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Cultural identity: what it is and how it helps us understand each other

Cultural identity: what it is and how it helps us understand each other

April 9, 2024

The concept of cultural identity has allowed us to think about how we come to recognize ourselves as competent subjects of dynamics and relationships based on specific values, customs and traditions.

In this article we explain briefly what is cultural identity , and in what way this concept has been used to understand various psychological and social phenomena.

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What is cultural identity?

Studies on cultural identity go back to the 18th century, that is, to the beginnings of anthropology as a social science . They have followed a very diverse trajectory and have been modified according to the transformations in the definition of the concept of "identity" and also that of "culture".

Among other things, studies on cultural identity have led us to ask whether cultural identity impacts the individual psyche, or is it the opposite process? How is cultural identity related to local and global processes? Is cultural identity the same as, for example, social identity, national identity or family identity ?

Without intending to respond in detail to these questions, but to explain with greater precision what the concept of "cultural identity" refers to, in this article we will define, on the one hand, the term "identity", and for another one of "culture".

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Theories about identity

Identity has been understood in very different ways within the social sciences. There are perspectives that from the most traditional psychology propose that the identity is an individual fact, that is fixed in a total, natural and fixed way, with particularities that are specific to each individual .

On the other hand, the most classic proposals of sociology speak of identity as the effect of a series of norms and guidelines that people simply reproduce and put into practice. On the other hand, the most contemporary proposals of the social sciences tell us that identity is not a fact, but a process , with which, there is not a beginning and an end that take place in certain life cycles.

It is rather a series of transformations that take place under different circumstances that are not fixed or immovable. Identity is, in this sense, understood as the effect of a series of social influences; but it is likewise understood as the result of the agency itself.

In other words, the most contemporary theories about identity take distance from psychology considering that it is a process mediated by environmental influences; and they also raise a distance with sociology by considering that people do not limit themselves to reproducing those influences of the environment, but that we interpret them, we choose them, we create projects with them, and so on.

Likewise, identity is thought of as the product of establishing a difference, either complementary or antagonistic. That is, the result of recognizing oneself with characteristics common to a given group, which are at the same time different from the characteristics of other individuals and groups. It is a difference that we establish for generate a certainty about what individually and collectively we are .

Culture: some definitions

The concept of culture has been understood and used in very different ways that can be traced from the North American and European intellectual context of the eighteenth century. In its origins, the concept of culture it was very much related to civilization , referred to all those qualities that are recognized as necessary for a member to be considered competent in a society.

Culture is later understood as the set of tools, activities, attitudes and forms of organization that allow people to meet their needs. For example, from small tasks to social institutions and economic distribution. Already in the nineteenth century the culture begins to be understood in relation to the intellect , as a series of ideas that are reflected in patterns of behavior that the members of a society acquire and share by instruction or by imitation. From here, culture began to be understood also in relation to the arts, religions, customs and values.

After the intellect, the concept of culture is also understood in a humanistic sense closely related to individual development, both intellectually and spiritually, which is combined with the activities and interests of a particular community.In this same sense, and along with the development of science, culture is understood as a collective discourse, which is symbolic and which articulates values ​​with knowledge.

Finally, and in view of the evident multiplicity of ways of understanding "culture", there is no other way but to begin to think that there is not a single manifestation of it, with which a new understanding of the same concept is generated. Culture is then understood from the diversity of worldviews and behaviors , including the lifestyles and attitudes that are part of different communities around the world.

In this context, the recognition of cultural diversity was confronted with some reminiscences of the old relationship between culture and civilization, with what some cultures understood as superior and others as inferior. Not only that, but culture was established in opposition to nature, and even as an obstacle to economic development, especially when it is taken to the terrain of territorial management.

In short, culture is understood in operational terms as the set of features that distinguish a social group (which share the same group). These traits are understood as socially acquired and can be spiritual, material or emotional. They can also be ways of life, artistic expressions and forms of knowledge , values, beliefs and traditions.

We are part of a group and at the same time individuals

The traits that are considered to be typical of a culture because they are socially acquired, and because they serve as the hallmarks of a group, are elements that give rise to an identity. That is to say, to a process of recognition of oneself before the frames of interaction that belong to the social group to which we belong.

These are frameworks that offer us reference and identification schemes according to the values ​​of the group itself; and that offer us certainty about the links and our function in the community. In addition, cultural identity gives us a series of historical and physical references about our place in the social group .

For example, the possibilities of recognizing ourselves as women or men, or as people belonging to one class or another, may be different between different cultures. The same goes for the identity that corresponds to certain functions and institutions, such as students, teachers, friends, brothers, relatives, etc.

All these features give shape to different dimensions of identity that coexist and they make up the process by means of which we generate a perception and appreciation of ourselves, our group, and others.

Bibliographic references:

  • The beginning anthropologist (2018). What is culture? 17 definitions of the word culture in anthropology. Retrieved July 17, 2018. Available at //
  • Molano, L. (2004). Cultural identity: a concept that evolves. Opera, 7: 69-84.
  • Pujal i Llombart, M. (2004). The identity. In Ibáñez, T. (Ed) Introduction to social psychology. Editorial UOC: Barcelona.
  • Hall, S. and du Gay, P. (1996). Cultural Identity Issues. Amorrortu: Buenos Aires-Madrid.

What is CULTURAL IDENTITY? What does CULTURAL IDENTITY mean? CULTURAL IDENTITY meaning & explanation (April 2024).

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