Jun 25, 2018 in Sociology

The Battle for Identity


Think about this for a moment: Can practitioners conduct reliable and valid assessments of youngsters with behavioral, social, and emotional problems without being firmly grounded in a theoretical orientation as to how these problems develop, progress, and change? Well, they might administer some tests and interpret the results under this scenario. But is this type of approach the most desirable? It is probably not. Without a solid theoretical background and orientation, the assessor is relegated to the role of a technician or tester, and no matter how skilled, may never integrate the assessment findings to the subject's past and future with an adequate degree of continuity or unity.

Most people today tend to think of culture as belonging to a particular society: Japanese have Japanese culture, French have French culture, Americans have American culture, and so on. But today this has become confusing: we belong to our particular national culture, but many of us in today’s affluent world also choose—or at least believe we choose—aspects of our lives from what can be called “the global cultural supermarket.” You might eat raisin bran for breakfast, curry for lunch, and sashimi for dinner; you may listen to opera, jazz, reggae, or juju; you may become a Christian, an atheist, a Buddhist, or a Sufi. One result of this is a profound contradiction that many of us in the affluent, media-connected world live within. We feel that we belong to our particular national culture, and believe that we must cherish our culture. But we also consume from the global cultural supermarket, and believe (albeit in large part falsely) that we can buy, do, be anything in the world we want—but we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have both all the world’s cultures to choose from and our own cultural particularity.

If you believe that you can choose aspects of your life and culture from all the world, then where is your home? Do you have any home left to come back to? Can home and roots be simply one more consumer choice? But then again, it has to be understand that there is more to identity than being conformed to what the world has to say or to what kind of environment people have been exposed to. This has become more particularly true in the “Two Kinds” written by Amy Tan.


Apparently, the standard of the definition of identity that has been given by Amy Tan in the “Two Kinds” has reflected that identity is sometimes being forced to children and thus making them to believe that they are someone that they really are not. This is reflected by the mother insisting that people can be anyone that they wanted to become especially in America. But then again, that is not so in reality.  However, to live up with such kind of idealism, the mother has constantly making her daughter to conform to the society. If taking piano lessons is the trend in the American society, she would make her daughter take lessons as well. This has become particularly hard for the daughter because of the fact that she has two possible identities. Being a Chinese runs in her blood but at the same time she was raised in a foreign land. Which path or identity should she take? Culture will surely affect the formation of identity as seen in “Two Kinds”. In this regard, it can be said that Tan has directly connected culture and identity. Hence, the understanding of one will lead to the full understanding of the other and see how culture has been able to fully affect and influence the identity of every human being regardless of their age and social status.

It can be argued that culture does continue to be meaningful, if we can combine the earlier idea of culture as “the way of life of a people” with a more contemporary concept of culture as “the information and identities available from the global cultural supermarket”—culture, roughly speaking, as shaped by the state as opposed to culture as shaped by the market. I try to do this through a theory of the cultural shaping of self, and from there explore questions of cultural identity: How do we formulate—and have formulated for us—who, culturally, we are? Before its anthropological incarnation, “culture” meant refinement. Culture, in the nineteenth-century humanist Matthew Arnold’s words, was “a study of perfection and an inward condition of the mind and spirit. Culture indefatigably tries…to draw ever nearer to a sense of what is…beautiful, graceful, and becoming.”

As Mead’s words indicate, “culture”—and an array of accompanying concepts, such as “culture shock”—have entered the mainstream today: we can speak of “Japanese culture,” or “French culture,” or “Chinese culture,” or “Mexican culture,” or “African-American culture” with the taken-for-granted assumption that what this label refers to will be more or less understood. It is ironic, however, that anthropologists, the bringers of the concept of culture to the larger public, are now themselves abandoning this concept. As one anthropologist has recently noted, in today’s anthropological writing,

While the adjective “cultural” continues as an acceptable predicate…such phrases as “culture” or “Kwakiutl culture” or “the culture of the Nuer” are of increasingly infrequent occurrence…. When the word “culture” does occur, it frequently bears… quotation marks…[showing] the writer’s ambivalence, self-consciousness, or censure. Various anthropologists of late have sought to get rid of the term “culture” for a number of interlocking reasons, but one of the most pivotal is that, in today’s world of massive global flows of people.

Embodying such claims, a Hong Kong newspaper article describes members of a motorcycle gang in China as obsessed by Harley Davidsons and the American dream of freedom. When the reporter asks why, he is told, “Cultures…are like the dishes on a table. You just pick up what you like.” “Culture,” in line with these formulations, may be defined as “the information and identities available from the global cultural supermarket.” Both these concepts of culture have considerable truth to them, but neither is adequate to describe the culturally complex world in which we live. Let me first discuss culture as “the way of life of a people.” Clearly there remain elements of a “shared way of life” in different societies in the world. Language undoubtedly molds the thinking of members of these societies in different ways; there remain distinct patterns of child-rearing that shape distinct ways of thinking; governments shape the thinking of their citizens through public schooling; mass media in different societies serve to create their “imagined communities” as opposed to those of other societies. The nationally shaped cultures of societies such as Japan, China, and the United States do indeed exist. Anyone who stands on a Tokyo street corner for more than a few seconds, watching how people behave toward one another, can’t help but realize that this is Japan, bearing a distinct culture, unlike anywhere else; and the same exercise can be repeated on street corners the world over.


Indeed, culture can be perceived as “the way of life of a people.” The cultural identity is based on—how people comprehend who, culturally, they are—more than on culture as studied by outsiders: anthropologists examining patterns of language, knowledge, and social organization that may shape the way of life of people in a society beyond their own awareness. By focusing on people’s awareness of culture, we may see culture as more contested than taken for granted, as more chosen than given, even though the latter too may be of fundamental importance in understanding culture.

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