By Terre de Feu, Mar 16 2017 10:14AM
Culture is […] not about groups of people – the Japanese, the Americans, the whites, the Latinos; thus it is not the groups themselves that should be studied. (Handbook of Cultural Psychology, 2007)
When discussing cross-cultural issues or diversity, the temptation is to see people as homogeneously belonging to groups: “Japanese people”, “dyslexic people”, “people from ethnic minorities”. This simplistic approach is not supported by the latest thinking in cultural psychology, but it is commonly used in HR, training, policy making and in the media. It is also used by some of my Jungian colleagues who speak of “cultural complexes based on repetitive, historical group experiences” (Singer, 2004, p.22).
It is indeed very tempting to identify people with the groups they belong to. It makes our life easier to think, “Mr. Watanabe is Japanese, so I can approach him the way I approach other Japanese people”. Identifying people with groups – stereotyping – can also be used as an excuse or a power play: “He is Japanese, he won’t understand”.
Seeing people as members of well-defined groups helps us deal with the complexity of culture and cross-cultural relations. It is indeed demanding to think, “I have absolutely no idea what it will be like to meet this person”, every time we meet someone new; and so we unconsciously use our past experience as reference. As we identify people with groups, we try to establish something familiar in unfamiliar situations.
At this point, one ought to ask: do we also define ourselves according to the cultural groups we belong to? For example, does Mr. Watanabe, as a Japanese person, think of himself “I am Japanese” or “I am from Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku”? It personally took me more than 10 years living away from France to start having an understanding of how French I was. Even now, other people may think, “she is French”, but I don’t define myself in this way. I have a sense of how my experience in France has shaped my identity, but that doesn’t mean that I feel I belong to the group of “French people”. In my experience in working with people from many countries, people don’t particularly define themselves based on their nationality or ethnic background. When asked, they may say, “I am French” or “I am Asian”, but subjectively, this is not what gives them a sense of their identity.
As I refer to cultural identity, it will be useful to go back to the psychological definition of identity. The psychologist Erik Erikson writes that our sense of identity is “experienced preconsciously as a sense of psychosocial well-being” and that it is “constantly lost and regained” (Erikson, 1994, p. 128). According to Erikson, our sense of identity constantly evolves as the people and the environment around us change. Group belonging, especially to groups as wide as “French people” or “black people” can therefore not give us an adequate, healthily fluid sense of identity. It is both too vague and too restrictive to reflect the subtlety of who we are and how we relate to our environment.
I can’t help noticing that group belonging is often used when dealing with political and social issues, sometimes for good reasons. Barack Obama, born to a white mother and a black father, says that he identifies with both sides of his family. When campaigning against racism and discrimination, he may purposefully identify with “black people”, but at other times, he doesn’t. Like him, when we temporarily and only partially identify with one group or another, our sense of identity is lost and regained and our unique sense of identity is formed. The danger lies in identifying too much and too exclusively with one particular group, leaving no space for self-reflection and developing our own sense of identity. This may have been appropriate in isolated, traditional communities, but in a multi-cultural environment, this leads to one-sidedness and potentially extremism.
Culture is not about belonging to groups, it is about being transformed by various people, places and shared experience. My French identity is not formed based on belonging to the group of “French people”; it is formed in the constantly evolving, emotionally-charged relationship that I have with France, the French people I know, and the many experiences and memories that I have of France. In Jungian terms, there may be a complex that structures and gives a particular feeling tone to my relationship with France, but this complex is not, as suggested by Singer, based on “group experiences”; it is based on a very wide range of experiences directly and indirectly linked with a place called France.
We may at times identify ourselves and other people with groups; but what matters is the constantly evolving relationship that we have with people around us, with places where we live and with our wider environment. When we approach culture as if it was about groups of people, we don’t only make a gross simplification – we entirely miss the point, because culture can only be found in the richness of emotions, experiences and memories which, stored in the depths of Psyche, form our personal story.
Erikson E. (1994) Identity and the Life Cycle. W. W. Norton & Company
Kitayama S. & Cohen D. (eds) (2007) Handbook of Cultural Psychology, New York: Guilford Press
Singer, T. and S. L. Kimbles (eds) (2004) The Cultural Complex – Contemporary Jungian Perspectives on Psyche and Society. London: Routledge