Workshop on Ethnic, National and Humankind Identities, a European contribution

Claske DijkemaKarine Gatelier, 29 April 2010


  • migration
  • identity
  • China
  • Europe

The text below is a preliminary proposal for the terms of reference for the Workshop on Ethnic, State and Humankind identities which will take place in Kunming 10 and 11 July 2010 and which is part of a wider dialogue process, the China-Europa Forum. The discussion will focus on questions of identity and the different levels in which it is played out, sub-state, national and poses the question of transboundary identity. The European contribution to the debate will focus on the need for new definitions of national identity as a result of immigration.

Session 1

Sub-national identities in the State

States host multiple identities, be they national, ethnic, religious, linguistic or determined by an economic and social position in society. This multiplicity could be classified into two categories: national and sub-national identities. The existence of these different identification levels has led to several institutional arrangements. Two of them are:

1.Nation-States, where allegedly the population identifies itself with the state (national identity).

2.Multi-national states, where different nations co-exist within a State and have been assigned group rights.

In multicultural societies, people can claim different identities (sub-national identities). They are not necessarily in contradiction with a national identity when the State leaves space for its cultural expression, but they are neither multi-national when these cultural groups have not been assigned specific rights.

In this session we would like to focus on the question in what way political practices interact with identity and which means and practices lead to tipping the balance in favour of sub-national and/or national identities?

History shows that specific political processes led to erase distinctive identities. In France, for example, these policies were implemented through coercion. In other countries, this process of assimilation of minorities did not take place in the same way and the population exists of different cultural groups. This historical experience demonstrates that in the case of France, national identity is not the result of a spontaneous process but of a deliberate political action. It is certainly not a question of a linear process but it depends on political choice.

In Europe we can mention the following experiences of changing politics towards subnational identities

Post 1989 Central Europe

After the fall of communist regimes in Central Europe, new constitutions were adopted that recognised “national minorities” and accorded them collective rights. This political choice opened the way to minorities to be granted collective rights such as protection, equality, language, education issues recognised. Contrary to the political model of nation-state, the recognition of “collective rights” means that several communities have a legal existence whereas the nation-state accepts only one : the entire population forming the nation. Besides the rights granted to individuals as citizens no collective rights are recognised.

Post-Soviet area

Interestingly, the new independent states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when becoming sovereign, reached that stage of building a national identity and chose the model of European nationalism of the XIXth century. Some observers analyse this political option as the “ideology of national identity”. This experience can be exemplified with the republics of Central Asia.

Is there a European identity?

Since 1958, Western European countries have been building the European Union. The experience of writing the preamble of the European Treaty (2005) witnessed the fact that if at the institutional level the European identity has deepened, at the cultural level it still poses a problem. At the same time, in what way are European citizens forming a common identity? What means and practices slowly and unconsciously contribute to the emergence of a consciousness of belonging to the same all? Experiences such as Erasmus; cultural exchanges; European funding for actions at a European level; travels and moves can be mentioned.

Session 2

Interaction between the levels of identity

An anthropological approach to identity analyses it as a complex issue : multifaceted and changing all the time. It interprets identity as a relational concept, it is very dynamic, changing according to the circumstances : where is one talking from? To whom is one talking? etc. This analysis of identity assumes that it has different levels that reflect territorial scales (local, regional, national etc.) but also a multiplicity of forms of socialisation of an individual that produces un-equivalent categories : profession or other economic occupation; geography; religion; hobbies; social status; etc.

The following experiences will serve to illustrate this analysis:

  • The recent debate on national identity in France

The French government has recently initiated a debate on national identity, which has stirred a lot of emotions. It has unveiled the gap between the conception that the ruling elite has of French identity and the frustration and sensitivity of the issue among groups of the French population, especially those that have their origins in countries that we formerly French colonies.

This issue gives insight in the relationship of the French state with its colonial past, as much as the legal and political treatment of migrants and their descendants. The various contributions to the debate revealed the gap between a static perception of the French identity based on historical values and its recent dynamics resulting from migration on one hand, and the diversification of modes of belonging on the other hand.

The Dutch debate on integration

Over the past twenty years the debate about the place of immigrants in Dutch society has seen many different directions. With a more conservative government since 2002 the call for a definition of what it means to “be Dutch” has gained importance, leading to the institution of citizenship tests that immigrants have to succeed before being considered for an application for Dutch nationality. How to understand the call for “fixing identities”? Can it be explained as a fear for “loss of identity” in a changing society? This example will also serve as a basis for a discussion on fear as a motivation for a more narrow level of identification.

In search for an over-arching identity within the State

Beyond culture and history which often are perceived as competing between the different groups, what can an over-arching identity be built upon? What new modes of belonging to the state and participating to politics could be investigated?

Session 3

Universal Values and Human identity

In this session we would like to explore values that are shared in Europe and China and potentially universally, despite the frequent confrontations and different conceptions of human rights. What allows us to see others as humans rather than as Chinese, French, Dutch or European?

Session 4

Globalisation and identity

Since globalisation started to thrive and expanded to regions formerly under the influence of the former Soviet Union, a recurring debate opposes the tenants of globalisation as a driving force for the homogeneity of identities and cultures, and their opponents putting forward that growing exogenous influences don’t produce likeness and similarity but push toward re-inventions of distinctive identities. The transformation effect of globalisation is admitted by both parties, but it produces different effects.

The following experiences may serve to illustrate this analysis:

Stress on local identities through the revival of local dialects

Adopting elements from global culture and giving it a meaning in the local social norms

During the workshop we would like to explore different approaches in Europe and China towards the impact of globalisation on identity.

Session 5