Regional Identities in America: Definition & Formation

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

American national identity is an interesting concept. However, it's not the only influence on people's identities. In this lesson, we'll talk about regional identities in the United States and see how they reflect national attitudes about local histories.

American Regional Identities

America is a big place, full of many people. It's also a place where the concept of identity has, historically, been very important. What does it mean to be an American? How does American identity differ from that of Europe, or Canada, or Mexico? As a relatively young nation, and one founded as a colony from another empire, this question has long been troubling to many people, especially in the early days of American history. People were losing sleep over this issue: what does it mean to be American?

Over time, that question has largely been answered through the development of cultural/geographic zones, or regions. A region is partly defined by geography, but also by a cultural unity that ties the people within that geography together. American regions have had a big impact on the development of American history, society, and - yes - identities.

The Formation of Identity

From an academic standpoint, identity is a really interesting thing to study. It is simultaneously imaginary, yet very real, consciously created but subconsciously performed. Identity is a big part of our lives, but it's hard to define and sometimes harder to explain. Identity is also something that blends our current experiences with cultural memory, or the ways that we choose to remember events and people. So, it's a pretty fascinating force.

Americans have both national and regional identities. These two ideas are distinct, but still need to coexist seamlessly. If regional identities don't mesh with national identity, national identity fails - just think of the Civil War. So, before we talk about the distinct regional identities of America, let's talk about common unifying trends.

For the most part, American regional identities tend to reinforce national values, but in distinct ways. Westerners are hard working and honest, Southerners are hospitable, and Northerners are industrious. Each of these embraces part of the ideals the founding figures saw as embodying the concept of the republic they were trying to build.

The other major trend we see in the United States is that regional stereotypes reflect geography. People from the Midwest are open and direct. People of California are sunny and relaxed. People of New England are sometimes cold, while people of the South may be hot-headed. This association of personality and geography is very American, reflecting the important role that the undeveloped geography of the nation has played in our past.

The North

Okay, now that we've got the heavy academic stuff out of the way, let's talk regions. Continental America contains three major regions, each with some sub-regions, and each with its own identity. Let's start with the North, which generally refers to anything east of the Appalachians and north of the Mason-Dixon line.

There are two major sub-regions of the North. The first is New England. New England was settled by those in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity, but not necessarily the most gifted of farmers. As a result, much of New England's history is based in industry and trade, and stereotypically filled with people who are sure of their convictions. The other sub-region of the North is the Mid-Atlantic, a place that is diverse but conservative, cosmopolitan but fond of tradition.

The people of the North are stereotypically defined by distinct accents (ask a New Yorker for a cup of coffee), and a somewhat isolated temperament covering fierce loyalty for people of their region, as well as an unspoken agreement that all things Northern are superior to things from elsewhere in the nation.

New England cuisine is often based around seafood, here featured in a lobster roll
Lobster roll

The South

Below the Mason-Dixon line, we find the region of the South. The South was historically agricultural, and since the days of the first Continental Congress Southerners have believed in a weak central government that should stay out of people's daily lives. According to cultural stereotypes, Southerners famously live by their own well-defined set of rules, including values of hospitality and honor, supported by passion and emotions that bubble near the surface. The Southern drawl is easily recognizable, as are Southern comfort foods.

Southern food is undeniably rich and full of flavor
Southern food

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