The Anthropology of Islam

By Gabriele Marranci | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Beyond the Stereotype: Challenges in
Understanding Muslim Identities

IDENTITY AND ANTHROPOLOGY

Identity has fascinated intellectuals, such as philosophers (e.g. Locke 1690/1959 and Hume 1740/1975), psychologists (e.g. James 1890) and sociologists (e.g. Goffman 1959), for centuries. Each discipline, and within it each school and scholar, has provided an interpretation, theory and model. With them, they also provided terminologies that have proliferated into a confusing list. The frustration here is not with this excessive terminology per se, rather, by being used in different contexts and from different disciplines, it has lost its specification. So, 'identity, 'selfidentity', 'personal identity, 'self', 'selfhood', 'personhood', T, 'me', 'Me' and a plethora of other terms (see Holland 1997) have confused more than clarified.

Sociologists have been exploring the relationship between self, identity and society since the beginning of the nineteenth century1 with pioneers such as Charles Horton Cooley (1909), George Herbert Mead (1934) and Herbert Blumer (1969). By contrast, the first anthropologists did not show much interest in studying the 'persona'; rather they concentrated their efforts on understanding the symbol, the object and the community seen as an expression of collective identity dictated by cultural processes. In one of the rare articles2 that analytically and critically discusses the study of identity in anthropology, Sökefeld (1999) has rightly observed that because of the overemphasis on society we have just discussed, anthropologists have denied the relevance that individuality and the personal self have in the study of the 'others'.

He has suggested that social anthropologists took 'Durkheim's concept of “collective representations” … as justification for the fact that social anthropology gave little attention to the individual, regarding the social as its only object' (1999: 428). According to Sökefeld, this has caused a serious flaw within the anthropological understanding of others' selves,

This certainly applies to understandings of others' selves. In the conceptualiza-
tion of non-Western selves, the Western self was taken as the starting point and
the non-Western self was accordingly characterized as its opposite: unbounded,
not integrated, dependent, unable to set itself reflexively apart from others,

-89-

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