Can People Choose their Identity?

Can People Choose their Identity? Discuss with regards to the Media

This question raises two conditions that are at the forefront of political and social debate - namely those of publicly displaying a belonging to a specific culture or society, and the ideological notion of preference. In addressing the question of choosing our cultural identity we must establish everything we understand by the word 'cultural identity' and, secondly, if we (as individuals) are able to freely choose an identity. For the intended purpose of this discussion I will try to unpack what's meant by the catch-all term 'cultural identity; and also if it is something that may be ascribed to a person or if, indeed, a cultural identity is indelibly inscribed.

Of course the theory that an individual exists to a certain group of social and cultural values is not taken seriously since the advent of cognitive and behavioural theories of human socialisation. In fact use to the word national identity have been appropriated to repay these reductive descriptions. The debate surrounding cultural identity is often conflated get back of the construction of national identity, and occasionally a cultural identity comes from a link with a specific national identity, for example Irishness with a rigid group of conventions that determine the average person as different from being English, or even British.

The words culture and nation can have far reaching definitions with respect to the context where they are simply used. These are complex terms in their own right, and Raymond Williams has written a definition of what culture is, he states 'the complexity, . . . , is not finally in the term but in the issues which its variations useful significantly indicate' (Williams 1976:92). In order to set the conditions of reference because of this discussion a cultural identity is more fluid than a national identity. Anderson has stated in his definition of a nation, 'it [a nation] is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign' (Anderson 1991:6). The nation state is imagined by its population as it is not easy for individuals to learn all the members of this state, it therefore only exists as an imaginary construct within the individual.

The human individual is a complex mixture of social and behavioural activities and these factors tend to be obtained through socialisation within the family; social influences gained through friends and school; gender; and influence from various types of mass media.

First and foremost it is familial and social influences that determine our sense of identity. It really is through the principal socialisation from our parents that a person develops a sense of the self and with it a consciousness of who and what they are really. An individual begins to position her/himself with regards to others who they know and also have contact with. This environment is similar to that observed by Bourdieu who used the word 'habitus'. He wrote 'the habitus is both generative principle of objectively classifiable judgements and the, system of classification. . . of these practices' (Bourdieu 1984:170). This definition returns to the relationship between class and capital in the construction of a feeling of the self, and the spaces occupied by that each. The habitus can describe a location or space that a person feels comfortable inhabiting on a regular basis. For example as students I feel that my habitus is the university. This is a place where Personally i think that I participate in a wider community (of students) who have common interests and goals in their lives. The habitus can also be a location in which social conformity is essential in order to be an integral part of that community. I am thinking here of dressing and talking in a certain way, acting or behaving.

The habitus applies equally to gang culture. These are sub-cultures that have their own hierarchies and rules that must definitely be followed in order for a member to stay a part of it. The actual fact that many of the rules are dysfunctional, for example initiation into that gang through violent or anti-social behaviour, is irrelevant. Bike gangs such as Hells Angels display these rigid rules whereby the identity of a member depends upon the wearing of group's name combined with the Hells Angels logo. Such has been the spread of the culture it is globally recognised as indicative of a particular cultural identity enjoyed by its members. This sort of culture is typified by a link with certain objects, and regarding Hells Angels motorcycles will be the outward unifying signifiers. Members of the sub-culture have chosen this as their cultural identity - their machines, clothes, tattoos define who they are. And much like many sub-cultures membership is an act of public opposition to the dominant culture that they emerged.

Gang culture provides us with some easy to identify visual indicators of owned by a particular culture. Other types of cultural identity can be harder to unravel without providing a reductive account of this culture, for instance one predicated on race or religion. The main factor that influences cultural identity is the media (film and television).

The visual media have become an intrinsic part of the way we live our lives - mainly through the intake of goods and services. Tomlinson (1989) has referred to a diachronic and synchronic manner in which culture has developed over time. The former refers to a linear, historical form of evolution whereby a very important factor follows another. However in the modern day image saturated world synchronic cultural development has occurred. Images are used in order to make meaning. One image pertains to another however, not necessarily in a linear and consequential manner. Styles may then be forged that derive from samples from other styles, leading to meaning being derived from pure simulacra (Baudrillard 1982). This notion of the image breaks the linkage between sign and signifier and consequently changes how we make meaning from images. The argument states that in a world dominated by signifiers (images) the idea of truth becomes meaningless as there is absolutely no such thing as a single truth or reality, an individual can take what they want from images and this becomes a truth personal to the individual.

In this way rap culture has taken this direction. It includes taken other forms of representation in popular culture (such as soul music, rapping, reggae/dance hall) and produced something that has been socially radical for African Americans but has become a global cultural identity for many individuals; an identity disseminated through television and film. In a few ways the music has been appropriated by social groups to provide a cement for their identity. It has been evidenced by the use of jewellery, clothing, and speech. However although this is more of an over-all presence in social settings it is not true to say that rap is a cultural identity - it forms a part in the construction of any cultural identity, an identity that is also in opposition to mainstream white, male dominated culture. But can a white, Anglo-Saxon person become a part of this identity? Performers have tried, for example Vanilla Ice and Eminem, nonetheless they are mixed up in production and consumption of a good to be bought and sold. It isn't the culture of rap, however the image (or rather the sound) that has been sold. The distinction between a cultural identity and a marketable product becomes strained at this point. The role of television and film in promoting products (music, clothes, cosmetics) and something which has a cultural resonance to the audience reduces an identity to only commodity.

Gender roles are also affected by the adoption of certain types of cultural identity. The rap/hip-hop culture has been criticised for the way in which women are portrayed. In quite vulgar ways women are portrayed as chattels and appendages to be worn like jewellery. This can be seen in music videos, lyrics in songs, and the language used by people who adopt this type of life-style. But this isn't no more than representation, this type of behaviour from women, as sex objects, is expected and it is a role that some women are expected that can be played out. So if females should be a part of this identity they have to conform to a couple of conventions that are regressive in their treatment as individuals and additional compounds their status as secondary to men. In areas where particular cultural activities are dominant, then there is not necessarily the choice of preference. If one lives in that community the other must behave in the way expected or be shunned by your contemporaries.

The media are implicit in a process of 'cultural imperialism' (Tomlinson 1989) and promoting varieties of street culture is a further extension of the process. Tomlinson submit the argument that the global proliferation of television set through satellite broadcasting and the selling of programme output at below cost has resulted in a homogenisation of culture across the world. Television can be accessed all over the world and the social and moral values contained in this particular programming are spread to areas of the earth where it previously didn't have any influence. Not merely does cultural imperialism pose a threat to indigenous cultures but selling programming cheaply helps it be difficult for national broadcasters to make their own material, produced and performed by residents. The theory, then, of choosing your cultural identity is obscured by the influence of international media through the promotion of music, clothes, video games, and popular cultural forms like film.

Sport is one example of how cultural identity can be promoted and displayed in public areas, but it too raises some anomalies. Through the recent cricket matches between England and Pakistan a reporter from BBC Radio 4 interviewed a group of British Asians and asked them who these were supporting. All of them supported Pakistan in the cricket, but qualified it by saying they would support the England football team. Maybe this kind of poll shows more of individuals wishing to support favourites than almost any partisan interest. However it does reveal that children of people from other countries who had been born and educated in their adopted country show some ambivalence towards so called cultural identity. This identity can then be forged through the influence of mass media. In enough time since Tomlinson wrote about cultural imperialism the quantity and choice of television output has risen. You will find a lot more niche channels catering for specific interests; international channels can be received such as those on the Asian Star satellite network. Usage of this variety of material gives possibility to sample images from various areas of the planet, and children who've never left their adopted country experience sights and language vicariously and not simply using their parents.

In a feeling you can find some element of preference in selecting a cultural identity, but that is also contingent after one's own social and ethnic origins. However the definitions of the terms culture and nation dictate the complexity of the subsequent debate. The sociological study performed by Bourdieu (1984) comes closest within the limitations of the discussion. Cultural identity may also be regarded as a particular life-style, the one that is fuelled by the influences of the mass media, but also one which is influenced by social class, ethnicity, and the interests of capital. Indeed there are components of choice to be made within particular life-styles but cultural identity can't be selected and commodified as if it exists in a catalogue.


Adorno, Theodor. W (1972), 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception', in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (U. K: Herder and Herder).

Anderson, Benedict (1991) Imagined Communities (London: Verso)

Baudrillard, Jean (1983), Simulations, translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (NY: Semiotext (e)).

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction - social critique of the judgement of taste (London: Routledge)

Tomlinson, John (1991) Cultural Imperialism (London: Pinter)

Williams, Raymond (1976) Keywords (London: Fontana Press)

Also We Can Offer!

Other services that we offer

If you don’t see the necessary subject, paper type, or topic in our list of available services and examples, don’t worry! We have a number of other academic disciplines to suit the needs of anyone who visits this website looking for help.

How to ...

We made your life easier with putting together a big number of articles and guidelines on how to plan and write different types of assignments (Essay, Research Paper, Dissertation etc)