Forged within the multifaceted forces of social interaction, collectivities come in a bewildering variety of configurations. They may form for any number of reasons, they may be made up of people whose adherence to the group varies depending on a further host of factors, and they are shaped by the particulars of time and place. This manylayered, contextual nature of social groupings makes collective identity a difficult matter to study and define. Nevertheless, a number of widely aqgreed upon basic tenets concerning such identity do exist.
The research project carried out by the research members will be focused on three specific topics:
- constructions of identities in religious groups and perceptions of space and time between the Ist and the VIth cent. CE;
- gender-models and perceptions of spacer and time in the proto-christian groups (Ist-IInd cent. CE);
- constructions of identities and perceptions of space and time in Late-Antiquity monasticism.
The project components wil organize the analysis into three key components:
a. collective identity as the perception of similarities and differences;
b. collective identity as it is perceived through time and space;
c. communal identity as a social process.
Concerning a., RM will emphasize that collective identity involves a perception of similarity and difference between one group of people and another. In simple terms, it entails a sense of “we are us, they are not us, and we are not them”. Without a sense of commonality, collective identity could not exist. At the same time, similarity cannot occur apart from difference; to say “we are alike” necessarily entails the idea that others are unlike us. This sense of similarity and differences arises as a result of social interaction. Through the give and take inherent in social engagement, similarities and differences become the stuff defining the “boundaries” between groups, those factors that enable those involved on both sides of the divide to distinguish who “we” are as opposed to “them”.
Concerning b., RM will describe how communal identity as emerging out of social interaction does not emerge or does not exist only in the moment. A critical component of collective identity is the perception that it persists through time and in a place. RM will identify two factors that contribute to this sense of continuity: communal narratives and routinization or institutionalization of identity. Collective identity involves a sense of place within an ongoing story of a group. “We” are “us” because people and events in the past have made us what we are. Characteristic expressions of identity – from particular language usage, to styles of clothing, to eating habits, to funerary practices, and so on – become routine. Such patterns of behavior turn into “the way things are done”. Once recognized as such, we can say they are “routinized” or “institutionalized” within a group.
Concerning c., RM will emphasize that collective identities are not reified entities. Rather identities are constantly negotiated. As people bring perceptions of group identity with them into social interaction, this “identity” must be produced and reproduced in each new situation. In the process, identity becomes redefined, if only slightly, for every fresh set of circumstances. Identities, therefore, are enacted or embodied perceptions of similarities and differences within a given social situation. In effect, group members must ask themselves at every turn, “What does it look like to be one of ‘us’ within this situation?”. Answering that question is a complex task. It depends on which aspects of identity come into question in the specific situation, how negotiable these facets or identity are, the social positions of the various parties involved, the number and degree of differences between groups, and so on. What features of identity are callued upon in a particular situation can determine how vigorously and in what manner that aspect of identity becomes enacted.
The RM will identify specific communal contexts on the basis of the following elements:
- nouns by which the membership is defined (brothers, sons of …, adjectives by which a particular membership to a school founded by a protos heuretes is defined, followers and/or diciples of…, and so on);
- ideological elements by which a particular membership to a collectivity is defined (to sharing a system of behaviour, variations in a behaviour system as source for the birth of particular in-group identities, worldviews, ideological elements by which a group defines itself towards a cultural macro-area, and so on);
- practical elements by which a particular membership to a collectivity is defined (shared practices, ways of life by which a specific group distinguishes itself towards a cultural system, e.g. eating habits, prayers, funerary customs, meeting-places, gender dynamics and sexual roles in the definition of group-identities, and so on).
Stimulating a further level of critical and methodological detailed study, the project proposes the common adoption of a three-year programme that must guarantee the executive formula of the three guidelines identified by the individual research units.
1. University of Naples (Federico II) RU: Methodological Issues concerning the study of religious groups between the Ist and the VIth cent. CE.
2. University of Catania RU: Gender models and social interactions in proto-christian communities.
3. University of Turin RU: Monasticism and/or Ascetic groups between the IIIrd and the VIth cent. CE.
Proceeding therefore with a plan which establishes intermediate goals with annual reviews, the project activities will be developed in following order:
First year: in the first year a historiographic and critical picture of the questions concerning the study of religious groups in ancient world will be outlined, which will attempt to identify historical gains;
Second year: on the basis of the historiographic synthesis proposed during the first year, the individual units propose to verify the present gain in theory
and methodology for the analysis of religious groups between the Ist and the VIth cent. CE;
Third year: the last phase of the project aims to identify a number of guidelines, the main heuristic potential and the most proven intellectual instruments.
To that, proposals may be added that are significant both for their innovative capacity for using new instruments and for their highly influential potential for affecting the public. The concept of a network, the creation of an online magazine and the development of a Study Centre.