In contrast to the current political situation and the debate on globalization, regionality, migration and integration, there has lately been a boom in identity research. Where formerly one was often inclined to start from essentialist, statistical and natural unities when dealing with identities, today the emphasis is on their relational character. Identities always stand in relation to social space and knowledge and can be understood as orders of meaning. Given how knowledge from ancient studies is consistently used in political and social conflicts to legitimize claims to power, there is an urgent need for a reflective treatment of origin-based identification processes and strategies. Therefore the Key Topic Identities dealt with knowledge-based identity spaces in antiquity and (self)critically with their past and present research and instrumentalization.


The Key Topic Identities was supported and advised by an independent panel of experts, which was established during Topoi I and supervised by the previous spokesperson, Kerstin P. Hofmann. The members of this think tank combine knowledge of different disciplines. In our meetings their expertise served to discuss our projects and to proofed and sharpened the approaches and theories used.


Kerstin P. Hofmann, Doris Bachmann-Medick, Sebastian Brather, Hans-Joachim Gehrke, Ivo Hajnal, Peter Haslinger, Matthias Jung, André Lardinois, Shalini Randeria, Ulrike Sommer, Roland Steinacher, Jürgen Straub, Isabel Toral-Niehoff, Miguel John Versluys, Peter Weichhart


In the Key Topic Identities we used a complex, referential, non-essentialistic concept of identity which is multiple, but not binary, processual and agency-oriented, subject-oriented, but not subject-centered, yet at the same time is specified as being on the relational dimension. Identities are thus not understood as static, hermetic entities. Collective identity therefore does not stand for “complete identity” or “agreement”, being instead the subjective labeling of oneself or others where individuals are assigned to a group on the basis of specific features in particular situations. The group thereby constituted or the group which is forming, however, is by no means homogeneous, since it consists of more or less numerous individuals of different character, rather than ‘identical’ members. The construction of identities is thus based on an interplay between inclusion and exclusion, being at all times accompanied by the formation of alterities (cf. ASSMANN 1997; WEIBEL – ZIZEK 2010). The resultant delimitation can vary greatly. It depends on the respective situation and the differences in perception and evaluation in the labeling of self and others. Identity comprises both “sameness” and “difference”, i.e. both “being spezial, in contrast to” and “belonging to and similar to” (cf. BARTH 1967; JONES 1997). The creation of feelings of belonging, however, not only results from what is “simply constructed” or from (what is more or less arbitrarily) imagined, being based on the experience, convictions and emotions of the members of the group (cf. KEUPP et al. 2008). They can be “reified” within the unit concerned (BERGER –LUCKMANN 2000, 94–95).

Space-oriented collective identity (cf. FRANKENBERG – SCHUHBAUER 1994; WEICHHART 1990) can then be defined as an abstract, symbolic construct, as a store of social knowledge of a social context referring to a built space. The points of reference for this shared store of knowledge can, for example, be landscape features, local historical events and buildings, but also everyday utensils typical of the region, habitual clothing or typical culinary items. Famous personalities, mentalities, rites, festivals, institutions and the typical dialect of a defined linguistic area may also be important. However, technical and social innovations which emerged in a particular area can also be markers of identity. In the case of ethnic identities this is frequently accompanied by the belief in a shared origin as expressed in the form of myths of origin (GEHRKE 2004; GEHRKE 2009; HALL 1997; JONES 1997). Yet in all these points of reference we are not dealing with objective attributes of what is also a constructed and therefore dynamic space, but of attributions, which must be regarded as products of discourses. What is held to be “identity” from a social science viewpoint is, however, by no means always understood as such in society; instead, it is precisely those elements of identity which are anchored in the world of people’s lives which often remain unquestioned and seem to be unquestionablle. It is only in the interplay with alterities that what is ’natural’ and taken for granted is recognized as being artificial, but is often also transformed as a result into an orthodoxy which needs to be defended. The concept of “identity” is, however, not unproblematic. Lutz Niethammer (NIETHAMMER 2000) described “identity” as a “plastic word”. Admittedly, his criticism was primarily aimed at its use in publishing and politics (cf. ROST 2003, 34).

Even so, it remains an umbrella term, which belongs to both “category of practice” and “category of analysis” (BRUBAKER – COOPER 2000, 4). As part of the work of key topics identities, therefore, concepts are discussed, e.g. the concept of multitude. In addition we discuss whether the variety of identiies offered is not a phenomenon specifically restricted to the modern period (cf. STRAUB 1998). We share the view taken by sociologist Peter Wagner (WAGNER 1998, 44) that “identity” in the research can only be applied in a meaningful way if a “thoroughgoing deontologicization and deessentialization” of the term takes place, if temporality is included and the various processes subsumed under the umbrella term of “identity” are specifically investigated. These are: 1. identification and categorization, 2. self-perception and social position, 3. common values, solidarity, the feeling of belonging. (cf. BRUBAKER – COOPER 2000).


Within the Key Topic Identities researchers of the four research areas (A-D) discussed the following interrelated questions:

1. How were/are space and knowledge constructed in relation to collective identities?
2. How do globalization and regionalization processes affect theoretical reflections on the relation between knowledge, space and identity?
3. Is knowledge of identities implicit or explicit? And what effect does this knowledge have on spatial practices and configurations?
4. How important are space and knowledge in constructing identities? How does the constructing of identities affect and deal with spatially situated or “placeless” knowledge?
5. How do cultural actors and their personal knowledge affect space, knowledge and the constructing of collective identities?
6. How do spatial concepts and knowledge pools of diverse sociocultural groups differ locally, regionally and supra-regionally?
7. How are places constructed from a social and cultural perspective, and what influence do these places have on the construction of knowledge spaces, spatial concepts and identities?
8. What role does materiality and its spatial localization play in dehistoricizing memory-related discourses and practices, and how should ancient studies approach this?

 Authors: Kerstin P. Hofmann, Stefan Schreiber


Hans-Joachim Gehrke, Kerstin P. Hofmann, Reinhard Bernbeck and Claudia Näser, “Space and Collective Identities”, in: Reports of the Research Groups at the Topoi Plenary Session 2010, eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies, Special Volume 1 (2011), 1-22

Jörg Klinger, Kerstin P. Hofmann, Reinhard Bernbeck, Lily Grozdanova, Federico Longo, Ulrike Peter, Stefan Schreiber and Felix Wiedemann, “The Trialectics of Knowledge, Space and Identity in Ancient Civilizations and in the Study of Antiquity”, in: Space and Knowledge. Topoi Research Group Articles, eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies, Special Volume 6 (2016), 349–388


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