The Illusion of Cultural Identity

Jean-François Bayart

Part of the CERI/Sciences Po. Series

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The Illusion of Cultural Identity Hardback
October 2005£50.00

The Illusion of Cultural Identity Paperback
October 2005£19.95
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An examination of the fluidity of ideas of culture with relation to identity, state-builfing and political action. Does the West impose its own definition of human rights and democracy on the rest of the world? Does globalisation threaten British, French or other European identities? Was Confucianism really the motor of the Asian economic miracle? Is African culture compatible with multi-party politics? Is Islam an insurmountable obstacle to the integration of North Africans and Turks into Western Europe? There are so many uncertainties – or perhaps false certainties – which we meet all the time and which assume the permanence of culture. It is the very idea of culture that prevents us from grasping the cultural dimension of political action and economic development. For state formation brings into play aesthetic and moral concepts – just as it involves sexual practices, culinary traditions, clothes and hair-styles. After an ironical, and sometimes comical, journey through the political ‘imaginaires’ and passions of the contemporary world, this probing work invites the reader to reinvent the democratic concept in its entirety in order to confront those engaged in contemporary identity conflicts or movements. The murderous force of the most recent events of this kind – the wars in former Yugoslavia, in the Caucasus, in Algeria and in Black Africa, the communal riots in India and Pakistan – derives from the belief that for each imagined ‘cultural identity’ there is a corresponding ‘political identity’. This is a total illusion, for these identities are often fairly recent constructions. There is no such thing as a ‘native identity’ which imposes itself through force of circumstances. There are only strategies pertaining to identities, which are rationally pursued by identifiable actors, and identity-related dreams or nightmares to which we adhere due to their power to seduce or terrify us. But we are not condemned to remain in thrall to these enchantments. The ‘clash of civilisations’ is not fatal.


Jean-Francois Bayart was director of CERI from 1994 to 2000. A specialist in comparative politics, he has a particular interest in the historical sociology of the state - in Sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey and Iran - notably its political imaginaires. He is co-founder of Politique Africaine and an adviser to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Bayart also teaches at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris and writes regularly for the French media, notably Le Monde, Liberation and France-Culture.


‘A work of great subtlety and erudition on a subject that is close to the heart of world politics and seems set to stay at the forefront of debate for years to come. Contrary to the view that the world is witnessing a clash of civilizations, Bayart demonstrates that cultures and their attendant identities are in constant flux. […] It is most helpful to have this text available in English, as few, if any, anglophone political analysts seem able to produce a text of comparable range and erudition.’ — Stephen Ellis, University of Leiden