Cultural identity

Cultural identity is the (feeling of) identity of a group or culture, or of an individual as far as she/he is influenced by her/his belonging to a group or culture.


Constructing cultural identity

Common characteristics and ideas may be clear markers of a shared cultural identity, but essentially it is determined by difference: we feel we belong to a group, and a group defines itself as a group, by noticing and highlighting differences with other groups and cultures. Any culture defines itself in relation, or rather in opposition to other cultures. People who feel they belong to the same culture, have this idea because they rely partially on a common set of norms, but the awareness of such common codes is possible only via the confrontation with their absence, namely, with other cultures. To put it simply: if you think you're the only existing culture (e.g. living on an island in the Pacific) you don't see yourself as a culture.

Thus the dynamics of cultural self-definition imply a continuous contact between cultures. Moreover, those relations are never relations of equality, since they never exist in an isolated form: the complex web of relationships created by the superposition of political, economic, scientific, and cultural relation, turns any relation between two cultures into an unequal one. There is always a dominant culture, or a dominant cultural practice (culture A may be dominant in say literature, and B in cinema).

The unequal character of intercultural relations, that is to say, the fact that the construction of identity is linked to unequal power relations, implies that identity construction can be seen as ideological: in establishing its identity, a cultural practice constructs, reproduces, or subverts social interests and power relations.

Two remarks may clarify this thesis. First, the very fact that, within a culture or cultural practice, there is an awareness of a common identity implies that there has also been a striving toward preservation of this identity, toward self-preservation of the culture. If identity is constructed in opposition to the alien, intrusions from other cultures imply loss of autonomy and thereby loss of identity.

Secondly, the shared conventions on which identity is based are often implicit. In order to make the internal functioning of a culture possible, certain basic rules and meanings underlying its production are generally taken for granted by the participants. This structured (but plural and dynamic) whole of presuppositions is what we call "doxa." Just as the presupposition of a linguistic utterance ("When did you stop beating your wife?") cannot be contested (unlike the literal meaning or denotation) without contesting the situation of communication itself (you can answer "I never stopped" but not "I never beat her" unless you call the other a liar), the doxa of a given culture cannot be contested (thereby making it explicit, while its efficiency lies in its implicitness) without contesting the self-evident legitimacy of the culture and its producers.

Threats to cultural identity

Therefore every culture is continually forced to determine its position(s) toward alien elements, in order to preserve or redefine its identity. 4 different basic reactions are distinguished here, based on Clem Robyns' description (1994, 1995). In order to describe those four main attitudes toward cultural migration and possible loss of identity, two basic criteria have to be taken into account. First, does a cultural practice acknowledge the otherness of (potentially) intruding elements from other cultures? Does it explicitly oppose itself to "the other"? Secondly, does a cultural practice allow the intrusion of code-violating elements without transforming them according to its own rules? An attitude in which otherness is denied and transformed may be called imperialist, while one in which otherness is acknowledged but still transformed may be called defensive. A trans-cultural culture neither radically opposes itself to other cultures nor refuses their intrusion, while a defective culture stimulates the intrusion of alien elements that are explicitly acknowledged as such. Both the defensive and defective attitudes can be called reactive, since they explicitly react against either the presence or the absence of cultural migrations.

Clearly these types are generalizations: neither a taxonomy nor even a methodological scheme, they should be seen as coordinates for research into specific, complex situations. Indeed, no culture will ever correspond exactly to a single type. It is obvious that in the cases of the trans-cultural and the defective attitudes the end result would be a total loss of autonomy. In any case, cultural intrusions are normally partial: only a limited number of codes will be called into question. (The force of the reaction will depend on the central or marginal position of the contested norms for the self-definition of the targeted culture.) Nor will any culture ever reflect only one attitude: like any model dominating a given culture at a given moment, these basic attitudes can (and will) be contested and eventually replaced by other ones.

The imperialist stand

An imperialist attitude toward the other is characterized by a paradoxical claim of, on the one hand, the irreducible specificity of one's own identity, and, on the other hand, the universality of its values. But how can a culture claim to be specific AND universal at the same time? Several basic strategies can be combined here. The main one is to deny "the other" the status of a "valid culture": "only our culture is universally human." The other is reduced to a barbarian or to an exotic curiosity. In matters of "foreign policy," this superiority complex naturally leads to assuming the role of "cultural guide" for the more primitive people. As to "internal policy," an assumption of superiority leads to an unscrupulous assimilation of the imported alien cultural artifacts - an assimilation that effectively denies their specificity.

The defensive stand

Power relations can change, of course, and otherness, instead of being assimilated, denigrated and hidden, can intrude as such. Generally, i.e. if the target culture doesn't take a defective stand (cf. infra), such intrusions provoke defensive reactions, and that is a second possible attitude. First of all, a sense of threat to one's own identity, of alienation, is expressed. A culture characterized by a defensive posture enhances its specificity by heavily emphasizing the otherness of the "alien" culture. The threatening intrusion of the alien culture is often characterized as an "invasion." This "colonization" causes a weakening, a degeneration of the threatened culture. When this sense of threat is born out of a frustrated feeling of superiority, and especially when "representatives" of the invading culture (or of any alien group) exist within the threatened culture, it will generally lead to racist reactions. Thus the same rhetoric will be used against both foreign cultural elements and foreign people. A defensive culture will try to keep alien elements out, for instance by import bans.

The trans-cultural stand

Without completely losing sight of its specificity, a cultural practice can consider itself explicitly as a part of a larger cultural domain. The third, or trans-cultural doctrine therefore doesn't explicitly consider imported elements "other," or "alien," let alone "threatening." Both foreign cultural elements and those of "local production" are seen as equal contributions to a common goal. Often, such an attitude is a reaction against what is seen as "unfruitful provincialism": the local production is not really considered defective or uninteresting, but is expected to reach beyond its local context. Still, this attitude may lead to disavowal or neglect of local features and products. In such a case, we are no longer witnessing a local cultural practice establishing its position within a larger entity, but a larger, hegemonic culture ignoring or denigrating local practices. The trans-cultural doctrine then becomes an imperialist one.

The defective stand

Finally, a cultural practice may ackowledge that it lacks the necessary components for renewing itself, for adapting to a changing social context. It will then take a defective position, turning to "alien" cultures and importing cultural elements from them. Since this immigration is seen as an enrichment of the target culture, these cultural elements will generally be explicitly introduced as alien. Since the target culture's own production is seen as insufficient, the imported elements will not be transformed in accordance with target culture conventions.


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Identities: How Governed, Who Pays? by H.B. Paksoy


A Brief Biographical Note 01 Introduction 02 Uses of Identity 03 Official Identity 04 Leavening of Identity 05 Identity of Governance 06 Commercial Identity 07 Interactions of Identities 08 Corporate Identity 09 Identity of Belief Systems 10 Mosaic Identity 11 Technological and Future Identities 12 Secret Identities 13 Observations

Paksoy, H. B., 1948- Identity: How Governed, Who Pays 1. Political science-Philosophy 2. Group identity-History 3. Identity (Philosophical concept) 4. Social conflict-history 5. War and civilization I.Title. JA71 .P35 2001. ISBN 0-9621379-0-3 (pbk)


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