Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

To Which Society Do You Belong?

Written by: on November 1, 2013

After a few weeks of reading about theology, I found myself wanting more of the same.  I guess you might say I’m a creature of habit!  However, as I began to read, Contemporary Social Theory:  An Introduction, by Anthony Elliott, I was immediately captured by the story of Natalie.  The question, “to which society does Natalie belong?”[1] resonated with me.

Many in the United States have come to identify themselves by their ethnic and racial makeup.  It is common to hear one announce their background as a reply to the question, “What are you?”  And the response, “I am Hispanic” or “I am Jewish” or “I am Italian” creates a different identity depending upon the racial and ethnic description.  These forms of established identities are provoked through a variety of means.  Anyone who has ever been enrolled in a public school, turned in an application for college, or filed their taxes has found boxes which ask the applicant to (voluntarily or not) check the box which best describes them.  Are you African American?  White?  Hispanic or Pacific Asian Islander?  There is a box to mark down exactly who you are.  Many of us cling to these titles because they fit with the initial perception others may have of us, and this in turn influences the way we see ourselves.

It is not uncommon to ask and answer the question, “Where are you from,” because this can act as an indicator of more than just locality.  It also possesses the ability to pinpoint people’s accents, cultural behaviors and their identity.  Being from Portland, Oregon means something different for a person’s identity than being from Portland, Maine.  The narrowing of these places also occurs when we have been to those locations.  “What part of New York?” we may say, and in our minds, who the person is may be determined by the part of the city they grew up in.  Brook Avenue creates a different identity than Williamsburg, though they are both located in the same city.

The concept of identity in the United States has become commercialized, tying itself to pop culture references such as Freudian theory and the mid-life identity crises.  It has become synonymous with online tests to determine personality traits and gender identity to find out if you really think like your sex (gender).  American’s perception of identity can extend beyond the trivial, venturing into deep soul search that some take in order to find out “who they really are.”  While the concept of identity may be on the forefront of many American’s minds in a trivial or significant way, few are aware of the multitude of theories connected to identity.  Perhaps those who seek to know are those who are not sure of where they belong.    Whatever the reason for this particular pursuit of knowledge, many people in the social science field have come to create their own idea and have added them to the plethora of theories connected to identity in reference to where it comes from, how it is created, and what it means to society.

Zygmunt Bauman describes the fluidity and instability of contemporary society as “liquid modernity.” Living in a “liquid” society means that our identities are no longer grounded in long-

standing social norms and meanings but are instead transforming at a rapid pace, making us “tourists” in search of many fly-by-night social experiences.[2]

Elliott points out that due to the generality and sweep of the theory of liquid modernity, what threatens to recede into the shadows is the point that all of us have multiple identities, some overlapping, some contradictory, and that at any moment these identities are interacting with – incorporating, resisting and transforming – broader social values and cultural differences, shaping and being shaped by contemporary societies.[3]

“To which society does Natalie belong?”  The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers several definitions of society:   a community, nation, or broad grouping of people having common traditions, institutions, and collective activities and interest; a part of a community that is a unit distinguishable by particular aims or standards of living or conduct.  So according to these definitions I would have to agree with Elliott who states that Natalie belongs where she lives, her homeland, her nation, she belongs to the globe.

In my own life, a Puerto Rican from New York who lives in Portland, Oregon and constantly traveling, I often find myself thinking about where do I belong?  And like Natalie, I belong where I live.   In spite of the enormous social change we live in, we are very much connected.  Our own

co-hort reflects such connection.  We are connected through our chats, tumblr, facebook, twitter, email, text, phone, etc…  Our daily lives are connected, more than ever, because of all the technological innovations.

According to the Spanish social theorist Manuel Castells, the rise of information technology has  unleashed networks that can process information in almost any part of the world.[4]   This rise of information technology has created a network society that has been transformed into a different kind of space.  And this space provides a place of connection and belonging, no matter if you are in London, New York, Portland, Oregon, Louisiana, Seattle, etc…  According to Castells, network enterprises in which information, communication and people move freely within and across nodes is now fundamental to social life.[5]

What can the church learn from the fast pace world in which we find ourselves?  Are we providing spaces of connection in our communities of faith? I can’t help but ask the question, “To which society does the body of Christ belong?”

[1] Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory:  An Introduction.        (Abingdon, Oxon UK:  Routledge, 2009), p. 3.

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, “From Pilgrim to Tourist: A Short History of Identityin Questions of Cultural Identity edited by S. Hall and P du Guy.  (Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications, Inc.,  1996), p. 18

[3] Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory:  An Introduction.  (Abingdon, Oxon, UK:  Routledge, 2009) p. 304.

[4] Ibid., p. 273.

[5] Ibid., p. 276.

About the Author

Miriam Mendez

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