Research approaches to identity construction

Liberal, postmodern thought – identified with the work of Jacques Derrida, among others – denies the individual his or her cultural, national, and religious values as reference points for self-identification for expressly “humanistic” reasons.

This tradition relies on a narrative in due time best communicated by the Renaissance Italian thinker Pico della Mirandola: “Taking man, therefore, this creature of indeterminate image, He set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him: ‘We have given you, Oh Adam; no visage proper to yourself, nor any endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision.”[1]

In truth, the idea that an individual is free to define him or herself is an illusion. As Alain Touraine notes in Can We Live Together?: Equality and Difference, “the subject doesn’t form itself in close contact within the self, on the basis of his personal experience, in the context of personal pleasure and social success. He exists only in the struggle with market forces and community; he does not create an ideal city and a superior individual, but rather develops and defends the lawn that is under a continuous threat of invasion”.[2]

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a range of intellectuals tried to project the society of the future, and the people who would inhabit it, without resorting to a concept of identity. Prominent among these attempts are the often-cited The End of History and the Last Man (1989) by Francis Fukuyama (1992), as well as Giorgio Agamben’s remarkable The Coming Community (1993), in which the Italian philosopher proposed a left-wing alternative to that Fukuyama’s thesis. In his book, Agamben strongly opposes any identity, calling for the creation of a new vision of the future, where singularity, devoid of any identifications, will be considered a unit: “Whatever singularities cannot form a ‘societas’ because they do not possess any identity to vindicate nor any bond of belonging for which to seek recognition”.[3] In his opinion, a man of the future will be able to communicate with his own kind on new grounds that will put an end to all prevailing concepts of the world, state, and ourselves.

Fukuyama did not strongly oppose the human capability to adjoin cultural and national identity. However, he also did not ascribe to it any serious impact on economy and politics in those cases when the institutions of liberal democracy would be given the opportunity to act freely in societies: “National groups can retain their separate languages and senses of identity, but that identity would be expressed primarily in the realm of culture rather than politics. The French can continue to savor their wines and the Germans their sausages, but this will all be done within the sphere of private life alone.”[4]

20th Century European Ideas demonstrate different emphases on the role and significance of cultural identity. It is important to note that these research lines originated in ethnology and ethnography – in sciences that avoid universal clichés and base their arguments on specific material (often that of primitive cultures).

Thus, Claude Levi-Strauss finds a correlation between linguistic aspects and fields of art, ideology, etc.:  “The object of comparative structural analysis is not the French or English language, but rather a certain number of structures, which the linguist can derive from these empirical entities… I compare, rather, a certain number of structures which I seek where they may be found, and not elsewhere: in other words, in the kinship system, political ideology, mythology, ritual, art, code of etiquette, and – why not? – cooking.”[5] Next to Levi-Strauss’s comment about national cuisine possibly featuring in such structures, Fukuyama’s Bavarian reference to sausages no longer seems like delicate irony in the context of structuralism.

Depending on the answer to the question “What is a human being?” scientific research is divided in two. Universalistic approaches regard humans as the product of economic and social relations, while ethnographic methodologies aim to find foundations for natural and cultural factors underlying identity overlaid with economic and social relations.

‚The other‘ as the beginning of self-identification

The problem with these first and second approaches is the assumptions they make about natural processes for both the person and humankind more generally. It is possible to speak about cultural or civilisational processes in relation to the logic of their development. However, in the context of modernity we face essentially new reality with only “scraps” of natural processes remaining, deprived of habitual logic.

Modern science is forced to look for those anthropological and social spheres where the “human” remains “human”, despite catastrophic and illogical transformations.

Let us turn to classical definitions of a person once again. A person is individual substance (Boethius’s definition, persona est naturæ rationalis individua substantia), he is causa sui (B. Spinoza’s definition of substance). However, individual substance exists only along with other individual substances.

In fact, the notion of the other is what consistently supports the development of personality. According to Lev Vygotsky’s remarkable observation, “one can say that we become ourselves through others, and this rule refers not only to the personality as a whole, but to the history of every single function… The personality becomes for itself what it is in itself through things it presents to others”.[6] The other in this case is neither an obstacle nor a restriction, but a mirror, a way to self-image. It means that other also establishes the border of “Ego” and certifies “Ego.” One can say that correlating your being to the being of an other is a fundamental quality of “humanity”.

The attitude of Eastern philosophy towards human nature is of particular interest here. In her article “Intercivilisational Dialogues as a Path Toward a Community of Common Destiny,” Jiahong Chen notes:

What Heaven commands is called nature (性 xing). To follow nature is called the Way (道 Dao). To cultivate the Way is called education (p. 1625). Immediately we see a profound departure from the more intellectualist Greek philosophy. For Confucius, to be human is not equivalent with being rational, but instead means being ‘ren’ or human-hearted, which amounts to being loving and caring. The classic Chinese lexicon Shuowen says, ‘ren means affections’. Confucius says that ren is to ‘love people’ (Analects 12.22) and the method of achieving ren is shu 恕—reciprocity or comparing one’s own heart to other hearts with compassion (Analects 6.30).[7]

In the context of modernity, when society loses natural mechanisms of establishing solidarity – religion, morals, norms – the “I and the other” mechanism gains compensatory value, bringing to the forefront new forms of public solidarity at the level of subcultures and small social groups. In part, this phenomenon can explain the aspiration of modern humans to “network” the formation of public life. From this perspective, it seems highly probable that phenomena including perception of the other, reciprocity, and solidarity are enduring anthropological qualities that should be considered when speaking about modern humans.

Problems of identity in the context of today’s global world

The other, culture, values – none of these concepts was permanent at the time of postmodernism. According to an apt remark by Zygmunt Bauman[8], the identity of a person takes the form of „fluid modernity“, since it is a “variable”. Different types of identity replace and “overlap” with each other.

At the same time, this  “the cultural code”, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss and Hans-Georg Gadamer (“thinking always moves along the path laid by the language”[9]), is an integral part of an individual’s consciousness and a holistic symbolic system.

The era of globalisation, with its complex processes leading to an erosion of traditional values, subjects nations to both spontaneous and externally directed influences, resulting in 20thdeeply rooted symbolic patterns changing rapidly. The interpenetration of ethno-cultural communities can have unforeseen results, as different social, political, and economic practices collide. That is when Lev Gumilev’s warning about the risks posed by the sudden migration of large population groups becomes particularly interesting: “ethnic cross-breeding is always ambiguous. Under certain circumstances of place and time, it kills ethnic substrates, under other circumstances – it deforms them, under the third circumstances – it transforms them into a new ethnic group. In any case, it always leaves a trace. That is why ethnic negligence in the context of the whole nation, tribal marriage or monogamous family, should be qualified as criminal levity towards the descendants”. [10]

We are used to considering ethnogenesis processes and the formation of new cultures as the heritage of history, something that happened long ago. But new ethnic “symbolic worlds” are being formed within the territory of modern Europe right now. Thus, ethnologist D. E. Nicoglo notes that Gagauz’ symbol and myth creation is a modern process that started in the 1980s.[11] This is a general tendency within various ethnic and cultural communities within the territory of the former USSR. Perhaps this means that human nature has an inherent need, above and beyond the existence of identity in the abstract, for new forms of thinking about the world and new cultural coding, that will be inevitable in case traditional identities are lost or wiped out.

New religious phenomena, such as New Age culture and neo-fundamentalism provide interesting material for reflecting on these trends. Neo-fundamentalism, as a “purification” of religion that supposedly removes cultural and historical layering, reveals its presence in all major world religions. The person, who has lost his or her cultural identity, often looks for refuge in communities where religious behaviour is clear of tradition as well as critical thinking.

As Olivier Roy notes, “all religious revival movements at the end of the twentieth century feature anti-intellectualism, which fostered more emotional religiosity, linked with individualism and intellectual authority crises… They play on emotions through rituals and collective demonstrations of faith using bright symbolic markers of belonging to the community (for example, candles lighting by Lubavitch Hasids). Catholic World Youth Day is a play on direct emotional contact between the Pope and ‘youth’ bypassing the religious establishment. The majority of young people do not know church teaching and are indifferent to it. They simply enjoy meeting the Pope.”[12]

The search for new identity leads to the emergence of communities and religious systems which legitimise the inability to sustain positive social identification based on national cultures. The difference between new religious systems and traditional ones is significant. The symbolic space of traditional culture exhibits a large number of barriers with the delineation of boundaries, behavioural models, and a specific spectrum of spiritual development paths. New religious communities and systems, by contrast, which are formed under the influence of Westernization and globalisation, virtually separate religion from culture, resulting in hybrid phenomena lacking in the natural mechanisms intrinsic to spiritual practices.

Roy notes with regard to traditional Islam: “Globalisation blurred the interconnection of religion, traditional culture, specific society and territory. Social authority of religion disappeared largely, though not exclusively, due to the experience of living as a Muslim in the West. What is perceived today as an all-pervasive re-Islamisation movement or Islamic renaissance, researchers explain as a protest of identity (Burgat, 2003) or the way to reconcile modernity, self-affirmation and authenticity (in particular, for example, it is about women with Western education returning to wear hijab).”[13]   

It is with all this in mind that Indian philosopher Akeel Bilgrami inquires about what comprises a personality today, asking how it might be possible to stop existing in an alienated world and feel important. He sees a significant element of cultural identity in religion (in this case – in Islam): “What is a Muslim? Fundamental Commitment and Cultural Identity”.[14] Thus, secularisation and multiculturalism eliminates culture as life experience, and a person is left searching for sense in political and ethical ideas, remaining in a state of “metaphysical fascination” (Akeel Bilgrami, 2014).


“One-dimensional man” actively seeks new communities to create a new identity in place of the lost one: “This is followed by two things. First, it is possible to adapt to globalization either through a liberal-reformist approach, through a spiritual-charismatic one (as in the Christian Evangelistic movement), or through neo-fundamentalism with its focus on shariah (law) and ibadat (rituals). All of them are based on the individual reinterpretation of personalised religiosity… The last two approaches have one common quality: they reject all theological and philosophical dimensions, preferring piety (ibadat). Fundamentalism equals Westernization and serves primarily (although not exclusively) as a tool of Westernization.”[15]

Identity construction mechanisms: Possible social practices

The loss of traditional mechanisms of identity construction will certainly require compensation either through the formation of new syncretic cultural codes, or through resorting to extreme religious or national practices. At the same time, the need for new approaches to encouraging solidarity continues to grow in contemporary society. Does the mean that processes of cultural identification remain in the traditional societies of the past?

It is interesting in this context to refer to classical anthroposociogenesis theory. It implies that the biological development of humankind remains in a situation close to immobility, in comparison with the rapid social and economic growth of that has been taking place since the dawn of the modern era. However, this gap in dynamics affirms the importance of duality in understanding the development of humankind, though more and more modern studies confirm the importance of systemic anthropological vision[16].

What does the concept of human biological nature include? We are used to speaking about the individual as a biosocial entity. Perhaps, it is a “biocultural” entity to the same degree.

Lev Gumilev notes: “a thinking personality is an integral part of the organism and thus doesn’t go beyond natural world”. [17]According to Gumilev, ethnic groups – a notion in which the biological, cultural, and social are closely interconnected – are “a phenomenon on the border of biosphere and sociosphere,” where biological characteristics appear to be an intrinsic foundation. While western traditions of social and anthropological knowledge regard compliance with these natural qualities as the basis for cultural and national identity, i.e. as an external origin for the person himself, Gumilev convincingly shows that ethnogenesis principles lie in biological human nature itself.

Actually, Gumilev’s approach reveals an unexpected turn in anthropological research. If the unity of a landscape, cultural codes, and passion is part of biological human nature, that means that culture in the form of an internal directive turns out to be a basic “spring” of humanity hidden from outside and “covered” by culture as a social phenomenon.

Because ethnogenesis, as a process encompassing the natural development of ethnic groups and cultures, is advancing much slower than technical and social processes, it is extremely important to maintain its natural rhythm, since, according to the aforementioned opinion of Gumilev, the risks of ethnic cross-breeding are completely unpredictable.

This means that, for the sake of preserving “humanism” as an anthropological measure to combat the crisis, the mechanisms of constructing cultural identity are worth listing in a public “Red Book”.

What specific actions can strengthen mechanisms for the natural continuity of culture?

1) Ensuring the complete sovereignty of national states.

The state should be a regulatory system of practices and at the same time a result of the historical consciousness development within a specific territory. “In its spiritual essence, a state is nothing else but homeland, formalised and united by public law; or many people, bound by common spiritual destiny and consolidated through living on the grounds of spiritual culture and legal awareness.”[18] In this case, other states and international organisations should not encourage or ignore irresponsible interference in the affairs of any sovereign countries.

Globalization should be considered a foundation for communicative interaction of cultures and national states, rather than an instrument of Westernisation. Neoliberalism, as a system of political and economic practices, is one of the outcomes of Western civilisation’s development, which became possible with the loss of social and cultural regulators. Economic and political state practices should preserve the opportunities to save the foundations of cultural and social authenticity.

2) Developing internal public mechanisms for the establishment of solidarity through the broad involvement of state citizens in the process of building the society and the state.

An argument by Bassam Tibi, an expert on Islam, underscores the degree to which European consciousness lacks ésprit de corps. The lack of this important component creates identity crisis: “For Ibn Khaldun […] each vivid civilisation is based on a spirit of asabiyya, best translated with Montesquieu’s term “ésprit de corps,” as already mentioned. The rise and decline of civilizations is related by Ibn Khaldun to the state of asabiyya: if this is strong, then a civilisation thrives; when it weakens, then the decay begins. As a Muslim immigrant living in Europe, I believe I can see a very weak European asabiyya facing the strong self-assertive sentiments of Muslim newcomers.”[19]

In this context, it is also important to develop intellectual dialogue inside states, as well as in intercultural and intercivilisational relations, as well as the construction of communicative openness models in the sphere of public action.

3)  Promoting the development of a system of education in which culture plays a prominent role.

Education from school to university is an important key mechanism of cultural and civil identity construction. Educational systems should include a combination of the humanities that help to develop cultural and civilisational symbolic space. As Jiahong Chen correctly notes: “We all agree that liberal arts education has played a significant role in cultivating humanity.”[20] We also agree with the following opinion of professor Hans Alma: “Education of children and youth should pay specific attention to developing their capacity for perspective-taking… Education should pay a lot of attention to social imaginaries and worldview pluralism.”[21]

4) Supporting the preservation and development of established cultural, civil, and traditional institutions.

Family is an important institution for the preservation of traditional cultural identity. It is in the family that a worldview and models for public behaviour are established. In the family, the person learns the qualities of humanism – the experience of love, respectful attitude towards others, a positive perception of reality and social responsibility. Preservation of a healthy family ethos should remain a principal public strategy, irrespective of controversial public debates.

5) Providing the conditions for citizens from different countries to access global cultural achievements of their people and all humankind by means of formal and grassroots diplomacy, cultural and scientific forums, and educational programs.



[1] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Oration on the dignity of man. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1956, p. 6.

[2] Touraine, A. Can We Live Together?: Equality and Difference. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.  The quote is taken in Russian from : R. Nureev. Essays on history of instructionalizm. Rostov-on- Don: «Sodeystvie– XXI century», 2010, p. 165.

[3] Giorgio Agamben. The Coming Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Sixth printing 2007, p. 85.

[4] Francis Fukuyama. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992, p. 271-271.

[5] Claude Lévi-Strauss. Structural Anthropology. New York: BASIC BOOKS, Inc ., Publishers, 1963, p. 85.

[6] Vygotsky L. C. Complete works: in 6 v. Т.3 Problems of psyche development/Under red. Of  A. M. Matyushkina М.: Pedagogics, 1983, p. 169.

[7] Jiahong Chen. Dialogues as a Path Toward a Community of Common Destiny, June 30, 2016, р.9-10.

[8] Bauman Z. The Individualized Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001

[9] Hans-Georg Gadamer. „The Philosophical Foundations of the Twentieth Century.“ Philosophical Hermeneutics. Ed. and trans. David E. Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, p. 107-129.

[10] L. Gumilev. Ethnogenesis and Earth’s biosphere. Moscow: Iris-press, 2007, p. 330-331.

[11] Nicoglo D. To the question of ethnic myths and symbols formation within Gagauz // Ethnosociological and ethnopsychological  practices: methodological approaches and comments (teaching-educational guide for High School).Series: Ethnosocial practices. Kishinev: Komrat, 2010, p.56

[12] Olivier Roy. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, Columbia University Press, 2006.
The quote is taken in Russian from

[13] Olivier Roy. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, Columbia University Press, 2006.
The quote is taken in Russian from

[14] Critical Inquiry, vol. 18, n. 4 Identities (Summer 1992) 821-842.

[15] Olivier Roy. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, Columbia University Press, 2006.
The quote is taken in Russian from

[16] For example, Philippe Descola Philippe. Beyond Nature and Culture. Janet Lloyd (trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

[17] L. Gumilev. Ethnogenesis and Earth’s biosphere. Moscow: Iris-press, 2007, p. 15

[18] I. Ilyin. The way of spiritual renewal. Moscow, 2006, p. 290.

[19] Bassam Tibi, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe. New York: Routledge, 2008, p. 167.

[20] Jiahong Chen. Dialogues as a Path Toward a Community of Common Destiny, June 30, 2016, p.11.

[21] Hans Alma. The European project in psychological, December 11, 2017.

The European project in psychological perspective



Kira Preobrazhenskaya, PhD, Head of project “Axiological, normative, cultural, and civilizational context of personal identity in boundary situations of post-modernism”,  Head of the Department of philosophical anthropology and public communications of the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia

Anton Kudryavzev, Department of philosophical anthropology and public communications of the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia, Graduate student

Valeryi Znoev, PhD in Economics, Co-author of project “Axiological, normative, cultural, and civilizational context of personal identity in boundary situations of post-modernism”, Executive Director of Limited Liability Company “Center for International Humanitarian Cooperation”

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.