Self and Nation: Categorization, Contestation and Mobilization


Steve Reicher & Nick Hopkins

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    Proverbs for Paranoids, 3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers

    Thomas Pynchon

    Nations, nationalism and national identity are all around us. Finding evidence is no more difficult than finding sand on a beach. For those who investigate the more arcane aspects of the world this might seem to give us an envious advantage. But there is a major cost. Because nationhood constitutes such a central aspect of our social world, there is much at stake when one comes to trying to understand it. No one who wishes to comment on the relevant phenomena can expect to find a hushed and pliant audience waiting for enlightenment. Quite the opposite in fact. We must try and raise our voice above a Babel of voices. We must contend with a welter of preconceptions. We must be aware of the considerable personal and political investments which buttress those preconceptions and make them hard to challenge.

    Both the positives and the negatives of studying nationalism are exemplified in the following passage. It is taken from a column by Douglas Alexander in the Glasgow Herald entitled, ‘Old national stereotypes should be cast aside’, which we came across not as part of our study but rather when taking a break from our work. Alexander (2000) writes:

    National identity seems to be the political equivalent of internet shares at the moment. So popular is the issue that last week alone saw a much-reported interview on Englishness by Jack Straw [Home Secretary in the British Government], a major article on Britishness by Gordon Brown [Chancellor of the Exchequer], and suggestions of a shift in Alex Salmond's thinking on Scottish independence [Salmond being the leader of the Scottish National Party]. For all the talk of focus groups and poll-led politics, this interest is a heartening instance of political dispute mirroring intellectual discussion. Over the past year such discussion about the ‘new Scotland’ seems to have been never-ending. With Tom Devine's The Scottish Nation adding a welcome historical perspective, acres of newsprint have been given over to discussions of the character and characteristics of post-devolution Scotland.

    So, even when you try and get away from nationhood, you can't help running slap bang back into it. On the surface, what Alexander does is confirm our claims concerning the omnipresence of questions about national phenomena. However, of equal importance is his illustration of the ways in which these questions are asked and the presuppositions that allow them to be asked in this way. The most common question takes the form: What is the character of the nation? What does it mean to be Scottish or to be English, or to be German or Latvian or indeed of any nationality? Alexander may question the particular terms in which the national identity is characterized. He may feel that old national stereotypes need to be discarded for new ones. To be more specific, he may wish to make tolerance a central value when it comes to determining ‘what is a Scot’. But he takes it as a non-negotiable given that there is a singular and distinctive national identity which is lying out there just waiting to be discovered. It is this general presupposition which we aim to challenge.

    Perhaps, though, Alexander is atypical. Perhaps his presupposition that we can find a singular national identity stems from his concern with the break up of the British state and the creation of devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Such a context of division is bound to lead to a focus on difference and hence a need to identify exactly what it is that renders any one nation different from others. If we looked at a context which involved bringing nations together in supra-national Union rather than a context where a supra-national state was being divided into constituent nations, we might find less credibility given to the idea of the singular national identity. So consider the following. It is taken from a book called We Europeans (Hill, 1997), which is promoted by an organization called ‘Understanding Europe’ whose aim is to promote a joint European future. Hill states his purpose as to discover the ‘cultural ids’ of different European nations – that is the deep characteristics which drive the actions of each population. However, he wishes to discard ‘the ethnic folklore that has clouded Europeans’ perception of one another for far too long: the rude frivolous Frenchman, the idle pretentious Spaniard, the dull humourless German (not forgetting his archetype, the bull-headed sabre-scarred Prussian) and so on’ (1997: 12). The reason is that such ‘one-liners’ are inevitably simplifications and distortions, but not that the notion of a single national character is a problem. Hill therefore goes on to state that:

    I feel the attempt to correct some of the most pernicious deformations of national character, in more than a single phrase, can serve some purpose. The fact that the French may seem rude to many foreigners may in fact … conceal a much more subtle complex of characteristics: self-absorption (my favourite), directness, eagerness to spark a response and desinvolture. (p. 13)

    It is clear, then, that the assumption of national singularity is not affected by whether one champions international disintegration or integration. However, if we pursue Hill's argument just one step further, we can see that national singularity is not entirely unrelated to the opposition between disintegration and integration. He writes:

    If the generalizations in this book do something to correct the folkloric stereotypes of the past, they will have served their purpose. In any case I offer no excuse. It seems to me that there is no better combination than British inventiveness, French wit, Slav music, Italian cuisine, German perfection, Spanish reality, Dutch decency, Scandinavian fairness … in short, the best combination in the world. (pp. 13–14)

    What Hill is doing, then, is to substitute definitions of identity which characterize other nations in such terms as to render contact (let alone integration) as undesirable with a new set of definitions which render integration both possible and mutually advantageous. So, at the same time as claiming to discover the single authentic identity which accurately describes what people are like in the here and now, it could be argued that what Hill (and Alexander) unwittingly demonstrate is that there are multiple competing definitions of national identity and that these are as much orientated to sustaining different projects for the future as to describing the present state of the nation.

    That is precisely what we will argue. We want to create a shift from questions of the type: ‘what does it mean to be Scottish’ to questioning the different consequences of the different ways in which Scotland is defined. In other words, we wish to move from a view of national identity (and social identity more generally) as solely about being and start investigating the way in which it is also related to the process of becoming. We intend to examine how identity is used to mobilize people in support of, or in opposition to, different forms of political project and is thereby instrumental in directing the evolution of our social world. For us, the link between identity and mobilization must be moved centre stage.

    This is easy to state, but far more difficult to fulfil. Firstly we must work against the weight of political interests. If a particular political project is underpinned by a particular definition of identity, then political ascendancy can be guaranteed by mythologizing that definition as the sole authentic definition (we shall see much evidence of such activity in the following pages). The ability to mythologize particular definitions of a particular identity is, in turn, aided and abetted by the general myth that there is always a single valid definition for any given identity. Our attack on that myth would therefore (if, by any chance, it were successful) constitute a blow against ideological domination – and it is unlikely that those interested in domination would take such a blow lying down.

    Secondly, we must work against the weight of popular preconceptions and thirdly – as Alexander accurately observes – we must equally work against the weight of intellectual assumptions. In talking about identity as a matter of becoming, we are breaking with the perceptualism that has dominated social psychology for half a century and more. We are suggesting that human mental life does not derive from a passive contemplation of the world but from active engagement in the world – from the ways we are, we want to be and are capable of being. Social psychology needs to relate human understanding to the structure of human action. More specifically, we need to relate national identity to the structure of national action.

    But, as we shall shortly see, even the most cursory examination of nationhood reveals that this is a two-way relationship. Certainly, national identity may shape collective movements, which create national structures, but equally national structures are crucial in shaping the way people identify themselves. In the terms we have used above we are not simply proposing that a focus on becoming supplants the focus on being, but rather that we must examine how the one supplements the other. The task of a fully rounded social psychology is to help explain the dynamic and evolving relationship between the way in which our self-understandings create the world and the way in which the world creates our self-understandings. We consider that an examination of national phenomena can help us to develop such a rounded psychology. Conversely, such a psychology is necessary to understand the complexities of nationhood. To put it in a phrase: our ambition in writing this book is to use nationhood in order to develop psychological understanding and to use psychology in order to develop our understanding of nationhood.

    In order for the reader to understand how we have sought to realize these ambitions, it may help to give some background concerning the way in which this volume came about. The book is, in fact, one of two books that started life as one book. By the time we had written the original draft it was clear that the thing was neither fish nor fowl – or rather, it was both fish and fowl, which made for a rather unappetizing combination. It started with some two hundred pages in which we engaged with the dominant traditions in social psychology in order to explain and position our own approach. It then continued with a further three hundred pages in which we used nationhood as an exemplary case through which to validate this approach. However, as both our editors and their reviewers pointed out, the theoretical discussion was rather arcane for many of those interested in nationhood and the issue of nationhood may not have been of major concern to all those interested in the theoretical controversies. So we decided to separate the package, to create one book which was mainly theory (perhaps still with a hint of nationhood in some of the examples) and another – this one – which summarizes the theory but then concentrates on illustrating and applying it through a study of the relationship between national identity and national being. Each book stands alone and there will be more than enough theory in the following pages. However should anyone wish to examine the roots and the justification of our model, and if they would like to consider the more general implications of this model for an understanding of the human social subject, we would refer them to the other volume (Reicher, in press).

    There is another significant manner in which this book has changed in the rewriting. At first, our argument was based largely on the analysis of how Scottish politicians and the Scottish media and activists in the various struggles around the formation of a Scottish parliament used and contested the idea of Scottish nationhood. While this debate may have seemed of almost unsurpassed importance to those living in Scotland, we fully recognize that it may have seemed far less significant to those living further away. However, our aim was not to be parochial. Our logic was based on what Clifford Geertz has had to say about the relationship of culture to human nature and hence of particularity to generality.

    Geertz notes how, for many, the hunt for human nature involves looking for that which everybody shares in common and hence ignoring what is specific to different groups. He describes this ‘stratigraphic’ approach in the following terms: ‘At the level of concrete research and specific analysis, this grand strategy came down, first, to a hunt for universals in culture, for empirical uniformities that, in the face of customs around the world and over time, could be found everywhere in about the same form’ (1993: 38). In contrast, Geertz himself advocates a synthetic approach. Because it is in the nature of human beings to be cultural, we can only discover that nature by paying close attention to its manifestations in the details of a culture. In other words, generality is to be found by respecting, not by denying specificity: ‘If we want to discover what man amounts to, we can only find it in what men are: and what men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness – its range, its nature, its basis and its implications – that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow and less than a primitivist dream, has both substance and truth’ (1993: 51–52).

    Following Geertz, we wished to explore the general relationship between the ways in which identity is constructed and the ways people act through a detailed appreciation of the Scottish case. But this wasn't appreciated quite so much by our editors and our reviewers. They were concerned that, however valid our argument, it might be ignored as being ‘only about Scotland’. So, in the re-written text, we use examples from all around the globe as evidence of the identity-action relationships which we are claiming. We show that they don't only obtain in one small part of one small island on the north western periphery of Western Europe. However we do still tend to follow through our analysis of these relationships by focusing on Scottish examples – and that for the simple reason that our evidence is so much richer, so much more direct and frequently so much more eloquent when it comes from Caledonia. It is therefore worth saying a few words about this evidence and about the context to which speakers were referring.

    Scotland's history, especially in relation to England and to Great Britain, is long and complicated. After an enduring period of feudal domination by English kings, Scotland finally won its independence after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Independence lasted until 1707 when union was declared between the two countries and the Edinburgh parliament was dissolved, although Scotland retained a separate church, as well as separate legal and educational systems. Initial opposition to the Union soon died down. However, throughout the second half of the twentieth century, support for some measure of renewed Scottish autonomy grew. This blossomed dramatically in the 1970s with the capture of parliamentary seats by the Scottish National Party (SNP), a party based on the call for Scottish independence. In 1979, a referendum on the issue of devolution (that is, a separate parliament for Scotland within an overall UK framework) was narrowly lost. In fact, more voted for than against, but a clause had been inserted to say that, as well as a majority of those voting, 40 per cent of the entire electorate must support the measure before it could be enacted. That threshold was not reached. By the 1990s, the question of Scotland's constitutional status in the UK had again risen to the fore and, in the 1992 general election, formed the major issue in Scotland and, to some extent, in the UK as a whole. Within Scotland, there were four major parties. Labour and the Liberal Democrats supported a devolved parliament. The SNP supported independence. The Conservatives supported the status quo. The contest was fought with passion and seriousness and continued to reverberate throughout Scotland long after the Conservatives (having won a majority of the seats throughout the UK as a whole) were returned to power. If their UK majority ensured the temporary survival of the status quo, the Labour victory of 1997 brought a referendum on devolution, which was soon followed by the re-establishment of a Scottish parliament in 1999. Of course this is not the end of the matter.

    The 1992 election lies at the heart of the analysis developed throughout this book. Over the period before and after the election date we interviewed 52 candidates and senior activists spanning all the parties (20 of whom were MPs). We attended and recorded 16 election meetings, some by a single candidate, some involving all the candidates in a constituency. We also recorded 12 public rallies, demonstrations or fringe meetings organized at the parties’ annual conferences and connected with the election and its aftermath. So too we recorded meetings or rallies organized by non-electoral groups (five) and several events as diverse as demonstrations in support of sacked Scottish workers and the annual commemoration of the Battle of Bannockburn. Finally, we continued to collect major public speeches and statements on the matter. In the case of public statements we have identified the speaker. In the case of private interviews we have respected the anonymity of the speaker and only identified him or her by a number, political party and by political position. The one exception, in this as in so many other things, is the late Conservative MP, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. He was more than happy to be identified and so we have done so.

    We are particularly grateful to all of those who gave us their time, who agreed to long interviews and who provided us with so much material. There are others who have given us a great deal, but in different ways. We owe much to those who read the original text in various forms and provided us with helpful comments, which we have tried to take on board. We are also grateful to those who have discussed the ideas in this book and given us cause to think and sometimes to reconsider. It is always hard to remember all those who are included in these two categories, but they include Mick Billig, Susan Condor, Alex Haslam, David McCrone, and Jonathon Potter. We owe a particular debt of thanks to Ziyad Marar at Sage who was more than an ordinary editor, who encouraged us and who made a crucial intellectual input to the shaping of the book.

    We also depended on several other forms of support. The research was conducted without an external grant. This meant that we ourselves conducted the interviews, attended the meetings, joined in the rallies and demonstrations – but we would have had it no other way: we wanted to be there! However, it also meant that in addition to accumulating a growing pile of audio-tapes we incurred all sorts of expenses. We are indebted to Dundee University's Psychology Department (especially Nick Emler and Alan Kennedy) for tolerating (and subsidizing) such behaviour and to the University's own Research Initiatives Fund for a small grant towards the transcription costs. Over a number of years, the Dundee Department's secretaries – especially the remarkable Liz Evans, Linda Fullerton and Lynda McDonald – and a number of others outwith the Department (most notably the equally remarkable Carol Larg) spent many hours carefully transcribing our tapes (and providing us with their own thoughtful insights on what they had heard). To all of these, a genuine thank you.

    Most importantly, we would like to thank our partners, one teenager, two cats and one dog for putting up with our moods. They have had much to endure but now the pain is over. Or rather, it is now the reader's turn.

    But there is one final point we wish to make before we get down to business. This book has been a genuinely collaborative effort. Neither one of us would or could have done it without the other. However, unfortunately the linear nature of text means that one name has to come first and the other second. So we tossed a coin. It came down tails and the book was authored Reicher and Hopkins. It could as easily have been Hopkins and Reicher.

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