Identity and Nation Building in Everyday Post-Socialist Life

This is the transcript of Dr Abel Polese’s interview with Viktor Stepanenko, Editor in Chief of the Ukrainain journal “Sociology: Theory, Methods and Marketing“, which will appear in Russian and Ukrainian in the next issue. The interview focuses on processes of nation-building as everyday practices in post-socialist states.

Viktor Stepanenko (VS) questions to Abel Polese (AP)

VS: In your book you argue that traditionally, scholarly literature  on nation-state building and national identity construction has adopted a top-down approach to investigate the formation of national identity and, as a consequence, the sphere of the informality and of the everyday life, its routine communication and practices which also actively contribute to the identity construction through debating, sometimes opposing, re-negotiating and transforming the meanings of national identity, have often been overlooked, if not ignored. Thus, your book (and the approach suggested) add very important aspects (of informal everyday practices) to the studies on nationalism and ethnic identity.

Now, in your opinion, what was the reasons of previous overlooking and neglecting these bottom informal practices? Was it the traditions in treating and understanding the national identity construction as the predominantly top-down political process? Was it also the consequences of dominance of certain (positivist or constructivist) research methodologies dominated in political science and in studies on nationalism? Or, maybe, these was also connected to modern (historical) algorithms and scenarios of the national identity construction that has been currently changing under post-modern conditions?

AP: In the social sciences, as in any other fields, and spheres of life, there are fashions, and waves of topics. There are people working on something in a certain way and this inspires other people. Likewise, there are events that inspire people and people who enter a new field: think of how Ukrainian studies have been boosted by the Orange Revolution of 2004, I have never seen so many PhD proposals on the same topic altogether in the following months.

When you enter a new field you look for references and previous studies and replicate them in a way that extends the field. These are the very basics of development, or learning. When you learn to draw you first copy pictures from famous painters; when you learn to play music you perform existing things.

At some point you feel confident enough to produce your own produces and to take distance from existing ones. The first wave of identity studies in the former socialist region were strongly influenced by the most visible scholars at the time and they had proposed a certain view. It took time for a new generation to read them, like them and then find weak points in their reasoning. We have now been helped by findings in other fields. The everyday, informality are the ones we use in the book but there is obviously much more.

One innovative aspect of the book is to deal with the tangible-intangible dichotomy. We have made an attempt to “measure the unmeasurable”, or to touch, and pinch, things that are difficult to touch and these concepts, and approaches, are slippery. For one thing, we cannot go to a policy maker and ask them to consider the informal or the idea of ordinary citizens unless there is an “objective” way to measure it. Tools are still underdeveloped so preference is given to elements that are tangible, measurable and easier to deal with. This is the very meaning of mainstream to me: things that are easier to understand and explain and that, eventually, appeal a large amount of people (or scholars, in our case).


VS: Identity, and particularly national one, is a complex and somewhat obscure (in terms of Brubaker’s “Beyond identity”) subject which was covered in the whole industry of studies and intervened in many scholarly debates. And to my mind, the very complexity of the issue of (national) identity and its understanding partly explain this.

Would you agree that meanings of national identity in practice are always only the parts or aspects of the whole integral meaning of one’s personal identity (including social, gender, professional etc. aspects)? In this way one can always speaks about multiple (hybrid) identities rather than one (clear) identity, even at national level. And if yes, who are the keepers of group identity as national identity is? Could it be kept only on everyday level without such traditional keepers as the state, elite, intellectual which are the most active in producing the imaginary meanings?

AP: Research, but also my personal experience, suggest that if you “deconstruct” an individual, you are likely to find several identities (sexual, ethnic, social) and most of them are social construct. Identity can be seen as “whom would you show solidarity to” but it is contextual so you could say “whom would you show solidarity to in a given situation” or whom would you offer solidarity to when surrounded by other people”. What would you (Viktor) emphasise when meeting people in L’viv or Donetsk is not the same, I would guess. The same happens if you are in the company of other academics, of workers, teachers, representatives of other categories. We want to be accepted by our “peers” (and who is your peer depends on the context) in the end so, in any context, we are more likely to look for things we have in common with the majority of the people in a given room (or with our interlocutor, if we are just talking to one person)

National identity is but one of the available identities that an individual, or a citizen, is able to display. To date, it is one of the most effective ones because it is inclusive and exclusive at the same time. It is inclusive because you are able to pair up with millions of other people who are “like you” or that you imagine like you having never encountered, or heard of, the majority of them. It is exclusive because, not matter how large is this community, leaves out a sufficient amount of “others” to make you feel that you are part of an “exclusive club”. But this is a construct of our history rather than a product of nature. Think of two villages or cities that, by caprice of history, have found themselves on distinct sides of one border and now look at one another as “foreigners”.

It reminds me of “the selfish gene” part in which Richard Dawkins suggests that genes, who previously came to prefer assembling in large bodies (dinosaurs) to maximise their reproductive success now assemble in human bodies because this is what, at this stage of history, maximises their chances of a gene being transferred to a next generation.

In this moment of world history genes have preferred assembling themselves into human bodies. Likewise, in this moment of human history, individuals have come to prefer to gather around values, amongst which there is nationalism and it has worked pretty well. It is possible that in 500 years some other sentiment may replace nationalism in importance and role.

“keepers” of national identity, as you call them, are those who identify identity markers. Then some markers come to be felt, by a large amount of a given population as “right”, or simply close, and have “survived”. Some other markers have remained anonymous and disappeared. Some others are well present, but in the mind of small fraction of a population and maybe one day will be revisited or rediscovered and then used politically.

There is little predictability about which ones of these markers will emerge. But our studies suggest that marker selection is no (longer?) a monopoly of national elites, just like music hits are not a monopoly of large disco graphic companies. Companies propose singers and songs with little predictability on which one will be on everyone’s mouth after some days and which one will stay anonymous. There are various opportunities, and channels, for dissemination so that even a song recorded in a garage might get viral through YouTube nowadays. Likewise, a marker that has not been proposed by the state and spreads, like a virus, mouth-to-ear, might end up appealing an unexpectedly high amount of citizens. In such cases it becomes “spontaneously” as I say, a national identity marker.


VS: Following the previous and regarding various meanings and interpretations of national identity. In studying informal spontaneous identity formation do you distinguish (and if so – how?) between the meanings of national and civic identities?

AP: “Spontaneous nation building” was an idea that I developed during my PhD thesis to suggest that common people do not simply sit and wait, while the elites “build the nation”. Ordinary people have the agency to reject, renegotiate or counter-propose the identity markers proposed by the elites. The agency of a single individual, in the economy of a society, is limited. But once a marker renegotiated by a few individuals become widely accepted then it has the same value as a marker proposed by the an elite. In this I borrow from Navaro-Yashin’s work. In her book “faces of the state” she suggests that the capacity to “construct the political” is a feature of not only political institutions or political actors. In fact, anyone and everyone contributes to the construction of the political with every single action of their daily life. But not all actions are remarked, endorsed or adopted by a sufficient number of actors to be considered relevant.

Think of what Gellner said about the existence of thousands of potential nations. It is just a matter of opportunities, context and coincidence if that or that nation emerges as a “winner” whereas other nations “loose” and eventually get absorbed by a winning nation nation, (partly) forgetting who they were in a first instance.

I do not rule out that people, aware of this or not, are willing and able to separate national from civic identities. Which ones of these identities emerge as “winners” in a given context, or a country, it is difficult to predict. Again, we can only assume that the range of identities that can emerge is much wider than the number of identities that we may imagine in a single head (or country)


VS: Instruction, infusion, indoctrination are the traditional channels of transmission of the meanings of identity (and of identity policy) in the terms of top-down approach. Instead you are focused on the processes of spontaneous identity construction at the everyday level and, for example, in media, culture and consumption. But what if this seemingly spontaneous bottom up practices is also the important part of organised political strategy? – I am referring here, for examples, to sophisticated commercial advertising strategies of consumption which intentionally built as they would be spontaneous and self-organised from the below? What are the criteria or signs of authentic spontaneity of informal identity construction in everyday? Is it possible at all to separate and distinguish this?

AP: Not really. I define “spontaneous” identity construction that springs from two distinct (theoretical) situations. One is when the political elites make some decisions that, although not initially conceived to influence identity,  lead to the creation, or adoption, of some (new) identity markers. The other is when citizens themselves come up with identity markers that become so widely accepted that they end up being considered part of a national identity.

My example one of the books is the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine that, born as a political movement to contest the current regime, it eventually transformed the self perception of thousands, not to say millions, of citizens in the country. Another previous example was the creation of a personality cult in Turkmenistan. You can like or loath the president but, as long as he is a reference in your daily life, he becomes part of your identity.

However, as Migdal already noticed in his “State in the society”, the state and the society are interrelated and they need one another. State-inducted identity markers need to be legitimated by the society. We will probably never learn about identity markers proposed by the elites that were simply ignored by the people because they eventually died out. Markers proposed by the people should also be endorsed by the state, albeit passively. If a state decides to repress violently, or at least severely, an identity marker chances are that the marker will be abandoned. In contrast, by simply not punishing, or fight against, a new marker proposed by some segments of the society a state is tacitly endorsing it.

This is not, however, a guarantee that the marker will become widely accepted and will “go to the next level”, when it will be widely accepted by a given society.


VS: Your book is concentrated in the Eastern European post-communist region. Though, nation identity is never ended process and nation, in Renan’s terms, is always (every-)daily referendum. Would your approach be also relevant to Western European cases or American?

AP: My research on post-communism, and positioning as an area studies scholar (well, sometimes) is half incidental. I mean, I love the region, I fell in love with it during my university years and I am happy it to be my to be working there often. However, over the years, I have had the chance to test my views against what I could hear from people from other countries, and disciplines, and what I could observe dynamics in a number of other situations.

I do not feel that dynamics of identity construction, in this respect, change significantly across geographical areas.

There will be always be two opposite positions: universalist vs particularist. Universalists try to explain world tendencies through a single theoretical approach while particularists may claim that “our case is a special one”. In many respects both are “right” and things can be looked through from either perspective.

I think the region is special, and much can be said about local dynamics. But some mechanisms that are used to construct, consolidate or challenge, identities are very similar. All countries have a national discourse based on a number of markers, most of which have been explored by Anthony Smith, and a competition between elites (and elites’ constructed narratives) and common people, who have the possibility to challenge these narratives. The extent to which each of them come to count to the final outcome, then, depends on the context and opportunities provided.


VS: Now, let me ask you about the Ukrainian case and experience in the complex identity construction. And this case under the current circumstances (annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas) has, for me, its own specificity – I would say, this is the case of threatened and/or contested national identity. In your approach, are there any differences of this case comparing to other Eastern European ones? For example, in the case of Ukraine I mean that politics (and even geo-politics which might be usually considered as the elite and state business) are becoming the part of everyday life. And for example, is the only the experience and campaign of boycott of Russian goods would be meaningful in your approach of informal identity construction? Would it be also, for example, the powerful wave of volunteering movement from “below” and the significant experience of recent everyday practices of national identity construction?

AP: Let me start with a culinary answer. When you bake a cake, or a pie, you can use different ingredients and have different outcomes but the main steps, and actions, are the same almost always and everywhere. You mix some ingredients that come to make the core taste of your cake (the cream, or filling) and wrap them, or embed them, into other ingredients that will contain them. Basically you have some cream inside and dough outside. You could then burn the cake, overcook it, mess something up and end up with something that was even better than the original.

Construction of a national identity follows a similar pattern: ingredients are similar, outputs are not. You have an core (elite) group asserting a certain identity that then looks for a framework (a state or one sub-unit like a region or an area usually), discovers, or rediscovers, then selects, bits that are to make part of historical memory and current narratives. You have the target group: the people who have to endorse a national discourse.

Sometimes you need “the bad guys” since identity construction is more effective when you have an enemy. The more you dig the more you can find specificities for a given case. There are also different ways a polity, or common people, can react. In some places open contestation or confrontation is not allowed, not possible, or simply not worth the effort. In such cases informal dynamics (uncoordinated or even unaware actions) may come to have a higher importance. It looks to me that Ukrainian case may be regarded as holding a strong “spontaneous” element in that people have started a number of actions and initiatives that were otherwise not possible through formal or official channels.


VS: I would also take a risk in saying that Ukrainian case should be interesting and also challenging for you approach since in this case the very scheme of the identity construction in the top-down mechanics always was and still questioned practically in many aspects. I would say that in the case of Ukraine the meanings of national identity were and are mostly proceeded spontaneously, at the bottom level and the state and mostly opportunistic political elite are rather adopting themselves to these processes rather then directing them. The strategies of the Euromaidan and of the current war are the good examples of this, since the state appear to be a weak director of these processes and rather active social groups and opinion makers took the lead in that. Would you agree? This is, by the way, not only the Ukrainian case. And if one would refer to current populist trend in Europe (not only Eastern) there could be also interesting implication in studying the popular agencies’ activities at everyday level and their fusions with macro-institutions.

AP: Well, as I answered above I can’t but agree. The Ukrainian case is “easier” in that in times of crisis people act faster, are more emotionally involved and some phenomena become more visible (and evolve more rapidly). Ukraine is in no way unique but still, an excellent social science laboratory where things are changing rapidly and some dynamics have become much more visible with fewer efforts than elsewhere.


VS: And final question! ) I am greatly support your approach relying mostly on qualitative methods and focusing on the sphere of everyday practices and paying the great attention to ordinary people’s micro-activities and communication as the important and still overlooked agencies. And I can imagine that this approach could be very valuable in studying not only national identity processes, but also be relevant in studying various macro-institutions, as for examples, democracy or the institutions of justice. Are you going to apply this approach to other fields and spheres of social research? What are your further research plans?

AP: I am a fan of mixed approaches, at least for the sake of visibility and explanation. I can feel that something is important, relevant, or special, but to be able to come up with a solid argument, and possibly convince other people, you need to advocate for the relevance of your explanation. You need thus figures, at least as a starting point. You can criticise these figures, the collection methodology, the idea behind. But you have at least a starting point into which you can insert your case, your ideas or in general how you see things.

Then it becomes a matter of your capacity to observe, deduce, report. A good qualitative study is like a good picture. You capture the moment, a micro aspect of the place you are visiting. Then show it to people around you. If they recognise the place, identify with the picture and the values embedded into it, then you can think of it as a a good picture. Qualitative research is a way to depict a situation, tell a story that, by force of evidence, cannot be considered representative (not scientifically at least) of what you are observing. But when people around you, or locals, read it it sounds convincing and they can identify with it.

As for further research plans, I have changed direction and am now more in science and research policy. I will continue to publish papers on informality, perhaps deal with identity, but my next book “the scopus diaries” is a manual on how to build your own academic career and how to design a strategy allowing you to balance what you have to do with what you want and like to do in academia.



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