On the initiative of Arne Haselbach, then Chairman of the Social Science and Development Committee of the Austrian National Commission for Unesco and Co-ordinator of the >Wiener Denk-Werkstatt<, a series of scientific workshops on "Overlapping Cultures and Plural Identities" was started in 1991.

The following six European workshops of National Commissions of Unesco (co-ordinated by the Austrian National Commission for Unesco) were held within the framework of the UNESCO World Decade for Culture:



What did we think of, when we formulated the title of the series?

Why did we use the notions 'overlapping cultures' on the one hand and 'plural identities' on the other?

Overlapping cultures

The notion "culture" - as used in the overall title of the series - does not only refer to national or ethnic cultures but relates to any group. Thus you have a variety of youth cultures, various business cultures, an academic culture, as many disciplinary cultures as there are scientific disciplines, a hunters' culture, a sailors' culture and many, many more.

We felt that - for gaining a better understanding of our modern world - it would be useful to take the wide variety of cultures into account and to accept that

  • there are many cultures within national societies and
  • many cultures which cut across nations.

When one talks of cultures in this sense, it becomes immediately clear

  • that many of these cultures overlap
  • that most people live in more than one of these group cultures.

It was also clear that the people living in more than one group culture were fully at home in at least some of them.

Plural identities

With that notion of "overlapping cultures" in mind we turned to "identity".

In dominant thinking it is absolutely clear that people have an identity. Identities are considered to be something coherent. Identities are considered to be wholes. And it is considered that an individual keeps his or her identity - whatever happens. That identity may change but it still remains that one identity.

Thus, we were faced with a situation in which the notion that identity was of a homogenous, non-contradictory, object-like quality and something which people possess was so strongly entrenched that it was difficult to deviate from that view.

Among a number of friends who were working with people from different cultures this idea created strong dissonances. Our own experiences showed a different picture:

  • It was clear that the different cultures in which one and the same person was at home had quite different - often even contradictory - views, behavioural codes and values. Despite that people succeeded to live with these contradictory rules.
  • It was also clear that in order to reflect about anything one had to be able to change positions or perspectives and to approach the same matter from different angles. If one was 'one', and identical, how could one succeed to reflect about anything?

In confronting these dissonances we came up with the solution that individual people had plural identities - an idea which seemed to coincide with the message that Marcel Duchamp tried to convey in his picture in which he painted himself five times - sitting around a table.

We, thus, decided to start a process by which we could collect descriptions which showed that people had plural identities and by which we could - step by step - try and find out how these plural identities of individuals develop, what processes were involved, how people manage to deal with that plurality in their daily lives and how they move from one 'cultural register' to another.

In short - we wanted to do away with the unreal construct of a coherent, non-contradictory 'identity' and wanted to find out what the real processes were that - in our cultures - we have come to call 'identity'.