Community Media Discussion – Equality and Notions of Identity

This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about how concepts of identity play a vital role in the way we create content for community media. We’ll be chatting about how to foster forms of inclusive representation that help us bond as a community, and also how we open-up our contacts with other people with different heritages, languages, faiths, and so on, to extend our interaction across social bridges. A crucial part of the purpose of representation in media is so we feel recognised and validated as individuals, and as members of a community. As we become more aware of our own identity, and interact with people from different backgrounds and communities, how can we plan for identity in a more fluid and dynamic world?

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To what extent do our notions of social identity help or hinder the development of a cohesive society? This pertinent question is asked by Ted Cantle in ‘Reforming Notions of Identity’, the third chapter in his book Interculturalism, in which Ted explores the changing nature of community and the aim of cultivating community cohesion. Ted examines how we might promote a lasting sense of cohesion that goes beyond multiculturalism, and prepares us for life in an increasingly complex, dynamic and globalised world. Given that community media is principally driven by the wishes of people who are seeking to articulate a self-defined sense of identity – which we achieve in community media practice by advocating the benefits of voice empowerment and self-representation. Ted’s concern, however, is centred on the way that we frame these issues across the domain of possible social identities, and our ability to encompass and respond to these variations which are supplanting more homogenous forms of identity. Clearly, this warrants a critical and pragmatic consideration.

Looking at identity as a practical question for community media makers and advocates, then, we probably want to ask how we might benefit from exploring questions of identity in more nuanced ways. This is particularly relevant to those of us who would like to widen the scope of self-defined and collaboratively shared representations, supported by independent participation in our media. This involvement in the process of creating our own identity, necessitates forms of media that are more democratic, inclusive and driven from the grassroots upward. So, rather than thinking of identity as something that is fixed and immovable, we might be better exploring identity as an emergent social property in a dynamic social field. The question we should be asking is, as a result, does the media we make help or hinder our understanding of this process?

It’s well established that our identities are something that are adaptable and are often reshaped across a myriad of life experiences and social encounters (Goffman, 1990). As such, rather than asking ‘what is our identity,’ we might be better attempting to understand how our identities are formed in a complex field of interpersonal and social forces. Is the identity that we profess to embody at any particular time and in different places, a response to long-established forms of social behaviour, as archetypes and their deeply rooted patterns in society (Jung, 1991)? Or are they simply shifting signs in a world of images and opportunities for presentational play (Baudrillard, 1983)? If these changes continue to manifest in the future, will we feel familiar and comfortable with them, or will they be a shock to us?

Debates about gender fluidity, for example, are contentious at the moment, and will clearly take some time to work through into the wider domain of collative awareness and acceptance. The question that concerns us here, is what should our more general response be to any changing notions of identity, and how might we align these expanding and more fluid notions of identity within a framework of inclusive forms of media that are themselves responsive to the multiple needs and motives that different people articulate in establishing a sense of social belonging and personal validation?

One of Ted Cantle’s underlying concerns is that public policy, in relation to social and cultural identity, is not well constructed, and therefore is not as helpful as it could be in creating the environment in which divergent and non-traditional identities are valued. As Ted notes, “conceptualisations of multiculturalism” often remain “rooted in the past” (Cantle, 2012, p. 30). As a result, advocates of certain social identities, when combined with expectations of established forms of community media content, for example, might spend too much time looking backwards at legacy and inherited cultural identities and practices, and not enough time looking forwards to the new and emerging patterns of identity that are being formed within each new wave of cultural expression.

Ted explains how public policy, in relation to matters of race, was largely shaped in an era when national identity was more clearly delineated in relation to race and ethnicity. In the past, there were fewer options for combined identities to be interlinked, Ted notes, so the resulting options for self-identification were largely binary. Experiences well explored in the 1980s by British cultural commentators Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall (Hall, 1990). However, and as we’ve experienced in more recent years, expressions and declarations of social identity have become progressively more fluid and indeterminate.

Writing in 2012, Cantle notes how it was more common for people to describe themselves as ‘mixed-race’ than it had been previously. This was complementary to the rise of identity as an amalgam of multiple options, and the denial of those clear-cut binary options. Cantle notes that multiculturalism has given way to interculturalism, with an increased potential for describing oneself as a person with a hybrid identity, combining declarations and representations of multimodal identities.

One of the significant changes brought by new communications technologies and globalisation, for example, is the increased opportunities for international travel and trade. Ted Cantle argues this has opened up the door to the diffusion of our identities, and a reduction in the dominance of monolithic forms of national identity. It is likely that we profess who we are using increasingly pluralistic sets of associative and interest-based identities. This process of dispersion, Cantle suggests, can be tracked in the way that census data is reported, with the more recent inclusion of options for the expression of multiple forms of identity in the UK census, such as Black-British or British-Asian. In addition to the census, moreover, there has also been a massive increased in surveillance of identity by companies and public authorities as they seek to collect equalities’ data. This information is said to be useful for understanding who uses and benefits from the provision of employment and social services, but it doesn’t tell us what we might do in response to any changes and imbalances.

The equalities’ questionnaire is now well embedded in all employability monitoring, grant-funding monitoring, service use monitoring and education practice, despite these categories remaining something of a catch-all. The collection of data only provides a snapshot of the multiple identities that are possible within different communities, though they don’t really tell us very much about the interpersonal dynamics that indicate how a community and society more generally is shifting and changing. Each of the categories of social identity that we are used to – race, age, gender, etc. – come with a whole panoply of assumptions, presumptions, stereotypes and preconceptions. Unfortunately, these assumptions themselves have the potential to hold back the development of society, despite the well-meaning intentions of the equalities administrators, as it becomes difficult for people to break out of the segregated equalities framework and go beyond the simple structure of official identities into an integrated world of interacting social experiences.

For example, simply asking people to opt for one form of delineated identity, for example as British-Muslim or British-Hindu does not, according to Cantle, help us to understand the wide variety of sub-cultural experiences that people are working in their daily lives. Some forms of identity are only possible within a specific profile of a homogenous community. Being Christian and gay, in some circumstances for example, would put one outside of the more traditional parts of the established Church of England.  To what extent is it legitimate to suggest that communities remain hermetically sealed in order to protect their viability as a cohesive force that sustains a unique social group? At what point does this viability as a protected social grouping actually become a hindrance to wider social interactions. Do we have the right to opt-out of these social groups? What happens when we diverge from these inherited forms of identity? How do we achieve balance between a social model that is focussed on bonding, and social model that encourages bridging? We can’t exist in silos, and we need to be open and fully incorporated into the more general economic, social and political realm. Not do these categories help us to understand the additional competing intersection points that any individual might be characterised by or identify with.

The challenge of identity is at the heart of all forms of communication, and is hence a major concern for community media practitioners. There is much to celebrate about the collective forms of identity that we have an affinity with. This affinity, however, should not prevent us from reconfiguring our social practices extra-culturally across communities, and interculturally between communities. As Ted points out:

“The impact of globalisation and super diversity upon personal and collective identities is… profound, with individuals and communities able to draw upon heritage, faith, language and local, regional, national and international ideas about identity and to create hybrid or multiple identities that are dynamic and change over time and in different contexts. The political processes inherent in multicultural policies, clearly need to develop more flexible responses to the dynamic – and increasingly complex – salient features of identity (Cantle, 2012, p. 52).”

Goffman E. (1990) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (Penguin, London).

Jung C.G. (1991) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Routledge, London).

Baudrillard J. (1983) Simulations (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA).

Cantle T. (2012) Interculturalism – The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity (Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke).

Hall S. (1990) Cultural Identity and Diaspora. In Rutherford J. (Ed.). Identity, Community, Culture and Distance (Lawrence & Wishart, London).


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