Diversity: defining ourselves

I mentioned Lincoln Tan’s column on diversity within the Chinese community in New Zealand in passing in one of my earlier posts on diversity. He describes, beautifully, the divisions within what the rest of New Zealand sees simply as the Chinese community. Some Chinese it seems, aren’t Chinese enough for other Chinese.

Over on Public Address, people have been worrying about identity too. How do we define ourselves? What makes that self-definition valid? How does identity shift as context shifts?

I have puzzled about identity for a long time: in part because my doctoral work was on multiculturalism; in part because my own identity is ever changing; in part because having lived in a strange land (and indeed, being about to do so again, soon), I understand a little, from the inside, what it can be to both belong and not belong; in part because as a woman, it can be hard to belong in some groups, no matter how much I want to, ‘though I suspect that’s a two way street.

Dr Tibby has made an interesting point over at Public Address, that:

i choose my own identity, but my identity is worthless unless it has a group to support it. so, che can claim to be whatever identity he wants. but, that claim is false unless che has people to recognise it

I agree with this, but I think it’s worth thinking a little more about why it might be true.

So… let’s start with Wittgenstein (as one does). I’m no Wittgenstein scholar, but I was introduced to the idea of a Wittgensteinian cluster concept in a fascinating paper by Rae Langton and Caroline West, “Scorekeeping in a Pornographic Language Game” Natalie Stoljar, “Essence, Identity, and the Concept of Woman”, and I have found it enormously useful. [Updated to reflect my difficulty in remembering exactly where I learned about cluster concepts. Sigh. NB: both papers are fascinating.]

What do tiddlywinks, solitaire, hide and seek, and rugby have in common? They are all games. As it turns out, it’s hard to tell what they all have in common, but they are all quite legitimately called games. We can compile a list of characteristics of games: competitive, way of passing time, social, result is ultimately meaningless, fun, involves physical skill, involves intellectual skill, there must be a winner, children’s activity, use apparatus, and so on. (Suggestions for other characteristics gratefully received, and will be added to the list, provided they are seemly.)

As it turns out, there seems to be no one characteristic that defines a game. But we are all capable of recognising a game when we see one. What we see is a sufficient collection of characteristics to say that x, whatever x is, is a game. But none of those characteristics are necessary.

So this is how both rugby and solitaire can be games. Even if they have no characteristics in common, if they each have sufficient of the characteristics of the set of characteristics that we recognise as being indicative of games, then we say they are games.

So that’s a cluster concept. It’s a cluster of charateristics, and something that has enough of those chracteristics qualifies to be considered as part of the group. And it could be that some other thing, that has absolutely no characteristics in common with the first thing, also has enough of the characteristics of the overall cluster to also be considered as part of the group.

Right. Got that? Any metaphysicians or philosophers of language out there who want to correct my folk account of cluster concepts are most welcome to do so.

On to identity.

I think that our identity is both internally validated and externally validated. To gloss what Che said, I can claim I am Eskimaux until the cows come home, but unless there are some external markers of my external identity, then it is a silly claim on my part. I must have sufficient markers of the identity I claim for the claim to make sense.

Equally, just one characteristic shouldn’t be sufficient to mark me out as belonging to one particular group. I get quite angry when people define me as a European, just because I have white skin. Because identity is a cluster concept, it is wrong to pick out just one characteristic as being the characteristic that matters.

As it turns out, I identify as Pakeha: because my mental landscape was formed here; because I automatically use Maori concepts in everyday language and thinking (mana, whanau, and turangawhaewhae) as well as every day Maori words; because my identity is formed, in some way, in not being Maori – that is, defining myself in oppostion to the most obvious alternate group here in New Zealand (although where that leaves Asian New Zealanders, and especially NZBCs and their equivalents, I don’t know); because my idea of home involves deep green bush, drizzling rain, outrageous wind, iron sands (I’m a Taranaki girl by birth); because Sir Edmund Hillary is one of my heroes; because despite everything, rugby is entrenched in my psyche.

But people can have several identities. As I have written elsewhere:

our identity is layered, not uniform. A moment’s thought will confirm this in other respects of identity. Like many people, I identify myself through my work: I am a [deleted because this is not my current paid job]. I also identify myself as a wife, a mother, a daughter. None of these identities is mutually exclusive. My most important identities, to me, are as a wife and mother, but that does not mean that the other identities are not important too. However, I reserve the right to determine for myself which of my identities is most important to me. Other people shouldn’t tell me who I am.

As part of this, at different times we can choose to emphasise different parts of our identity. Sometimes one aspect of our identity is important, sometimes another.

This might explain why there is such vexed debate amongst people of Chinese descent living in New Zealand. Some of them come from families that have been here for two, three and four generations, while others are just here temporarily. Someone whose family has been here for four generations might think of themselves as Chinese, and as New Zealanders, but someone who has arrived here might see them as only New Zealanders. That’s because we do think there is an external reality to identity, and we do think it’s a matter of fact, not just a matter of someone’s internal musings. However, we think that it’s important that people get to say something themselves about who they think they are.

It also explains why questions of identity are never settled. Identity can be a temporal thing; as the society around us changes, our identities can change too. And that can be both internal and external. It’s worth remembering that “maori” wasn’t a concept until “europeans” arrived here. It also tells us that identiies will never be settled, once and for all. It’s not comfortable, living with fluidity, but that’s just the way it is.



Update: Corrected the names of the people who first alerted me to cluster concepts.

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6 responses to “Diversity: defining ourselves

  1. Your musing reminds me very much of David Novitz’s ideas about “culture” as an aggregate or “colligatory” concept- more a mish-mash of shared institutions, beliefs and values that can usefully group people without being monolithic and excluding.
    What interests me is how the shared bonds and implicit goodwill that make a “civic society”- any society, really- cope under a lot of strain, and some long-term corrosion. I’m running this into what you and che were debating earlier; in fragmented centreless contempory society, where do we find our tribes and fellow-thinkers?
    One answer is increasingly- online. We get to chose our neighbours, our cohorts, the people who affirm our identities. It’s sort of interesting how we leap-frog our physical neighbours to do this- though hardly surprising, when you consider the sorts of things that bring people to cluster in cities often have little or nothing to do with shared interests, concerns, or values (beyond ye mighty dollar).
    I find it a little unnerving, yet oddly heartening, that there are people I could walk past in the street, who I feel I know quite well from reading their words, and exchanging ideas. I’m working my way round to saying, wrt “identity”: maybe the old saying ” La style, c’est l’homme” has some truth, too. Writing- not as art, but as an act of communication- is having a renaissance?

  2. dr. deborah, great explanantion of cluster concepts! to be honest, i’d never heard of the idea…

    goes to show, higher education depends almost entirely on the knowledge of your supervisor.

    do you have the article or chapter in which she interprets wittgenstein?

    i ask because cluster concepts is exactly what i’ve been grasping at in the identity sphere. we each hold a variable number of ‘identity concepts’ that are mutually recognisable by other members of an identity group. they don’t all have to match, but they do have to be socialised and “common”.

  3. Now that I think about it, it wasn’t Natalie at all. Natalie was an advisor on my thesis. I have updated the post to correct that. Apparently the paper will be available here soon.

  4. “having lived in a strange land (and indeed, being about to do so again, soon)”
    Deborah are you going to somewhere strange again?

  5. Yes… and it’s not just inside my head! More details in a few weeks, when I finally walk out the door at work.

  6. I love change. I love how it acts on it’s own volition and we, mutely or not, bob along it’s flow.