Cultural complexity

In 2008 I set up a ‘reflecting’ group with a colleague on the topic of complex cultural identity, bringing together people from widely dispersed professions–therapists, lawyers, artists–all of whom are dealing with cultural complexity both in their work and on a personal level. We spent some early sessions exploring our own biographies in relation to cultural complexity, and went on to explore the topic through intensive engagement with a range of written and filmed works, some of them created by our own members or guests whom we invited.

For example we watched the series ‘grote denkers’ on globalization. Here the interplay of local or religiously driven belief systems with ideas or beliefs that might transcend local contexts, is explored, in relation to the question, are there some universal values that may make it possible to bring us all together in a world with so much conflict?

Here I outline some of our basic starting ideas and principles, such as our central thesis that embracing complex cultural identity is a signal of a healthy society when these complexities can be tolerated.

What is complex cultural identity?

We had some difficulty with the complexities of defining cultural complexity (!) –obviously it is involved when there are children of mixed marriages that carry with them the cultures of both parents, or when people immigrate, and when they have children who grow up in the new country but live between the new and the old culture. But also there are internal ethnic minorities within a country– such as Arab Israelis. Although these complex identities are often overlooked in countries like the Netherlands (think of Freisians), in many countries the population is made up of a highly diverse mix of unified to greater or lesser extent by a sense of national identity and a lingua franca.  Some examples of this could be Iran, Spain, or the US.

The more we got into it, the more we realized that just about everyone is culturally complex, and that the more defining element is ‘identity’ which is the extent to which this sense of complexity is conscious or defining or experienced as having an important impact on your life.

Complex cultural identity isn’t new

It may seem as though this is a new issue resulting from increasing globalisation. And yet, people have migrated, intermarried, and occupied the same territories for millenia and societies have had to find ways of managing this. Historically the Netherlands handled this with the Pillar system, which works well when there is homogenous difference, and when the different parties don’t mix or don’t want to mix. However with the breaking down of social barriers to mixing in the Netherlands and the increasing diversity of the society this system hasn’t worked – as it was not based on embracing difference but on keeping difference manageable and containing inter-religious or inter-ethnic violence.

Another country that has dealt with complex cultural identity is the US. In the melting pot idea all people enter into the country and put their “flavors” into the national “pot.”  However more realistically what has happened in the US is that it has fostered people’s ability to be more than one cultural identity ie: it is not paradoxical or impossible to be a chinese-latino American, or an Italian American, or Jewish American, etc.

Why is it worthwhile to “embrace” complex cultural identities?

First, it is a symbol of a healthy society.  There are many examples of societies that have tried to suppress these identities and this causes problems for years to come (Turkey, Iraq, Spain, etc.). Secondly, people carrying these identities (if properly supported) are able to develop all sorts of valuable social skills such as bilingualism which has been found to enhance conceptual thinking (see for example the New York Times Sunday Review of 18-3-12, link below). Or adaptability to different situations, or empathy for the ‘other’ i.e people who seem unlike you. A sense of complexity when faced with polarized conflicts enables, if not forces you to think about and understand two sides of the issue


Bilingualism is good!