A basic definition of hybrid and its derivative hybridity, provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, is that it is a noun used to describe “a thing made by combining two different elements; a mixture.” Hybrid can also be used as an adjective to describe something of “mixed character.” The word hybrid originated in the early seventeenth century and was first used regularly in the nineteenth century to describe the offspring of two plants or animals of different species (in Latin the word meant the “offspring of a tame sow and wild boar”). The term was taken up in the mid-1800s by the Victorian extreme right to describe the offspring of humans of different races—races assumed to be of different species. Hybridity was later deployed by postcolonial theorists to describe cultural forms that emerged from colonial encounters. Its more recent adoption by social scientists—particularly those interested in migration, diaspora, transnationalism, and globalization—is varied and includes debates about its usefulness as a category. These debates stem, in part, from the term’s historical usages.
During the nineteenth century, discussions about hybridity were shaped by racist assumptions about the human species. Given that a hybrid was defined as a cross between two species that should not, in theory, be able to reproduce with each other, debates about human hybrids hinged on questions of fertility and sexuality and reflected a widespread anxiety about sexual unions between different races (in particular, between blacks and whites; one early definition of hybrid is “child of a freeman and slave”). Although arguments that relied on evidence of infertility were difficult to sustain in the face of growing mixed-race populations, persistent efforts were made to fine-tune theories of biology that perpetuated ideologies of racial hierarchy and difference. Debates about hybridity took place not only in the natural sciences, but also in social sciences such as anthropology and sociology.
The subsequent use of hybridity in postcolonial studies was shaped by linguistic models that analyze culture as a process and a site of contestation. Particularly influential here has been the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, a pioneering linguist who theorized the political effects of hybridity in language. He used hybridity to refer to the way in which language, within a single utterance, can be doubleaccented—that is, it can contain two styles, belief systems, or social languages. While Bakhtin contends that “organic” hybridity (or ongoing mixing) is an important feature o the evolution of all languages, he is particularly interested in “intentional” hybridity, which he describes as a politicized process whereby one voice is able to unmask another’s authorial one through a language that is double-accented.
This conceptual use of hybridity was extended by postcolonial scholars to analyze forms of resistance to colonialism. Homi Bhabha’s work has been particularly significant; he uses the term hybridity to refer to the ways in which the power that colonial discourses attempt to exercise is disrupted in and through its very attempts to deny other knowledges, the traces of which shape colonial discourse and render it inherently double-voiced. Hybridization thus describes “the ambivalence at the source of traditional discourses on authority” (Bhabha 1994, pg. 112). Bhabha’s work celebrates hybridity as subversive and as an “active moment of challenge and resistance against a dominant cultural power” (Young 1995, p. 23). By focusing on the production of meaning, postcolonial scholarship such as Bhabha’s emphasizes representation and signification, and hence concentrates on analyzing discourse. Bhabha also argues, however, that transgressions can occur in a “third space” that includes forms of interaction and cultural difference that challenge dominant and totalizing norms.
These diverse histories of hybridity in biology, linguistics, and postcolonial studies have shaped its recent adoption by social scientists as well as debates about the term’s usefulness. Scholars interested in migration, diaspora, transnationalism, and globalization have used the term to describe the identity of persons of mixed race or cultural origin or influence (such as migrants), the cultural production of “hybrid” persons (i.e., music, language, style), and/or processes of cultural mixing that shape identity formation and cultural production. Hybridity thus shares semantic terrain with terms such as creolization, syncretism, bricolage, borderland, fusion, and cosmopolitanism. Although hybridity has been used to describe a variety of phenomena, it is often mobilized with a common theoretical intent: That is, hybrid identities, cultural products, and/or practices are often seen as challenging, in novel and creative ways, essentialist norms of culture, race, and nation.
A number of criticisms have been made recently about this politicized usage of hybridity. One set of concerns flags the inherent epistemological contradictions of the term itself: For example, one critique is that the term can never be liberatory because it always implies a prior state of purity, even as it attempts to critique this idea; also, because it is shaped by organic and biological conceptions that are also heterosexist, it risks naturalizing essentialisms. Some further argue that it is an imprecise concept if one takes as axiomatic that all cultures are hybrid and that purity is a mythical construct.
A second set of critiques addresses dominant uses of hybridity. For example, some argue that it has come to delimit certain objects of inquiry in ways that elide questions of inequality. They contend that the concept is used in facile ways to impute to hybrid persons, products, and processes a politics of resistance solely based on their purported hybrid properties. A related critique is that it has been used in academia as an apoliticized celebration of difference in ways that dovetail with the capitalist project of commodifying diversity. Some also contend that hybridity has been reduced to the experience of the migrant in the metropole at the expense of understanding how broader transnational processes that lead to migrancy also impact populations who cannot travel; these scholars relatedly raise questions about who is or is not considered “hybrid” and thus fashionable to study.
More recently, many scholars are arguing that a useful way to study hybridity is by analyzing empirically how the term hybridity is used (who deploys the concept, with which kinds of understandings, from which contexts and locations, and with what effects). By doing so, we contexualize the concept (i.e., historically, geographically) rather than imputing to it an ahistoricized principle of resistance. We can thus understand the various usages to which the concept is put, its diverse modalities, and its effects, all of which can be multiple and not necessarily resistant (for example, scholars are showing how it can be tied to political projects such as nationalism and fascism).
SEE ALSO Creolization; Culture; Identity
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Ballinger, Pamela. 2004. “Authentic Hybrids” in the Balkan Borderlands. Current Anthropology 45 (1): 31–60.
Bhabha, Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.
Hutnyk, John. 2005. Hybridity. Ethnic and Racial Studies 28 (1): 79–102.
Lavie, Smadar, and Ted Swedenburg, eds. 1996. Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Young, Robert. 1995. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race. London: Routledge.