The Question of Cultural Identity

Man by nature has a need to identity himself and almost always tends to define it in opposition to another set. It’s either he is a part of a group or is excluded from it. Physical and character differences are highlighted and used as the trait that sets himself apart and, in essence, as an individual.

However, Stuart Hall in his article “The Question of Cultural Identity” proposes to embrace these differences and unify them into a culture that would define a national identity. In arriving at this conclusion, Hall had systematically discredited the concept of identity on the individuality of the Enlightened Man by tracing its origins and its subsequent demise as new discoveries and trains of thought emerged.

Dror Wahrman in his book The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England likewise espoused a similar idea of “the fluidity and permeability of cultural categories–of gender, race, and species particularly” and further suggesting that “these elements of identity were malleable because identity itself was seen to be socially constructed and therefore protean, akin to a masquerade costume to be donned or doffed or changed as circumstances warranted” (Eglin, 2007, pp. 1015).

Further reinforcing this viewpoint is the identity process theory that was formulated by Breakwell which views identity as a “dynamic, social product of the interaction of the capacities for memory, consciousness and organized construal. ” Its structure is manifested through thoughts and actions. It is adjusted accordingly and regularly as it absorbs, accommodates and assimilates new components over time and in varying situations (Hauge, 2007, pp. 44). Hall made effective use of the major philosophical ideas to anchor the changing conceptions of identity of the human subject.

This he categorized into three: the Enlightenment subject, the sociological subject and the post-modern subject (Hall, 1992, pp. 275). As the Enlightened Man, he was the centre of all that there is. Once moored and dependent on the teachings and dogma of the Catholic Church, man was empowered to question and investigate the mysteries of the world with the onset of the scientific revolution. Those who chose to continue to practice Christianity had the choice to bypass the Church as the Reformation took hold. Man rose as a conscious and rational being and this served as the foundation of his identity.

Descartes’ famous quote aptly summed it up, “I think, therefore I am. ” The social and economic order had broken down in favor of the “a man’s personal existence over and above his place or function in a rigid hierarchical society” (Williams, 1976 qtd. in Hall, 1992, pp. 283). A thought worth considering is that if the concept of identity started with the Enlightenment, how did man perceive himself prior to it? Was there not a collective identity that was already in place that was based on place or class or livelihood?

Is this not akin to a national identity or identity politics in post-modern times? If such is the case, then the concept of the individual is more significant in the fact that from the Enlightenment onwards, the self had taken a consequential role in the formation of identity even if it wan no longer centred on the individual alone and his basic needs and desires. The formation of the modern society gave rise to the sociological conception wherein the interests of the individual is integrated to that of society’s.

“The subject still has an inner core or essence that is ‘the real me’, but this is formed and modified in a continuous dialogue with the cultural worlds ‘outside’ and the identities which they offer” (Hall, 1992, pp. 276). The post-modern subject, on the other hand, is not so much as influenced by his adaptation to society but rather to his lack of influence over the identity already defined for him depending on the historical context or his place in that particular time (pp. 277).

These factors ushered in the beginnings of the “de-centring” of the subject and at some instances, tended to overwhelm the inner core and isolate or even lose the individual (pp. 285). Hall identified five major events that led to de-centring. First was Marxism which displaced man as a driver of change. Instead, he was perceived to be an actor reacting to the conditions he found himself in. Then, there was Freud’s “discovery of the unconscious”. This wrecked havoc to the notion that it was due to man’s rational thought and actions that one’s identity is formed.

Instead, it was driven mostly by the unconscious. It is not identity per se but more of identification. The third de-centring was due to progress in the study of language citing Ferdinand de Saussure’s work as its main proponent. Language is man’s way of communicating that is exclusive to our specie. It is also what sets us apart from another culture and when we say culture, that itself connotes a system that is beyond the individual realm and towards an amalgam of collective traits. Language is structural and carries with it nuances that has connotations that is distinguishable only to the native speakers.

Even if it dislocates individual identity, it is an important asset in the setting of a national identity. Language and its probable dilution or outright erosion is thus one of the arguments being pushed against globalization (Knight, 2006, pp. 1). The fourth major viewpoint was Michel Foucault’s call for “disciplinary power” which called for the provision of power to the administrative regimes to regulate collective institutions and essentially control the actions and practices of the individual. Individuality is thus lost and there’s only society.

Lastly, there was the feminist movement which became the harbinger of identity politics (Hall, 1992, pp. 285 – 290). These new social movements not only created new and rich vocabularies, they also challenged geographical delineations. These created identities based on social ties and as well created new political subjects (Keith & Pile, 1993, pp. i). Having established the dislocation of the individual identity to that of a social one, Hall maps out the formation of a national identity based on culture that characterizes a nation and in essence, the citizens that belong to it.

Hall looks at national culture as a product of “imagined communities” (pp. 291). It is not a mere description of what was but rather a result of what it was perceived to be. In a relevant article, Hauge likewise discussed how “the natural and built-physical environment influences a person’s identity… When attachment to place grows, we start to identify ourselves with these places, both at a larger scale (nation, city, etc. ) and at a smaller scale…However, the converse is also true: places are also influenced by people’s identities.

It is the people who shaped their nation’s culture thus regardless of the diversity of race, there remains distinct commonality that is embraced by its people. (Hauge, 2007, pp. 44). According to Hall, there are five elements that can be influenced to form the imagined community. There’s the narrative that is being disseminated as longstanding history or through media, there’s the emphasis on primordial practices as well as traditions that had been invented to memorialize events, common belief in mythical origins and the idea of the virtues of the pioneers or original inhabitants (Hall 1992

This was how Stalin managed to form the national identity of modern Russia. Under his regime, there was a shift from the rhetoric of proletariat camaraderie to the revival of russocentrism. Stalin used Russian history to build support for the state and as a result, there emerged a mass identification to a Russian people whom he toasted as having a “clear mind, a hardy character, and patience” (Stalin qtd in Edgar, 2004, pp. 555).

Hence, in spite of actual variety of ancestral and racial ties and differences in social class, “cultural hegemony” is exercised as virtues are kept. There comes a sense of belonging and this is what unifies these differences.


Edgar, A, 2004, ‘National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity 1931-1956’, Journal of Social History, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 555+. Eglin, J, 2007, ‘The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England’, Journal of Social History, vol 40, no.

4, pp. 1015+. Hall, S. 1992, The Question of cultural identity. Hauge, AL, 2007, ‘Identity and Place: A Critical Comparison of Three Identity Theories’, Architectural Science Review, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 44+. Keith, M & Pile, E (eds. ) 1993, Place and the politics of identity, Routledge, New York. Knight, N, 2006, ‘Reflecting on the Paradox of Globalisation: China’s Search for Cultural Identity and Coherence’, China: An International Journal, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 1+.