Dancing between the general and the particular


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Some preliminary thoughts

Truth isn’t outside power. Truth is a thing of this world; it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true, the mechanism and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned…the status those who are charged with saying what counts as true. (Foucault 1980: 131, in : Hall, 1997: 49

This essay discusses the logical chain by which a working definition of culture and religion arises. Inherent in reality there is always a tension between two complementary antagonisms. On the individual level we find this antagonism between the “subjective” psychology and the “objective” social structures, whereas on the level of cultural systems – which supposedly provide meaning to individuals and their social structures – between the local/specific and the generic or universal. On an individual level, processes of socialization and individuation, negotiation and reinterpretation happen, on the cultural level, tradition and modernization or reformation accelerate each other, on global scale processes of globalization and localization occur. This is also expressed in two general trends toward universalism or regionalism/particularism which translate into two trends of opposed interests as represented in the advocacy of individual or collective rights and parallel the controversy of libertarian and communitarian philosophies.

Mingling between cultural relativism, a social constructionist paradigm and postmodern deconstructionism, I emphasize negotiation processes in creating cultural change by emphasizing process in making and describing reality, social structures, and culture. Culture is seen as an active process through which humans produce change. (Jackson, 2003: 10) Instead of having a distinct and fixed cultural identity, individuals and groups identify with elements of culture, or synthesize new culture through bringing different elements together. (Jackson, 2003: 10) The emphasis is on a series of identifications through communication and negotiation and on people engaging with culture, drawing on different cultural resources. (Jackson, 2003: 10) (Minority) cultures, religions and ethnicities are themselves internally plural, and the symbols and values of their various constituent groups are open to negotiation, contest and change. (Jackson, 2003: 11) Moreover, individuals from any background may identify with values associated with a range of sources and may draw eclectically on a variety of resources in creating new culture. (Jackson, 2003: 11) An increased awareness of religious plurality has made the process of working out various strategies to enable different groups to live together peacefully an ethical necessity. (Levitt/Pollard, 1998: 815) Of crucial importance for the maintenance and development of plural societies is the provision of institutions to manage that plurality politically. Civil mechanisms that raise awareness of rights-based pluralism and maximize communication and participation should be developed. There is a need for structures that enable and foster these interactions, including educational structures. Such interaction promotes positive cultural development. (Jackson, 2003: 12)

Religion and culture, if understood as a constructed social (or socio-biological) system, always come in the plural as ‘ways of life’ and denote systems of knowledge and systems of ascribing meaning Survival and reproduction of groups is linked with their ability to transmit and to learn knowledge. Culture and religion inherit a common basic feature, namely the human ability of adaptive environmental learning. Religion or culture change in the course of history. Both are socially constructed in discourses and their social or linguistic conventions change over time. In consequence, my limited anthropological or socio-biological definition conceptualizes culture and religion as 1.)adaptive, dynamic and causal, 2.) derivatives of experience , and 3.) socially transmitted and inherited solutions to life problems (survival and reproduction)

They represent a compass in life for orientation and action.

Both systems motivate action, steer conduct, constitute identity and have a moral side because choices have to be made concerning the direction in which a given practice should develop (and are therefore moral in the broadest sense). Cultural and religious representations are differentially internalized by individuals; therefore culture is psychologically (private) and socially (public) distributed within a group, no matter how this group is sociologically defined. Not all actors, even if in the same social group or institution, necessarily carry the same array of multiple cultures (cultures are socially distributed); nor for any one actor is the psychological or motivational salience of a given subculture the same as for any, or all, other actors (cultures are psychologically distributed).

Concerning religion, there seems to be a basic awareness within all humanity at all ages about certain experiences which make those experiences distinct to culture. As religious truth is different in all religious traditions, and its discovery and protection is a continuous matter of concern, the truth debate is not really fruitful for the realization of living together peacefully. One should accept that all religions contain the truth in the same way to their adherents, not as objective that is generic or universal truth, but as truth contained in the subjective psychology of the individual and more or less equally distributed in the structures of those social groups on which a particular religious tradition imprinted – here to be found in the “objective” social structures and the cultural meaning systems represented in the group. Thus, truth may not be empirically certifiable to people outside a particular tradition.

An interesting idea points to a transcendent nature of justice, even if not in one unified system. Cooperation and faith can be particular and universal when the firm conviction is that Justice is for every human, whatever religion or culture they may adhere to, not for only for their own group. At the very minimum, a religious worldview sees morality as transcending human communities, grounded in some sense, within the structures of the universe and binding on all people everywhere. (Markham, 1998: 800) Markham identifies five sources that religious traditions have recourse to when making ethical judgments, each tradition uses the same type of resource: all cite scripture, human reason, tradition, authoritative institutions, and religious experience. (Markham, 1998: 801-2) These resources however appear as late evolution in the third religious module of James W. Dow (below).

  1. The first is the sacred texts. All religions make revelation central. (revelation is debatable, there are variations, AL)
  2. The second source of moral guidance are the institutions and traditions of each religion.
  3. The third source of moral guidance is human reason. The gift of human reason, which distinguishes us from animals, is a God-given resource that should assist us in arriving at the right moral judgment.
  4. The fourth source of moral knowledge is the natural order. The virtually important Hindu notion of Dharma (right action), is grounded in the eternal law of the universe.
  5. The fifth source of moral values is religious experience. It is the human awareness of God that generates all religion. Some traditions talk about what God wants for you through religious experience and prayer, which can sometimes run counter to the accepted ethic of an age.

The study of Religious Culture

Now I outline a provisional working-definition of culture as used in the present work. The Religious-culture-hypothesis suggests that the predominant religious cultural traditions in any society such as the legacy of Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism are expected to leave a distinct imprint upon contemporary moral beliefs and social attitudes that are widespread among the public in these nations. (Norris/Inglehart, 2005: 20) Consequently, each society’s historical legacy of predominant religious traditions will help shape adherence to particular religious values, beliefs and practices. (Norris/Inglehart, 2005: 28) In other words, the predominant religious culture will stamp its mark on each society, affecting how societal modernization influences patterns of religious beliefs and practices. (Norris/Inglehart, 2005: 28) The major faiths of the world express divergent teachings and doctrines on many moral values and normative beliefs, such as those surrounding men and women, the sanctity of life etc. Predominant religious cultures are understood here as path-dependent, adapting and evolving in response to developments in the contemporary world, and yet also strongly reflecting the legacy of past centuries. (Norris/Inglehart, 2005: 20)

No specific religious system can be understood without recourse to culture, for particular religions are forms of culture and exist within broader cultures. Regardless of whether one takes a theological or an agnostic perspective on a particular religion, one must recognize that the stuff of religions is cultural—it is socially learned and widely shared, and it is made up of mental and public representations of reality that guide behavior and are changed by experience. Successful religions can be seen as more widely appealing than others, and therefore more likely to be culturally learned. The fact that religions operate within broader cultural contexts is profoundly relevant to the study of religion because the “same” religious ideas change when they are transmitted from one culture to another. (Lohmann, 2005: 2089)

The study of culture must be central to understanding religion as a human phenomenon. All religions are cultural and all forms of spirituality exist within broader traditions or culture. (Roger I. Lohmann, 2005: 2086)To repeat, religions are path-dependent, that is to say that differences between religions are differences of environment, historical solutions to survival and reproduction, other historical developments and culture. In order to discuss and model the great variety of ways of thought and living that different groups and societies around the world display, the term culture has proven extremely useful to the study of large-scale and small-scale religions. It is indispensable to note, that theories about religion, like religions themselves, are historic and cultural, because the thought of humans, the broader academic climate or zeitgeist is a product of cultural practice.

The provisional definition of culture advanced in the present work originates in the ideas forwarded by the anthropologists Clifford Geertz, Stuart Hall, Kevin Avruch, Pierre Bourdieu and the philosopher Michel Foucault.  According to the anthropological definition, in its most basic sense culture is the shared experience of a group, the aspect of thought and behavior that is learned and capable of being taught to others. The ability to learn and to socially transmit information and knowledge can be described as a non-genetic survival strategy for groups or societies. The concept of culture typically implies a distinctive shared perspective or way of life ostensibly held by an entire population (e.g. religious communities, citizenry in a nation-state or ethnic groups). The provisional definition of culture advanced here understands culture as process, as set of practices, and a social survival strategy. Culture and cultural identity are negotiated in endless discursive processes. Cultures are multidimensional phenomena of dual character; culture is both psychologically and socially unequally distributed among a group. Cultures are subject to change because they are located in a certain context (time and space) and a specific history.

More complex species, like humans, have a large central nervous system that can receive information from the environment and alter behavior to meet the challenges of that environment. Human beings can also receive information from each other. When this happens, the learner does not have to pay the costs of the experience itself. What humans acquire culturally from each other comes at a much reduced cost than the original knowledge. (Dow 2007, 3)

 While many animal species include learning and even social transmission of knowledge in their behavioral repertoires, humankind differs from other species primarily in the much greater neurological capacity for culture and the degree to which humans rely on socially learned information as a basis for both individual and group life. Human reliance on culture allows people to adapt to a great variety of environments and psychological stresses, to respond to innumerable challenges, and to transmit to others the lessons learned through experience. (Lohamnn, 2005: 2087)

One consequence of this ability to both purposely and unconsciously transmit information is that ideas originating in one person’s experience can become widely shared among members of social groups. In fact, cultural practices may be interpreted as culturally predefined meaning systems that enable to coordinate activities. Once cultural ideas are widely shared, they appear to acquire an added aura of truthfulness, supported by apparent mutual confirmation and elaboration. (Lohmann, 2005: 2087)A second consequence of cultural transmissibility is that individuals’ ideas can survive, albeit in somewhat altered form, beyond their lifetimes. The capacity for and reliance on culture thus allows traditions to come into existence by providing a means for their codification and transmission. (Lohmann, 2005: 2087) Culture is normally contrasted with instinctual modes of thought and behavior that are not learned, but rather are genetically inherited[1]: the culture-nature gap. Culture could also be contrasted with individual learning that is incapable of being communicated to others, or with idiosyncratic ideas and preferences not widely shared by the social group. (Lohmann, 2005: 2087)

The social constructionist approach understands culture as derivative of experience and as social practice. The social constructionist approach uses the term culture to describe ‘shared meanings’ of a sociologically defined group and puts emphasis on process and practices. In a pragmatist perspective, the concept of experience is a central concept in understanding human existence. Knowledge is seen as just one aspect or mode of experiencing and not as something that exists on its own. Here is the interlocking link between culture, religion and education: all three are unified if considered as environmental learning process, as adaptation. Personal development is not equal to amassing knowledge, it occurs when experiences, including their knowledge aspect, are re-interpreted into a way of life.

Cultures consists of the derivatives of experience, more or less organized, learned or created by the individuals of a population, including images or encodements and their interpretations (meanings) transmitted from past generations to contemporaries, or formed by individuals themselves. (Theodore Schwartz, 1992, 324)

Schwartz’ definition connects cultures to experience – to interpreted social action and to practice. It addresses the structure and agency question by noting that individuals not only inherit and learn these images from the past and from contemporaries, but also are able to create new images by themselves. (Avruch, 1998, 17) Culture is involved in all those practices which are not simply genetically programmed into us but which carry meaning and value for us, which need to be meaningfully interpreted by others, or which depend on meaning for their effective operation. (Hall, 1997: 1) Such meaning systems encompass interpretations of the world (including other human beings). Meanings regulate and organize cultural conduct and practices – they help to set rules, norms and conventions by which social life is ordered and governed. The focus on shared meaning does not imply a unitary system of meaning, because in any culture always exists a great diversity of meanings about any topic, and more than one way of interpreting or representing it[2]. Consequently, culture is seen as simultaneously located outside (in schema, model or representation) and inside individuals. Because things in themselves do not have one single, fixed and unchanging meaning, culture depends on its participants who give meaning to things, people, objects and events and interpret the world in broadly similar ways (Hall, 1997: 3) and constantly produce and exchange meaning in every personal and social interaction (Hall, 1997: 3). These cultural meanings organize and regulate social practices, influence conduct and consequently have real-practical effects. (Hall, 1997: 3) Therefore, culture is a process, a set of practices.(Hall, 1997: 2)

Culture includes customs and worldviews that provide a mental model (representations) of reality and a guide for appropriate and moral action. The sociologists Stark and Bainbridge (1985: 7) assessed that concerns about meaning typify human behavior far back into prehistory and that meaning is related to values. Cultural representations are seen as socially constructed in discourses. No practice stays alive without change, and being able to participate in and to contribute to (necessary) cultural change is a structural element of the competency of group members. Culture becomes widely communicated and shared in social groups, and serves as a foundation for general agreement and common acceptance of certain principles and perceptions as valid, normal, and natural. (Roger I. Lohmann, 2005: 2086) In this way, the influences on culture are often masked and it is not automatically apparent that one’s own views and beliefs are not simply accurate apprehensions of reality, but are, in fact, artificial and, to a degree, arbitrary. (Roger I. Lohmann, 2005: 2086)This implies that participation is never just technical, manipulative or instrumental, but always has a moral side because choices have to be made concerning the direction in which a given practice should develop. (Wardekker/Miedema, 2001: 29) Cultures and sub cultures mould the values of the individuals and groups and those values influence the individual’s and group’s perceptions and decisions. Values as evaluative standards represent stable, long lasting beliefs that help to structure behaviour. (Mariappanadar, 2005: 31-48)

  1. Participants give objects, people and events meaning by the frameworks of interpretation which they apply to them
  2. Participants give things meaning by how these things are used, or integrated into our everyday practices
  3. Participants give things meaning by how they represent them – the words they use about them, the stories they tell about them, the images of them they produce, the emotions they associate with them, the way they classify and conceptualize them, and the values they place on them.

The present work understands culture (or cultures) in the style of the anthropologist Kevin Avruch[3], who has identified five inadequate ideas about culture, and has conceptualized culture not as a holistic, homogeneous, coherent, functionally integrated pattern, but as hybrid, dynamic, internally varied, fragmented, conflictive, and contested.

five inadequate ideas Working-definition
culture is holistic, homogenous, coherent Cultures are psychologically and socially unequally distributed among a population and the notion of subcultures is needed
culture is a thing Culture is a process, a set of practices and is adaptive
culture is uniformly distributed among members of a group Culture is socially unevenly distributed and never perfectly shared by individuals in a population (socio-genetic and psycho-genetic)
an individual possesses a single culture Culture is psychologically unevenly distributed. Individuals participate in several sub-cultures.
culture is custom, functionally integrated and structurally undifferentiated Culture is functionally in a constant state of flux, structurally differentiated, situational, flexible and responsive
culture is timeless, or ahistoric Culture is historic, contextual and changing

First, Kevin Avruch draws a vital distinction between generic and local culture. In his view, generic culture is fundamental and points to universal attributes of human behaviour – to “human nature”; it denotes a species-specific attribute of Homo Sapiens, an adaptive feature of human beings for at least a million years. (Avruch 1998: 10) Generic culture generates the base of specific features of local culture. Whereas local cultures denote complex systems of particular meanings created, shared, experienced and transmitted (socially inherited) by individuals in particular social settings. As a result local cultural patterns or the local cultural matrixes are highly specific and defer to diversity, difference and particularism. For these reasons local cultures are interpreted as socially transmitted solutions to life problems and are defined as being situational, flexible and responsive to the ever-changing environments.

Secondly, for the reason that cultures are socially and psychologically distributed, constructed, produced, represented, shared, and exchanged, they provide different solutions to life problems and consequently produce distinct social practices. That is to say, as a result culture is adaptive. All adaptation to reality is induced by human needs. (Wagner/Hayes, 2005: 66, quoting Wygotski, 1971: 46) Meanings and representational systems are never objective but are always the result of the instantaneous and creative relation between the human being and its environment. Although allowing a wide variation of interpretations, these representational systems are not totally arbitrary, because they need to enable practical interactions with the surrounding context. They are shared by the group of people that engage in the practice, and thus form its associated community of practice. Because generic and local culture are connected through this adaptation mechanism, the adaptive quality of culture enables humans to adapt to always changing environments and transports socially inherited and tested solutions to life’s issues. Then there is no universal logic as basic solution, but a context related logic, a fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic deals with propositions that are more or less true or false. (Avruch 1986: 36) Deviations in psychological or social decision-making arise from “consideration of multi-layered and highly complex (fuzzy) peripheral conditions – the result of the idiosyncratic conditions of people’s lives”. (Wagner/Hayes, 2005: 73)

Consequently, Avruch conceptualizes culture not as a single unchanging homogeneous complex, but as consisting of many subcultures, to change or redefine subcultures means to change culture’s meta-reference frame or the reverse. Avruch qualifies above definition in proposing a reorientation to expand the scope of reference to encompass not just quasi- or pseudo kinship groupings but also groupings that derive from profession, occupation, class, religion or region (subcultures) to support the idea that individuals reflect or embody multiple cultures and that culture is always psychologically and socially distributed within a group or population. (Avruch, 1998: 5)

Thus, no population can be adequately characterized as a single culture or by a single cultural descriptor. (…) (t)he more complexly organized a population is on sociological grounds, the more complex its cultural mappings appear. This is why the notion of subculture(s) is needed. (…) Insofar as two individuals do not share the same sociological location in a given population (the same class, religious, regional or ethnic backgrounds …), and insofar as these locations entail (sub)cultural differences, then the two individuals cannot share all cultural content perfectly. (…) Avruch, 1998: 18-19

Systems representations are differentially internalized by individuals; therefore culture is psychologically and socially distributed within a population, no matter how this population is sociologically defined. Although no two human beings construct exactly the same life world, enough of it is shared to make communication and co-ordination of actions within practices possible. At the level of culture and religion such representations transcend individual cognition. Culture shapes identity through giving meaning to experience, making it possible to opt for one mode of subjectivity amongst others available. (Woodward 1996: 15) As a result, as mere cognitive structures representations are linked through culture’s causal force with the interaction of the actors, with their social practices, because the content of representations motivates actors to act, thus these socially and culturally embedded representations are psychologically motivationalThat is to say that culture is rooted deeply in ongoing or past social practice, and the more deeply representations are internalized and affectively loaded, the more they are able to motivate action that is culture is causal.(Avruch 1998:19)

Social representations

To say that two people belong to the same culture is to say that they interpret the world in roughly the same ways and can express themselves, their thoughts and feelings about the world, in ways which will be understood by each other, in the same cultural codes. Hall, S. 1997:4

If a specific group shares the same way of interpreting the signs of language and language codes plus share broadly similar conceptual codes and conceptual maps, this group interprets the world in a roughly similar way, that is to say the group builds a culture of shared meanings and consequently constructs a social world. (Hall, S. 1997: 18) Meaning is constructed by the system of representation. At the heart of the meaning process are two related systems of representation. The distinction between first order and second order representations refers to the role in the developmental process in which a cognitive structure is built up. (Damerow 1996: 373) The first system enables humans to convey meaning to the world by constructing a set of correspondences between things – people, objects, events, abstract ideas – and the system of concepts or conceptual maps. Representation is based on a very fundamental and general function of the mind which is called by Piaget the symbolic function. The symbolic function is the ability to conceive something as representing something else. (Damerow 1996: 373) A powerful means of abstraction is representation.(Damerow 1996: 373) This process of ‘(a)bstraction results in the construction of cognitive structures’[4]. First order representations are constructive and at the same time more abstract than the represented objects and actions. (Damerow 1996: 374) Representations are culturally dependent. (Damerow 1996: 375)

The concepts which are formed in the mind function as a system of mental representation which classifies and organizes the world into meaningful categories. These meaningful categories are then communicated through the second system of representation, a language[5]. Languages are cultural in that they are learned symbolic information sets and are one of the most important means of encoding ideas and knowledge in memory and communication[6].

The second system depends on constructing a set of correspondences between the conceptual map and a set of signs, arranged and organized into various languages (representational systems) which represent those concepts. Language consists of signs[7] organized into various relationships. These signs can convey meaning because social groups possess codes which allow the translation of concepts into language- and vice versa. These codes are the results of social conventions and crucial for meaning and representation. These codes are learned and internalized in the process of becoming a member of a specific culture. (Hall 1997: 29)

Second and higher order representations are representations of mental objects by symbols and symbol transformation rules which correspond to mental operations belonging to the cognitive structures constituting the mental objects. (Damerow 1996: 374) Adequate use of these representations depends on the pre-existence of the underlying cognitive structures because it is generally not possible to reconstruct these structures from the symbol transformation rules. (Damerow 1996: 374) Higher order representations are constructive on the meta-level of these structures. Therefore higher order representations can serve as tools for a guided reflection which constitutes meta-structures and hence can make mental operations more efficient. (Damerow 1996: 374) If higher order representations are to be used they have to be linked somehow to the real objects which are indirectly represented. In other words, these objects have to be interpreted by assimilation to the underlying cognitive structure. (Damerow 1996: 374)

If the relationship between a signifier and a signified is the result of a system of social conventions specific to each society and to specific historical moments – then all meanings are produced within history and culture. They can never be finally fixed but are always subject to change, both from one cultural context and from one period to another. Hence, representation systems are cultural. There is thus no single, unchanging, universal true meaning[8]. (Hall 1997: 32)

Adequate application of higher order representation depends on their meaningful use, whereas first order representations are automatically applied adequately by using the symbols as symbols for the real objects which are subject to the real actions corresponding to the symbol transformation rules. (Damerow 1996: 374-5) Consequently, encoding the meaning must involve an active process of interpretation. (Hall 1997: 32) Humans must be able to produce, communicate and translate those representations cross-modally or into various languages, verbally, written and physically.

Representation as derivative of experience – is closely tied up with both, identity and knowledge[9]. Representation includes the signifying practices and symbolic systems through which meanings are produced and which position us as subjects. (Woodward 1997: 14) The process of socialization states that humans are born into specific cultures, which means that the entire world already has a individually and socially distributed specific meaning, the cultural lenses, through which the new born will orient him/herself, interpret the world and will produce new meaning. New-born humans have to internalize these meanings (representational systems) in order to be able to participate in the world. Most of this acquisition process is not, at least initially, made explicit (the ability to learn meanings in an explicit way, as in schools, has to be learned itself); learning to participate develops by participating in socio-cultural practices, albeit (in the beginning) in a peripheral manner. In that way, a never reflected-upon fund of meanings, the life world is generated. Thus, growing up may be described as acquiring the abilities to participate in practices, or as becoming a competent member of several communities of practice.

The process of socialisation has a process of individuation for its necessary reverse side. For the reason that one cannot become a fully competent member of a community of practice if one does not have a specific contribution to make. (Wardekker/Miedema, 2001) This process of individuation rests on the fact that cultural meanings have to be appropriated, transformed into one’s one personality (and adaptive to time and space). (Wardekker/Miedema, 2001) In this process, personal elements like genetic make-up, emotions, and unique experiences gained in past and in present circumstances play a significant role, so that no two persons grow up to have exactly the same personality. It is exactly these interpersonal differences that make for changes in cultural practices. Some of these changes just occur because of the different views participants bring to the practice; at other times, changes are intended. Ultimately, no practice can stay alive without change, and being able to contribute to changes that are perceived as necessary is a structural element of the competency of participants. (Wardekker/Miedema, 2001)

And just like other meanings, the material this moral side is built upon, like goals, ideals and values, comes into being within the context of acting. These comparable worlds or mental representations are occupied with distinct meanings at the inter-subjective, inter-cultural, intra-cultural, inter- faith plus intra-faith level. Besides accurate translation their communication demands mutual respect or the careful and respectful trespassing of boundaries or limitations of these representations. Meaning is a dialogue, always only partially understood, always an unequal exchange. (Hall 1997, 4) All signifying practices that produce meaning involve relations of power, including the power to define who is included and who is excluded. (Woodward 1997: 15) Those who wish to govern and regulate the conduct and ideas of others seek to structure and shape meaning or mental representations. (Hall 1997:4)

Identity

Representational systems produce identities. Different meanings are produced by different symbolic systems and these meanings are contested and changing. (Woodward 1997: 15) Meaning is what gives us a sense of our own identity, of who we are and with whom we ‘belong’ – so it is tied up with the question of how culture is used to mark out and maintain identity within and difference between groups. (Hall 1996: 3) There are two possible perspectives on identity: the essentialist and non-essentialist[10]. The concept of identity deployed here is not an essentialist, but a strategic and positional one. (Hall 1996: 3) It holds that first, identities are produced at particular points in time (Woodward 1997: 28) and second identities are contested. The idea of identity provides three interconnected understandings:

  1. Identity as subjectivity
  2. Identity as intersubjectivity
  3. Identity basis as for social solidarity

Regarding identity as subjectivity, Hall uses identity to refer to the meeting point between on the one hand the discourses and practices which hail us into place as the social subjects of particular discourses, and on the other hand which produce subjectivities, which construct us as subjects which can be ‘spoken’. (Hall 1996 5-6)

Discourse and systems of representation construct places from which individuals can position themselves and from which they can speak. (Woodward 1997: 14) Identities are never unified and increasingly fragmented and fractured; never singular but multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions (inter-subjectivity). (Hall 1996: 4) There may be contradictions within identities which have to be negotiated; there may be mismatches between the collective and the individual level. (Woodward 1997: 12) Precisely because identities are constructed within, not outside, discourse, we need to understand them as produced in specific historical and institutional sites by specific enunciative strategies. (Hall 1996: 4)

Identities are constructed through, not outside, difference. The conceptualization of identity involves looking at classificatory systems which show how social relations are organized and divided; for example, into at least, two opposing groups – ‘us and them’. (Woodward 1997: 12) The constitution of a social identity is an act of power[11]. Derrida has shown how an identity’s construction is always based on excluding something and establishing a violent hierarchy between the two resultant poles. (Hall 1996: 5)

The identity of the ‘outsider’ is produced in relation to the ‘insider’. (Woodward 1997: 33) The construction of categories like the distinctions between insiders and outsiders are the products of cultural systems of classification which create order. (Woodward 1997: 34) Identity is relational, and difference is established by symbolic marking in relation to others. Identity is also maintained through social and material conditions. (Woodward 1997: 12) The social and symbolic refer to two different processes but each is necessary for the marking and maintaining of identities. Symbolic marking is how we make sense of social relations and practices; for example who is excluded and who is included. Social differentiation is how these classifications of difference are lived out in social relations. (Woodward 1997: 12) The psychic level is a dimension along with the social and the symbolic, which is needed for a conceptualization of identity. (Woodward 1997: 12) Applying these concepts to practical social life, or organizing everyday life according to these principles of classification and difference, often involves repeated or ritualized social behavior; that is a set of shared symbolic practices.(Woodward 1997: 33)

This entails the radical disturbing recognition that it is only through the relation to the Other, the relation to what it is not, to precisely what it lacks, to what has been called constitutive outside that the ‘positive’ meaning of any term – and thus is identity – can be constructed – Hall, 1996: 4-5[12]

Identities can only be investigated negatively, specifically as that which is constructed in or through difference and is constantly destabilized by what it leaves out. (Hall 1996: 5) Throughout their history, identities can function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude and to render ‘outside’. (Hall 1996: 5) The internal homogeneity, which the term identity treats as foundational, is not a natural, but a constructed form of closure, every identity naming as its necessary, even if silenced and unspoken other, that which it ‘lacks’. (Hall 1996: 5) So, the ‘unities’ which identities proclaim are, in fact constructed within the play of power and exclusion, are the result, not of a natural and inevitable or primordial totality but of the naturalized, overdetermined process of ‘closure’[13]. Identities are thus points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us. (Hall 1996: 6)


[1] The biological need for nourishment is culturally elaborated in the great variation in which particular foods are preferred, such that any two peoples may find each other’s delicacies unpalatable. These differences, while partly attributable to genetic and constitutional factors, are largely explicable only in terms of cultural difference. (Lohmann, 2005: 2086-7)

[2] Hall, 1997: 2; Lohmann, 2005: 2086; Mariappanadar, 2005: 3-5

[3] Avruch, 1998; Lohmann, 2005: 2087

[4] By a cognitive structure, Damerow means a system of relations between mental objects which is determined by mental actions building the relations between these elements of structure. To recognize a real object and to identify it as something already known is here interpreted as assimilation to a cognitive structure. The assimilation relates the recognized object to earlier experiences by interpreting it in the framework of a system knowledge which itself is logically structured. Cognitive structures are build in the process of ontogenetic development. They are the result of mental constructions which transform real actions into corresponding mental actions. Thus, cognitive structures are mental reflections of real actions and abstraction is but a special function as a self-determined and self-determining process. (Damerow, 1996: 372)

[5] Languages use signs to symbolize, stand for or reference things in the real world. But they also can reference to imaginary things or abstract ideas which are not part of the material world. (Hall, 1997: 28)

[6]  Lohmann, 2005: 2086; Hall, 1997: 1-17; Mariappanadar, 2005: 3-5.

[7] A sign, whose nature is arbitrary,consists of two elements or components: it is the union of a form (the actual word or thing) which signifies (signifier) and an corresponding idea or concept triggered in the head with which the form was associated, hence signified (signified). Although both are required to produce meaning, it is the relation between them, fixed by our cultural and linguistic codes, which sustains representation. The relation between the signifier and the signified is not permanently fixed by cultural codes. Words shift their meanings. The concepts (signifieds) to which they refer also change, historically and every shift alters the conceptual map of the culture, leading different cultures, at different historical moments, to classify and think about the world differently (Hall, 1997: 32)

[8] Hall, 1997: 32

[9] The importance of those elements is based on their function. They construct meaning and transmit it. They signify. They are vehicles or media which carry meaning because they operate as symbols, which stand for or represent the meanings we wish to communicate. They function as signs. Signs stand for or represent our concepts, ideas and feelings in such a way as to enable others to ‘read’, decode or interpret their meaning in roughly the same way. Cf. (Hall, 1997: 5)

[10] Essentialist definition of identity would suggest that there is one clear, authentic set of characteristics which all Indonesians share and which do not alter across time. A non-essentialist definition would focus on differences, as well as common or shared characteristics, both between Indonesians/Balinese and also between Indonesians/Balinese and other nations/ethnicities. (Woodward, 1996: 11)

[11] Hall, 1997: 5 quoting Laclau 1990, 33

[12] Hall, 1996: 4-5, referring to Derrida 1981, Laclau, 1990, Butler 1993

[13] Hall, 1997: 5 quoting Bhabha 1994, Hall, 1993

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