Curator, South-American and South-European Programme
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.