Towards a Plural Nationalism

Contemporary reality is characterised by an increasing movement of political refugees and economic immigrants who cross national borders legally or illegally. Nation-states are therefore confronted with an increasingly complex situation. Ethnic and cultural diversity is often a result of migratory movements that challenge legal restrictions and police measures intended to keep potential immigrants out of the national territory. Host countries are faced with the necessity of dealing with these ‘Others within », whose presence challenges the political and cultural order of the nation. According to the nationalist doctrine, ‘nations must be free and secure if peace and justice are to prevail in the world ». But reality requires a great deal of compromise and accommodation. I would like however to argue here that a plural form of nationalism is possible in Europe today. There is a possibility to accommodate difference by a process of negotiation of diversity within the nation and by reflexive appropriation – by making ‘ours », in plain English – of new cultural elements that have arrived in European societies .

In trying to conceive of a new approach to national identity the neo-communitarian school of thought offers useful insights.

Neo-communitarianism is predicated upon the assumption that immigrant communities are tightly knit and relatively homogeneous units, usually clustered at a specific geographic locality with dense social networks amongst the community and links to the country of origin. These communities however are not oriented towards the ‘motherland » but rather towards the country of settlement. Neo-communitarianism assumes that immigrants wish to retain their cultural / linguistic / religious specificity living in a social enclave in the country of settlement. This attitude goes hand in hand with the preservation of not only cultural and family ties but also economic relations with the country of origin, in particular with the village or region from which a given community originates.

In other words, neo-communitarianism, by contrast to cosmopolitan approaches, pays special importance to the collective aspects of the immigrant life. From an empirical point of view, neo-communitarianism finds its origins in the empirical observation that immigrant communities sometimes tend to reproduce forms of social and kinship networks that used to be typical of developing societies and small localities in urban contexts, at the industrialised receiving countries. Ethnic neighbourhoods and ethnic business are some of the migration related phenomena best explained through neo-communitarianism.

As Meinhof and Triandafyllidou argue (2006: 211)

‘The neo-communitarian approach does not disregard the transnational aspects of migrants » lives as one might accuse Diaspora theories of doing. Rather it looks at the migrant »s position in the country of settlement as one caught ‘between two cultures ». The two cultures, that of origin and that of the receiving society, are seen as relatively homogenous and stable units and the migrant is seen as belonging to both providing in a way for the living link between them. »

The problem with the neo-communitarian approach is that it tends to see culture as a closed box. Thus, individuals and groups are seen as carers of a specific culture or indeed of two specific cultures, caught in between rather than producing a new synthesis of cultures and identities. Indeed this reification of culture and identity is evident even if implicit in much of the relevant literature on ethnic business and migrant transnationalism:

‘Participants are often bilingual, move easily between different cultures, frequently maintain homes in two countries, and pursue economic, political and cultural interests that require their presence in both’ (Portes, 1997:814).

The neo-communitarian perspective in the analysis of national majority and immigrant minority relations provides a convincing account of the re-ethnicisation of second generation immigrants [see for instance The Beur movement in France]. However, it neglects that not all minority groups are constituted in the same way (Modood 2007:117).  As Modood argues

‘(..) the marked groups » ‘difference » from the dominant society can vary (eg., it could be ‘race », religion or a combination of the two) but also not all groups are groups in the same way. Some might have a much more organised community structure than others; one might have strong economic networks based on religious affiliation, another on endogamy, and yet another may be much more economically dependent upon the possession of educational qualifications or on shaping popular culture. Taking these forms of difference into account can illuminate not just how members in different groups can relate differently to their group(s) and have different attitudes to group identity; but also how they can exhibit different priorities and responses and so different trajectories and modes of integration. (Modood: ibid.)

Indeed for national majorities to deal with the challenges of diversity (both migration related and native) it is necessary to recognise that minority ‘difference » is internally diverse. There is no single type of minority group, no single type of difference, some markers of difference and some claims are more important for one minority rather than for another (e.g. religion, race, language) and not all individuals experience their group identity with the same intensity at all circumstances (Modood 2007).

Naturally the same is true for members of the dominant nation: not all members of the national majority experience their identity in the same way and specific nations value specific features more than others. Of course, as argued earlier in this paper, the salience of a feature – what makes it a marker of difference and contention between the national majority and the immigrant or native minorities – is constructed in interaction. In other words, religion may not be an important marker of German national identity until Muslim immigrant challenge the religious features of the nation and hence transform Christianity into a constitutive element of the German national identity.

It is perhaps this very element of internal difference within the national majority that can offer the starting point for a self-reflexive re-consideration of national identity which by starting to recognise the diversity in its origins and in its constitution (including native minorities where relevant) can start to consider how to open up its diversity spectrum so as to include populations that may have not been there when the nation-state was formed but which have lived long enough in the country and have showed their willingness to live there permanently. It is this self-reflexive re-consideration and negotiation of national identity what I call plural nationalism.

Anna Triandafyllidou

Part-time professor at Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence; visiting professor at the College of Europe; Bruges


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