I know this is more a consolidation (project-finishing, presentation-preparing, caffeine-pounding) week than anything else, but I stumbled onto something interesting (to me, at least) while polishing up my work on my project, and I thought it worth sharing. I had no idea where I was headed when I began my research in January, but I managed to land on Santería and its rich cultural history. What I’ve ultimately chosen to focus on is the transnational identities and communities, formed in the crucible of colonial Cuba and shaped through centuries of cultural diffusion across the Americas. All that has me thinking about the things that form our identities and the communities that we build for ourselves as students, as young adults, as historians, as citizens of our respective countries. Bear with me, because I know this sounds a little ‘we are the world’, but it’s a fantastic thing if you really think about it.

Take the identities we see here in St Andrews. Is it a society affiliation or your course of study that primarily defines your days’ work? Are you a proud champion of your Hall or are have you gone private? Do you ignore freshers simply because they’re freshers and probably as immature as you were when you first arrived? Or do you prefer taking them under your wing and making them part of your university family? Are you an Academic Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter, Cousin, Grandmother? Do you study a science or one of the humanities? Can you afford to attend every last ball and fashion show or are you working 20 hours a week just to pay your rent?

All of these questions point to the immeasurable variety of humans that we are able to meet and connect with, even in this tiny town. And how do they build our communities? Are we St Andrews students? Are we Chapel Choir singers, brewers at the Shire of Caer Caledon, stargazers at AstroSoc or first-string footballers? What ties of identity and association build each of our own hodge-podge university families? These questions barely touch the surface of the multitude of self-identifications we can see here, never mind the ways in which we each identify others and their communities. If we accept that incredible array of possibilities, then how can we ever carry out a comprehensive study of any group?

The simple answer, I suppose, is to focus on single points of commonality and reduce the dimensions of our work. As historians (especially budding transnationalists) it is our job to attempt to tell stories of the past with the greatest accuracy possible and with consideration of the innate complexities of human interactions.

What’s the point of all that waffle? Well, I think the waffle is a prime example of why interdisciplinary approaches to history are so important. Most of what I learned about santeros and their fellows came from anthropologists, those who probe the deep roots of human culture, and you can see evidence of that in the highly personalized shape my work has taken; in attempting to study a religion, I have found myself studying its practitioners and their lives for the simple reason that concepts (such as religion) only matter to the extent that people believe in and/or practice them. If I was to study St Andrews, it is the students, the staff and the townspeople who would probably best illustrate the complex reality that the town lives every day, not statistics or official records or even photographs. Yet that seems more a job for a sociologist or anthropologist than a pure historian, so we must adopt a hybrid method to better understand the true nature of things (a process at which I believe transnationalism excels).

I suppose the takeaway is to consider how unfathomably complicated our individual contexts are and then to attempt to bear that in mind as we look at the people of the past.

Whether this is just sentimentalism run wild, the tired ramblings of someone who’s been listening to Lucumí chants for too many consecutive hours, or something of substantive use, I thought it worth sharing with you all. I appreciate how personal this project has become to me, and I think it is the unique perspectives offered by transnational methodology that have allowed me to build a deep understanding of the people I’ve been studying. Sometimes it helps to remember that we’re studying ourselves, just a few years back. When we talk about actors and their networks, we are talking about structures that we reshape and rely on every day. How fantastic is that?

Considering Identity (and Some Self-Indulgent Self-Reflection)
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2 thoughts on “Considering Identity (and Some Self-Indulgent Self-Reflection)

  • April 11, 2016 at 10:49 am

    I had very similar thoughts the week we were focusing on networks. I had an impression that Lüderitzbucht was similar to St Andrews in that it was a collision point of a lot of different networks. St Andrews students probably have more international friendship groups than at other Scottish universities thus St Andrews like Lüderitzbucht is not representative of other towns in its locality but it is interesting as a collision point. I feel that micro histories of collision points are both important in helping historians to identify networks and connections but can distort things since they are more often the exception than the rule.
    I am reminded of how we identify ourselves when abroad as being Scottish or British or European depending on where we are and who is asking but these identities are usually of little importance within our home state except at collision points. Whilst in Dundee or Glasgow the fact I am Scottish is of very little importance as the majority of the population is but in St Andrews it takes on a new importance as being Scottish is no longer expected.

  • April 21, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    Your blog post raises some really thought provoking points. Who are we and what factors have shaped our identity? I really love the way the comment left above used this term ‘converging points’. That is exactly what our whole course is about right? All these elements of identity converge into one that makes us who were are (I think). Similar to how you described in your presentation that the identity of Regla de Ochá is the combination of various identities.

    The heart of your post I think is the overarching reality that this class has transformed us to dive deeper, run faster and climb higher to find the answers to our obviously limitless questions. The class has illuminated the numerous transnational and cultural connections in so many different facets that I never thought possible. Topics like Caribbean religions, the foundation of the British welfare state and even the most American beer in existence all derived from various foundations. We are now inspired and encouraged to look beyond the conventional and find unique histories of really unique topics!!

    In addition, when you mentioned that we are challenged to tell the stories of the past, this is possibly the most interesting benefit of this class. For the past four years, I have spent countless hours researching and writing, but have I ever felt that I am telling a story of a people, culture, event? With this class and your words I am now inspired to incorporate that element in my writing. We are now both explorers and story tellers.

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