Main Menu

Identity, a Card with Two Faces

Plan Your Visit

Identity, a Card with Two Faces – Page 1


Mauro Peressini
Curator, South-American and South-European Programme

Cultural Studies

Canadian Museum of Civilization

A hard look at the concept of group identity and its impact, for better or worse, on today’s World

Originally published in The UNESCO Courier, June 1993, pp.14-18, with revisions by the author. Reproduced by permission.


There are, to my mind, two ways of looking at the current upsurge in demands for the recognition of cultural, religious, ethnic,  racial or national identities.

On the positive side, the efforts by certain population groups to assert their identity can be regarded as “liberation movements”, as strategies for challenging oppression and injustice. What these groups are doing – proclaiming that they are different, rediscovering the roots of their culture, strengthening group solidarity or aspiring to political self-determination – may accordingly be seen as necessary and legitimate attempts to escape from their state of subjugation and enjoy a certain measure of dignity.

On the down side, however, involvement in militant action for recognition tends to make such groups more deeply entrenched in their attitudes and to make the cultural compartments into which they are divided even more watertight. The assertion of identity then starts to turn into self-absorption and isolation, and is liable at any time to slide into intolerance of others and towards ideas of ethnic “cleansing” and xenophobia, racism and violence.

Change as a constant of culture

The main feature of human societies and their cultures has always been not that they have stood still but that they have been responsive to change. Instances of isolated societies that have remained unaffected by historical events are exceptions, if not indeed myths, and such societies have seldom prospered.

Almost all societies have, in one way or another, been caught up in history, whether through natural phenomena (disasters or climatic or environmental changes), migratory movements (emigration, immigration, the meeting and intermingling of peoples, or the dissemination of knowledge, beliefs and values), political events (wars and annexations) or economic factors (trade and the spread of technology), and have constantly needed to redefine and change themselves, invent, generate ideas, borrow and acquire, and devise new ways of acting and thinking.

Far from representing an unchanging set of ways of acting and thinking or a finite body of knowledge, beliefs, values, traditions or rules, standards or principles, culture is a living thing, a process involving communication and cross-fertilization. It is therefore an exaggeration to talk about the danger of “losing” a culture and about the need to “retrieve”, “protect”, “safeguard” or “cleanse” it. Since culture is a continuing process of change, acculturation is its mode of existence.

It is because of this constant reshaping of culture by history that a cultural, ethnic, racial or national group is never a uniform entity but breaks down instead into different cultural sub-units that are themselves continually undergoing change, such as families and kinship groups; villages, towns and regional groupings; social classes, occupational groups, blue-collar and white-collar workers, managers and bosses; generations, young people and old; men and women; or the mentally or physically handicapped.

Thus, although the fact of being different is at the heart of every group’s identity, on the other hand every group contains individuals who share many points of resemblance with people in other groups. According to the cultural aspect on which emphasis is placed (religion, culinary habits, dress, language etc.), groups shift frontiers and overlap, the limits become more blurred, and distinctions between one’s own and others’ identity become a matter of degree or of place in the same continuum.

Governed by their own hybrid logics 1, the cultures of all groups are much more like a mobile and open-ended assemblage of many differing parts than a uniform, stable, self-contained and easily defined entity, especially at the present time, as upheavals of all kinds follow fast on one another, cultures communicate as never before, and populations move about in millions.

Identity, a Card with Two Faces – Page 2

A simplifying fiction

At a time of continual changes in ways of acting and thinking, collective identities provide individuals with a means of simplifying reality.

This simplification works firstly by transforming the whole set of individuals composing the group (cultural minority, ethnic group, race or nation) into a uniform and distinct entity, so that the group can be represented as an obvious empirical reality. The uniformity of the group is ensured by the selection of a limited number of features both as being typical of the individuals forming the group and as being more important than other features in terms of the definition of their identity.

Whereas an objective observer analysing a given population would find an infinite number of possible criteria for describing, grouping together or distinguishing between the individuals being observed, those militating for recognition of their group’s identity arbitrarily choose a limited number of criteria, such as language, skin colour or religion, so that group members recognize themselves primarily in terms of the labels attached to the group whose existence is being asserted, “black”, “white”, “Arab”, “Muslim”, “Jewish”, “Christian”, “Hindu”, “French”, “Italian” or whatever.

The distinction between the group in question and other groups is established by simplifying the features selected. Whereas the same objective observer could see only continuous variations for each criterion, and would thus be prevented from drawing clear dividing-lines between the groups, those militating for recognition of their identity simplify each criterion by eliminating the variations they regard as secondary and are thus able to speak, for example, of a national language, of “whites” and ‘blacks”, or of the Islamic or Jewish faith.

Simplification also works by transforming groups into essences, abstractions endowed with the capacity to remain unchanged through time. The cultural minority, ethnic group, race or nation concerned is thus seen as being outside of time, while change and the effects of history are denied or underestimated. In some cases, people actually act as though the group had remained unchanged and talk, for example, about the history of the “French”, the “blacks” or the “Jewish people”, as if those entities had survived for centuries without changing, as if the “French”, the ‘blacks” or the “Jews’ of two or five or ten centuries ago were the same people as today, using the same tools and techniques and with the same ways of acting and thinking, the same desires, aspirations, anxieties and pleasures.

In other instances, although the changes wrought by history are acknowledged, the deep-rooted identity of the group is still not questioned. The group is seen metaphorically as an edifice that has been collectively shaped and built up over the centuries, or else as a living individual who is born and develops. It is when the concepts enshrined in the words “patrimony” or “heritage are looked at in the context of the metaphor of “work under construction” that they really become meaningful: objects, knowledge, beliefs, values and traditions all represent building-blocks for the collective edifice which have to be carefully stockpiled and must not be lost or destroyed. It is likewise in the context of the metaphor of the ‘individual” that the concept of the “collective memory” can be understood: cultures, ethnic groups or nations are credited with the faculty of memory and are spoken of as though they were human beings (who can be “humiliated” or “betrayed” or “avenged”). When people are forced to acknowledge the far-reaching changes that history has wrought and when they admit that the identity of the group may no longe r be what it was, the present state of the group often comes to be seen as one of “sickness”. People then start looking back on some period in the past as having been the time when the group possessed a now tarnished “purity” or a now lost “authenticity”. The past – although it was the present for the people living at the time – is regarded as an unchanging state, a baseline to be turned to – as one turns to a remedy – in order to rediscover and re-establish the truth about the group, or its essence.

Cultural, ethnic, racial or national identities are fictions that simplify  social realities, and they have practical effects, two negative aspects of which I wish particularly to stress.

Firstly, they gloss over and disparage the present and contemporary history. Changes in ways of acting and thinking, contacts between peoples, the patterns of exchanges and interminglings of which both present and past are formed – all these are often discussed in such negative terms as the “contamination” of cultures, the “expansion” of modern Western culture, world-wide “uniformity” and the “disappearance” of human diversity. Some aspects of recent history show there to be an element of truth in these judgements, but to leave things at that would be to run the risk of failing to see what is being created afresh in the crucible of the present. It could be argued, moreover, that a disparaging attitude to the present day and contemporary history is tantamount to contempt for the fives, efforts, aspirations and desires of millions of men and women who are, after all, coping as best they can with the unstable, ill-assorted raw materials that history has handed down to them. Who is to say that they are on the wrong track and that their cultures are not authentic? What right or authority has anyone to say so?

Secondly, the way in which groups are individualized or personalized in the name of identity has negative effects similar to those of the individualism that is creating havoc in the industrialized societies of the West. It is individualism raised to the group level. As a result, the only legitimate principle of behaviour that such groups recognize is the satisfaction of their own self-interest, which lies in maximizing their economic and political profits and in selfishly devising schemes for development and expansion without regard for other people.

Such group individualism ends up with all groups fighting and competing against one another, and leads on to the logical consequence of all individualism, i.e. there can only be “winners” if there are also “losers” – cultural minorities, ethnic groups or nations that cannot fend for themselves, cannot have their own territories or form their own states.

Identity as a cognitive necessity

Paradoxically, however, it is precisely because identity represents a simplifying fiction, creating uniform groups out of disparates, drawing border fines across a continuum and turning groups into unchanging essences, that it is necessary and indeed essential to the agents of social change. Although it is a factor of division, it is also a factor of vision2. Like the concepts we use to put names to things and designate ideas, identity categories make it possible for us to understand and grasp reality. In a constantly changing world, they enable us to put names to ourselves and to others, form some idea of who we are and who other people are, and ascertain the place we occupy along with other people in the world and in society. Lastly, as a means of recognizing the members of a particular group (x is an X because he or she acts or thinks in such-and-such a way), identity provides the framework for interpreting, predicting or managing our behaviour or that of other people (x is bound to do this because he or she is an X).

The current upsurge in efforts to assert the identity of various groups can, in fact, be partly explained by the cognitive function performed by identity. Naturally, many of these movements can be explained in terms of a tangle of economic and political factors combining the faceless logic of the international system and the special interests of small groups and individuals who look upon cultures, ethnic groups, races or nations only as means to achieve other ends and to manipulate people.

That being said, people would not go along as they do, often in large numbers, with the propositions put to them, in spite of the sacrifices they entail, if there were not a very strong feeling of need for identity, a need to “take stock of things” and know “who we are”, “where we come from” and “where we are going”, that is accounted for in turn by the increased pace of change in today’s world.

Industrialization, the breakneck pace of technological development, the often uncontrolled globalization of the capitalist economy and of the constraints imposed by financial markets, the glaring intrusions of communications, the media and the products of the cultural industries – all these disrupt not only the everyday material and economic lives of people all over the world but also their symbolic frames of reference. Knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, traditions, rules and standards of behaviour, moral and religious principles are all constantly being called into question. Withdrawal into a world of one’s own and a search for cultural or ethnic “roots” come to be seen as attempts to put down markers and to stem the fast-moving tide of time and history.

Individuals need their identity because it makes things less complicated and unsettled, so that they can then put some order not only into their own lives but into the world around them. In this sense, identity also generates reality and contributes to the role performed by imagination or religion in a world that is itself only chaos. Like imagination or religion, identity creates order out of chaos and shapes the world by conferring meaning on it, which is why it can be regarded as a source of liberation in some circumstances.

Identity, a Card with Two Faces – Page 3

Lines of approach

Identity is thus a necessity, but its negative side-effects must be avoided at all costs. How can these two contradictory aspects of identity be reconciled? I propose to confine myself to a few lines of approach.

The first of these relates to what I would call the mobility of identity. If any identity, whether it be cultural, ethnic or national, is to function properly – in other words, if its suggested configuration is to be acknowledged as real and legitimate – it has to overlook or disregard the fact that all such configurations are arbitrary and could be drawn in many other possible ways.

This means we must bear the arbitrary nature of identity constructs constantly in mind, not with a view to eliminating all forms of identification and affiliation – which would be unrealistic, since identity is a cognitive necessity for human beings – but simply so as to remind ourselves that we each have several identities at the same time.

The realization that we all have several identities whereby to define ourselves has its uses. During the recent constitutional discussions in Canada, for instance, women from the country’s indigenous groups who wanted to hold on to the protection they are afforded under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms opposed attempts by the (male) community leaders to set up an autonomous indigenous government run on traditional lines and thus not subject to the provisions of the Charter.

On this specific issue, the women adopted a shifting identity strategy: first defined as “indigenous”, they became ‘women” when they stressed the danger that the “principles of indigenous government” represented for the autonomy and equality of women in relation to men, then became ‘Canadian citizens” when they militated in favour of maintaining the Canadian Charter in the event of there being an indigenous government.

When people realize that all identities are arbitrary and that they can switch from one to another to suit the circumstances, they can often respond in a more effective and imaginative way to pressures exerted on them from outside or inside the group. This realization also prevents people from becoming self-absorbed and withdrawing into a single identity, and hence makes it possible for them to engage in dialogue and establish cross-group bonds of solidarity (e.g. with other “citizens” in one of the examples cited above and with other “women” in another) regardless of their cultural, racial, ethnic or national origins.

The second line of approach would consist in reinstating the present and contemporary history. At a time when the “end of history” is being predicted and tears of nostalgia are being wept over the past, it is tempting to recall, as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has done, that “there are futures that operate in silence and are almost imperceptible”, 3 and that culture is being constantly and unexpectedly created by the cobbling together of new ways of acting and thinking, fresh and original combinations of elements, and counter-cultures.

In this respect, the Third World sets an example. There are, for example, a large number of syncretic cults, such as “Kimbanguism” in Congo and voodoo in Benin, Haiti, Cuba and Brazil, in which Christian rites and modern elements are blended with traditional values or Christian saints are identified with pagan divinities. Similarly, the galloping urban growth that a number of countries are undergoing gives rise, in the Third World, not only to the kind of dehumanization that is seen in the main cities of the industrialized countries but also to an upwelling of cultural and social creativity. In the poblaciones of Santiago, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the shantytowns of Mexico City and elsewhere, what is happening in many cases is the regeneration of the social fabric through new principles of solidarity and new forms of social participation, such as self-managed micro-organizations, grass-roots economic organizations, religious communities, neighbourhood associations, young people’s and women’s movements, environmental groups and so on. As regards the economy too, informal-sector activities are springing up all over the place through a mixture of resourcefulness and ingenuity, based on ideas of production and consumption very different from those of the capitalist economy. 4

All these examples, which have their counterparts in the most marginalized sectors of the industrialized countries (prisons, teenage gangs and also grassroots organizations), rather than representing the replacement of ‘traditional” cultures by a “Western-style culture”, actually testify to the emergence of a new, third way that, ill-defined as it may be and arising under appalling conditions, nevertheless holds out hope for the future, indeed perhaps for the only possible future.

Identities formulated in these terms deserve our attention. Far from being based on unchanging and exclusive membership rules, like those of blood ties, parentage or mythical origin, many of these identities are open-ended, in that there is a continual inflow and outflow of members, which prevents them from taking on a self-perpetuating existence of their own. This is true, for example, of identities based on places of residence, like neighbourhood associations, or those based on membership rules that are not handed down from one generation to the next but are defined by individuals themselves through the institutions they create. “Citizenship” is another form of identity which can be defined. in the course of struggles directly related to current issues. A number of these identities also have the advantage of being tied to the present and being short-lived, of lasting for no longer than a particular plan or militant action may last, which prevents them from turning into hard and fast identities.

Such identities, with their changing memberships and limited life-spans, give rise to communities which, vulnerable and unstable though they may be, possess, thanks to this precious “lightness of being”, the strength to maintain an enquiring and tolerant relationship with others and at the same time to counter the unhealthy self-absorption that is still so prevalent.


  1. The French term “logiques métisses” was coined by Jean-Loup Amselle in his book of the same name published by Éditions Payot, Paris, 1990,

  2. This is how the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it when speaking of ethnic or regional conflicts in “L’identité et la représentation. Éléments pour une réflexion critique sur l’idée de région” in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 1980, No. 35.

  3. Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, Editions Flammarion, Paris, 1977.

  4. See Serge Latouche, L’occidentalisation du monde, Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1989, and La planète des naufragés, Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1991.