Identities & cultures
These pages look at various aspects of culture and what they tell us about our own identities and the different people who make up the UK.
The UK is a culturally diverse nation: it encompasses the mainstream cultures of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, but also of their many minority groups. Different ethnic and religious populations are described as having their own cultures, for example, ‘Caribbean culture’, ‘Polish culture’ or ‘Sikh culture’. These cultures are not homogeneous, however. Each one is a cluster of different practices, beliefs, values and traditions upheld by that group, by young and old people, rich and poor, well educated and less educated, first, second and third generation. They don’t all think alike or value the same things. They may listen to different kinds of music, tune in to different radio stations, surf different websites, and dress differently.
Cultures are not watertight or static. They influence and borrow from one another, and change over time. This can be seen in the stories and examples on Fashioning Diaspora Space, Moving Music, and Writing and Reading. Recognising and making the most of this cultural exchange and dynamism enables people to be innovative and to try new things. It may also help to break down some of the barriers created by social segregation, exclusion, and fear of the unknown.
© Aria Ahmed
Acknowledging the UK’s cultural diversity and dynamism is not the same as supporting ‘multiculturalism’. This term has been defined in various ways and used in many national contexts. However, it has been criticised chiefly because it tends to promote the idea that multiple cultural groups exist in parallel: they are alike, but bounded and separate. Living out this idea locally and nationally may contribute to problems of exclusion and the disengagement of communities. It doesn’t help people break down boundaries, understand one another or see the things that connect them.
In the 21st century Western governments have preferred the idea of ‘integration’. This works on the principle of incorporating minorities and their cultures within the nation. The nation is seen has having its own overarching culture – its traditions, languages, values and ways of doing things – that minorities must learn and live by whilst also retaining their own ethnic and religious cultures. In the UK this has led to debates about the nature of Britishness, and to the introduction of a citizenship test that requires a basic level of English and knowledge about the UK and its way of life. But what is Britishness, and is learning about it in order to pass a test sufficient to bring about good community relations and a culture that all people can identify with and belong to? Tackling the deep structural problems relating to poverty, social exclusion, discrimination and racism, that are faced by some within white majority culture as well as minorities, remains a major priority in addition to these cultural considerations.In practice, Britishness makes space for a multiplicity of interconnected cultures – local, ethnic, religious, and youth cultures – to be lived and expressed, whilst at times binding people in Britain together and providing an identity for them as citizens.