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The Concept Of Banal Nationalism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2155 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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I will begin this essay with introducing some sociologists’ view on nationalism. Ronald Rogowski (1985 cited in Billig, 1995:43) viewed ‘nationalism as “the striving” by members of nations “for territorial autonomy, unity and independence”‘. Anthony Giddens mentioned nationalism as a ‘phenomenon which is primarily psychological’ (1985, p.116; see also Giddens, 1987, p.178 cited in Billig, 1995:44). According to his view, nationalism happens when normal life is disturbed (Billig, 1995:44). He thought that ‘nationalist feeling “are not so much a part of regular day-to-day social life” (1985, p.215 cited in Billig, 1995:44), but “tend to be fairly remote from most of the activities of day-to-day social life”‘; he thought that ‘ordinary life is affected by nationalist sentiments only “in fairly unusual and often relatively transitory conditions”‘ (p.218 cited in Billig, 1995:44). According to the writing of Michael Ignatieff, nationalism was being described as ‘dangerous, emotional and the property of others’ (Billig, 1995:46).

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There are different real life examples that support the idea of banal nationalism: According to the Day Survey, journalists and politicians usually adopt the phrase ‘the nation’ (Achard, 1993 cited in Billig, 1995:116). It leads the readers to assume a story is happened in the homeland, unless the contrary is introduced in the topic or first paragraph of the story (Billig, 1995:116). For the weather section of the British press, Billig mentions that ‘the notion of “the weather” implies a national deixis, which is routinely repeated…the reports tend to be similar and contain a map of Britain, which is not actually labeled as Britain: the shape of the national geography is presumed to be recognizable’ (Billig, 1995:116-117). Also, the maps showing the weather in Europe and the north Atlantic in Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and The Times always put the British Isles in a central location (Billig, 1995:117). Billig also discovered that there was much more national news than international news being mentioned in the British press (Billig, 1995:117). Fowler claimed this phenomenon as ‘the “homocentrism” of the press, which is “a preoccupation with countries, societies and individuals perceived to be like oneself” (1991, p.16 cited in Billig, 1995:118). By reading the British Press on a day-to-day basis people are being mindlessly reminded that Britain meant to be the centre of world’s nations to them which things happening locally within the Britain are important to them. The people’s sense of belonging to Britain may be unconsciously enhanced through this daily practice of reading the British press. This example in line with the concept of banal nationalism which reveals that national identity is nothing natural but is socially constructed and maintained through daily activities such as reading a newspaper.

In addition to the example of the British press, there was a research carried out on the Turkish Press that supports the idea of banal nationalism: thirteen out of thirty-eight Turkish newspapers used the Turkish flag or slogans such as ‘Turkey for the Turk’, ‘The new newspaper of new Turkey’ or the map of Turkey as their logos which directly or indirectly remind the Turkish people of their national identity (Yumul & Ã-zkirimli, 2000:789). The ‘unimaginative repetitive’ act of the Turkish newspapers which act as a ‘continuous, albeit barely conscious, reminders of the nationhood’; they are equal to the ‘unwave flag which unmindfully reminding the Turkish of their national identity and homeland’ (Yumul & Ã-zkirimli, 2000:790). Seventy-six per cent of the Turkish newspapers divided the local news and the foreign news; ‘domestic news items are classified under subject headings and do not carry a specific caption like “Home News”‘ (Yumul & Ã-zkirimli, 2000:790). The Turkish Newspapers usually use an unlabelled map of Turkey to report the weather which ‘reinforce and naturalize at the level of the unconscious the geographical shape of the homeland which the reader has encountered countless times in the course of his lifetime’ (Yumul & Ã-zkirimli, 2000:790). We can also notice the banal nationalism through the sport news on the Turkish press. For instance, ‘Fanatik, after reporting the victory of the 14-16 age-group team of Galatasaray over the Dutch Ajax quotes the managers of Galatasaray: “Let them learn from us, instead of us taking them as examples”‘ (Yumul & Ã-zkirimli, 2000:800). This example of the Turkish press demonstrates that banal nationalism is taking place in different nations. The slogans, imbalance amount of local news and foreign news, style of weather reports, and content of the sport news of the Turkish press creates a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ between our nation- Turkey and others- the foreign nations. The readers will be unconsciously reminded about their national identity- Turkish. This example once again reveals socially constructed characteristic of the national identity.

Example that supports banal nationalism can also be found among the Scottish Newspapers: Daily Record a Scottish tabloid, which its masthead was stated as ‘Your Papers-Made in Scotland’; and also ‘Scotland’s Champion’, which ‘ensemble unambiguously fixes the centre of its social and spatial deictric’ and ‘evokes the Record as “the” defender of the Scottish nation’ (Law, 2001:306). There are far more examples that supporting the idea of banal nationalism in our daily life. For instance, the content and style of TV proagrammes, content of TV news reports, the words used by the politicians, and the name of road signs, etc.

Nation reveals ‘the sense of a “we” travelling together through time, acting collectively in our own space, with a common fate’ (Anderson, 1983 cited in Wetherell & Potter, 1992:141). The people of a nation contain ‘an idea of “national character”, a set of personality traits and attitudes which people share in common, distinct from others, such as the Australians and British, and it constructs a framework of rituals, icons, anthems and flags’ (Wetherell & Potter, 1992:141). The national identity is then a person’s sense or feeling of belonging to a nation. Banal nationalism contributes to the understanding of the national identity in many ways. For instance, it challenges the social identity theory: social identity theory suggests that ‘conflict can occur where the ingroup has absolutely nothing to gain from competing with the outgroup’; Tajfel believes that having identification with a group will increase self-esteem; and so ‘national identity helps us to find meaning in our lives’ (Houghton, 2009:171-172). Billig doesn’t agree with this theory because he thinks that ‘it fails to grasp how the social category of national identity is actually constituted, and why it persists; basic to Billig’s argument is that such identities are not cognitive schemata, but rather patterns of practice and habit built into the material and social environment; We do not just adopt such social categories because they fill certain psychological needs, we adapt to a social environment that renders these categories “real” and imperative’ (cf. Eagleton 1991: 40 cited in Hearn, 2007:660-661). Banal nationalism demonstrates that a person who adopts a national identity is through consistent learning and seeing perhaps mindlessly and routinely that build his or her sense of belonging to a particular nation but not like what has been claimed by the social identity theory that a person adopts a particular national identity is because of the innate need psychologically.

Another contribution of banal nationalism is that it challenges the concept of things about nationalism and national identity are far away from what ordinary people can reach or experience in a steady established Western nation. Instead, it reveals that many ordinary people are experiencing nationalism in their everyday life but just in another form from what they expected.

In addition, the theory challenges ‘the supposed dichotomy between “our” civilised societies and “their” violent ones’ (Skey, 2009:334). Local people within a nation usually deny they are nationalist or nationalism but point these things to the people in other nations because they usually see nationalism as something negative, dynamic, emotional which I mentioned in the previous part of the essay. However, the theory of banal nationalism reveals that nationalism is actually crucial for them to form and reform their national identities nowadays.

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Banal nationalism also draws our attention to ‘the ongoing production of a hegemonic discourse whose power comes from being seen as natural, taken-for-granted, common sense’ (Sutherland, 2005: 196 cited in Skey, 2009:334); which in line with what Jan Penrose has claimed: ‘our acceptance of nations as natural divisions of the global territory and population is essential to the maintenance of the existing geopolitical order’ (Penrose, 1994: 161-81 cited in Skey, 2009:334). The concept of banal nationalism once again reminds us that the divisions of the world’s nations are not happened naturally and neither the adoption of our national identities.

However, on the other hand, there are different critiques to the idea of banal nationalism which may undermine the value of this theory: Mirca Madianou (2005) claimed that ‘take account of media theory which has long argued that audiences cannot simply be seen as either coherent or “empty vessels” that uncritically absorb the media messages that they encounter’ (cf Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998; Gillespie, 2005 cited in Skey, 2009:336). It challenges that people who receive the messages from the newspapers, TV programmes, TV news, etc are not homogenous in terms of mind-set or perception toward different ideas. Different people will interpret and react differently when they receive the messages from the banal signifiers. For instance, people from different social class and political background will think differently. The concept of banal nationalism ignores the complexity of the audiences within a nation.

There is also a critique that claiming Billig has commit to ‘problems of assuming a settled and largely benign socio-political landscape even in what Billig has labelled as “established, democratic nations”‘(1995:93 cited in Skey, 2009:337). Jackie Abell et al. challenge ‘”the idea that any modern states are stable in the sense of being unchallenged over time, or lacking in internal tensions or external challenges is highly questionable” and as such should be critically evaluated in terms of its ideological function’ (Abell et al., 2006: 208 cited in Skey, 2009:337). The political and social situation of a nation could be far unstable and worse than Billig has expected even in a developed nation.

To conclude, the argument of this essay demonstrated the importance and contribution of the theory of banal nationalism for understanding national identity in both the social and political aspects. However, in my opinion, its value might have been declining and continue to decline in the future. Apart from the reasons of the above critiques and limitation, to certain extent it is also because of the improvement of technologies and process of globalization. ‘The relationship between the media and the nation is being made ever more complex through the widespread use of the internet (Eriksen, 2007 cited in Skey, 2009:336), satellite broadcasting (Madianou, 2005 cited in Skey, 2009:336), mobile phones etc’; It means that people in a nation have more choices to receive various information from other part of the world but not just from the national-operated media. Besides, globalization will also enhance the mobility, fluidity, and movement of people. These factors may increase the complexity of audiences in a nation since there are more different groups of people in terms of ethnicity, culture, gender, etc gather in different nations. These different groups of people may interpret and react differently from the banal signifiers and perceive themselves as having different national identities from the others.


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