Workshop 1. Breaching banal nationalism

Convenors: Jon Fox (Bristol University) and Maarten Van Ginderachter (Antwerp University)

Venue: Antwerp University
27-28 May 2016


Marco Antonsich (Loughborough University)

Bruno De Wever (Ghent University)

Tim Edensor (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Jon Fox (Bristol University)

Jonathan Hearn (University of Edinburgh)

Michael Skey (University of East Anglia)

Andreas Stynen (NISE- Antwerp)

Eric Storm (Leiden University)

Maarten Van Ginderachter (Antwerp University)

Peter Vermeersch (Leuven University)

Programme text

Michael Billig’s 1995 book, Banal Nationalism, helped redefine the scholarship on nationalism by arguing that nationalism’s power rests not (only) in its ability to attract attention, but also in its ability to not attract attention. Whilst previous (and indeed subsequent) studies have been drawn to nationalism’s more spectacular manifestations (from violent internecine conflict and fiery nationalist rhetoric to national holiday celebrations and world cup football), Billig looked and located contemporary nationalism in the background of the world in which we live. For Billig, nationalism worked its magic not through flag waving, but through flags hanging limply, stealthily concocting a world of nations that is unselfconsciously imbibed as part of the taken-for-granted landscape of things. Billig’s insights helped change the way we think about – and study – nationalism, diverting our attention away from nationalism’s pomp and circumstance, its buttons and whistles, and refocusing our gaze on its banal reproduction.

Billig’s theory of banal nationalism is very compelling. But how can we know that he’s actually right? What is the evidence that nationalism is banal? To be sure, Billig locates banal nationhood in limp flags and everyday media discourse. But nationhood is only banal because we do not notice it in these or other forms. What is the evidence for us not noticing banal nationhood? Banal nationalism is ‘out there’, but how does it get ‘in here’, in our heads, to constitute part of the natural order of things? Whilst Billig provides a theory of how this might work, neither he nor others inspired by his work have supplied the actual explanation for or evidence of how this works in practice.

The aim of this workshop is to assemble scholars of nationalism working in diverse fields to consider and indeed generate new ideas, insights, and approaches to the empirically grounded and theoretically informed study of banal nationalism. We are interested in uncovering the actual practices and processes through which nationhood is taken for granted as a fixture of the world in which we live, unseen, unheard, unquestioned, unchallenged. The ethnomethodologist, Harold Garfinkel, tried to understand these ‘background expectancies’ by ‘breaching’ them; hence the title for this workshop. Garfinkel tasked his postgrads with a number of experiments aimed at upsetting our cherished social order. He asked his students to face the wrong way in a lift, or, more perplexingly, to go home to their parents and act as if they were complete strangers. The strategies worked: they produced consternation and bewilderment, and then ‘repair work’ (as it was later called by conversation analysts) to restore the social order, status quo ante. These breaches made the implicit explicit and the invisible visible; in other words, they produced evidence of those otherwise hidden background expectancies and made them the object of conscious and critical reflection.

We thus take inspiration from Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology and other micro-analytical traditions such as phenomenology, social psychology, and Billig’s own rhetorical psychology to better appreciate the ways in which background expectancies, like the nation, are constituted and maintained. We are interested in what constitutes evidence of banal nationhood, from the discursive and interactional to the textual and historical. Our aim is to develop new approaches to explore and understand how the received social order becomes a received national order. We invite contributions from scholars working in diverse fields with varied methodological and theoretical agendas.  The end goal is to publish an edited volume with an international academic publisher or a themed issue of an international academic journal.

This project is coordinated by the POHIS-Centre for political history of Antwerp University and funded by the ‘International Scientific Research’ program of the Research Foundation of Flanders.