Reseau Cultures Network


Back issues


Network's Life


Themes & Actions
Current issue


Write to us!




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. The conclusions of it are offered in our journal Cultures and Development n° 40/41 (June 2001). Four extracts are available on this website.

At the very outset of this research project, identity was approached primarily as “the way a given community looks at itself and presents itself to outsiders”. Network Cultures specified that identity was not to be turned into a solid whole nor into a static object. Like culture, identity is evolving and is part of a complex whole where economic factors and power relations interact. We therefore reject any kind of simplistic cause-and-effect approach whereby identity would determine and fully explain peoples' behaviour.

It was made clear that the idealisation of identity was not part of the exercise. Recent events in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda show dramatically that identity may have very negative and violent consequences. Conversely, it was mentioned that identity and cultures may “enable people to resist positively what they see as alienating and imperialistic structures and policies”, thus opening the field of our enquiry to interesting and positive economic and political alternatives based on identity


By local development was meant any process which draws on local resources and know-how so as to enhance people-based quality of life, social justice and environmental care, as opposed to a merely quantifiable and profit-oriented economic growth process, subservient to the dominant paradigm of neo-liberal globalisation.

By democracy was meant a process towards achieving on-going peoples' participation and a strong sense of collective responsibility, in other words “deep” democracy which goes beyond an occasional electoral consultation whereby people delegate to politicians, and to established powers that be, the definition and care of the common good.

As mere “economistic” globalisation seems to contribute to the degradation of local development and of local democracy, there is an urgent need for the restoration of a better balance between market, State and organised citizens (civil society). Today, decentralisation, self-reliance, local autonomy and grassroots democracy are becoming buzzwords. They are investigated in order to monitor how they facilitate the involvement of people in the decisions which affect their lives.

Experiences reported on during Network Cultures' workshop originated from regions as varied as tribal highlands in the Philippines, Wales, the Russian federation, a coastal area of Southern Brazil, Sicily, Mapucheland in Chile, a Swiss Alpine Village, Kivu in Congo, Kazakhstan, Costa Rica and Guatemala, Flanders in Belgium, Chiapas and Oaxaca States in Mexico, “Cathare country” and Corsica in France, Buddhist countryside villages in Cambodia, the Algarve in Portugal, Hungary with its Gypsy element, Ethiopia, the island of Eigg in Scotland, Haiti, as well as multi-cultural cities like Bradford in England, Brussels in Belgium, Lille in France, Rijeka in Croatia, Tepoztlan in Mexico, Sarejevo in Bosnia, Glasgow in Scotland.


Participants in the research project on identity confirmed Network' s Cultures overall approach of collective identity as being largely a social construct.

Identity : fantasy or reality ?

Identity is a story one tells to oneself and to others. That story is partly objective and real, partly imagined and subjective. Anthony Giddens writes about a people' s identity as “a narrative about themselves”. Identity is therefore composed of new, more or less imagined or created elements and of older, more or less “given” elements. One might say that identity is both constructed (as a conscious and deliberate process) and “given”. This is a fundamental observation to be kept in mind. There is a dialectic between imagination and reality in most identity claims. Identity is a narrative but it often refers to a certain content, to some ingredients.

Many observers, and most participants in the present project, agree to look at identity as a social construct, but add that it constitutes a stable niche. Thus, some observers claim that “Africans build tribes to belong to” ![i] As was reported in this project, the Kalinga mountain people (Philippines) have strong and obvious ties to their past. Like many ethnic groups, they display specific bodily features. Their culture differs from that of surrounding groups. This being said, the use made of that identity may vary according to the time, circumstances and persons involved.

What are the ingredients of identity ?

Individual and collective identities

Although no clear-cut distinction can be made between individual and collective identity, one can focus either on personal identity, or on group identity or on social identity. Classical sociologists (e.g. Durkheim) concentrated on the latter. Anthropologists (e.g. Malinowski or Radcliffe-Brown) focussed rather more on groups, whereas psychologists and psycho-analysts (e.g. Freud) were primarily interested in personal identity. Psycho-analysts influenced by Marxist thought (e.g. Fromm and Laign) would insist that groups and society at large contribute to personal identity. The reverse is also true. Groups are made out of persons with their own individual identity. It is consequently useful to bear in mind the importance of individual identities even in a research project which focuses on collective identity.[ii]

Factors contributing to and constitutive of an individual' s identity are said to be : origin (time and space where one' s personal history has unfolded), gender, age, anatomical pecularities, beliefs, spirituality, psychological traits, etc. It would appear, therefore, that identity includes both acquired (cultural) and given (natural) elements.

Parts of the individual identity have to do with defining and assessing oneself, one' s environment and the transcience of one' s life. This is related to “existential questions” (Anthony Giddens) which orient people vis-à-vis the world outside and contribute to a person' s inner formation. Spirituality, which is part and parcel of one' s individual identity, can be said to be the “interior side of identity”. Spirituality gives meaning to who people are and to what they do. It suggests answers to how they behave and why a particular type of behaviour is being adopted. Personal identity has therefore to do with “who I am and how I am”.


There are multiple identities within a group. This is so because a group is made out of individuals who may have, at their personal, family or other sub- or supra-group level, identities which conflict with, or at least differ from, the identity of the group of which they are part. Conversely, different groups with which an individual identifies are frequently maintaining (partly) different and conflicting value systems. It is also appropriate to refer to multiple identities because identity is often a mixture of various elements which themselves are in a state of flux.

The case of a Malaysian Indian Scot

A participant in Network Cultures' research project on identity was herself a fascinating case of multiple identity. Brought up in Africa, she spent seven years of her life in France which is her country of origin and then left to live in Ireland and later in Scotland. She reported on the challenge represented by “the issue of belonging and (of) developing a sense of responsibility” for the place she happens to live in. Referring to foreigners living in Scotland, the same author indicates that those born in Scotland express a mixed or dual identity, namely both Scottish and, for instance, Bangladeshi. Illustrative of the adaptation to circumstances which leads to diversified identity is this statement : “I am a Malaysian Indian and I live in Scotland, so I carry 3 identities and they change depending on where I am and what I am doing”.

The above allows a general observation.An identity is never global and all-encompassing. This was hinted at earlier when dealing with identity as a social construct. A totalitarian regime may wish to define identity as some innate, primordial and eternal drive. But such an “essentialist” approach to identity is a dangerous illusion, as is an “essentialist” approach to culture. (See Network Cultures' journal Cultures and Development, n° 24 of April 1996, p. 17)

[i] According to some authors (R. Dooms) referring to ethnicity in Africa, identity “works” as long as people recognize themselves in that construction : it remains as long as it serves peoples' material and non-material interests. In that sense, it is a strategy to relate to others. It does not necessarily have to contain much objective “content”. It is noteworthy that political scientists who study tragedies like those in Rwanda often thus tend to exclude the objective ingredients of identity. Their intentions are commendable but their approach is somewhat artificial when it boils down to negating any objective difference. After all, it remains true that most Tutsi are taller than most Hutu, even if it is correct to state that the Tutsi-Hutu difference has been largely exaggerated by colonial powers and ethnologists, who have turned it into a dangerous stereotype.

[ii] It is to be remembered that the other project which is part of Network Cultures' present research programme dealt with identity as an individual and relatively more intimate phenomenon. It took place in 1998-1999 and was called “Roots and Wings”. See Cultures and Development, n° 35/36 (November 1999).

to the top © 2000, South-North Network Cultures and Development