Cultural identities


Culture can be defined in many different ways, and consists of several concepts such as, identity, difference, relations of power, centres and margins. To begin with, one may start to investigate the meaning of culture, but to achieve this we must get a definition. “Culture is one of two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Williams, 1976; Barker 2000).

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In modern western society, we tend not to view the discourse of culture as an agriculturally derived ‘buzz word’ but instead link it to what may be described as many sub-cultures within, for example, our western culture. (Langton 2003) These may include cultures within football teams, pop culture, office culture, and refined entertainment such as museums and classical music to mention a few.

Addressing the concepts surrounding culture displays that people are different but all bring valid ingredients to the recipe that is the human race. Culture does mean different things to different people, but it is tolerance and respect for others that enables us to combat ignorance and xenophobia. This is the key to achieving a balance in the relations of power that will inevitably always exist in many societies as we have all too often seen intertwined throughout events in our history.

In the study of history it is always extremely important to scrutinise a source with the utmost care. This is especially true when examining autobiographies. Autobiographies can give an extremely useful insight into a historical subject. For example Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ would be extremely useful for a historian of cultural identities studying Nazism to gain an insight into Hitler’s beliefs. But it is now widely accepted that much of the information contained in Hitler’s autobiography was inaccurate. This illustrates the need for such caution when using the genre, but also this reflects the presence of advantages and disadvantages to the use of autobiographies. Both should be taken into account.

So what advantages do autobiographies allow the cultural identities historian? Firstly, it enables the individuals to give themselves an identity. It allows the author to develop their beliefs motivations and personality into writing in such a way perhaps only rivalled by letter writing in terms of personal expression. (Derne 2002; Beynon 2002)) This is particularly useful for historians of cultural identity as figureheads of certain identities often write the most relevant autobiographies. For example Nelson Mandela’s ‘A Long walk to freedom’ or Gandhi’s ‘My Experiments with Truth. These figureheads offer an excellent insight into the identity of their followers through that of their own. However even this statement should be treated with some caution, as this is not always the case.

With this use established it is then possible for the historian to make other observations about the individual. Explicitly it is possible to examine the childhood and adolescence of the author. It is widely accepted by psychologists such as Freud and historians alike that these periods are extremely important in the formation of an individual’s identity and in this case the making of a cultural identity when the concept of the figurehead is taken into consideration. Returning to ‘Mein Kampf’ as a prime example. (Frable 1997) Hitler underwent an extremely unusual upbringing and even more so was his period of adolescence offering explanations for his formation of the Nazi identity in later life. However, many of his descriptions of this time have since been proven to be untrue and self-gratifying. Again, this demonstrates the need for caution.

Another major advantage of an autobiography lies with their ability to cut out the middleman, if you will, namely the historian. Any book concerning events written by a historian is automatically subjected to the eyes of interpretation. Distancing the reader from eyewitness or first hand accounts. This is not the case with autobiographies. Instead they are presented as a first hand account themselves and can be used as such by a historian. This is certainly an advantage in many ways. Especially so when paired with the knowledge of context, time and place allowed by them. As well as access to personal experience. However, as a result this raises the usual questions posed when analysing a primary historical source, such as corroboration with other sources. This is where problems may arise.

But what are the major disadvantages of using an autobiography in this context? Perhaps most important is the selectivity of the ‘sample’. This being the concept that the author can be as selective as here or she wishes in the inclusion and accuracy of information. For example a recent edition of ‘Mein Kampf’ featured footnotes throughout the book detailing every inaccuracy Hitler was guilty of as it was made. The number of footnotes ran into the hundreds. An excellent example of how autobiographies can be extremely misleading if not used with exceptional caution in this area.

Also relevant to this is the consideration of the degree of trust that may be attributed t the author. Certainly there may be ulterior motives underlying the obvious agenda of the autobiography. A clear depiction of this point can be observed in Robert. S Mcnamara’s ‘In Hindsight’ (the US Defence Secretary during the Vietnam War). Although Mcnamara’s intention for this particular book is to express regret for US actions against the Vietnamese. The fact the book is written long after the events discussed and in a climate where US involvement in Vietnam is widely condemned. Discredit may well be applied to the trustworthiness of the author. It seems logical that Mcnamara may wish to suppress facts that could place him in a negative light. (Cerulo 1997) As a result oversights, improvements or even exaggerations are likely. The example of ‘In Hindsight’ also raises another scrutiny over autobiographies. Specifically, was it written before or after the series of events to which it holds relevance? Whether or not this is an advantage or disadvantage remains dependent on the subject in focus but must certainly not be for forgotten.

In contrast to the concept of the figurehead previously mentioned. It is also possible that the author is not representative of a cultural identity as a whole even if he or she claims to be. A topical example of this (although not an autobiography) is Osama Bin Laden who remonstrates to be the voice of the Islamic cultural identity. When in reality he represents only a tiny minority of Muslims. The irrelevance of the author therefore constitutes a significant disadvantage to the historian. Hence, working against the concept of the figurehead.

But, exactly how useful is an autobiography to a historian of cultural identities? It is clear that there are both pros and cons. So the logical conclusion is that it does serve a purpose in historical research. Primary sources such as autobiographies always lie at the base of any historical study but an individuals account can never be taken as gospel on it’s own. Without other evidence to corroborate an autobiography with it will remain almost useless. With sufficient evidence many of the disadvantages can be eliminated. But often all the evidence available to a historian is not sufficient. So even then an autobiography should still be treated with caution as with any source.

Globalization is defined as a concept which reveals the compression and intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole (Robertson, 1992 cited in Barker, 1999). It is a phenomenon that gives people worldwide, immediate access to other cultures, making it practically impossible for societies to exist in complete isolation (Cunningham et al. 1998). Through globalization, television creates the “armchair traveller”; it allows people from different parts of the world to visually experience a radically different culture without having to be physically situated in that location.

The relationship between globalization and culture construction has been fraught with complexity; some critics view it as cultural imperialism – the key framework of power that exerts a great deal of control over other nations around the world. Through its imperial power, whether directly or indirectly, it seeks to culturally invade other nations, resulting in homogenization across the worlds. Whereas others believe that the product of globalization on television is a collection of volatile, disordered and multidirectional cultural flows (Barker, 1999).

However, the cultural imperialism discourse has some shortfalls; global dissemination is a two-way flow and globalization should not be discounted as a simple process of homogenization (Barker, 1999). The multiple Emmy Award-winning television series Lost (ABC, Inc. 2004) effectively illustrates the concept of globalization; the plot of the show revolves around the survivors of a plane crash, who are forced to live with each other on a remote island. The cast of the show includes people from different races and nationalities; A white, middle class American doctor, an Iraqi who used to be an Iraqi Republican Guard, a non-English speaking Korean couple – a male chauvinistic and his meek submissive wife and an Australian single pregnant woman among others. In Episode 2 of Season 1, Michael (Harold Perrineau Jr.), an African American approaches Sun (Yunjin Kim), the Korean wife simply to ask her if she’s seen his son. Jin (Daniel Dae Kim), her husband who overhears the conversation, chastises Sun for having the top button of her sweater open, after which Sun obediently buttons up. The scene illustrates the possessive and conservative nature of Korean men and the timid and subservient nature of Korean women. Further into the episode, Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Sayid (Naveen Andrews), the Iraqi, are in the middle of a brawl as Sawyer is convinced that Sayid is a terrorist and responsible for the crash. This is a typical stereotype and racist scene, highlighting the perceptions of ‘Muslims as terrorists,’ especially since this is aired after the September 11 terrorist acts.

On a lighter note, another influence of globalization on television can be witnessed on the reality television show Survivor – The Australian Outback (CBS Broadcasting Inc. 2001). In this reality game show, the contestants are required to be familiar with the culture of the island they are stranded on in order to survive. In Episode 9, upon winning the reward challenge, the winner Jerri Manthey and her chosen companion, Colby Donaldson voyaged via helicopter to the Great Barrier Reef, where the couple enjoys a traditional Outback gourmet feast, which includes the signature beef steak, and a day of snorkelling. Viewers were simultaneously rewarded with the visual spectacle of the Great Barrier Reef – world’s largest living coral reef aquarium, right in front of the television set.

With globalization, television brings people from disparate cultures together, allows expanding opportunities to learn about other societies and to learn from them. Indeed, television serves as a platform of boundless cultural dissemination and flow of international understanding.













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Barker, C. 2000, ‘Sexed Subjects and Gendered Representations’, in Television, Globalization, and Cultural Identities. Buckingham; Philadelphia: Open University Press, pp. 86-107.

Beynon, J. 2002, ‘What is Masculinity?’ in Masculinities and Culture. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press, pp.1-25.

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Cunningham, S, Jacka, E and Sinclair, J 1998, ‘Global and Regional Dynamics of International Television Flows’ in D. Kishan Thussu (ed.), Electronic Empires: Global and Local Resistance, Arnold, London.

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Lost 2004, ABC Inc., United States of America. Produced by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof.

Survivor: The Australian Outback 2001, CBS Broadcasting Inc, United States of America. Produced by Mark Burnett.

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