Cultural identity

The dialogue points to the tension between one’s own self-image – i.e. the answer to the question of who I feel myself to be – and what others think of me. Ali is annoyed that others see him as being foreign – even going so far as to speak English to him – while he feels himself to be Czech. This tension is difficult at any age, but when a person is growing up it is an even more sensitive issue and even slight insinuations can be painful. A person has to learn how to deal with an identity which is composed of various affiliations, and different family and social backgrounds. This applies to everyone, but those who also look different usually have it more difficult in majority society. The only option is to learn to be aware of one’s own identity and open oneself up to multiple identities - and this applies the majority population as well as to those who are “different”. It is increasingly relevant in an ever more integrated and globalised world, where individuals have to cultivate the ability to grasp identities on different levels. Banks (2004) recommends, for instance, being aware of one’s own cultural (i.e. local), regional, and global identity.

  • What is...?

Identity: This is frequently understood as a sense of one’s own particular identity over time (it is still me, despite all the physical and psychological changes), as the conformity of modes of conduct and behaviour of a person with their identity (that kind of conduct belongs to you) or as an identification with someone else, with a group or idea (these opinion, values, modes of conduct are mine). It is also understood as a basic human need. Whoever does not have an identity is naturally looking for one. A sense of identity provides a sense of security, self-fulfilment, etc.

Cultural and ethnic identity: This is frequently understood as the multi-layered identification of the individual with various cultural, ethnic, social, professional, special interest, and other groups. This means that people define themselves vis-ŕ-vis various model cultures and groups. They can (although do not have to) identify with these in different situations and to different degrees. An individual’s cultural identity is only one part of that person’s identity; the characteristics of a culture are never the same thing as an individual’s personality.

Culture: No human individual can adapt to society without contact with other people. The fact that they make contact with each other creates their cultural identity, the totality of cultural properties which they regard as their own, familiar, close to them. We can to a certain extent understand culture as the character of a group, as a reaction of human society to its concrete life conditions. Every group develops in a different environment (natural, social, historical, etc.). When life conditions differ, people react to them differently, creating various products, values, religions, etc. And then their culture is different. In the broadest sense of the word, we can understand culture as the very artefacts of a group, the results of a group acting as, as it were, the socio-cultural regulators of culture, the method of functioning and conduct of a given group (its norms, values, standards of behaviour) and its idea of culture, the opinions and stances of the group (on subjects such as education, ideology, worldview, philosophy, religion) shared and transferred by its members. Culture cannot be identified with ethnicity or nationality!

Cultural traditions: The deep-seated standards of behaviour and conduct of a culture constitute a meaningful way of dealing with situations that arise in a given environment at a given moment in time. Over time an environment changes, and the perception of the group can change or abandon the meaning and manner in which a given problem was traditionally dealt with. A tradition may disappear or change its significance, or a new tradition may be created. (For example, these days few people communicate with water sprites and nymphs. Fairytales for children gradually arose out of myths that originally explained the organisation of the world. Instead of fairytales, we explain natural phenomena using scientific knowledge.)

  • Topic

Identity in the broader sense of the word, just like cultural identity, is created during the process of socialisation. Children learn to differentiate people into “mine” (my mum, my grandmother, my family, etc.) and “others” (that is not my but your mum, your family; we’re the A’s and those are the B’s, etc.). This process is natural and helps us grow into the world. It helps us interpret this world and find our place within it.

However, in today’s world above all there exist a large number of groups with which the individual can identify. Cultural and social identity is an individual feeling of belonging to a family, school class, sports club, peer group, or to other groups (e.g. even to civilisations – defined by religion, philosophy, lifestyle, etc.). National identity is the feeling of belonging to the political unit in which I live (or several units to which I belong in some way). Ethnic identity is derived from a feeling of belonging to language groups, to a traditional heritage, art, etc. Global identification then adds to the previous two identities a dimension which involves a feeling of belonging with all the human beings whom I can meet very easily during my lifetime in a globalised world.

Identity, and cultural identity in particular, is a sensitive matter. It gives us a feeling of security, belonging, the feeling of a familiar environment which is close to us, which is intelligible, in which we orient ourselves and with which we identity. However, each individual understands their identity a little differently. Some people feel like they belong to the nation state, others feel a strong identification with a specific culture (for instance mushroom-gatherers, gardeners, footballers, anarchists, etc.) while still others feel a special link to their native region. Each person’s cultural and ethnic identity differs according to its content and its relation to other values.

We do not take much notice of our identity in everyday life. However, it starts to become important when we meet someone else, someone “other”. This “other” acts as a mirror to our own identity, and their otherness warns us that this other person sees life differently. This is one of the reasons why encountering people from different cultures engenders numerous dilemmas, but can also be a huge benefit. Identity relates to issues of who I am and in several senses – who I feel myself to be and who I consider myself to be, how this perception changes over time, who others consider me to be, and how much all these perceptions agree. We can see that identity functions on two levels.: on one level, it implies who I feel myself to be; on another level, it reflects how others, those around me, see me. We will examine both of these aspects in the text and proceed as follows: We will focus on four aspects of identity – its multi-layered nature, its dynamic nature, its changes, and finally the issue of labelling, which is very significant for social inclusion or exclusion.

Before we begin to explore the different layers of identity, it is necessary to mention one more basic feature. Because identity is intimately intertwined with who a person feels him/herself to be, the grasp of that identity is very fragile. Identity is important for a person’s self-conception and consequently has a very important function. External pressure on identity is a very sensitive (and sometimes even dangerous) issue. That is why in pedagogy it is essential to approach this with sensitivity and an awareness of the effects it has on the individual.

Multi-layered identity
Answers to the question “Who do you feel yourself to be?” can vary widely and incorporate related characteristics which may but need not necessarily include, for example, the roles and expectations attached to gender, the construct of ethnicity (or felt or ascribed nationality), age, social status opportunities, etc. Howard (2000) points out that if we were to arrange all these identities in some order we would find that identity is formed socially, as membership in different social groups, and along the lines of personality, according to the attributes that distinguish one individual from another.

How does this process work? We will try to explain it using the example of the child protagonists in the dialogue. Let’s look more closely at Ali’s story. Ali grew up in a Czech environment, Czech is his maternal language, and so it would seem that his identity is the same as that of other children who were born in the Czech Republic - except that Ali is dark-skinned, and so from childhood has had to face up to the fact that people will question his Czech identity. This makes his experience different from that of a white child, born to two white Czech parents. Ali identifies not only with the cultural group of Czechs, but also with the group of Czechs who have a different skin colour, he has the experience of belonging to a marginalised group. On the other hand, he is a member of the group of Czechkids, he’s a scout, and does orienteering with other children. Ali therefore belongs to many groups. Although Ali’s story is clearly specific, it is far from unique. Even between children born to two Czech parents, there are large differences as far as identity is concerned – children from a large family in a village have a different experience and therefore identification(s) than children from a small family (or from divorced parents) in a large city.

An important question in all this is who the children feel themselves to be. And only here – in the relationship between who I feel myself to be and how others see me – is where we begin to find a real identity. Which of the above characteristics are important for the protagonists in which situations?
As Howard (2000) showed in her analysis, in the social sciences identity used to be reduced to ethnicity and nationality, as though these two categories were of greater significance than all the others. In recent years, mainly under the influence of globalisation and the changing world order since 1990, this approach has come under criticism. The tendency in the past two decades is to see identity as a multi-layered phenomenon, wherein individual types of identity are equal and moreover contextually determined. In a given situation, certain layers of a person’s identity can take on special significance.

This reconstruction of the concept of identity and recognition of its multi-layered character holds consequences for the entire field of the social sciences and pedagogy, because it de facto leads to the linking of conceptions of identities with the concept of citizenship (Bauman, 2004). As Howard has shown (2000:386), it involves a “concept of identity based on human experience in specific communities and contexts. Identities are becoming an issue of citizenship”. In this connection with identity, citizenship becomes an issue of participation in the life of a certain social or political community, and is thus a wider concept than the question of a status in the sense of being a citizen of a country.

Dynamic identity
Given that identity is influenced by a whole series of factors, identity changes over time and in relation to contexts and situations. Identity is thus not something innate (no part of it is!), but is rather a dynamic complex which changes over time and in the different social situations in which an individual finds themselves. Changes in identity can occur positively way, in the sense of identification with a certain new group or role, or negatively, by becoming more distant from a group or role (Howard, 2000). If we again look at our child protagonists, this is illustrated well in the example of Ali. He fundamentally distances himself from an identity which is ascribed to him – that of a foreigner. He does not feel himself to be a foreigner, and on the contrary identifies himself all the more with the Czech element of his heritage. By contrast, it is interesting for him to discover that Dan is also troubled by similar things, and suddenly they can both identity with those people who have the experience of being of a different skin colour, and they can both distinguish themselves more easily from Magda – you white people can’t give us any advice because you don’t know anything about it.

However, in order to avoid getting caught in the trap of the ethnic perspective of identity, we can see, for example, that people identify with the place they come from (a village versus a city), their generation, the field they are studying or in which they work, and so on. All these components of identity (not just the ethnic dimension) then fundamentally evolve over time in relation to changing contexts.

Changes to identity
As soon as a person gets into a situation where it is necessary to respond to some change in the environment, shifts in the area of identity automatically take place. The new environment presents new stimuli with which the individual identifies and adopts as his/her own. For example, when people change jobs they may discover a new sporting pastime with their new colleagues, and in this new environment they are introduced to new situations. Over time these become an inherent part of their existence. When people experience a change of climate (for example, when they move to a new country) they automatically change their style of dress because it is necessary to respond to the altered conditions. Over time people may make this new style of dress their own, while, for instance, they may not change their eating habits.

When we think about changes to identity we also have to consider another aspect: evaluation. People do not perceive the individual layer of their identity on an equal level. Rather, we tend to place more emphasis on those components of our identity which correspond to our image of ourselves and at the same time are evaluated positively by those around us (Howard, 2000). Conversely, it is more difficult to deal with those components of identity which those around us view negatively. Here a role is played, for instance, by the media – as soon as members of a certain group are assigned negative connotations, it is more difficult for members of that group to deal with that component of their identity. For example, it will probably be more difficult for Dan to deal with the part of his identity connected with being a Roma, while Jami will deal with his ethnicity in a different way and it will pose less of a problem – in the dialogue he says so very explicitly – When I say I’m an asylum-seeker at least sometimes they feel sorry for me.

Ascription and labelling
The foregoing problem is connected with our last topic – ascription. Until now, we have been talking about the identity that an individual chooses for him/herself. However, identity and changes to identity are also connected with situations where the individual is ascribed a certain characteristic, which often results in real or perceived exclusion. We will focus on this phenomenon in the final part of the text.

Thinking in categories is an integral part of socialisation (Brislin, 1981) and this way of thinking plays a big role in the process of ascription or labelling. Thinking in categories also automatically entails a certain simplification of reality, in the form of its reduction to a certain characteristic which is important or relevant to the given individual at a given moment. We will examine this through the example of teaching at school. When I teach one subject in several classes, I see that the classes as collectives have their own dynamics and character. One class is studious, another disobedient, another less capable, active, etc. This form of ascription makes it possible to organise a set of experiences connected with teaching, based on certain reasons. I look forward less to the disobedient class than to the class which behaves well, for instance. From the perspective of terminology I ascribe a characteristic to the class and the class acquires a label. However, logically I cannot apply this characteristic to every individual student in that class. Honza in the disobedient class may be just as clever and good as Vojta in the studious class, and some students in the studious class may be disobedient; because of the group dynamic, the presence of one strong student may dominate the character of the others at a given moment in teaching. Moreover, outside the class the student may be completely different.

A problem occurs when these generalised characteristics – categories (e.g. punctual, lazy, diligent) – begin to be ascribed to a specific individual without reflection or real assessment (e.g. “You’re German, that means you’re…”, or “You’re a Sparta Football Club supporter, that means you’re …”). This is a case of labelling, which can result in the exclusion of entire groups. It is this way of thinking and excluding which leads to the creation of many tensions in the world today. In one sentence we can almost certainly anger fifty Germans or Sparta supporters. If we take examples of the ethnic conflicts of recent decades, we find, for instance, Hutus and Tutsis, who are indistinguishable by appearance yet fought each other on the principle of this exclusion, which in this case resulted in genocide with almost a million victims in Rwanda. But we do not have to go far to find other such examples – the war in Yugoslavia had the same roots. If we take an example from the Czech Republic, we find, for instance, the tendency to exclude visibly different individuals, often associating them with Roma, etc. These are all examples of a way of thinking whose social consequences we can clearly see.The principle of labelling is often abused by leaders who have altogether different objectives (economic, power) than ethnic purity.

This is what is being alluded to in the dialogue with Dan -– “With me they just shout ‘Hey, Gypsy!’” The meaning of such a shout is clearly “Everyone stay away from that person, watch out when they’re around.”

Viewing identity in response to a historical and social context
All these theoretical ideas of course are always situated within the context of a specific society and time, where it is necessary to be aware that identity – and by extension ethnic identity – in central and eastern Europe has evolved separately from the country’s neighbours. From the point of view of the formation of national identity, the Czech Republic has been through some stormy developments. A multinational state in 1918 (8,020,000 citizens of Czechoslovak nationality, 3,218,000 citizens with Germany nationality, 477,000 with Russian nationality, 762,000 with Hungarian, 191,000 Jews, 110,000 Poles and 35,000 others, according to a census of people from 1921), after the turbulent events of the First Republic and World War II the country became a homogenous society, which after 1989 again began to become more heterogeneous. As a result of the experience of two generations living in a homogenous society, in the above-mentioned survey a distinction was made between citizenship and nationality. Research shows (Nedomová, 1997) that the concept of Czechness was at points reduced to that of a person who was born to two Czech parents with Czech nationality and Czech citizenship and who had Czech as their maternal language. What does other research say on the matter? Research by Prudký (2005), for instance, shows that the three most important reasons for a person regarding themselves as Czech are as follows: they speak Czech, they feel Czech, and they have Czech citizenship. On the other hand, place of birth and religion are not often seen as important.

The confrontation of this concept with perceptions in other countries is interesting. What makes a Dutch person a Dutch person, for example? Or a German a German? It seems that in the Netherlands an important aspect is a person’s own decision. In short, a Dutch person decides to belong to the Dutch political system (expressed by, for instance, respect for the Queen), and they thereby become Dutch.

Identity in teaching practice
The above analysis of the term “identity” reveals several important findings for teaching practice. The theme of identity cannot be addressed simply by avoiding labelling or by avoiding all categories or group terms. This is not realistic, in part because such terms are commonly used in life, and in part because this has no educational effect. As we saw in the analysis above, it is of key importance in working with identity to attain inclusion, and avoid situations which lead to ascription or labelling; if we are going to work with identity then we must do so by reflecting upon these phenomena. Questions of identity are not tied to specific topics discussed at school (identity can be reflected on de facto as part of any theme in the social sciences), but are nevertheless integrally connected with the methods used to teach these subjects, as we shall demonstrate. An important didactic element is teaching students to distinguish between the individual with his/her individuality, and the description of cultural or group features; to distinguish between the individual, personal and cultural identity, and group and cultural identity. A description of a culture can never be so specific that it corresponds to each individual the culture applies to. It is always a simplification, but in practice it has a certain weight and function. It is just necessary not to abuse it, and rather to use it on the basis of acquired understanding and humane goals. Only humanity can guarantee that the cultural concept is not abused.

The basic goal of working with identity is a (self-)awareness of it, which creates space for respect of different life experiences. Teaching methods should be directed at reflecting upon different facets of identities of individual students, and should on principle avoid any group-based interpretation. This means that I can think in terms of what a student feels him/herself to be (see, e.g., Moree & Bittl, 2007), but I cannot think in terms of what the Czechness of the majority of Czechs is like or what Vietnamese are like as a group, just as I cannot think in terms of what women or men are like or what poor people are like. It is only possible to think in terms of individual experience set in the context of the given individual.

One basic teaching method involves stories and narratives (e.g. Morvay, 2008; Tappan & Packer, 1991; Moree, 2008). An individual can reflect on elements of study material based on his/her own life experiences; the stories of individuals can be discussed and observed; the specific life experiences of children in the class can be examined; or interviews with people who have experienced things in the past can be organised (Hernandez, 1989). All these methods lead to the sharing of individual life experiences in the context of a given time and society. It is also important to teach students how to work with information about groups so that they are capable of analysing information found in the media or uncovered by their own research, so that they are able to work with the terms or concepts with which they are confronted, in ways that do not ascribe characteristics described in one newspaper article to any specific individual that they encounter in life.

  • Stories and examples

I’m Czech, just so you know it
Klára works in an information centre in one of the larger border towns. This is a town which in 1918 had a population of 12,500, of which only 107 were Czechs, the rest being Germans. Most current tourists in the region naturally come from Germany, often from the ranks of the families who were expelled after 1945. Klára meets them very often in the information centre. Klára’s father is German, and to this day Klára reproaches him for not having taught her German. In the period prior to 1990, it was not considered appropriate to speak German in the streets, and her father was worried that if Klára spoke his mother tongue at home, she might one day slip up and be the victim of nasty comments. The problem is that these days, Klára really needs German, and even though her father is German she has to attend a language course in order to be able to do her work in the information centre, something which naturally irritates her a lot. We spoke to Klára about the local region and the situation there, and, admitting that we are also a “mixed” couple, chatted about the identity of such people. Suddenly Klára paused and said: “Just so you know, I am a real Czech. I don’t want you to think I’m German just because my dad’s German!”

My grandmother used to tell stories from historical novels about how the people of Chodov guarded the border, who was in charge here, and what Kings did. She always sang wonderful songs. I never thought too much about why I call myself Czech, what that actually means. Only when I read Masaryk and Komenský on the character of the Czech nation as part of my studies (a country divided into two halves contending for the future of a small country at the centre of Europe, e.g. in the maelstrom of confrontation between western and eastern Christianity, Protestantism and Catholicism, Russia and Germany, Russia and America, etc.) One day, I had the opportunity to travel to a distant country in Asia. Maybe only three times people moved away from me in a restaurant because I was white. However, I slowly realised that my honest conduct in this country might look false, that my healthy self-confidence might be interpreted as disdain. I kept answering questions as to where the Czech Republic was, how we live there, what customs we have, how many relatives I have, etc. People in that country were proud of where they come from, they often used words like birthplace, native land, etc., and they lived a village lifestyle. They looked after me as they would have one of their own. I spent one of the most wonderful times of my life there. When I returned home, I began to take part in a Czech folk dance and music ensemble… I´ll give you three guesses why.
Last updated 24.October 2011

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