Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

National Identity Issues in the New German Elites: A Study of German University Students

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

National Identity Issues in the New German Elites: A Study of German University Students

Article excerpt

The problematic of identity, especially collective identity, is a topic of far-reaching importance in advanced modernity (e.g., Eisenstadt and Giesen 1995). Giddens, for example, highlights identity as a central concern, linking self as "a reflexive project" to modernity (1991). In this project, Giddens extends Erikson's seminal work on "identity crisis," which focused on individual personality development (Erikson 1968), to the development of a larger collectivity; any larger group. Curiously, Giddens does not treat a particularly significant form of collective identity--that of national identity.

Recent political, economic, and demographic changes around the globe, however, render the study of national identity urgent. The problematic of national identity (Smith 1991) manifests itself in separatist movements, in controversies over multiculturalism, in severe intra-nation conflicts, and in the construction of new nation-states arising from the collapse of communism--even in defining the meaning of a transnational "European identity" in the face of multiple demands for admission to the European Union (Cederman 2001). Mainstream discussions of national development (e.g., Kincaid and Portes 1994) tend to privilege political economy issues and neglect discussions of such national identity crises. However, to add to the existing repertoire of the overwhelmingly qualitative, interpretive, and historical research on national identity; sociology, with its comparative focus and wide variety of research methods, offers additional tools for the study of national identity. Using one such tool, empirical survey, the present paper seeks to make a modest but heuristic contribution to the literature on national identity by investigating how German university students, a decade after the unification of two different polities, regard German national identity. Before reporting on the study itself, however, we provide the analytical framework that guides our research and the societal setting in which it was conducted.

Conceptualizing National Identity

For various reasons, Ernest Renan's deceptively simple question, "What is a nation?" is perhaps more germane now than at anytime since it was first posed just over a century ago (Renan 1990). Renan's analysis remains an analytic foundation for studies of national identity: he proposed that, ultimately, a nation is not static or determined by objective factors but is a collective project of those sharing (and forgetting) the past in seeking to construct a future together. His emphasis that nationhood is determined by a "daily plebiscite" of its citizens is reflected in more recent social constructivist approaches to national identity as opposed to essentialist views of "national character" as primordial, stemming from relatively fixed factors of "blood," "soil," or "culture" (Smith 1991). Consistent with Renan, national identity or nationhood has come to be largely seen as evolving, negotiated, even contested terrain in the historical trajectory of countries. What evolves and what is particularly contested are the cultural symbols and the meaning of these symbols, which provide the definition of, and legitimation for, the modern state (Smith 1991; Calhoun 1993) historically grounded in an "imagined community" (Anderson 1991).

A constructivist perspective does not mean, however, that national identity is an arbitrary or ad hoc collective and personal badge. If, despite models of modernity that viewed ties of nationhood as evolutionary vestiges, national identity has retained an important bearing for modern social actors, this is because of its affective pertinence, for individuals and for the state, in defining selfhood to others. For individuals, national identity reflects important communal aspects of belonging and attachment not reducible to economic interests. For the state, national identity internally is a warranty of fulfillment of civic responsibilities and loyalty to the political culture and institutional arrangements of the polity, and externally in defining and legitimating itself to other states. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.