Culture and identity

Defining culture 

Culture is a term that is highly complex and often contested with academics recording about 160 variations in meaning1. Underpinning the notion of culture is that it is dynamic and changes over time and in different contexts resulting in many people today identifying with one or more cultures and many different groups.

Professor Greg Noble from the University of Western Sydney discusses the complexity of the term in the video below.

1 Kroeber, A. L. and C. Kluckhohn, 1952. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.


Culture is a defining feature of a person’s identity, contributing to how they see themselves and the groups with which they identify. A person’s understanding of their own and other’s identities develops from birth and is shaped by the values and attitudes prevalent at home and in the surrounding community.

Professor Greg Noble from the University of Western Sydney discusses the relationship between culture, ethnicity and identity In the video below,

Professor Greg Noble, University of Western Sydney discuses Culture, ethnicity and identity

Diverse identities

Like culture, the notion of identity is complex with people’s identity or identitiies becoming more complex over time as they interact with different groups. Identity adapts due to many factors including mass media, popular culture and increased opportunities for social interaction facilitated by new technologies. These factors, together with globalisation, migration and inter-marriage between people from different cultural backgrounds, means that people are more and more often identifying with multiple cultures and ancestries.

In a survey of NSW public school teachers in 2011, teachers were asked to describe their cultural background. Of the 5,133 responses received, there were 1,155 different responses. They included:

  • varieties of Australian ancestry and heritage e.g.
    9th generation Australian, Anglo Australian dating back to the 2nd fleet, Aboriginal & Australian, Australian with multicultural background, True blue, dinki di, Australian citizen
  • combinations and hyphenations reflecting a range of ancestries e.g.
    Aboriginal/Irish, American-Irish, Scottish/German/Norwegian/British/Australian, Chinese-Khmer, Greek Australian, Australian born Cantonese
  • provincial, ethnic and specific racial descriptions e.g.
    Yorkshire, Celtic, Maori, White Australian, South African coloured.
  • linguistic or religious descriptions e.g.
    Arabic, Christian, Hindu
  • descriptions based on geopolitical regions e.g.
    Asian, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander
  • other responses e.g.
    European-cosmoplitan, Universal human.

Further readings and references: