In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Identity

  • Introduction
  • Early Influential Works
  • Core Texts and Articles
  • Textbooks and Readers
  • Theory

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Communication Cultural Identity
Yea-Wen Chen, Marion G. Mendy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0254


Cultural identity is a multidimensional concept that has fascinated scholars, researchers, and practitioners in (intercultural) communication and related disciplines over time. The year 2020 has witnessed renewed interests in and debates about a multiplicity of cultural identities, which demonstrate the concept’s relevance in everyday interactions across local and global contexts. For instance, both the rise of conservatism across the globe (including white nationalism in the United States during the Trump administration) and the push for greater equity and inclusion for all (e.g., Black Lives Matter movement, sexual misconduct policies, and gender-neutral bathrooms in public spaces) have garnered and regenerated needs to better understand cultural identity as a complex and contested communication construct. Analytically, cultural identity encompasses a wide range of socially constructed categories that influence how a person knows and experiences his/her/their social world (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, socioeconomic status, ability, sexuality, religion, and more). As a social construct, cultural identity deals with important questions about conceptions, understandings, and lived experiences regarding the self in relation to others across time, space, and context. In particular, cultural identity—as opposed to identity—focuses on questions regarding membership in, acceptance into, (dis)identification with, and/or negotiation of (un)belongingness to various groups vis-à-vis communication. Questions about “difference” in a myriad of ways are at the heart of inquiries about cultural identity. That is, cultural identity is better understood as “cultural identities” as always already plural, intersecting, and evolving along various power lines that relate to histories, politics, and social forces. Communication scholars have studied the concept of cultural identity from different perspectives and approaches (e.g., functionalist, interpretive, and critical lenses). In this article, influential works are identified and reviewed in related fields such as psychology, sociology, and cultural studies that have shaped the study of cultural identity in (intercultural) communication in US academia. Then, core texts and articles in communication are considered that represent key issues, core debates, and central arguments about cultural identities, which are followed by textbooks and readers, a review of journals, and prominent theories of cultural identity by intercultural communication scholars in the United States. The article ends with major areas of study.

Early Influential Works

The scholarship of cultural identity is influenced by intellectual thoughts across disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, and cultural studies. The foundation of cultural identity is about how the self experiences, locates, communicates, and/or performs himself/herself/themselves in relation to ingroup and outgroup members within existing social hierarchies. Several key publications pave the way for understanding cultural identity as quintessentially a communication phenomenon with cultural particularities, situated-ness, and significance within and across groups. Across the different perspectives on and approaches to cultural identity, much of the current understanding is influenced by and builds on the work of the following studies in a chronological order. Du Bois 1994 (first published in 1903) examines conflicting identities experienced by Black Americans at the dawn of the 20th century. Published posthumously, Mead 1934 describes symbolic interactionism based on student notes of Mead’s lectures on social psychology at the University of Chicago together with selections from unpublished manuscripts that Mead left. Goffman 1959 offers dramaturgy as a framework to understand the presentation of self as everyday performance. Rooted in the identity experiences of the colonized Others, Said 1978 describes a conceptualization of orientalism. Tajfel 1981 develops social identity theory to understand the experiences of ingroup and outgroup members. Foucault 1982 offers a view of identity in response to power relations and knowledge. Anzaldúa 1987 offers border/lands theory to describe the experiences of living and straddling between two or multiple worlds. Hall and du Gay 1996 is a collection of essays featuring postmodern approaches to identity. In particular, Hall and du Gay 1996 stresses that the issue of cultural identity has been vigorously debated in social theories.

  • Anzaldúa, G. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The new mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

    In this influential work, Anzaldúa coins and develops borderlands theory to capture the rich struggles of living within and outside cultures, languages, and social structures that are both safe and unsafe such as Chicanas growing up in South Texas long the US-Mexico border. Anzaldúa’s work both challenges marginalizing and oppressing systems and embraces new consciousness and lines of inquiries that draw from living/straddling between two worlds.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. 1994. The souls of black folk. New York: Dover.

    In this groundbreaking book, Du Bois coins an influential term “double-consciousness” to describe the experience and awareness of living with conflicting and irreconcilable identities (e.g., as both “Negro” and “American”). His book details the lived struggles of the doubly conscious Black Americans straddled in two conflicting worlds in the early 20th century, which has legitimized the realities of many racial and minoritized Others and also has served as the foundation for a great deal of cultural identity theorizing and studies. Originally published 1903.

  • Foucault, M. 1982. The subject and power. Critical Inquiry 8.2: 777–795.

    DOI: 10.1086/448181

    In this essay, Foucault offers a view of identity in which power formations and circulations make individuals “subjects.” As subjects, individuals are both subject to power and control by others and tied to his identity by a conscience resulting from power and self-knowledge. Foucault further details what constitutes power, how power is exercised, and how power relation can be analyzed in the creation of subjectivity as discursive formations.

  • Goffman, E. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

    In dramaturgy, Goffman views individuals as social agents who present and perform their self-concepts in everyday communication interactions. Goffman considers that social agents present and perform their identity within any particular setting as consisting of a front stage and a back stage. Thus, Goffman highlights sociological understandings of the psychological processes through which individuals negotiate and perform who they are, and/or who they want to be, in social interactions according to not just personal experiences but also social norms.

  • Hall, S., and P. du Gay, eds. 1996. Questions of cultural identity. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

    Reflecting a postmodern orientation to identity as anti-essentialist, malleable, and disjointed, the ten essays in Hall and du Gay’s edited collection feature a range of perspectives examining individual and collective identity formation, fragmentation, and deconstruction in discursive structures. As Hall argues in the introduction, “identities are constructed within, not outside, discourse” (p. 4). In this view, cultural identities are best understood in Hall’s words as “points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us (1996, p. 6).

  • Mead, G. H. 1934. Mind, self, and society. Edited by C. W. Morris. Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This original book outlines Mead’s system of social psychology, which is later termed “symbolic interactionism” by his student, Herbert Blumber. Mead offers concepts such as the “I,” the “me,” and “the generalized other” in developing a symbolic interactionist approach to identity. In this view, identity as a social process is developed through ongoing interactions in which the self interacts with the social world to (re)make meanings that inform self-consciousness.

  • Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

    Orientalism systematically examines how Western scholarship (mis)represents the Orient (particularly the Near East and the Arab world) to subjugate the Orient in order to articulate and create the (superior) Occident. This book has been credited as the foundation for postcolonial scholarship as it legitimizes and offers the intellectual basis for counter-hegemonic criticism and pursuits of alternatives to Western-centric cannons, ideas, and voices.

  • Tajfel, H. 1981. Human groups and social categories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This key book serves as the foundation for Tajfel and colleagues’ development of social identity theory—an influential social psychological theory that inform a great deal of cultural identity studies in (intercultural) communication. Tajfel understands social identity as “the problems of an individual’s self-definition in a social context” (p. 254). Throughout this book, Tajfel considers and explains how an individual experiences and conceives his/her/their self-concept in intergroup relations with attention to issues of perceptual judgments, stereotypes, ethnocentrism, intergroup conflicts, and social psychology of minorities.

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