Thursday, August 2, 2012

9. Cultural Identity

Culture has several meanings. First, as something opposed to nature: mind as opposed to body, spirit as opposed to the matter, morality as opposed to natural drives. Second, in the anthropologcal sense: the way of life of a group, with its habits, values, norms, rules, ways of doing things. Third, cultural products: architecture, art, music, theatre, science, laws, etc. One might call the latter ‘civilization’. In this piece, the second, anthropological notion is central, but it is connected with the other two meanings. Civilization forms the basis for ways of life, and cultural products are the expression of both.

Now, then, does every arbitrary group have its own culture? It has culture in the anthropological sense to the extent that it shows clearly distinctive behaviour that is rooted in the other dimensions of culture, i.e. distinctive mental and moral categories and cultural products, such as language, buildings, music, sports, art, myths, symbols, etc. The Dutch are supposed to be tolerant, pragmatic, frugal, and to distinguish themselves in ballet, swimming, skating, and water works. Some of these features tend to more myth than fact. Presently the tolerance of the Dutch is questionable. Cultural features can be more or less distinctive, shared, taught, and celebrated. In other words, culture can be more or less strong.

This characterization of culture includes not only ethnic or national cultures but also organizations, such as firms. There, one can encounter fairly strict distinctive features (which in earlier work I called ‘organizational focus’). Next to a function of sense making that also has one of establishing goals, procedures, attitudes, and a division of roles, without at each step having to negotiate the order. Entry is formally free and voluntary but is in fact subjected to selection and socialization, and is conditional on adequate conformity.

Bonding to a group (nation, organization), can have a strong emotional loading, which is connected with a romantic longing for fusion with a larger, organic whole to which one is subservient, which transcends the puny, mortal and vulnerable self. We can see this in nationalism, sects and some organizations.

People have numerous, overlapping cultural identities. One can be Dutchman, European, employee of a firm, member of a sports club, of a profession, belong to a municipality, a religion, or a political party. Nationality is just one of the stronger ones to the extent that it entails unity of language, history, political structure, etc. In Belgium one is not so much a Belgian nationalist as a Flemish one.

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