Spotlight on: Identity

As one of the key issues of contemporary societies, the concept of identity has gained different meanings and understandings across different academic disciplines. In this document, identity is conceived of as individuals’ understanding of the various “personal, social, and cultural aspects of the self or of groups of selves” (Westerlund, Partti & Karlsen 2017). How we see ourselves is (trans)formed in relation to others and our environments. Identity formation is seen to occur through three intertwined dimensions: who we are, what we are able to do, and who we are becoming. This highlights how identity is connected to making meanings based on assumed differences, similarities, positions and possibilities as individuals, and as ‘members’ of collectives.

How is identity constructed?

Identity categories rationalized by ethnicity or geography are increasingly considered insufficient in explaining how identity is constructed, negotiated and performed. Such ‘groupist’ perspectives of identity (Cantle 2016), often assigned from above, put strong emphasis on a person’s background, neglecting or undermining other intersecting aspects of one’s identity. This is particularly relevant in relation to the idea of national and/or ethnic identity, which continues to hold a central place in education when it may no longer be necessary.  The readiness and ability of HMEIs to recognize the varied ways in which people themselves relate to their national, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and how they choose to put these into play in their cultural practices (Folkestad 2017) becomes important.

By understanding personal identity as a process in relation to others (Jenkins 2008), and seeing group identities as fluid, unstable and processual, we challenge the view of (musical) identity as static. We also recognise that there may be multiple identities encompassing a wide range of ‘differences’ and ‘diversities’. When located in the context of higher music education, these perspectives of identity inform our understandings of academic identity, student identity, musical identity, as well as of the identities of the institutions themselves. If our aim is to strive for institutions that promote and perform diversity, we need to reconsider identity as an evolving process that shapes and is also actively shaped by the institutions.

We welcome debate

While this reconceptualization of identity in music and music education questions some dominant understandings of cultural/national/ethnic identity, it is not disputing the value and importance of (musical) traditions. Acknowledging and proactively reviving traditions may even advance social cohesion and inclusion in our superdiverse societies, as some of our chosen cases aim to demonstrate. Identity being a contested concept, it is anticipated that the case studies we share in the posts to follow will be interpreted through a variety of perspectives on identity. The potentially ensuing debates are welcome and encouraged as part of developing higher music education in and for pluralist societies.

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This article is a part of the publication titled How are ‘diverse cultures’ integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? Other chapters can be found here.

Works cited

Cantle, T. (2016). The case for interculturalism, plural identities and cohesion. In Meer, N., Modood, T. & Zapata-Barrero, R. (eds.) Multiculturalism and interculturalism. Debating the dividing lines. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Folkestad, G. (2017). Post-National Identities in Music. Acting in a Global Intertextual Musical Arena. In MacDonald, R., Hargreaves, D.J. & Miell, D. (eds.) Handbook of musical identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 122-136.

Jenkins, R. (2008). Social identity. Abingdon: Routledge.

Westerlund, H., Partti, H. & Karlsen, S. (2017). Identity formation and agency in the diverse music classroom. In MacDonald, R., Hargreaves, D.J. & Miell, D. (eds.) Handbook of musical identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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