When I have thoughts of San Antonio, New Mexico, school, or home, each of these places evoke a different feeling and conjure different images of places and people. Each of these places have shaped who I am – my productivity, happiness, and creativity. Certain aspects that shape and define someone such as personal beliefs, values, language, customs, style of dress, food, and songs, influence one’s culture. But why does one feel they belong in some places and not in others? Exploring the relationship identity has with place and culture, within geography, can deepen one’s understanding of their own identity.
Geography may not seem like it has much to with identity because it does not deal with the visible or physical landscape. Identity is an indefinite and abstract condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is (“Identity.”). Geographic identity can be defined as an individual or group’s sense of attachment to their country, region, city, or village in which they live. The place identity of a person can inform their experiences, behaviors, and attitudes about other places. A sense of place identity can also be developed from multiple ways in which place functions to provide a sense of belonging, construct meaning, foster attachments, and mediate change (Miller 2008). The term place identity was introduced by environmental and social psychologists Harold M. Proshansky, Abbe K. Fabian, and Robert Kaminoff.
These psychologists argue that ‘place identity is a sub-structure of a person’s self-identity and consists of knowledge and feelings developed through everyday experiences of physical spaces.’ A well-known philosopher by the name of Yi-Tuan, contributed to geographic studies by defining space, place and pointing out the differences between space and place. Tuan described space as a location that has no social connections and no added value. A space can be open but may be marked off and or defended against intruders (Tuan, 1977, p. 4). In contrary, place is more than a location and can be described as a location influenced and created by human experiences. Tuan believed that place does not exist of observable boundaries and is besides a visible expression of a specific time period such as arts, monuments and architecture (1977, p. 6). In other words, a place is a space that holds some type of meaning to an individual or group. When talking about the relationship between identity and place it is important to remember that they are co-produced as people begin to identify and shape where they live. And in turn, people and cultures are shaped by their physical environment, which creates environmental autobiographies. Environmental autobiographies are personal narratives that one creates from their memories of different spaces and places that shaped them (Miller 2008). These personal narratives and memories are what changes a space into a place.
The bond between place and identity can also influence social formations, cultural practices, and political actions (Miller 2008). An example of this could be the efforts of emigrant groups establishing roots in their new homes by planting a particular tree species (Mitchell 2004). Place identity is a concept which many psychological theories of human–environment relations are built. Social psychologist Irwin Altman and anthropologist Setha Low’s (1992) created a concept called place attachment. This concept defines the way people connect to various places, and the effects in identity development, place-making, perception, and practice. Both of these concepts help us to understand where and why people feel at home, as well as why displacement—forced or voluntary—can be so traumatic for individuals and groups (Altman, Irwin, Low 1992). This feeling of belonging or displacement that Irwin and Low created to understand where and why people feel at home is probably one of Edwards Charles Relph’s most original contributions to the understanding of place.
When a person is separated, alienated, or feels some sort of division between themselves and the world Relph interpreted this mode of place experience as ‘outsideness’. On the other hand — if one feels safe, enclosed, and at ease then one feels ‘inside’ a place. Relph stressed the importance of varying combinations and intensities of outsideness and insideness. Deep, unself-conscious immersion in a place such as at home or one’s community is where Relph believed the strongest sense of place could be found. This intense feeling was what Relph called existential insideness. The opposite of this is existential outsideness — a sense of strangeness or alienation one might feel as a newcomer to a place. Another example of this could be someone who, after being away from their birth place, returns to feel like a stranger because the place is no longer what is was before or is not as they remember.
What truly makes and defines a places identity is a people and more specifically their culture – not the topography or the climate of the region. The culture from a place can influence people’s creative life styles, which is crucial towards the contribution of evolution and is a main reason for the growth of society. A strong sense of one’s own cultural identity is important because one’s own history and traditions can give the sense of connection and belonging. For some people, especially young people, it is hard to describe and understand their cultural identity. If one comes from a mixed background or from a society where the main culture is different from their own, they may experience outsidness and feel like they don’t fit in anywhere and may even reject certain aspects of their own culture in an effort to feel more accepted by others. Culture makes up a certain way of life, while cultural identity comes from the certain parts of the culture one belongs to and how they use them to shape and define their own identity. In forming cultural identity, people attach themselves to an exclusive set of ideas with characteristics of their family, tribal, or national identity. One’s belief in belonging to a group, certain cultural aspects, or one’s ethnicity, heritage, or nationality makes up a person’s cultural identity. Cultural identity can be considered as owning the culture, which means that one embraces all the traditions that have been passed down.
Geographical identity can be found and applied to everyone’s life, personal experiences, and can influence people, places, and cultures. Identity within geography is an individual or group’s sense of attachment to their country, region, city, or village in which they live. This sense of attachment to a place changes and shapes one’s experiences, behaviors, and attitudes about other places. Understanding where and why people may feel comfortable in some places and not in others is an abstract idea that relates to insideness and outsideness. With insidness and outsideness, one can differentiate a place from a space with their personal experiences. If someone has negative experiences or feels alienated within a space, then they are experiencing a sense of outsidness. If someone has good experiences and feels comfortable within a space then they are having a sense of insideness, which in turn, changes the space into a place. In making a place, or creating its history, identities and affiliations shift as a place gains or loses its particular meaning. Within geography, identity can also be applied to a group of people and or their culture. Cultural identity is one’s belief in belonging to a particular group or certain cultural aspect.
A person can decide to identify with any ethnicity, heritage or nationality. Although, some people may think that there are no correlations or connections between geography and identity, it is important to understand the relationship identity shares with place and culture within geography to come to an understanding of one’s own identity.