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By Paolo Cossarini

National identity can be defined as a specific type of social identity. More precisely, the idea of national identity epitomizes the recognition of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – often regardless of the legal citizenship status –, and expresses the feeling people share about a nation.

Within the academic debate, there are two broad approaches to national identity, which are related to specific ideas of what a nation and nationalism are, their origins and their developments. The scholarship is split between those who connect the origin of a nation to political and economic factors intrinsically linked to modernity, and those who believe that nations are established on unique traditions and intrinsic traits, such as religious and ethno-linguistic identities. Correspondingly, national identity can be defined in ‘civic’ and in ‘ethnic’ terms. The ‘ethnic’ idea of national identity is based on historical and cultural norms, such as the language, religion and traditions, which tend to create an exclusionary conception of the social group; whereas the civic concept is linked to political, legal and territorial factors, and therefore tends to foster a more inclusionary vision of the social group.

Both conceptions – sometimes overlapped with each other – are representatives of the development of nation-states. Regardless of the perspective one adopts, national identity has to be conceived as a collective phenomenon, and as such it resonates with a shared sense and consciousness of belonging to a common group. Historically, the rise in national consciousness has often been one of the fundamental steps in the process of nation building, as well as in supporting political (and eventually popular) sovereignty.

Interestingly, people’s daily experiences of national culture have been essential to build this sense of belonging. Michael Billig argued that everyday experiences of national symbols and anthems, cultural manifestations, language, flag, and distinctive rituals and beliefs, etc. have contributed to the construction of national consciousness.

Moreover, even though the national identity has mainly to be interpreted as an imaginative process, national identity is still very much a social identity and as such represents ‘an important part of our mind that affects our social perceptions and behaviour’ (Korostelina, 2007, p. 15).

In this context, a series of variables are worth stressing when analysing national identity, such the duration of the socialization process within a given national community, ethnicity, religion, and gender. Similarly, particular relevance is assumed by the educational system and the mass media, as they promote national values and are important when it comes to individuals’ perception of the national.

All in all, while national identity ‘involves some sense of political community, history, territory, patria, citizenship, common values and traditions’ (Smith, 1991), contemporary societies are facing a double process. On the one hand national identity is challenged by a world that becomes increasingly globalized and identities become more fluid, crossing territorial (and psychological) borders. On the other hand, the globalisation itself is fostering demands of re-territorialisation, as a result of citizens’ dissatisfaction with globalization’s mobilization of people, capital, and culture, and subsequent calls to spatially isolate, and withdraw.

Related References

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso Books.
Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. SAGE Publications
Brubaker, Rogers. 1998. Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Connor, Walker. 1994. Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Gellner, Ernest. 2009. Nations and Nationalism. Cornell University Press.
Korostelina, Karina. 2007. Social Identity and Conflict: Structures, Dynamics, and Implications. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Smith, Anthony D. 1991. “The Nation: Invented, Imagined, Reconstructed?” Millennium 20 (3): 353–68.
Yuval-Davis, Nira. 1997. “Women, Citizenship and Difference.” Feminist Review 57 (1): 4–27.

Cite this entry as:

Cossarini, Paolo. 2022. ’National Identity’. In Populisms and Emotions Glossary, edited by Cristiano Gianolla and Maíra Magalhães Lopes. Available atário