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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.

Strictly defining methods and tools to mobilise identity is probably a waste of time. Much will depend on the particular context, with its potential and its limits. Much depends also on the ability and on the social role played by the key actors engaged in identity issues. Some general guidelines do emerge, however, from the survey of the large array of examples offered by the participants in this project.

Identity based on culture or on territory ?

The experience shows that a policy geared towards mobilising identity can focus either on a given cultural content such as language, ethnicity, etc., or on local territory. Examples of approaches based on ethno-linguistic identity can be observed in various places such as Catalonia (Spain), Mapucheland (Chile), Wales (U.K.), Haiti, Congo, Cambodia, etc. Several examples of identity, based on a common culture, have been discussed in the former sections of this report. Here are a few more.

The other type of approach focuses rather on territory than on culture. It pays attention to local bonds and to the landscape and built heritage, etc. of the territory. Examples from the E.U. (Portugal, Italy, Wales or Provence) show how economic revitalisation is sought through focussing on the territory as such. Thus, within the Leader program, identity is approached as “a feeling of belonging and adhesion by a given population to its territory, in view of a common project”.

“Localisation”, not parochial localism

The insistence of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, on localised identity is said to lead to a new vision and practice of grass-roots democracy and of international solidarity.

They claim that local autonomy for culturally differentiated entities allows not only government but also such things as land tenure, self defence and administration of justice, as well as a convivial notion of the good life, to be defined according to local identities. Zapatistas are said to resist any attempt to translate such autonomy into nationalist or fundamentalist struggles. They combine “localisation” and a world-wide coalition against neo-liberal globalisation.

Localisation”, as a fundamental definition of the Zapatista movement, is the opposite of localism. Because the Zapatistas are aware of the forces affecting their country, they articulate their local liberation project with people from all over the world. This view seems to be the opposite of the parochialism said to be affecting Haitian nationalism. Zapatistas claim to be opposed to fundamentalism. They are opposed to "ghettoisation”, that is to subsuming local identities into a regime for minorities. Democratic localisation and regional self-reliance are harnessed against the dictates of market and state.

Soil and soul

The Scottish national movement (at least as it is represented by two participants in this present research project), seems to offer a meaningful answer to world challenges and local demands for more participation. The Scottish national movement opposes local cultural values being trampled on by the insensitivity of a globalised Anglo-American monoculture. Fearing “the reduction of our country to a product”, a group of Glasgow Christian ministers favour local autonomy based on a sense of belonging. They do not want local values of hospitality to be violated by xenophobia. They handle a concept of identity which is inclusive, tolerant and open to non-natives, as was mentioned earlier in this text. Both authors reporting on Scotland insist that, in their view at least, the sense of belonging promoted by Scottish nationalist feeling should be opposed to racism and divisive emotionalism. One of the Scottish participants insists that the new-found (relative) sovereignty of his region should not be grounded on “blood”. Scottish autonomy is to encourage a sense of place, not a sense of race. What matters is “to belong”. The struggle for identity is therefore more ethical than ethnic. Whether one is a Pakistani, a Scottish or an African Scot is immaterial, provided one feels involved in caring for the common good. Soul ought to be more important than the Nazi-tainted “blood and soil” slogans. This is why Scots in Scotland tend to find Scots in America embarrassing : the latter are emphasising tribal identity, divorced from every aspect of place and modern Scottish popular culture. Their ethnic consciousness based on genealogy seems a false consciousness. A Scottish woman answers an enquiry as to her nationalist feelings : “We are different from the English but should not hate them”.

Territorial identity safer than ethnicity

To conclude, it seems that, seen from the perspective of enhancing the chances of democracy, the basic choice is between elements leaving room for inclusion, tolerance and openness to newcomers or, on the contrary, elements reserved to certain citizens and which favour exclusion and division. The definition (creation) of an identity should give space for newcomers and allow the appropriation of that identity by non-natives. This implies that insisting on local, territorial identity is safer than ethnic or cultural identity. The formation of collective identities based on race, ethnicity, language or other such elements may be necessary yet it entails risks of intolerance. People may then make a distinction between the group they (feel they) belong to and others they do not belong to, between "us” and “them”. The others, the strangers, are then, as in the opinion of authors like Samuel Huntington, bound to be seen as enemies. This pessimistic suggestion is challengeable. Differences may be experienced as complementary. In any case, openness, tolerance and inclusiveness must be imperatively present in a people' s sense of identity, if participatory democracy for all is to be achieved and if violations of human rights, racism and war are to be avoided.

A lively example of what is being put forwards here is the Brussels “Zinneke Parade”. A huge peoples' parade was organised so as to promote awareness around the mixed character of this capital city. The parade offered an opportunity for inhabitants to express with humour their Italian, Turkish, Belgian, Greek, Moroccan, Spanish, Congolese, French, Senegalese or Polish origin. No control was exercised on the message proclaimed by each community. Yet, the official focus on the “bastard” (“zinneke” in local dialect) character of city culture was an effective way of barring racist or xenophobic messages. This parade helped reinforce Brussels' identity as an open, inclusive and lively place for all to live in.

Regions become new social constructs which lead to political and economic dynamism. It is the area which serves as a base for social cohesion, trust and partnership. The ideal is to seek partnership across cultural or ethnic boundaries which entails a common public authority and common programmes without ignoring specific communities and their own priorities for that matter.

It is fair to add that regional identity is sometimes used not only to enhance local pride and dynamism, but also to curtail existing links of solidarity with neighbouring regions which are (still) part of a broader State. In Belgium (Flanders), Northern Italy (Padania) and Northern Spain (Catalunia), nationalist parties seek far-reaching autonomy if not independence not only to strengthen their cultural identity but also in order to put an end to what they see, some say rather egoistically, as a burdensome solidarity with less developed or less dynamic parts of the State. The same happened in the Czech Republic wanting to get rid of less affluent Slovakia. Similarly, Slovenia chose to quit the less “modern” states of Yugoslavia, and it was richer Singapore which parted from Malaysia. And it was the three richer nations, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which first took the initiative to provoke the end of the USSR as a geopolitical entity. In those cases, the role of regional identity is very ambivalent indeed.

Overcoming the fear of change

People need to be reassured that there is nothing wrong about change, on the contrary, and that flux, evolution and change are part and parcel of life and culture. “One of the best traditions”, writes a Mexican participant, “is that of changing the tradition in the traditional way, to adjust it to new predicaments, contexts or initiatives”. Identity, far from being static, is rather to be seen as the “organising centre for the capacity to react to external events or to internal initiatives, both to articulate ideas – people' s discourse – and to structure the collective action”. A lively identity will allow a people to chose the type of change (at least to some degree, and as far as the outside context allows) and to orient it as far as possible. Changes are adapted or rejected according to the “internal rules of the local culture”.

Awaking “the sleeping energies”

Resistance to what oppresses, exploits or alienates can be either reinforced or weakened, depending on peoples' consciousness. Awareness-raising helps to attain some sense of psychological security. It may help to achieve some power and a certain quality of appreciation by others. It helps to be reckoned with, and taken into account. In Brazil, Paulo Freire' s conscientisation method was applied to help “problematise” a situation, that is to induce people to see the obstacles on the way to a better life as factors to be analysed and removed. This conscientisation method is devised to do away with a fatalistic “culture of silence” and to encourage people to speak out, to formulate their aspirations and to embark upon specific action so as to achieve the desired results.

Using action research and “cultural psycho-therapy”

The island of Eigg in Scotland went through a systematic, dramatic and successful campaign for land reform and economic self-reliance. This offers interesting methodological hints. The power of landlordism was first “named”, that is made visible. Then it was “unmasked” so as to help people to become conscious of the fact that they had internalised a feudal identity. This false identity was gradually rejected and replaced by a sense of belonging rightfully to the island. This in turn helped to challenge the feudal links. Landlordism was finally "engaged”. In the process, participatory action research (P.A.R.) was used as well as testimonies by outsiders having gone through similar experiences. Thus, a native American militant was invited onto the island to testify about courage and social struggle in America.

This campaign is said to have achieved “cultural psycho-therapy”. It worked like a therapy in a family by helping all members to see what had really happened. Careful attention was given to forgiveness. Cohesion was achieved by stressing place, equality, inclusion and forgiveness. While Celtic culture was referred to, it was only used to instil pride and confidence in the inhabitants and to draw attention to the fact that the landlord was from a different cultural background (English). This did not lead to hostility to new-comers originating from a non-Celtic background as long as they accepted to live on the island on a basis of equality. Cherishing and being cherished by the place was the key criterion for inclusion.

The use of culture in the Scottish example is particularly interesting as it comes to supplement, broaden and reinforce the more analytical and intellectualising part of the action, that is the participatory action research. Next to these mental activities based on reason, emotions can pay an important part. Poetry brings to the fore unconscious emotions and forgotten memories. More generally, the symbolic aspect of language is very important in mobilising identity. In Scotland, much use was made of poetry and music to restore a sense of assertivity as to one' s local identity. Some refer to three types of intelligence : the intellectual, the emotional and the spiritual intelligence respectively based on reason (logos), warmth (eros) and depth (mythos). A holistic approach to knowledge implies enough attention to all three dimensions.


To conclude, identity is both a source of hope and a threat. Because it addresses depth and emotions, it contains a lot of energy which may lead either to creativity and openness or, conversely, to defensiveness and exclusion. An open identity can be seen as a narrative process with a concern for relationship, meaning and the quest for common well-being. A closed identity is related to the description of a static content leading to isolation, resentful opposition and, possibly, violence. The latter may cause violation of human rights and dictatorship. The former has to do with emancipation and responsible democratic citizenship. A key sentence for this debate is the quote from a women in Chiapas who was referring to her restored sense of identity: “Now we have hope. And that changes everything”. The participant reporting on the Leader projects supported by the European Commission concludes in the same way : “This focus on identity is not to be confused with traditionalism : it implies a change of mentality”[ii].

[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.

[ii] This synthesis is made on the basis of the written and oral contributions of more than 20 participants. It has been written by Thierry Verhelst who is solely responsible for this ultimate version (former drafts have been corrected by all participants).

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