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New identities are evolving within our society - that is normal

The current social and political debates over migration have brought to the fore questions about cultural diversity and the coexistence of different cultural identities in…

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New identities are evolving within our society - that is normal

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The current social and political debates over migration have brought to the fore questions about cultural diversity and the coexistence of different cultural identities in society. The children of immigrant families deserve special attention, as they grow up in very particular social conditions. Many people regard this group as its own social class, something that has been called the “second generation” of migrants.

According to INSEE statistics for France, in 2015 some 7.3 million children with at least one non-French parent were living in the country. That is 11% of the French population.

Going to French schools and having French classmates gives them a greater chance than their parents of integrating society, in cases where the parents were schooled in their country of origin. Outside of school, however, their social life is largely determined by ethno-cultural factors linked to their parents and other members of their close family. These can be traditional or religious customs or simply a type of cuisine passed down to children by their parents. These migrants’ children experience two cultures and their social circles often fall somewhere in between. The questions are self-evident: what kind of culture do they feel they belong to? What identity do they believe is their?

Sociological research has been devoted to this question since the early twentieth century. At that time, the Chicago School of Sociology abandoned the old notion that people had just one defined cultural identity and began to explore the cultural identity of migrants and their descendants as a binary construction of two cultures. The researchers discovered that several immigrant groups in the city of New York (African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irishmen) did not dissolve into American society through cultural assimilation, but formed new ethnic groups, the so-called subcultures (Beyond the Melting Pot, 1963). Their members identified less with their old ethnic cultures than with their new life experiences in the US and were considered as torn between two cultures. Some time later the French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf illustrated the dichotomy of such a binary existence in his 1998 essay In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. He portrays the dilemma of a man born in Germany to Turkish parents: neither in the receiving country nor in the home country of his parents is he a full member of society. He is neither a German in Germany nor a Turk in Turkey. He is both.

What does it mean to be both? This is a question dealt with by advocates of postcolonial theory. They no longer regard the cultures of origin and reception as two separate phenomena, but rather focus on the human, material, and virtual streams that flow between them and observe the transnational experiences that children and adolescents have in the midst of these processes.

Bilingualism, cross-border family structures, social networks, or multinational localisations characterise the lives of these young people. H. K. Bhabba, one of the most important representatives of post-colonialism, calls it the “third space,” because it does not belong to either of the two traditional, distinct cultures, but originates from their interaction. It shows that young people create a new cultural identity: the “hybrid identity”.

In this globalised era, there is permanent interaction between countries, the identities of entire nations are changing and in the interstitial space between cultures, in the so-called third space, new hybrid identities are emerging.

Social change brings innovation, which is normal. As long as the new hybrid identities are progressive and open, respecting democratic values, they have a better chance of integrating a Western, democratic society. If, however, they are in the field of obscurantism, in the sense of communitarianism, if they expect for themselves a future in a fantasized mythical past (Islamists) or rejecting cultural differences (nationalist extremist identities), their ideas do not suit the values that have been promoted by Europe’s political institutions.

Article contributed by Ira Zachariae