Friday, May 31, 2013

Cultural Borders and the Construction of Identity

by Brent Rosenstein

The Mediterranean region is often held up as a textbook example of a cultural crossroads: a meeting of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East; the intersection of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; the marked, if somewhat porous, borders of north and south, east and west. Is this really the fairest interpretation, though? The Mediterranean’s role as crossroads for people, goods, and ideas is certainly beyond question, and rightly so. However, the acknowledged borders within the region - political, social, or otherwise - may warrant some revision. This was the topic of the talk given by Professor miriam cooke at the University of Illinois on March 4, 2013. Her fascinating discussion of Mediterranean cultural perspectives and identities highlighted some of the issues that arise from the strictness of conventional cultural “bordering”.

It could be argued that most borders are merely artificial constructs, whether they are hard, that is, legally defined national borders, or soft, like the attributed north-south divide of the Mediterranean. However, while the former do have a definite purpose and necessity, its possible that the importance of the latter has been overplayed. While I am not trying to downplay the historical and social significance of the conceptions of the “other” in the formation of cultural identity, it should probably be recognized that the such constructions tend to be over-generalizing and somewhat arbitrary, and that, as Professor cooke pointed out, they should not be shielded by tradition when they obscure valuable cultural interactions and histories.

A good way to clarify this would be to examine the oft-debated question of what it means to be “European”. In an article on the subject of European “bordering”, Klaus Eder provides an excellent summation of the tradition conception of European identity, describing it as “cultural, political, and ethnic heterogeneity united by a common religion.” While this notion was eventually proved untenable due to growing religious conflicts within the continent, and a unified European narrative largely fell out of favor with the rise of the nation state and stronger national identities, the general concept lingered, only to be revived after the Second World War.1  This reveals that even long-standing, “traditional” notions of identity and borders can be rather arbitrary, and can be modified to suit changing socio-political situations. This should by no means be viewed as a condemnation of such practices, as they seem to be natural part of how societies come to conceive of themselves, and it is good that these identities and constructions of the “other” are not firmly set in stone. Rather, it should be used as part of the recognition that cultural borders, while not entirely without value, are not as firmly established as hard borders, and so should not be held up as strict delineations between peoples. As the Mediterranean region has made abundantly clear, when different cultures and ideas exist in close proximity, the established walls between them tend to crumble.

Brent Rosenstein is a first year student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies (MAEUS) program at the University of Illinois. His research interests include international security efforts and human rights issues within the EU.

1Klaus Eder, “Europe’s Borders: The Narrative Construction of the Boundaries of Europe,” European Journal of Social Theory 9, no. 2 (May 1, 2006): 260–2.

Image source: "Golfe de Tunis et port de Sidi Bou Saïd," Wikimedia Commons:


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