Why do nations matter? The struggle for belonging and security in an uncertain world

This paper explores the reasons why national forms of identification and organisation (might) matter in the contemporary era. In the first section, I draw together recent research on everyday nationalism with sociological and psychological studies
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   1 Why do nations matter? (8005 words) / Last checked; 1 st  November 2012 Abstract 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. Keywords : Nationalism; national identity; micro-sociology, everyday life; belonging; ethnic majority Introduction 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   2  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 sectio n, 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.   3 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, elsew here (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 wit h 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   4 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 emphasise 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 concerni ng 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 unce rtainties. 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 signi ficance of nationalism in the contemporary era. However, what they don’t   5 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 whi ch 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
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