Anne Knudsen (Copenhagen)
Interpreting Identity - The History
of a Child Anthropologist [*]
The concepts of attachment and belonging loom large in anthropological
research. Indeed, the entire field of anthropology has traditionally
defined its objects - islands, tribes, villages, families, "cultures"
- in a conceptual space which implies the relevance of "home".
Their home, or ours.
What was situated between these two places was either invisible,
or regrettable. Humans who found themselves between these well
defined homes were halfcaste, displaced, rootless and without
However, in recent years it has become obvious that large
groups of people do not live "at home" nor do they
simply go "abroad". They rather live "around".
The presence of this phenomenon has led to some theory development,
notably within the framework of "creolisation". Also,
the fact of non-localised culture groups has led to some re-consideration
of the notion of community as a well defined, localised and rather
closed conceptual "place".
But only little anthropological research has as yet been done
among actual people living between cultures and places. The non-localised
cultural field is still largely unexplored.
In the following, I shall discuss some of the questions related
to mobility between cultures which are generally understood as
localised and well defined. In the absence of larger investigations,
I will take as my point of departure my own experience as what
might be called a child anthropologist. I wish to suggest that
this example, though personal, can to some degree be generalised
- or at least throw light on general problems.
The Children of Power
Like many European nations, Denmark has had colonies. Most
of them were small and insignificant, but one was large, and
came to play a part in the lives of many Danes: Greenland. Since
the midseventeenth century, Danes have been the administrators,
missionaries, teachers, doctors, and judges in this sparsely
populated, enormous island with its traditional Inuit Arctic
hunting culture. Until the Second World War, the Danish policy
was to minimize contact between Inuit and Europeans. The colony
was a closed colony where settlers, traders and travellers alike
were far from welcome. On the western coast some integration
and inbreeding took place between the few Europeans and the local
population. But until the beginning of this century, the eastern
coast had never been visited by Europeans, and not until 1953
when the colony was reclassified as an integral part of Denmark,
did any significant number of Danes arrive in Eastern Greenland
to develop infrastructure, health service, education, and economic
Among the administrators in the biggest town on the east coast
- Angmagssalik, a mere hamlet of around 500 souls, immediately
south of the polar circle - was my father. My brother and I grew
up in Angmagssalik until the age of 13, two among less than 10
On the face of things, Europeans and Inuit led separate lives.
The Europeans were a colonial nobility, living in large houses
with bathrooms, central heating, carpets, dining rooms, grand
pianos, and maids, while the Inuit only during the late 50es
and early 60es were - more or less willingly - moved from their
halfburied winter houses made of grass turf and stone and their
summer tents of hide. Small, modern houses of wood were built
specifically for the Inuit and leased to them at a small price.
In the 50es, the houses lacked running water and electricity,
but were provided with iron stoves for heating. In addition to
this planned development, a small number of improvised, shanty
town homes had already been raised before 1955. Outside every
house, a pack of 15 to 30 sledge dogs fed, slept, and quarrelled,
a danger to children, and the pride of their owner.
The relationship between grown up Europeans and all Inuit
was, of course, clearly a power relation. The Europeans were
the masters, and the Inuit as often as not classified as childlike.
But the situation of the European children vis-à-vis the
Inuit was much less clear.
Even the children of the mighty do not have power. Not only
are they by implication classified together with the 'childlike'
colonised. In practical terms, they spend their life in the kitchen
with the maids, outside with the local children, and on the harbour
or the building sites with the workmen. All these people are
non-Europeans. The children, as a matter of fact, rather share
the structural position of the colonised. They cannot vote, they
do not have money, they have to obey, their ideas are not taken
seriously. Children are socially defined by their lack of power.
And, in my experience, in case of conflict they rather often
actively side with the powerless native.
Furthermore, the children of colonial masters are quite simply
brought up by natives. They generally see much more of the servants
and the servants' families than they do of their own. They are
fed, washed, dressed, comforted, and put to bed by people who
do not share the culture the children are supposed to belong
to. The nursery rhymes belong to the local country, not to the
distant, rather hypothetical home. A large proportion of what
these children learn about their body, about feelings, and about
daily gestures is quite different from what would have been the
case "at home". What they do together with their nanny,
and what they do in their mother's company belong to two distinctly
different cultural codes.
Happily Plural Lives
But interestingly, this does not necessarily mean that the
children think they live in two different cultures. In the first
place, they have no grounds for comparison. It's their first
Secondly, neither the mother nor the nanny has any clear idea
that one blows one's nose or dries one's tears in culturally
specific ways. The very fact that there is a discourse about
cultural difference - as is always the case in colonial situations
- means that some topics are privileged by the discourse, while
others simply do not enter conscious life. In Eastern Greenland
during this period, the natives were defined as hunters and trappers,
and the Europeans as administrators. Inuit language is very far
indeed from any European language, including Danish. Dress, hair
and skin colour, eating habits, ways of livelihood, furniture
- everything served as distinctive marks of difference. All involved
knew of all the recognised differences. They constituted the
topics of cultural discourse.
Both Danes and Inuit were very aware of the immense cultural
difference between the essentially peasant, lowland European
culture of the ancient kingdom of Denmark, and the hunter culture
of the dangerous, forbidding Arctic with its shamanism, sexual
tolerance, and its absence of social differentiation. Inuit drum
dances do not in the least resemble Danish music or dances. The
Danes in Greenland viewed themselves as cultural ambassadors
or missionaries for civilisation.
But Danish culture shares with Inuit culture (and as far as
I know: with most cultures) a firm conviction that elementary
activities are not modelled by culture but by nature. It does
not occur to the average Dane that one could sleep, laugh, cry,
make love, listen, watch the landscape, or comfort a crying child
in more than one way.
So, we children grew up without knowing that we moved between
cultures when we passed the threshold of the dining room. And
our parents did not know that they had provided us with plural
Like most children of expatriate Europeans, Danish children
stayed in Greenland only till the early teens, when education
in the homeland was considered a necessity. Coming to Denmark
with the illusion of being Danish but unable to manage the everyday
cultural codes was a terrifying experience. What was difficult
was not the areas defined as cultural. We spoke the language,
knew the classical literature, the songs, the history and the
explicit norms. What we did not know was the obvious, the implicit.
That land was under private ownership and trespassing an offence.
That meals were private and that joining even other children's
meals therefore bad form. Our understanding of differences of
code had been related to age and position. We did not know that
what had seemed to us the adults' world was merely the Danish
So, we became amateur anthropologists, painstakingly noting,
analysing, and memorising implicit rules. Unlike many other children
with the same kind of background (and for reasons I do not know),
we did not suppress the memory of our childhood, but kept it
alive if remote. We remembered the initial experience: that things
can be quite different. And though my brother and I have found
very different careers and life styles, we have as grown-ups
discovered that we share a distinct behaviour with our own children.
What seems to us obvious in relation to children often strikes
other Danes as odd. The process of discovering our plural cultural
identities is still going on.
This does not mean that we have been more unhappy than most,
not even as adolescents - except for the initial shock of coming
"home" and finding a foreign society. We have - both
of us - managed rather well in Danish society. But it is my impression
that it does mean that we have a somewhat higher degree of cultural
mobility than most of our neighbours. As adults, we tend to reproduce
our childhood world with its distinct spheres of culture. We
both have separate series of friends, some of whom would rather
be caught dead than in the others' company. We do not seem to
experience serious problems by having friends in explicitly antagonistic
This, of course, is different from what has become known as
creolisation. It is not a question of mixing cultural codes and
thus obtaining a homogenous "creole" culture, but of
being able to shift between mutually contradictory cultural norms.
A sort of "constructive schizophrenia". This ability
might serve as an alternative to the more obvious creation of
new - mixed but exclusive - cultures.
It seems to me that the case story here outlined points to
some key concepts in the field of multiple culture and social
First, I find it worth noting that the difference between
the children's world and the adult world in this case was not
understood as in any way exceptional. It was merely a difference
among other differences. Women, men, and children all speak and
behave differently between themselves than they do in mixed company.
Everybody behaves differently with the neighbour's child than
with the official from the tax office. These differences are
often very distinct, even down to gesture, vocabulary and syntax.
Even so, they are not understood as different identities, but
as status differences or differences in style. Nobody wonders
that a person manages more than one style.
Secondly, the term style refers to the rather tenacious relation
between expression and meaning. Nobody expects style to be "true"
or profound. Style is understood as a means for expression, not
as the meaning of what is communicated. And my example suggests
that what we see as cultural expression may very well be of the
same order. Culturally distinct behaviour of course creates cultural
"truths", but it does not by necessity spring from
essential differences. Cultural values are implications that
can be read from social behaviour, not the other way around.
Thirdly, this means that everybody is an anthropologist. Members
of even very closely knit social groups have to interpret acts
and words in order to live in society. If one has a large number
of comparable data, the interpretation becomes more or less automatic.
Nevertheless, it does take place. And even the best adjusted,
competent and central member of a culturally defined group occasionally
misinterprets his brother's words or behaviour. Only if social
life were entirely ritualised, with all gestures prescribed,
this would not be so.
And finally, I would therefore conclude that the discourse
about localised cultures - cultural islands, as it were - in
itself produces the frames of reference which make it difficult
to move between cultural codes. The interpretation and identification
of certain types of behaviour as "homely" and others
as "foreign" is a strategy against cultural competence.
Even people who stay at home are interpreting their surroundings.
and are themselves interpreted by others in a never-ending process
of creating identities.
The days of colonial empires are luckily over. But more people
than ever live in foreign countries, as immigrants or specialists
or refugees. Their life would be easier if they reconciled themselves
to their plural identity.
After all, most people cannot be summed up in one sentence
or in one identity.
© Anne Knudsen
- [*] to be quoted
- Anne Knudsen »Interpreting Identity - The History of
a Child Anthropologist«, European Expert Meeting "Overlapping
cultures and plural identities" (Vienna, 23-26 May 1991)
organised within the framework of the UNESCO World Decade for
Cultural Development by the Austrian National Commission for
Unesco and "Wiener Denk-Werkstatt" at the Adult Education
Teilkulturen und Mehrfachidentitäten (1991 - Wien)
cultures and plural identities (1991 - Vienna)