The experience of migration

May 2nd, 2006 by Mabel
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“Who am I?”

It is one of those life-changing questions that manage to surface every once in a while whenever individuals are challenged. It begs to be ask and these days, it begs to be ask more often than in the past. With increases in the ‘publicity’ and spread of the phenomenon known as globalisation, individuals are constantly bombarded with messages that challenge our notion of what makes up identity. Identity has become dynamic and fragmented – a concept that has been around for many years (Deschamps et al, 1998).

Also known by other names such as ‘oneself’, ‘I’, ‘the self’, ‘self-image’, ‘the ego’ and a smorgasbord of other definitions, identity has been a key concept in social psychology. Old debates regarding philosophy, ideology, humanities and religion have revolved around the idea of identity. Examples of such debates are issues revolving around the search for personal identity versus collective identity, social visibility versus conformity and the individual versus the group. In its nature, identity is dynamic, constantly changing (Irwin, 1996). It is affected by influences from within the individual as well as from external factors such as relationships formed with other members of a group (Irwin, 1996). Identity can take shapes in multiples forms such as gender identity, ethnic identity, racial identity, national identity and religious identity.

The beginning of the concept of identity starts off with the individual – personal identity. It is that part of an individual which is challenged and affected by experiences, issues, events and even other people. Personal identity can be epitomised in a physical manner or in character traits. Identity is a duality in nature (Deschamps et al, 1998). How individuals perceive themselves may vary from how others perceive them to be and this is a key concept in determine the influence of groups on an individual. Individuals often seek approval and acceptance from others in a consensual manner regarding certain aspects about themselves such like behaviour and physical traits like good looks (Deschamps et al, 1998).

Being a member of a group involves “the recognition, categorisation, or self-identification of oneself as a member of an ethnocultural group” (Ward et al, 2001). Group identity gives a certain sense of belonging, centrality, evaluation and tradition to an individual which in turn helps form an identity of that individual (Ward et al, 2001). This concept is one of the reasons why migrants often form social groups in a host country. The loss of cultural or social identity creates a psychological need to feel belonged to somewhere with people of similar culture, background and tradition. In that manner, it is suggested that individuals seek social situations that emphasizes one identity or another (Worchel, 1998). This can be evident in the number of social support networks available around the world for issues like alcoholism, single parenting and even sexually-related issues.

If identity is used to describe an individual or group, what then makes race and ethnicity? In the past, race is often associated with the concept of the ‘human race’ – a concept that suggests more commonality than differences in physical, social and biological aspects amongst individuals (Cohen et al, 2000). It was during pre-World War I that the concept of race was used to describe “groups of people connected by a common origin and sharing common features of descent” (Cohen et al, 2000). However, in today’s context, the debate of race is divided into two ideologies: 1) scientific or biological ideology and 2) sociological ideology.

Until the 1950s, biologists and physical anthropologists were concerned with the notion of classifying people into racial categories. The idea was popularized through essays such as The Inequality of the Human Races which incidentally spearheaded the anti-Semiticism movement during World War II. Racial hierarchy based on genes within humankind was fundamentally questioned in the wake of World War II when Hitler furthered the idea of Aryan superiority and purity of Aryan blood (Bresheeth et al, 2000). There still remain small groups of proponents to the study of race and genes, and this is evident in studies related to race and intelligence (Cohen et al, 2000).

While the notion of race is more concerned with the physical aspects of the self, ethnicity is about internal qualities of the self such as culture, language and religion. The notion of ethnicity has shifted from biological aspects to more fundamental issues such as theorizing the otherness and discovering difference through media representation and behaviour (Cohen et al, 2000). Identity has become more fragmented and multiple social identities are beginning to be more common. Known as situational identity, individuals may choose to attach or withdraw themselves from any form of identity depending on the situation that they are in (Cohn et al, 2000). This is evident when individuals from different ethnicity strive to look like members of another ethnic group through change in hair colour, dressing, religion and language.

In relations to the concept of identity and how it is shaped, it can be concluded that migration also has an impact on identity. International migrants are part of global economics and culture, establishing networks between their birthplaces with the new settlement areas (Cohen et al, 2000). More sensitive compared to internal migration, international migrants are often subjected to lack of opportunity, immigration restrictions and xenophobia (Cohen et al, 2000). These are issues facing migrants and non-migrants both culturally and psychologically. It is through global patterns of migration that new forms of migrants and substantial effects on individuals as well as communities have increased.

The theory of identity, its formation and ultimately how migration works is vital in understanding how certain communities and individuals react to the phenomenon of globalisation. The reaction of certain individuals can act as a catalyst to the overall reaction and movement of communities within a country. This is turn has an effect on the economic, social and political aspects of that country. The function of the media in the formation, and reinforcement of identity – be it individual or social – is not to be underestimated as identity is shaped by events, experiences and issues that are carried by individuals or the media.

Therefore, the question ‘Who am I?’ is, in some way, redundant. It is often revolving and changing, too dynamic to be defined and too varied by nature to be constraint. Nevertheless, it is in our nature to discover who we are, and where our place is in society, even though we are miles away from our birthplace.


Bresheeth, Haim, Hood, Stuart, and Jansz, Litza, 2000, Introducing The Holocaust, Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd

Cohen, Robin and Kennedy, Paul, 2000, Global Sociology, New York: New York University Press

Deschamps, Jean-Claude and Devos, Thierry, 1998, ‘Regarding the Relationship Between Social Identity and Personal Identity’. In: Social Identity, Wochel, Stephen, Morales, J. Francisco, Páez, Darío and Deschamps, Jean-Claude, London: Sage Publications

Irwin, H., 1996, Communicating with Asia: Understanding People and Customs, Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Ward, Colleen, Bochner, Stephen, and Furnham, Adrian, 2001, The Psychology of Culture Shock, London: Routledge

Worchel, Stephen, 1998, ‘A developmental view of the search for group identity’. In: Social Identity, Wochel, Stephen, Morales, J. Francisco, Páez, Darío and Deschamps, Jean-Claude, London: Sage Publications

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006 at 7:31 am and is filed under Prose. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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