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The issue of identity is coming back. The more ideologies wither away and cultural homogenisation is achieved through the globalisation of markets and media, the more assertive the claim for cultural rooting and regional specificity. Today, homogenising tendencies and heterogeneity are fellow travellers. This apparent paradox – globalisation and simultaneous fragmentation - led Network Cultures to embark upon a new research project.[i] The conclusions of it are offered in our journal Cultures and Development n° 40/41 (June 2001). Four extracts are available on this website.

Identity is “in a state of permanent transformation” states an observer of Mapuche people in Chile. Identity must be seen as a process, rather than a static collection of well-defined elements.

Change of identity is the product of a continuous interaction between the past, the present and the future with its economic, social, and political challenges. Identity is expressing not just “what we are” but also “what we want to be”, that is, in Jurgen Habermas' words “our own project”. A change of identity is also related to an interaction between affirmation and recognition, that is between the “we” and the “you”.

Traditional societies and change

Among the Chilean Mapuche people, change has been considerable. It happened as a consequence of their being forced to evolve from semi-nomadic settlements to a sedentary way of life. Many continue to demonstrate inherited cultural traits while submitting themselves more or less voluntarily to the new conditions. Certain groups however are more conscious of the challenges to their identity change than others. They then decide to react to what they see as a process of impoverishment. They resist some cultural influences, and select some others, thus redefining and changing their identity. The Mapuche people have been well-known for their capacity to face new situations, “adopting” elements from foreign cultures, “adapting” them to their own reality and consequently changing gradually part of their ancient identity while not allowing their sense of being Mapuche to be shattered by that change. They still have a strong collective identity, no matter how intense and brutal are the changes imposed.

The impact of colonisation has definitely had a more destructive effect on the Negrito and Badjao people of the Philippines. These tribal populations also had to abandon their nomadic lifestyle in favour of a more sedentary life. Many have recently become “urban nomads”, actually begging for alms, and marginalised, discriminated against and looked down upon by the majority population. Their identity does not seem to allow them to resist as well as the Mapuche.

Identity of migrant groups

Among minorities in Scotland, identity is seen as “fluid”. “I am a Pakistani but life is a learning process. I will adapt to the place that I am in but I have certain rules that will not change”. Outsiders may stereotype “Pakistani”, “Moroccan” or “Turkish” identity in cities of Britain, Belgium or Germany, but many migrants are slowly accommodating to the world around them and give up certain traditions while adopting new patterns of behaviour characteristic of the dominant society around them. For example, the education and treatment of girls are starting to change here and there. Young people, particularly, are interested in partly renewing the cultural, linguistic and religious heritage of their parents. They show sensitivity to new life-styles and a willingness to break down some of the barriers between their own community and other groups. At the same time, they retain elements which they consider essential : “certain rules” which may have to do with religion, social organisation, etc. They are apt to cling to their language or, even more tenaciously, to their own cuisine. Food and taste are seen as essential ingredients of identity.

In actual fact it is not so easy to establish what precisely migrant people have in common and what not. The cultural heritage and therefore the overall identity of communities living in urban quarters of big European cities tend to be less homogenous and less stable than outsiders often think. There is more diversity and change and less harmony, stability and consensual agreement in each group than outsiders assume. Tension exists not only between groups but also within each group (e.g. between age-groups or over unaccepted sexism).


About healthy and perverse uses of identity

The very assertive indigenous people in Oaxaca (Mexico) see themselves as “knots in nets of concrete relations”. These nets of relations constitute local communities. It is as if these communities consider that their identity is to be conscious of oneself as a group which relates to others. This brings to the fore an important observation, which touches on the very nature of the human being. Is identity not fundamentally about entering into relationship ? “What constitutes my identity is not first what distinguishes me from others. My identity as a human person lies first and foremost in my ability to relate to the others” says Benoît Standaert, a Belgian Benedictine theologian and development thinker. If we agree with that statement, then it is fair to state that the most important characteristics of a person are his or her capacity to relate and to love. It is our ability to relate and love which is the core of our humanity and identity. A strong identity helps to accept and appreciate the identity of the other. A group's openness to others constitutes the most promising function of identity for the creation of a liveable society : “Something mysterious which takes shape when you let go of labels… Finding one' s identity is opening an empty space for meeting others” said one participant in Network Cultures' project.

Many participants agree that identity is fundamentally a matter of relationship. Consequently, in this text, and in Network Cultures' language, a positive and “healthy” identity is an identity leading to openness towards others. Individuals or groups with such a positive sense of identity gain self-confidence while at the same time practising values of tolerance and inclusion. They become involved in open relations with the outside world. Conversely, perverse or “negative” identity is what leads people to exclude others and to refuse relationship. This ends up in isolation, hatred and racism. That is precisely the reason why it is so important to stress the fact that identity is not some static content to be “possessed” for ever but is rather to be viewed as a narrative process.

To stress the above is very important. The affirmation of identity does not necessarily lead to hate and violence. Far from it, the affirmation of one' s identity can be a positive psycho-cultural process essential for emancipation of a group and a person.

Every society needs identity for its development. Conversely, the absence of identity may be contributing to war. In the Balkans, the fall of communism left people in disarray. They did not know where they stood, what values they had. Religions had been partly wiped out. This void in identity led to violence. In the former USSR, the identity issue is a major problem. The communist party had tried to promote a “new socialist citizen”, based on universal principles. Identity related to religion or ethnicity was deliberately discouraged. If and when acknowledged, it was definitely considered subservient and accessory. What had been inherited was to be forgotten, except for some folklore. No matter how relatively well-intentioned these policies may have been, they did not prevent a brutal explosion of excluding, hating claims of identity as soon as the power of the communist State was crushed.

[i] Network Cultures' methodology is rather unique. We bring together ten to fifteen people from the South and as many people from Europe. Each is asked to send in a “first wave” paper on the specific topic agreed upon. A small steering committee convenes to study all the papers and drafts a series of questions to be answered by each participant in a “second wave” paper. A “third wave” offers a chance to each participant to formulate questions and topics to be addressed in the final stage. For this stage, all participants are invited to meet in a workshop where the various issues raised by each can be deepened collectively. Experience has shown that this is a very rewarding methodology, which combines disciplined reflection with informality, conviviality and creativity. This research project is supported by the European Commission and a number of NGOs. Network Cultures is formally recognised by UNESCO as an international NGO-network involved in research and training on cultures and development.

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