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The concept of national identity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 4293 words Published: 17th May 2017

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In recent years, due to the expansion of modernism and modernisation on a global scale, there have been developments at cultural and structural levels, resulting in a change in national identity and making the study of nationalism and national identity an important topic in social science. These studies are often concerned with the complex and contradictory nature of cultural identities and the role of communications media in the development and reconfiguration of those identities.

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This essay will attempt to define the terms ‘nation’ and ‘national identity’ and discuss how far these concepts relate directly to geographical location and/or political boundaries. It will look at the relationship between the media and national identity and explore its extensiveness and what it means for the concept of national identity itself. Additionally, the issue of whether national identities are ‘real’ or ‘perceived’ will be addressed as well as whether the concept, or indeed, the ‘experience’ of national identity is a media-dependent phenomenon. Other issues that will be discusses include the elements that may contribute to an individual’s sense of national identity and what an absence of (national) media would mean for the concept of national identity and the sense of belonging to a particular nation.

Many scholars would agree that the concepts of ‘nation’, ‘nationality’ and ‘nationalism’ have all proved difficult to define and analyse. Anderson (1991) notes that while nationalism has had significant influence on the modern world, ‘plausible theory about it is conspicuously meagre’ (p.54). Seton-Watson (1997) concludes that while no ‘scientific definition’ of the nation can be devised, the phenomenon has existed and exists (p.5). Even Nairn (1975) remarks ‘that the theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure. But even this confession is somewhat misleading, in so far as it can be taken to imply the regrettable outcome of a long, self-conscious search for theoretical clarity (p. 3).’ Although there is little consensus regarding the forces responsible for its manifestation, most theorists on nationalism believe it to be an essentially modern phenomenon, appearing in the late eighteenth century in Europe and North America.

Three theorists stand out in the genealogical debate over nationalism. Hobsbawm (1990) defined nationalism as the popular realisation of political rights in a sovereign state. A populace linked itself to a limited national territory and was embodied through a centralised government, an event he believed first occurred during the French Revolution. ‘If nationalism was a modern invention, so were nations: the nation-state was the result, rather than the origin, of a nationalist discourse’ (Hobsbawm, 1990, p.28). Gellner (1983) adopted an economically reductionist approach, deeming nationalism a necessary function of industrialisation. He argued that because industry required skilled labour, a common vernacular, and high rates of literacy, the need developed for a national ‘high culture’ promoted by a state run educational system. Simultaneously, the old agrarian order faded away and societal anonymity replaced provincial distinctness, facilitating the creation of a homogeneous national culture. Like Hobsbawm, Gellner sought to dispel teleological notions of the nation as eternal and reiterated that national was a modern invention, created in response to the needs of a new economic system, even it represented itself as a natural, historical phenomenon.

The theory of the nation as ‘invention’ was taken further by Anderson (1983), who saw nationalism as a process of ‘imagining communities’. ‘Nation-states are imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each live the image of their communion’ (Anderson, 1983, p.15). He argued that the decline of universal religious paradigms and the rise in print capitalism allowed for this ‘cultural construction’ to flourish in eighteenth century. The mass consumption of newspapers and novels enforced a common vernacular, linked a populace to urban centres, and encouraged common participation in a shared ‘imagined culture’. Anderson (1983) implied that the reformation of the printing press did more to encourage nationalism than did the advent of industrialisation. Despite their differences, all three of these prominent theoreticians identified nationalism, and by association the nation-state, as a phenomenon of the last few centuries. It has therefore been suggested that time, is not the most useful tool for categorising nationalism or national identity.

While nationalism is dependent on a variety of historical factors, it has been noted that national identity cannot be labelled as ’embryonic nationalism’ because not all national identities function within nations. Estel (2002) describes national identity as a special case of collective identity:

This does not mean an objective, i.e. systemic, connection built by human beings, but its interpretation by the members of that collective – hence it must be socially shared, the binding knowledge being the key factor. National identity then means a socially shared and binding knowledge in the form of an officially prevailing conception of itself in a certain nation being imparted through certain institutions (p.108).

As many have asserted to, the concept of national identity is complex, and its intensity, character and origins vary with time and place. Smith (1991) argues that identity operates on two levels, the individual and the collective which are often confused in discussions of ethnic and national identity. ‘Collective identities are composed of individual members they are not reducible to an aggregate of individuals sharing a particular cultural trait. Similarly, from a description of the elements one cannot read off the probable actions and dispositions of individual members, only the kinds of contexts and constraints within which they operate’ (p.130). He adds that the broadest subtype of collective cultural identities is the ethnie or ethnic community. Connor (1993) agrees:

If we look at today’s countries, many of them seem to build their perceived internal similarity on a premise of shared ethnicity. A subconscious belief in the group’s separate origin and evolution is an important ingredient of national psychology. This belief in the group’s separate origin and evolution is the basis of ethnic identity, and ethnic identity seems to constitute the core of nations (p.377).

Ethnic communities are characterised by a perception of similarity among members, stemming from a perception of kinship (a blood relationship), and a simultaneous perception of difference from other ethnic communities (Eriksen, 1993, p.12). They have a common collective name, a collective historical memory, common cultural traits, a ‘homeland,’ a myth of common descent, and a strong sense of internal solidarity. This element of fictive kinship, which is at the heart of ethnic affiliation, is also at the heart of feelings of nationhood (Smith, 1991, pp. 21-22). As Connor (1993) suggests, it is not ‘what is’ but ‘what people perceive as is’ which determines the extent of national feeling. ‘The nation-as-a-family metaphor is not a rational feeling, but rather an emotive one; it is a bond beyond reason appealing “not to the brain but to the blood” (Connor, 1993, p.384). Das and Harindranath (2006) suggests that even in the absence of an ethnically homogenous population, nations rely on the idea of an over arching ethnic bond to emphasise the difference from non-members and to join all members into a national community (p.11).

National identity, to whatever degree it exists, is constituted by the interlacing forces of history and collective choice (Parekh, 1994). It is a dynamic structure of affiliation, with strong foundations in the past but susceptible to change in the future. Nations base their claim to statehood on assumptions of a shared cultural heritage, which are in turn most often based on assumptions of shared ethnicity. The latter assumption has less to do with a reality of common ethnicity than with a myth of common ethnicity which is cast over multi-ethnic communities to turn them into politicised ‘national’ communities (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p.12). Most modern nation states are multi-ethic, making it difficult to define one unified conception of national identity among all members.

Throughout the early modern period, the character and intensity of national identity varied widely from place to place. The idea of the unity of a nation-state could come either from its cultural or political unity. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe was the location of the formation of nation states. ‘In England, France, Spain and Sweden, the dominant ethnic community incorporated outlaying regions and ethnicities into a dominant ethnic culture through the use of bureaucratic, centralised state machinery. Employing fiscal, judicial, military and administrative processes it welded together often disparate populations into a single ethnic community based on the cultural heritage of the dominant core’ (Smith, 1991, p.68). This is what Smith (1991) identifies the dominant ethnie model which is present in countries like Burma where the dominant Burmese ethnic community has heavily influenced the formation and the nature of the state of Burma (now known as Myanmar), rather than the Karen, Shan or Mon ethnic groups. Other cultures continue to flourish but the identity of the emerging political community is shaped by the historic culture of its dominant ethnie. The construction of the nation here becomes a process of reconstructing the ethnic core and integrating the culture with the requirements of the modern state and with the aspirations of minority communities. Non-dominant cultures are then relegated to the position of ‘minority cultures’ (Smith, 1991, pp.110-111).

Smith (1991) also notes that there are some multi-ethnic states where discrepancy in inter-ethnic power is marginal enough to allow for a state along the lines of the supra-ethnic model, where the emphasis is on political rather cultural unity (p. 112). However, Das and Harindranath (2006) states the success of this model is debatable as representative examples are few and far between (p.13). Such cases might include the Nigerian case, where the attempt to build a supra-ethnic state resulted in the concentration of power in the hands of three major ethic groups (out of the existing 250 groups) rather than any one. As Connor (1993, p.375) argues, a people who are politically and culturally pre-eminent in a state (even though other groups are present in significant numbers) tend ‘to equate the entire country with their own ethnic homeland, and to perceive the state as an extension of their particular ethnic group. Oommen (1990) suggests that once a multi-ethnic or poly-ethnic state emerges it becomes a reality-in-itself. The coexistence and interaction between the different nations or ethnic groups produce certain emergent properties which give a new meaning and a collective self-identification to the constituent units (p.35). This collective self-identification of a people with a nation-state according to Das and Harindranath (2006) is their national identity. Tying a nation together is a deep network of common institutions: a military, a common economy, a common legal system, a common administrative infrastructure, and a variety of shared institutions – transport, communications, public utilities and banks among others. At a more visible level are the overt makers of national identity, the political symbols that set one nation-state apart from others: a name, flag, national emblem, national language, common currency (p. 16). These are invented traditions which soon acquire the feel of antiquity but are in fact usually of recent origin (Hobsbawn and Ranger, 1983).

The formation of such identification involves dimensions of unity and permanence (Melucci, in Schlesinger, 1991, p.154). The latter suggests that the nation has to be seen as persisting through time, well into the past and future; it has to be seen as beyond time (Connor, 1993, p.382). Such an imagining of the nation as beyond time, according to Das and Harindranath (2006) takes national identity partly into the realm of non-rational, making it an emotional identification rather than an intellectual one.

The issue of creating certain uniformity within nation-states and the process of nation-building then comes to the forefront and most nations look to the media to play its part in the construct of a ‘national’ culture and a ‘national’ community. Why the media? Das and Harindranath (2006) explains that considering how much of our knowledge of the world comes from mediated communication, either through people or through the mass media, this is likely to be a primary source of influence on our structures of identification since we cannot accomplish very abstract levels of identification (as with a nation-state) by exclusive reliance on our own direct lived experience or face to face communication of others (p.18). Media have typically been institutional products of nations and, as such, play a fundamental role in their maintenance (Anderson, 1983, pp. 24-25). In most countries national broadcasting in the early forms (especially before its commercialisation, when it could not afford the stratification of its audience), has made possible the transformations of individual activities (dramas, performances, etc) into fictions of collective national life for millions of individuals who may never interact with one another. It is a fact that nation-states must have ‘a measure of common culture and civic ideology, a set of common understandings and aspirations, sentiments and ideas that bind the population together in their homeland. The major agencies through which this socialisation is carried out are the mass education system and the mass media (Smith, 1991, p.11).

Das and Harindranath (2006) notes:

National identity has been an underlying theme in communications research since the 1950s, when new technologies were linking the world with their ever-increasing reach into diverse global populations. At that time, these technologies were held up as a panacea for the ills of underdevelopment – researchers such as Schramm and Lerner eagerly endorsed the view that judicious deployment of Western media products in the ‘Third World’ would help bring to them the benefits of western progress and development (p.18).

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Sreberny (2008) points out, this idea and model of development was criticised for equating ‘development’ with the ‘West’. The media/cultural imperialism theory, which gained impetus from such criticism, argues that the excessive flow of media products from West to East of from North to South leads to the erosion of national cultures in the non-Western world, resulting eventually in a homogenised world in the image of the west. Melucci (1989) disagreed with this theory as well:

To simply be aware of something is not to identify with it; identification comes from the making of an emotional investment, an investment which enables a group of people to recognise themselves in each other, and to feel a similarity with other members of a group. In addition to being aware of the existence of nation-states therefore, I must also be aware that there are many of them, that the one I live in is different from the others, and that I belong to a particular one because of my similarity with others of that nation-state. I can then be said to possess a national identity. My identity is therefore not just ‘Indian’ but equally not French, not Thai (p.17).

Today, national media are participating in the two processes of national identity building. Firstly, as tellers of national myths, (especially in times of crises, rapid social change or external threat), as ‘engravers’ of national symbols upon the nation’s memory, and presenters of national rituals (elections, celebrations, etc), they work in the direction of emphasising the similarities among the group members. For media producers, the prominence of national identity in the media content is encouraged by the knowledge that they are constructing news for a national audience with which they share national membership (Entman, 1991; Rivenburgh, 1999).

Secondly, as a primary domain of the public sphere, the media produce and reinforce the relational opposition of ‘us’ and the ‘others’. One of the areas of media content to which such nationalist discourse today is very high, is news and especially the coverage of foreign affairs. Comparative international news research shows the significant role of the media in perpetuating a world view that consistently favours the home nation perspective on world affairs (Rivenburgh, 1999). Discrepant perceptions of world affairs largely emanate from different cultural and political values held by groups with different national identities enhanced by national media coverage (Rivenburgh, 1991, p.1).

The media play a significant role in collapsing the experience of distance by creating a global simultaneity, rendering events across the world into nightly news broadcast into ‘our’ living rooms. Media coverage of crisis events may not only affect public opinion but may increasingly provide policy makers with vital information to determine lines of foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives (Sreberny, 2008). Additionally,

At the start of the 21st century, more and more people lived in ‘mediatised’ societies where our understanding of local, national and international political, economic and cultural issues is framed by and through the media and other cultural industries. While we need to be wary of collapsing ‘cultural’ issues into technological developments, it is nonetheless true that the global spread of media has raised a host of new questions about our identities, about our relations with others and about our understanding of the world (Sreberny, 2008, p.10).

One prominent pattern that emerges in the images of nationhood is the definition of ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’ by the media, the ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. Such delineation is important especially in nation states characterised by diversity (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p.19). Scannell and Cardiff (1991) illustrate such a definition in the British case showing how the BBC treated ‘British’ music as essentially synonymous with ‘English’ music while the music of Scotland, Wales and Ireland was marginalised. This case clearly illustrated how the media contribute to the articulation of the identity of the dominant ethnic group in a multi-ethnic nation-state. New forms of communications and media such as the internet have made it possible for those individuals living outside of their respective nations to still maintain a sense of national identity. The internet can be a very important vehicle for the transmission of ideas concerning a national identity, particularly for those people who have lost or left their homeland. The internet provides a special type of community with a very strong common feeling – national communities without a nation. People scattered all over the world regardless of they are from still have succeeded in maintaining a national identity without a nation state. While this used to take place in physical places, the internet and other forms of new media offers different possibilities for these communities, for they can now organise worldwide, reach new members and communicate with these members more often. The websites visited and used by these communities form more than a virtual nation. Their aim is to construct a true nation and it is done by presenting users with sites that are as complete and historic as possible as all varieties of news and information can be found on the internet. The mass media thus engender a ‘we-feeling,’ a feeling of family, among the community, providing continual opportunities for identification with the nation. The media enable entire populations to participate in the everyday life of a country-wide community, uniting individual members of the national family into a shared political and cultural rubric (Chaney, 1998, p. 249).

It is equally important to note that agencies of socialisation such as the media can also be harnessed to divisive purposes which might have the consequence of impeding the construction of a national identity or of undermining the force of one or more elements of the symbolic repertoire of nationalistic ideology (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p.19). In some cases, nationalist views and provocative views have provoked some of the world’s worst massacres. One such example is when RTLM (the Hutu radio/television station in Rwanda) played an inciting and aggravating role in the massacre of the Tutsis by repeatedly broadcasting messages in which Tutsis were slandered and ridiculed and depicted as despicable. On another continent, media in former Yugoslavia have played a significant role in creating an environment of ethnic hate and xenophobia that contributed towards the pre-conditions for savage ethnic wars. While these may be extreme cases, the simple fact of establishing the homogenising tendency of national media is not an adequate base from which to conclude that audiences are homogenised and that advocacy does not always med acceptance. In cases where the national image promoted by the media is not accepted it does meet with resistance from sections of the populations.

While some resistance is severe as in the cases of Rwanda and Yugoslavia other populations use organised forms of resistance where the groups in a nation state who are not part of mainstream culture find peaceful ways of asserting their own identities. One such example is the Ernabella Video and Television (EVTV) project in Australia. It was established by leaders of the Ernabella aboriginal community in 1983 as a video project intended to record the local culture, which was fading away with the decline of their previously nomadic lifestyle. It was also a reaction to outside media which local leaders saw as a negative influence on their community. EVTV developed into a television channel by which aboriginals recorded and rediscovered their culture, and it simultaneously enabled them to construct a pan-aboriginal identity among the dispersed aboriginal populations of Australia. It was the discovery and assertion of ethnic aboriginal identity which they actively used to reduce the potential homogenisation influence of mainstream Australian culture depicted on national television (Batty, 1993).

Another form of resistance is through readings where the argument here is that media audiences interact with media texts in extremely complex ways. Studies have uncovered significant differences in the way audiences from different backgrounds produce diverse readings of an episode of a soap opera, suggesting that social identities affect interpretation of media messages (Ang, 1990).

Media texts can therefore no longer be thought of as binding each member of the audience evenly into a particular interpretation; the meaning of the text, rather, is open to negotiation between the text and the viewer. Differences in interpretation are not, however, the result of a failure of communication, but are rather the results of differences in the lived experiences and mental words of audiences. Where cultural realities are different, there is a likelihood of different interpretations (Jensen, 1987, p.31).

In conclusion, although the established literature lacks firm evidence of individual level ‘media effects’ it nevertheless suggests with some confidence that there is a strong, positive tie between media consumption and individual level national belonging. Drawing largely on historical and textual analysis methods, the claim has been established that the media have been foundational over the past three centuries in the shaping, distribution and institutionalisation of identities. The classic texts on nationalism repeatedly argue that the media have played a key role in nation building and that the idea of a one-culture-for-all does not work and attempts at enculturation of diverse people into a mainstream culture are inevitably resisted through social movements at the peripheries of the mainstream (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p.21). Martin- Barbero (1993) further suggests that communication is a field in which these battles over identity are fought out. The media is therefore the site where states explore routes to uniformity within their nations and are simultaneously the site which assists non-mainstream groups to explore and announce their distinctiveness.


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