Regional Identity Research Paper

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1. Introduction

The concept ‘identity’ is concerned with the answer to the question: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Place identity’ and ‘regional identity’ are answers to the question: ‘Where am I?’ Sometimes this question is more differentiated: ‘Where do I come from’ and ‘Where do I belong to?’ The phenomenon regional identity has an enormous range: it stretches from the personal home to territorial politics (geopolitics), from self-consciousness up to the problem, how to cope with the impacts of globalization.

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2. Definition

(a) Regional identity is part of the self-identity of the human being. Regional identity results from the close ties of an individual to a region. It may consist of different intensities: it reaches from (i) a vague sense of belonging to a particular region, (ii) a close attachment to a region, (iii) a deliberate confession to and identification with a region, up to (iv) an active engagement for the region. In each of these cases areas, which are defined emotionally or rationally, serve as an objective, relatively stable source of orientation for the behavior of the individual.

Regional identity is very close to personal identity. Personal identity does not exist for itself but is built—and permanently rebuilt—in social interactions. So there is a strong relation to the (social) environment of a person. In the same way regional identity is not only a personal feeling towards a place but is part—or counterpart—of the collective. There is no self-identity without embeddedness into a community and there is no identity of the collective without individuals.

Therefore regional identity is not only part of the personality which is bounded to the region, but also and particularly consists of the knowledge of others having similar feelings for the region as oneself.

(b) Regional identity is not always regarded as an attitude or a characteristic of a person (or a group of persons). Sometimes it means a particular region as a whole. Then ‘region’ is regarded as an entity with special characteristics so far different from other regions. Although it obviously bases on individual attitudes, regional identity is regarded as a relatively autonomous social structural formation, which neither can be seen as the total of individual attitudes nor can be dissolved into society.

To this point there are different positions according to the underlying epistemological background. To declare regional identity as a structure of its own derives from the tradition of the ‘physique sociale’ founded by Emile Durkheim (1893) and—in a lower degree—from communitarism. Following the position of action theory this second definition of regional identity is seen as an improper naturalism or essentialism. But nevertheless it can be pointed out that a specific characteristic of regional identity obviously is the oscillation between the level of action of the individual and the level of structural formation of the society.

3. Special Aspects Of Regional Identity

3.1 Characteristics Of Regional Identity

Regional identity is not an isolated status quo of an individual, but is bounded to the development of social interactions as well as to the individual biography. Regional identity develops from different sources, from individual experiences during childhood, from the perception of the personal space, and other experiences. However, even more important are socially mediated aspects, because identity does not exist in individuals for itself, but develops, grows, and changes in social interactions. Therefore culture, tradition, landscape, and history of the region form regional identity and are part of it.

A decisive element of regional identity is the close relation between the region and the historical dimension. The common history is not only referred to as the history of a political territory, it may also refer to the affiliation to an unified confessional territory, a linguistic boundary or similar aspects. Normally there is a bundle of cultural elements important for the identity of a region and the identification of individuals with the region in question. Such elements can be:

(a) the economic basis, e.g. the production of coal and steel in the Ruhr area in West Germany. The popular name of the region ‘Ruhrpott’ (melting pot at the river Ruhr) reminds one of the process of melting ore with coal;

(b) the language or specific dialect, e.g. ‘Languedoc’ or ‘Occitanie’ in the south of France (where people say ‘hoc’ instead of ‘oui’ in the north of France), ‘Catalunia’ in the east of Spain, ‘Friul’ in the northeast of Italy;

(c) a particular landscape like an island, a big river, or a mountain area (Corsica, The Rhine Valley, the ‘Padania’ around the river Po, The Highlands);

(d) even specific regional dishes (Cornish pastry and Cornish cream, Tirolian ‘Knoedel’) can be part of the shared frame of reference. Of course regional identity rarely develops from that kind of particularity alone.

Abstract phenomena as well as objective elements can stand as objects of identity. Normally it is not a single element alone but several characteristics of a specific region which contribute to regional identity.

These shared symbols are normally grounded in the history and development of the region. But the historical dimension also may be an artificial ‘myth’ or an imagined community in the sense of Anderson (1996). What is really important is the belief in the common history and the existence of a collective. Following Weber (1922) this belief is called ‘Gemein-samkeitsglaube’ (for details see Sect. 4). If these shared symbols become an important element of communication in the life-world or even in political discourse then there is a switch from regional identity (a) to (b).

3.2 Regional Identity And Scale

Regional identity is a kind of spatial identity on a certain scale called the meso-level. Regional identity is located between the national and the local level. To illustrate regional identity spatially the term ‘county’ should most likely fit.

Scale is helpful to distinguish regional identity from place identity. Although in some cases place identity is used as the overall term for the different levels of scale, place identity is normally associated with the directly perceived space.

An aspect which distinguishes regional identity from place identity is a higher degree of abstraction from the concrete space. To a lesser extent regional identity is bounded to the concrete perceived space, the personal perception and experience, and the copresence of individuals. ‘Local identity’ is bounded to the network of friends and relatives, to the personal socialization of the individual and therefore people are deeply attached to particular places. Regional identity, however, is more abstract: it does not need an actual or the remembrance of a former co-presence of people at the same place. The person with close ties to the region normally knows the region, the physical space, and even more its inhabitants, only in part by personal experience. Particularly against this background symbols which are known and shared by a collective are quite important to establish a sense of community.

3.3 Regional Identity And Regionalism

Regional identity is different from localism as well as from nationalism or patriotism. Above all regional identity is a cultural, social, and psychological phenomenon and not a political one, but this depends on the degree of the intensity described above. As far as regional identity includes a political dimension, it tends to keep cultural traditions or to blame economic disparities.

If the interest for regional issues leads to a strong political engagement the term ‘regionalism’ is used to describe this attitude which leads to a larger political movement. Regionalism is the political movement with the aim to preserve or to gain cultural or economic self-reliance (or both). Political autonomy is not the first aim but tends to develop during the history of a political movement. Regionalism often is marked by clear aims and strategies. If the intention is political autonomy one even has to talk about nationalism at least under the perspective of its supporters. These regional political movements can be organized like political parties. Examples are the ‘Lega Lombarda’ in Northern Italy, the ‘Partis Quebecois’ in Canada in a more traditional political sense on the one hand, and the liberation movements in Corsica or the Basque provinces in the north of Spain on the other hand.

The line between vague regional identity and active political regionalism is not sharp and the motifs are mixed together. See for instance the Occitanian case: on the one hand in the late 1960s the inhabitants of this region felt disadvantaged. The starting point of the protest was the bad situation of a region depending economically on the production of wine. Most people in that region were affected by this and it had little to do with regional culture and so forth. On the other hand, the regional protest led to much solidarity in the heart of France, especially in the intellectual milieu around the politically left students and academics. The engagement of these people for Occitanian, drinking Herault wine and spending their holidays at the Causse de Larzac, had little to do with their place of origin or the feeling-at-home in that region. The Occitanian identity of these intellectuals expressed their (general) political engagement in favor of disadvantaged regions and the utopia of an intact world. Regionalism unites individual interests and focuses people on common ends. Therefore, regional identity is to be seen as an element of the social system in the sense of the second definition given above.

3.4 Regional Identity And ‘Real’ Region

Talking about the Occitanian identity of the intellectuals at Paris has already expressed that the region as an area on the earth’s surface and the region of the identity are not always congruent. Of course there must be a relation of a particular regional identity to a specific region. But this does not mean identical maps. For example, an administrative region like ‘Bretagne’ in France or ‘Andalusia’ in Spain is not congruent with the area of people calling themselves ‘Bretons’ or ‘Andalusians’ and is even less congruent with their regional identity. If people draw their mental maps of the region in favor, the results differ considerably. Normally it can be assumed that the regional identity is more distinctive in the heartland than in the border area. In the center the regional language or dialect prevails and the specific traditions and rules of the life-world are cultivated. But even the contrary is possible: if the neighboring region seems to be strange or even hostile regional identity will be strongest at the border, e.g., this phenomenon can be found in the case of South Tyrol.

Another important point in this context is the personal absence from or presence in the region in question. Regional identity is not attached to the physical presence in that particular region. On the contrary, regional identity is sometimes stronger in foreign surroundings than at home: Friulians in Canada, people from Sicily in Torino, Bavarians in Hamburg, and so forth often feel and think more Friulian, Sicilian, and Bavarian than people who see their region as the natural place of the everyday life.

Finally, the Occitanian example shows that regional identity is not always a particular regional identity. Regional identity is an universal value too and not attached to a specific region. To prefer federalism to centralism in a political system expresses this attitude.

4. The Formation Of Regional Identity

How does regional identity develop? According to the two aspects of the notion mentioned above in the definition, at least the answer to this question has to make a difference between two levels: the first is the anthropological aspect (in close relation to self-identity), the second is the social theory with special respect to social structural formation.

4.1 Regional Identity As A Basic Need Of Human Beings

Regional identity is part of self-identity and therefore stretches from the unconsciousness to the rational consciousness. Especially an active political engagement for the reason in favor is already part of the discursive consciousness.

Above all regional identity is part of the practical consciousness in the sense of Giddens (1984). Among others practical consciousness means living and working in everyday life by routines. Therefore the surroundings and experiences in the places where people live form a stable frame for individual decisions and behavior. One can say that regional identity is built and permanently rebuilt in the social and spatial context of the individuals. The well-known region and its people give trust and security for the behavior of the individuals.

From a phenomenological point of view region has a similar function: at the heart of the life-world is the home world in contrast to the strange world outside.

Regional identity as a social process is constructed on different levels: in kindergartens, schools, clubs, and other institutions. Communication and experiences in everyday life form the attitude towards the region.

4.2 Regional Identity As An Element Of Social Cohesion

In social theory the topic ‘regional identity’ is part of the discussion about inclusion and exclusion starting with the book of Ferdinand Tonnies Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society) at the end of the nineteenth century (1887). Max Weber says that the formation of community (Vergemeinschaftung) and the formation of society (Vergesellschaftung) are two of the essential sociological notions. If people believe that there is a traditional or emotional feeling of togetherness then community can arise. To understand regional identity two points are of special interest. First, there must be a real starting point of a regional community (e.g. language, religion, origin) but it is just the belief in the force of this shared characteristic that can lead to the formation of a community. Therefore, even regional identity is socially constructed. Second, there is no need for the co-presence of individuals. The feeling of belonging together can be a powerful motor for the formation of inclusion, especially if there are no other characteristics easy to recognize and to manipulate. So the notion regional identity is not very different from the modern notion of ethnicity. The modern theory of ethnology too regards ‘ethnicity’ as a construct, while the traditional (primordial) notion of ethnicity is essentialistic and has a strong affinity to race.

From a systematic point of view social cohesion needs rationality as well as emotion. In a similar way to Weber, Emile Durkheim (1893) illustrates a difference between ‘mechanical solidarity’ and ‘organic solidarity’ in human societies. In the traditional ‘Physique sociale’ as well as in the modern ‘New Social Physics’ social integration is to be seen as a result of collective consciousness (on the basis of emotion, religion, and so forth) in the first case and of treaties between agents in the second. It helps people to avoid making arduous decisions if they follow the idea of ‘natural cohesion’. Or as B. Anderson points out: ‘In this way, nationness is assimilated to skin-colour, gender, parentage and birth-era—all those things one can not help. And in these ‘‘natural ties’’ one senses what one might call ‘‘the beauty of gemeinschaft’’’ (Anderson 1996, p. 143).

5. Regional Identity Between Modernism And Postmodernism

Is regional identity a relic of premodern societies disappearing during the process of modernization? Following the ideas of Giddens (1984), people are more and more disembedded and this means that their activities and their thinking, that social relations in general, are no longer bound to the space–time context. Time and space get more and more divided. The boundaries of the region and the self coincide no longer. The space of reference for the individual actor in the time of globalization finally is the whole earth. Therefore it is declared that regional identity loses its importance during the process of modernization. A similar position can be derived from the General Systems Theory of N. Luhmann (1994). According to Luhmann, the whole modern world is inter-related and regional worlds of their own no longer exist. Differentiation in the world is based on functions. Normally the same person belongs to different systems in different places depending on their role as a consumer, employee, or lover. M. Weber had a strong historical interest and regarded social change and the process of modernization but there is no clear statement that he regarded community as a—more and more disappearing—historical phase during the formation of (modern) society.

On the one hand one can be sure that there are no longer closed up regional worlds like in premodern times. On the other hand ‘region’ is a very simple and therefore very practical code to produce cohesion and identification. Even more: the more complicated and differentiated the modern world becomes the more we need simple possibilities to discern people, political subsystems, and so forth. Therefore regional identity is one of the powerful social bases for political movements, starting from regional protest based on environmental issues up to most of the wars in the late twentieth century. ‘Belonging to’—not only same region, but also to the same religion, the same ‘race’ and so forth—is much more relevant than class differences or other social aspects to include or to exclude people. Such kinds of inclusions—and the corresponding exclusions—are responsible for most of the recent (violent) political developments especially in the east of Europe, but also in Africa or in the Near East.

Regional identity is embedded into the more general debate on the role of identities in relation to the universal values (of the Enlightenment). It is part of the debate which of these two basic values is of more importance: to respect individual historically grown traditions or to assert the general human rights all over the world. There is a strong political dimension connected to this subject: it stretches from the apparently simple question if Islamic girls are allowed to join school lessons with a scarf around their head in laizistic French schools up to the question if western politicians are allowed to claim the recognition of human rights in the People’s Republic of China. The popular considerations of Finkielkraut (1989) in France and Germany and of Said (1978) and Bauman (1991) in the English speaking countries give new importance to this subject. The position of the—now as occidental recognized—values of the Enlightenment has diminished and pluralism had to be put on the agenda. There are different ‘language games’ (in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein) which are incomparable.

So it has to be pronounced that in the end regional identity is part of the postmodern debate. In a postmodern context regional identity can be submitted to the leading category of difference (and unity). In (post-)modern guise questions come back which were important already at the end of the eighteenth century: Immanual Kaut defended the achievements of the (French) Enlightenment, while John Gottried Herder so preparing romanticism and historism declared that these values are not valid for the rest of the world: in different regions develop different cultures which cannot be compared and ranked.

6. Relevance Of Regional Identity Today

Following the theoretical considerations, regional identity as ‘a sentiment of belonging to’ always exists to a higher or lower degree at the individual level. Sometimes it is just folklore, but very often it gets at the heart of social and political issues. Regional identity is part of the general tendency in societies to construct social cohesion. Some examples are ecological and political movements, emigration colonies, and economic developments. For instance, political movements focused on ecological topics or resistance against nuclear power plants often affirm to defend ‘their’ region. As already shown in the example of Occitania there is often a mixture of political interest and traditional emotions: without doubt regional identity serves as symbolic arm in political discussions but without regional identity such political movements would not exist—or only for a short time.

People who are forced to emigrate try to keep their former identity in Little Sicily, in the Arabian ‘banlieue’ of Paris, in the Inner City Ghettos of the ‘Guest workers’ in Western Germany. Home is what you feel when you have lost it, so people try to keep their identity by staying together. In globalization, regional identity has a new dimension. On the one hand, people lose control to their surroundings more and more, so they try to keep regional traditions, on the other hand, it is much easier to get involved in the process of globalization and to keep its regional identity within a transnational space at the same time. Even more, jobs are more and more insecure, the firm is no longer the only center of thinking of the employees, while place gains new importance (Sennett 1997). So regional identity becomes more important.

In a similar way regional identity works in regional economics. The moral economy precedes the market economy and is still of importance. The success of industrial districts is sometimes an outcome of regional embeddedness of the entrepreneurs as well as the employees of the region where it is located and where the network works. Shared rules and common values produce trust, confidence, and reciprocity which are regarded as the surplus making such specialized regions more successful than others. On the other hand it is also possible that there is an economic decline because of too much regional identity and following lock-in-effects: the Ruhr area in the 1970s and 1980s or—in a broader sense—Sicily and its whole Mafia problem may be seen as examples. Regional identity is therefore not a sentimental relic of premodern times. Regional identity is one of the geographical dimensions of the construction of modern society.


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