Michael Skey: National identity, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, globalisation

Introducing Michael Skey

Michael SkeyDr Michael Skey currently teaches sociology at the University of East London. Prior to that he taught sociology at University of Leicester and media and communications at the London School of Economics, where he completed his PhD in 2008. Dr Skey’s research interests include nations and nationalism; multiculturalism and belonging; media rituals; cosmopolitanism; sociology of everyday life; and discourse analysis.

This interview is based on his earlier work and his forthcoming book, “National Belonging and Everyday Life: The Significance of Nationhood in an Uncertain World”. This book focuses on ethnic majorities in Western settings and argues that their largely taken-for-granted status is used to underpin claims to key material and ontological benefits. In studying the value of this privileged position, we are better able to explain why multicultural or cosmopolitan policies are often resisted and the need to address (though not necessarily condone) majority concerns and anxieties around social change.

This is the first part of the interview. The second part is Michael Skey: Nation, media representations, audiences, models, studies, influence.


Defining national identity

Which working definitions of the nation and national identity do you use in your work?

Book cover Michael SkeyI pretty much follow the approach of those, such as Calhoun and Brubaker, who challenge the idea that nations are ‘things’ and instead focus on the ways in which people articulate their own and others’ lives in national terms.

Likewise, rather than studying identities, as something that people possess, this entails an emphasis on processes of identification and the contexts in which people draw on (or resist) particular social categories/meanings.

I’m particularly interested in the processes by which national frameworks of meaning and organisation become embedded in everyday routines, symbolic systems and institutions so that they come to be seen as ‘natural’ and part of what most people know.

National identity, everyday practices and cosmopolitanism

What effects can ‘the nation’ have on everyday life?

I guess that studies of everyday nationhood might seen rather easy to dismiss as inconsequential, focusing on harmless activities or objects (talk about the weather, waving a flag at a football match, jokes about this or that national group) that seemingly grease the wheels of social life.

The fact is, however, that in contributing to the everyday ‘reality’ of the nation, these apparently insignificant features mean that other possible ways of managing group relations are ignored or not even considered.

In other words, the assumed normality of the world is exacted at a price. In this respect, I’ve tried to emphasise the extent to which established discursive frameworks underpin the hierarchies of belonging and entitlement that privilege some, at the expense of others, within a given national setting.

Indeed, while much of the literature has pointed to the uncertainty and anxiety that minority groups experience as a result of their in-between status, what I have tried to focus on is the material (citizenship rights, legal representation, access to welfare) and psychological benefits (a secure sense of selfhood, community and agency) that flow from being recognised as belonging ‘without question’. Crucially, this sense of belonging is articulated, and justified, in relation to everyday practices, symbolic system and instituonal frameworks.

How does national identity relate to non-national identities in everyday life?

One of the advantages of adopting a processual model for studying identification is we can begin to map this complex issue in much more detail.

It seems rather obvious to state that some forms of identification will be much more salient at particular moments than others but much of the literature fails to include a temporal dimension. As a result, we miss out on asking the key question; when do national affiliations trump those associated with class or gender or whatever (This is a particular issue with the literature on cosmopolitanism, where the idea that some people may be ‘open’ to other people at one moment and then draw on an exclusionary framework at another, needs much more attention).

Acknowledging these shifts should not mean we overlook the fact that some identity formations will be used much more consistently or the varying commitments that people may have to them. Therefore, the other point I would reiterate here is that more established frameworks often become valuable because they are grounded in the everyday.

As a result, they allow individuals to make sense of complex issues and orientate themselves towards disparate others, thereby making an often threatening world seem more meaningful and manageable. The fact that these frameworks underpin ‘common sense’ forms of knowledge and practice also means that dominant groups can draw on them to justify their privileged status.

National identity, globalisation and multiculturalism

What has been the influence of socio-economic factors on senses of national identity?

This is another issue that requires much more attention from people with a far better grasp of these factors than me!

However, what I have argued is that we need to move away from popular analyses that identify ethnic or racial or national differences as the primary cause of conflict to examine the socio-economic and political context in which such conflicts emerge.

Attributing outbreaks of violence to deep-seated ethnic rivalries is far too easy (notably if it involves people in ‘exotic’ parts of the globe) but often these conflicts also involve disparities in wealth, education, political representation that tell a rather different tale.

For instance, Jared Diamond (2005) examined the impact of environmental devastation caused by overpopulation and the growing disparities in land ownership in Rwanda as possible factors in the 1994 genocide. He also notes the important (and self serving) role of political elites whipping up ‘ethnic hatred’ and the history of Hutu and Tutsi relations, notably under colonial rule, but suggests that these commonly accepted ‘explanations’ for the slaughter need to be contextualised in relation to wider and underlying economic and environmental considerations.

Sinisa Malesevic has made similar arguments in relation to the break up of Yugoslavia, challenging the popular view that the violence was only about ethnic rivalries.

For those who are interested in this sort of thing there was a recent debate on the issue in Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism: Blog of SEN journal

How have visions of national identity been affected by globalisation?

Processes of globalisation have opened up to scrutiny previously established ideas around (national) belonging, entitlement and organisation.

That is, we have been confronted with difference on a much greater scale as a result of both physical and virtual mobility. There are, however, a number of issues we need to bear in mind when thinking about this relationship.

One, those who try and argue for a new era of global relations or cosmopolitan solidarity or whatever you want to call it, generally end up reifying the past as an era of (national) stability, homogeneity and fixity (which is very problematic).

Second, there is a lot of evidence that processes of globalisation may actually strengthen people’s attachments to the nation. For instance, in Western Europe, debates around multiculturalism, immigration and European integration continue to dominate media and political agendas and often point to the increasing resonance of national frameworks.

Third, many of the grander claims about globalisation really need to be scrutinised in terms of their applicability to different populations around the world. Much of the literature tends to focus on particular groups (business or political elites, diasporic communities) and, as a result, overlooks the huge numbers of people who don’t live in global cities or routinely travel around the world. That’s not to say that such processes aren’t important but the grander, epoch-shattering claims tend to underplay a more prosaic reality in many cases!

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