Struggles of identity in the age of globalisation: Searching for anchors that hold

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Struggles of identity in the age of globalisation:

Searching for anchors that hold

Elirea Bornman

Department of Communication Science

University of South Africa

This article explores the intricate interrelationships between discourses on and struggles of identity and the multiple processes associated with increasing globalisation in the modern age. Globalisation is often exclusively associated with worldwide economic integration and the emergence of a borderless global market. However, globalisation also involves sweeping changes on the social, cultural and political terrains. Globalisation furthermore entails apparently contradictory processes of, among others, homogenisation and universilisation on the one hand and localisation and differensiation on the other. Various analysts point out that the often contradictory processes of globalisation has led to wideranging changes in the processes of identity formation that have, in turn, resulted not only in a flourishing of discourses on identity, but also in struggles of identity involving various minority and marginalised groups. Apart from exploring various definitions of identity, discourses of and struggles of identity are discussed on five levels, namely the individual, subnational, national, supranational and global levels. Attention is furthermore given to the role of the media and information and communication technologies in these struggles and the implications for policy-making within the media and communications sector. The farreaching implications for Africa, and South Africa in particular, are furthermore considered.
The opening of a new century has always served as a symbolic turning point in human history. The 21st century is no exception. A significant feature of the present juncture is the sweeping economic, social, cultural and political changes often referred to as globalisation (Tehranian 1999).
In general, the term "globalisation" refers to the transformation of temporal and spatial limitations, that is the shrinking of distance due to the dramatic reduction in the time needed to bridge spatial differences that has, in turn, resulted in the gradual integration of political, economic and social space across national borders. Although globalisation is often exclusively associated with the economic sphere, that is with processes of production, distribution and consumption as well as with ever-increasing global trade and financial services (Le Pere & Lambrechts 1999), economic globalisation is intrically interwoven with changes within the social, cultural and political spheres (Featherstone 1990; Waters 1995).
Globalisation is furthermore an extremely complex and multifaceted phenomenon. On the one hand there is the tendency towards homogeneity, synchronisation, integration, unity and universalism. On the other hand, there is the propensity for localisation, heterogeneity, differentiation, diversity and particularism. These processes are intricately interwoven and represent - in reality - two faces of the same coin. Thus the term “globalisations” is sometimes used to indicate that globalisation is not an ubiquitous or uniform process, but involves various terrains, manifests differently in various contexts and has different effects for people in different contexts (Braman & van Staden 2000; Kloskowska 1998; Tehranian, M & Tehranian, KK 1997; Servaes, Lie & Terzis 2000).
Within this fast globalising world with all its contradictions, struggles for identity have emerged as one of the most striking characteristics of the social, cultural and political scene. One of the most important features of the identity discourse is the relative recency of its emergence and proliferation. In 1996 the prominent British cultural scientist, Stuart Hall, remarked:
There has been a veritable discursive explosion in recent years around the concept of "identity" (Hall 1996a:1).
According to the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2001a:140), this "explosion" has since 1996 triggered an avalanche. Few other aspects of contemporary life have succeeded in attracting the same amount of attention. It is not only that "identity studies" have become a thriving industry. The concept identity has also become the prism through which most other aspects of contemporary life are studied. Even established issues of social analysis are refurbished and reformulated to fit into the identity discourse. Thus discussions on "justice" and "equality" are debated in terms of "recognition" (of the right to a separate identity); the concept "culture" is studied in terms of individual, group and/or categorical differences and concepts such as "creolisation" and "hybridity"; and political discourses often centre around individual or group rights.
Discourses on identity is, however, not restricted to the ivory towers of academia. Struggles of identity has also become an integral part of intra-individual processes as well as of the social and political scene. As such discourses and struggles of identity have important and farreaching implications for policy-making on all levels. Also, in an attempt to develop global, national and local people-centred policies with regard to the media and information and communication technologies, cognizance will have to be taken of these discourses and struggles.
Given the prominence and importance of these discourses and struggles and their farreaching implications, I will firstly explore some definitions of identity. I will furthermore give attention to the intricate relationship between processes associated with globalisation on various levels and struggles for identity. In contemplating identity discourses on various levels, attention will also be given to the role of international communication - and especially the role of the media and information and communication technologies - in the processes associated with globalisation and concomitant identity issues. Lastly, attention will be given to the implications for South Africa and policy-making with regard to the media and information and communication technololgies in South Africa


The term "identity" first gained salience through the work of the psychologist Erikson (1968). While Erikson associates identity as a definition of personhood with sameness or continuity of the self across time and space, other authors also emphasise uniqueness, that is those characteristics that differentiate a person from other people or the whole of mankind (Baumeister 1986; Brewer 1991, 1993; Rouse 1995). Erikson furthermore uses the term "identity crisis" to refer to individuals who have lost a sense of sameness or continuity. While he regards an identity crisis as a normal and passing stage in adolescent development, he holds that it should be regarded as pathological in adults. He typifies a healthy state of identity development as an invigorating subjective awareness of sameness and continuity.
Although Erikson (1968) theorises on identity from a psychoanalytic point of view, he also emphasises the role of the environment - and particularly the social environment - in the development of identity. He uses the term "psychosocial identity" in this regard. Psychosocial identity refers to the awareness of who a person is, both as individual and as a member of a family, various societal groups and a particular society. The prominent role of social groups in identity formation has furthermore been emphasised by the social psychologist Tajfel (1981). Tajfel holds that membership of social groups is internalised as part of the self-concept and as such forms an integral part of the identity of an individual.
Brewer (1991, 1993) typifies social identification as a compromise to solve the internal conflict between two contradictory needs. These needs are, on the one hand, the need of an individual to be unique (that is to be differentiated from other people) and, on the other hand, the need for security and assimilation. Identification with social groups fulfils the need for differentiation by emphasising the unique characteristics of the own group as well as the differences between the own group and other groups. The need for assimilation, on the other hand, is fulfilled by the feeling of solidarity between members of a particular group.
Whereas the social process of group identification is emphasised within the social sciences, cultural studies focuses on the origin, history and culture of groups or communities. The term "cultural identity" has a twofold interpretation (Hall 1996b). It is firstly associated with a shared culture, a collective "true self", that is shared among people with a common history and ancestry. Thus cultural identity reflects common historical experiences and shared cultural codes that serves to unify and to provide stable, continuous and unchanging frames of reference of meaning amidst social and political changes. This conceptualisation of identity lies at the root of struggles to reveal the true essence of a particular identity, for example the search for the essence of being British or African. It is furthermore associated with the exploration of history in order to reveal "hidden continuities" and "hidden roots".

The second view not only emphasises similarity, but also recognises points of difference in the course of history in "what we are" and "what we have become". Thus the second conceptualisation emphasises cultural identity as an interactive process that involves "becoming" as well as "being" and belongs to the future as well as the past. Although rooted in history, cultural identity undergoes constant transformation and is rooted in the present where it provides a framework for the different ways in which people are positioned by and position themselves in relation to present realities and narratives of the past (Hall 1996b).

The changing nature of identity - and cultural identity specifically - is also emphasised by Barth (1969) who defines identity in terms of boundaries. Boundaries can be psychologically, culturally, socially or politically defined and include some people as members of a group, while others are simultaneously excluded. According to this perspective, social or cultural identity cannot be understood in terms of fixed categories or unchanging phenotypical or other characteristics and/or cultural practices. Barth perceives identity as a dynamic process in which the characteristics, cultural practices, symbols and traditions of a group might change due to interaction with the physical, social, cultural, economic and political environment. What is important is not the content of a particular identity (characteristics and practices), but rather the existence of boundaries between the own group and other groups.
However, as already mentioned, the discourse on identity is not restricted to academia. From academic circles it has spread to the centre of social and political events where it is increasingly associated with the social struggles of various dominated or repressed groups such as people of colour, racial, ethnic and religious minorities and/or feminist groups (Rouse 1995). These pursuits often labelled as "identity politics" are collective, not merely individual; and public, not only private. They are struggles, not merely groupings. The outcomes are partially determined by power, but power relationships are also changed by these struggles. The struggles involve not only the pursuit of expression and recognition, but also of legitimacy and also power. They furthermore call for a response from other people, groups and organizations (including states) (Calhoun, 1994).
The discourse of identity has thus become the primary medium for not only understanding and explaining the relationship between the personal (subjective) and the social, but also for discourses on the relationship between the individual and the group, the cultural and the political, as well as the group and the state (Rouse 1995).
According to Bauman (2001a), the spectacular rise of the discourse on identity since the last part of the 20th century should be perceived as a reflection of human experience in the age of globalisation. He holds that the obsession with the "identity discourse" per se reflects more of the current state of human society than all the theorising and analytical results of "identity studies" do.
Frankly, Bauman (2001a) states, something has gone wrong with the formation of identity in the (post)modern age. Whereas past generations seemingly handled identity formation and related problems and issues in a matter-of-fact way, new dimensions have been added to old problems. Circumstances in the current world have not only changed the processes of identity formation, but have added new dimensions to both personal and collective identity. Furthermore, whereas the term "identity" implies continuity, that is a solid basis in which people anchor themselves, the rapid changes that characterises the age of globalisation, eroded most of the bases on which people used to anchor their identity. The age old "problem of identity" has thus changed its shape and content.
In a similar way that things often go unnoticed until they disappear or stop behaving as monotonously as they did before, Bauman (2001a) arguments that the new centrality of the identity discourse is a reflection of the fact that identity issues are not as simple and straightforward as they used to be. Indeed, the acquiring of identity has become problematic: a task, a struggle, a quest. These struggles are waged on various levels - from the individual to the local to the global. However, the struggles on various levels are closely interconnected and often represents different facets of the various homogenising and diversifying processes associated with globalisation.
Some aspects of the interplay between struggles for identity and the processes associated with globalisation are discussed in the following sections.
3.1 The individual level

Notwithstanding the fact that globalisation as well struggles for identity is mostly associated with the economic, political and social spheres, these processes also have far-reaching effects in the lives of individuals. According to Bauman (2001a), disruptions in identity formation on the individual level can be ascribed to the combined effects of globalisation, on the one hand, as well as to the new and extreme forms that liberal ideas on individualism has acquired in the modern age.

In traditional societies individuals' identity was largely based on their position within the social hierarchy that, in turn, have mostly been determined by birth. However, due to the widespread acceptance of the principle of the equality of all people, traditional hierarchies associated with, for example, estate or caste have melted down and lost their significance. The individual has thus been emancipated from the ascribed, inherited and/or inborn nature of his or her identity (Bauman 2001a; Taylor 1991).
Furthermore, whereas the emphasis on the individual and individual rights can be regarded as one of the most important achievements of modernity, the postmodern age has given rise to more extreme forms of individualism (Taylor 1991). In this more self centred form of individualism the emphasis falls almost exclusively on the fulfilment and authenticity of the individual. Moreover, the notion of individual freedom emphasises that all humans are free to self-create, to realise their own authenticity. However, individuals not only have the freedom to become whatever they want to; they also have the responsibility and obligation to realise their own authenticity and to fulfil their potential, that is to become what they already is. Self-constitution, self-assertion and self-transformation have thus become the slogans of the time.
Thus, according to Bauman (2001a), the determination of social standing has been replaced by compulsive and obligatory self-determination. Identity formation can therefore no longer be regarded as a given. It has become a product of self-construction, open to free choice; a task; an obligation which the individual has no choice but to fulfil to the best of his or her ability.
However, modernity has not only melted down the placements in society. The forces of globalisation have also lead to the melting down of the places to which individuals may gain access to or where they may wish to settle so that they could hardly serve as so-called "life projects":
It is not just the individuals who are on the move but also the finishing lines of the tracks they run and the running tracks themselves (Bauman 2001a:146).
In the age of globalisation few localities for embedding or anchoring identity are solid enough to stand the run of an individual's life. Disembeddedness has consequently become a frequent life experience as people are forced to be continuously on the run with little hope of ever reaching their destiny.
However, as identity theorists such as Erikson (1968) and Tajfel (1981) points out, identity achievement is not solely an individual venture. Identification with social groups are, however, also complicated and eroded by the increasing prevalence of ideas that individual identity is seen as a product of self-construction, open to free choice and not simply given by birth or divine will. Hence group identification have also become largely a matter of individual choice (Calhoun 1994).
Furthermore, in an era characterised by what Max Weber calls "instrumental rationality", human relations are perceived to be merely functional to the individual's strive towards self-actualisation and personal happiness. As freedom of movement is regarded to be a primary or meta-value that stands above all other values, it demands that options should always be kept open. Gaining or obtaining an identity that offers "sameness" or "continuity", usually implies the forfeiting or closing of other options. Identities are consequently sought that can be adopted and discarded like a costume. Although they are freely chosen, these choices seldom imply commitment and the acceptance of responsibility of the consequences of an enduring relationship.
Thus in many instances globalisation and modernity has brought about the collapse of a sense of community (Bauman 2001a; Taylor 1991). The loss of the safe shelter offered by communal relationships has, in turn, reinforced the fear and anxiety associated with identity achievement. It has also left the highly privatised and isolated individual powerless and defenseless against the powers of the state. Feelings of powerlessness are furthermore enhanced by the fact that the powers that shape the conditions under which people have to live and solve their problems, are becoming increasingly global in nature and therefore almost completely beyond the reach of the individual. Social atomism bears little hope of joining forces with others against national and global powers to change the rules of the game. As individuals cannot change what really matters, they turn to things that they can change, even if these are trivial in nature. Activities such as compulsive shopping and those associated with self-improvement and the health industry are some examples of substitutes for social and political involvement. This so-called "consumer culture" has also become more than the consumption of consumer goods. In the age of globalisation consumption and commodities have become important ways in which individuals acquire and express their identity. According to Hattori (1997) the spread of the consumer culture have also supplanted human relationships with material relationships.
Furthermore, while globalisation has increased the options for identification on a personal and collective level, it has also contributed towards the fragmentation of identity (Servaes, Lie & Terzis 2000). The forces associated with identity formation are thus no longer restricted to the local space, but have their origin on different levels varying from the local to the global. Individuals' identities has consequently become a complex mixture of both local and global elements. Some of these forces are discussed in the following sections.
These changes to identity formation on the individual level has important implications for the media. The role of the national media and public broadcasters has long been perceived to promote nation-building and identification with the state and state nation (Baoill [sa]). However, not only has the processes of individualisation and globalisation alienated the individual from the state and society at large, but the individual requires from the media to cater for his or her individual needs and preferences. The public sphere is furthermore increasingly supplanted by privately produced, privately owned and privately administered spheres (Bauman 1998). Due to technological development and digitalisation, national media now also have to compete with local and global media frameworks for the attention of the individual consumer.
Bauman (2001a) comes to the conclusion that the experience of an identity crisis can no longer be regarded as a passing phase in adolescent development or a rare mental condition. It has become a common condition in modern man as man has largely lost the grip on the present and the self-confidence to control his or her own destiny. An invigorating sense of sameness and continuity (Erikson 1968) has indeed become a rare experience for modern man.
3.2 The sub-national level
Despite the emphasis on individualism, self-construction and self-assertion as well as the many offers of disposable communities in the modern and fast globalising world, secure identity development requires a sense of belonging and community that will stand the test of time; that cannot easily be called redundant and shed; that involves life-long commitment and solidarity. Men and women are thus still looking for groups they can belong to, certainly and forever, in a world where almost everything is shifting and nothing is certain (Bauman 2001a).
The term "community" conveys warmth, comfort and cosiness (Bauman 2001b). It offers a place of relaxation and safety sheltered from a world rife with conflict, danger and uncertainty. It implies an understanding shared by all its members - an understanding that precedes all agreements and disagreements. Such understanding is not a finishing line, but the starting point of all forms of togetherness; a reciprocal and binding sentiment. It is due to this understanding, and this understanding only, that the members of a community remain united in spite of all separating factors. The Swedish analyst, Göran Rosenberg (in Bauman 2001b), uses the term "warm circle" to depict a sense of community. Human loyalties offered within this warm circle, are not derived from social logic or cold cost-benefit analyses. Membership do not need to be "owned" and within this circle, the members do not need to proof anything; and whatever they do, they can always reckon on sympathy and help.
However, in order to offer security as well as distinctiveness, true communities means clear boundaries that signify a division into insiders and outsiders; "us" and "them" (Barth 1969). It is furthermore crystal clear who are members and who are outsiders; no cognitive ambiguity or behavioural ambivalence exists. Furthermore, protecting the unity of a community often implies blocking the channels of communication with the rest of the world. However, the globalising world is characterised by the shrinking of spatial and temporal limitations and an increase in international communication due to the development of transport technology, the electronic media and information and communication technologies. The balance between "inside" and "outside" communication - once heavily skewed towards the "inside" - has thus been skewed, thereby blurring the distinctions between insiders and outsiders. For many communities it has become increasingly difficult to draw and sustain the boundaries between "insiders" and "outsiders". Thus the globalising word have seen the "melting down" of many traditional communities and society as a whole.
Moreover, the emphasis on individualism, self-choice and self-achievement in the modern world, has resulted in the rise of "handpicked" and artificially "produced" communities where membership is usually based on individual achievement. Interest groups, professional groups, virtual groups - these are but a few examples of surrogate communities that characterise our age. However, due to the fact that membership of these communities mostly have to be earned and/or the temporal nature of the groups, the identities they offer remain insecure, fragile and vulnerable - forever in need of vigilation, fortification and defence.
In contrast, ethnic communities - and ethnic minorities in particular - represents an important and perhaps the sole exemption to the disintegration of enduring communities in the globalising world (Bauman 1998). The strange thing is that the ascriptive nature of ethnic identities is not a matter of choice and, in fact, goes against the grain of the principle of free decision-making imprinted in the liberal, modern society. However, according to Margalit and Raz (1990) the lure of ethnic communities lies exactly in the fact that the ascriptive nature of their membership does not rest on individual achievement:
Identification is more secure, less liable to be threatened, if it does not depend on accomplishment. Although accomplishments play their role in people’s sense of their own identity, it would seem that at the most fundamental level our sense of our own identity depends on criteria of belonging rather than on those of accomplishment. Secure identification at that level is particularly important to one’s well-being (Margalit & Raz 1990:449).
Other authors like Kymlicka (1995) and Kloskowska (1998) emphasise the role of the ethnic culture that - despite the universalisation of cultures and an emergent world culture (see section 3.5) - still provides the framework for major, and particularly early human experiences. Although global and supra-national identities may play an important role, they do not provide a secure basis for the development of identity in a similar way that ethnic groups do. In the global insecurity and constant flux, the blood brother, ethnic cohort, communal kinswoman or tribal clansman has become for many the only remaining source of community, security and stability (Le Pere & Lambrechts 1999). The more so as ethnic communities offer lifelong membership that allows no termination-on-demand (Bauman 1998).
Furthermore, the erosion of the legitimacy and authority of the nation state has resulted in a weakening of the association between the state and ethnicity (see section 3.3 - Bauman 1998; Featherstone 1995). Ethnic and cultural minorities that have been subjugated or absorbed by the state, have thus been "freed" resulting in the worldwide revitalisation of ethnic and cultural loyalties and the mobilisation of ethnic groups both within and across the borders of nation states. In contrast to the homogenising effect of global identities and the spread of a Western consumer culture (see section 3.5), ethnic movements as a form of localisation focuses on the differences between cultures rather than on similarities. However, these movements are "global" in the way that they use modern information and communication technologies to communicate with fellow ethnics that have migrated all over the world (Servaes, Lie & Terzis 2000). It is, however, not only cultural and religious identities that have become sites of localised identities. Regional and religious identities have also become ways in which groups and communities resist the hegemony of global processes (Tehranian 1999).
Another factor that plays a role in ethnic identification and the revitalisation of ethnicity in the modern world is the globe wide migration associated with globalisation. Appadurai (1993) speaks in this regard of "ethnoscapes", that is the worldwide spread of mobile human groups such as tourists, government officials, guest workers, exiles, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The consequence is that the "local space" of many ethnic or cultural groups are becoming more and more heterogeneous, while more people than ever before have contact with a culture or cultures different from their own. According to Featherstone (1990) the term “multicultural” should consequently be used instead of “intercultural” when referring to the new cultural sphere. One of the consequences of multicultural interaction within local spaces is that the enhanced need for sustaining boundaries between the own group and other groups furthermore fosters ethnic identification and ethnic mobilisation.
A further consequence is that many cultures are not restricted to the borders of a single state anymore (Featherstone 1995). The ethnic diasporas of globalisation have to deal with identity struggles of their own. They have to incorporate the transnational experience of displacement, disembeddedness, adaptation to and hybridisation with the culture of their host societies in their identities. For many migrants this process of identity formation and reformation is aided to some degree by the availability of the electronic media and information and communication technologies that provide a link to their "home" communities. However, their communities of origin can offer little help in the lived experience of hybridity - the migrant's so-called "double vision" - that often leads to feelings of not belonging to any community or culture and the longing for the recovering of the cultural purity that has been lost (Corcoran 1998).
Bauman (2001b, 1998) comes to the conclusion that the contradictory forces of globalisation and localisation are, in fact, resulting in the pulverisation of society that, in turn, reinforces the processes associated with globalisation. It has consequently become almost impossible to halt or reverse these processes: globalisation has become the intractable fate of the world.

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