Commentary on Veronica Benet-Martinez’s “The Psychology of Multicultural Experiences and Identities: Social, Personality, and Cultural Perspectives” by ARC Student Fellow Eduardo Ho

The complex and intertwined world of “multicultural identit(ies)” was presented from a psychological social psychology perspective (as opposed to a sociological social psychology view), that is, from the perspective that zooms-in to the individual level, by psychologist and faculty member at the University Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona) Verónica Benet-Martínez (BM).  The connotations of the multiplicity of roles that people possess and enact nowadays are far more complex than they have ever been, as presently, people can take on roles that they did not traditionally take on before (e.g. the stay-at-home dad, the woman CEO, etc.)  People may be comfortable with the multiplicity of roles they play in their daily lives, however, they are not comfortable with their own multicultural identities – as it is “like having multiple husbands”, stated BM.  To which culture do I belong the most?  “When I am in one environment I feel X but people consider me Y and the reverse is also true.”  These are some of the ruminating thoughts that go through the multicultural citizen’s mind.  (Surprisingly, BM made no reference to postmodern theories of self-identity, which would have provided material for an excellent discussion.)  But, what exactly is a multicultural identity?  How does culture and ethnicity shape our identity and personality?  How have individuals who have internalized more than one culture develop a cohesive multicultural identity?  These are some of the questions that BM seeks to address in her research.

BM made the choice in the talk to use the terms bicultural and multicultural interchangeably.  This, perhaps, was an unfortunate choice.  Regardless, her definition of the bi(multi)-cultural individual is actually an anthropological / semiotic one: it is an individual with exposure to two (or more) cultures that has come to possess the systems of meanings and practices associated with these cultures (e.g. beliefs, values, language, etc.)  Thus, there are three domains of acculturation (i.e. practices, values, identifications), but these domains do not change all at the same time, as there are differences in the level of displayed acculturation, like for example behavior observed in the private domain versus the public domain.

BM rejects the model of Culture A vs. Culture B as indicative of anyone’s cultural affiliation, given that for her, individual relationships to cultures are not categorical, but rather partial and plural.  Instead of the Culture A vs. Culture B model, BM’s revised view falls within that of Cultural Frame Switching: there is a switch between different cultural interpretative frames or meaning systems in response to cultural cues.  During this part of the discussion BM interjected with a comparison between this framework and one which recently began to gain traction in Linguistics, namely translanguaging.  The comparison, even though interesting, raises some questions of substance.  Under the translanguaging view of language, the grammar of the speaker only contains features of what society has come to know [and label] as “languages”, and the translanguag-er deploys these resources freely, “transcending” the two or three (or more) languages that he or she manages.  It is true, there is no division between Language A or Language B in the mind of the translanguager, but the meaning and grammatical systems remain the same (i.e. for the most part static) for each feature of each language.  These meaning and grammatical systems are part of the “system” of the language shared by and with other speakers (similar to what Saussure defined as langue), and these are not necessarily permeable to the influence of cultural pressures.

The discussion about Cultural Frame Switching included a description of a series of experiments with Chinese Americans subjects, and how priming would help predict certain behaviors in the US Anglo subjects vis-a-vis the Chinese subjects, according to their culture.  When speaking about priming, BM returned to the issue of language, as she defined it as the most important primer of all, since you “effectively activate everything that is associated with that language”.  Even though this strikes me as an overarching generalization regarding the relationship of any language with a ‘specific’ culture, the point still stands.  In addition, it might be worth mentioning that the juncture at which BM’s work and linguistic theory cross each other would probably be a fascinating area of discussion and research.

The talk included a vast array of indexes and graphs.  The most salient measuring index was the BII: Bicultural Identity Integration.  The limited understanding that I was able to gain of this index is that BII measures how an individual bridges or blends different cultures.  BM made it clear that bicultural integration is not a trait, but rather it’s malleable.  An interesting fact was that BII increases when individuals recall positive bicultural experiences and it decreases when recalling negative bicultural experiences.  Biculturals, however, are more creative and innovative when compared to their monocultural cohorts in professional environments and in school settings (e.g. MBA programs).

The most powerful point of the presentation, for me personally, was the insight BM shared about how when one individual only operates within one culture, the perspective that individual has on that particular culture is less profound than the perspective another individual has on that same culture, if instead, he or she operates in a space that exchanges or constantly negotiates between two or more cultures.  That is, the bicultural owns a comparative perspective that the monocultural cannot possess.  Questions from the audience ranged from the historicity of biculturalism to the teaching and learning implications of biculturalism.  Age was a factor that was never mentioned in the talk or the Q&A: for example, is there an age range for the bicultural individual to gain a greater or lesser sense of belonging into a second culture?  That would be an interesting piece of information to have.  In sum, the talk was thought-provoking and very informative, with ideas that people may take all too for granted, and it managed to show the impressive body of research and researchers working on this very important topic.

~ Eduardo Ho-Fernández


1 thought on “Commentary on Veronica Benet-Martinez’s “The Psychology of Multicultural Experiences and Identities: Social, Personality, and Cultural Perspectives” by ARC Student Fellow Eduardo Ho”

  1. Hi Eduardo, I meant to write to you weeks ago. I enjoyed reading your comentary and learned some new things. .. i would love a chance to chat with you briefly about some of your insights into the topic. Will you be at the next ARC seminar?

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