The majority of my scientific colleagues with whom I work in the United States are either immigrants or children of immigrants. Most of them are American citizens, but they also retain strong cultural bonds with their ancestral homelands. This does not seem to constitute much of a problem for them. America is the land of immigrants where one is surrounded by people who are quite comfortable with their hyphenated dual identities. Irish-Americans or Chinese-Americans can be proud of their respective Irish and Chinese heritages without feeling that this makes them “less” American.
The situation was rather different when I lived in Germany. I was the only German with Pakistani roots among all the medical students at my university in Munich, and I did not know of any other hyphenated Germans at the research institute where I worked in the early 1990s. We had visiting scientists or PhD students, such as a grad student from Taiwan in our laboratory, but it was generally understood that they would go back to whatever country they came from. Their colleagues did not expect them to ever “feel German” and the visiting scientists or students also did not intend to “become German”. My Taiwanese lab-mate learned enough German to complete his PhD dissertation, but had no long-term plans of living in Germany. He clearly identified with being Taiwanese and his goal was to return to Taiwan.
Twenty years later, the situation in Germany has changed quite a bit. Hyphenated Germans are becoming far more common at universities. This is in part due to the fact that it has become much easier to become a permanent resident or acquire German citizenship, both for adult immigrants as well as their children. Children from immigrant families have grown up in Germany and they now have to grapple with their dual identities. Unlike the United States, where dual identities have been around for centuries and there is a broad acceptance of having two or even more identities, German society and the emerging hyphenated Germans are still trying to figure out what it means to be a Turkish-German, Nigerian-German or Russian-German.
In my own experience, having a dual identity has been an asset, allowing me to interact with and learn from a broad spectrum of fellow humans. However, I also realize that having a dual identity can also be somewhat problematic. The recent study “When Dual Identity Becomes a Liability : Identity and Political Radicalism Among Migrants” by Bernd Simon and colleagues in the journal Psychological Science (advanced online publication on January 14, 2013) attempted to study the impact of having a dual identity on political radicalism. The researchers recruited university students in Germany with either Turkish or Russian immigrant backgrounds and asked them to answer a set of questions about their personal experiences with having a dual identity using a Web-based questionnaire. Roughly half of the students were German citizens and the average percentage of lifetime spent in Germany was 66%.
Four questions assessed the extent of having a dual identity:
1) “I feel I belong to both the Turks/Russians and the Germans”
2) “Sometimes I feel more like a German and sometimes more like a Turk/Russian—it depends on the situation”
3) “I have many similarities with Germans as well as Turks/Russians”
4) “I feel good in the Turkish/Russian as well as the German culture.”
The students were also asked to address whether they felt there was an incompatibility of their ethnic and their German identity:
“I have the feeling that I would have to give up my Turkish/ Russian identity if I wanted to become German”
The participants also answered a number of additional questions about their cultural, national and religious identity.
In addition to these questions, the researchers assessed whether the students expressed support or understanding for “radical” (illegal, violent) actions, such as participating in an illegal demonstration, participating in a violent demonstration, blocking a road, occupying houses or offices, writing a political slogan on a public wall, and damaging other people’s property. The students also indicated whether they agreed with the following statements:
“I would participate even in a protest action that may involve a confrontation with the police”
“If the police and the courts can’t provide justice, you sometimes have to bring about justice yourself.”
Rating scales for these eight items (the six “radical” actions and the two “radical” statements) ranged from 0 (no understanding/not true at all ) to 4 (total understanding/absolutely true) and these eight items were used to determine their sympathy for radical action.
The results of the study are quite interesting. Having a dual identity by itself was only correlated with sympathy for radical action, if the respondents felt that the two identities were incompatible, i.e. becoming German would mean having to give up their Turkish or Russian identity. Students who felt that the German identity was quite compatible with their ethnic identity did not express any significant sympathy for radical action. Furthermore, among students with a Turkish immigrant background, sympathy for radical action decreased when religious identification became stronger and among Russian immigrant background students, it decreased when ethnocultural identification became stronger. This may come as a surprise to people who assume that stronger religious identification encourages sympathy for radical actions.
There are some limitations of this study. It only assessed sympathy for radical action by self-report without necessarily measuring actual participation in radical action, and one can debate whether showing support for writing political graffiti or participating in an illegal demonstration is as “radical” as endorsing actual violence. The study was purely correlational, without being able to determine cause-effect relationships and it also did not assess why some participants felt that their dual identities were incompatible. Nevertheless, this research suggests that possible sympathy for radical actions is not associated with having a dual identity, but with the perception of incompatibility between the two identities. One can surmise that reducing the perception of incompatibility could potentially reduce the sympathy for radical (illegal and violent) actions, but this would have to be addressed in future studies that investigate the effect of such an intervention.
How does one overcome the perception of incompatibility? My own experience is that multiple identities are not only compatible, but they are also complementary. I do not think that I have to sacrifice one cultural identity for another one. I notice that there are numerous parallels and similarities between German, Pakistani and American cultures in terms of the core values and goals of people. However, people often tend to focus on the differences and rare incompatibilities, because they make for sensationalist stories or political rallying cries that are far more marketable than the “boring” realization of how similar we all are. Societies in other countries such as the United States have also had periods in time during which dual identities were eyed with suspicion and their citizens felt that their identities were incompatible, but they were able to overcome these conflicts. This makes me optimistic that in Germany we will also reach a point when dual identities will be widely accepted and perhaps even seen as an important part of the fabric of the future German society.
Image credit: Germany flag map via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain – shows all the states of Germany with their individual flags