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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.

To talk about the relationship between identity and economics may seem far-fetched if not contradictory. Identity, as was said before, has to do with relations, social bonds and emotions. Today' s economics, on the other hand, relate to competition, individualism and the cold rationality of profit maximisation. Indeed, identity and economics do not coincide that easily in today' s mentality.

Positive connections are to be observed between economic dynamism and a positive and strong identity. This is so because a strong identity is potentially conducive to trust and to a sense of common interest and responsibility for the common good, hence to solidarity. Identity can also contribute favourably to a feeling of stability, security and hope, to self-esteem, pride and a sense of “worth”.

Conversely, a weak or negative sense of identity may lead to lack of energetic risk-taking and hence to poverty. To take the example of some tribal populations in South-East Asia, they are said to be hampered if and when they have a negative self-image. They are then unable to pick up the challenges of confronting the local majority population and their economic logic. They feel hopeless and lost in the face of hostile and exploitative attitudes, and in the face of the effects of globalisation. Similarly, lack of a sense of identity has led local populations in remote areas of Portugal, France, Switzerland or Congo to remain relatively dormant and frustrated. Lack of identity may also lead to lower mutual trust, hence to a less dynamic economic life. Haiti, Sarajevo and the condition of the Hungarian Roma people would suggest that the insistence on ethnic pecularities is not, necessarily, leading to any material betterment.

Identity can give a place a future

Identity helps “give a future to a population and its territory”. The experience of the Mapuche people of Chile illustrates the fact that identity favours social, hence also economic co-operation. Identity acting as a compass, it helps people to orient themselves, to devise alternatives and to be innovative.



Does a strong sense of identity help strengthen people' s participation in politics ? Does it favour democratic values in general ?

Local identity-based organisations have contributed to the democratisation of society in Central America. Somewhat perplexed, “latino” and white people outside those indigenous groups are seeing Indians occupy spaces which historically were denied to them. The Indian identity movement definitely has helped to revitalise democracy, human rights and ... universal values of dignity, equality and justice.

Nationalism can lead to nation-building, as was the case in Italy, Japan or Indonesia, Conversely, nationalism can break a nation into more or less autonomous or separate pieces as is the case in Quebec, Flanders or Catalunia. It can foster democracy (Mandela' s nationalism; Gandhi' s; Lumumba' s) or it can jeopardise or kill it (Hitler, Milosevic, Jirinovski). It would seem that national pride is fine but that the link between emotions and politics can be dangerous.

The nation can be seen as the expression of a “people”. This vision is based on the concept of Kultur-Nation, a nation built by a given people on a common ethnicity, soil, culture and language… (cfr. Fichte, Herder and the so-called “German” model based on Volk (people)). The definition of what is “a people” is extremely complex. It may be based on language (but not the Swiss), on race (but not the Brazilians), on religion (but not the North Americans), on culture (but not the Belgians nor the Kazakh people…). Conversely, the nation can be seen as based on the common will to live together in respect of universal values (cfr. Montesquieu, Renan and the French “republican” model). The prevalent version of the modern State, whether liberal or socialist, was conceived according to the so-called French (republican) model which inspired the Age of Enlightenment (18th century). It was built on the negation of primary identities, those related to history, ethnicity, language, region. It was often the State that built the nation as it succeeded in merging these various primary identities in the melting pot of “citizenship”. This State considered that its goal was to protect its citizens and, later, to strive towards the welfare of all. We would say : neither culture (the “German” model) nor pure abstract civic nationalism (the “French” model) should be the exclusive base of nationhood. The criterion should be : emancipation and participation with due recognition of the different identities prevailing in the national territory.

A return to ethnic politics : from U.S. multi-culturalism to Khazak ethnonost

Be that as it may, one observes the return to ethnic politics. The shift away from modern “civic nations” (like France, USA, Canada) to “ethnic nations” has spread since the sixties. The paradigm of ethnic solidarity and an “emotional culture” was considered as obsolete and taboo inside West European nations ever since the 18th century. The French Revolution led to a unifying centralised system which explicitly ignored distinct communities in “the indivisible French Republic”. Problems experienced by the French with the Islamic hijab-veil in schools, and with Corsican claims to a separate recognition have to do with this rigid republican concept. In the communist bloc, cultural differences were also given secondary importance, whereas the “new socialist man” (homo sovieticus) was promoted, independently of his origin or language. May 68' s counter-culture and national movements against centralising “unitarist” states led to the emergence of identity and to a rather unexpected reversal away from assimilation into the dominant culture of a centralising Nation-State. Times were ripe for claims in favour of cultural pluralism. In the USA, there is a dramatic shift towards official multi-culturalism. Various distinct “communities” are recognised : Black American, Korean American, Hispanic American, etc. One may wonder if there is enough room for inter-cultural relations and mutual enrichment in such segmented multi-culturalism.

The present situation in Kazakhstan shows that it is impossible to function without redefining one' s group identity in a country where former collective bearings based on soviet socialism have been lost. Democratic social rights need then to be articulated with the defence of cultural rights. However, this is not without danger. After the fall of the Soviet Union, notions of identity and ethnicity developed rapidly but without the component of anti-dictatorial resistance which it gained in the sixties up until the collapse of communism. In Kazakhstan, “ethnonost” (or the current tendency to assert one' s identity as Kazakh, Russian, etc.) means in fact to fight for group privileges.

Ethnonationalism is not leading to democratic emancipation. On the contrary, with it come new forms of autocratic rule and racism. Serbia offers a tragic example of this shift from “red” to “brown” authoritarianism. Class distinctions were replaced by ethnic differentiation. Insistence on ethnic, religious or language differences may severely hamper collective decision-making on common problems. This is tragically evidenced by the fact that in Sarajevo, Bosnian “Muslims”, “Catholic” Croats and Serbian “Orthodox” are now unable to join in a common urban programme.

Centrally-defined Croatian identity was a counter-productive way to approach the issue of identity. This authoritarian approach through “identitarian centralisation” only hampered freedom of expression. It was resisted successfully in Rijeka by an open-minded civil society drawing inspiration from its own city-based identity. It appears that identity can lead either to undemocratic homogenisation of a so-called national culture defying diversity, or, conversely, to practices which favour the development of a local, multiethnic, “multinational” local democracy.

Purity is dangerous

To conclude, identity is an important and potentially positive phenomenon unless it becomes exclusive and based on “purity” or “superiority”. This applies for identity based on nation, ethnicity, religion, culture, language, etc. Whereas ethnic revival may serve the cause of more democracy and protection of collective (cultural and economic) rights in some countries, e.g. Mexico, Chile, Canada, etc., it leads to very different results in other countries (Balkan, Moldavia, Georgia). In Western European States, extreme right parties (Haider in Austria, F.N. in France, Vlaams Blok in Flanders) use ethnicity to promote social discrimination towards non-autochtonous inhabitants. Under the guise of protection of the local cultural heritage, they dangerously jeopardise democracy.

[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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