The term ‘identity’ finds itself in a perpetual dialectic: it is caught up in a tug of war of appropriation between the collective and the individual. Our understanding of the self, too, is mediated by these often competing demands and becomes both, enriched and complicated by our multicultural society. The aim of the four blogs in this series is to explore identity in its broadest sense and to analyze the role of cultural plurality in shaping our understanding of ourselves.
Do you have examples of ways in which we manifest an intercultural identity? Please share them with us in the comments box.
Part One: My name is kg295 and I come from .bg
If we construe part of our identity based on where we are from, then what happens when the importance of our physical location loses its ground? Is part of our identity lost, too?
The evolution of (e)mailing addresses in Bulgaria is a prime example of the change occurring in people’s relationship to locations. This transformation can be summed up in three broad phases, each of which has constituted and created profound ideological shifts in the Bulgarian people’s identity.
We’ll situate the first phase in the broad, pre-1980s era. During this time, if you wanted to get in touch with somebody or send a picture, you would need their home address. While this is in no way unique to Bulgaria, the traditional Bulgarian convention for mail addresses is intriguing. The foremost information to be written on an envelope was the recipient’s country and town, followed by their street and house number and finally, their name. The priority given to the nation and town over the individual’s name imbues Bulgarians with a collective sense of national identity. This prioritization of the collective can be better understood by applying Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, which state that Bulgaria is a country with a high power distance (the degree of accepted inequality within society) and a low individualism ranking. (Compare your country’s cultural rankings here). Thus, the identity of the Bulgarian people during this phase emerges as strongly connected to their physical whereabouts.
During the second phase, envelopes started being addressed first, to individuals. The mini revolution occurring on envelopes was both, a symbol and a perpetuation of a larger ideological shift, which took place around the late 1980s in Bulgaria: the abrupt and prolonged transition from socialism to capitalism. Language and symbols in the form of addresses both mirrored and corroborated this new reality for the Bulgarian people and their identity, at least on paper, began to take a slightly more detached form from their physical location.
The third phase occurred in the late 1990s and the Bulgarian who now wanted to get in touch with a friend would send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (a typical Bulgarian name). While the .bg portion (called the country code top level domain) of the email address did give some loose indication of Ivan’s whereabouts, many of the traditional markers associated with a physical identity were suddenly erased. In fact, Ivan as an individual no longer needed to be in Bulgaria to check his .bg account. Besides, if he decided to open an alternate email account, (for example, email@example.com) we would no longer have any indication of who Ivan really was.
So why does location matter… and what do these changes mean for identity?
Location will always matter because physicality is an integral component of how we experience reality. Beyond that, location matters because it is associated with context and culture and since culture is key to a person’s identity, any change of location (or to the concept of location) will have an impact on one’s identity. However, not all is lost! As culture is not a concrete concept, it is not lost in the digital translation from a physical postbox to an email address. Culture, as a practice, is merely transformed into a new form which, like its new medium is much more dynamic, fleeting – and globalized.
By having an email address ending in .net, .com, or .edu we are essentially (though perhaps, not consciously) stating that a part of our identity is now constituted by an international network, a commercial institution, or an educational establishment. We are surrendering a bit of our physical and local distinctiveness in order to become more mobile, global… and perhaps, homogeneous. Ironically, in our pursuit of individualism, we readily dismiss part of our national identity only to become more alike by adapting to international standards. Authors Ayesha and Parag Khanna indicate in a Foreign Policy magazine article that we are beginning to associate ourselves more readily with organizations and networks than we are with nations. On the upside, they write, “one day a corporate passport might afford them (people) greater freedom and mobility than their national citizenship”.
This is the first installment of a four part series. In Part II, Shu Hu will trace the convention of Chinese names to identity formation and cultural values. In Part III, Sarah Inman will explore ideas of the American body as a cultural formation of beauty and identity and in Part IV, Minoo Razavi will examine cultural plurality as a controversial force in immigrant-friendly societies.