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in Timothy O'Riordan (ed) Globalism, Localism and Identity: Perspectives on the Sustainability Transition in Europe, Earthscan

 Chapter 4


Judith A. Cherni



As global capital markets restructure, national and local markets liberalise, and more stringent environmental controls and withdrawal of European funding prevail, so the "environmental" dimension to European policy is beginning to shift towards "sustainability". This process is beginning to take on a new urgency as European unification progresses, and the exercise of power by the state changes. The impacts of those changes on urban and rural localities, however, have become ever more controversial. Castells (1997) believes that these transformations represent only one side of major trends that shape contemporary times and characterise the internal dynamics of Europe at the end of the twentieth century. The other side, he claims, is represented by identity. Alongside the restructuration of capitalism, there is also a surge of collective expression and affirmation of citizenship (Castells, 1998). Potent terms have been employed to define identity and contemporary society.

Identities are so important, and ultimately so powerful in this ever-changing power structure because they build interests, values, and projects, around experience, and refuse to dissolve by establishing specific connection between nature, history, geography, and culture. Identities anchor power in some areas of the social structure, and build from there their resistance or their offensives ... (Castells, 1997, 360).

Castells takes the view that identity is strengthened by the flux of economic, social and political change. He goes further. He thinks that the bonding characteristics of local social networks, designed to be activated for survival against adversity, may act as inbuilt bulwarks against otherwise oppressive change at local levels. All the case studies that follow suggest that such a process may indeed be going on. But not all local people benefit. There are the vulnerable and the apathetic, and they may not so readily or so happily respond. This outcome is also evident in the case studies, so the appropriate theory is given attention in this chapter.

Together with the fact that identity has recently become a central recurrent subject in the literature, defining unambiguously the notion of identity as a social concept is still elusive. So it is hardly surprising that different interpretations have abounded. There is a strong lack of consensus as to how individuals and groups build their own identities, and which social structure bestows power to particular patterns of identities. Contemporary identity has been approached as part of reflexive action that takes place in a world of new social controversies and different politics. Also, it is said that the role of the individual is being interpreted as a new historical self, with new identity, and that industrialisation risks are tightly connected to new cultural identities. This view is attributed to the various adherents of Ulrick Beck (1992, 1996).

This chapter postulates that the development of an identity, particularly in places where globally-influenced economic structural change is taking place, is a complicated convergence of socio-political and psychological processes. To realise the role of social identity, a workable conceptualisation is needed.

Definitions of identity in contemporary society have generally originated in various disciplines. Despite their contribution, these definitions are based, unavoidably, on fragmented and narrow examinations. Yet, a multi-disciplinary approach is most appropriate if the subject is to be addressed as a complex one. Therefore, a more comprehensive view of identity will be obtained when connecting social, psychological, political and spatial dimensions. This chapter draws on discourse from social-psychology, sociology, political science and geography. It applies a critical view to various approaches taken within these disciplines.

It is argued that a social identity embodies an individual’s societal circumstances and a sense of locality, while also reflecting a deep politically conscious self with multiple visions. Interpreting an identity as granted by either cultural, spatial or individual characteristics is too narrow. Social processes and structural change that take place at different spatial levels and which affect individuals unequally, confer social identity a unique dynamism and vitality. It is also argued that this identity is neither spatially nor socially uniform, and that there are clear distinctions within it. Social identities are unique expressions of both structural conditions that express change and continuity on the one hand, and the desire to preserve a minimum of stability and independence in an era of declining protectionism, multinational corporatism, and dominant economic determinism on the other. The chapter thus develops an alternative view of social identity, and social local identities in particular, that envelops its vigorous and distinct political nature.

The chapter does two things. It first draws on debates from the four mentioned disciplines grouping their contentions under three main subjects, society and self, identity and social change, and identity between the global and the local. It then develops the concept of social local identity during a time of social change, sustainability transition and Europeanisation. The term represents a fertile entry point for any analysis of the responses to globalisation and localisation as it enables a conceptual and practical synthesis of socio-psychological and political, spatial and environmental conditions. The chapter subsequently introduces the stratified character of social identity. The conclusions of the case studies that follow are that the current political and economic interplay amongst the power of global forces, the intervention of the nation state, and the response of local communities very often threatens the livelihoods for many local people, while enhancing the opportunities for financial advancement and empowerment for others.



Psychology and sociology are the two disciplines most often associated with the study of identity. Psychologists tend to think in terms of individuals and inner processes. For them identity seems to be something that exists within the individual's personality through various cognitive processes.

For example, Richard Eiser (1995, 161) argues that people travel through reservoirs of belief and value patterns to obtain a sense of security and certainty when faced with new dangers, or unanticipated changes in their working or social lives. The degree to which individuals do this successfully is a function of experience, social support networks and self esteem. Needless to say, all of these are connected.

In contrast, sociologists tend to think of individuals in terms of society and its institutions, conceptualising identity as a set of definitions and roles (Baumeister, 1986). In social-psychological terms, the working of social identity means that actions are determined primarily by the implications of group membership (Kelly and Breinlinger, 1996). In other situations, personal identity is more salient and behaviour seems to be governed primarily by personal concerns. In this chapter, identity is approached from the social, rather than the individual personal perspective Identity therefore establishes what and where the person is in social terms.

When one has identity, he is situated - that is, cast in the shape of a social object-by the acknowledgement of his participation or membership in social relations. One's identity is established when others place him as a social object by assigning him the same words of identity that he appropriates for himself or announces. It is in the coincidence of placements and announcements that identity becomes a meaning of the self (Stone, 1962, 93, cited in Turner, (1987, 121)).

On the other hand, from an interactionalist tradition, social psychologists Wiley and Alexander (1987) have stressed that the social person is shaped by interaction and that social structure determines the possibilities of action. For Stryker (1987), structural features are understood in terms of peoples' involvement in particular social networks. These in turn embed them in particular identities.

For social-psychologists, an adequate view of identity runs along a continuum from the personal to the social. Definitions that involve the entity of the self seem to be most useful. Without a concept of self, individual behaviour is either simply role-determined or shaped by some resolution of forces between a given social role and the inheritances of biology. Self is the concept that eludes mechanistic determinism and is the vehicle for conceptualising a balance between structural determinacy and individual creativity. Yardley (1987, 120) points out that "the idea of self conveys the image of autonomy in engagement with society".

The self connotes two essential parts, the member's identity, i.e., awareness of membership, the sense of belonging to a group, while ideology refers to the member's world view about the group's position in society (Gurin and Townsend, 1986, in Kelly and Breinlinger, 1996. The latter involves a sense of collective discontent or acceptance of the group's relative power or material resources, an appraisal of the legitimacy of the social structure by which the group is advantaged or disadvantaged, and the belief that collective action is required to realise the group's interest. Social identity is thus conceived in terms of the social self, a dynamic combination of identity and a conscious body of ideas. In this sense, the self and the social seem to be linked through centrality of group identity in the self-concept; perceived similarities in the personal characteristics of group members; and an awareness of a common fate in the way in which group members are treated in society.

Kelly and Breinliger (1996) made a useful distinction between macro- and micro-social perceptions of group identity and the individual. They emphasise that social and economic mobility is possible at an individual level, while also claiming that the only way to change conditions more generally is through group action. Thus, the potential for individual mobility need not eliminate a sense of group, or political consciousness, i.e., a social identity and loyalty. By a way of synthesis, the self comprises both a sense of being, and hence indicates identity and ideology, as well as a sense of doing, i.e., performing actions consonant with supportive patterns of beliefs. Therefore, the central concept developed in this chapter is that of social identity, and that of social local identity in particular.

The issue of self-esteem is an important part of identity and the self. It is the power of self that is the crucial first step in imagining the possibility of resistance or another reality. Pulido (1996) pointedly argues that people, regardless of how oppressed they might be, do not inevitably have a common identity. A shared identity must be cultivated and refined through interaction and struggle with other groups. It is impossible not to have any personal identity, but for those who receive daily the message that they are despised and worth nothing, the internalisation of these perceptions can lead to a negative personal sense of low self esteem contributing to oppression and self destruction. Resistance, let alone a movement, stresses Pulido, will never occur if the oppressed lack either a collective or an affirmative identity. But "an affirmative identity will not necessarily lead to mobilisation" (Pulido, 1996, 47). Szasz (1994) wittily commented, referring to community landfills, that being a dump, being dumped on, being forced to live with others’ waste products undoubtedly reduces self-esteem. Stigma - the threatened loss of social status, the symbolic soiling of the community and its image - is a powerful motivator for political mobilisation. In addition, Szasz argues that the presence of a landfill with others' waste treatment facility signifies the social stigma that the community and by implications its residents are at the bottom of society’s class and status hierarchy.

Self esteem is all important component of political empowerment. That particular topic is given attention in Chapter 10 in Mile Cross in Norwich. But it also appears in the responses to fishing catch reductions in Peniche (Chapter 8) and in the local uplift to economic and social revival in Feldbach (Chapter 7).

In summary, Kelly and Breinliger (1996), drawing conclusions about causality of identity, stress that is difficult if not impossible to define identity because all the factors may be outcomes of identification and participation, as well as determinants. Indeed, they are probably both. Nevertheless, the attempt to generate one theoretical, and critical, framework which derives knowledge from relevant disciplines - i.e., social psychology, sociology, political science and geography - and from case studies, is worthwhile. It provides a foundation for understanding people's responses in the light of structural change; for thinking about the social and ecological effects derived from the European Union political configuration; and for considering who benefits and who doesn't in the context of political and economic current restructuration and prospective environmental sustainability. These points were given a full airing in Chapter 1, and will be further developed in Chapter 11.

Social identity, as a central trend in the transition to ecological sustainability consists of a sense both of being and doing. Both components are necessary to sustain self-esteem and promote essential coping responses to external change, either good (opportunities) or bad (destructive). The split in any ‘self’ between identity - denoting membership and belonging, and ideology - indicating the group position derived from historical and spatial social processes, is highly instrumental in revealing the fundamental continuum between society as a whole, and each individual’s social identity. A more complex notion of identity however is necessary to approach contemporary transformations. This is because, in addition to social-psychological motives, other dimensions interact to constitute a social identity (see Table 4.1). In the following sections, inseparable components of social identity are discussed as they emerge from the other disciplines.

Table 4.1 Main discourses around identity



Political Science


Otherness (Stone)

Interaction (Wiley and Alexander; Stryker; Turner)

Self and society (Kelly and Breinliger; Gurin and Townsend)

Cultural identity (Collier and Thomas; Milton; Belay; Smith)

Postmodern individualisation (Weigert; Giddens; Beck)

Global identity (Mc Luhan and Fiore; Robertson)

New social movements (Inglehart; Castells)

Liberation ecology (Pulido; Peet and Watts; Martinez-Alier)

Community and locality (Dalby and Mackenzie; Barnes and Sheppard

Local place and Conflict (Massey; Young)


In the political and sociological literature important attempts have been made to connect identity to social processes in contemporary society. Identity has been interpreted in terms of an emerging modern selfhood centering around a new awareness that we are now significant actors on the physical environment and local society (Weigert, 1997). Identity is thus explained as an experiential and psychological reality. On the one hand, it is an immediate and intimate sense of personal existence - I know myself therefore I am. On the other, identities are seen as social constructs in which others know me, therefore I am. The theoretical sources that underlie this claim postulate that this new historical self is emerging, formed by a mode of interaction with different groups that generate different selves, and that it creates awareness of the self in action, "re-sighting the human situation within an earthly commons or biosphere underwrites a new self" (Weigert, 1997, 161).

An increasingly popular view is that identity formation is taking place consonant with the break from modernity, by freeing itself from a classical industrial society (e.g., see Giddens, 1997; Beck, 1998). This process creates the insecurities of the contemporary spirit, and brings about new forms of post modernity, namely the ‘risk society’ and ‘reflexive modernity’. This perspective maintains that "industrial society exits the stage of world history on the tip-toes of normality, via the back stairs of side effects, and not in the manner predicted in books with a political revolution or democratic elections" (Beck, 1998, 11).

Relating different cultural identity and risks, Beck claims that new social movements come into existence as a consequence of the collective consciousness of unavoidable risks that may bestow additional vulnerability on innocent groups. People respond through new social relationships, and communities may be created through the various forms and social experiences of the protest ignited by administrative and industrial encroachment on personal lives. In this sense, the new social movements are expressions of the new risk situations perceived. They also result from the search for social and personal identities and commitments in detraditionalised culture. Part of this identity could be interpreted as new forms of cultural and social identity; and, these "often have politically provocative effects" (Beck, 1984, 98). Construction of contemporary identity is marked by one central axis of social conflict, i.e., individual social perceptions of risk and the political dynamics of the risk society. Individualisation, which is one of its central philosophical tenets, opposes the categories of large-group societies, i.e., of classes, states and social strata, and the workplace loses its significance as the locus of conflict and identity formation.

Identity formation is emphasised within the context of new social movements. These are defined by Scott (1990, 6-7), as

a collective actor constituted by individuals who understand themselves to have common interests and, for at least some significant part of their social existence, a common identity. Social movements are distinguished from other collective actors, such as political parties or pressure groups, in that they have mass mobilisation, or the threat of mobilisation, as their prime source of social sanction, and hence, of power.

New social movements are more aligned with expansion of rights and quality-of-life issues or post-materialist values that are contingent upon people fashioning new collective identities that allow them to work together e.g. feminism, environmentalism and gay rights. Rooted in civil society, actors are dispersed and emphasise democracy. According to Inglehart (1990) amongst others (e.g. Rawcliffe, 1998) new social movements develop around particular themes of concern and reflect the politicisation of domains previously considered apolitical, or primarily personal.

There also exist ‘identity politics’, as a subcategory of new social movements. These represent a level of activism seeking to affirm various forms of otherness, the expansion of rights, and the characterisation of social difference (Young, 1990). Identity politics has resulted in a proliferation of identities. Such a plurality gives rise to groups and individuals becoming aware of their differences, attaching significance to certain separating qualities, and contesting the relevance of other designations. Identity politics are associated with post-modern scholarship and politics. Individuals may simultaneously identify as consumers, citizens, feminists, workers, and human-rights activists, differing markedly from the previous construct that conceived of the individual whether as a worker, a black, or a woman. While this development reflects reality, it does present a whole new set of political questions and challenges. This has led to the charge that new social movements have been categorised as obstacles to creating socially constructive social change by the way they have relativised all forms of oppression and domination, and displaced what were once central struggles for social justice - usually race and class. In post-modern politics, the struggle is against the established order outside 'normal' channels but there remain no grandiose plan for a better society. Furthermore, new social movements are rarely drawn from the socio-economically disadvantaged or from repressed minorities.

In the case studies that follow, one example of a new social movement is the conscious attempt by the city of Norwich to empower the most disadvantaged, so as to give then a more effective and respected role in determining the shape of their own communities. In the Swedish case studies, however, where there is no specific attempt at creating empowerment, the alienated and the vulnerable remain differentially without social local identity, ironically in the wake of a drive towards sustainability.

Identity in terms of 'quality of life' issues, and the extension of individual rights together with a burgeoning identity politics, particularly in rich countries, relate mainly to a post-1968 shift to 'post-materialist' cultural values (Inglehart, 1990). This thesis states that there has been a cultural shift towards 'subjective' post-materialist values as economic distribution conflicts cease to be acute and societies are more sensitive to ethnic, ecological, gender and other preoccupations. Environmentalism, feminism and other new social movements, it is argued, illustrate the new social controversies and political styles that are transforming the politics of advanced industrial societies. Post-material values, such as environmental quality it is claimed, replace traditional ones such as the nuclear family. Organisational transformation acquires the highest significance, while the process of changing political styles becomes as important as the content of policy itself. These factors shape identity in a different way.

Interpretation of social identity in the above terms focuses on the relationship of the individual to society from a viewpoint that separates, rather than connects, the self and others. Here, identity is primarily a reflexive action, constrained to identification with, and perceived acceptance into, a group that has shared systems of symbols and meanings as well as norms and rules of conduct. A view of identity in these terms is not however, sufficient because it avoids integrating the continuum between identity and conscious body of ideas as the core of the social self and the principal foundation of social identity. This explanation further omits adequate reference to powerful societal forces, such as internationalisation of basic activities, which, in various spatial and temporal dimensions, may so decisively affect the position of the self and group consciousness.

The common, and misleading, understanding of environmentalism as a social movement concerned only with questions of ecological integrity, identity and non-material quality-of-life, e.g., the well being of the planet's ecosystem and biosphere, is categorically challenged on the basis of the struggles of the poor. In the third world, there is a solid collective identity mobilised against dangerous effluents of capitalist industrial wealth, as there is also increasing evidence for a strong interest in their environment by poor states. Peet and Watts (1996) contend that where environmental space is being used to the benefit of the rich, e.g., the forests of the Amazon, there are, in fact, even more reasons to become an environmentalist, particularly in poor countries or regions. The social identity of the poor, the powerless and the alienated thus incorporate elements of both old and new social movements.

The construction of 'new' social identities must not be limited exclusively to selected populations. In reality, contemporary social identity also develops in populations other than those who have reached generalised high living standards, or attained high levels of self-awareness and have reflexive attitudes. There are sufficient material and survival reasons to develop social identity in pursuit of quality of life issues in any affluent European country (see Martinez-Alier, 1997). This point is relevant in Val do Ave (Chapter 8) and Timbaki (Chapter 9), where the most economically vulnerable (children and women) suffer from environmental degradation and ill-health in a disproportionately targeted manner, yet have no collective identity to resist.

Clearly, understanding the role of social identity in this period of social transformations is imperative, but all struggles cannot be reduced to identity conflicts. While the search and need for an enabling and appropriate identity is a subject unto itself, it is also intimately linked to larger issues of positionality, power, and the effort to overcome poverty. For this reason, and because of the multifarious ways in which social reality is constructed, it is impossible to categorise subalterns’ identity as to belonging either old or new social movements (Pulido, 1996). Subalterns’ response provide a model of how two concrete aspects of life -materiality and identity - combine to create people's social reality. Pulido stresses that we must never lose sight of large-scale structural patterns; neither can we assume to know the needs and concerns of the subalterns. The poor do care about much more than advancing their material position. But we cannot fall into the trap of ascribing a unitary resistance identity through opposition by subaltern groups, even though such groups may present themselves in a highly unified way. In reality, identities are rarely so cut -and-dried. Instead, they are marked by contradictions and continual change. The assumption, for example, that all Timbaki’s citizens should and do support the European environmental legislation ignores the possibility that it may be contrary to some Timabakians’ economic and political interests.




Cultural identities

So far it has been argued that any individual's sense of identity is complex and that individuals' engagement with multiple identities is addressed through cultural identification. Cultural identity lends support to the view that any defined identity, such as national identity, contains within it several other cultural parameters of identity construction and negotiations. "Society within the nation-state", explains Belay (1996, 323), "pushes and pulls individuals toward a variety of identities such as ethnicity, gender, race, class and the like". Collier and Thomas (1988) define cultural identity as identification with and perceived acceptance into a group that has shared systems of symbols and meanings as well as norms for conduct.

Milton (1996, 66) advances the view that social identity is drawn on culture which exists in people's minds and is expressed through what they say and do it is this formulated from perceptions and interpretation; and is the mechanism through which human beings interact with their environment. Cultural identity consists of a full range of emotions, assumptions, values, facts, ideas, norms, theories, and so on, through which people make sense of their experience. The balance between different identities, and the particular characteristics drawn upon in any one encounter or in any one period, will forever shift.

A multiplicity of identities is illustrated by Belay (1996, but see also Taylor, (1989). Using widely employed parameters to define identities, Belay has grouped them in six categories of cultural identity. These are sociological identities such as those related to gender, age, religious adherence and network sub-cultures such as gay/lesbian; occupational identities, evident in institutions such as schools, associations, the workplace; geobasic identities, corresponding to the various cultures that have evolved in different geographical regions of the world; national identities, where the nation-state is perhaps the most powerful parameter of cultural identification; co-cultural identities, exhibiting identification with cultural communities that represent different geobasic groups, but belonging to the same nation; and ethnic identities, constructed on the basis of one or more cultural elements, physical contiguity, language or dialect, blood or kinship relationship.

The case studies that follow exhibit all of these interpretations of cultural identity. The sociological identities are evident in Val do Ave and Timbaki, occupational identities in Feldbach and Linköping, geo-basic identities in Peniche, national identities in almost all instances (possibly not Aigaleo and Hackney), co-cultural identities and ethnic identities in Aigaleo and Hackney. Throughout these case studies, it is the various ways in which these identities give meaning to people’s lives and social support networks (often through informal economic exchanges) that provide the basis for accommodating to the transition, to sustainability.

Cultural identity has brought into focus the significance of cultural factors to conceptualising the evolving relational tensions and transformations both within and between the nations. Nationalism provides perhaps the most compelling identity 'drive' in the modern world as it consists of typically shared cultural, territorial or ancestral, legal and economic features (see Smith, 1991). Nevertheless, in a period of significant economic and political transformation in Europe, including objectives to advance sustainability, it is likely that individuals' identities can be also strongly aligned with a whole complex of other signifiers, as mentioned above, e.g., place, race, gender, socio-economic position, environmental sustainability, and ethnic grouping. Undeniably, the nation-state has had a crucial influence in deconstructing as well as constructing contemporary identities. In the light of globalisation and European unification, interpretations of the current power of the nation-state have endorsed contrasting views, e.g., that the power of the state is neutral, disintegrated, regaining legitimacy, or hiding its influential power behind apparent incapacity.

Castells (1997, 271) emphasised that due to mentioned changes in global and supra-national domains, the state is now increasingly less able to respond simultaneously to the vast array of demands and challenges that a civil society's plurality of identities makes upon our nation-states. Local and regional political institutions have seemingly more authority to approach local problems. This 'delegation' results from two convergent trends. One is the territorial differentiation of state institutions, through which regional and national minority identities find their easiest expression as, for example, in the new Scottish Assembly or Regional Assemblies in Spain. The other is the response by national governments to the strategic challenges posed by the globalisation of wealth such as stock markets and central banks, communication and power. These responses often allow lower levels of governance to shoulder responsibility for linking up with society by managing everyday issues, so rebuilding legitimacy through decentralisation. This is evident in the case of Sweden, Austria and the UK in the case studies that follow. Local and regional governments can be viewed as the manifestation of decentralised state power, the closest point of contact between the state and civil society. The expression of cultural identities, which are hegemonic within a given local territory, is sparsely included in the ruling elites in the nation-state (Castells, 1997).


Global processes and social identity

Robertson (1992) identified a trend towards common human identity as an important cultural component of globalisation. Whereas 'the community' has over time acquired different connotations such as a village, a nation, a kin group or a category identified by gender or sexuality, increasingly, in recent decades, 'the community' has been defined as a whole humanity. Many specific events, such as sense of global insecurity, the creation of international organisms like Amnesty International and the UN, and the development of a global communications network, helped strengthen a sense of common human identity. McLuhan and Fiore (1968) introduced the notion of "global village" as a metaphor for a world connected by an intricate web of information and communication networks. It postulates a dynamic that makes the entire globe, and the human family, a single consciousness.

Belays (1996) argues that globalisation merely ushers the intensification of interactional processes that are less centred around the nation-state, thereby introducing a new expression of territoriality and temporality to cultural identification. Globalisation, as interpreted by O'Riordan (1997, 17), is defined essentially in terms of what is perceived not to be controllable by central governments, who think of themselves as accountable. It is this sense of loss of control over forces that could be devastating to the well-being of 'ordinary' people, that gives rise to so much misgiving over the apparently dangerous forces of globalisation. "[g]lobalisation creates a desire for locality in the form of a democratic entity that gives meaning to global action with local effects". It refers to patterns of change that cannot be altered by national governments, let alone local governments.

Failure of proactive social movements and new political parties, to counter economic exploitation, cultural domination and political oppression has apparently played a role in the construction of social local identities. This situation, argues Castells (1997), leaves people with no choice other than either to surrender or to react on the basis of the most immediate source of self-recognition and autonomous organisation, namely to their locality. Under such conditions, civil societies shrink and fragment and identities deconstruct. A search for meaning takes place, in the reconstruction of defensive identities around communal and territorial principles such as anti-nuclear waste dumping campaigns, and of wider project identities such the protection of near-extinct species, or the promotion of equal opportunities. Territorial, or local, identity is therefore often a defensive identity, an identity of retrenchment in face of the unpredictability of the unknown and uncontrollable. In the 1970s and 1980s, people found themselves defenceless against a global whirlwind of change, and they stuck to themselves: whatever they had, and whatever they were, became their identity. So emerged the paradox of increasingly local politics in a world structured by enlarging global processes.


Identity in relation to locality and place

Castells (1997, 60) has pointed out that, in fact, people resist the process of individualisation and social atomisation, highlighted by post-modernists, preferring to cluster in community organisations that, over time, generate a feeling of belonging and, ultimately, a communal, cultural identity. A process of social mobilisation is necessary for this to happen as "[s]ocial movement is a collective actor, constituted by individuals who understand themselves to have common interests and, for at least some significant part of their social existence, a common identity" (Barnes and Sheppard, 1992, 12). Dalby and Mackenzie (1997) point out that, focusing on the immediate environment and social achievement, rather than opposition, political struggle may be an important part of the process of constructing a shared identity. Social identity is both contested and reformulated in local arguments about how a community should respond to a development initiated, organised and financed by corporate agencies based outside the locality. This trend is evident in the Portuguese case studies, and to a lesser degree in the Greek and Swedish examples.

Focusing on places and localities, in each community the social alliances and their political expression are specific. Local social identity is always formed by the juxtaposition and co-presence of particular sets of social interrelations and local networks, and by the effects which those configurations produce. Moreover, and significantly, a proportion of the social interrelations in one specific place will go beyond the area being referred to in any particular context as place. Yet, in principle, it has always been difficult to distinguish the inside of a place from the outside, (Massey, 1994, 169), indeed, it is precisely in part the presence of the outside i.e., the wider capitalist system, market liberalisation, European unification, globalisation within which helps to construct the specificity of the local place. The ten European case studies are understood as more than local bounded areas, i.e., each locality is a set of spaces of interaction. In such spaces, people’s differing identities may not only react to change, but also promote it, or criticise, or formulate other changes.

This is most obviously the case in Peniche and Felbach. In Peniche, the community of traders and restaurateurs clustered to support the ‘illegal’ trade in locally caught fish. In Feldbach, the visionary local council devised ways to create a collective opportunity for economic revival, through which new social local identities could be formed.

Local places do not have a single, pre-given, identity. Given that they are constructed out of the intersection and the articulation of multiple social relations, they could hardly have so. They are frequently riven by internal tensions and conflicts (Massey, 1994, 137). Local environments per se do not induce a specific pattern of behaviour, or, for this matter, a distinctive identity. Globalisation, sustainable growth and political unification, do not produce a single identity. Neither in the temporal nor territorial sense is identity singular and fully reactive, for individual creativity and conscious collective ideologies are essential parts of it. The various social groups in a place will be differently located in relation to the overall complexity of social relations, and their reading of those relations and what they make of them will also be distinct.

Massey (1994, 151) argues that we need to think "what might be an adequately progressive sense of place, one which will fit in with the current global-local times and the feelings and relations they give rise to, and which would be useful in what are, after all, political struggles often inevitably based on place". Massey's view of continual change implicit in place is also implicit in the similar dynamism and complexity found in the phenomenon of local social identity. This is shaped not only by people's position, space and structural change, but also by a sense of identification and group’s ideas.

Where globalisation and European unification have struck, affected groups might assume not only multiple cultural identities that are overlapping and/or competing. Different political perspectives also affect how the disparity between global and local processes is interpreted at grassroots level, how social groups attempt to overcome increased economic vulnerability, cultural alienation and hopeless powerlessness, and why citizens may stand either against or in favour of institutionalised changes, protection of the environment, green business and economic regeneration. Residents, differently positioned in society and with different political inclinations, may well share the same local social locality Table 4.2 summarises the key dimensions, contemporary context and stratification of social identity.


Table 4.2 Social identity and social transformations


Key dimensions Self and society

Political power: Political status: Political activism

Economic position: Sustainable development

Ideological background

Network interaction

Spatial definitions

Contemporary contexts Social Change: Globalisation: Local: National State : Sustainability Legislation: Risk
Stratifications of social identity  










From the analysis so far, it would be misleading to talk of a singular social local identity. Although a person may experience multiple identifications, social local identity applies to residents who see themselves as part of local, but also of extra-local groups; who share similar personal characteristics such as economic position, power, and ethnicity; are conscious of the treatment that society metes out to its members; who see a common fate; and have similar political visions. They act and react according to their beliefs, conditions, possibilities and visions, and in this way we can see how, in practice, the conceptual being and doing, as adopted in a previous section, are connected. In other words, we are talking not only of prolific manifestations of dynamic societal and personal processes, but also of living identities that denote those who benefit from top-down change, such as sustainable development, and those who do not.

It is possible to draw vital distinctions within local social identities as key to unveiling their status in relation to more generalised conditions (see Table 4.3). Such characterisation gives a useful entry point to a form of global-local politics aimed at advancing democratic objectives and implementing sustainability.


Table 4.3 Typology of social local identities in the transition to sustainability

Analytical dimensions

Types of social local identity


through security

through insecurity

through empathy

through apathy

Group identity



Middle/high class

Sense of

individual challenge

Working and low middle class

Sense of collective injustice



middle/any class

Sense of altruism and


Any class, middle-low

Sense of individualism

Political power

Political status

Political activism


Partially empowered








Ordinary people

Loser in formal democracy



Relatively empowered



Ordinary people



Give opinion

Passive supporter

Resigned to be powerless


Ordinary people

Changeable loyalty


Going with the flow

Occasional support

Economic position


Sustainable growth

Entrepreneur, proprietor,

financier Accommodated

Mediate partnerships

Adopt risk

Waged, unwaged, farmer

Disadvantaged marginal

Survival coping strategies






Co-operate promote

protest or assent

Integrated but at the margins


Seek opportunities

Network and solidarity


Union- Indifference

Temporary and convenience solidarity

Degrees of cohesion


High internal group solidarities



Common objective


Seek cultural solidarites

Spatial definition











Territorial or Non-local


Culturally connected





Opportunity, advantage


Impoverishment, instability

Failure in formal economy

Success in informal economy


Success/failure Reputation

Bear witness

Indirect gainer

Indirect loser

Almost always middle-range gainer



Social local identity through security

Local residents of economically accommodated and affluent groups respond positively to structural changes or may actively encourage them. Look particularly in the case studies that follow for the elites of Graz and Linköping. The local identity of these residents is with the group that strives for individual security. Small and medium size entrepreneurs, industrialists, land and property owners, financiers and their institutions, businessmen, and small investors have a definite interest in their own region/locality. This group is conscious that society offers them opportunities for personal progress and has a strong sense of challenge, survival and enterprise. They adhere to green consumerism and assist smart greening of capitalism. Such is the Ecoprofit initiative in Gratz, Austria, which represents an effort for cooperation with municipality, local university and economic enterprises towards sustainable production programmes. Members of identity through security often exhibit united local and regional fronts. Lobbying for common interests can exert additional pressure on government, for example, to withdraw excess tariffs or to stop local dumping of toxic material. Such has been the case of Vale do Ave, Portugal, with its highly water polluting textile and clothing plants, which also has maintained its labour-intensive nature. This, however, has mostly been achieved through the flourishing informal economy, which thrives on social local identity.

Individuals may be actively involved in local environmental politics, also large sections may remain inactive, or exercise passive support. In general, they constitute the political and economic local elite, "[l]ocal notables are intermediates between local societies and the national state: they are, at the same time, political brokers and local bosses. Local and regional social alliances are frequently ad hoc arrangements, organised around local leadership" (Castells, 1997, 271). However, this population must take risks due to its political position in the national and international arena. These people actually constitute a necessary group for implementing national and international measures for sustainable growth. Thus, the concept of sustainability can be a key unifying factor in the formation of local common identity when the population's economic and environmental position is one of relative security. This combination is partiuclarly evident in the case of Feldbach (see Chapter 7).


Social local identity through insecurity

Global and supra-national structural changes have all had profound impacts on citizens who live under, on, or just above subsistence conditions in the transition to sustainability. They are likely to be exposed to long-term environmental hazards from new economic developments, deindustrialisation, or from deliberate annihilation of economic sectors due to reorganisation of European economic objectives. The group's identity develops out of consciousness that is characterised by a general sense of collective injustice and discontent over their exclusion from political power and material resources. Such is the case of the fishing sector in Peniche in Portugal where legislation to reduce regular catch adversely affected their source of income.

The case studies have shown that their individuals’ occupations range from working the land, fishing, employed, running small businesses, to manual work and even unemployment. This population struggled to make ends meet and is more likely to have suffered rather than benefited from structural changes. Intensive agriculture, for example, has been the main survival strategy for Timbaki’s farmers. Nevertheless, from the mid 80s, liberalisation of the market and substantial reduction of Community’s agricultural and industrial subsidies, together with increasing public rejection of excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, have severely weakened the farmers economic and social position. On this same issue, there have also been some improvements in the lives of the local insecure population. For example, in Crete, the agro-industrial co-operative of Timbaki along with approximately hundred local producers, makes organic olive-oil which in contrast to conventional olive oil, has a high selling price.

Solidarity seems to be intrinsic to the group. But, rather than assuming that their identity is always a pre-constituted identity, this is also formed and shaped in time by their opposition to a proposed facility, dump, industrial plant, or other development or policy that is perceived as a threat (Dalby and Mackenzie, 1997), or by sharing supportive programmes. Mobilisation is not however an automatic outcome of social identity, since insecure people, regardless of how oppressed they may be, do not inevitably have a common local identity. Self-esteem is a crucial factor in overcoming conditions of alienation. This is the intended aim of the Norwich Community empowerment scheme (see Chapter 10). In Peniche, structural adjustments to integrate environmental sustainability policy in the fishing sector have resulted not only in high unemployment but also in severe devastation of the fishing community leading to a serious disfunctional community. In the Norwich case, the youngsters of this deprived estate were conscious of their isolation and aggravated by the manner in which they were treated by authority. Yet they felt secure in their local social identity as Heather Voisey outlines in Chapter 10. General inactivism can be attributed to lack of organisation, financial means and communication rather than an absence of a common cause. Certain populations may be too weak, engaged with survival strategies, or frightened to express discontent, to oppose undesirable developments, or to advocate beneficial changes.


Social local identity through empathy

Disregarding whether directly or indirectly exposed to, or capable of avoiding the effects of restructuration and threat, individuals will feel ill at ease with many features of that transition. Individuals that belong to the group of identity through empathy boast full personal dedication to social causes, participate moderately, or remain passive supporters. O'Riordan (1997, 17) emphasises that this kind of relationship in turn enables individual local activists to feel connected to invisible networks of like-minded but unobservable behaviour that, in aggregate, will make a difference on the planetary stage. As in the case of identity through insecurity, the identity that emerges out of empathy with the surroundings and victims is a more cohesive identity than that which is grounded in security.

Active and inactive empathisers may range from the relatively affluent to those on the margins, for example, eco-warriors, the unemployed, professionals and students. In the case studies, the goal of sustainable development has been one main ideological organising principle for this group. Political power is neither denied nor granted to them as a group; they seem to acquire power as a result of successful campaigning. These residents hold the political conviction that collective action can more directly change the condition of those who suffer, and improve the treatment of the environment.

In such cases, individuals come to define themselves through their activism (Kelly and Breinliger, 1996). While it is not uncommon that internal conflicts will prevail within a movement, people will develop deep cohesion and devotion in their political struggles. On the less active front, signing petitions, joining protests or boycotting suspicious products have constituted most of what individuals engage in with the purpose of protecting their environment. Identity through empathy does not revolve around considerations of perceived effectiveness, but reflects a feeling of moral duty or responsibility to stand up and be counted, to register a protest about injustice even if one cannot hope to bring about change. In Linkoping, for example, where residents are not particularly involved in politics, a move has been registered towards expressing opinion, participating in demonstrations and boycotting in relation to environmental issues. In Graz, officials, entrepreuneurs and environmental groups have combined in the cause of promoting an eco-city, ostensibly based on uncritical interpretations of the transition to sustainability.


Social local identity through apathy

Apathy is a misleading word. It is used here to cover a wide-spread sense of holistic resignation, a recognition of disempowerment, and a feeling of helplessness and loneliness in the fact of apparently non-caring external forces. Apathy does not mean a lack of awareness or a misfit in social non-connectedness. It is a culturally induced outcome that is consciously understood.

In this text, identity through apathy applies to those who develop a strong sense of individualism necessary to cope with changing conditions. Although they could exercise power, they prefer to remain unknown, unaccountable. If it is convenient, they may change loyalties to different political parties as long as benefits are foreseen. As its economic position is usually accommodated but only at the margins of the formal economy, it might look for advantage in rising opportunities. Apathy envisions the short term, and usually does not engage in political activism.

The misleading sense of the word refers to the actual power of such identity. By avoiding ideological solidarity and showing indifference to global or local changes, by avoiding cohesive networking, and by identifying with cultural changes, such as technology and fashion, this identity is in reality supportive of changes, whatever those imply.

In Timbaki, a case of partial identity through apathy was found. The farming families recognised their dilemma of growing inpoverishment and ill health caused by the transition of salad market to other parts of Europe, and their increasing exposure to agrochemicals. Their resignation was shaped by the case of capacity in local government to assist them, and the high degree of policy disorganisation in the Greek Government

In Atvidaberg, local people recognised the economic drag of a degraded environment and economy. With the help of EU structured funds and active networks of regional entrepreneurs, the formerly apathetic were activated into the cause of making the transition to sustainability and wealth creating exercise.



This chapter has presented a conceptual discussion of the notion of an identity in the transition to sustainability within recent sociological, psychological, political and geographical discourses as well as an analysis of how social identity may emerge and operate in relation to the European case studies. The chapter has also dealt with emerging set of social local identities in relation to global economic forces of change and locally responsive sustainable growth strategies. The arguments of the chapter have surrounded the development of one main term, that is, ‘social local identity’. It was decided to join these three words as together they best approximate the complex, political and dynamic idea of identity in this important period of change.

The conceptualisation of social identity acknowledges that whether an event is interpreted as socially and environmentally threatening, such as the local manifestation of controversial sustainable development policies, that interpretation depends to a large extent on a sense of identity grounded in social positions in relation to an individuals material life, empowerment, and visions of society. Identity in these terms entails an attribution of problems encountered which is external rather than internal, placing the burden of responsibility for change with ideology, economic structures, political institutions and group mobilisation, not only with personal characteristics and choices.

Three main themes have emerged. The first deals with the need to acknowledge the socio-psychological link between the individual on the one hand, and changing contemporary society on the other. An individual’s identification with a social group in setting that link globalisation and localisation may enhance or destroy self-esteem. The idea of the social self is fundamental as it expresses an important interconnectedness between a thinking ‘being’ and fully active, semi- or non-active ‘doing’. These are integral parts of an identity.

Related to this is the second theme, focusing on the need to recognise the multidimensional and multifaceted nature of social local identity. Rather than conceiving individuals’ identity as transparent and simple, individuals will experience a number of forms of identity notably in the interplay of the global and the local. It has been shown that social local identity is, in reality, stratified because it emanates from exposure to vital circumstances associated with political and economic processes that take place in and beyond the boundaries of locality. This in turn may shape a number of local identities, which emerge and develop through security, insecurity, empathy and apathy.

The final theme deals with the geographical and environmental dimensions of social local identity. Here, it is important to recognise how different perspectives of locality, globality and community influence how local social identities have emerged in a rapidly changing Europe. The discussion has highlighted how local places, e.g., Peniche and Graz, offer not only the locale for social and cultural interaction in the political and economic survival. Local places have also been shaped out of these interactions, presenting threats as well as opportunities for local social identities to exploit, or to let pass.

The foregoing analysis tends to three conclusions. The first is that social local identities are, potentially, powerful forces for accommodating global-local change. Change can go in many directions benefiting some and failing others. The argument that local identities are born in part out of self-defence, and the fact that social identities only sometimes translate into collective mobilisation, does not detract from their contradictory characteristics and inherent collective potential either to challenge, legitimise, or oppose existing power relations.

The second conclusion is that the complexities among global, national, regional, and local levels of association help to condition people's daily life and their struggles for survival, power, and justice. In all the final set of local responses is not one of geographical scale; in fact, the local, national and the global are intimately linked. To understand internal local divisions, and social outlooks, we need to transcend local spatial scales to focus on wider social processes such as those of European unification, market liberalisation, and the transition to sustainability. Thus, social local identities might also encourage trends towards more general widespread liberation and democratisation.

Finally, social local identity is not a single uniform trend that can operate against the constraints of globalisation. A discernible fragmentation in these identities, as outlined in Table 4.3, illustrates this point. Global restructuring is crucial to shaping the characters of contemporary society. But the attributes of social local identities have deeper roots. Persisting unsustainable and undemocratic practices have pervaded society, entrenched in the foundations of social inequality. This subject calls for further examination, in particular for societies that have been deeply transformed by recent European unification and market liberalisation. How far such changes have either exacerbated and/or improved social and environmental conditions in local communities is arguable. But the four facets of social local identities distinguished here indicate that this transition is creating patterns of direct and indirect gain and loss for particular groups throughout Europe, much of which remain hidden form view.



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