I-D: The Boundaries of Identity: the political and geographical boundaries of identity and ethnicity

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

This event was the first in a series of events being held by the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy, each of which will explore the boundaries of identity from a different angle.

Tonight’s event focuses on the way that politics and geography can play a role in defining ideas of identity, and specifically ethnic identity.

The first speaker, Dr Eric Kaufmann started by explaining what identity is, from a social science perspective. He described it as the characteristics which a group of people identify with and which link them socially. These might be characteristics of class, gender, ethnicity or religion. The fact that identity uses markers to show who is within and who is outside of the group leads to the concept of boundaries. These boundaries are essential for the constitution of groups, whose members share a common identity.

Dr Kaufmann then went on to introduce the two key schools of thought around what creates and maintains identity and its boundaries. The first is that identities are created by power and material interests, for example the promotion of a Serbian national identity by Milosevic during the ’90s. In this case, as configurations of power shift, the boundaries of those identities created to secure it can also move.

The second school of thought is that identity is inherited and passed down through institutions such as the church or state education. In this model the boundaries of identity are not flexible, but embedded through generations.

In the case of ethnic identity, Dr Kaufmann explained, the defining characteristic can vary, depending on which ethnic identities a boundary is being created between. For example, between the Basques and the Spanish, the boundary line is one of language. For the Irish and the Northern Irish, it is one of religion. Sometimes the marker of the boundary between two ethnic identities can change, although the groups remain the same. In Canada in the pre-1960s, the marker of the boundary line between the French Canadians and English Canadians was one of religion (Catholic/Protestant), today there is still a boundary line between the two groups, but language is now a much more important differentiator, as both groups have become increasingly secularised.

Dr Kaufmann also illustrated how different group identities show differing levels of boundary fluidity. For example, in the USA in 1928, the idea of a Catholic president was still not acceptable to the majority of the white voting population, but in 1960 JFK was elected as the country’s first Catholic president and white Catholics had been accepted into the majority white north-American category. By 2012 it is even less of an issue that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is running for President. This widening of the boundary markers for this ethnic identity is in stark contrast to the situation in Northern Ireland, where ethnic boundaries have been reproduced for centuries and cannot be easily displaced.

Dr Kaufmann’s talk provided some interesting and illuminating examples of the geographical and political boundaries of ethnic identity.

The second speaker, Dr Karen Wells, talked about how human geography can help us to understand identity and ethnicity, and also considered the issue of the borderland in ethnic identity construction. She explained that concepts that are abstract in other disciplines such as political science are given material concreteness by geographers’ fixation with spaces.

Dr Wells showed that as people move across physical boundaries they often redefine themselves, as well as changing both the place they leave behind and the place that they arrive to. For example, the celebration of traditional Mexican festivals in North America.

The Oromo community in London provide an example of how crossing a physical border can affect identity. In their native Ethiopia this community holds very closely to its Oromo identity. In London, however, the group members found that they were referred to as African, Ethiopian, Black British or even Black Caribbean. The one place where they are recognised as Oromo in London is at a local community centre. This experience demonstrates that identities can be pressed onto groups by circumstances.

Dr Wells also explored the way that spaces can be coded in a certain way to create certain reactions. For example, a blue plaque or a monument will invite the passerby to recall specific events that have taken place in that space, but what of the hidden or forgotten history? The photographer Ingrid Pollard used images of black people in rural landscapes to challenge this enforced identification of black British culture belonging in urban environments and of the British countryside as white.

Two examples given by Dr Wells demonstrate how maps, landscapes and borders can be used as tools to manipulate identities, including ethnicity. Her own experience in Addis Adaba, when conducting her PhD research, showed Dr Wells this practice in action. The only maps of the city that she could find showed government offices, the university and hotels, but not the vast areas of the city where the majority of (poor) people lived. This was an attempt to present the city as a modern capital of a modern state but attempted to exclude the poor people from the city’s identity.

Similarly, the map of Africa in 1914, as divided up by the European colonial powers, bore no resemblance to the historical or physical geography of Africa, yet these arbitrary boundaries went on to become the post-colonial countries.

These examples demonstrate how physical borders – both their manipulation, and crossing them, can impact on the redefining of ethnic identities.


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