National Identity in the Age of Migration

Sociologist Peter Kivisto on Eugen Weber, settler states, and Jihadist terrorism

articles | March 24, 2017

The nation-state system that has come to constitute the basic political form of the modern world order is predicated in each specific case on a widely-shared understanding of the nation and of what it means to belong to that nation—in short – national identity. Historians debate whether the nation preceded the nation-state or vice versa, but the point for our purposes is that there was a process, often a long and contested process, of transformation required in which a population that defined itself in a variety of particularistic ways—by ethnicity, religion, region, village, and so forth—came to also see itself in the more universalistic terms of national identity. I say more ‘universalistic’ because the nation is itself a boundary-drawing entity consisting of those who are members and those who are not, and thus is also particularistic. A classic and frequently-cited example of this process is Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen. The limits or failures of this process are evident in today’s ethnonationalist movements on both sides of the Atlantic—Basques, Catalans, Quebecois, and Scots—that call into question the legitimacy of existing nation-state boundaries. The challenge to constructing, promoting, enhancing, and protecting national identity thus was initially and in some instances continues to be due to internal state dynamics.

The histories of a subcategory of what are today’s major liberal democracies have been from their origins shaped by the impact of mass migration. These settler states—Australia, Canada, and the United States being the most prominent—were born and subsequently developed by the infusion of large numbers of newcomers. Not surprisingly, their national identities have been profoundly shaped by that experience.

While it is true that migrants moving from a homeland to a receiving nation change in the process, so too does the receiving nation, though in ways that often operate below the surface and over extended periods of time. In the current age of migration, what was true of settler nations in the past is now true of not only those nations, but of all of Western Europe.

Sociologist Peter Kivisto on problems with multiculturalism, profit for a country from a multicultural population, and the impact of multiculturalism on national identity
Insofar as national identity is perceived as tradition,or what Walter Bagehot long ago called “the cake of custom,” it is viewed by many native-born as a given that should not be tampered with. Immigrants from their perspective have a duty to fit into the receiving society by embracing a new national identity without in any way attempting to reconfigure it. This is what some (mis)construe as assimilation—a view that amounts to requiring a shared univalent understanding of national identity. Yet national identities are not like that, but instead are interpreted by native-born and newcomers alike in a number of competing narratives that are dynamic rather than static. Thus, stressing liberal versus republican political frameworks, civic versus ethnic definitions of citizenship, religiosity versus secularism, and so forth are indications that national identities are always contested and within the constraints of the cake of custom, subject to reconfiguration.

The publics of these nations are divided between those for whom immigrants represent a threat to national identity, and thus they respond to the presence of newcomers with fear and anxiety, and those who are both confident in the nation’s ability to incorporate immigrants and willing to see their presence as potentially salutary in both reinvigorating and recasting elements of national identity in a more cosmopolitan direction. At the moment, radical right wing populist parties are embraced by substantial minorities of the electorates in many of these nations—some parties such as Greece’s Golden Dawn being clearly radically right-wing, while others such as Britain’s UKIP being less extreme. While these movements can be understood in part as a response to the 2008 economic crisis, in fact their rhetoric focuses on immigrants as a threat to culture far more than as an economic threat. Jihadist terrorism from 9/11 to the recent attacks in Brussels merely reinforces that position.

It ought to be noted that recent sociological studies of immigrant and second generation incorporation reveal that there are both grounds for guarded optimism and a growing understanding of why marginalization persists in those sectors of migrant communities that can, if appreciated, lead to more informed incorporative strategies.

The question of national identity has thus become increasingly politicized. While this is always a prospect in pluralistic democracies, mass migration has proven to be at present the major catalyst contributing to contestation—pitting those seeking to draw bright boundaries of national belonging from those prepared to blur the boundaries, or in other words those who view national identity in exclusive parochial terms versus those define it in an inclusive multicultural way.

Richard Swanson Professor of Social Thought, Chair of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Welfare, Augustana College, Visiting Professor at University of Trento, Research Fellow at University of Helsinki
Did you like it? Share it with your friends!
Published items
To be published soon