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Motives: Theories of Identity Construction

What is nationalism?

Nationalism, in its most simple definition, is the claim of a group of people of their distinctiveness from other groups. The group is bound together with common traditions and values that constitute their distinctive culture, and within boundaries of which everyone not espousing these characteristics of the group is external and differentiated. These placed boundaries defined by cultural belongingness becomes the nation, and one’s place within the nation is defined by your authenticity to fit into the constructed universal identity that defines the nation. In discussing the different processes by which this definition of the nation establishes a bounded region of culture, identity, and space, theorists of nationalism and in anthropological theory have posited their own perspectives on how nations and nationalist ideologies form, how their identities as distinct from the external Other endures, and how the boundaries which constitute the barriers of belongingness warp and change throughout the history of the nation.

In the menus below, you can read about the different theorists I channeled to understand how and why markers, symbols, and ideologies become markers for national identity. I think of the theories as the motives for this project, echoing the genre of Norwegian crime fiction. The theories help us explain why things happen the way they do and what causes things to happen the way they do. These theories then can help us frame the way in which we understand Norwegian identity markers and how they become part of national identity.


Nationalism Theory

The first scholarly approach I will discuss concerning the interpretation of these concepts of national identity and their greater meaning in forming a national identity in Norway is that of imagined communities as discussed by Benedict Anderson (1983). Anderson created and explained this concept as a way to explain nationalism and the nation. In a similar element, this approach, imagined communities, can be used to explore national identity and those concepts which make up national identity.

An imagined community, particularly in the instance of a nation, is one where all the members, though they likely do not know each other and may never meet, all share in the same interests and identify as a part of that nation; they commune with these others in their shared beliefs, values, and ideologies (Anderson 1983). Looking at national identity through this framework, we can readily see how the different concepts of national identity, as presented in Norwegian literature, form different iterations of imagined communities throughout the historical timeline in Norway. Imagined communities form at differing levels of participation and depth, from the broadest term of national identity, to those communities that form around the individual concepts of intangible heritage, tangible heritage, and language communities, for example.

Even within these imagined communities there are yet smaller communities, particularly evident in the language communities that form around Norwegian dialects, Sami dialects, and the emergent immigrant dialects. Even literature, the context within which we can see these concepts of national identity conveyed, contribute to this web of imagined communities in that genres have their own values, structures, and guidelines through which they are classified and a community of literature is constructed. Anderson’s approach of national identity as an imagined community, and those concepts within national identity as yet smaller communities, is one in which we can begin to see hierarchal organization of these concepts of national identity, as well as the changes in their organization through time. In addition, seeing these concepts as communities embedded within contexts such as history, culture, and politics, we can begin to extrapolate connections between the communities, the people, their values, and the context in which they occur to begin to understand how they all interconnect to gain authenticity and authority as representative of national identity in Norway.

Ernest Gellner presents a similar view of nationalism as born out of common ideologies and belief systems in his book Nations and Nationalism (1983). Gellner explains the origin of nations as the result of the forces and processes of modernization causing groups of people to create constructions of common identities and cohesion, namely an ideology that forms nationalism. He argues that with the advent and growth of the industrial revolution, as more and more people of different backgrounds and ethnicities gathered in cities and large communities, the need to bring together these groups under a common identity, which included common ideologies, culture, history, and languages, to respond to the growing demand for homogeneous skills to accommodate the rise of capitalism and modernization, all of which in concert resulted in construction of the nation-state (Gellner 1983:22).

As these nation-states grew and their political identities formed, the rise of nationalism grew with them to illustrate their solidarity as a community and continued to contribute to their formation, as those who lived within these communities found motivation in working for and adhering to the principles of the nation. When considering the place of groups that do not fit into the definition of the nation as demarcated by a nationalist ideology, Gellner asserts that "nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones, and, in particular, that ethnic boundaries within a given state – a contingency already formally excluded by the principle in its general formulation - should not separate the power-holders from the rest. The nationalist principle can be asserted in an ethical, 'universalistic' spirit" (Gellner 1983:1). This tenet is very important when examining a nation comprised of many ethnic groups, and how all of those ethnic groups fit within a singular nationalist ideology.

This is where anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen challenges Gellner's proposition that ethnic and political boundaries remain cohesive, assimilatory even. For Eriksen, he asserts that Gellner defines nationalism where nationalism is an ethnic ideology in which a particular group who holds that ideology should dominate a state, and therefore a nation-state is a state dominated by an ethnic group with certain markers of identity that are part of the national symbolism, and are tied into their legislation (Eriksen 2010 [1994]:119). One problematic aspect of this simultaneous interaction and correlative evolution of modernization and nationalism with respect to the consideration of different ethnic groups in the nation is the subjugation of some ethnic groups to others in the creation of a homogenous nation, as there is too little territory and different goals regarding the different groups that eventually constitute a nation; in the end, there is contention between claiming rights for some groups and denying those rights and access to others (Eriksen 2010 [1994]:126). Both Gellner's view and Eriksen's interpretation of this view are very important when examining the modes of representation within a museums, particularly in museums that contain material culture and heritage from a nation comprised of several ethnic groups, as is the case in Norway.

Eric J. Hobsbawm, in Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990) holds similar views to Gellner in viewing nationalism as consisting of ideologies in which political and national entities should correspond within the same boundaries of a cohesive community, and that the principles of nationalism guiding these groups in accordance with modernization lead to the construction of nations (9-10). However, Hobsbawm also argues that a single definition of a nation or nationalism is insufficient, as exceptions to a singular, homogenous nationalist ideology such as those proposed by Gellner will always find exceptions, since nations and who/what/where constitutes them are always changing (Hobsbawm 1990:9).

He also argues that certain infrastructures relating to political, administrative, technological, and economic conditions are required for the construction of a nation, and it is from these conditions that we must situate the definition of a nation and its national identity (Hobsbawm 1990:10). It is because of these varying situations and conditions in which a nation can develop and change that we must consider the possibility of fluid nationalist ideologies.

Another aspect of the construction of a nation and nationalist ideology through the perspective of Hobsbawm in his first chapter of the volume The Invention of Tradition (1983), which concerns the place of tradition, and how cultural tradition forms a strong component of the power structure involved in nationalist, and subsequently political, ideologies. He examines how tradition occupies a space between "custom" and "routine", and espouses social meaning in various forms of ritual, practices, imagery, and festivities (Hobsbawm 1983:2, 7-9). Hobsbawm asserts that tradition is completed constructed, often born out of a need for "symbolizing social cohesion, or the membership of groups…establishing or legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority…and socialization, the inculcation of beliefs, value systems and conventions of behavior" (Hobsbawm 1983:9).

Traditions are also a means to respond to challenges that arise from political, social, economic, and cultural change, and thus are fluid in their nature such that their characterization as invented is more readily understandable. Their connection to the past provides the ideological and emotional connections to heritage that allow traditions to function as a strategy for power. Traditions, in their connection to the past, also allow for a sense of solidarity with the past they honor, which is crucial for states to maintain power in times of political and social change (Hobsbawm 1983:12). In many cases, tradition and its inherent connection to the past has been a significant political resource for processes of societal change that include urbanization and city planning, colonization, and modernization.

Anthony D. Smith's contribution to the field of nationalism studies, as expressed in Ethno-symbolism and Nationalism (2009), centers upon the distinction between different types of nations and nationalism, with what he characterizes as "various orientations – neo-traditionalist, assimilationist, and reformist – of intellectuals in the formation of nationalist movements" (Smith 2009:24). He describes his early view of nationalism as an ideology where nations have "ethnic cores" or ethnies, which are pre-modern, rooted in history, and are comprised of "individual symbols, myths, memories, and values" from which ideologies of nationalism emerge (Smith 2009:24).

Smith sees nationalism itself as a modern occurrence that is born out of these historical ethnic roots, or these ethnies as he characterizes them. He describes ethnies as groups of people with common historical memories, common homelands, and a common name for themselves, and emphasizes the roots of these emergent nationalistic identities in the historic past of the people.

Critiques of Smith's views of the emergence of nations and the origins of nationalism question the role of the politicized nature of nations and national identities when analyzing the ethno-symbolism that Smith centers his arguments upon, and how politics plays a role in Smith's views of the rise of nationalism. One specific argument questioning the roots of nationalist ideologies within a pre-modern history is from Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2010 [1994]), where nationalism is the belief in nostalgia for the past and this need for nation-states to create a nationalist ideology that recodifies and sometimes commodifies the past; in other words, a system that creates a continuity between the current nation-state and the past, thus creating these national identities that are created in the modern era and are projected into the past, not truly continuing from the past (122).

Eriksen actually later calls the view of nationalism born out of an unbroken historical continuity or roots in past communities misleading. He seems to disagree with Anthony D. Smith’s view in this respect. Eriksen contends that symbols from the past that make up these present identities or nationalist ideologies have different meanings depending as their interpretation moves through time and space, or within particular historical contexts. Therefore, their meaning is determined by that context in which they are being interpreted. Their existence in the past versus how they are interpreted now in the present, because of these different historical contexts and the knowledges therein, precludes a historical continuity of an unbroken nationalist ideology (Eriksen 2010 [1994]:129).

Anthropological Theory

Other approaches in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, particularly within his descriptions of habitus and the role of symbolic power in culture, aid in interpreting the meaning of the connections between national identity concepts and their trends over time. Habitus, as described by Bourdieu, is the reality or construction of reality that represents the ways in which culture and its surrounding contexts, such as history or politics, are interpreted into different schemes of meaning (Bourdieu 1982:12-14). Habitus embodies the structures or constructions through which individuals perceive the world around them, and is a way in which groups of people can organize cultural acts around structured meaning with purpose (Bourdieu 1996). Bourdieu provides this explanation of habitus and how meaning is applied, emphasizing the importance of context:

"Habitus are structured structures, generative principles of distinct and distinctive practices -what the worker eats, and especially the way he eats it, the sport he practices and the way he practices it, his political opinions and the way he expresses them are systematically different from the industrial proprietor's corresponding activities / habitus are also structuring structures, different classifying schemes classification principles, different principles of vision and division, different tastes. Habitus make different differences; they implement distinctions between what is good and what is bad, between what is right and what is wrong, between what is distinguished and what is vulgar, and so on, but they are not the same. Thus, for instance, the same behavior or even the same good can appear distinguished to one person, pretentious to someone else, and cheap or showy to yet another." (Bourdieu 1996:17)

This particular conceptualization of how cultural acts can be interpreted between different groups, focusing on context, becomes crucial when considering the contexts in which constructions of national identity occur. These contexts, including historical, political, ethnic, and those reflecting cultural heritage will explain much in the meaning of why certain concepts in Norwegian culture become synonymous with national identity.

A large contributor of the meaning-making process in which national identity concepts become embodied with cultural knowledge and thus become representative of authenticity in that culture is the role of symbolic power. In particular, it is the relationship between national identity and symbolic power that is considered. Bourdieu asserts that one cannot separate the pieces of the interconnected web of social relationships that is culture (Bourdieu 1977). The value of words and phrases, such as those describing national identity, cannot be separated from the people who are professing these assertions of identity, nor can they be separated from the spatial and temporal contexts (such as history) in which they occur.

Even more, Bourdieu describes that within symbolic power, especially in linguistic exchange, lies this "right to speak" and "the power to impose reception", indicating this notion of authenticity and competence with regards to who has the ability to profess meaning and the agency involved from those who are able to interpret this meaning (Bourdieu 1977:648). We can see the conveyance of concepts of national identity through literature as a form of linguistic exchange within an embodied context, a habitus, which over time evolves and expands in what is considered meaningful and authentic to Norwegian national identity. Within Norway, these concepts of national identity (and the relationships of these concepts within their contexts) constitute a symbolic relationship of power and authenticity, one conveyed in the literature. By examining these national identity concepts and their symbolic power in connection to the contexts in which they occur, this question of authenticity pertaining to what is considered part of Norwegian national identity also becomes more expanded and inclusive as time goes on.

The first approach I consider is that of Clifford Geertz’s development of the term "thick description", described in his essay "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture" (1973). Thick description is the interpretation of a particular human cultural act or behavior, but it is an interpretation that considers not only the act or behavior, but also the context in which it occurs, in order to create an act much more meaningful such that others outside of the cultural act can understand its meaning (Geertz 1973).

In the context of this project, I view this type of approach as one to help examine how these concepts of national identity are asserted to define Norwegianness (the cultural act of defining identity) and are infused with meaning and authenticity in a variety of contexts (in literature and in the historical timeline) in order to create a greater cultural significance that is meaningful and defines Norway to outsiders (national identity). In a way, national identity becomes this embodied cultural act through which these symbolic concepts express Norwegian positionality towards the historical and cultural contexts in which these expressions of national identity occur. This reflects Geertz, where he described culture and meaning-making as "a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life" (Geertz 1973:89).

Geertz's approach to understanding culture and the concepts which comprise culture is one where he asserts "...that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (Geertz 1973:5). In much the same way, this applies to the examination of concepts which contribute to Norwegian national identity. His approach to examining culture is similar to what is needed to interpret these intertwining webs of national identity concepts, historical events, and deriving the meaning of these relationships to form identities that have such significant meaning as to be labeled national. The meaning is constructed by the people of Norway, and it is given life and ability of interpretation within literature.

Bronisław Malinowski’s views on ethnographic writing form much of the reasoning for choosing literature as the medium through which to examine national identity in Norway. Malinowski presented alternative views of ethnographic writing, in that he presented his own research in ways different from traditional ethnography during his time (Malinowski 1921). Traditional ethnographic methods involved participant observation and objective reporting, and the ethnographer's main undertaking entailed the reporting and description of cultural customs of the observed; Malinowski challenged this traditional style through reporting all aspects of cultural observation, from the spectacular to the mundane, in order to convey all aspects of knowledge that cultural acts convey and affect, and report these acts such that they convey the cultural heritage and wisdom embodied within them (Malinowski 1944). In a way, ethnography became storytelling, allowing the ethnographer to move beyond simple reporting and delve in to the deeper meanings of cultural acts. Malinowski writes about the power of words to embody much more than just existing as words, or as a mechanism to convey information. For Malinowski, when speaking about magical expressions:

"The belief that a word can grip the essence of things absolves the words of magic from the necessity of having ordinary significance. It does not by any means force them into meaninglessness…The magical word, therefore, is really an attribute of the relation between man and thing. The magical word, we might well expect, has got some affinity with the name which linguistically defines the relation of man as speaker to the object addressed." (Malinowski 1935:229)

Ethnography in forms of storytelling, such as those we see in Norwegian literature, helps to convey meaning beyond the limits of language; it gives much more meaning and removes the perceived coldness of objectivity while still conveying the knowledge or cultural heritage of the observed. Literature is a means for studying and conveying ethnographic knowledge, a medium that also acknowledges the importance of memory, and the embodied role of significance memory plays in conveying cultural heritage (Trouillot 1995). Within memory there is often emotion, an aspect of traditional ethnographic writing that is too often lost, but plays a powerful role in cultural matters such as that of national identity.

In order to really understand national identity in Norway, you need to understand the emotional driving force behind its construction, which includes the historical and social contexts in which it is formed, and we can realize this through the literature in Norway (Heggli 2000). It considers both the perspectives of those who are defining concepts of national identity, the authors of this literature, and the perspectives of those who are reading it, so that that both may understand the greater meanings of these expressions of national identity. Literature is the medium through which these concepts show this expressive attachment to the people of this land.