Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Manifestations of Socio-Cultural Identity

An American typical house of an Asian homeowner. See the details in the landscape, the mail box, the door. Picture by Myriam Mahiques
The concept of identity has many different meanings and participates in a variety of contexts. Culture is one of the aspects to determine personal identity. All personal identities are rooted in collective contexts culturally determined. There cannot be personal identities without the corresponding collective identities and viceversa.

Culture identity refers to the habits, practices, languages, religion, ethical-aesthetical- moral values shared by social groups regarding their nationality, ethnicity, region or common interests. Cultural identity is an important contributor for the sense of self, relation to others - access to social networks- and people’s wellbeing. It is important for people to feel belongingness to a social or ethnic group, that is greater than themselves. The American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow (1908 –1970) who conceptualized the hierarchies of human needs, suggested that the feeling to belong was a major source for human motivation along with physiological, safety, self steem and self actualization needs.

Religious manifestations in the living room. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

Religious manifestations in the dining room. Picture by Myriam Mahiques
Cultural identity may be clearer for some groups than to others who may also identify with more than one culture. Many Americans, though being born in America, still identify themselves as Irish, German, Chinese, Mexicans, etc. A degree of variations of cultural identities can coexist and are not mutually exclusive. One cannot escape from nationality and genre, but there is not a problem in being a fan of some sports club. An important variation is found in immigrants who have not yet returned to live in their native countries, if they go back, they may notice that they are no longer the same cultural person because they have been influenced by the other culture.
Stuart Hall identifies two ways of reflecting cultural identity: Identity understood as a collective, shared history among individuals affiliated by race or ethnicity that is considered to be fixed or stable; identity understood as unstable, metamorphic and even contradictory –an identity marked by multiple points of similarity as well as differences. (Stuart Hall. Cultural Identity and Diaspora).
The second classification leads us to the formulation of cultural pluralism, that can be traced to the writings of the Jewish phylosopher Horace Kallen. In 1915, Kallen attacked the idea that it was necessary for ethnic groups to give up their distinctive cultures or lose their distinctiveness in order to be completely American. He argued in favour of an ideology of cultural pluralism based on the belief that the members of every American ethnic group should be free to participate in all of the society’s major institutions, while simultaneously retaining their own ethnic heritage. (Mc Lemore, Romo, Baker. P.30)
The psychologist Henri Tajfel and his student John Turner developed the theory of social identity. They proposed that people have an inbuilt tendency to categorize themselves into one or more ingroups, building a part of their identity on the basis of membership of that group and enforcing boundaries with other groups ( The group helps us to identify and valuate ourselves. Tajfel stated that social identity has a psychological basis of intergroup discrimination; it is composed of four elements: categorization, identification, comparison and psychological distinctiveness. The process of identification by opposition to others has always existed in history, for instance, Greeks divided the world between Greeks and Barbarians; the Nahuans in Central America felt more refined compared to their native neighbors; they considered the Otomies as silly, lazy, and the Huaxtecas as drunk and inmoral. (J. Larrain).

This building is in Chinatown, Los Angeles. See carefully to the left side of the fascia above the 2nd story. A fake "Chinese" roof shape finish has been added to assimilate the American construction to a Chinese one. Picture by Myriam Mahiques, 2005.
Many immigrant groups have been cohesive and split over generations. It makes very difficult for the last generations to be sure about their culture and identity, because also race is not fixed by nature but is socially constructed. Mc Lemore, Romo and Baker (p. 452) cite an astonishing example of a court case, Ozawa versus United States (1922). The Supreme Court ruled that Ozawa could not become a U.S. citizen because he was not White. The Court conceded that skin color alone could not be the determining criterion because many “non-White” people have skins of a lighter color than many “White”. But, based on the naturalization law of 1790, “White” was equivalent to ”Caucasian”. Ozawa argued that in 1790, the “White” term was applied to whoever was not African or Indian. Ozawa was not White, not Caucasian, therefore he could not become an American citizen. In 1930, the “Mexican race” was defined as a residual category of persons who were not White, Black, Indian, Chinese or Japanese. The emotional negative reaction triggered by these experiences of lack of respect are the motivation in the fight for recognition.
The impact of globalization has been associated with the destruction of socio-cultural identities, but people has found some ways to express the group’s identity in simple domestic manifestations. A door, a statue in the front yard, décor arrangements, clothes, symbolic adapted elements showing that dynamic identity processes are always recontextualizing, everywhere, in any country.

Middle East decor style in an American house. Picture by Myriam Mahiques
Larrain, Jorge. Cap. 1 El concepto de identidad (pp. 21-48). En Identidad Chilena. Ed. Lom, 2001
Mc Lemore, S. Dale; Romo Harriett D.; Gonzalez Baker, Susan. Racial and Ethnic Relations in America. MA, U.S.A., 2000


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