In the book that Mary Zournazi (1998) wrote entitled ‘Foreign Dialogues: Memories, Translations, Conversations’, Ien Ang—one of the professors of Cultural Studies at the University of Western Sydney—talked about how being Chinese in a land dominated by people who are ‘not’ Chinese meant to her. Cultural identity for her is something that is difficult to supersede, while being part of a cultural minority within a nation that has a culture other than her own. There is denial, self-hatred, foreignness, assimilation, and a strong resonance on history and identity.
As physical identity tends to go against cultural and social identities amid the diaspora, Ang tries to prove that identity is not held by the origins. This paper is all about cultural identity and the two schools of thought: interactionism and structuralism. Whether there is freedom in choosing one’s social identity would depend on whether there is more truth under the interactionist or the structuralist view. It shall be discussed how concepts, such as class, ethnicity, race, or nationality, contribute to identity.
Main Body Cultural identity can be defined as “the unique characteristics of a community or a cultural group” (Schippers, 2001, p. 16). Collective identity, such as cultural or social identity, is “a phenomenon experienced by each social group when it is placed in proximity to different social groups” (Schippers, 2001, p. 19). There are two schools of thought that sociologists base their assumptions on when analyzing freedom and cultural identity: interactionism and structuralism. The Interactionist School of Thought
The interactionist school of thought states that culture and society are products of the identities (Prevos, 2004, p. 1). According to the paper written by Peter Prevos (2004), “[W]e have the ability to reflect upon the nature of the social world and our position in that world… [and] there is a creative dimension of human consciousness that actively shapes society in our image” (p. 1). This is the reason why, when talking about ‘social class’, the specific categorization of the class is defined by the individual identities of each in the society.
In the paper that Kiflemariam Hamde (2004) wrote entitled ‘Mind in Africa, Body in Europe’, the first line in the paper says: “When individuals cross boundaries, they make sense of their lives by re-constructing their identities – of the sense of who they are, and who they want to be, which is an ongoing process” (Hamde, 2004, p. 2). As stated in the paper, this fact can be seen in the African men and women who lived in the United States and in Sweden and underwent identity re-construction by using their freedom, which shaped their culture and their society.
When talking about social identity, individuals carry the freedom to choose their own cultural identity through the use of identity re-construction and transformation. The Structuralist School of Thought The structuralist school of thought, on the other hand, states that identity is the product of culture and society (Prevos, 2004, p. 1). According to Prevos (2004), German Georg Simmel says that “individuals are defined by their membership of individual groups” (p. 1). This is the reason why, when talking about ethnicity or race (e. g.
, American, Indian), the specific cluster of race or ethnic holds the power to define the identity of the individual. This can be the main reason why Ien Ang, in the article entitled ‘On Not Speaking Chinese’, felt denial, self-hatred, foreignness, assimilation, and a strong resonance on history and identity. The Chinese blood in her was the reason why other people in Indonesia clustered her to be different from the rest of the society, as worsened by her physical traits. She was defined as a foreigner or a stranger even if she was born and raised in the same land.
It appears that, when talking about social identity, individuals do not carry the freedom to choose their own cultural identity, since the society has the tendency to define the identity. Interactionism or Structuralism? Between the interactionist and the structuralist school of thought, it appears that whether or not there is freedom in choosing one’s cultural identity has something to do with how one manages to incorporate the two sociological views when making decisions in the complex and multi-layered web of identity.
There are certain areas that bend more on the interactionist view, such as class or rank, while there are certain areas that bend more on the structuralist view, such as ethnicity or race. However, there are ways to incorporate the two views in the decision of applying the best school of thought. One example is nationality, wherein the society and culture predetermines the specific nationality for the individual, and this defines the person’s social identity; yet nationality can also be decided upon or changed according to the choice of the individual.
People are born with social and cultural identities, but they are also born with the freedom to change the characteristics of those identities. Conclusion People have the freedom to choose whether they apply the interactionist view that presupposes that culture and society are products of the identities; or the structuralist view that presupposes that culture and society define the identity.
Because cultural identity is made up of the unique characteristics of the society, this identity is based on the definition used by the individual in categorizing which characteristics are unique to the culture or the society. More so, despite the unique characteristics of a culture, the two schools of thought give the notion that the individuals in a certain society have the power to influence the society through identity re-construction and transformation, in the same way that the society has the power to influence the individuals through identity formation and development.
Yet, despite the stiffness of the structuralist view in terms of freedom, people can choose to change them through other means (e. g. , matrimony, law)… and this is where personal freedom can be applied more freely. People are born with the freedom to choose, or not to choose, freedom. Bibliography Hamde, K. (2004) Mind in Africa, body in Europe: the struggle for maintaining and transforming cultural identity – a note from the experience of Eritrean immigrants in Stockholm. Nota Di Lavoro, 38 (1) February, pp.
1-22. Prevos, P. (2004, August 23) Cultural identity. Peter Prevos’ Homepage [Internet], pp. 1-5. Available from: <http://www. prevos. net/ola/identity. pdf> [Accessed 27 August 2008]. Schippers, T. K. (2001) Cultural identity: search for a definition. The International Scope, 3 (6) December, pp. 16-22. Zournazi, M. ed. (1998) Out of bounds: inauthentic spaces and the production of identities. Foreign Dialogues: Memories, Translations, Conversations. Australia, Pluto Australia Pty Ltd.
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