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The Athens Dialogues - An International Conference on Culture and Civilization

Academic Events

Identity & Difference

Chair: Professor Dame Averil Cameron, Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine History, Keble College, Oxford

Main Speakers: Martyn Barrett, Joseph Bryant, Shireen Hunter, Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware] of Diokleia, Paolo Odorico, Walter Pohl, Alan Shapiro, Katerina Stenou, Konstantinos Tsoukalas

Respondents: Nikos Bacounakis, Mark Janse, Johannes Saltzwedel, Katerina Zacharia

One of the most urgent and critical discussions in today’s world turns on the concept of identity-and its mirror-image, difference. Debate has focused on the question of whether identity is inherent or constructed, and if the latter, through what influences and mechanisms. The argument ranges widely, for identity may be personal, social, ethnic or political; and of these the last two in particular involve issues that are of burning concern in today’s global world. It can be argued that it was in classical Greece that the sense of individual consciousness first emerged, together with a strong and proud sense of what it meant to be “Greek.” We are still debating what this means, and these issues of definition and consciousness underlie many of the major issues that we are wrestling with today.

The theme of this session ranges over many disciplines, from psychology and neuroscience to history and political science. In order to understand societies we need to understand the springs of human behaviour, and in order to understand religious difference we need an awareness of the evolutionary origins of belief. The relation of the individual and community put sharply into focus in the classical Greek city-state, is at the very heart both of modern self-identification, whether in terms of ethnic group, culture or religion and of the legal and social frameworks that seek to define communities.

The participants in this session addressed the theme from a variety of perspectives. Consideration of the sociology of religious difference in early Christianity and the emergence of peoples in early medieval Europe can help us to understand issues in the study of contemporary Islam or questions of nationalism and ethnicity and vice versa. It can also illustrate the familiar and dangerous processes of stereotyping used over the centuries by interested groups in order to confer a spurious identity on their rivals and enemies.