Identification and belonging in a media age

This research theme involves several projects.

media studio Mana, © Rufus de Vries ( how people identify themselves and others and changing modes of belonging and exclusion over time have long been central to research at the ASCL. This field of inquiry extends such research on identification and belonging in Africa to the current era of global restructuring and the media revolution. The proliferation of new media and communication technologies, most recently the mobile telephone and the Internet but also older mass media such as television, has led to important changes in Africa. It has dramatically extended the possibilities for communication over space and time. However, the role of such media in the shifting modes of identification and belonging in Africa in relation to current global political economic changes is still not well understood.

With the spread of new media and communication technologies, there seems to be a wider range of modes of identification, belonging and possibilities for self-definition. These have become symbolic resources in many people’s attempts to make a living and are interlinked with resources such as land and financial resources that can be mobilized to build alliances and connections. Alternately they can be deployed to delink from and work against others.

A slum dweller in a megacity might be an actor in the informal economy and a middle-class professional could be involved in the provisioning of services in the more formal economy. Both are able to draw on and emphasize particular modes of identification – ethnicity, region, ‘home’ village, religion, language and/or politics and culture – that are increasingly mediatized. Indeed, their multiple identifications might entail complex links with a ‘home’ village and villagers for mutual assistance, a religious community, networks for economic activities and/or leisure, and kin in the diaspora. A wealthy businessman who is investing in land in his home village to develop a plantation for biofuel might also identify himself with ‘home’ and may simultaneously position himself in relation to international business interests and possible investment partners, not to mention the national political field.

These phenomena raise important questions about citizenship, transnationalism and multiple forms of identification, as well as shifting norms, values and worldviews.

In this research, the ASCL is interested in key moments when identification and belonging are expressed in social, cultural and political forms. These include rituals of the life course (marriages and funerals), cultural creativity in music, the visual arts, material culture and language, including literature and journalism as well as more popular linguistic forms, such as patois, slang and SMS usage, and diverse forms of political action and expression and how they change over time, including their mediatization.

telephone pole (Sudan 2008 ?) © Mirjam de Bruijn (ASC Leiden)The focus is particularly on new media, the emergent networks created due to shifting definitions of belonging and modes of identification, and the changing resources available to individuals and groups. Detailed empirical research will explore how shifting identifications could lead to new alliances and networks, influence norms, values and worldviews, including in the field of sexual and reproductive rights, facilitate access to new resources, engender forms of exclusion and relations of inequality, and perhaps even fuel outright conflict.

This research theme involves the following projects: