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Xenophobia Tests National Legitimacy

By Sofia Karlsson | March 17, 2010

CREDIT: Lawrence Oluyede (CC).

Xenophobia is difficult to study since it is somewhat hidden in social structures, and explanations vary within and between the fields of social science. In social psychology, xenophobia is often understood as a product of group identity and membership. Individuals belong to at least one group, referred to as the in-group, which manifests adverse feelings toward those who are perceived to be in the out-group. Under this framework, xenophobia has been connected to national identity, but what role can national identity safely play in an era of increasing migration and multiculturalism?

What Is National Identity Anyway?

The meaning of national identity is contested among academics. It has been referred to as rooted in prehistoric, mainly ethnic, identities (Anthony D. Smith, 1991), as an Imagined community (Benedict Anderson, 1983) as constructed by modernity (Eric Hobsbawm, 1990), or as a result of narratives (Rogers M. Smith, 2004). Most nations are less than 200 years old. The modernist approaches of Anderson and Hobsbawm place national identity as a product of nineteenth century nationalism, making the nation a modern European invention. Italian statesman Massimo D'Azeglio expressed this view very well when he declared in 1866: "We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians."

A. D. Smith separates national identity into two parts—ethnic and civic. The civic concept entails a defined territory, laws and institutions, equal rights for members of the nation, and common values and traditions. The ethnic dimension emphasizes common descent, or perceived common descent. While it may be conventional to differentiate between ethno-genealogical and civic-territorial conceptions of the nation, it is problematic to presume such ideal types. Smith himself realized that both concepts exist in every country in varying degrees.

Quantitative research shows that individuals who believe that ancestry and ethnic origin are important in belonging to a certain nationality are more likely to express xenophobic opinions (see for example Mikael Hjerm, "National Identities, National Pride and Xenophobia: A Comparison of Four Western Countries," in Acta Sociologica, vol. 42, no. 24, 1998; and Anthony Heath and James R. Tilley, "British National Identity and Attitudes Towards Immigration," [PDF] in International Journal of Multicultural Societies, Vol. 7, no. 2, 2005).

On the other hand, those who express a strong civic national identity (for example, the belief that holding citizenship or respecting laws and institutions is important) are not more xenophobic. Hence, the ethnic concept, exhibiting greater hostility, is believed to be stronger and more exclusive than the civic.

Although Smith connects ethnicity to prehistory it doesn't necessarily contradict the modernist interpretations. Tales and myths of common descent were told when identities were constructed in the nineteenth century and after. Take for example the story of the Battle of Kosovo Polje in the fourteenth century when the Ottoman Empire defeated the Serbian principality. The battle became important for the Serbian identity, and when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1980s the myth of the battle was brought up by politicians and other officials to generate nationalism.

Cosmopolitan Flavors

Anacharsis Cloot was perhaps the most radical cosmopolitan of the eighteenth century. He advocated for the creation of a single world state in which all human beings would be citizens of a global community (an idea later carried by the international labor movement). Kant, on the other hand, believed that people needed their republics to be rightful citizens. His cosmopolitanism amounted to a federative unity of republics. Early modern cosmopolitan ideas were abandoned after the French Revolution and the entrance of nationalism. However, in the current era of globalization these philosophies have once again appeared in academic literature.

The European Union can be considered a cosmopolitan project in the Kantian sense. As a citizen of the union, one is entitled to reside and work in any of the member countries, being protected by supranational legislation for this purpose. Yet nations are still the dominant expression of democracy and political will. There is no "European citizen" as there are French, Swedes, and Germans. The attempts to integrate the many national identities into one unit have not been very successful.

Xenophobia in Europe

On March 1, thousands of migrant workers went on strike throughout Italy against what they described as "government mistreatment". Migrants feel they work just as hard as natives and pay the same taxes, but are treated differently by the system. Their message was simple: See how it is to live without us for a day!

At the Fundamental Rights conference last year, the EU agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) presented quite depressing figures. Their yearly report found that in member countries, on average, 41 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans, 36 percent of North Africans, and 50 percent of Romas had been discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity at least once in the past 12 months. The report attested that the most likely locus of discriminatory treatment was employment—at work or when searching for it. In addition, many minority groups reported being victims of or vulnerable to racially motivated crimes.

Anti-immigration parties have grown recently with representation in the European Parliament and several national parliaments. Discrimination and voter turnout can be products of xenophobic sentiment, though while there is no perfect correlation between what people think and what they actually do, the best way to detect the phenomenon is via research based on attitudinal surveys. Still, even this is not a clear-cut method. If respondents feel it is politically incorrect to express their xenophobic opinions, they sometimes alter answers to better comply with the norm.

This means that we are always faced with the risk of systematically underestimating the actual prevalence of racism and xenophobia. It is well known that people don't always "speak their minds," and within psychological research a widely used method to deal with this problem is the Implicit Association Test. It is designed to reveal the implicit attitudes that we are either unwilling or unable to report.

Even if no racism or xenophobia is officially expressed in a society, it may be hiding under the surface. The Nazi madness of the 1930s nourished and preyed on fear of the Other, the foreigner. Today the same rhetoric is used to encourage anti-immigration and xenophobic sentiments in Europe.

The Legitimacy of Nations

The ideas brought up here are based on the assumption that national identity is the dominating identity among citizens. Yet in today's world there is a proliferation of transnationals, individuals who are attached to two or more places at the same time. In addition, some countries contain strong subnational identities that compete with the national: Catalonian in Spain and Wallonian in Belgium for example. Some argue that we express our identity in various ways: religious beliefs, political views, local attachments. While it is true that allegiances are not always territorialized in nations, national sentiments have nonetheless remained strong around Europe. This indicates that the concept of national identity can persist even during times when national sovereignty is in decline.

Xenophobia is complex and cannot be explained solely by national identity and theories of group belonging. Future research is needed to fully unveil its causes, and in turn help guide policy-making.

In current discourse on cosmopolitanism, some suggest that nations have the right to self-determination because a shared nationality guarantees a sense of membership, and is essential for a stable political community. But if we accept that national identity often produces and can be reliant on xenophobia, then we must also question the legitimacy of nations. Perhaps the forces of globalization in the twenty-first century will deconstruct what was once constructed. Europe is one of the first test cases for whether this is likely.


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Read More: Culture, Democracy, Globalization, Migration, Security, Belgium, Italy, Serbia, Spain, Europe

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