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Ethnic and national identities: an anthropological outreach

June 25, 2009

* Update 26 July 2009. In case you’re wondering about this blogger’s grandparents, they hailed from Yorkshire, Kent, Jaen and Avila.

My recent encounters with Galician and other Spanish nationalists (both pro- and anti-Spain) on the blogosphere, YouTube and elsewhere have got me thinking about the need to do some theoretical outreach. This is because the things I hear from both sides of the divide sound to me very dated, oddly very mid-nineteenth century. Don’t ask me how best to go about this, I’m only just starting to think about it and the issues are far from simple. Let me start with one or two things we know about ethnic and national identity – but do please interrupt me if I ramble as I think aloud:

1. As a result of migration, intermarriage, war, interethnic contact, trade, mass schooling and a myriad other factors, a lot of people around the world today (in 2009) have a mixed ethnic, national and/or religious background. I have no figures to hand, but let me instead offer an anecdote for now, while I go and find them. When I was in secondary school near Madrid circa 1980, a teacher asked our overcrowded classroom (40+ souls) whether any of us had four grandparents who came from Madrid. Only one of us, Carlos Gomez Caño aka “Caño”, came forth. The rest of us? Typical Madrileños, products of the huge waves of immigration that hit Madrid during the Franco era*. Madrid is known, of course, as Spain’s breakwater (el rompeolas de España).

2. Peoples, ethnic groups, nations, etc, have no ‘soul’, no ‘essence’; this is just a Romantic fantasy – they have histories of sociopolitical change and continuity, linguistic and other cultural commonalities (as well as inner differences), but not souls or essences.

3. Although identity is not always as fluid or situated or blurred as many social theorists influenced by postmodernism wish it were, neither is it as fixed and certain as nationalists would like it to be. Our social identities are a composite of parental, peer group, educational, mediated, and other biographical influences – a composite fashioned in part by our own agency as knowing beings.

4. Having multiple identities is not only perfectly possible, it can also be great fun. We are used to hearing, for example, about Northern Ireland’s deep ethnoreligious cleavage. What people tend to forget, though, is that a Northern Irish sports fan may well find herself supporting Northern Ireland in one sport (e.g. soccer), Ireland in another (rugby), Britain and Ireland in another (Lions’ rugby team), Great Britain in another (the Olympics), Europe in yet another (golf, Europe vs. the USA), and so on. Northern Ireland is today de facto (but not de jure) simultaneously in the UK and in the Republic of Ireland, apart from being its own province and an integral part of the EU. Multiple identities that we don’t often hear about.

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