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Being African-British: a socio-psychological examination of the (re)construction and functions of cross-cultural selves

Ama de-Graft Aikins

The proposed paper will report the preliminary stages of a study exploring the meanings and functions of ‘African-British’ identity. The study draws from two larger projects. The first project draws functional links between multi-generational memories and meanings of colonialism - through the trope of Independence – and the construction of contemporary culture, identities and agencies in Ghana. The second examines representations of the African-British community within mainstream and minority media.

Three key debates inform the research questions explored within the reported study. First, discussions within ‘black (British)’ cultural theory and politics, by theorists such as Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, on the complex, contested dynamics of the black Diaspora experience. Second, the recent explicit attempts to redefine the ‘black British’ community as ‘African-British’, as a psycho-political process of multi-ethnic unification and empowerment. Finally, media and community debates evoked by political discourses on British Empire and reparations for Africa. These debates have unfolded in a general sense, for the most part, drawing on a homogenised ‘black British’ identity, community experience and response, and speaking to symbolic relationships between Britain (or British government) and Africa (or African leadership). The nuances between different ‘black British’ identities and the way difference mediates claims to Diaspora or British experience, construction of dual identities and engagement with Africa as a symbolic or physical home are acknowledged, but remain to be subjected to systematic empirical analysis. By focusing on one section of the ‘black British’ community, multi-generational groups of Ghanaian ancestry, the study aims to conduct such an analysis. Two empirical questions are posed: (1) what does it mean to be Ghanaian-British (or more broadly African-British, or Black British); (2) to what extent does the Ghanaian-British identity mediate social relationships and practices within the private and public sphere in Britain and Ghana.

Drawing from the afore-mentioned debates, the study begins from the premise that ‘African-British’ identity will hold multiple meanings. The construction, negotiation and functions of these in turn will be mediated by the fluid interplay of psychological, socio-cultural and structural factors. Therefore, a social psychological approach is likely to offer useful theoretical and practical insights, since it facilitates a simultaneous and integrated analysis of psychological, socio-cultural and structural phenomena. The overarching framework is informed by social representations theory (Moscovici, 2001). Defined as a ‘psychosocial theory of thought and action’, the theory provides a framework for understanding the dynamic processes through which individuals and social groups produce, share and transform heterogeneous knowledge, identities and embodied action.

Within this broad approach, two concepts are operationalised. First, the notion of double consciousness as proposed by W.E.B Du Bois (1903/1969). Du Bois offered two intersecting definitions of double consciousness: first in terms of the way practical racism excluded African-American people from mainstream society (ie. “the double consciousness of being both an American and not an American” (Bruce, 1999: 238)); second in terms of the internal conflict generated for African-Americans through attempts to distinguish between their “African” selves and “American” selves, both viewed as fundamentally distinct and somewhat conflicting. Both aspects of this essence of double consciousness will be examined by drawing on social representations approaches to self and identity. Second, the concept of ‘social representation’ will be used to bridge the theoretical and practical gap between cultural theory and social psychological discussions on ‘representations’. Within cultural theory, there is a move from a mimetic theory of representation towards a reflexive, constructionist theory of representation.

This latter conception resonates with critical social psychology perspectives. Within social representations theory in particular, ‘social representations’: “[are] always in the making, in the context of inter-relations and actions that [are] themselves in the making” (Moscovici, 1988:219). This dynamic definition facilitates systematic examination of symbolic and/or embodied constructions, contestations and transformations of complex identities.
The overarching projects inform the study’s methodology. Participant recruitment has actively targeted multi-generational groups of diverse social status and historical and cultural affiliations to Britain and Ghana. A multi-method approach is employed: empirical data constitutes texts (official, media, historical texts and autobiographies) and multi-generational subjective narratives elicited through individual and group interviews. The proposed paper will discuss the synthesis of two sets of analyses: individual and group interviews with second-generation groups and textual analysis of media representations and historical reconstructions of ‘African-British’ and Ghanaian-British identities. The discussion will centre on the diverse ways in which participants construct and contest their dual identity and the extent to which these identities mediate relationships and practices within their private and public lives in Britain and Ghana. Critical attention will be drawn to the usefulness of the multi-level theoretical framework.

Potential Questions for Workshop (Empirical Research: subjects and objects)

  • To what extent do mainstream and critical social scientific theories offer tools to examine the psychological, socio-cultural and historical dimensions of African-British identities?

  • To what extent do indigenous (African, Caribbean) psychologies offer conceptual tools for research on African Diaspora experiences?

  • How do dual-heritage theorists draw on and move beyond their simultaneous positions as objects and subjects within African Diaspora research?

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