The State and Its Nation-Builders

Our research project ‘Negotiating the nation’ focused on how different people discussed the nation’s borders and questions related to national identity.

Specific parts of this project examined, among other, how «ordinary» men and women thematized national identity, how mayors on 17 May handled the balance between being inclusive but at the same time emphasizing the national, and how the King in his speeches on New Year’s Eve managed the same balancing act.

Photo: Bent Tranberg / Flickr

One group in particular was very reluctant to engage explicitly with questions of national identity, namely the backbone of the nation-state, the bureaucrats. Their caution was linked to the exclusionary dimensions of national identity, especially if targeted toward immigrants and national minorities. It is also well known that questions about Norwegianness are often controversial.

Bureaucrats in different institutions have different ideas about the nation

In our latest article we ask what is the imagined community envisaged by bureaucrats assigned to administer the state’s nation-building efforts? We analysed official documents, parliamentary debates, and interviews conducted with 11 bureaucrats based in various ministries. Our approach is that one also needs a better understanding of how people who work in the state sysem think about their work as nation-builders.

In a liberal democracy such as Norway, the state is obviously not closed off from the public and unanimous in its views, but rather is publicly accessible and includes a diverse range of opinions. Nevertheless, it is an interesting paradox when we find that the concepts being drawn on contain elements of both ethnic nationalism and a more civic nationalism.

In other words, understandings of the nation that draw more on heritage, ancestry and blood ties, but also at the same time on the political community of citizens. There is room for both an open understanding of the nation as a community of which one can become a member – demos; and more restrictive understandings, to which exclusion and exclusionary mechanisms are central – etnos.

Accordingly, the understanding of the nation that is seen as fundamental by the nation-state itself, is an understanding that both upholds, but also transcends, the demarcation between etnos and demos. This should come as no surprise, as for several decades, international research into understandings of the nation has emphasized precisely the interplay and dialectic in the relationship between etnos and demos, which are often interdependent, rather than contradictory.

The state’s understanding of the nation thus encompasses a diversity of views. Among the bureaucrats we interviewed, we found a link between the ministries where bureaucrats worked and their understanding of the nation. For example, bureaucrats who worked on integration, diversity and refugee settlement tended to have more open and inclusive understandings, while bureaucrats who worked on immigration control and asylum matters tended to have more closed and exclusionary understandings.

At the same time, bureaucrats are just as complex as people in general, and they reflect on dilemmas and contradictions, including basic understandings of the nation. Accordingly, we can say that the nation-state’s understandings of the nation do not appear to be unanimous. Rather, they are multivocal.

Dilemmas and conflicts

Some of the bureaucrats we interviewed did not want to distance themselves too far from what they perceived as ‘most people’s opinion’. They reflected on how ethnic origin is perceived as currently relevant in many people’s everyday lives, and were concerned that the state’s nation-building efforts should not be out of step with, or be perceived as remote from, the neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools where people live their lives. Their reflections were characterized by negotiations over dilemmas and conflicts about what the nation actually is.

Based on our interviews, overall, we found different ideas about the Norwegian state’s approach to the national, and what understanding(s) of the nation must, could or should be seen as fundamental. We met bureaucrats who were cautious in their interaction with the concept of the nation, and with ideas about the nation, the national community and national belonging. Their caution was based on their awareness of the inherently exclusionary characteristics of the concept of the nation. For some of the bureaucrats contributing to an inclusive and pluralistic national ‘we’, where national minorities and migration-related diversity had a completely natural and legitimate place in the understanding of the nation, clearly mattered.

The bureaucrats had different understandings of the nature of our shared national values and how community should be defined, and also referred to their own experiences of the nation, as well as that of others. To some, the conceptual basis for the nation and understandings of the nation were very important; for others they were completely unimportant. Some thought that the idea of the nation was, and should be, an implicit frame of reference, while for others it was explicit. While some thought that the state should take active ownership of nation-building as a project, others thought that nation-building was not so important, and that the state should actively avoid projects that had an aura of nationalism.

Explanations of the caution

Bureaucrats’ caution when addressing concepts of national identity and nation-building can perhaps be explained in three ways:

  1. the heated debate, in particular about migration-related diversity, contributes to a desire among level-headed bureaucrats to keep their distance and adopt a cautious attitude;
  2. the variations in understandings of the nation among the political parties in government, in particular the Conservatives and the Progress Party (who were in government when our interviews were conducted), may have also contributed to the need to be guarded. Bureaucrats must be loyal to changing governments that as a pure matter of fact have somewhat different views of the nation and migration-related diversity; and
  3. a possible tendency among highly educated people, such as bureaucrats, to see the world from what we might call a cosmopolitan perspective, whereby one distances oneself from questions about the nation, quite simply because these are seen primarily as exclusionary.

Controversial issues create reluctance

When bureaucrats talk about ‘the nation’, whom are they talking about and to? Does this ‘perceived community’ match the demographic composition of the population of Norway today? And what role does citizenship or origin play?

Such questions are equally relevant in all nation-states. For a liberal democracy and welfare state such as Norway, in practice the state bases its understanding of the nation on a future common destiny.

We’re in the same boat – as taxpayers, pensioners or benefits recipients. But how inclusively should the national community be defined? This is a politically controversial question on which the bureaucrats were reluctant to take a clear position. It is an important question in Norway today, however, because what is the ‘imagined community’ that political Norway speaks about, and to?

  • This blog post draws on a previously published op-ed in Norwegian at Forskersonen 24 May 2021.
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
  • Marta Bivand Erdal is Research Professor & Research Director, at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Katrine Fangen is Professor at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo and Research Leader at C-REX
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