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- Hierarchies of belonging
This paper explores the reasons why national forms of identification and organization (might) matter in the contemporary era. In contrast to the majority of macro-sociological work dealing with this topic, I develop an analytical framework that draws together recent research on everyday nationalism with micro-sociological and psychological studies pointing to the importance of routine practices, institutional arrangements and symbolic systems in contributing to a relatively settled sense of identity, place and community. The second part of the paper focuses on the hierarchies of belonging that operate within a given national setting. Of particular interest is the largely taken-for-granted status of the ethnic majority and the degree to which it underpins claims to belonging and entitlement that are used to secure key allocative and authoritative resources.
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- Hierarchies of belonging
The burgeoning literature on globalization has often argued that established national allegiances and forms of organization are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world of intensifying flows of people, products, ideas and images (Papastergiadis 2000). Alternatively, recent studies of nationalism (Calhoun 2002; 2007; Haugaard 2002; Kinnvall 2005) have looked to theorize the ongoing significance of national belonging in both underpinning political and social rights and providing key points of anchorage in a world of growing complexity and uncertainty.
However, because these studies tend to focus on the macro-level, and talk in rather general terms, they don't necessarily examine how these processes occur in practice or assess their significance for different social groups within the same nation. Therefore, in this paper, I want to offer a complementary perspective by drawing on insights from micro-sociology and psychology to explore; why belonging to a nation might matter and to whom.
In the first section, this ‘bottom-up’ perspective is used to examine the importance of everyday habits, social symbols and institutional frameworks in generating an ongoing, and consistent, sense of ‘social reality’, which, in turn, may underpin a more secure sense of identity, place and community. These insights, combined with recent research on everyday nationhood, allow us to build an analytical framework better able to explain how a sense of belonging is established in relation to the nation.
Subsequently, the second part of the paper explores the meaningfulness of national belonging to different social groups. This is another key issue, as many macro theories do not adequately address the hierarchies of belonging that operate within a given national setting and the extent to which particular claims to belong are recognized, negotiated or repudiated. In this respect, Ghassan Hage's (1998) concept of national cultural capital offers a productive starting point for studying the struggles to define national community and culture, in order to claim key ‘allocative and authoritative resources’ (Giddens 1985: 2). Of particular interest, here, will be the position of ethnic majorities (Kaufmann 2004a/b) in contemporary Western settings. Interestingly, their more settled status, when compared with marginal or ‘in-between’ groups, has meant that they have been somewhat overlooked in the wider literature. By actively focusing on the majority, we can start to understand what a more secure sense of identity and place may offer at the current time.
At this point, it is probably worth briefly outlining the parameters of this work. The main focus of this paper will be on the ways in which the national becomes established, and viewed as significant, in domestic settings. Again, this is not to suggest that macro-historical perspectives aren't important, only that they have been addressed, in some detail, elsewhere (See, for example, Giddens 1985; Anderson 1991; Smith, 1991). Second, most of the empirical evidence for my arguments is drawn from studies in Western Europe, the USA and Australia. Therefore, while many of the claims being made here primarily relate to Western contexts, it is hoped that scholars from other parts of the world might be able to apply (or perhaps refine) some of the concepts under discussion.
Finally, in addressing the status of the ethnic majority, and how they position themselves in relation to minority groups, I am unable to deal, in any detail, with questions of intersectionality (Yuval-Davis 2006). That is, the ways in which gender, class, age, region and so on also inform claims to belonging within a given national setting. In short, while a broad brush approach may mean missing out on some of the finer details, notably the different historical processes and constraints operating within a given country, it does offer us an opportunity to study commonalities in the way in which national belonging is articulated and, as a consequence, theorize the significance of being positioned as part of a dominant group.
Theorizing the significance of national belonging
Given the limits of a single journal paper, for the purposes of this work, I will be primarily focusing on more recent studies of the topic. The ‘classic’ literature on nationalism has, of course, engaged with this issue, with a common argument being that, ‘a sense of national identity provides a powerful means of defining and locating … divided and disorientated individuals who have had to contend with the vast changes and uncertainties of the modern world’ (Smith 1991: 17). In this sense, nationalism is seen to operate as a kind of secular religion, a panacea for the inequities of modernity and the breakdown of ‘traditional’ social relations. (Anderson 1991: 11). As important as these studies have been in situating the subject within a wider historical and sociological framework, they tend to offer a one-size fits all model, where nationalism meets a variety of ‘human needs’. This provides a rather crude understanding of the phenomenon, which often underplays differences across time and space, relations of power and the potential for change.
In terms of more recent approaches, Craig Calhoun (2002, 2003, 2007) has offered some of the most sophisticated analyses of nationalism by focusing on the significance of national movements in the struggle for collective autonomy and recognition. In challenging those who view ‘national solidarities … as backward or outmoded’ (2003: 170), he points to the ways in which ‘nationalism helps locate an experience of belonging in a world of global flows and fears’ (2003: 1) as well as often providing a framework for articulating – and securing – greater political and social rights.
This idea is complemented by the work of those who emphasize the importance of established national formations in generating both material benefits and psychological security. As Caterina Kinnvall contends, national forms of identity and organization ‘provide order from the chaos and uncertainty in the world … [as well as] answers to questions concerning existence itself, the external world and human life …. , the ‘other’ and what self-identity really is’ (2005: 759). The political scientist, Mark Haugaard, makes a similar point, noting the importance of managed limits in a world of global flows and uncertainties. He writes ‘the appeal of nationalism is that it offers an escape from the … insecurities … created by [limitless] reflexivity’ (2002: 135).
These are important arguments and provide a useful starting point for thinking about the ongoing significance of nationalism in the contemporary era. However, what they don't generally address is why it is national forms of identification and organization that come to matter and to whom they ‘provide order from chaos’ or ‘an escape from … insecurities’.
The politics of (national) belonging
In the first instance, as Nira Yuval-Davis has argued, there is a danger in reducing forms of collective belonging to the same ‘ontological level’ (2006: 202). This is because it overlooks the different degrees and kinds of attachments people feel and articulate at different times and locations. As I will argue below, some forms of belonging are more durable and meaningful because they have become grounded in people's everyday lives and underpin access to key psycho-social resources. In attending to this viewpoint, we are better able to conceptualize the different commitments that people have to particular identity formations and why some may come to trump others, particularly during more unsettled or crisis periods (Skey 2011).
Yuval-Davis' work is also important because she draws a distinction between belonging, which is seen to be ‘critical to people's emotional balance and well-being’ (2011: 294) and the ‘politics of belonging’. The latter refers to the ways in which different people articulate, contest and repudiate discourses of belonging and the extent to which particular groups are able to make their views ‘hold good’ (This will be the subject of the second part of this paper). For instance, she observes the different criteria for belonging, ethnicity, emotional attachment and shared values, that have been used by dominant groups in relation to British ‘identity’ (2011: 324) and how they are used to exclude certain minorities. As important as this approach is, what is again perhaps underplayed in these discussions, is the key question of how this sense of comfort and well-being is generated and, in relation to the nation, what being positioned as one who belongs without question, may offer.
In the next section, I want to focus on theorizing, what might be labelled as, the micro-social dimension of everyday belonging and, in particular, the practical and psychological benefits of having a (more or less) settled sense of identity, place and community. My approach draws together two different sets of literature. The first concerns micro-social and psychological theories of the everyday, the second has explored how nation has become embedded in everyday social routines and, for many, ‘absorbed into a common sense view about the way the world is’ (Edensor 2002: 11).
In trying to theorize the practical and psychological benefits of everyday belonging at a slightly more abstract level, I will be drawing on a range of authors and perspectives, including the work of Schutz, Garfinkel, Goffman, Bourdieu and Zerubavel. While their particular concerns and theoretical approaches should not be ignored,1 I think it is fair to say that they have all contributed to our understanding of the importance of everyday features (language, practice, spatial and temporal regularities, material culture, institutional settings) in generating a more or less consistent sense of reality, which may become taken-for-granted and eventually viewed as ‘natural’.
Elsewhere, recent research from social psychology has also attempted to understand the significance of these everyday features, though the concepts and methods used are again different. However, their focus on the psychological importance of social groups that are perceived to be unified entities, over time, offer further insights into to why it is national forms of belonging that might provide ‘escape from insecurities’ and ‘order from chaos’, notably during periods of social change.
Therefore, in combination, these micro-perspectives can provide a better understanding of the ways in which national forms of life are incorporated across a range of social contexts and the extent to which their ubiquity, complexity and ordinariness makes them such a powerful force in the lives of disparate individuals.
The meaning(fullness) of everyday life
As David Chaney observes, ‘the very banality of the accomplishment of everyday life masks its significance’ (2002: 53). As micro-analyses of routine social interactions have shown, the ‘ordered reality’ of the everyday realm is predicted on a complex range of taken-for-granted utterances, practices, ‘common’ stocks of knowledge and institutional arrangements (Berger and Luckmann 1991: 35). Daily rituals and shared linguistic frameworks are ‘essential to the achievement of complex forms of human co-ordination … [uniting] participants in a way that promotes order and predictability’ (Gergen 2001: 18). Put simply, these features not only allow us to get things done, no mean feat in a world of potentially overwhelming stimuli, but also provide a sense of symbolic and institutional order thus making our relations with other people more meaningful, manageable and secure.
Spatial and temporal regularities also contribute to this sense of continuity and stability, so that the actions of disparate (and, sometimes, antagonistic) individuals are co-ordinated across time and place (Zerubavel 1981). In this way, people are able to orientate their actions towards others in a more or less consistent manner, drawing on broadly shared norms and conventions concerning what is appropriate to say and do in a given setting. It is here that particular institutional arrangements come to the fore and, while, such frameworks are rightly scrutinized in terms of the inequalities they often generate and sustain, we also need to acknowledge that, in many parts of the world, they underpin complex social systems that large numbers can rely on.
We can apply some of these ideas to the national context by exploring the ways in which social relations and organizations continue to be defined in national terms, governed and institutionalized in accordance with national temporalities and located within the spaces of the nation. In terms of wider socio-cultural life, government departments, educational establishments, media organizations, corporate interests and civil society actors (charities, trade unions, churches) all continue to address (and constitute) national audiences by referencing national symbols and assuming particular forms of shared knowledge about who and what matters (Billig 1995; Palmer 1998; Edensor 2002). These top-down processes are complemented by the routine activities of countless individuals, who through everyday conversations (Condor 2006) and interactions (Palmer 1998; Edensor 2002, 2006) reflect the idea that they live in and belong to nations.
Elsewhere, the centralization of planning and organization, within the boundaries of the nation, generates a familiar pattern of regions, locales, institutions and everyday fixtures that that ‘locate people in stable networks of relationships, objects and spaces’ (Edensor 2006: 532). Temporal regularities, associated with work, worship, media rituals, transport systems, holidays, sports events, major anniversaries and celebrations, are another key element in enabling disparate individuals to manage their daily lives and also connect them to the wider (imagined) community of the nation.
Finally, in the more developed parts of the world, institutional frameworks, defined in relation to national priorities, also guarantee political rights and provide access to a range of social benefits. As Andreas Wimmer writes, the post-1945 Western nation-states are ‘more inclusive, more accountable, more equitable, and … [provide a more] universalistic form of politics than humanity has known before – for those … who are … recognized as … legitimate’ (2004: 44). What also needs to be observed in relation to these arguments is the degree to which the international system both legitimates the geo-political order of nations and contributes to the development of national imaginaries, as the (often) problematic category of ‘us’ becomes far more effectively defined in relation to ‘them’ (Lofgren 1993: 167).
Drawing on the work of Alfred Schutz (Schutz and Brodersen, 1976), it is possible to see how these myriad features form a ‘frame of reference that, in spite of its inconsistencies, … is none the less sufficiently integrated to be used for solving [many] … of the practical problems at hand’ (1976: 233). Alongside these considerations, should be an acknowledgment of the extent to which these established national frameworks might generate important psychological benefits. For, it is the ways in which these everyday features contribute to a relatively settled sense of identity, place and community that is of primary importance for my overall argument. Here, it is possible to reference a range of research that points the significance of communities that are perceived to be, and treated as if they are, actually existing entities.
The importance of being national
As Richard Jenkins has pithily observed, collectivities must offer something to individual members otherwise what would be the point in investing time and effort in them (2002: 22). More general arguments from psychology concerning, say, the human need to belong (Baumeister and Leary 1995: 497) offer some purchase but tend to talk in rather broad terms. In order to deal with specifics, we should consider the significance of belonging to a collectivity that, in informing and defining so many aspects of our everyday lives becomes largely taken-for-granted and, in the process, objectified.
In this respect, it is first worth briefly acknowledging what Peter Bratsis labels as, ‘the libidinal value’ of national identity (2000: 92). That is, the degree to which participating in broadly shared, well established and often venerated cultural practices (patterns of eating and drinking, humour, sports and pastimes, ceremonial occasions, discussions of media content) not only confers social status but is also enjoyable! These ideas can also be tied in with Bourdieu's discussion of habitus (1990: 66) and the degree to which particular groups are more able to operate within certain social spaces because they implicitly understand the rules of the game e.g. appropriate forms of language, dress and behaviour (Wise 2009). In this case, we can again point to the importance of institutional orders associated with politics, education, transport networks, the media and so on, in generating relatively consistent frameworks of knowledge and understanding that, even if they don't unite different constituencies, provide shared points of reference and concern.
Next, there is a good deal of research in social psychology, which points to the ways in which collectivities that are viewed as coherent entities offer crucial psychological benefits, including; greater levels of identification with the in-group (Demoulin et al. 2009), collective self-esteem (Luhtanen and Crocker 1992), reduction of uncertainty (Mullin and Hogg 1999) and confidence in the future (Sacchi et al. 2008). The final two points are worth exploring in a little more detail. It's perhaps not surprising to learn that groups that are perceived to be relatively unified are also generally seen as more able to meet potential challenges. What has been perhaps overlooked is the link between these higher levels of, what psychologists call, entitativity (Condor 2006) and the everyday routines and social structures that allow disparate individuals to view (in this case) nations as relatively objective entities, and tie their own uncertain futures to a more stable and powerful social group.
Furthermore, it is these features that play a fundamental role in reducing uncertainty, through the effective management of potentially overwhelming complexity in our daily lives. As Mark Haugaard argues, ‘being reflexive, questioning the essence of what people do and say takes effort. It would not be possible to get out of bed in the morning, never mind speak a language, if all meaning were’ opened up to constant scrutiny (2002: 130). As a result, established frameworks, including those associated with the nation, offer a degree of order and predictability in what otherwise might be seen as an unmanageable and, sometimes, terrifying world. This feature may be particularly important at the current time, where emphasis has been placed on the ‘potentialities’ offered by new forms of sociability and connectivity in a globalizing world. While many have welcomed the undermining of established social formations, there is a small, but growing, body of research that points to the anxieties that such transformations may generate, notably as they threaten a stable (and valued) sense of self (Kinnvall 2005; Schwartz 2009).
This idea of manageable limits is particularly important in explaining the significance of national, as opposed to other forms of contemporary belonging, because the nation is so consistently represented and, in many cases, experienced, as a bounded and coherent socio-political and territorial entity. In the latter case, we have already noted how the nation is spatially defined and inhabited through the organization of the physical environment, the consistent patterning of socio-spatial relations and a range of recurring material/symbolic features that often cannot be found in ‘other’ locales.
While these boundaries are always social constructions, and constantly undermined, they are often very real in their consequences (both negative and positive). In the latter case, it is a familiarity with the nation's social and physical landscapes, its ways of being, doing and saying, that enables such a large, abstract, idealized ‘entity’ feel like ‘home’ (Skey, 2011a). Moreover, national boundaries also make both individual national spaces and the globe as a whole, knowable and, in setting limits, manageable. Indeed, the recent emphasis on borders as ‘in-between’ places sometimes overlooks their role in securing groups to certain places and communities in an ontological sense. The continuing debates around immigration in the USA, Western Europe and Australia, which specifically identify some people as ‘out of place’, demonstrate the ongoing importance of managed borders to more established groups' sense of self and place (Skey 2011: 72–83).
As we noted above, these spatial limits are also inextricably linked to temporal regularities. The ongoing (re)production of the nation as a more or less coherent entity moving inexorably through time happens in relation to both everyday routines, the structuring of calendar time (feast days, holidays, sporting events and so on) and more infrequent anniversaries and celebrations. These temporal structures are significant because, they ‘add a strong touch of predictability to the world around us, thus enhancing our cognitive well-being’ (Zerubavel 1981: 12). Here we can also point to the role of historical narratives, inculcated through the education system the media and so on, which not only connect individuals to a cherished past but also offer some degree of certainty in facing an unknown, and potentially hazardous, future.
A second important feature is what Sani and his colleagues, label as ‘perceived collective continuity’ (2007). Using empirical studies, they have demonstrated a positive link between perceptions of the social group as unified over extended historical periods and greater feelings of social well-being, pride in being a group member and, in many cases, a sense of ‘symbolic immortality’. The latter term refers to the idea that belonging to a wider group allows the individual a feeling of transcendence in relation to their own death (Anderson 1991: 10).
Having noted the ways in which routine practices and social forms associated with the nation may operate as one key source of comfort, familiarity and security for disparate individuals, it is important to also acknowledge that these arguments will apply with greater force to some groups, whose sense of self is far more bound up with the nation, than others.
Hierarchies of belonging
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- Hierarchies of belonging
As I argued earlier, making claims about the role that national forms of identification and organization might play in meeting ‘human needs’ risks advancing the rather crude idea that the nation operates at all time and for everyone as a source of comfort and security. As a result, we must pay particular attention to the significance of both context and relations of power, notably the identity and status of those who define the conditions of belonging.
In much of the extant literature, this position has been somewhat under-theorized, as research has focused on the experiences of the more marginalized. However, rather than treating more dominant groups as exceptional or, worse still, natural, we should instead focus on the benefits that flow from such a privileged position as well as the processes by which it is sustained. The latter point is particularly germane given our earlier discussions of the challenges that intensifying global flows present to previously settled (national) frameworks. It is in response to such shifts that more established groups are being forced to justify their own dominant status and the benefits that flow from it. A central plank of this strategy has been claims to indigenousness, or ‘the idea this is ‘our’ nation and that ‘we’ deserve to be in control’ (Kaufman 2004a: 2), and the outcome of struggles over economic, political and symbolic resources often hinge on the validity of such claims.
One way of analysing these claims is in relation to Ghassan Hage's (1998) concept of national cultural capital. Drawing on Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital, Hage argues that, ‘nationality can be understood as the sum of accumulated nationally sanctioned and valued social and physical cultural styles and dispositions’ (1998: 53). In this way, some people within the nation are perceived to be and treated as if they are ‘more (or less) national than others’, because they possess particular characteristics (skin colour, accent) and/or competencies (knowledge, practical skills, tastes) (1998: 52). Therefore, capital does not necessarily refer to material things but is more about the ways in which people classify themselves and (engage with) ‘others’ in order to make their own lives fulfilling and meaningful (Hage 2003: 18).
While we need to be careful in our use of economic concepts to explain social phenomena (Halpern 2004), Hage's model is useful because it addresses questions of power and change. In other words, it foregrounds the types of resources that people utilize, and struggle over, in order to define (national) belonging, as well as the idea that one can accumulate and, of course, lose such capital. In the former case, power differentials matter not only in terms of inter-group struggles but also those taking place within each group. For instance, in western settings, it is the activities and predilections of upper and middle-class men that have come to define the ideal national type. Alternatively, in relation to social change, one only has to look at how the category of white in the USA has expanded dramatically over the year to include Catholics and Jews, as new forms of ‘ otherness’ have moved to the fore (Kaufmann 2004b).
In this respect, it's probably worth re-emphasizing that any attempts to theorize the politics of (national) belonging should address the ways in which intersections of class, race, gender, region and so on, play out in any national context. However, as I have already noted, attending to the full range of arguments around this topic is beyond the scope of a single journal article (See Yuval-Davis 2006, 2011, for an in-depth discussion of ‘intersectionality’).
What also needs to be acknowledged, and will remain the primary focus of this paper, is the privileged access to key material and psychological resources claimed by those with more national cultural capital. In the former case, as we noted above, institutional frameworks, defined in relation to national priorities, guarantee political rights and provide access to a range of social benefits, but, ‘only for those … who are … recognized as … legitimate’ (my emphasis, Wimmer 2004: 44). The increasingly vociferous battles over these social resources are often framed in terms of entitlement (I belong more than you, therefore, I deserve more than you) and these are likely to grow in intensity as welfare provisions are rolled back.
Notwithstanding the importance of these struggles over material claims, what I want to focus on next is the extent to which a more settled sense of belonging provides individuals with feelings of comfort, security and agency, in what otherwise might be seen as an unmanageable and uncertain world. Paradoxically, because there has been relatively little empirical research into the status of the ethnic majority, we may be more able to provide evidence for such an argument by, first, focusing on more marginal groups, and the feelings that their more precarious position engenders.
I belong to the nation, the nation belongs to me
There is a large body of research that points to the sense of discomfort or uncertainty felt by minority groups in Western countries as a result of their ‘marked’ status (See, for example, Tuan 1999; Verkuyten 2003, 2005; Essed and Trienekens 2008; Noble 2005; Manzoor 2008; Kabir 2008). While these countries are, of course, shaped by different historical processes and social relations, what the following examples demonstrate is the hierarchies of belonging that operate across different national contexts as well as the sense of insecurity and estrangements that comes from being positioned (by a more dominant group) as an ‘outsider’.
For instance, Essed and Trienekens' research in the Netherlands has shown how the white majority classify non-Western ethnic groups, born and brought up in the country, as ‘other’ through the use of the term ‘allochtonen’ (broadly translated as ‘foreigner’). The authors argue that it is through these types of labelling processes that minority groups are ‘treated as second-class citizens, never quite Dutch, never quite the norm, always considered as aspiring, as a problem, lagging behind’ (2008: 58). In a related study by Verkuyten, the sense of discomfort or unease that such activities generate is pithily expressed by a Dutch-born teenager of Turkish descent, who observes, ‘You are living in their country’ (2003: 380).
These findings are also backed by empirical research in the USA (Zolberg and Woon 1999; Wilson 2001; Barlow et al. 2000; Devos and Banaji 2005). Barlow and his colleagues (2000) have noted that African Americans who strongly identify with the USA as also aware that they are not seen to be being ‘truly’ American by white Americans. This ties in with Devos and Banaji (2005) study of college students, which ‘revealed that both African Americans and Asian Americans … are less associated with the national category ‘American’ than are White Americans’ (2005: 447–66). Elsewhere, Tuan's research (1999) into the experiences of Asian-Americans in the USA shows that members of this group are often subject to a disciplinary gaze from the majority because they are ‘assumed to be foreign unless proven otherwise’ (1999: 110). She captures the sense of discomfort that not being recognized as belonging entails by describing it as a form of ‘mental internment’ (1999: 111).
Two other points are worth noting here. First, particular social groups are seen as more problematic in certain places than others, so that we need to acknowledge the spatiality of these processes. For instance, both Tuan and Neal, in studies in the USA and Britain respectively, have observed the hyper-visibility of ethnic minorities in rural locations, which marks them as, ‘out of place’, in what are, often considered to be, ‘timeless, white landscapes’ (Neal 2002: 444).
Second, the status of minorities ‘is vulnerable to changing social, political and economic conditions beyond their personal control’ (Tuan 1999: 110). Here, the position of Muslims in the UK (Manzoor 2008), USA (Kinnvall 2005) and Australia (Kabir 2008) after the terrorist attacks in New York and London, offers a useful reference point. For instance, the journalist Sarfraz Manzoor articulated the sense of vulnerability he (and other British Muslims) felt in the aftermath of the London bombings in 2005, writing; ‘what most maddened me about the attention given to these Muslims extremists was the feeling that my claim on this country, my right to call myself British was being wrenched from me’ (2008: 266).
These examples show the extent to which established relations of power undercut individual claims to belonging, as well as the feelings of anxiety and uncertainty that come from inhabiting a more marginal position within a social hierarchy. Indeed, the forms of uncivil attention2 that certain minorities were subject to after the attacks, everything from increased monitoring to verbal and physical attacks, acted as a reminder that ‘they are viewed … as stereotyped members of a group relegated [to] a foreign status’ (Verkuyten 2005: 131).
The production and regulation of strangeness
These examples again point to the link between recognition and belonging and the unequal relations of power that exist in the attribution and acceptance of identity claims. As we noted earlier, any individual claims to belong (to this or that group) are not simply asserted, but remain dependent on the judgments and (re)actions of others. What also needs to be stressed, however, is the degree to which being recognized as part of the in-group may generate key psychological benefits, notably in anchoring subjectivity and, thereby, enabling us, as isolated and insignificant individuals, to make sense of, and actively participate in, the wider social environment.
If the experience of minorities points to feelings of discomfort and anxiety that result of their more precarious position, then what of the advantages that come from being accepted as belonging? This is an idea that has been somewhat under-theorized in the literature, where the status of those defined as ‘normal’ is rarely investigated. For instance, Goffman's seminal work on Stigma focuses on the ‘uncertainty of status’ (1963: 25) that comes from being classified as deviant, yet has relatively little to say about the value of being classified as part of the in-group.
Being recognized in this way also underpins an important sense of agency in relation to the status and activities of those who are defined as ‘other’. That is, members of the dominant group are able to make judgments about other people and, as a result, position themselves as the legitimate arbiters of values, norms and social practices within the nation. This process, what Greg Noble labels the ‘production and regulation of strangeness’ (2005: 188) is particularly salient to the national case, which is explicitly defined in terms of identifiable categories, territorial boundaries and the idea that everyone should belong to a homogeneous culture.
However, this feeling of being in charge is largely dependent on being able to establish and maintain a particular set of social relations, that privileges one's own group at the expense of others. This is where the idea of the ‘domesticated other’ (Hage 1998: 37) may have particular theoretical purchase. This concept challenges the common perception that it is ‘the presence of otherness per se which is problematic’, instead, emphasizing ‘the necessity of the ‘other’ to the functioning of dominant forms of life, and of how that otherness is kept in its place, rather than necessarily being entirely excluded’ (Morley 2000: 223).
In other words, it is when the ‘other’ is perceived to be too powerful, able to act independently and/or challenge established practices or norms, that its presence becomes an issue for more dominant groups. Here the work of Harold Garfinkel and, in particular, the concept of ‘breaching’ (Garfinkel 2004) can be used to theorize the passionate debates that flare up around reported threats to activities and objects (used to evidence ‘our’ way of life) that come to represent the increasing agency of the ‘other’.
Breaching everyday (national) norms
Garfinkel was, of course, interested in the background expectations and assumptions that inform the ‘stable, social structures of everyday activities’ (2004: 37). He argued that these taken-for-granted assumptions were so entrenched in routine activities that the best way of exploring their significance was by disturbing them. In focusing on disturbances within domestic settings, Garfinkel observed that, the greater a form of knowledge or practice is taken as read ‘the more severe should be [the] … disturbance when [these] ‘natural facts of life’ are impugned’ (Garfinkel 2004: 54).
We can apply some of Garfinkel's insights to the national case by referencing a range of recent research, which has demonstrated the extent to which the activities of particular minority groups are viewed as a challenge to the norms of public life, defined, explicitly, in national terms. For instance, Wise has shown how the breaching of previously taken-for-granted behavioural standards in two local settings, a beach (2009) and a shopping precinct (2010) in Sydney, was used to label particular groups as un-Australian. Similarly, Blokland's study of a housing estate in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (2003) examined the ways in which white residents discussed the ordinary activities of minority neighbours, cooking ‘strange’ foods, playing loud ‘foreign’ music, wearing Islamic dress, as a challenge to Dutch culture and values (2003: 11–12).
Elsewhere, research in Ireland (O'Sullivan-Lago and de Abreu 2010) and Britain (Skey 2011: 77–92) has demonstrated how the presence, sounds and habits of ‘foreign’ people in the most ordinary of settings, workplaces, cafes, hospitals, shops, is seen to violate the norms of everyday (national) life. Conversely, during periods of relative stability, these features are unlikely to be the subject of much reflection (let alone defined as ‘national’) because they inform what most people know, as part of the routine, stable structures of everyday living (Schutz and Natanson 1967: 95).
Therefore, in order to extend our understanding of why nations matter, we must begin to investigate, in much more detail, the significance of previously taken-for-granted formations and what they offer to those whose interests they serve, notably in terms of the subjectivities they produce (Foucault and Gordon 1980: 119). The fact is that many of those who are recognized as having an entitlement to judge who and what is appropriate within the bounded territory of the nation are likely to take great comfort (whether consciously or not) from being positioned in this way. These classifications are valuable both in terms of the status and material benefits they generate, but also because they underpin a ‘common sense’ understanding of the way the world is, and should be.
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- Hierarchies of belonging
There is a rather strange paradox at the heart of much writing on contemporary nationalism. On the one hand, we find a growing body of research signalling the end of the nation and emphasizing the importance of new forms of solidarity, community and organization, labelled as global, post-modern, trans-national or cosmopolitan. On the other, we see large numbers of scholars trying to make sense of the increasingly fractious debates around community cohesion, multiculturalism and citizenship that continue to dominate political and media agendas and, if anything, point to the increasing relevance of nationality in places such as the USA, Western Europe and Australia. Yet while these debates continue to rage, current analytical approaches, which tend to rely on macro-historical accounts generalized across time and space, only take us so far.
In response to this lacuna, I have used insights from micro-social and psychological studies to explore why belonging to the nation might matter and to whom. In particular, there has been an emphasis on the degree to which national forms of life, realized through everyday practices, talk, material objects and spatio-temporal arrangements, underpin a meaningful and stable sense of ‘ordered reality’. This, in turn, may become valued because it informs an ongoing and consistent sense of self, community and place. Put simply, isolated and insignificant individuals are able to consistently categorize, make sense of and act in what otherwise might be seen as an overwhelming, uncertain and, sometimes, threatening world. In this way, they become bound to a powerful entity, which links them to a cherished past, offers security in the present and the promise of a manageable future for both themselves and subsequent generations. In connecting current research on the everyday (re)production of such a national framework to more general psycho-social theories of everyday life and identity, I have noted how communities that are perceived to be (and treated) as if they are ‘real’ entities are associated with a range of psychological benefits.
The second part of this paper has focused on the status of those who form part of a dominant or established majority within a given nation, using examples from Western contexts. This is a group that has been under-theorized within the literature, remaining, for the most part, as the default category against which other more marginal or visible ‘minorities’ are defined. Conversely, in drawing attention to those who claim (and are recognized as) belonging to the nation, we are better able to evaluate the benefits that such membership accrues, in terms of both material and psychological well-being. In the first case, those who are classified as members of the nation generally gain access to key political rights and social welfare, notably in the more developed parts of the world. It's also worth noting that where state provisions are being withdrawn, as in many parts of Western Europe, debates over who is entitled to claim such benefits are becoming increasingly bitter.
In the case of psychological well-being, I have emphasized the value of being recognized as one who belongs, without question, to the national in-group. Furthermore, such a position is not only important in anchoring subjectivity, but provides individuals with a key sense of agency with regard to the management of national culture and territory. That is, those who possess greater levels of national cultural capital feel entitled to judge the views and activities of more marginal groups within the nation. In this respect, it was argued that current debates over immigration and multiculturalism can be conceptualized as the ‘breaching’ of previously taken-for-granted practices, objects and arrangements by perceived ‘others’ within the nation. For those who remain disenfranchized members of the in-group, the white working-class, for instance, this sense of agency may be particularly significant, as it allows them to maintain their relatively privileged position in relation to more visible ‘others’ (Gadd and Dixon, 2011).
These insights may also be used to offer a fresh perspective on currently policy debates. At present, it is almost always minorities and what they do or don't do that seem to dominate newspaper headlines, political speeches and policy documents. As a result, little attention has been focused on the status of the majority; where are they situated, what are their interests and how are they articulated and justified? In foregrounding the discomfort and insecurity that many members of this group seem to feel, we can begin to unravel what is at stake for them at the current time.