Our identities reflect our relationships with places and spaces. The changing contexts of these relationships also impact, shift and mould our identities. In our Identities article, ‘Hybrid identities: juxtaposing multiple identities against the ‘authentic’ Moken,’ we explore Moken[i] communities living in coastal areas of Thailand, and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. We also spotlight ascriptions of Moken identities as vulnerable, overwhelmingly linked to the sea and with limited opportunities for agency over their livelihoods.
In challenging these ascriptions through our ethnographic research, we found myriad examples of agency with various beliefs, settlement patterns and usage of the sea. The communities we spoke to explained shifting identities, across and between physical spaces of settlement, but also among traditional practices and aspirations for younger generations.
That our identities shift and flux is a position made overwhelmingly clear during the past year when the spread of COVID-19 has significantly changed our capacity to relate to different places and spaces. Our experiences of this past year have been contingent on national contexts and structural inequalities, as well as long-held assumptions about certain cultural identities.
As India hosted the World Environment Day celebrations in 2018, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, addressed the nation through his radio programme:
This is a very important achievement for India and it is also an acknowledgement as well as recognition of India's growing leadership in the direction of tackling climate change. This time, the theme is ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. I appeal to all of you that while trying to understand the importance of this theme, we should all ensure that we do not use low-grade polythene and low-grade plastics and try to curb the negative impact of plastic pollution on our environment….Our culture, our traditions have never taught us to be at loggerheads with nature).
In his speech, India was projected as a leader in addressing climate change and a putative Indian culture was extolled as being effortlessly ecologically friendly. However, Modi’s claim of an environmentally-friendly Indian tradition is not supported by empirical evidence. For example, notions of civilisation in pre-colonial India– rather than preservation – of forests. Similarly, the intensification of traditional agriculture had detrimental ecological consequences even prior to the commercialisation of agriculture under colonial rule. Nevertheless, this claim of an ecologically sensitive Indian past is widely encountered – and promoted – in India and abroad.
In a BBC interview in 2019, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, declared, to the bewilderment of journalist Emily Maitlis, that much of the turmoil over Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland was driven by questions of identity – particularly national identity. Such concerns have always been central within party-political wrangling in the region. However, the UK’s departure from the EU has placed Northern Ireland’s ‘national question’ in focus globally. Britain’s divorce from its European membership includes the so-called ‘protocol’, which maintains significant alignment between Northern Ireland and the rest of the EU to avoid a physical border in Ireland itself. However, part of this ‘solution’ is instead the implementation of a trade border in the Irish Sea for goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
This seeming economic detachment from the rest of the UK has angered those who view their Britishness as central, or at very least important, to their own identity. However, questions around national identity in the region are much more than a simple dichotomy of Britishness versus Irishness. Identification by individuals as Irish, British, Northern Irish, ‘other’, or a hybrid of all of these reflects more complicated realities. For some individuals, other identity matters, such as those relating to gender or sexuality, might take primacy in their own sense of self or community. Regardless, debates around Brexit and the protocol’s implementation have placed real focus on Northern Ireland’s future. In some quarters, debates on Irish unification are building momentum and generating discussion on how these complex cultural affiliation(s) sit within the wider constitutional question.
The rise of China is mostly perceived as an economic phenomenon. Yet, there is also the cultural dimension: What are the implications of Chinese leaders proclaiming that Chinese cultural traditions must be endorsed, as they essentially define what it means to be Chinese? The revival of popular religion in China, such as ancestral worship, which was suppressed over decades, but is now even applauded by President Xi Jinping as an expression of cherished core values of the Chinese, family and filial piety.
However, many phenomena related to religious practices in China defy conceptions of ‘religion’ developed in the light of Western historical patterns. Rituals are central in these phenomena, which can also be conceived as local customs and community traditions that express social norms and conceptions of social order without implicating ‘religion’. This ambiguity or even dissociation of ritual and religion is characteristic for East Asian societies and can be also observed in Japan, where ritual practices flourish, yet the majority of Japanese claim that they are ‘not religious’. Our Identities article, ‘Interaction ritual chains and religious economy: explorations on ritual in Shenzhen’, looks at these phenomena in the Shenzhen metropolis.
‘Dance is what saved me and people think it is what sinks us’: leading a life of protest through b-boying
In memory of co-author Monique Nuijten. Thank you for all your inspiration and the nice partnership working on this article together.
‘A Breaker is peaceful and calm. At the moment of dancing he expresses all his feelings, he expresses his anger, his love, his sadness, everything. While dancing he develops. Breaking turns them into better people.’
‘The moment you start to dance and become a b-boy or b-girl everything in you changes, it’s like
an armor you put on and you will never take off.’
‘This is what I love the most, it is what makes me, it is why I keep on fighting, the reason why I
am still standing, it is the reason why I can keep on following my dream.’
‘It is my life, without it [dance] I can’t live, it is like the air.’
In our Identities article, ‘When breaking you make your soul dance’ Utopian aspirations and subjective transformation in breakdance’, we dive into the world of breaking by following the Naturalz crew in Ecuador. The quotes above from various crew members illustrate the importance and meaning of breakdance for them. Breaking is commonly analysed as a subculture of resistance. We analyse two – often neglected – dimensions of this resistance: the significance of utopian aspirations and the role of the body in subjective transformation.
The breakers shape a new lifestyle for themselves through breakdance. A lifestyle they fight to preserve every day.
While writing our Identities article, ‘Disjunctive belongings and the utopia of intimacy: violence, love and friendship among poor urban youth in neoliberal Chile’, we had already started to witness a series of protests that recently culminated in the so-called Chilean ‘social outburst’ in October 2019 and the current process building a constituent assembly. Issues of quality of education, environmental concerns, shortcomings in the social security system, as well as long-standing efforts for the cultural and political recognition of indigenous groups gained increasing support over time. Yet, the many protests still appeared geographically scattered, and while people in the urban margins indeed felt uneasy with their life prospects, it was still uncommon to hear people articulate a more thorough critique of the neoliberal model that has prevailed in Chile for the past forty years.
In Los Acantos, the residents we met in 2012–2013 were conscious of these issues. Many of the young residents we met saw no way out in a world bounded off by invisible borders of social (in)difference and stigma. People were, in other words, aware of their almost impossible odds of socio-economic mobility and underneath the surface of monotonous low-income houses, the attentive ethnographer could feel the discontent.
Du Bois’ work provides invaluable insights into the nature of reflexivity and self for the racialised 'other', which traditional, classic sociology has often overlooked. Whilst efforts to decolonise sociology continue, such as by including theorists such as Du Bois, there still has not been a sustained effort to dismantle and reconfigure an overwhelmingly white sociological canon still prevalent in European sociology (Meer 2019).
In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903 ), Du Bois centres discussion of belonging, identity and self-awareness for racialised minorities through concepts of the ‘Veil’ and ‘double consciousness’. Du Bois’ analogy of the Veil is that of a racial barrier which is made of material in the divided experiences and inequality between the white majority and African-American minorities in the USA. For Du Bois, the Veil’s semi-transparency lends itself to the duality experienced by the racialised ‘other’: a double consciousness or a ‘two-ness’ which incorporates a ‘sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’ (p.8).
In my Identities article, 'Examining BSA Muslim women’s everyday experiences of veiling through concepts of ‘the veil’ and ‘double consciousness’, the focus is on a reflective aspect of living behind the V/veil and the effects of double consciousness on gendered and racialised bodies. Here the capitalisation of the Veil is used to denote Du Bois’ descriptions of a divided world, whilst the non-capitalised use of veil (along with discussion on veiling, veiled) refers to the wearing of the hijab or niqab, as well as ways women discuss veiling practices.
In the 1930s, the retired British governess Mary O’Neill lived in Florence in the company of her female co-nationals. A close-knit diaspora of English aristocratic intellectuals and bohemians, they sought to spread English cultural traditions to the Italian masses. They tried to help ordinary Italians enjoy Shakespeare and Renaissance art, not only to dream about glamorous cars and other pleasures of the Jazz Age. Mary O’Neill and her friends greatly contributed to the upbringing and the artistic rise of the young Franco Zeffirelli. But did they manage to gain prestige within their Italian community? Known for their poignant wit, those expat women, whom the locals sarcastically called ‘Scorpions’, were, in fact, totally alienated from a wider Florentine community.
Depicted in Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini, this story of cultural resilience finds a lot of resonance with diasporic reality today. In the large volume of studies on diaspora, an issue of concern is that many expats who speak culturally and civically on behalf of their homeland find zero reciprocity within their local community (Nye 2004; Watanabe and McConnell 2008).
Why do highly intellectual expats, who seek to morally enrich their host society, often fail to be accepted by their local communities? This question is explored in-depth in our Identities article, ‘Reflections on diaspora and soft power: community building among female US expats in Southern Europe’, which looks at life experiences of highly educated US-national expat women in Italy and Greece from the 1990s to 2015. They all hold degrees from leading US universities. Many of them are married to local men. And all of them seek to spiritually invigorate their local communities by showing them how to take care of the public space, such as to clean streets from litter and set up shelters for stray dogs and cats. They see these as typical ‘North American civic values’ that they are teaching to their ‘unenlightened’ neighbours.
Difference is something that exists in the bodies and culture of ‘others’
Sara Ahmed, 2007
In the wake of the recent intensification of activism and debate on why and how Black Lives Matter it is important to keep interrogating the multifaceted ways in which racism is pervasive within institutional practices – often in not immediately visible ways. In the UK, the current hostile environment (Grierson 2018) is designed to create forms of social disadvantage for migrants, especially those in situations of vulnerability, feeding into an ever expanding and invisibly coercive system of oppression.
Our London-based research explored the kind of support that asylum seeking and migrant women receive by charities, especially around mental health. Compared to statutory services, charities are able to better understand and address the complex intersection of social, political, economic and emotional factors at stake in mental health, as opposed to psychiatric diagnoses which often tend to decontextualise people’s experiences of distress. Third Sector Organisations (TSOs) are well suited to respond to complex needs of asylum seeking and refugee women because the support they provide relies on empathetic understanding for different aspects of these women’s lives – ranging from acknowledging culturally embedded notions and experiences of mental health to being responsive to the structural position they are placed in by the state and society. Both material and emotional support are particularly important for newly arrived migrants, who have weaker social ties in the host country, are often less able to navigate support systems due to language barriers and because they are unfamiliar with or denied access to statutory services.
In our Identities article, 'Digital institutions: the case of ethnic websites in the Netherlands', we conceptualised websites as digital institutions. Since the concept of institutions appears to be fuzzy, comprising formal and informal as well as micro and macro organisations, we argued that they, although socially embedded and culturally loaded, conceptually are insufficient to highlight their specificity. In order to specify the institution, we employ the concept of script, defined as recurrent activities and patterns of interaction. Empirically, we apply this concept to detail ethnic websites in the Dutch Hindustani community and to highlight what needs they fulfil for its visitors and in the Hindustani community. We argued that these ethnic websites fulfil a wide range of needs — notably, as a means of communication, a platform on which community members can address ethnic issues, a device through which to build networks, and a place from which to download material — thus fostering the identity of the ethnic group. Since evidence based on one community may be a matter of happenstance, we substantiate our argument with a comparison of ethnic websites from the younger generation of white Dutch, Hindustanis and Moroccans in the Netherlands.
When I was asked to write a blog to accompany my Identities article, 'The most cosmopolitan European city: situating narratives and practices of diversity in Marseille', I was asked to provide a suitable image. This faced me with a dilemma that cuts to the heart of my argument: how to choose a picture that symbolises cosmopolitanism in Marseille without falling into stereotypical representations of what and where cosmopolitanism is, and who represents it?
Searching the internet for images of 'cosmopolitan Marseille' in English and in French ('Marseille cosmopolite') brought up quite different results. In the English language search, the majority of photographs showed shots of Marseille intended for international tourists: terrace cafés, well-known landmarks and generic promotional images from restaurant chains, bars and rental apartments. There was just one picture of a busy multi-ethnic market street. In the French search, similar touristy images also came up, alongside images that felt both more everyday and more ‘local’: interiors from different shops displaying open bags of spices for sale and a photograph from the municipal website of local politicians receiving international delegations from Marrakesh and Dakar, accompanied by a title describing Marseille as coloré et cosmopolite ('colourful and cosmopolitan'). There were, in addition, several references to specific impoverished neighbourhoods in the city-centre that are often taken as the embodiment of Marseille’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ while at the same time are the target of local and national urban renewal programmes that seek to attract a different - less ethnically-marked - population into the city centre for many decades now.
Indonesian women victims of domestic violence commonly experience a sense of shame, however unreasonable that might seem to those outside the community. However, it is understandable for two reasons.
Firstly, most Indonesians consider marriage a sacred institution, the harmony of which must be maintained to support not just the marriage itself but broader social harmony. Secondly, to Indonesians the wife is seen as responsible for maintaining family harmony due to the values of nurturing and caring traditionally assigned to the female gender.
Hence, a failure to maintain marital or familial harmony is blamed on the wife who, should she decide to divorce, may be described as an ‘unfaithful wife’, ‘undutiful housewife’ and an ‘unloving mother’, with little or no basis for such accusations.
Even when domestic violence has occurred and the marriage cannot reasonably continue as there is threat of continued physical and emotional violence and other abuse of the women and their children, the women still feel shame. Having internalised societal values, women feel that they have failed to meet society’s and their own expectations.
Contested and interdependent appropriation of space in a multicultural commercial neighbourhood of Santiago, Chile
Patronato is a well-known commercial neighbourhood in Santiago, Chile with a tradition of migrants’ settlement and entrepreneurship that dates back to the nineteenth century. Today, the area is branded as a textile and vibrant ‘multicultural commercial neighbourhood’, as read in several street signs. Traders and workers’ ancestries include Chilean, Korean, Chinese, Indian, Peruvian, Palestinian, Syrian, Haitian, Colombia and Venezuelan, among many others. Yet, despite its growing diversity, Patronato is often described (in the media, films and popular narratives) as a Palestinian-Korean neighbourhood.
In our Identities article, ‘Contested and interdependent appropriation of space in a multicultural commercial neighbourhood of Santiago, Chile’, we analyse memories, images and uses of space by entrepreneurs of Korean and Palestinian ancestry, as well as their competing and reciprocal appropriation of space. Through processes of social production and construction of space (Low 2017), we examine their experiences of making, inhabiting and appropriating space, in relation to the transformations of the political economy.
By studying a Hmong community located in a rural village in Laos and their transnational families and relatives residing in California, I have learned that the surname-based, clan kinship system is not only critical for them to maintain their cross-border economic relationships and promote cultural traditions, but it has become hegemonic despite the salient generational and national differences between the two countries. For example, Hmong's clan identification has been the basis for the remarkable hospitality Hmong extend towards strangers and unexpected guests who are members of the same clan.
Many Hmong jokingly told me that I am technically 'Korean Hmong', because the English pronunciation of my Korean surname sounds identical to one of their eighteen clans. I came to wonder what makes Hmong clan kinship, based on a surname system, so dominant and inclusive that it allows Hmong to consider complete 'strangers' as family members and kin. Moreover, the strong emphasis on clan-based kinship causes Hmong to strictly adhere to the principle of clan exogamy (members of the same clan cannot marry or even become romantically engaged) and ethnic endogamy.
Social categories establish group boundaries, and also may become obstacles to social interaction and contact between groups. In intimate relationships such as marriage and family, taboos may arise upon historically and socially constituted categories.
Intermarriage confronts these taboos: how individuals transcend social boundaries and create another 'us' through their strong relationships and strategies to deal with social oppression and prejudice. Intermarriage also has the potential to enhance social contacts between different groups, to solve group discontents, to question identity, group boundaries, prejudices and stereotypes, and to lead to more integrated societies.
In the Turkish context, Alevi and Sunni intermarriages are a good example of how group boundaries can be blurred, and how categories intersect with different political standings and worldviews, gendered systems and subjective positions.
‘Hong Konger is not a race; it’s a spirit’, claimed a group of ethnic minority advocates of protests against the now-shelved extradition bill and anti-mask law in Hong Kong. The dissociation of Hong Kong identity from race marks the blurring of cultural boundaries between those who are racially Chinese and those who are not. Hong Kong’s political climate appears to play a prominent role in forging a collective identity.
Such an identity claim reflects ethnic minorities’ fulfilled desire to be recognised as Hong Konger like the rest of local Chinese people. My co-authored Identities article with Sivanes Phillipson, 'Bordering on sociocultural boundaries and diversity: negotiating Filipino identities in a Hong Kong multi-ethnic school', presents a relevant scenario in an education setting that speaks to the identity tensions amongst minority groups.
When people hear that my research topic is international marriages, a spark lights up their eyes, quickly followed by the comment, ‘Oh, living with a foreigner must be difficult...’ When I ask, ‘Why do you think so?’, people quickly answer with ‘cultural differences’, but pushing further, language differences is also mentioned as one of the biggest issues that concern people. So, what is it about language and culture that make it difficult for people to understand each other? Don’t we all have different cultures? Will knowing a spouse’s language help? Is there anything else that makes it difficult for people to connect and understand each other?
Having those and many other questions in mind, I conducted my research on marriages of Russian-speaking women from former Soviet Union countries, who live in Japan and are married to Japanese men. I did not intentionally ask participants to talk about differences in customs or ways of living, but no matter what we discussed, the conversation would eventually reveal how spouses experienced and compared each other’s languages and cultures.
My Identities article, ‘International marriage in Japan: reconstructing cultural toolkits in marriages between Japanese men and women from the former Soviet Union’, introduces the voices of Russian-speaking wives and Japanese husbands, and explores their thoughts about marriages and culture. I analyse some of my participants’ remarks about their communication with spouses, such as Lyubov, who described the way she talked with her husband:
Haymarket/Chinatown is a precinct located in the southern end of Sydney’s Central Business District. The precinct has become part of the City of Villages initiative, promoted by the City of Sydney administration to inject dynamism in the local economy based on the belief that the city is made up of diverse marketable areas, each endowed with a unique identity. Unlike the other precincts in the Inner Sydney area, the point of differentiation chosen for Haymarket/Chinatown is ‘ethnicity’ — more precisely, an ambiguous multi-Asianness within which images of Chinese communitarian identity occasionally emerge to confer a sense of authenticity to the ethnic place brand.
In my Identities article, ‘Ethnic community in the time of urban branding’, I observe how these simplified images of ‘groupist’ (Brubaker 2002) Chinese identity emerge from the brand management strategy for the Haymarket/Chinatown precinct despite the diversity of the local business and resident community. I frame these instances as tensions inherent in the process of place branding, which is characterised by the need to essentialise for marketing purposes while grappling with increasing levels of cultural complexity of the most populous Australian city.
In 2019, Musée d’Orsay held an exhibition on Black Models, and the National Museum of the History of Immigration held a year-long exhibition on the musical contribution of migration to Paris and London. Why do we need a specific show to give black models an identity and an exhibition to demonstrate the contribution of post-colonial migrants to popular music?
In my Identities article, 'The whiteness of cultural boundaries in France', I explore the underpinnings of France’s relationship to the culture of the Other, through the scope of whiteness. I contend that whiteness can be defined as a kind of capital embedded in the routine structures of economic and political life and is therefore a relevant concept to analyse French cultural policy.
Canada and the United States are touted as multicultural societies, both formally through multiculturalism policies and informally through cultural narratives and metaphors such as the 'melting pot.' Still, these policies, narratives and metaphors can actually mask persistent inequalities that immigrant populations must navigate through, even for populations that already appear well-equipped to adapt to the host culture.
This is the case for Filipina/os. In my Identities article, 'The centrality of neoliberalism in Filipina/o perceptions of multiculturalism in Canada and the United States', Filipina/o university students in Toronto and Los Angeles discuss their views regarding ethnic identity maintenance and inclusion in their respective environments. The results were a bit counter-intuitive.
Many Western expatriates are routinely exposed to being labelled laowai (老外 in Mandarin, literally ‘old foreigner’) in mainland China. According to a 2007 report in People’s Daily, Chinese users of the slang term laowai feel it shows their respect and intimacy for Westerners (‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative...' 2007). This Chinese interpretation was empirically verified by a 2015 research article (Mao 2015).
But some people on the receiving end feel that laowai is a stereotype-laden form of ‘othering’, defined as discourses that create a boundary between insiders and outsiders. Why are these interpretations so different? Why do Westerners feel resentful when they are addressed as laowai?
In order to address these questions, we focused on American expatriates living in mainland China, often regarded as prototypical ‘Westerners’ there. We conducted in-depth interviews with 35 American expatriates who ranged in age from 19 to 36 years, varied in sojourn length from six months to ten years, were in different occupations and of diverse racial categories (White/Chinese/Latino/African Americans). By inviting these Americans to reflect upon their intercultural experiences in mainland China, we explored their interpretation of the term laowai.
When you see images of French daily life or French people in magazines, films, or other media, what do you see?
Usually, it’s white people, with perhaps a few visibly non-white people depicted. But this is odd for multiple reasons.
One, France has a long history of immigration, primarily from its overseas territories and former colonies. Due to years of colonialism, colonial slavery, and subsequent migration, ethnic minorities, or 'visible minorities' in French academic parlance, have long been part of French society.
Secondly, France does not acknowledge or measure race as a separate identity category. So while France is a multicultural society, it does not, as a facet of law, distinguish between these different cultures. One is either French or not. This is France’s Republican model.