European inventory of
societal values of culture


The term ‘identity’ refers to our sense of who we are as individuals and as members of social groups. This sense of self can be based on a number of different elements, including our gender, age, physical attributes, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, ethnicity, national belonging, political affiliations, professional field, and others. It is important to understand that one’s identity is always a mixture of several of these elements, as well as that it changes over time.

Likewise, since there are always social responses to our externalised or presumed identity, it is obvious that it also includes our sense of how others perceive and label us. These responses to our identity affect our self-concept, sense of value, and self-esteem.

Our personal identity can be seen as a narrative based on our memories, experiences, relationships, and values, continually composed in response to the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How would I like the others to see me?’ However, since our personal identity is always at the same time our social identity, its creation presupposes some wider social categorisation of the components it is made of. In other words, we need to make sense of how the elements used in identity construction are perceived in the social context we live in. We also need to identify with some of these elements and compare them with other possible choices.

In social science terms, the concept of identity always involves both sameness and difference (Abercrombie et al. 2006). Although our identities undergo constant changes, some degree of sameness is needed to establish a sense of continuity as well as a basis of similarity with some groups exhibiting the same traits. On the other hand, differences are needed to make our personal and group identities distinguishable from those of others. In other words, transferred to the sphere of the social, identity ‘is about belonging, about what you have in common with some people, and what differentiates you from others’ (Weeks 1989).

When using this concept, special attention should be paid to several points. First, identity is ‘a process – identification – not a “thing”; it is not something that one can have, or not, it is something that one does (Jenkins 2014). What is at stake is an ongoing relation, not a finished or a given ‘substance’. The reification of ‘identity’, its pre-theoretical ‘thingification’, makes such a concept scientifically useless. Therefore, it cannot be emphasised enough that identity ‘is not something tangible, material or visible’ (Malešević 2002), although something tangible, material, visible and audible can, and most often does, implicate, and thereby constantly produce, a certain identity.

Furthermore, ‘identification doesn’t determine what humans do, although this claim is often made by politicians and others.’ In other words, ‘Knowing “the map” – or even just approximately where we are – does not necessarily tell us where we should go next (although a better or worse route to our destination might be suggested)’ (Jenkins 2014). There is no simple cause and effect connection between one’s identity and her/his actions; the relation is much more complex.

And finally, one should bear in mind that identities (i.e., categorisations and identifications they are based on) are always embedded in various power relations. To know ‘who is who’ and where they stand is never a question of impartial classification. As emphasised by Jenkins (2014), ‘at the very least, classification implies evaluation, and often much more’.

Taking all of the above into account, Jenkins (2014) gives a starting (or, as he says, ‘minimal’) sociological definition of identity. According to this author,

This explanation of identity could be supplemented by that of Manuel Castells. Namely, the latter one takes culture into account, since Castells defines identity as ‘the process of construction of meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute, or a related set of cultural attributes, that is given priority over other sources of meaning’ (2010).

Such a definition of identity is obviously important for cultural policy. Not only does it point to the importance of culture in identity construction, but it also serves as a basis for discussion of the processes of cultural change in the context of globalisation. Due to an ever-increasing number of intercultural contacts as well as the global use of culture for commercial purposes, these processes have resulted in changing the cultural identities of individuals and communities around the world. They are facilitated by the megatrends of digitalisation and the increasing mobility of individuals with different cultural backgrounds, be it in the form of tourism or migrations. All these changes have led to the increasing hybridisation of cultures but also to different forms of resistance within the framework of identity politics. (MJ, MP)


See also:  Globalization and cultural policy; Multiculturalism; Identity politics; Culture and place-making; Cultural citizenship