Überlappende Teilkulturen und Mehrfachidentitäten (1991 - Wien)
Veranstalter: Österreichische UNESCO-Kommission und Volkshochschule Brigittenau


Overlapping cultures and plural identities (1991 - Vienna)
hosted by the Austrian National Commission for Unesco and Adult Education Academy Brigittenau



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 real culture.

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 change.

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 European children.

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 childhood.

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 cultural identities.


Spontaneous Anthropology

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 world.

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 groups.

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.


Interpretational Keys

It seems to me that the case story here outlined points to some key concepts in the field of multiple culture and social competence.

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 as:
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 Academy Brigittenau.

Überlappende Teilkulturen und Mehrfachidentitäten (1991 - Wien)

Overlapping cultures and plural identities (1991 - Vienna)