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A Focus on (Cultural) Identity: From Instrument to Object of Research


Now more than ever, the term and the notion of identity are central to historical research. However, their use, which is widely accepted, is not without problems: as cultural anthropology studies have clearly shown, the word often proves to be ineffective in terms of the development of research and therefore of historical interpretation. In the brief notes that follow, I will take stock of the situation, retracing the major problems posed by the identitarian logic and attempting to assign identity itself the correct position and function with regard to historical investigations, taking account of its original values and meanings.

Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, le terme et la notion d’identité sont au cœur de la recherche historique. Cependant son usage, bien que largement admis, n’est pas sans poser problèmes. Comme l’ont bien montré les études d’anthropologie culturelle, le mot identité s’avère souvent inopérant dans le développement de la recherche et l’interprétation historique des données. Dans cette introduction, je dresserai un bref bilan permettant  à la fois de souligner les aspects problématiques majeurs posés par la logique identitaire et de replacer l’identité elle-même dans les études historiques en prenant en compte les valeurs et significations premières qui lui sont associées.

identity; historical research; research instruments; anthropological studies


For the last ten years or so, starting from the beginning of the TCM project – Transformations and Crisis in the Mediterranean: “Identity” and Interculturality in the Levant and Phoenician West, which I coordinated together with Tatiana Pedrazzi,1 my studies have in part focused on “(cultural) identity”, both as a concept and as a term. My interest arose above all as a result of the long-standing debate which, in the field in which I work (Phoenician and Punic archaeology), has tended to question the possibility of tracing and defining the identity of the cultural object under investigation (i.e. the Phoenicians) and therefore of constructing a general image of that culture corresponding to a recognizable and verifiable historical reality.2 This is not the place to enter once again into the merits of such a complex debate. Rather, in response to the kind invitation that has been extended to me to provide for this volume a theoretical and methodological contribution dedicated to identity, I would like to retrace those elements that I believe best define the identity question. Drawing above all on the fundamental contribution of cultural anthropology,3 I will attempt to highlight, from my perspective, how the problem of identity construction can be addressed in the historical context (specifically with reference to the ancient world).

Identity: instrument and object of research

Cultural anthropology studies, especially in very recent times, have taught us that there are in fact two fundamental and different ways of observing and analysing cultural identity.4 The first looks at identity as a tool of definition: here, identity is conceived as the selection of recurring traits that are common to two or more communities (think above all of language and writing or certain characteristics of art and craftsmanship, of social organization, of political institutions, of worship, etc.) and that allow one to regard and classify those communities as belonging to the same culture; in some way they are used to provide a fairly clear image of that culture, distinguishing it from others. It is therefore a process of attribution – and identification – undertaken by scholars (and thus external to the investigated object) and focused on the task of cataloguing and classifying. It is the so-called “substantial” identity “in quanto costituita mediante una selezione arbitraria di tratti distintivi che hanno tuttavia la pretesa di essere significanti, e perciò esaustivi, di quella identità: essi costituirebbero insomma la “sostanza” di quella identità”.5 In my field of study, a similar path of attribution was theorized by Sabatino Moscati as early as 1963, when the scholar identified in the language, in the geographical area of ​​formation and in the shared cultural processes the essential criteria for attributing a common identity – “Phoenician” identity – to specific communities of the ancient Levant.6

The second way sees identity as something that is affirmed and claimed, not always in a fully conscious way, by an individual or community within the framework of a process of self-definition and self-representation. It is a phenomenon to be investigated, an object of analysis represented by a human attitude aimed at reclaiming a sense of belonging, at demarcating difference from others (whether individuals or groups), and oriented towards seeking unity, continuity, cohesion and stability. “Questa identità è stata chiamata performativa, in quanto verrebbe colta immediatamente dai soggetti i quali non hanno bisogno di selezionare in maniera cosciente i tratti da loro considerati come i criteri costitutivi dell’identità e dell’appartenenza, ma “agiscono”, praticano tale identità. Quest’ultima è definita performativa per sottolineare la sua natura cogente per tutti coloro che l’avvertono come costitutiva della propria appartenenza”.7

Now, determining which identity perspective you prefer to use when dealing with an investigation dedicated to historical phenomena and processes is not, in my opinion, a neutral choice: indeed, I am convinced, following the suggestions of some recent studies, that the two approaches briefly described above cannot coexist and that, moreover, one of the two represents a questionable and non-operative (if not fallacious) interpretation. The central point, I believe, is what the word “identity” means and therefore how much we are willing to expand and modify – perhaps even a little too freely – that same meaning (with all the problems that arise from this dynamic).

Proceeding step by step, it is worth remembering that in the Treccani online dictionary, for example, the word “identity” is defined as follows: “Identità s.f. [dal lat. tardo identĭtasatis, der. di idem “medesimo”, calco del gr. ταύτότης]. – 1. L’essere identico, perfetta uguaglianza: i. di due firme, di due concetti; i. piena, vera, totale, assoluta”8. In an almost analogous way, in the Oxford English Dictionary the word is understood as: “The quality or condition of being the same in substance, composition, nature, properties, or in particular qualities under consideration”.9 To cite a third and final example, the Larousse dictionary provides the following definition: “Rapport que présentent entre eux deux ou plusieurs êtres ou choses qui ont une similitude parfaite. 2. Caractère de deux êtres ou choses qui ne sont que deux aspects divers d’une réalité unique, qui ne constituent qu’un seul et même être. 3. Caractère permanent et fondamental de quelqu’un, d’un groupe, qui fait son individualité, sa singularité. 4. Ensemble des données de fait et de droit qui permettent d’individualiser quelqu’un (date et lieu de naissance, nom, prénom, filiation, etc.)”.10 Although these definitions are rather schematic and partial, as indeed is appropriate to the context of use, they imply some elements that in my opinion are fundamental. In the first place, they underline the relationship of perfect equality between two subjects/objects (identity therefore operates on a relational level: one is identical with respect to another). In the second place, they emphasize the substantiality of identity as a stable and unitary “system” generated by the different elements that make up a subject/object (therefore identity moves on the level of self-definition and self-representation, presenting itself as something substantial – something that continues to be identifiable and recognizable despite change). From these first elements one can already perceive what identity lays claim to: unity, perfect equality, stability and cohesion. Indeed, in order for one thing to be identical to another, constancy and fixity are necessarily required: for a subject to be able to claim his/her identity – made up, for example, of his/her name, family, gender, sexual orientation, physical characteristics, job, social status, etc. – identity must show itself as something essential (always recognizable, as stated above).

I initially suggested that one of the ways in which the notion of identity is used corresponds to the selection of recurring traits (such as language) that are common to different communities and that allow one to regard and classify those communities as belonging to the same culture (or to the same ethnicity, e.g. “the Phoenicians”). With regard to this use, observing the more literal meanings of the term “identity”, however, a significant problem emerges, which has been forcefully (and rightly) highlighted in some anthropological studies.11 Recognizing and attributing, from the outside, a certain identity to two or more human groups constitutes a procedure that stands in clear contradiction to the most evident and undeniable characteristics of the historical phenomena and processes in which those groups participate (and of which they are also the outcome): mobility, interference with the outside (with the “other”), porosity and continuous transformation. Just as a human group will never be the same over time (due to the changes and movements that characterize the social dimension and the correlated interactions, both internal and external), so two or more communities, even if they are referred to as belonging to the same culture, can never be said to be identical to each other. At most, they can be considered to be very similar in some characteristics (which allow them to be classified under the same definition); however, since they are similar (rather than identical), they can only be configured as different from each other.12

The use of identity on a historical level in order to define subjects/objects, therefore, inevitably results in a very strong paradox: it implies that a certain subject/object is defined using a term/concept that has a meaning opposite to what primarily distinguishes the subject/object itself (i.e. becoming). It is no coincidence that those who intend to deal with identity, if using it as an operational category – as a tool of definition (defining, for example, a “Phoenician identity”)13 – are often forced to create what Francesco Remotti has called “little conceptual monsters”, including expressions such as “plural identities”, “multiple identities” and “fluid identities”.14 One may feel the need for such expressions precisely because the term “identity”, when used alone and unqualified, does not appear capable of expressing the mobility and plurality of social and historical phenomena and processes. One is therefore forced to attenuate, to blur, to soften the original meaning of the word, in order to ensure that it becomes ductile, malleable and in some sense usable and thus able to describe something plural, fluid and changeable.15

However, the “little conceptual monsters” that are thus created are virtually useless, if not misleading: they claim to bring together concepts and terms that are by definition in opposition to each other; they therefore imply an artificial revision of the meaning of the word “identity” (we saw above that identity, as such, cannot be plural, multiple, fluid, etc., as an element that lays claim to unity, coherence and stability). To use Remotti’s words: “è come se, da un lato, non si volesse rinunciare al termine identità, che evidentemente continua a esercitare la sua presa, e dall’altro lo si volesse accoppiare con ciò che è esattamente il suo contrario, smentendo così, con questo stesso gesto di meticciamento semantico, il significato originario e intenzionale di identità”.16 Of course, such a limit does not imply that classification operations cannot be begun by putting subjects and objects together on the basis of some selected criteria (“Phoenician civilization”, for example);17 rather, it means depriving those classification operations of the trappings of identity – which claim non-existent unity on the historical level and crush similarities and differences. Essentially, when we categorize, as is required by analytical procedure, we are certainly not forced to establish identities (considering the human groups in question as “islands”)18 but rather, perhaps, to put together, albeit gradually, different subjects/objects on the basis of traits of similarity (and difference) (see below).

It seems quite clear at this point that identity cannot be used as an explanatory tool, since it goes against what it is supposed to explain; in fact, no historical category can be explicated and described through the notion of identity (or if this can be done, it is only by distorting the meaning of the word, modifying its values and creating “little monsters”).19 At this point, continuing to follow Francesco Remotti, it is possible to introduce into our investigations a different concept – a different analytical logic – that is far more useful and promising than the one implied by the term “identity”: it is the notion of “similarities (and differences)”. The central point, on this level, is not to look for subjects – from the historian’s perspective – that are identical to each other and to bring them together under a single name, but rather to analyse what several groups – possibly classified and catalogued by us (e.g. “Phoenicians”) – may have in common and, together with that, their points of difference. To quote the anthropologist once again, “somiglianza implica sempre un qualche grado di “differenza”. Perché due cose possano dirsi somiglianti, occorre che siano, o appaiano, anche un po’ differenti”.20 Compared to that of identity, the approach through similarity always implies a gradualness that can be highlighted by investigation (historical, in our case). It enables us to outline the various levels on which the relationship between similarities and differences is played out, allowing our analysis to grasp in a progressive and nuanced way what brings two or more communities together or distinguishes them, making them similar in some ways (perhaps even very similar, depending on the point of view adopted) and different in others (perhaps very different): “il simile (…) contiene in sé tanto la dimensione della continuità quanto quella della discontinuità, tanto la permanenza quanto la variazione”.21 This logic therefore respects the gradualness and mobility of historical processes and phenomena, without simplifying their complexity or giving them excessive (ahistorical) rigidity.22

We thus arrive at the second perspective from which the term “identity” can be understood and used, one which makes identity an object of research: the very fact that the term and the concept of identity do not configure themselves as means of analysis (and that they can be substituted by the similarities/differences logic) implies that they must be placed on the opposite side of the observation point, compared to the position of the scholar (the historian in our case). Being representative of a phenomenon that opposes historical becoming, they need to be described and explained (which, unsurprisingly, illustrates and in part justifies the creation of “little monsters”). They are therefore objects that can be observed and understood.

Identity, in this sense, represents a cultural construction that is not at all substantial and has an easily recognizable objective: its elaboration and its claim, affirming the unity of an individual (allowing him/her to be always recognized) and indicating belonging to a certain community, with certain characteristics, tend, as previously mentioned, to seek unity and coherence, stability and cohesion. It is, of course, only a tendency and not something that can actually be achieved, something really existing and (as suggested above) substantial – which is why identity cannot be an analytical category. In this context Remotti further states: “mentre gli attori sociali potrebbero immaginare, rappresentare e tentare di costruire identità fisse, stabili, sottratte alla storia, ciò che i soggetti producono sono pur sempre identità complesse, soggette al divenire, costrette a certe aperture, nonostante tutti i tentativi di chiusura e stabilità. Gli attori sociali rischiano spesso di immaginare identità ispirate alla fissità e alla completezza dell’essere, senza rendersi conto dell’involontaria apertura all’alterità e al divenire, che invece si verificano sempre sul piano pratico”.23 It is no coincidence that Remotti himself defined the construction of identity as a fiction, drawing attention to the double meaning of the Latin fingere, namely that of “simulating, inventing, falsifying” and at the same time of “building, creating, manufacturing”.24 Therefore, it is possible to try to understand the reasons, the forms, the degrees of awareness, the outcomes of this human attitude, looking at the specific context in which it occurs as well as the general framework of relevance (both social and historical). In this sense, identity shifts from being an (impossible) explanans to a (possible) explanandum.25

Identity: towards a correct use in historical investigations

There is one last element that must be taken into consideration. Even when identity is understood as an object of analysis, there is still a need to define that object, to circumscribe its features, so that there is no risk of attributing an identity characteristic to every phenomenon of belonging, affiliation, resemblance and commonality observable in historical contexts (ancient in our specific case). In a 2000 article, Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper rightly emphasized this issue when they stated: “conceptualizing all affinities and affiliations, all forms of belonging, all experiences of commonality, connectedness, and cohesion, all self-understanding and self-identifications in the idiom of “identity” saddles us with a blunt, flat, undifferentiated vocabulary”.26 And Francesco Remotti has added that identity “è un tema da affrontare soltanto in relazione a quei contesti storici ed etnografici o a quelle società in cui i “noi” compiono effettive scelte identitarie (in favore dell’identità o ispirate all’identità)”.27 Indeed, the sense of belonging to a group felt by two or more individuals can be based, for example, on some shared elements; however, at the same time it can allow for the acceptance of the (unavoidable and undeniable) differences between the members of the group, without translating into a search for absolute unity and completeness (to which, by contrast, the word “identity” aspires). If it is to become an object of analysis, then, the process of constructing and claiming identity must first of all be recognized as such.

A question then insistently emerges: when can a particular process or human phenomenon be understood as identitarian? Based on what I have outlined so far, leaving the word “identity” in its literal meaning, the answer can be articulated by resorting to the three fundamental criteria set out by Ugo Fabietti and taken up by Francesco Remotti: “a) il sentimento di appartenenza a un noi; b) il sentimento o la volontà di differenziazione rispetto agli altri, a coloro che non sono noi; c) l’esigenza di affermare sé stessi e di essere riconosciuti nella propria essenza (“quel che si è o si ritiene di essere”), ovvero ciò che fonda la nostra differenza rispetto agli altri”28. Belonging, differentiation and acknowledgement of one’s essence: these are the three traits that can be used in the context of identity research, when the latter becomes a possible object of analysis (including historical analysis).

To summarize, then, I believe that the use of the term “identity”, in the historical context, needs to be thoroughly reconsidered. Not only does its use as a research tool, as an analytical category (“the identity of the Phoenicians”, etc.), no longer appear sustainable, as it is not capable of describing historical phenomena and processes (regardless of how much one tries to qualify the term), but also its use as a definition of an object of investigation must be constantly evaluated and elaborated. The term itself is certainly not neutral; on the other hand, it raises a plethora of problems, including – perhaps not by chance – the effective recognition of the identitarian logic in the contexts being analysed.


  • Affergan, F. (2021): “Le identità e il problema del ‘noi’”, in: Remotti 2021c, 89-116.
  • Appiah, K.A. (2018): The Lies that Bind. Rethinking Identity, New York.
  • Brubaker, R. and Cooper, F. (2000): “Beyond ‘Identity’”, Theory and Society, 29, 1-47.
  • Borutti, S. (2021): “La dialettica identità-alterità come sfida epistemologica”, in: Remotti 2021c, 117-146.
  • Fabietti, U. (20133): Identità etnica. Storia e critica di un concetto equivoco, Roma.
  • Fabietti, U. (2021): “Identità collettive come costruzioni dell’umano”, in: Remotti 2021c: 41-87.
  • Fearon, J. D. (1999): “What Is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)?”, California: Stanford University. http://www.stanford.edu/~jfearon/papers/iden1v2.pdf [consulted on 02/08/2023]
  • Garbati, G. (2014): “Fingere l’identità fenicia. Melqart ‘di/sopra ṣr’”, RStudFen, 40, 159-174.
  • Garbati, G. (2016): “Transformations and Crisis in the Mediterranean (8th-5th century BCE). Towards the Phoenician West: An Introduction”, in: TCM 2, 139-147.
  • Garbati, G. (2021): “Phoenician ‘Identity’: Methodological Approach, Historical Perspective”, Semitica et Classica, 14, 19-31.
  • Garbati, G. (2022): “‘Fingere l’identità’ Ten Years on: Phoenicians beyond Identity”, RStudFen, 50, pp. 33-40.
  • Heinich, N. (2018): Ce que n’est pas l’identité, Paris.
  • Jullien, F. (2016): Il n’y a pas d’identité culturelle mais nous défendons les ressources d’une culture, Paris.
  • Moscati, S. (1963): “La questione fenicia”, RAL, 18, 483-506.
  • Moscati, S. (1974): Problematica della civiltà fenicia, Roma.
  • Moscati, S. (1992): Chi furono i Fenici, Torino.
  • Moscati, S. (1993): Nuovi studi sull’identità fenicia, Roma.
  • Pedrazzi. T. (2014): “Fingere l’identità fenicia: confini e cultura materiale in Oriente”, RStudFen, 40, 137-158.
  • Pedrazzi, T. (2022): “On Cultural and Material Boundaries: ‘Fingere l’identità’ Ten Years Later”, RStudFen, 50, 23-31.
  • Prosperi, A. (2016): Identità. L’altra faccia della storia, Bari-Roma.
  • Quinn, J.C. (2018): In Search of the Phoenicians, Princeton.
  • Quinn, J.C. and Vella, N.C., eds. (2014): The Punic Mediterranean: Identities and Identification from Phoenician Settlement to Roman Rule, Rome.
  • Remotti, F. (20032): Contro l’identità, Roma-Bari.
  • Remotti, F. (2010): L’ossessione identitaria, Roma-Bari.
  • Remotti, F. (2019): Somiglianze. Una via per la convivenza, Bari-Roma.
  • Remotti, F. (2021a): “Introduzione. Lavorare dentro l’identità o uscirne fuori?”, in: Remotti 2021c: 11-31.
  • Remotti, F. (2021b): “Le somiglianze al posto dell’identità. Una proposta epistemologica” in: Remotti 2021c: 199-236.
  • Remotti, F. , ed. (2021c): Sull’identità, Milano.
  • TCM 1 = Garbati, G. and Pedrazzi, T., eds. (2015): Transformations and Crisis in the Mediterranean. “Identity” and Interculturality in the Levant and Phoenician West during the 12th-8th centuries BCE. Proceedings of the International Conference (Rome, May 8th-9th, 2013), Pisa-Roma.
  • TCM 2 = Garbati, G. and Pedrazzi, T., eds. (2016): Transformations and Crisis in the Mediterranean. “Identity” and Interculturality in the Levant and Phoenician West during the 8th-5th centuries BCE, Roma.
  • TCM 3 = Garbati, G. and Pedrazzi, T., eds. (2021): Transformations and Crisis in the Mediterranean. “Identity” and Interculturality in the Levant and Phoenician West during the 5th-2nd centuries BCE, Roma.


  1. The project was born within the ISMA – CNR (Institute of Studies on the Ancient Mediterranean, now merged into the ISPC, Institute of Heritage Sciences) and led to the organization of an International Congress in 2013 and to the publication, between 2015 and 2021, of three volumes and various contributions: see, specifically, TCM 1-3; Garbati 2014, 2021, 2022; Pedrazzi 2014, 2022.
  2. See, among others, Moscati 1963; Quinn and Vella, eds, 2014; Quinn 2018; Garbati 2016; 2021.
  3. Besides the bibliography presented in these notes, see recently: Jullien 2016; Prosperi 2016; Appiah 2018; Heinich 2018.
  4. In general: Brubaker and Cooper 2000, 4-5; Remotti 2003; 2010; Garbati 2016; Affergan 2021, 91-92; Fabietti 2021.
  5. Fabietti 2021, 58.
  6. Moscati 1963; see also Moscati 1974; 1992; 1933.
  7. Fabietti 2021, 58.
  8. https://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/identita/ [consulted on 02/08/2023].
  9. https://www.oed.com/search/dictionary/?scope=Entries&q=identity [consulted on 02/08/2023]. For some of the most used definitions of the term see Fearon 1999.
  10. https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/identit%C3%A9/41420 [consulted on 02/08/2023].
  11. Fundamental are Remotti 2010; 2019; 2021a-b.
  12. Remotti 2019; 2021b.
  13. Garbati 2021.
  14. Remotti 2010, 116-117.
  15. See also Brubaker and Cooper 2000, 1.
  16. Remotti 2021b, 214.
  17. Garbati 2021.
  18. Borutti 2021, 121.
  19. Although the meanings of the words can be adapted to the context, the prevailing attitude towards the term “identity”, as we have seen, has really gone too far, completely distorting the meaning of the word (and the concrete use to which it is put at the moment, in which identity itself is claimed by a human group).
  20. Remotti 2019, 65.
  21. Remotti 2019, 17.
  22. See also Remotti 2021b.
  23. Remotti 2021a, 23.
  24. Remotti 2010, 42.
  25. Remotti 2010, 117-118; 2021b, 204.
  26. Brubaker & Cooper 2000, 2.
  27. Remotti 2021b, 205.
  28. Fabietti 2013, 47-50; Remotti 2021b, 206.
ISBN html : 978-2-35613-555-1
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ISBN html : 978-2-35613-555-1
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Volume : 2
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Posté le 31/05/2024
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Comment citer

Garbati, Giuseppe, “A Focus on (Cultural) Identity: From Instrument to Object of Research”, in : Cicolani, Veronica, Florea, Gelu, éd., Autoreprésentations et représentations culturelles en Europe : symbolisme et expression de l’idéologie dans les sociétés de l’âge du Fer de l’Europe tempérée, Pessac, Ausonius Éditions, collection NEMESIS 2, 2024, 9-16, [en ligne] https://una-editions.fr/a-focus-on-cultural-identity [consulté le 31/05/2024].
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