How do we understand the idea of cosmopolitanism? As an ideology and notion of self that doesn’t belong to any culture or country? As belonging to the world as a whole with no narrower cultural identifications?
According to Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD, cosmopolitanism is the aspiration to become a citizen of the world, it is something that stands off from nationalism, and it is something each individual can become. Echoing this notion, Skovgaard-Smith and Poulfelt (2018) observe that the academic literature also tends to see cosmopolitanism as an individual endeavour towards expression of selfhood that transcends cultural identity and collective belonging. In other words, cosmopolitanism might often translate into an absence of culture and the idea of not belonging to any cultural or social group. Is it true, though?
In their recent research article, Skovgaard-Smith and Poulfelt (2018) challenge this notion, arguing that being cosmopolitan does not imply an absence of cultural identity, but merely another form of cultural identity and belonging, similar to the concept of global identity that research has increasingly studied. Moreover, the researchers argue that cosmopolitan identity is not merely an individual endeavour, but rather a socially and relationally constructed collective identity. Stemming from these assumptions the qualitative research aimed to investigate how this cultural ideology, more specifically this collective ‘non-national’ identity, is established.
Based on the anthropological analysis of twenty-one transnational professionals who were part of a diverse expatriate community in Amsterdam, the researchers concluded that cosmopolitan or non-national identity is always constructed through interaction and relations between people of specific social settings. Many interviewed professionals spoke about the ‘expat bubble’ within which they are embedded, and cultural diversity as a main feature of this shared social space. This shared social space naturally implies common circumstances and conditions (e.g. being foreigner, working within multinational teams), as well as expectations towards like-mindedness. Being likeminded in a cosmopolitan or non-national way revolves around notions of openness, embracing and respecting diversity, and a ‘willingness to engage with the other’.
In essence, similar to other social or collective identities, holding a ‘non-national’ identity still means belonging to a group, which shares some important commonality… which in this case is the commonality of being different. The researchers indicate that internal differences within their sample of expats were embraced, but in a very particular way. Namely, participants reported active efforts of ‘neutralizing’ or downplaying cultural differences (‘we are all the same’), simultaneously maintaining the notion of differences by jokingly referring to each other’s nationalities and common stereotypes (‘we are all the same in the way we all have different nationalities’).
As such, the construction of a cosmopolitan identity begins with being among different people, who are commonly like-minded about embracing these differences. Yet, in line with social identification and ‘us vs other’ categorizations, a non-national identity also involves external differentiation. In other words, despite being imagined as the opposite, cosmopolitanism has its own specific kind of parochialism, as not everyone can be accepted within this collective identity. Although differences are embraced, some differences are indeed excluded. For example, excluded others are seen to ‘stick with their own way’ instead of adapting in the mutual cosmopolitan values of being open-minded, flexible and ‘neutralizing’.
All in all, cosmopolitanism in terms of non-belonging or non-identification seems quite an imaginary idea. Rather, cosmopolitanism is a cultural particularity in and of itself, and as the scholars summarize, it ‘is part of – not beyond – our identities’.
Further reading: Skovgaard-Smith, I., & Poulfelt, F. (2018). Imagining ‘non-nationality’: Cosmopolitanism as a source of identity and belonging. Human Relations, 71, 2, 129-154.