Gospel & Culture blog
By Kenneth Nehrbass
"Identity" "Identity politics" and "cultural identity" are hot topics now. Anyone involved in intercultural studies who wants to study "identity" must be clear if they are talking about identity the way ethnographers mean it (avowals and attestations of a particular ethnolinguistic group), and identity the way sociologists mean it (the relationship between identity and racial awareness). Authors are not always clear which perspective they come from when they say "identity", so you would have to deduce their meaning of identity as you read through their work. The following gives you clues for how to deduce that meaning.
All over the world, people seem to reify their behaviors as cultural facts. For example, I have heard Aussies avow their cultural identity in terms of informality ("We are so informal that we don't even call our physician 'doctor') and collectivism ("Don't be too puffed up: When a poppy stands out from the others, we clip it"). Or my East Asian students occasionally avow their Confucian penchant for self-improvement through education. So it is not just outsiders who attest to cultural stereotypes (perhaps to freeze the cultural expressions of the Other as backwards, or inferior); but cultural insiders also embrace, or freeze these cultural expressions when it is advantageous to them. The identification of these cultural differences has been a preoccupation of intercultural studies since Edward Hall popularized the field through the Foreign Service Institute. Fredrick Barth concluded that a description of individual cultures would turn toward "trait inventories" (p. 12) "overt signals or signs...that people look for and exhibit to show identity...such as dress, language, house-form" and
basic value orientations (p. 14).
Anyone who has spent time in other cultures recognizes difference. Yet, postmodernism has called into question all "facts" including "cultural facts." In fact, Wicker (in Werbner and Modood) argues that earlier anthropological notions of culture were too essentialist when describing the differences-as if culture was a portable "rucksack" that could be carried around as a bounded whole. They viewed ethnolinguistic cultures as homogenous and static. IN 1969 it was possible for Barth to claim "It is clear that boundaries persist despite a flow of personnel across them" (p. 9). Many anthropologists and sociologists would dispute that claim now.
Many sociologists and literary critics arrive at a middle-ground between essentialsm, on the one hand, and the notion that cultures are so porous that the term is useless, on the other. This middle ground is hybridity. It argues that all ethnolinguistic cultures are the hodgepodge of hybridities (and that's all it ever has been, as societies borrow "culture" from others). Wicker calls this hybridizing process "creolization"-- taking something from the other, and making it your own. The process of "enculturation" then is not transmitting a bounded culture wholesale to our children, but simply all the hybridization of cultures that we all go through, throughout our lives. And Wicker argues that this creolization is not as much tied to ethnicity as it is to social class-- ethnic Chinese in the USA who have lots of social opportunities to hang out with the majority culture are going to hybridize to White culture more than poorer Chinese in "ethnic enclaves" will.
Interestingly, the discussion of hybridity is polarized: critical, postcolonial theorists (like Bhaba) see hybridity as a way of asserting differentness, uniqueness, of saying "we aren't assimilating to the global norms that are exported especially by the West." Yet "globalists" (fans of globalization), see the same data, yet interpret the hybridity of global trends (McDonalds, Christianity, etc ) as a way of ENTERING the global culture, not as a way of rejecting it.
To give a simple example of how culture is a hybrid rather than a static fact, I just came across a youtube video on the difference between public displays of affection in Japan compared to the USA. Yet postmodernism, and common sense in this globalized age, has caused us to question whether it would be possible to speak of a "Japanese attitude toward public displays of affection." Surely attitudes in the country of a 120 million vary widely, depending on religion, age, background, exposure to other cultures, etc. And this goes for Japanese, or American, attitudes about punctuality, authority, or any other feature we may consider "cultural." In short, postmodern (or critical) theorists argue that any reduction of behavior to "culture" is essentialist-- reifying culture as fact, rather than a social construction.
As Werbner pointed out, enthusiasts of multiculturalism are guilty of the same problem that racists are guilty of: assigning more value to "culture" than is due.
Instead, many postmodern interculturalists and sociologists are interested in an emerging field: cultural identity: how people continue to avow and attest stereotypes as "cultural facts." Cultural identity is not as much about the discovery and description of shared experiences, histories, values, beliefs and images-- that is the content of cultural studies or ethnography. Cultural identity is about how people who belong to certain socially-constructed groups think about their own similarity and difference in relation to the Other (this experience is called alterity). Cultural identity studies are about the continual negotiation - especially at a public level- of discourse about race, ethnicity, gender, etc.
Racial awareness "Racial identity"
Sociologists think about identity in terms of racial awareness. Racial identity studies are about the experience of subaltern identity (being seen as lower, or being marginalized). This is especially evident in Helms' (1995) model of "white racial identity development." For example, the model has little to do with the shared cultural values and images of a "white culture"-- that would be the content of an ethnography on people who identify as white; instead, the discussion of "white identity" looks at how white people become aware of their own whiteness in respect to other ethnicities (Rowe, Bennet, Atkinson, 1994). This discourse often is influenced by the power-oppressed dyad of Marxism. As sociologist Alastair Bonnett noted, within this perspective, attitudes of "whiteness" "often include: being racist; not experiencing racism; being an oppressor; not experiencing oppression; silencing; not being silenced" (Werbner, et al p. 180). Bonnett points out that such definitions reify "whiteness" as a bounded, frozen category by essentializing the term, rather than recognizing that it is a social construct, like all other ethnic designations. All ethnic descriptions are contested and changing; and it is impossible to determine who is "in" or "out" of any of those categories.
Racial identity delves into political studies (especially identity politics). Bauman (in Werbner and Modood) argues that nation-states tend to annihilate or assimilate "strangers", in the effort to rouse up a sense of nationalism and peace. So they either totally assimilate the stranger (annihilate their cultural difference) or they totally marginalize any "difference".
But if, as postmodernism would argue, culture can no longer explain our differences, what can? Crenshaw argued that our identities are more than cultural, they are the synergistic result of the intersection of our class, gender, and ethnicity. Crenshaw's idea of intersectionality has taken on a life of its own in academia- generally trying to avoid the flaw of essentialism, but moving away from Crenshaw's original vision of social justice for doubly or triply-marginalized peoples (for example, the intersection of a gay African American male leads to greater marginalization than for a straight white female). And intersectionality has run into theoretical problems, like the difficulty of naming how many roads intersect (is it three, six, nine, or more?) But more significantly, intersectionality still relies on ethnicity as a "fact"- one that groupings actually share-- and thus in an attempt to avoid the error of reifying culture, it relies on culture as a fact.
Those interested in crossing cultures are likely to continue to be interested in ethnography-- describing and understanding shared experiences of different ethnolinguistic groupings. But such cross-cultural workers should also understand the nuances of cultural and racial identity, since these are important aspects of being "the Other" in this hybridized and globalizing world.
Anthias, Floya (2011) Intersections and Translocations: New Paradigms for Thinking about Cultural Diversity and Social Identities European Educational Research Journal, v10 n2 p204-217.
Barth, F. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.
Helms, J. E. (1995). An update of Helms's white and people of color racial identity models. In J.G. Ponterotto, J.M. Casas, L.A. Suzuki, & C.M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (pp. 181-198). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Rowe, Wayne; Bennett, Sandra K.; Atkinson, Donald R. (1994).White racial identity models: a critique and alternative proposal The Counseling Psychologist. Jan, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p129, 18 p. table; Sage
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor