Nations, Migrants, and Transnational Identifications: An Interactive Approach to Nationalism

Anna Triandafyllidou. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

This chapter proposes an interactive approach for the study of nations and nationalism. In this approach, attention is paid to the development, consolidation or transformation of national identity through interaction with Others. Nations are formed through a double process of internal identification, based on pre-existing cultural, political, historical and territorial features that bind a collectivity together, and of external definition that is activated through interaction with outsiders.

The notion of Significant Others is introduced as a useful analytical tool for studying real or ‘imagined’ interaction between the nation and Others. While the notion of a Significant Other may apply to different groups, both internal and external to the national community, this chapter concentrates on the role that immigrant groups as a particular type of Significant Other play in the formation and development of national identity and nationalism. The relationship between the national in-group and a given immigrant out-group is influenced by their historical links and present situation. It is my contention that immigrant Others are characterized by their subordinate position in the host society, constructed and reproduced through the use of racial, ethnic, cultural or religious markers. In the following section, I shall discuss how the use of these different types of markers and, in particular, the discourse of racialization and that of cultural difference, are functional to the consolidation of the national majority identity.

The relationship between Self and Significant Other is an interactive one. Not only is the host nation influenced by immigrants as threatening Significant Others, the national identity of the immigrant community is developed and transformed through its interaction—both real and symbolic—with its mother-nation and also with the national majority in the country of settlement. Immigrant communities have a positive relationship with their ‘mother-nation.’ Their relationship with the national majority in the receiving country is, by contrast, ambivalent. The third section of this chapter discusses the ways in which interaction and ties between the immigrant minority and the country of origin, on one hand, and the immigrant minority and the host nation, on the other, shape the national identity of the immigrant group. In this context, I also question the validity of classical approaches to national identity, that overlook the complex, dynamic and multifaceted nature of national identities today, especially in multinational and multi-ethnic contexts.

National Identity as a Janus-Faced Process

Nationalist activists as well as scholars of nationalism tend to consider national identity as an absolute entity, constructed from within by reference to a set of common characteristics that members of the nation have in common. In my view, this is only part of the picture (see also Triandafyllidou 2001, 2002). National identity expresses a feeling of belonging that has a relative value: it expresses a bond with fellow nationals by contrast to the feelings that members of the nation have towards foreigners. Fellow nationals are not simply very close or close enough to one another, they are closer to one another than they are to outsiders. in this relational approach, national identity is conceived as a double-edged relationship. On one hand, it is inward looking, it involves a certain degree of commonality within the group. It is thus based on a set of common features that bind the members of the nation together. These features include a historic territory, shared myths and memories, a common public culture and common laws and customs (Smith 2002: 15) but also often a common economy and common rights and duties for all members of the nation (Smith 1991: 14). On the other hand, national identity implies difference. It involves both self-awareness of the group but also awareness of Others from whom the nation seeks to differentiate itself.

The interaction between nations and their Others can best be analysed through the notion of the Significant Other (Triandafyllidou 2001). The history of nations is marked by the presence of Significant Others; other groups that have influenced the development of a nation by means of their inspiring or threatening presence. The notion of a Significant Other refers to another nation or ethnic group that is usually territorially close to, or indeed within, the national community. Significant Others are characterized by their peculiar relationship to the in-group: they represent what the in-group is not. They condition the national in-group, either because they are a source of inspiration for it, an example to follow for achieving national grandeur, or because they threaten (or are perceived to threaten) its presumed ethnic or cultural purity and/or its independence. A nation may develop its own identity features in ways that differentiate it and distance it from a specific Significant Other or it may seek to adopt some characteristics of an inspiring Other that are highly valued by the in-group too.

Throughout the history of a nation more than one nation or ethnic group become salient out-groups, namely Significant Others, and even at any one time more than one group may be identified, against which the nation seeks to assert itself and which in turn influences its identity. A Significant Other need not be a stronger or larger nation or a community with more resources than the in-group. The feature that makes some other group a Significant Other is its close relationship with the nation’s sense of identity and uniqueness. Social psychological research has shown that a given group will engage in comparisons only with relevant out-groups. According to Tajfel and Turner (1979: 41), factors such as similarity, proximity and situational salience may influence the comparability between two groups and the higher the comparability the greater will be the pressure for confirming in-group superiority through comparison with that particular out-group. In fact, dissimilar out-groups are already distinctive from the in-group, hence there is little need to differentiate from them. In contrast, those that share a set of common features with the in-group pose a threat to its distinctiveness and uniqueness (Johnston and Hewstone 1990: 188-9). Thus, Significant Others are by definition groups that share with the nation some common features, be they cultural, ethnic or territorial.

Because of their close relationship with the nation, Significant Others pose a challenge to it. This challenge may be of a positive and peaceful nature, when the out-group is perceived as an object of admiration and esteem, an exemplary case to be imitated, a higher ground to be reached by the nation, in brief, an inspiring Significant Other. This challenge, however, may also take the character of a threat; the Significant Other may be seen as an enemy to fight against, an out-group to be destroyed, if necessary, an Other that represents all that the nation rejects and despises: a threatening Significant Other.

Immigrants as Others

In this chapter, I am particularly interested in the case of immigrant communities that are perceived by the receiving nation as Significant Others. Indeed, the different language, religion or customs of immigrant populations are sometimes seen by the receiving societies as threatening to the latter’s presumed cultural and/or ethnic purity. The national majority is then likely to engage in a process of reaffirmation of its identity, seeking to redefine it so as to differentiate itself from the newcomers.

There is virtually no record of an immigrant population that is perceived by the host nation as an inspiring Significant Other. The negative and threatening representation of the immigrant seems to be an intrinsic feature of the host-immigrant relationship, deriving, among other things, from the fact that the immigrant’s presence defies the social and political order of the nation. Of course, other factors play a role in the development of xenophobic or racist attitudes towards immigrant minorities, including race, religion, lack of communication between the two groups, the poverty of immigrants and their marginal position within the host society.

Othering the immigrant is functional to the development of national identity and to achieving or enhancing national cohesion. The immigrant is a potential threatening Other because s/he crosses the national boundaries, thus challenging the in-group identification with a specific culture, territory or ethnic origin as well as the overall categorization of people into nationals and Others. In other words, the immigrant poses a challenge to the in-group’s presumed unity and authenticity, which it threatens to ‘contaminate.’

Immigration by definition requires that members of one nation or nation-state emigrate to a host country of which they are not nationals. As Sayad (1991) argues, the phenomenon of emigration-immigration involves an absence-presence that is against the national order: the immigrant is absent from the country of which s/he is a national, while s/he is present in a different country, to which s/he does not belong. In a world organized into nations and national states, this absence from the country of origin and presence in a foreign one lead to the exclusion of the immigrant from either society.

The relationship between the immigrant and the host nation and, more particularly, the immigrant’s transformation from a potential to an actual threatening Other are related to the preservation of the host nation’s identity and/or to its overcoming a period of crisis. A thorough understanding of the immigrant’s role as a Significant Other involves the study of this double dynamic: on the one hand, the immigrant as a contradiction within the national order and, on the other, the functions that the Othering of the immigrant have for the in-group and the host society.

Immigrants and Nations in Europe today

In the post-1989 period, when the traditional post-war alliances between ‘East’ and ‘West,’ ‘Capitalism’ and ‘Socialism’ have been reorganized and the geo-political boundaries of Europe re-shuffled, immigrant—and in particular Muslim—populations have become new Others by contrast to whom the identity and cohesion of European nations are reinforced. This tendency has become particularly strong after the events of 9 September 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course not all host societies have reacted in the same way but there is a common dynamic in many countries. Most European states conceive of themselves as national states, where the state is the political expression of the dominant nation. This idea implies a static view of culture and ethnic descent: these are seen as homogeneous and unique. Their presumed purity and authenticity has to be protected from the intrusions of foreigners. Thus, pluralism is accepted only (and not always) to the extent that a nation or ethnic minority is a constitutive element of the country, namely made part of the state from its very moment of creation and is in some way integrated into the national narrative. Even in those cases, of course, the potential for conflict between the dominant nation and minorities is high. A plurality of identities and cultures is not easily accommodated within national states.

In some countries immigrant communities are integrated into the national history, and the cultural, territorial, civic and genealogical links between these populations and the nation are officially recognized. Thus, as happens in France and the UK, the links between the ‘mother-country’ and its former colonies are deemed to justify, under certain conditions, the conferral of citizenship on people of immigrant origin. Nonetheless, often the status of citizenship does not suffice to guarantee the social integration of these people. In fact, it is not unusual for individuals of immigrant origin, who have acquired by birth or residence the citizenship of the ‘host’ country, to continue to be discriminated against in practice. Discriminatory behaviour or practices are related to race, namely skin complexion and phenotypic characteristics, culture or a combination of these. Even where having access to the status of permanent resident or, indeed, with the citizenship of that country constitutes a major step towards immigrant integration, a study of the process of Othering the immigrant must pay particular attention to more subtle mechanisms of discrimination and in-group-out-group construction.

Not all immigrants are perceived as Significant Others and, in particular, as threatening Significant Others. With regard to the European Union, for instance, citizens of fellow member states are endowed with the same rights and duties as the host country nationals, because they are citizens of the Union. Moreover, these people do not generally suffer from discrimination in the social sphere. Similarly, North Americans and citizens from other industrialized countries may be foreigners in Europe but do not form part of the negative stereotype usually associated with immigration. In other words, the process of Othering the immigrant is activated towards specific groups.

The common feature that characterizes such out-groups is their subordinate position in society and the existence of ethnic, cultural, religious or racial markers that distinguish them from the dominant group. Such markers are not the reason for which these groups are perceived as threatening out-groups. On the contrary, difference is context-bound: in one case, religious markers may be prevalent (for instance, anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK), while in another situation ethnic categorization may be emphasized (for example, prejudice against Albanians in Greece). Often also the two categorizations are intertwined, enhancing or mitigating the difference effect. Hence, Bulgarians or Russian immigrants in Greece, who are Christian Orthodox, are seen as less threatening than Muslim Albanians or Turkish Muslims. On the other hand, Muslims in Britain may be perceived as threatening Others because of their religious beliefs, but discrimination against them was until recently recognized only if it referred to race or ethnicity (Modood 2005).

The Othering of specific immigrant groups serves the interests and identity of the dominant nation. Immigrants become the negative Other in contrast to whom a positive in-group identity is constructed and/or reinforced. Moreover, they provide for flexible and disenfranchised labour in an increasingly globalized post-industrial economy. Their construction as Significant threatening Others legitimizes their social and political exclusion from the host society.

Race and cultural difference

There are two types of discourse that characterize the process of constructing the threatening immigrant Other. On the one hand, there is an overtly biologizing, racist language, which, although condemned by the social and political norms of Western societies, is often involved in the process of excluding, socially and politically, the immigrant communities from the host country. On the other hand, discriminatory practices are supported by a cultural differentialist discourse, according to which there are irreducible differences between certain cultures that prevent the integration of specific immigrant populations into the host society (van Dijk 1997).

The relationship between power or privilege and racism or cultural prejudice has been explored from different perspectives—economic, sociological, linguistic and ideological—by a large number of researchers. It has been shown that racial or ethnic prejudice and discriminatory discourse or behaviour are related to the power structure of society and serve to maintain the privilege of one group over another (Essed 1991; Riggins 1997; van Dijk 1993; Wellman 1993 [1997]). Exploring further this line of inquiry, however, goes beyond the scope of this chapter. My interest is to explore the features of race or culture that make them suitable as markers for differentiating and subordinating the immigrant out-group.

The notion of race includes a variety of features such as parental lineage, phenotype (skin colour, stature and genetic traits) as well as the combination of physical attributes with cultural characteristics. Racism is not necessarily linked to ethnicity or nationalism. As Silverman observes (1991: 74), in nineteenth-century England and France the concept of race referred to social difference: the poor were distinguished from the aristocratic ‘race.’ What is common to the various definitions of the concept is that it is associated with natural difference: it implies shared characteristics, be they phenotypic, cultural or other, that cannot be chosen or shed (Manzo 1996: 19). This does not mean that racial difference is indeed natural but rather that it has been socially constructed as such. It is perceived as irreducible and, hence, threatening for the nation and/or nation-state.

Clearly, one should not equate a socio-political situation that allows for the perpetuation of latent racism with one in which the perpetration of racist behaviour, the organization of racist movements and the acceptance of institutionalized racism are integrated into the system. This, however, does not mean that ‘subtle’ or ‘symbolic’ racism (Dovidio and Gaertner 1986) is harmless. It still treats difference as permanent because it is natural, and inherently negative, or threatening, a problem to be solved.

The discourse of cultural difference has some similarity with that of biological racism because it links culture to nature. Cultural difference is seen as irreducible, because it is dependent upon ethnic descent, a presumed psychological predisposition, environmental factors or a specific genetic make-up. Thus, Others are constructed as alien, unfamiliar and less developed. In fact, nationalism brings with it the seed of discrimination against minorities. The notion of ‘authenticity’ of the national culture, language or traditions, intrinsic to civic and not only ethnic nationalism, implies that cultural difference is undesirable. The underlying idea is that ‘someone else’s roots are growing in the national/ethnic soil, distorting the particular form of human nature that ought to be sprouting there’ (Manzo 1996: 23). Hence, the national order has to be restored by means of excluding the Other both physically and symbolically from Our society.

It has been argued that the effects of culturalist or differentialist discourses differ little from biological racism: they are racist even if their arguments are not explicitly racial (Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1992: 12-13). Of course, cultural difference provides scope for fluidity and change in social patterns and allegiances: members of minority groups may make conscious decisions to abandon some but hold on to other attributes of the minority culture, as they see it. Or, minority groups may themselves strive to maintain cultural distinctiveness alongside full social and political integration. Race, in contrast, cuts across a population without the possibility of nuancing or changing one’s skin colour. Nonetheless, Silverman (1991:79-80) points out that the two types of discourse are conceptually and historically interrelated. The key to understanding the importance of race and culture and their role in the relationship between the nation and the immigrant is the fact that they can both be defined as transcendental notions, linked to nature rather than nurture and, hence, irreducible. They, thus, justify the Othering of the immigrant in moral and identity terms and allow for the process of creating a threatening Significant Other in contrast to which the nation asserts and delineates its identity. Moreover, these naturalizing and moralizing arguments legitimize the status quo and the distribution of power within the national state.

Immigrants and Transnational Identifications

The approach I have presented concentrates on national majority identity. In the previous sections I have concentrated on the construction of the immigrant Other and on the ways in which the immigrant Other contributes to the demarcation of the boundaries and the strengthening of the in-group identity. In this section, I would like to discuss how the national identity of immigrant minorities is transformed through their interaction with the receiving society.

Immigrant communities usually have close symbolic and material ties with their ‘mother nations.’ Diaspora nationalism theories not only emphasize the importance of these ties for ethnic and national identity in both the homeland and among the diaspora population, but also see the relationship between the immigrant community and the receiving country’s majority as one of limited integration, if not alienation. The immigrant community and the host society are conceived as separate entities forced to live together mainly for economic reasons. They are both assumed to be longing for national and cultural ‘authenticity’ and ‘purity’ that could be achieved only through the return of the minority to the home country.

Although links between the country of origin and the diaspora community are important in explaining migration phenomena (Vertovec 2003) and processes of ethnic segregation and/or alienation between immigrant populations and receiving societies, they fall short of explaining the identity transformation among second- and third-generation migrants. A large part of the diaspora nationalism literature takes its point of reference in the post-war migration flows which were related to the Fordist system of production. These theories, however, fail to account for the new features of migratory flows within Europe and globally. Today’s immigrants often move without proper travel and identity documents, are employed in the tertiary sector, frequently without proper work status, or welfare contributions. They may move back and forth between the sending and receiving country or may have multiple destinations. Moreover, their motivations may be economic but not solely. They often experience migration as a life project that contributes to their overall personal development (Jordan and Vogel 1997; Kosic and Triandafyllidou 2003, 2004; Romaniszyn 2003).

Diaspora nationalism approaches, with their focus on the diaspora-homeland relationship on the one hand, and, on the other, on the presumed alienation (or lack of integration) of the minority into the receiving country, tend to neglect the interaction between the immigrant group and the host nation and the emerging transnational identities among immigrant minorities. Contemporary migrations are characterized by complex relationships between hosts, migrants and their communities of origin within which ethnic and cultural boundaries are negotiated and redefined. It would be misleading to analyse such processes through the lens of national identities understood as stable and cohesive. Recent studies have highlighted the dual nature of national identity among immigrant diasporas, its status of neither here nor there and its double point of reference: in the country of settlement, usually experienced as actual ‘home,’ and the country of origin, often imagined as ‘home’ too but also as often experienced as an ‘alien’ culture and place (Christou 2006). Such ethnographic accounts of diasporic identity that highlight the complexity of dual or multiple identifications reveal a different identity dynamic that transcends more ‘classical’ understandings of national identity and of the relationship between the nation and the immigrant Other.

These transnational identity formations, largely the result of the interaction between a majority national identity and several ethnic minority cultures all subscribing within a new context of intensive communications and socio-economic globalization, are better analysed by cosmopolitanism theories. The cosmopolitan approach pays more attention to the overall processes of social transformation in the ‘late modern’ period. It emphasizes the features of post-industrial societies, such as highly improved communications across the globe, better, quicker and cheaper means of long-distance transports, media that select and cover events worldwide, the resulting compression of time and space: geographical distance becomes less important while people in disparate parts of the world are constantly ‘connected’ through new technologies. These changes greatly enhance our global inter-connectedness (Held et al. 1999), not least that of immigrants as they enable them to maintain frequent and intense ties and communication with their countries of origin.

Theorists of late or post-modernity have argued that individuals can be seen as free floating agents picking and choosing from different cultural repertoires the features that suit them best and hence able to create their own very individualized identities. Even though many agree that members of transnational networks and communities ‘need political stability, economic prosperity and social well-being in their places of residence, just like anybody else’ (Castles 2002), they argue that transmigrants living in a mobile world of culturally open societies adapt to multiple social settings, develop cross-cultural competences and no longer have a sense of primary national identity. Rather they negotiate choices with regard to their participation in the place of settlement, in their homeland and in relation to their co-ethnics in either.

The cosmopolitan perspective is a useful tool in analysing how migrants adapt their national and ethnic identity to the host society environment, negotiating multiple cultural and emotive attachments and developing transnational identities. However, these approaches tend to neglect the fact that the use of new technologies may also lead to polarization between global cultural patterns—usually concentrating around issues of consumption (both material and cultural) and youth cultures—and increasingly ethnicized behaviours developing in reaction to such global cultural homogeneity within ethnic enclaves of inner city areas. New technologies may as well enable the preservation of immigrant identities and cultures as closed containers with direct ties between the country/region of origin and that of settlement.

One important question that is also open to investigation is the extent to which new technologies have fostered new, qualitatively different, transnational attitudes and practices leading to the development of hybrid cultures and multiple identifications that are personalized and fluid. Or whether new technologies have simply intensified and widened the scope of phenomena that existed before without making a qualitative difference. To put it simply, migrants have always led transnational lives to the extent that they moved from their place of origin to the country of settlement and to a lesser or greater degree maintained economic, cultural and emotive links with both. Have the new technologies led to the development of cosmopolitan transnational attitudes and practices or have they simply reinforced a neo-communitarian perspective in which immigrant minority cultures are transposed into the country of settlement, while remaining relatively isolated from both the host society context and from wider transnational cultural currents?

There is a further facet to this which can work against cosmopolitan practices amongst migrants. Second generations are sometimes ghettoized by the very policies and social attitudes in their countries of settlement which thus prevent them from either assimilating or becoming cosmopolitan: they are trapped in the external categorization attributed to them even if they personally identify with different groups and views. I have analysed in the previous section the exclusionary dynamics shaping the relationship between the national in-group and the immigrant minority.

We should also not neglect the question of class. Not all migrants have equal access to new technologies and cosmopolitan lives. Unavoidably migrants with greater average economic resources, higher education and better social skills will have more access to the necessary infrastructure, thus engaging more intensively with such transnational activities and networks. It is likely that those less affluent and less skilled may, at the same time, remain attached to their places of origin and to the ‘myth of return’ (Bhachu 1995: 224; Portes et al. 1999: 222). This is not to say that migrants become diasporic by definition, in that a singular national or ethnic identity is retained, or replaced by a narrowly defined dual identification with two home countries. This is rather a plea for caution when assuming that the availability of new technologies leads to transnational identifications.

In my view, multiple identities are constructed out of a whole range of possibilities made available by the cultural diversity in countries of origin as well as of settlement which—as was shown above—cannot be retained within narrow conceptions of national identities and cultures. In this sense, multicultural repertoires are a reality, and especially so in large city environments. But the context in which migrants move very often includes kinship and ethnic networks which continue to confirm the significance of national identity and ‘homeland’ connections. Thus, rather than assuming the transcendence of nations and nationalism as we have known them in the past couple of centuries, we should investigate the new forms of national and transnational identifications emerging today. In these, the power of individual agency in negotiating personal identities, national culture and globalized economic realities is not to be neglected (Ong 1999). National identity and nationalism still retain a strong command over people’s sense of who they are and to whom they are related. Moreover, nationalism is still an important factor in domestic and international politics.


In this chapter I have proposed an interactive perspective from which to study nations and nationalism. I have introduced the notion of Significant Others as a useful tool for the analysis of the relationship between national majority in-groups and immigrant minority out-groups. I have also analysed the ways in which migrants are functional to the development, transformation and consolidation of national identity. However, in order to better understand contemporary nationalism as well as contemporary migration realities, one needs also to consider the transformation of national identity among migrant populations in relation to both their countries of origin and the societies of settlement.

I have briefly reviewed here the diaspora nationalism and cosmopolitanism perspectives and the ways in which they consider national identity among immigrant minorities. The former concentrate on the strong identity, cultural, economic and political ties between the immigrant community and the mother-nation. They assume that these ties tend to orient the immigrant population more towards its country of origin and believed point of return once the migratory project objectives are achieved. They therefore emphasize the interdependence between the mother-nation and the immigrant minority—each is a positive Significant Other for the other—and to a certain extent assume that the national identity of origin is maintained and even reinforced within the immigrant communities. The latter, by contrast, emphasize fluidity and change. They point to the multiple identifications experienced by second- and third-generation migrants and to the globalization of cultural and economic flows. They thus consider the society of settlement as the most important Significant Other for the immigrant population and emphasize the multi-polarity of identities today.

In my view, it is important to use different perspectives in order to catch the complexity of national identity dynamics and to account for their multifaceted nature in immigration societies in particular. Diaspora nationalism and cosmopolitanism theories cast light on different faces of the immigration phenomenon and the identity dynamics involved in it. Their diverging interpretations differ in the priority and strength that they attribute to national identity and/or transnational identifications. My interactive perspective seeks to abridge the different views by drawing attention to the interactive nature of national identity and to the ways in which threatening and inspiring Significant Others shape the development and transformation of the national in-group identity. It would be misleading to consider national identity among immigrant diasporas as shaped only by their ties with the sending nation. However, it would be equally wrong to consider only the interaction between immigrant diasporas and their societies of settlement. I propose the National Self-Immigrant Other dynamic as a key mechanism that lies behind national identity transformation generally and suggest that in particular today globalization trends open the possibility of more complex, diversified and individualized identity repertoires. Without neglecting the presence of such repertoires, we should however remain cautious about their nature, as socio-cultural (race or religion), economic (class) and demographic (age, gender) factors condition the range of the repertoires that individuals can develop and organize national and ethnic identities from within.