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Significance Of Media Systems In National Identity Construction Sociology Essay

What particular significance do media systems have for the construction of national identities? How far, if at all, is it possible to have a (sense of) National Identity without the media?” The link between the news media and national identity regularly focuses “on explicit, stereotypical representations of nationalism in news coverage of appropriate subjects such as international politics, sport and war” (Brookes, 1999, Abstract, para, 1). However, changes in cultural and structural levels have resulted in dramatic shifts in national identity which makes “the study of nationalism and identity become an important topic in social science” (Javadi and Javadi, 2008, p. 112). The focus of such studies is often how the media contributes to the development and/or reshaping of such identity.

This essay will attempt to define the terms ‘nation’ and ‘national identity’ and discuss how far these concepts relate directly to geographical location and/or political boundaries. It will look at the relationship between the media and national identity and explore its extensiveness and what it means for the concept of national identity itself. Additionally, the issue of whether national identities are ‘real’ or ‘perceived’ will be addressed as well as whether the concept, or indeed, the ‘experience’ of national identity is a media-dependent phenomenon. Other issues that will be discusses include the elements that may contribute to an individual’s sense of national identity and what an absence of (national) media would mean for the concept of national identity and the sense of belonging to a particular nation.

Concepts of ‘nation’, ‘nationality’ and ‘nationalism’ have all proved difficult to define and analyse. Anderson (1991) notes while nationalism has had noteworthy persuasion on the modern world, “plausible theory about it is conspicuously meagre” (p.3, cited in Berhe, 1993, p. 2). Seton-Watson (1997) concludes that while “no ‘scientific definition’ of the nation can be devised; […] the phenomenon has existed and exists” (p.5, cited in Hoyle, 2001, p. 6). Hadley (2004) adds that even thought there is no agreement on its evolution “most [theorists] on nationalism believe it to be an essentially modern phenomenon, appearing in the late eighteenth century in Europe and North America” (National Identity, para, 1). According to Hadley (2004) the debate over nationalism is dominated by three theorists – Hobsbawm, Gellner and Anderson.

The recognition of political rights in a sovereign state was the basis for Hobsbawm’s definition. He explained that the masses were connected to state region which “was embodied through a centralised government. If nationalism was a modern invention, so were nations: the nation-state was the result, rather than the origin, of a nationalist discourse” (Hobsbawm, 1990, p.28, cited in Hadley, 2004, para, 2). Gellner’s definition was rooted in his belief that nationalism was an essential function of industry. He argued that “because industry required skilled labour, a common vernacular, and high rates of literacy, the need developed for a national ‘high culture’ promoted by a state run educational system” (Gellner, 1983, cited in Hadley, 2004, para, 2). Hadley (2004) explains “like Hobsbawm, Gellner sought to dispel teleological notions of the nation as eternal [and reiterated that] nationalism was a modern invention, created in response to the needs of a new economic system, even it represented itself as a natural, historical phenomenon” (para, 2).

Anderson (1983) advanced the theory of the nation as an ‘invention’, and saw “nationalism as a process of ‘imagining communities’” (Hadley, 2004, para, 3). “Nation-states are imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each live the image of their communion’ (Anderson, 1983, p.15, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 6). Anderson (1983) explained that “the decline of universal religious paradigms and the rise in print capitalism allowed for this ‘cultural construction’ to flourish in […] eighteenth century. The mass consumption of newspapers and novels enforced a common vernacular, linked a populace to urban centres, and encouraged common participation in a shared (imagined) culture” (cited in Hadley, 2004, para, 3). Additionally, Anderson (1983) implied that printing press improvements did more than industrialisation to promote nationalism. But as Hadley (2004) notes “despite their differences, all three of these prominent theoreticians identified nationalism, and by association the nation-state, as a phenomenon of the last few centuries” (para, 3).

However, it has been suggested that time may not be the most practical indicator for classifying nationalism or national identity (Hadley, 2004). He explains that this is because nationalism is dependent on a varied number of past factors. Further national identity cannot be labelled as ’embryonic nationalism’ because “not all national identities function within nations” (Hadley, 2004, para, 6).

Estel (2002) describes national identity as a special case of collective identity:

This does not mean an objective, i.e. systemic, connection built by human beings, but its interpretation by the members of that collective – hence it must be socially shared, the binding knowledge being the key factor. National identity then means a socially shared and binding knowledge in the form of an officially prevailing conception of itself in a certain nation being imparted through certain institutions (p. 108, cited in Javadi and Javadi, 2008, p. 113).

Smith (1991) argues that identity operates on two levels, the individual and the collective which are often confused in discussions of ethnic and national identity. He adds that the broadest subtype of collective cultural identities is the ethnie or ethnic community (cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 11). Connor (1993) agrees:

If we look at today’s countries, many of them seem to build their perceived internal similarity on a premise of shared ethnicity. A subconscious belief in the group’s separate origin and evolution is an important ingredient of national psychology (p.377, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 10).

Eriksen (1993) explains that characteristics such as perceived likeness while at the same time being different from other groups (ethnic) are central to ethnic communities (cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p.10). “[They] have a common collective name, a collective historical memory, common cultural traits, a ‘homeland,’ a myth of common descent, and a strong sense of internal solidarity. This element of fictive kinship, which is at the heart of ethnic affiliation, is also at the heart of feelings of nationhood” (Smith, 1991, pp. 21-22, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, pp. 10-11). National feeling according to Connor (1993) is not effected by “‘what is’ but ‘what people perceive as is’” (p. 377, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 11). “The nation-as-a-family metaphor is not a rational feeling, but rather an emotive one; it is a bond beyond reason appealing ‘not to the brain but to the blood’” (Connor, 1993, p.384, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 11).

National identity and the extent of its existence is also said to be composed of strong linked history and joint choices (Parekh, 1994, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 15). “It is a dynamic structure of affiliation, with strong foundations in the past but susceptible to change in the present” (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 15). Additionally “nations base their claim to statehood on assumptions of a shared cultural heritage, which are in turn most often based on assumptions of shared ethnicity. The latter assumption has less to do with a reality of common ethnicity than with a myth of common ethnicity which is cast over multi-ethnic communities to turn them into politicised ‘national’ communities” (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 12). The multi-ethnic composition of present nation states has made it hard, among all constituents to characterise one joint notion of national identity.

Nation states according to Das and Harindranath (2006) were developed in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Using economic, legal, armed forces and processes that were administrative in nature, nations fused “often disparate populations into a single ethnic community based on the cultural heritage of the dominant core’ (Smith, 1991, p.68, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 14). This is an example of Smith’s dominant ethnie model which is present in countries like Burma where “the dominant Burmese ethnic community has heavily influenced the formation and the nature of the state of Burma (now known as Myanmar), rather than the Karen, Shan or Mon ethnic groups” (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 13). Smith (1991) goes on to say that “other cultures continue to flourish…[but]… the identity of the emerging political community is shaped by the historic culture of its dominant ethnie. […] reconstructing the ethnic core and integrating the culture with the requirements of the modern state and with the aspirations of minority communities (pp. 110-111, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 13). Marginal or minority cultures are then formed with the remaining ‘non-dominant cultures’ (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 13).

Smith (1991) also notes that “there are some multi-ethnic states where discrepancy in inter-ethnic power is marginal enough to allow for a state along the lines of the supra-ethnic model, where the emphasis is on political rather cultural unity” (p. 112, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 13). However, Das and Harindranath (2006) states that because examples of this are limited, this achievements of such a framework is questionable. An examples of this is Nigeria where efforts to construct a supra-ethnic states resulted in power residing with three major ethnic groups (out of 250) (Das and Harindranath, 2006). Connor (1993) argues that “a people who are politically and culturally pre-eminent in a state (even though other groups are present in significant numbers) tend to equate the entire country with their own ethnic homeland, and … to perceive the state as an extension of their particular ethnic group” (p. 375, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 13). Oommen (1990) suggests “once a multi-ethnic or poly-ethnic state emerges it becomes a reality-in-itself. The coexistence and interaction between the different nations or ethnic groups produce certain emergent properties which give a new meaning and a collective self-identification to the constituent units” (p.35, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 13). National identity, according to Das and Harindranath (2006) is born out of this “collective self-identification of a people with a nation-state” (p. 15).

Elements of “unity and permanence” are said to be involved in the development of such of recognition formation of such identification (Melucci, in Schlesinger, 1991, p.154, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 17). The latter suggests “that the nation has to be seen as persisting through time, well into the past and future; it has to be seen as beyond time” (Connor, 1993, p.382, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, pp. 17-18). But Das and Harindranath (2006) argues that “such an imagining of the nation as beyond time takes national identity partly into the realm of non-rational, making it an emotional identification rather than an intellectual one” (p. 18).

The issue of building definite ‘sameness’ within nation-states and the development of nation-building then comes to the forefront and most nations look to the media to play its part in the creation of a ‘national’ culture and a ‘national’ community (Das and Harindranath, 2006). Herein lies the question, why the media? Das and Harindranath (2006) explains:

Considering how much of our knowledge of the world comes from mediated communication, either through people or through the mass media, this is likely to be a primary source of influence on our structures of identification since we cannot accomplish very abstract levels of identification (as with a nation-state) by exclusive reliance on our own direct lived experience or face to face communication of others (p. 18).

Anderson (1983) notes that “media have typically been institutional products of nations and, as such, play a fundamental role in their maintenance” (pp. 24-25, cited in Terzis, 2005, p. 1). Terzis (2005) explains that “in most countries national broadcasting in its early forms (especially before its commercialisation, when it could not afford the stratification of its audience), has made possible the transformations of individual dramas, performances, activities, memories, into fictions of collective national life for millions of individuals who may never interact with one another” (p. 1).

According to Smith (1991) it is imperative that nation states have “a measure of common culture and civic ideology, a set of common understandings and aspirations, sentiments and ideas that bind the population together in their homeland. The major agencies through which this socialisation is carried out are the mass education system and the mass media” (p.11, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 19).

But Melucci (1989) disagreed with this suggestion and noted that “to simply be aware of something is not to identify with it; identification comes from the making of an emotional investment” (1989, p. 35, cited in Das and Harindranath, p. 17) where individuals see themselves in others. Further, Das and Harindranath (2006) go on to say that “in addition to being aware of the existence of nation-states therefore, I must also be aware that there are many of them, that the one I live in is different from the others, and that I belong to a particular one because of my similarity with others of that nation-state. I can then be said to possess a national identity. My identity is therefore not just ‘Indian’ but equally not French, not Thai” (p. 17).

Terzis (2005) suggests that present national media play a significant role in “two processes of national identity building – […] [firstly] as tellers of national myths [in the role of] […] ‘engravers’ of national symbols upon the nation’s memory and presenters of national rituals (elections, celebrations, etc)” (p. 1). Terzis (2005) notes that the work of the media is focused on the “similarities among the group members” (p. 1). “For media producers, the prominence of national identity in the media content is encouraged by the knowledge that they are constructing news for a national audience with which they share national membership” (Entman, 1991; Rivenburgh, 1997 and 1999, cited in Terzis, 2005, p. 1).

Secondly, the media constructs and strengthens the “relational opposition of ‘us’ and the ‘others’” (Terzis, 2005, p. 1). “One of the areas of media content to which such nationalist discourse today is very high, is news and especially the coverage of foreign affairs. Comparative international news research shows the significant role of the media in perpetuating a world view that consistently favours the home nation perspective on world affairs” (Rivenburgh, 1999; Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1985, cited in Terzis, 2005, p. 1).

Das and Harindranath (2006) note say that “one prominent pattern that emerges in the images of nationhood is the definition of ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’ by the media, the ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ (p. 19). This demarcation is key especially where diversity is synonymous with nation states (Das and Harindranath, 2006). An example of this is the British case in which Scannell and Cardiff (1991) identify how Scottish, Welsh and Irish music were basically treated as secondary to ‘British’ music which the BBC had associated with being ‘English’ music (cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 19) – a clear example of how the dominant ethnic group is promoted by the media in a multi-ethnic state (Das and Harindranath, 2006).

National identity has also been maintained for those living outside of their respective nations, through new and evolving forms of media and communications such as the internet. This tool can transmit information essential to maintain national identity, especially for those who have left their country of origin. Appadurai (1990) points to technology and highlights “the relatively globalising influence of electronic media” (p. 229, cited in Smith and Phillips, 2004, p, 4). Virtual national communities are created by the internet and have often provided people scattered around the globe with a way to maintain their national identity without having a physical nation state. However, Poster (1999) warns about “the technology-level effect of the Internet suggesting that it subverts national identity. By eliding national information boundaries and encouraging the more active, interpersonal and uncensored exchange of information, the Web arguably works to enhance both global and local identities within a post-national and cosmopolitan context” (cited in Smith and Phillips, p. 4). Smith and Phillips (2004) also suggest that if Poster (1999) is correct in his suggestion “then the internet will have an impact on national identity that is diametrically opposed to that of traditional media (print, radio, television). In other words internet use might be associated with lower levels of national pride and the endorsement of cultural frames that are critical of national identities based upon ‘the old ways’” (p. 4).

Nonetheless, Chaney (1986) points out that “the mass media […] engender a ‘we-feeling,’ a feeling of family, among the community, providing continual opportunities for identification with the nation […]” (p. 249, cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 20). Das and Harindranath (2006) agree and add that “the media enable entire populations to participate in the everyday life of a country-wide community, uniting individual members of the national family into a shared political and cultural rubric” (p. 20).

But Das and Harindranath (2006) also point out that the media as agencies of socialisation, “can also be harnessed to divisive purposes which might have the consequence of impeding the construction of a national identity […] or of undermining the force of one or more elements of the symbolic repertoire of nationalistic ideology” (p.19). Terzis (2005) notes “in some cases, nationalist views and provocative views have provoked some of the world’s worst massacres […]” (p. 1). One such example is major role the Hutu radio/television station in Rwanda, RTLM played in 1994 Rwanadan genocide where thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered by another tribe – the Hutu. Terzis (2004) explains that the RTLM repeatedly broadcasted messages which maligned Tutsis and called on Hutus to rid the country of them. Ethnic hate and xenophobia being spewed from national media has also contributed to brutal cultural conflicts in Yugoslavia (Terzis, 2005). While these may be extreme cases, Das and Harindranath (2006) states that “the simple fact of establishing the homogenising tendency of national media is not an adequate base from which to conclude that audiences are homogenised [since advocacy does not always mean acceptance]. [In cases where] the national image promoted by the media [is not accepted] it does meet with resistance from sections of the populations” (p. 21).

While some resistance is severe as in the cases of Rwanda and Yugoslavia other populations use organised forms of resistance where the marginalised groups in a nation state find peaceful ways of “[asserting’ their own identities” (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 21). One such example is the Ernabella Video and Television (EVTV) project in Australia. This was a video project developed by leaders of the Ernabella aboriginal community in 1983 to counteract the slow disappearance of their own cultures and traditions which was being influenced by programming from ‘outside media’. The project became a television channel, which was furnished with programming developed by and for aboriginals that helped them to build their own identity among the scattered Australian aboriginal population. “Very few people today remain unaware of or free from the influence of the all-pervasive juggernaut of Western culture. It is encouraging then, that some groups at least have been able to meet this global force head on, and to produce as a result new and powerful forms of television which are uniquely their own,” (Batty, 1993, p. 125).

Another form of resistance is through readings where the concept here is that media audiences interact with media texts in extremely complex ways. Ang (1990) says that “studies have uncovered significant differences in the way audiences from different ethnic backgrounds produce diverse readings of an episode of a soap opera, suggesting that social identities affect interpretation of media messages” (cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 22).

Media texts can therefore no longer be thought of as binding each member of the audience evenly into a particular interpretation; the meaning of the text, rather, is open to negotiation between the text and the viewer. Differences in interpretation are not, however, the result of a failure of communication, but are rather the results of differences in the lived experiences and mental words of audiences. Where cultural realities are different, there is a likelihood of different interpretations (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 22).

In conclusion, Smith and Phillips (2004) note that “although the established literature lacks firm evidence of individual level ‘media effects’ it nevertheless suggests with some confidence that there is a strong, positive tie between media consumption and individual level national belonging. Drawing largely on historical and textual analysis methods, the claim has been established that the media have been foundational over the past three centuries in the shaping, distribution and institutionalisation of identities. The classic texts on nationalism repeatedly argue that the media have played a key role in nation building” (p. 2). Additionally, Das and Harindranath (2006) state that “the idea of a one-culture-for-all does not work and attempts at enculturation of diverse people into a mainstream culture are inevitably resisted through social movements at the peripheries of the mainstream” (p.21). Martin- Barbero (1993) further suggests that the area of communications provides a forum where conflicts over identity can be fought (cited in Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 21). “The media is therefore the site where states explore routes to uniformity within their nations and are simultaneously the site which assists non-mainstream groups to explore and announce their distinctiveness” (Das and Harindranath, 2006, p. 21).


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