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The Journey of Cultural Identity in the Chittagong Hill Tracts: a Transgenerational Approach

Farhana Hoque (University College London)

This research will explore processes behind identity formation among 1 to 2 Burmese-origin hill tribes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), a region of Bangladesh which is home to approximately 15 tribes. The groups in the CHT are a mix of Hindu, Buddhist and animist, and the area is not only surrounded by the culture of Bangladesh, but also borders India and Myanmar. In this 'field' of study, therefore, we have a border that is 'porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another.’ (Benedict Anderson (1983) in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, p. 19). Moreover, at different points in history, the people of the CHT have moved from a position of isolation to enclavement, becoming minorities first in India, then in East Pakistan and finally in Bangladesh.

There are two competing models of state society and culture here: the South Asian represented by its Bengali Muslim and Hindu variant, and the Southeast Asian, in the form of its Burmese/Arakanese variant. The creation of the Jumma identity in the 1970s saw a merger of these models (and many more) against the state culture of Bangladesh. These competing influences and the ways in which they were combined with the various local cultural traditions and then incorporated into Jumma identity are of interest to this study, as is the way the groups perceive each other, and their cultural differences.

To date, research on the identity of groups has concentrated on the study of similarities and differences between them – the content of culture – or as Barth in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: the Social Organization of Cultural Difference (1969), the study of the processes of boundary-making between groups. This research proposes to study the journey of cultural identity over generations using a transgenerational approach to creating narratives. It is an anthropological use of Genograms, which is a method most commonly used in family therapy settings. A Genogram is a diagram that depicts family relationships over at least three generations. It is a tool most commonly used in family therapy sessions, enabling therapists to work with members of the family to capture data on specific questions and from different perspectives. For example, Lim and Nakamoto (2008) in their paper Genograms: Use in Therapy with Asian Families with Diverse Cultural Heritages (Contemporary Family Therapy (2008) Vol. 30, pp.199–219) took this tool beyond the medical setting and explored the intergenerational legacy of losses in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and how they impacted the generations that follow, even though members of the succeeding generation were living in the U.S. It is therefore a useful tool in studying families characterized by multiple migrations and different languages across generations, and the effects these factors have had on ethnic identity and intergenerational relationships.

In this research, I propose to use this tool within the context of a family system amongst a group of people of Burmese orgin living alongside several other groups or communities or tribes. I will work with the families to collaboratively create their own genogram/family history and to record basic kinship data to be expanded later to include specific questions around identity. The advantage of using this method is that it is in line with the lived experience of Asian families where three generations live together, remembering and honoring ancestors. For the family, the process of drawing genograms gives a sense of organization and distance to material, inviting trust and encouraging curiosity. It also helps family members to create space for a new kind of narrative on their experiences of living and negotiating identity in a fluid, and difficult terrain. For the anthropologist, the method casts a wider net compared to standard narratives, and although the study takes place within the family system, it also builds a dialogue with the cultural other.

This research expands the current debate on identity on minority groups by taking an emic and a transgenerational view to answering questions on adaption and choice.  By studying three generations in this way, we should develop insights into the journey of identity for these people, going back to beyond the period of 1970s and perhaps even recording memories of identity that have been handed down through oral histories. The findings of the proposed study are likely to be relevant to any multicultural setting, for example, in urban centres throughout the world and particularly those with a history of violent conflict.