Cultural identity is a shared sense of identity within a cultural group. It is often related to race, religion, nationality and ethnicity, gender norms, beliefs, collective memory, and traditions of the culture.
The identity of a culture group is often embedded in the culture’s founding mythologies. For example, America’s founding myth of liberty from the British shapes many of its cultural features to this day, including its fierce independence and religious freedoms.
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Cultural Identity Definition
Cultural identity refers to the shared identity of a cultural group. Features of cultural identities include race, ethnicity, religion, gender norms, customs, and traditions.
Friedman (1994, p. 29) provides a scholarly definition:
“Cultural identity is the generic concept referring to the attribution of a set of qualities of a given population.”
According to scholar Benedict Anderson, cultural identities emerged around the time of the printing press. The spread of books and newspapers enabled the spread of cultural mythologies across large groups of people.
It is this time period when people came to see themselves as one unitary cultural group with a shared identity, despite the fact most would never meet one another.
Cultural Identity Examples
1. Religion In The Bible Belt
To many people, religion is central to their collective sense of self. For example, the Amish people in North America orient their lives around their fundamentalist interpretation of the bible.
Similarly, in the Bible Belt of the United States, religion is a central feature of the regional identity. Over 80% of people in the Bible Belt consider religion to be important of their lives, compared to less than 40% in the North-West of the nation.
In the late 20th Century, and continuing onto today, religion has become an increasingly less prominent feature of many Western cultural groups. Church attendance has declined and many people now openly state that they are agnostic or atheist. Nevertheless, due to its influence in the founding of many cultures, there will always be traces of religious influence in most cultural groups.
Related Article: Cultural Pluralism Vs Multiculturalism
2. Race And Ethnicity In The 20th Century
Some cultures choose to define themselves according to a particular racial makeup. Often, this can lead to tragic racial discrimination and prejudice.
For example, the German obsession with the ‘Arian’ (blue-eyed, white-skinned) ideal within Germany led to the atrocities of 1940s Europe. Similarly, in the United States, there has long been groups such who attempt to tie American identity to white-European racial identity.
However, we can also see that contemporary societies are increasingly seeing their cultural identity as multicultural where a degree of cultural pluralism is woven into the way the culture sees itself.
See Also: Ethnicity Examples
3. Gender Roles (Throughout History!)
Gender roles often vary between cultures. If you ascribe to a particular gender role from your culture, then this is an aspect of identity that you have gained from cultural immersion.
To demonstrate this, we can look at the 80 different gender identities from around the world. Some cultures even have 5 or more gender identities! For example, Indigenous people in Canada have a third gender called ‘two spirit’.
Similarly, some cultures may have different ideas about femininity and masculinity to your own. In one culture, macho men might be seen as more masculine, while in another, masculinity may be measured by intellect rather than strength.
Gender has been a central sociological concern for every different culture. The distribution of family tasked based on gender dates back as far as history. However, as different cultures relate to gender differently, we can see that it’s a facet of a person’s cultural identity.
Related Article: 17 Best Adversity Examples
4. Resilience In Immigrant Communities
It is not uncommon for immigrant communities to frame their identity around collective resilience.
The many immigrant stories, of people arriving on boats with little-to-no money, starting businesses, and thriving, contribute to a shared mythology of a resilient subcultural group within a multicultural nation.
Vietnamese-Americans, for example, arrived en masse in the United States after the Vietnam war, fleeing communism. These ardent capitalists started many businesses in the United States and enriched the whole culture, while also developing their own cultural identity as an American ethnic group while also maintaining their Vietnamese culture, hence developing a sense of transnational selves.
See Also: Multiculturalism vs Cultural Pluralism
5. Tolerance In Canada
Canada’s cultural identity is a product of its pluralistic origins. Part French-speaking, and with a substantial Indigenous population, the country has emerged as a place where people of different cultures and origins need to live together in harmony.
While Canada has a chequered past with Indigenous and Franco relations, the nation is also seen across the world as a highly multicultural, inclusive, and tolerant place.
Canada is also often framed by politicians in relation to American identity. While the two societies are very similar, Canadians will often create mythologies of how they are more social-democratic than their southern cousins.
For example, Canadian identity is often seen as gentle, polite, and tolerant.
6. The Stiff Upper Lip In Britain
During World War II, British people lived under constant threat of invasion. Collectively, the nation prided itself in proceeding under pressure without complaint.
The term ‘stiff upper lip’ was created to explain this mentality. It means to keep a brave face on in the face of adversity and to not complain, even when things are going wrong.
We commemorate the stiff upper lip of the British people with the famous 1940s poster that reads “keep calm and carry on.” This poster was placed around the streets at the time, reminding people to keep that stiff upper lip that has become part of the British cultural identity.
7. High Culture In France
France has long been considered the home of high culture. From fashion, to cuisine, to art, the country has been a trendsetter for centuries.
This is partly due to the fact that France was the center of the Western world during much of its history. The French language was also the international language of politics and diplomacy for many years.
In recent years, France has tried to protect its cultural identity from the homogenizing effects of globalization. This has led to some tension with other European nations, who see the country as being elitist and out of touch.
8. A Fair Go In Australia
In Australia, the mythology of the ‘fair go’ is used to define the nation’s cultural identity. It refers to the idea that everyone should be given a fair chance, regardless of their background or circumstances.
This philosophy is summed up in many Australian sayings (often heard from politicians) including: “fair shake of the bottle” and, from a recent Prime Minister, “if you have a go, you get a go.”
The fair go mentality underpins the nation’s sense of egalitarianism that pops up in other elements of the national identity as well. It’s a mentality that is anti-elite. For example, people even refer to the Prime Minister by his first name.
9. Liberalism In California
The cultural identity of California is extremely liberal. This is partly due to the state’s history as a haven for those fleeing persecution, such as the Mormons in the 1800s and the hippies in the 1960s.
It’s also due to the fact that California has always been at the forefront of social change in America. It was the first state to legalize gay marriage, for example.
The liberal identity of California is also reflected in its politics. The state has been a stronghold of the Democratic Party for many years.
10. Conservatism In Texas
By contrast, Texas has long been known as a conservative stronghold. The state has a strong military presence and is home to many large corporations.
This conservatism is also reflected in the state’s culture and values. For example, Texas is known for its fierce individualism and hostility to government intervention.
Similarly, it is a state with a significant rural agrarian population and a high number of conservative protestants. Both sub-groups are known to be highly conservative and embrace the rugged individualistic founding mythology of the United States of America.
11. French Language In Quebec
In the Canadian province of Quebec, the French language is an important part of the cultural identity. This is due to the historical presence of French settlers in the area, as well as the fact that Quebec is the only predominantly French-speaking province in Canada.
French Canadians are very protective of their language, aiming to protect it and preserve it because they see their language as central to their sense of cultural identity.
This has led to some tension with English-speaking Canadians, who sometimes see Quebec as a separate nation. This was most famously seen during the 1995 Quebec independence referendum when the French almost voted to succeed from the nation.
Other Examples of Cultural Identity Factors
- Dominant Ethnicity of a Culture (e.g. African American, Hispanic, Asian)
- Dominant Nationality of a Culture (e.g. American, Canadian, Chinese)
- Dominant Religion of a Culture (e.g. Christian, Muslim, Jewish)
- Gender Norms within a Culture
- Cultural Caste Statuses
Cultural identity is an important part of who we are and how we see ourselves. It can shape our sense of belonging and give us a sense of connection to others.
Different cultures around the world have different things that they see as important to their sense of identity. This can be seen in the examples of cultural identities discussed above.
Each culture has its own unique history and values that make it what it is. These factors play a role in shaping the cultural identity of a group of people. Globalization and other external forces can also impact a culture’s identity and introduce a lot of cultural variation even within a culture and nation itself.
Friedman, J. (1994). Cultural Identity and Global Process. New York: SAGE.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]