), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002.

Collins 1994 

R. Collins, Four Sociological Traditions, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994.

Rietbergen 1998 

P. Rietbergen, Europe. A Cultural History, London: Routledge 1998.

Ritzer 1998 

G. Ritzer, The Weberian Theory of Rationalization and the McDonaldization of  

Contemporary Society. In P. Kivisto (ed.) Illuminating Social Life. Cassical and

Contemporary Theory Revisited, Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press 1998.

Shiraev & Levy 2004 

E.B. Shiraev & D.A. Levy, Cross-Cultural Psychology. Critical Thinking and

Contemporary Applications (2nd edition), Boston: Pearson Education Inc 2004.

Torpey 2000 

J. Torpey, The Invention of the Passport. Surveillance, Citizenship and the State,

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000. 

Turner, Beeghley & Powers 1998 

J.H. Turner, L. Beeghley & C.H. Powers, The Emergence of Sociological Theory (4th edition), Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company 1998.

Ultee, Arts & Flap 1996

W. Ultee, W. Arts & H. Flap, Sociologie: vragen, uitspraken en bevindingen,

Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff 1996. 

Wallace & Wolff 1999 

R.A. Wallace & A. Wolff, Contemporary Sociological Theory. Expanding the

Classical Tradtition (5th edition), Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall 1999.





ID numbers from a social perspective  fidis-wp13-del13_3_number_policies_final.sxw  Summary of the sociological approaches
8 / 20