22 November 2019

Interdisciplinary Symposium Identity and Inequality: the Role of Institutions

The many aspects of identity

On 15 November, Belle Derks, Marco van Leeuwen and Joop Schippers organized an interdisciplinary symposium concerned with the topic of inequality, with an emphasis on the role of identity therein. Scholars from a wide array of disciplines coalesced to enlighten the various aspects of a concept like identity. Even though everyone has some kind of idea what identity entails, a clear and complete definition remains difficult to find, as Van Leeuwen aptly put it in his introduction.

Sjoerd Beugelsdijk: National Identity

The first speaker of the day, Sjoerd Beugelsdijk, approached the topic of identity from a national perspective. In a large-scale study that Beugelsdijk has carried out in collaboration with a team of researchers of the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, SCP), he attempted to uncover the key elements of the Dutch national identity.

We found a ‘holy trinity’ of what people perceived as being Dutch: the Dutch language, a number of symbols and traditions and, finally, civic liberties.

Beugelsdijk found a ‘holy trinity’ of what people perceived as being Dutch: the Dutch language, a number of symbols and traditions and, finally, civic liberties. Even though Dutch people shared these three broad elements to a large degree, the second (symbols and traditions) and the third (civic liberties) can be at odds with each other.

Ethic and civic identification

Based on their large empirical survey, Beugelsdijk and his fellow researchers thus concluded that there are essentially two ways of identifying with the Dutch nation-state, namely an ethnic identification that stresses the importance of symbols and traditions, and a civic identification that stresses civic liberties. Though the ethnic/civic identification should be regarded as a continuum, the survey nevertheless showed that when people where asked to pick one of the two, the group that chose the ethnic identification was much larger than the group that chose the civic one.

Beugelsdijk concluded his talk with the prediction that societal debate concerning the Dutch national identity in the near future is likely to be driven by this ethnic/civic polarity. Ingeniously, Beugelsdijk incited the audience by stating that instead of asking the question ‘Who are we?’, in the case of national identity the more relevant question is ‘Who is we?’.

Kees van den Bos: Radicalization

Next to speak was Kees van den Bos, who focused on the question why people radicalize, by giving center stage to the role of their (self-)identification. Van den Bos empirically showed how different radical groups employ different feelings or judgments of unfairness, even though they all share a tendency of violently rejecting law and democracy.

The feeling of unfairness that right-wing extremists have is ‘horizontal’. Contrarily, radical Muslims feel unjustly treated in a ‘vertical’ way.
Prof. dr. Kees van den Bos. Foto: Ed van Rijswijk

The feeling of unfairness that right-wing extremists have is ‘horizontal’, contrasting themselves with a different civil group (often Muslims), Van den Bos explained. Contrarily, radical Muslims feel unjustly treated in a ‘vertical’ way, namely by institutions above them, such as the government, the police and other hierarchical organizations. Finally, Van den Bos described how left-wing extremists’ feeling of unfairness derives from their belief of being morally right and possessing moral superiority over others.

Prevent feelings of unfairness

Van den Bos maintained that many of these feelings of unfairness can be prevented or alleviated, for instance by devaluing the radical groups as an attractive source of identification, or by making alternative groups more relevant. According to Van den Bos, the feeling of moral superiority or righteousness is most difficult to prevent or reduce. In the latter part of his talk, he showed how the radicalization of the Zwartepietdiscussie (the Dutch discussion concerning ‘Black Pete’), follows a particular pattern, from a feeling of not being adequately heard by the government, through a focus on the opponent with incidental violence, to systematic, planned violence against the opponent.

Tineke Fokkema: The identification of older migrants

After a well-deserved lunch break, Tineke Fokkema kicked off the afternoon program with a lecture on the complicated identity of older migrants in the Netherlands. Firstly, she demonstrated how older migrants are an often overlooked group in scholarly research, since migrant studies often focus on younger migrants or more recent newcomers, whereas ageing studies often exclude migrants, because they are harder to reach and more difficult to communicate with. As such, the study that Fokkema carried out can certainly be regarded as pioneering.

Transnational belonging

The research focused on a number of migrants from a village in rural Central Anatolia (Turkey), who emigrated to Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands when they were younger. Based on interviews with these migrants, Fokkema showed how all of them identified with both their country of origin and the countries they migrated to.[SS(1]  This feeling of ‘transnational belonging’ was sometimes expressed positively — by emphasizing belonging in both the country of origin and the country of destination —, but sometimes negatively as well — by expressing feelings of not belonging in either place.

All of the interviewed migrants identified with both their country of origin and the countries they migrated to.

Fokkema continued to show the older migrants’ dichotomy of liking some aspects of life in Turkey and some aspects of life in Europe, across numerous topics. Importantly, the older migrants indicated feelings of loneliness to a much higher degree than people in their age-group without a migration background. Thus, Fokkema concluded that the feelings of transnational belonging certainly did not protect older migrants against loneliness.

Diederick Raven: Brexit & Confused identity

Subsequently, the floor was given to Diederick Raven, who presented Brexit first and foremost as an issue of identity. Firstly, Raven acknowledged the message that Van Leeuwen had conveyed in his introduction: identity is an opaque concept, with no clear definition. He added that there is also a methodological problem regarding the concept of identity, namely that self-identity is ascribed identity, and therefore conditional and fluent. Moreover, Raven asserted that there can be no identity without difference, an in-group needs an out-group to self-identify: ‘the stranger is the danger’.

In a traditional, artisanal society, identity had been more or less fixed, but in a modern society the concept has become a process.

In a traditional, artisanal society, identity had been more or less fixed, but in a modern society, Raven maintained that the concept has become a process: a dynamic construction of the difference between oneself and the ‘other’. Following Stuart Hall, Raven perceives national culture and identity as a way of counterbalancing this dynamism, a grand and overarching discourse. To exemplify a way of English national identity taking form, Raven played the country’s ‘unofficial anthem’ Jerusalem, based on the poem by William Blake. Also presenting a British, ‘imperial’ identity, Raven then treated the audience to Britannia rules the waves.

Exceptionalism and imperial dominance

These two musical intermezzos served to show the cultural and national identity of the United Kingdom, based on exceptionalism and imperial dominance. In his conclusion, Raven connected Brexit to that identity. By stating that in British culture ‘you’re either the master or the slave’, and by noting how the European Union is often perceived to be the contemporary master — and, hence, the United Kingdom the slave — Raven gathered that Brexit is an attempt to regain the role of the master.

Coen Teulings: A risk-sharing identity

Coen Teulings, the last speaker of the day, gave an economic outlook on Dutch identity. More to the point, he stressed the importance of people’s willingness to share economic risk. In Dutch society, by far the most important and elaborate institution where risk is shared is the pension system. Teulings showed that the two most important areas in which pension funds can invest are capital stock and government debt. Whereas the latter is risk-free, the investment in capital stock —which is four times as large— is by definition risky investment.

Reduce risks

Teulings continued by presenting the sophisticated method the pension funds have evolved to bear and share these risky investments. The pension funds can reduce risk most efficiently when it can be divided over all the country’s inhabitants, so rationally speaking membership should be made mandatory, asserted Teulings. However, making pension fund membership mandatory requires a great deal of political and civil solidarity, which seems to ebb further and further.

A lot of contemporary political rhetoric is essentially left-wing, but it nevertheless lacks the will for collective institutions such as unions and pension funds.
Coen Teulings

Teulings noticed that while a lot of contemporary political rhetoric is essentially left-wing, it nevertheless lacks the will for collective institutions such as unions and pension funds. Thus, concluding his contribution, Teulings maintained that while the economic future of the pension fund system is rather secure, it still depends on the civil and political willingness to uphold such an elaborate arrangement of solidarity.

Round up

All in all, the five speakers approached the topic of identity from a wide variety of angles and provided the audience with insightful analyses. Their contributions, as well as their lively and in-depth discussions with the engaged attendees, made this second interdisciplinary symposium a great success. We hope to see all of you again next year!

Institutions for Open Societies

This symposium is organized by Belle Derks, Marco van Leeuwen and Joop Schippers, all involved in the research stream Inequality of the strategic theme Institutions for Open Societies (IOS). This is one of the four interdisciplinary research areas of Utrecht University. IOS research focuses on the development and growth of healthy open societies everywhere.