‘There are places, just as there are people and objects, whose relationship of parts creates a mystery’ – Paul Nash
Introductions: some puzzles
The previous article on Identity focused on a personal exploration of the identity of individuals in a social context. This article explores some ideas around Identity and Place. This has two aspects: The possible impact of place on the identity of residents, and the potential for specific locations to have identities of their own.
On the first of these aspects it has been suggested that Place is one of a number of constituents of identity for residents of that location; and that there are interconnections between histories, geographies and social structures that play out as a form of identity.
This raises the puzzle: If place can be thought of as an influence on identities of the individuals who live there, that there are spatialised subjectivities, how does this happen?
On the second aspect (Can places have their own identities?), at a simple level, identity can be seen in terms of a set of place-related bureaucratic statistics. From this perspective, metrics and indicators might define the identity of a place. When a locality is allocated an identity in this way, there may be consequences for that place.
Beyond that, if (as suggested in the previous article) individual identity can be seen as constructed in on-going ways from fragments, coming into existence and being sustained through structured social practices of residents, can we see places in the same ways? Do localities develop and sustain identities that are whole entities constructed from kaleidoscopic aspects; and do places develop their identities through distinct stages?
The same puzzle arises, again: If this is so then how does it happen?
Place, itself, can be thought of in varied ways. A place can be bounded by lines on maps, even if the map is not the place. Birmingham (UK) has its mapped boundaries and divisions but can also be represented as a set of populations; a set of institutions with the City Council holding centre-place; a set of relationships and networks; and as one relative in the regional West Midlands family of places; or as a brand image.
An urban entity can also be, for some, more than a population, or a geographical size, or a collection of buildings, or a centre of production – it can be viewed as a place where various aspects of capitalism intersect in space. From this perspective, it is the process of gathering and dispersal of information and goods and people centred on some specific locus.
Whatever view one takes, a place like Birmingham can be referred to as a single, unique identity. It can also be characterised more as blocs of internal conflicts, or can just as easily be perceived as a complex set of fragmented sites of social-contested meanings.
Sometimes places may even be thought of as having multiple identities.
Much has been written about the ways global influences may be changing the nature of places, with trends towards globalisation threatening local identities and cultures, and threatening to eradicate differences between places.
Places might once have been identified largely in terms of single-communities but are increasingly being analysed in terms of superdiversities of population as higher volumes of people are increasingly mobile in very different ways and for very different purposes. Is this expanding the range of ways by which people locate themselves as members of place-based communities; and the ways the places promote their particular identity?
The identity of a place can become something narrowly-restricted as city-brand or, at the other extreme, can be open to so many interpretations as to be almost useless as an idea.
Within such complexities there will be those who seek to simplify: to create (and promote) a particular normalised identity associated with the place. This can be particularly true at the national level when, in the face of large-scale movements of peoples and cultures, there are calls for a fixed sense of national identity. Place-identity, then, becomes open to exploitation for political purposes
These aspects of identity and place are explored, predominantly in a UK context, in more detail below. Read more