Academic journal article Humanities Research

Nationalism, Biography and the Ecology of Identity

Academic journal article Humanities Research

Nationalism, Biography and the Ecology of Identity

Article excerpt


Since confession has been one of the classic genres of biography since Saint Augustine wrote his, let me begin with a confession: I am not a biographer. But while I haven't worked on biography, my work on nationalism and national identity has frequently been carried out through ethnographic research, forcing me to grapple with the specificity and variability of national identity. However general the discursive categories of 'the nation' and 'nationalism', no two people do it exactly the same way. Over the years people have told me many different stories about the role of nationalism in their lives - stories that suggest that people attach themselves to, and detach themselves from, that category in ways that have irreducible personal narrative significance. So while I have not systematically investigated any individual life histories in regard to nationalism, my ethnographic research on nationalism has instilled in me a strong sense of being surrounded by individual biographies that, even if only partially glimpsed, each tell a specific story about how nationalism becomes significant for people.

One more disclaimer: there are of course extensive interdisciplinary literatures on narrative and biography as methods and modes of analysis. I am not attempting to engage those literatures. The key concept in my work has been 'identity', especially as applied to the study of nationalism, and that is how the present discussion is framed. An artisan normally works best with the tools with which they are most familiar, and that is what I have chosen to do here. But I also think there are specific advantages to this approach. We are interested here in relating biography to nationalism, individual lives to large, complex social structures. I hope to show that scrutinising the concept of identity helps us to foreground certain fundamental analytic problems involved in this venture.

I aim to provide a frame for the articles that follow in this issue. First, I explore the concept of 'identity' in the social sciences, both in general and in regard to nationalism. I emphasise an underlying ambivalence about relating persons to identities. Then I review and reconsider three metaphorical concepts that I have used to help make sense of identification processes: moods,1 embedding2 and ecology.3 As they arise sequentially in my work, I attempt here to synthesise them a bit, and offer them as a general perspective on the study of identity. The two most fundamental points that I want to stress are the need to clearly distinguish analytically between personal and social dimensions of identity, and that our existential need for power is fundamental to how we connect our personal identities, our biographies, to the social identity categories that surround us. In conclusion, I reflect on biography as a means of investigating these questions, and the centrality of power for the study of social life.

Identities: National and otherwise

'The national' is one dimension in which a general theory of identity, or identification, can be investigated and applied. Too often attempts to address national identity fail to provide or even contemplate a wider theory of identity that places the national in context, inviting comparisons with identity processes in other contexts. Particularly noticeable in the study of identity, especially in sociology and approaches informed by literary studies, is a deep unease with the idea of a stable, coherent, individual person. A kind of methodological dread of reifying and essentialising individual identities tends to skew much of the discussion. This poses certain problems in relating the study of identity to the doing of biography. Next I discuss some general approaches to the study of identity, and then more specifically approaches to national identity in particular. Of course these discussions interpenetrate.


When social-science conceptions of identity first began to proliferate and flow into a wider popular discourse in the mid twentieth century, they were around notions of a tension between individual self-identity and a wider mass society. …

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