Identity in the Era of Globalization

Identity in the Era of Globalization develops the discussion introduced in my published paper.[1] I argue that identity has become a prominent issue since the latter years of the twentieth century. For many of today’s philosophers, political theorists and historians, questions of identity are central concerns. The question of identity can be approached from a number of perspectives. In addressing national identity, for instance, many commentators have primarily focused on three types of associations: by land (shared history, geography, state); by blood (shared ethnicity, race); and/or by culture (shared language, religion, arts, sciences). To discuss identity from these perspectives, however, would be a redundant and uninspiring exercise. Edward Said correctly says that, “Nothing seems less interesting than the narcissistic self-study that today passes in many places for identity politics, or ethnic studies, or affirmations of roots, cultural pride, drum-beating nationalism, and so on. ”[2] This self-affirmation fails to take into account the crisis that is responsible for much current tension around issues of identity. Reacting to a perceived threat of annihilation, nations often resort to exaggerations about their history and try to resolve the present tension by reminiscing about their historical and civilizational past. It is precisely this character that makes the approach obstructive and unsustainable. While such simplifications might be popular for fondly recalling historical glories, they fail to identify the reasons for the current crisis of identity and the challenges and prospects for overcoming it.

I argue that the notion of identity is paradoxical. On the one hand, it has generated a kind of emancipation from the dominant or better to say what is known as the universal culture. It entails the removal of force and suffering, caused by ignorance and the persistence of international authority in terms of westernization. On the other hand, the notion has enthroned a conception of ethnicity and of method that has been interpreted and used as a new form of traditional domination and/or governmental authority. As a result, I will conclude this section by articulating that the notions of non-identity and identity should be employed simultaneously to shed light on the problem of identity crisis. In the second section, I introduce a few significant cultural, political, and social elements to show that Iran is indeed having a deep crisis of identity. Finally in the third and last part of my research, I will emphasize that in the same way that a declined civilization can be reconstructed, a nation having an identity crisis can be revived through deconstructing and renewing its solid culture.

For identity to remain sustainable, first, the nature and causes of its crises must be identified, and second, explicit responses must be articulated to address specific issues. It is through these particular responses that an identity answers the questions of who and what it is. Distinguishing between historical and essentialist approaches in addressing the question of identity, I will make the case that traditional understandings which seek monolithism and homogeneity lead, at best, to a celebration of cultural and civilizational legacies of the past. While this attention may be helpful for historical analysis, it offers little for resolving the current crisis. Identity is less about identifying and revealing a hidden essence, and more about changes that occur through interaction with an external entity called ‘the Other’. As Stuart Hall points out, identity suggests an active process of representation, a process through which identity constantly changes by reinventing itself. Identity, then, really means the reinvention of identity, not holding it captive to history or to a cultural past. I will then proceed to discuss the challenges and prospects of reinventing identity, both in a general way (normative grounds), and in a specific way (in the particular context of Iran).

My intention is to address a central question in identity studies: can an identity rooted in a declined civilization – one in which both ‘moral’ and ‘material’ values have declined – be reinvented?[3] And if the general response is positive, then what are the necessary conditions for this reinvention? In appealing to the idea of a declined civilization, my intention is not to undermine the importance of Iran’s millennia-old civilizational history, or the significance of a hybrid language (Farsi) which Engels thought could be a “langue universelle toute trouvée” (universal language ready-made).[4]  The point, however, is that in the modern world, identity is measured against its intellectual contributions. In the modern era, a different understanding about the world and the individual’s place in it has emerged. Faced with this understanding, the Iranian identity has been experiencing a crisis of relevance. A new-gained relevance and recognition will not come through useless generalizations and recollections about the past. Instead, it requires developing new and particular articulations of identity which can be measured against other claims and other identities. To this end, I bring together various theories and approaches, from Western philosophies to non-Western thought, in order to show that ‘Iranian identity’ today is riveted to ‘universal identity’. I will contribute toward generating a more sufficient, though not necessarily complete or definitive, examination of the significant issue that constitutesidentity in today’s era of globalization.


[1] Hossein Mesbahian. “Reconstruction of Iranian Cultural Identity,” in Reconstruction of Iranian Identity in the Era of Globalization, Ghasidehsara Publication, Tehran, 2001: 54-91

[2]  Edward Said, “Between World,” London Review of Books, 7 May 1998, 8.

[3]  Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations, trans. Richard Mayne (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 5.

[4] Marx-Engles correspondence, June 6 1853, Manchester Library, Manchester.