Cultural Identity and Educational Possibilities in Humanistic Studies

Martina Claus-Bachmann

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This paper intends to explain why I find there is an urgent need for action both in reflecting on the topic of this conference as well as in the area of pragmatic instructional practice. I wish to clarify why we organized this conference and asked specialists from different institutes and working areas, with different approaches to the topic, to contribute to it.
Personally, it was important for me that my own approaches not remain isolated but to develop or modify them in the framework of interaction with the concepts of others. Thus the following essay is meant to form a basis for discussion and refers therefore to cultural forms of expression in general, of which music is a possible part.

It should first be explained to those readers who are not familiar with the German school system that reference is made in this article to the special situation of classroom instruction in the subject of music, a subject that is not taught in this form in other countries. This involves compulsory instruction for students ranging between 10 and 18 years in age. Within the three general-education school forms of Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium, one to two hours per week of music instruction are planned, depending on the particular school system. The ministries of culture and/or education of each Bundesland, or state, issue teaching plan guidelines that must be fulfilled by the music teachers, who are usually civil servants. Because these canonized regulations are made obligatory through a bureaucratic path that often takes several years, teachers often feel they lack a reference to music as it is currently played and heard. Through rigid fixation on certain contents, such regulations do not give the teachers enough flexibility in their approaches to thematically new developments or ways of thinking. In addition to the subject of music, which is integrated into the canon of school subjects, there also exists the possibility of offering elective subjects, whereby each school is allowed only a certain quota. Such elective subjects are based on an outdated concept of culture that is only directed toward the classical-romantic-bourgeois dominant culture. This can be observed already in the official designations for elective subjects, at least in Bavaria, which include "orchestra," "chorus," etc. But in the reality of school life, diverse contemporary forms of youth culture are actually taken into account, for example, in the form of rock bands, musical groups, multimedia working groups, etc. A contradiction exists between the tendency to dismantle culture-related subjects and the importance in scholarly and analytic terms of culture-related behavior in reference to the construction of the mental system of "humankind." In this paper, I propose the thesis that this discrepancy could be largely offset by a new definition and valuation of our concept of culture.

1. Theoretical Background

First, three hypotheses act as a starting point:

a. Contemporary conceptions in the area of musical education orientedtoward rock, pop or the historical canon no longer include (or only to an insufficient degree) the musical-cultural world of experience of the pupils in today's schools. Most of these orient themselves to a large extent toward and within dynamic cultural systems of an autopoietic 1, process-like nature. These the students use functionally and constructively for the creation of their own everyday world and feelings of identification.
b. Music is a structural element of a supply of elements that demarcate identity (Grenzmarkenvorrat)2 of the morphic potential of a culture, a potential with young persons deal in reference to identity, that is, which is involved in the continuity of their persons in the course of irreversible time.

c. Instructional contents and processes must take into account cultural and relativizing pluralism and deal with the manifold differences and processual nature of cultural forms of manifestation and expression.

These three core theses describe in condensed form my current reflections, which have been nurtured by various sources. First I will give a short overview of these sources before briefly outlining my current thoughts on the concept of cultural identity,in order to then demonstrate possibilities of behavior in instructional practice using a practical-in the meantime, even prize-winning-example. Systematic thinking in reference to culture emerged as one of my identities-we shall call it here the ethnomusicological -from musicological analysis, in a narrower sense, of the liturgical music of a minority culture in Indonesia. This particular case study presented thefollowing lines of thinking in a highly direct manner, as I have described in my dissertation:

1) the dynamic character of the rise of a cultural system out of a situation of marginality, as a distinctive-limitic structure against a dominant culture claiming complete representation,
2) the functionality of cultural expressive forms for migrants that are above all significant for the feeling of coherence among its members,
3) the stabilization of the cultural system through cultural techniques such as circularity of rites, canonization, training of specialists, setting down through writing, etc., and
4) the phases of opening and transformation of cultural systems when in contact with heterogeneous systems.

Another of my identities, we'll call it here the pedagogical one, is found in the classroom with school pupils, whom I began to perceive from the exotic viewpoint of an ethnomusicological eye. They did not fit into the rock and pop stereotyped category long marked conceptually by discourse in music education, a fact confirmed for me both acoustically and above all verbally. I was forced to realize that the usual music educational attempt (usual even today) to place everything that could not be categorized as classical-romantic-bourgeois concert music culture as rock and pop no longer was justified by the terminology used by my students. Thus about three years ago we founded out of common interest an Arbeitsgemeinschaft 'Jugendsubkulturen' (Working Group Youth Subcultures). Since then, this group has enjoyed a good reception (in 1998, 25 students participated), and it has been able to win two major supraregional prizes in the field of multimedia. A permanent discourse has developed in this working group, conducted through talks, discussions, later by narrative interviews and gathering of data-thus in principle ethnomethodological working techniques. The result was an emically substantiated systematization of cultural systems in which teenagers between twelve and eighteen years of age prefer to move and whose expressive forms they call upon for the creation of their own worlds and their own identity.
In addition to coordinating the analyzing, and later also creative, activities of the youths, my role in this team has been above all to check our results with already existing literature and concepts. In this way I have been able to establish a research project at the University of Bamberg on the school context.
The results to date have supported the systematic conception of cultures. It can also be said about youth subcultures that they are dynamic systems whose point of origin lies in a marginal situation, e.g., in the ghetto experience of the underprivileged in large cities or as a puberty experience, in contrast to the cultural system experienced as dominant (the parents; bourgeois, middle-class culture). There is an originating phase with the buildup of a limitic structure. This concept derives from the ethnologist Wilhelm E. Mühlmann and refers to the distinctively heightened form of culture.3 Mühlmann defines this concept through delimiting signs that people construct and use as delimiting markers of cultural identity, such as tattoos, body paintings and deformations, jewelry, clothing, texts, myths, songs and dances, etc. (Mühlmann 1985:19). First involved in the genesis of culture is a demarcation with all senses: acoustic, optic, mental, emotional, etc. As Jan Assmann has observed, anti-identities are thereby formed and maintained, not against a cultureless chaos but rather against a dominating culture (J. Assmann 1992:154).
Jan and Aleida Assmann have presented in great detail within a series of works the fragile and dynamic structural balance of cultural systems, as these appear after the phase of origin has been completed in a continuum of self-maintaining continuity. Here, proven cultural techniques and strategies of duration are applied which are necessary for the stabilization of cultural systems and which can be recognized among all youth subcultures. To name just a few examples, there is cyclical repetition, establishment of circularity recurring rituals, formation of specializations for repetition and preservation of rites, cyclical and medial presence, formation of a canon, fixation of that canon through multimedial means, etc.
When, for various reasons, strategies of identity and continuity become irrelevant over time, a transformation phase begins with signs of opening up of the system4 and a readiness for syncretism resulting in transcultural forms of manifestation. This means as well the disarming of limitic structures and the readiness, through fusion with another, to reach a new quality, which itself can then develop long-term strategies 4. This chart sums up the dynamics of cultural systems (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Three phases of cultural system dynamics as visualized by the author.

This point of view is confirmed for example by the theory of dynamic systems as developed by Niklas Luhmann, as well as by the general discourse on constructivistic ideas of autopoiese, self-reference and the dynamic of systems. This way of thinking is also applicable to humans. Cognitive science has long ago suggested the point of departure that man represents such an operationally closed system that maintains itself dynamically and behaves with reference to itself. Here the concept of identity enters as something which, seen purely functionally, the system of humans needs in order to push forward its autopoiese continually in reference to itself. While the creative latitude of the biological identity of the human system hits certain material boundaries, the morphic potential of culture offers to its mental structural needs elements of construction that are relevant to identity. Here we have reached a point at which it is necessary to summarize what is understood in this context under the concept of identity. To this end, I wish to endorse three previously formulated definitions that in theirsoundness hardly require improvement:

1) the definition of Aleida Assmann of identity as a quality of constructive consistence and coherence (A. Assmann 1994:14);
2) Shaftesbury's definition of identity as continuation or preservation of the person through time (cited in A. Assmann 1994:14) and
3) Heiner Keupp's definition of identity as a project that has the goal of creating an individually wished for, or necessary, 'sense of identity' (Keupp 1996:402).

Summarizing all three statements together, this involves at first the selective feeling of with-one-another-being-one that is extended over as long a stretch of time as possible, to begin an escape from the transitoriness of existence, to attempt to overcome fear of being swallowed up by meaninglessness.
The individual human as system, who rediscovers within the gestalt potential of a culture acceptable constructive means for his identity, has an autopoietic relationship to this system. This is explained by Jan Assmann as follows: The part depends on the whole and gains his identity first through the role that he plays in the whole, the whole however emerges first out of the connection of the parts (J. Assmann 1992:131). If the identity of the human system can be actively construed with help of cultural creative means, which is suggested by my observations and experiences with teenagers and by the statements quoted above by various other authors, the following pedagogically relevant reflections result. The constructivistic interpretation of culture in general and of music cultures in particular is in essence an ethnomusicological and anthropological way of thinking. For within the knowledge of modular, patchwork-like forms (Keupp 1996:385; Gross 1985) of a (music-) cultural system lies the idea of the self-determined feasibility of the own world and the own identity system (see Fig. 2). Indeed, a particular supply of culturally given identity boundary markers are available to the individual from the time he enters his dynamic existence. But with the growth of the curious exploration of the levels of reality (Keupp 1966:389), of the possibility for change of focus ... from the familiar perspective of the 'church spire' or from the rough perspective of a 'space shuttle' lies the creative potential (M.P. Baumann 1999:2) for an own connection and combination of multiple realities to viable5 identity patterns (Keupp1996:389).

Fig. 2. Some cultural systems that are important in contemporary German society.

The ability and possibility of distinctive distance toward monocultural centralness and the perspective of pluralcultural orientation are the basis and result of ethnological observation and methodology. In the individual ethnomethodological process of development, there exists a tolerance for ambiguity anchored in empathy emerges, an ability to open oneself up to people and situations and to develop out of the resulting experiences a new inventory of acceptable identity patterns (Keupp 1966:402) that again is available for the creation of the own identity process.
The changing process-like dynamic of identity, the continual scrutinizing, the reflection on and making flexible of the own mental constructs as a dissolving of monocultural centralness seems a possibility of orientation in a pluralized society, whose structure consists of the interwovenness of cultural systems with different claims to dominance. Aside from the claim to dominance or from dominance structures founded historically, materially or institutionally, an emancipatory claim to equality can be seen in the functionality of cultural expressive forms as apotential working model for the individual human being. After all, the identity-related relevancy for the individual person always remains the same, whether involving participation in, or constructive cooperation with, a dominant, minority or subcultural system. The individual uses the relevant boundary markings for his own construction of identity. The question of dominance or marginality only emerges to the foreground when one falls back into a monocentric position of hiding and the limitic structures are built up to become injurious, threatening, frightening and, in the extreme case, aggressive and destructive.

Pedagogic goals must therefore be:

1) the encouragement of individual creative abilities for the own construction of identity, founded in the understanding of mental constructs of identity for the autopoietic system of man.
2) The encouragement of respect for the construction of identity by the Other, founded in the knowledge of the functioning of cultural techniques, of the structural balance of cultural system dynamics and of their autopoietic relationship to, and functionality for humans.
3) The encouragement of consciousness for a necessity of peaceful coexistence of cultural systems beyond demands for dominance and feelings of marginality, based in a global-relativized comparability of cultural functionality, in the end as educational preparation for, and efforts towards, the securing of world peace.

2. Multimedia Projects as Educational Possibilities in Humanistic Studies: Project 'Identity'

a) A Report from Practical Experience
A school project based on process, with the goal of attaining a product, will be introduced here as the pragmatic translation of the conception established in theoretical terms above and the pedagogically relevant considerations that result from it. This project won the national multimedia competition in Germany called Join Multimedia, sponsored by the Siemens company, receiving the third prize from among 833 school entries.6 Twenty-three students worked an entire school year on a multimedia-interactive translation of an identity concept that would be subject to various interpretive possibilities. The working group Jugendsubkulturen (Youth Subcultures) was creatively active in this project, a group that had already been recognized a year before in the competition Freestyle for the design of a homework notebook7 using modern desktop publishing means.

b) The Show Idea
This time the group designed an interactive show that presented the search of teenagers for cultural identity, in which two contrasting youth subcultures are introduced as they encounter the main performer in her experiential world:

Gothic and hip hop are represented as highly contrasting cultural systems, graphically, musically and textually.

The concept of culture is thus broken down constructivistically, and cultural techniques are understood as a means of identity construction that serves purely functionally to create a recursive mental Human Being System, to maintain and preserve the autopoietic relationship to cultural system.

c) Contents of the Show

The teenager Monika sees and experiences the various expressive forms of body cultural systems gothic and hip hop in order to be able to justify why she has decided for one or the other.
At the same time the observer and interactively connected user of the show experiences an introduction to the specific creative potential of both cultural systems and the generally formative power of culture.

d) Practice in Cultural Techniques as Justification for Interdisciplinary Work

The project can be understood above all as teamwork between the subjects of art and music. In addition, work with and on texts comprise an important share of this project, which would come under the school subject of German Language. In principle, a multimedia creation of this dimension presents a challenge to all subjects that deal with cultural technology, such as movement art and all graphic-creative techniques such as photography, video production, and fashion design and production. As a cultural technique and subject matter that is not yet the object of a teaching tradition (and thus has a still-unformed chaotic potential), computer technology creates possibilities for teachers and students to learn from one another. Students, together with the entire team, converted the developed ideas and guidelines to a private computer network installed by themselves and thereby developed clever programming ideas that caused astonishment among the team of teachers who themselves were not inexperienced regarding the multimedia environment.

e) Empathetic Sensitivity to Heterogeneous Cultures with Help from the New media

The show conveyed glimpses into the officially perceptible scenery of both subcultural systems, gothic and hip-hop, particularly taking up creative work of the students in which the treatment of the representative models were reflected. The pedagogical value thus lies above all in the extension and trying out of various latitudes of action that open up computer technology within the cultural area. Three stages of empathetic approach can be distinguished:

a) the subject-related reconstruction of a cultural system by ethnomethodological means;
b) the imitation of cultural expressive forms of the limitic structure of a system in student work following representative models and
c) constructive participation in the system through the addition of new creative forms to the supply of identity markers of a cultural system, whereby here modular creations, a collage consisting of a pool of already available alternatives or newly invented creations, could be important.

f) Glimpse into Structures of Cultural Systems
In its contents, the show encourages tolerance that can emerge when one has learned to think in a culturally relative way, that is, not only understanding cultural techniques as anthropologically functional but alsoreflecting the social interlocking of culturally dominant and subdominant systems and their power (claiming) structures. The pragmatic usage for humans remains the same, whether this involves a cultural system that could represent its power claims already for centuries or a fragile subcultural system that is threatened with decline for lack of power-effective structures.

g) The Jury Evaluation
In addition to the convincing thematic and model graphic design of the show, the evaluation of the jury praised the courage shown that was necessary to approach such a topic.

3. Outlook:

Multimedia Creative Programs as Projection Areas for Cultural Construction
In contrast to the more limited print media, the medium of CD-ROM and the necessary authoring software necessary for the production of an interactive show offer an ideal projection area for the presentation of systems closed in space and time. The show itself is a circularly closed unit that can convert the morphic potential of a cultural system optically, acoustically, emotionally, mentally, motorically and-through the interactive component in certain ways even sensorially-by multimedial means. The creator of the show experiences in a striking way what it means to reconstruct a cultural system. He grasps simultaneously the system structures and relationships in a real way and thus experiences himself as reflexive, empathetic and creative.


1 Autopoetic/autopoiese comes from the Greek, autos + poiein = self-preservation. As structure-determined systems, we are not specifically influenced from outside but rather react always in the sense of the own structure (Maturana , cited in Siebert 1999:197). Living beings continually produce themselves as autopoietic organizations (biologicalexample = cell division) (Maturana, Varela 1996:50).
2 Grenzmarkenvorrat (supply of elements that demarcate identity) is a supply of all things (signs, symbols, activities, ways of thinking, patterns, etc.) that humans use to differentiate themselves from others and to make themselves perceived. In cultural terms, this means particularly clothing, hairstyles, body painting, jewelry, body deformations (like piercing), patterns of movement, graphic codes, linguistic expressive forms, and music-related activities, but also living style, eating habits, life attitudes and habits, etc.
3 The phrase distinctive heightening here refers to the fact that new forms of culture are always formed as counterreactions to already existing cultures that make claims of dominance and that the authentic participation in a cultural system often means a conscious differentiation that is self-confident to the point of arrogance. Herein lies the conflict potential of a cultural creed because that new potential that first formed out of rejection of claims of dominance often becomes itself stabilized through distinction. There exists a knife-thin, often explosive border between the feelings of being different and being better.
4 The phenomenon of opening in the end phase of a cultural system means particularly the fundamental openness, translucence and also vulnerability that Max Peter Baumann describes as a chain of reaction in the process of intercultural encounter (1999:5). From these emerge the three possibilities of reculturation (isolation, purism, traditionalism), integration (deculturation with loss of tradition) and transculturation (fusion). Transculturation offers possibilities of melting and reforming previous cultural traditions to separated, additive and completely new qualities.
5 Viable means here gangbar or working in daily life.
6 The presentation CD of the winners of the 1999 Siemens competition can be obtained at no cost from the web address: mail: web-add: This web site also offers information about prizes for student groups and schools and is updated every year with the new winner-groups.
7 A homework fanzine is a prescribed notebook from schools in which the homework for individual subjects are to be done. Since these notebooks are usually rather ugly, the students came up with the idea of designing them like a cultural fanzine. Four youth subcultures, shown in surveys to be favorites of students, each received ten pages in which they were presented. The notebook was produced for about 300 ninth and tenth graders.
8 Because the amount of memory used by the show program was limited by the competition rules, a selection had to be made on the amount of introduced possibilities of cultural systems. Gothic and hip hop were selected particularly because of their aesthetically expressive and yet opposing potentials.


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