Book Review: The Power of Identity (Manuel Castells)

The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Volume II:
The Power of Identity
By: Manuel Castells

The Power of Identity is an interesting and complex effort to develop a new understanding of how groups and individuals are interrelated through various mediums of communication. The suggestion of the title and the three volumes is indicative of the complexity and thoroughness of his examination. The three volumes employ analytic examinations from sociology, anthropology, and political science. The trilogy is comprised of, The Rise of Network Society (1996), The Power of Identity (1967), The End of Millennium (1998). The three are the result of his earlier research threads from the 1990s, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture.
The enormity of his examination of network culture and its impact/manipulation on/by society has become a recognized cybernetic theoretician and philosopher. The fundamental concept that runs throughout Volume II is the dichotomy between the “self” and the power of the search for meaning within society: “The rise of the network society and the growing power of identity are the intertwined social processes that jointly define globalization, geopolitics, and social transformation.” Volume II explains how those processes differ within and between societies and cultures in the twenty-first century. Castells examines the similarities and differences in order to under the umbrella of “identity.”
In Castell’s process of examination, we can clearly understand that nothing is left behind. Indeed, territoriality – i.e., origins – remains. We identify ourselves territorially by village, state, and/or nation through every medium of communication. The inherent need for self-identification/affiliation is inherently unifying and/or disintegrative. He uses an example that is personally familiar in Belgium where I lived.
The inherent tension in Belgium between Wallonie and Flemish is ever present and disruptive. Belgium itself is comprised of numerous communes. I lived in two. One, Wezembeek-Oppem was highly Wallonie where Dutch was the exclusive and official language. I moved to Tervuren where the primary medium was French and, frequently, English. Castells correctly observes that the two communities “cannot resolve the differences resulting from their historical marriage of convenience” where every public school requires and uses Dutch as its medium of communication even though French is as common.
In the USA, we all remember the divisive nature in Canada in the province of Quebec which remains unresolved. I was moved to amusement in Normandy when the train station attendant demanded that I speak to her only in French! When I lived in Thailand, Chinese merchants paid exorbitant taxes for anything that was not printed in Thai even though the majority of the population spoke fluent Chinese – Mandarin! Thus, in every case, individuals identified themselves by language and society in a manner that exactly parallels Castell’s observations.
What Castells adds in adds to our understanding is the importance that language and other cultural elements contribute to our concept of identity and affiliation. It is the process of affiliation that Castells adds that defines the importance and strength of the bond(s) of identity. He devotes considerable attention and care to clarify how that happens in society in a manner that we unconsciously or consciously recognize as defining: religion, nationality, geography, family, ethnicity. Social movements to the extent that they define or attempt to define social issues can become inheritors of the implicit strength of these societal bonds.
These bonds and the social movements which attempt to represent social issues within such the framework of such bonds are more often than not indicative of thought and behavior. Castells gives us clues and indicators of how we might identify social movements within the social context of identity. For example, the recent rise of Arab religious fundamentalism is a distinguishing polemic that defines behavioral and political boundaries between and among groups that defines the strength of the bonds and the group identity. Castells gives us a masterful insight into the development of religious fundamentalism and how it exacts unquestioned loyalty and blind religious devotion to scriptural (Koranic) interpretation that may not be as direct. Thus, some Arab religious fundamentalist social movement members are compelled by the strict ideas of the social movement. Castells indicates that such strict adherents, Arab fundamentalists can easily use violence to enforce adherence.
While Castells is examining the contemporary history of such groups, there are historical similarities to historical Jewish and Christian practices. Thus, strict fundamentalism is not exclusively found in the Arab community; and, Castells gives us some insight into the broad nature of fundamentalism extending to the period of the Christian crusades. Thus, there are many historical examples. Castells core issue is with the very nature of fundamentalism as an identity reference and its consequences.
Through Castells’ analysis we understand all groups in the context of communication and the medium of language. Spanish history is one, but not the only, historical area discussed. The Catalan national identity is distilled from our understanding of the collective Spanish culture. This level of self and group identity strong enough to result in civil guarantees granted by Spain in 1932 approving a statute of autonomy re-stating liberties, self-government and cultural/linguistic autonomy to Catalunya. The inherent social movement distinctions of Catalunya and Basques, according to Castells, was an powerful trigger for the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939. We are reminded of the similarity to the American historic struggle of our own indigenous groups of American Natives and our contemporary controversy over historic Mexican cross border migrations through their (i.e., Mexican and Indian) historic homelands now a part of the United States.
Castells point is to explain the importance of identity and group affiliation in the context of geography and ethnicity. He provides us with numerous examples and detailed explanations for Germany, France, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Czechoslovakia, Nigeria, Indonesia and numerous other countries. His most powerful observation in this context is that citizenship does not equate with nationality, at least exclusive nationality. What Castells adds to our understanding is an ability to identify these group affiliations, allegiances, identities, memberships in the information age through the medium of communication and language. He makes the suggestion that, “language…is a fundamental attribute of self-recognition, and…establishment of an invisible national boundary less arbitrary than territoriality, and less exclusive than ethnicity.” It is a core principle of his “Power of Identity”.
As we all now know, we can identify these identities through a variety of communication vehicle. At its core, language is the most basic element of Castell’s networked society. According to Wade Davis in The Wayfinders, language is humanity’s earliest invention and it is why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world. Davis further amplifies Castells in a discussion of many linguistic traditions as the distinguishing factor of identity in the ancient world.
Castells treatment of numerous examples of his principles of identity spans our contemporary understanding of social movements. He identifies Zapatistas as the “First Informational Guerrilla Movement.” Lest we forget that Emiliano Zapata, Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and José Doroteo Arango Arámbula (aka Poncho Villa) all used the media and language to organize their respective social movements. Indeed, José Arámbula never traveled without the press and front page coverage in all the US news media. Indeed, I still have my father’s military records when he acted as Gen. Pershing’s Spanish translator during the US Army Horse Cavalry’s effort to capture José Arámbula along the Texas-Mexican border. Arámbula, after all, didn’t need Twitter. He had the front page of every major newspaper.
A number of militia and “patriotic” groups are further examples of Castell’s principles: National Rifle Association, John Birch Society, KKK, Posse Comitatus, etc. are further examples of highly defined and radical groups that used the power of identity to attempt radical change in the United States. I encountered several such groups when I was a career Federal employee from political action (i.e., NOW, la Raza, etc.) to radical groups (Hanafi Muslims, Sunni Islamists, etc.). Castells’ treatment of such groups is extensive covering groups in Japan (i.e., Aum Shinrikyo), to al-Qaeda. Such ethno/religious groups are discussed along with radical anti-globalization and radical environmental movements within the context of Castells’ identity framework.
The power of identity is pervasive and Castells shows how it can cover an even broader group of social movements, family and sexuality (i.e., sexual preference) facilitated by the networked society using the power of the internet. In this context we are able to understand that things do change and within the nature of inter-group rivalry.
According to Castells and most other sociologists, Patriarchalism is one of the fundamental structures of contemporary society. It is important to also make note of matriarchal societies found in American native tribal groups. Inherent in the patriarchal group framework is the subjugation and repression of women and the changes in the workplace motivated by economic realities that have eroded or replaced the male dominated societies found world-wide.
Despite Castells discussion, such practices remain in less developed societies in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Thus, we are left with the conclusion that sometimes Wade Davis’ “Ancient Wisdom” isn’t always “better” wisdom. Castells comparison of family statistics is largely dominated by references in more developed environments. However, less developed environments continue to exhibit a reluctance to change and continue “business as usual.”
Yet Castells is prophetic in his observation of the power of economic forces to facilitate change. This is considerably important regarding the employment of women who now dominate the workforce. The incorporation of women in the workplace is not without hardship. In the USA, statutory enactment to protect women demonstrates the strength of social pressures to continue group practices that have become unacceptable: sexual and wage discrimination. Indeed, discriminatory actions based on group identity is now illegal at least in the USA. Yet it still supports Castell’s model of identity even if illegal and unacceptable.
Generally, Castells treatment of the power of identity across time, ethnicity, and nationality is powerful. He concludes with observations regarding the identity of the State and the role of government. We are left with Castell’s vision of the nation-state in a Marxian framework where the power of commerce frequently replaces that of the state. International governance and multi-lateralism are seen as necessary and outgrowth’s of the state’s role in society. We only need to look at Somalia as an example of a failed state, where the power of identity recognizes no national boundaries – powerful confirmation of Castells’ models of identity.
Castells’ concluding chapter addresses the nature of social change in the information society. He makes the chilling observation that, “the dissolution of shared identities…tantamount to the dissolution of society…may be the state of affairs in our time.” Castells gives us a vision of the future and, possibly, his next book,

“It is in these back alleys of society…that I have sensed the embryos of a new society,
Labored in the fields of history by the power of identity”

As an afterthought, we realize that is now possible to identify and map these identities in real time. Indeed the very use of social media gives us the ability to map group relations in real time in order to anticipate or catalog the “new society” that Castells envisions.


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