Chapter 5: The Cultural Construction of Identity
Problem: How do people determine who they are and how do they communicate who they think they are
To examine how people in a society determine who they are and communicates who they think they are
to others, you need to explore the ways different societies define the person, the ways individuals are
differentiated from other, the ways they find out who they are and convey to others who they are, and
the ways they form collective identities.
QUESTION 5.1: HOW IS IDENTITIY, AND ONE’S SENSE OF SELF, LEARNED?
Identity – learned personal and social types of affiliation including gender, sexuality, race, class,
nationalism, and ethnicity, for example.
Learning to Belong
Stories present people of all ages with ways of knowing about whom they are and where they
came from. Storytelling is also a way of communicating information from one generation to
Hugh Brody highlights that we are not born knowing who we are or what our places are on the
social landscape; we learn to be Canadian or Japanese, husbands or wives, Andrea, Gavin,
Homa, Natasha or Sebastian. We learn how we related to others as songs, daughters, students,
friends or lovers
o Individuals form various identities so they can relate to others and cultivate a space for
themselves within their social landscape
o At the same time, identities are political and collective, formed around struggles against
such threats as colonialism or the state
Our sense of Canadianness, like any other identity, is cultivated and learned through various
agents of enculturation – the process through which individuals learn an identity. This can
encompass parental socialization, the influence of peers, the mass media, government, or other
o In elementary school, most children learn how to sing the National Anthem, and
because provincial governments control the content of the school curriculum, they learn
a government-sanctioned version of Canadian history
o The mass media play an important role in shaping ideals of Canadianness through media
depictions of sports (i.e. Hockey gives a dominant ideal of Canadian identity as white,
middle-class, and male).
Shared experiences, such as sports and other mediated events, are often used to cultivate a
sense of imagined community – refers to the fact that even in the absence of face-to-face
interactions, a sense of community (e.g., nationalism) is culturally constructed by forces such as
the mass media “Nature versus nurture” is a phrase coined by Francis Galton, referencing a longstanding
scholarly debate concerning whether or not human behaviours and identities are the result of
nature (biological and genetic factors) or nurture (learned and cultural factors)
o One of the first anthropologists to engage ethnographically with the nature versus
nurture debate was Margaret Mead who argued that the experiences of adolescents
varied depending on the culture in which they were raised and emphasized the role of
culture or “nurture” in human behaviour.
QUESTION 5.2: HOW DOES THE CONCEPT OF PERSONHOOD VARY FROM SOCIETY TO SOCIETY?
The Importance of Self
Personal names in all societies are intimate markers of the person, differentiating individuals
from others. Names also reveal how people conceive themselves and their relations to others
o Business people are linked to their organization (exchange first name, last names, and
North Americans are highly individualistic – a view of the self in which the individual is primarily
responsible for his or her own actions
In societies such as the Umbundu, the relationship between the person and the group, or the
person and his or her social position, is holistic – when an individual’s sense of self cannot be