|glossary - Cultural Identity|
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In the Treaty on the European Union (EU), the concept of identity appears in relation to the idea of a ‘European Identity’ (Preamble), which should contribute to a common sense of belonging of its citizens. At the same time we are reminded that the national identities of its Member States shall also be respected. Both the concepts of a European and a national identity are based on a variety of social, political and especially cultural practices and expressions, which are, in turn, derived from what is assumed to be shared experience, memory, tradition, etc. Identity is mostly conceived as stable, collective and coherent and often defined in opposition to what lies outside this assumed consent of a Community, be it the nation state or the EU.
A critical view on the concept, as developed in critical theory, suggests that cultural identity has always been constructed or invented along narratives, symbols and other forms of representation, building on underlying systems such as language, ethnicity, religion, heritage, history, etc. These mechanisms can be traced in the development and self-definition of nation states as much as in the project to create and foster a common ‘European (cultural) identity’ in order to gain cohesion in the political union.
Thus, identity is not a primordial category, but can always be traced in its construction process. It is to be seen as a concept in crisis, questionable in promoting essentialism and universalisation. This has also led to a critical revision of the so-called identity politics of minorities or discriminated groups from the late 1960s onwards (without disregarding their fight for political rights). Recent conceptions prefer to speak of ‘hybrid’, ‘multiple’ and ‘fluid’ identities, referring to migrant movements and the possibility to choose individually one’s identity through affiliation with a social group or consumption and life style.
What is at stake in the debate on cultural identity with regard to Europe is a feared ‘loss of identity’ either through political harmonisation as in the case of EU policy or through global economic trade developments. The protection of cultural diversity is invoked in order to prevent this ‘loss of identity’, an argument that underpins e.g. the doctrine of ‘cultural exception’. The concept of cultural identity as employed in this context remains, however, largely unchallenged and favours fixity, coherence and binary opposition. It does not take account of the fundamental changes in contemporary societies, especially in the contexts of migration and information technology, where identity is under constant negotiation, challenged by processes of differentiation and individualisation.