Child and Nation

A Study of Political Socialisation and Banal Nationalism in France and England

by Katharine Throssell (Volume editor)
©2015 Monographs 452 Pages


Where do feelings of national belonging come from? Why is it that this belonging often seems both fundamental and banal, both intangible and omnipresent?
This book argues that the answers to these questions lie in childhood and the socialisation to the nation that we experience as children. It suggests that the banality of our own everyday nationalism is due to the fact that we have spent our lives learning to take it for granted. Just as our first understandings of reality are learned during childhood socialisation, so nationhood and national belonging are internalised as natural and necessary from the very beginning of our lives. The specific nature of this early socialisation is what confers upon banal nationalism its characteristic combination of omnipresence, inscrutability and self-evidence.
To try and get around this self-evidence and explore this socialisation and its results, this study has adopted an innovative methodology involving semi-directive projective interviews with young children in France and England. This book presents an analysis of how this early socialisation to the nation plays out on young children’s visions of national belonging and its justifications and implications. It also looks at what this transmission in childhood means for nationalism as an ideology and the power and pertinence of the nation today.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part One. Nationalism as socialisation
  • Chapter I. ‘What nationalism is all about’: state socialisation and the national project
  • Chapter II. ‘Eat your peas and love your country’: everyday socialisation and banal nationalism
  • Chapter III. Socialisation to the nation, socialisation to politics
  • Chapter IV. The child and the nation
  • Part Two. The nation in the mouths of babes
  • Chapter V. Self and Nation
  • Chapter VI. Self and Other
  • Chapter VII. Home, Homeland and Affect
  • Chapter VIII. Power and Politics
  • General Conclusion
  • The Nursemaid of Nations
  • Appendix: Methodology
  • Studying nationalism with children
  • Procedure and protocol
  • Interview structure
  • Analysis
  • Participants
  • Bibliography

← 8 | 9 → Acknowledgements

First and foremost my deepest thanks and recognition to Sophie Duchesne, who supervised this research and has been my guide and mentor and who is a perpetual source of inspiration and encouragement. Her patience, guidance and understanding, as well as her criticism and her unfailingly high expectations encouraged me to believe in myself and in the value of this research.

Thanks to Tim Edensor for his support and suggestions at the ASEN conference in 2011; to John Fox for his exchanges with me on these questions; and also to Michael Skey for his comments.

Luc Borot, OXPO and the MFO for enabling my stay in Oxford, and for the opportunity to present my research in different forums, and exchange with so many, thanks particularly to Elizabeth Frazer, Kalypso Nicolaïdis, Jean-Pascal Daloz, and Vincent Tiberj. Thanks also to my wonderful friends and colleagues at the MFO, who made my time there so rich, Anne-Julie, Marine, Blaise, Berengère, Christophe, Marie-Violaine, Annabel and Corinne.

Thanks to the researchers in the Sociology Department at the University of Oxford for their warm welcome, and most particularly to Anthony Heath and Katharine Silk, for their help and support. Thanks also to Vicky Bolliver, Robin Mann and Marouissia Raveaud for their comments and feedback on various papers and projects related to this research. Thanks also to my colleagues in the department, particularly Andrew Shipley, Mathilde Turcotte and Cecilia Tinonin.

To my colleagues and friends at Sciences Po who gave me valuable comments on my research at different stages, particular thanks to Viviane Le Hay for her help with SPAD, Florence Haegel for her comments during our shared doctoral seminar, to Antoine, Charlotte, Nuria, Luca, Guillaume and Virginie for their comments and support inside our seminars and out. To Geraldine Bozec also and especially, who helped me from day one right up until the end. A huge thank you also to Vincent Guilluy for his time, transcriptions and translations.

Thank you also to Sarah and Robert Paddle for their advice and encouragement through the publication process. My deepest gratitude also to the Institut des Sciences sociales du Politique (ISP) and the réAnalyse ANR funded project, for making this publication possible.

← 9 | 10 → Immeasurable thanks to all the schools and teachers who welcomed me into their classes, and most especially to the families and children who participated in the study.

Finally, all my love and thanks to my family both near and far. This book is dedicated to my two boys, growing up in a world of nations.

← 12 | 13 → Introduction

I grew up in Australia during the height of multiculturalism in the 1980s. But the storybooks of my childhood were often about England, all snowy winters and robin redbreasts, or European fairytales full of wolves and dark forests. Our forests, however, are rarely snowy, and they are not tall and straight like the ones in those books – instead they are the untamed density of the bush. Our Christmases were hot, with swimming, mangoes and ice-cream; we learned that Father Christmas took his fur-lined boots off and swapped his reindeers for six white kangaroos when he arrived in Australia. At primary school we read dreamtime stories and were taught that this heritage of indigenous culture, colonisation and immigration was Australia’s strength and specificity. We learnt that diversity is beautiful; that “we are one, but we are many”. Reflecting the largest local immigrant community, we learnt Italian as our first language; signs at the local swimming pool read “Aqua Profunda/Deep Water” and at Christmas we were visited by Befana the witch in our classrooms. On Monday mornings we lined up at Assembly, in our red and white checked school dresses, to sing “Advance Australia Fair” before the flag. When I first started school, I thought that Assembly was called “Grand Final”, mistaking one celebration of the nation for another – the final game of the Aussie Rules football season – at least as important in the national psyche as more official celebrations.

For those who migrate, like for those who travel, the national context becomes more visible; norms and mores, rules and rituals are all slightly different, like a shoe that doesn’t quite fit. Flags are more visible, they have a certain novelty that flags “back home” don’t have. In part, this book stemmed from my experience as an immigrant in France, where I found that things I had taken for granted – like the value of diversity and multiculturalism – were no longer given; I discovered that “community” could be a negatively charged word. Nine years after my first arrival in France, I still find myself negotiating the occasional tensions between my Anglo-Saxon background and the context of contemporary France that I attempt to apply it to. Multiculturalism, I discovered, was just the tip of the iceberg. My cultural assumptions and preconceptions are regularly thrown into disarray on issues as varied as sexism, gender roles, the use of public spaces (for urination or breastfeeding for example), private property versus hunting rights, and whether the state is “moralistic” because ← 13 | 14 → it legislated in favour of those who don’t smoke. These debates often end in the timid conclusion that “it must be cultural”, but where does this culture come from? Although much can be traced to the impact of an individual family, in a particular socio-economic context, the experience of migration led me to increasingly interrogate the national environment as a source of my own political culture, and the importance of childhood in this “enculturation”1.

Much ink has flowed in detailing the quirkiness of national others and their cultures. In particular there is a plethora of English-language paperbacks on how strange the French are, with titles like “Sixty Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”2, “Almost French”3 and “A year in the Merde”4 (which went on to become a phenomenal bestseller). Strangely enough, the French don’t seem nearly so interested in the peculiarities of the English (or Americans or Australians). But then the English even undertake these “national anthropologies” of themselves – Kate Fox’s extremely funny “Watching the English”5 is a case in point – in which the rules of social class, good manners, and how to conduct an appropriate conversation about the weather are meticulously analysed. But faced with these “how-to” guides, one can’t help noticing that, for the vast majority of insiders, they aren’t necessary. Somehow knowledge about appropriate and acceptable behaviour – whether it is to do with beginning a polite conversation, urinating in public, or how to protest against political decisions – is known, internalised and unquestioned, making up an unspoken status quo.

This research was thus born out of a personal, and then academic, curiosity as to how this knowledge is acquired, not just by immigrants, but indeed by everyone. It poses the question of the connection between this “cultural” knowledge (that we will see referred to as a national matrix or even as national habitus) and the development of a feeling of belonging in a national context. In light of my own experience, I wondered to what extent we learn as children to be “Australian”, “French”, “English”, and what impact that learning might then have on how we come to see ourselves, others, and what we consider normal and natural about the world. ← 14 | 15 → This led me to an interest in problems surrounding socialisation, and political socialisation in particular, and coincided with my reading Michael Billig’s Banal Nationalism, the book which is undoubtedly at the heart and the origin of this research.

A. Banal nationalism as socialisation

The concept of banal nationalism sent a major ripple through the field of nationalism studies, hitherto dominated by historical perspectives seeking to provide theoretical overviews of the emergence of nations and different kinds of nationalism. But while the classical scholars of nationalism were debating how nations are “born”, whether or not they have “navels”6, Billig instead asked, regardless of how they are born, how are nations maintained and perpetuated? His answer, as we will see in the more detailed discussion of his work in Chapter II, was that they are reproduced through signs, symbols and references to the nation that are omnipresent and yet go unnoticed in our everyday world. He refers to this process of reproduction as “flagging”, although the “flags” may be literal flags, “hanging unnoticed on a public building” as his metonymic image goes, or simple reminders – in products, slogans, or ads for example – that we live in a nation, in a world of nations.

A note on terminology is perhaps in order before we go any further. Given that part of the objective of this research is to understand what individuals mean by these notions, there is no attempt here to provide conclusive definitions of the nation or national belonging – especially given the widely documented difficulty in doing so7. Instead, in this study, these terms were kept voluntarily vague in order to accommodate the diversity of perspectives of the participants. In the text of the book we have chosen to privilege the term “nation” rather than “nation-state”, or “country” in order to emphasise its less concrete aspects; the role of myth, culture, and imagination. Above all, this is to emphasise its connection to the ideology of nationalism, understood here (following Billig) as the ideology which reproduces and perpetuates the world of nations “as ← 15 | 16 → today’s ‘natural’ social environment”8. In the interviews, however, the term “country”/“pays” was used in the prompts as it was more familiar to the children. There may therefore be an analytic gap between what the children say about their “country”, and how this is interpreted in terms of nationhood and national belonging. Although this gap must be recognised, ultimately when it comes to talking about England and France, about how one may or may not be English or French, and what the implications of this are, the impact of this gap is minimal. Furthermore, given the now highly politicised tenor of the phrase “national identity”, and its association with the search for a single definitive identity (as in the 2009 “Débat sur l’Identité Nationale” in France), we have shied away from a reliance on this term. Consequently we prefer to refer instead to national belonging, although naturally the implications of this belonging in terms of identification are also addressed when relevant. However, our usage largely follows Billig’s understanding of national identity not as a psychological state that can be measured or defined but as a “form of life”9; a way of being in the world that is based on the division of that world into national categories. For Billig this system of categories, this “form of life”, is lived and reproduced on a daily basis without necessarily being salient to the individual.

Billig argues that these everyday “flags” serve to reproduce the nation as a natural and necessary entity in the minds of those who see them daily but never notice them. These flags also give the nation its characteristic combination of intangibility and omnipresence10, its elusive influence making national belonging so much easier to “evoke than define”11. This framework of flags provides us with our “nationalising eye”, through which we take the existence of “our nation”, and other nations for granted, in the form of nation-states or peoples, as imagined communities, in notions of us and them, ours and theirs. Moreover, although we use these notions as meaningful social categories on an everyday basis, they often remain resistant to analytic interrogation, partly because “the banal episodes in which nationhood is mindlessly and countlessly flagged tend to ← 16 | 17 → be ignored by sociologists”12. Billig thus argues that the fact that “our nationalism” – the banal reproduction of the self-evidence of our nation in the system of nation-states – has remained so long outside the canon of nationalism studies is a sign of its power; its ability to play into the “intellectual amnesia” that naturalises “our nation” and its reproduction into invisibility. His book is therefore an appeal to explore the ways in which the perpetuation of established nations operates on an everyday level, for example through the “syntax of hegemony” that unmindfully perpetuates notions of “we” and “us” and “ours”.

However, despite the Copernican nature of this argument, turning nationalism on its head so to speak, and despite leading to the development of a small sub-field known as “everyday”13 or “ordinary” nationalism (as it is translated into French), this still remains a minority approach to nationalism. There seems to be a degree of reticence in the field to recognising the importance of this understanding of nationalism; those who study war zones or ethnic cleansing may well take a “so what” stance to our unmindful flags, or the supermarket’s claims that “all our sausages are British”.

However, Billig would argue that their complacency is misplaced, for this nationalism, although banal, is not benign14. On the contrary, it is a symptom of its extremely efficient ideological power that it is able to pass for “patriotism”, a familiar beast, whilst painting “nationalism” as a dangerous exotic species caught only in foreign parts15. Billig argues that the long-cherished distinction between nationalism and patriotism is simply a question of perspective, of defending “ours” and decrying “theirs”. He suggests that ultimately both stem from the same seed, the ideology of nationalism that justifies the existence and maintenance of a world divided like a jigsaw puzzle into national units and peoples. Billig therefore paints nationalism very clearly as “the most successful ideology in history”16, because it has succeeded in literally (with the exception of part of Antarctica) conquering the world, whilst simultaneously appearing ← 17 | 18 → innocuous, even invisible, on the “home” front. However, Billig argues that this sociological disinterest, which leads to the neglect of this form of nationalism in the literature, is not innocent – it is a powerful asset for the success of this ideology. Just as Renan said a nation must have forgotten aspects of its past, so must it “forget” its present reproduction17. The absence of critical investigation on the part of social scientists particularly contributes to the reproduction of the power and self-evidence of this nationalism. It was in the hope of contributing to Billig’s call for academic attention to this “forgotten” ideology and its mindless daily reproduction that this book was written.

Moreover, the question of why this nationalism is so easy to forget, so difficult to get a firm analytical hold of, remains largely unanswered by Billig. He suggests that it is because it is omnipresent, habitual and hegemonic, but this may not be the whole answer. This research in this book suggests that the reason we have such trouble recognising the effects of our “nationalising eye”, the impact of this all-encompassing ideology, is that we are born into it and learn to integrate it as the truth in the same way as we integrate other elements of social reality – in primary socialisation. Childhood is understood here as a key period for reality construction, and thus for the reproduction of the naturalness of nationalism. However, children are not the focus of this study because they are seen as providing a crystal ball to predict adult behaviour (this is not our objective), but rather because the specific nature of early socialisation confers particular characteristics to the reality that is internalised there – most particularly a combination of omnipresence, inscrutability and self-evidence.

Children as social actors have a particular experience of the world; their relationships to adults and their social status provide them with a different perspective on society. Naturally, their perspectives differ widely from each other, depending on their social situation, age, gender, personality and any number of other characteristics. However, sociology is beginning to address the specificity of this social category (for childhood is an institutional social category, although its members are transitory)18, both for itself, for its rules and rituals19; but also for what it can teach us ← 18 | 19 → about the social world more broadly. Indeed children’s perspectives on society have been found, by virtue of their particular perspective, to be imaginative and surprising, but also often more self-reflexive, less set in stone than their elders’20. But if children’s perspectives are seen to “command their own logic”21 they may nevertheless be informative about the social worlds we all live in. They may also for example be less adept at negotiating social taboo, or contradictory social norms than adults, which may be useful for us in terms of observing the tensions within their understandings of the nation. There appears to be a double advantage to interviewing children in this respect, on one hand the prospect of gaining insight into the particular relationship between childhood and socialisation to the nation, and on the other benefiting from the spontaneity and specificity of children’s perspectives.

The fundamental proposition of this book is that nationalism functions as a form of socialisation; that is, it instils in the individual a certain vision of the world as being normal and natural, a vision that can subsequently be taken for granted. This vision is considered to be ideological in the sense that it constitutes a pattern of belief and practice that makes the national status quo appear natural and inevitable, combining the three key functions of ideology, distortion, legitimation and integration22, as we will see in our discussion of the literature. Again following Billig, we understand nationalism as an ideology to the extent that it provides a particular reading of reality, which becomes a “habit of thought”23, naturalising and legitimising the division of the world into discrete national units and peoples, and reproducing the nation-state “as the accepted and generally desired form of community today”24. Here we are interested in how this division of the world may impact on the way individuals (and groups) see themselves and other groups in terms of belonging and categorisation, and how these self and other perceptions are informed by cultural differences that may be perceived in terms of nationhood. Individuals may react differently to or use differently the social messages they receive and ← 19 | 20 → the social reality they internalise, but this reality nevertheless becomes the unstated, unnoticed backdrop of their (our) lives. The nation, national belonging, and the system of nations, are all part of this backdrop; they go unnoticed because the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, whereby we “forget” that we remember, begins in early childhood. In other words, we “forget” to notice the nation’s flags because we have spent our lives “forgetting” them.

Explicitly exploring the connections between banal nationalism and primary socialisation, observing the roots of this ideology in childhood and more specifically in children’s visions of the world, may thus help elucidate how this form of nationalism operates and what it means for the way nations are reproduced and perpetuated over time. This is the ultimate goal of this book.

B. National context and comparison

This book also builds on a preliminary study that was conducted in 2007, which explored the same questions to do with socialisation to the nation from the perspective of a small group of Parisian children25. Working from an exclusively French perspective, this initial study raised the issue of the importance of conducting an international comparison in order to be able to distinguish whether the observations made were specific to a particular national context or not.

For example, one of the key observations in the 2007 study was to do with the role of ethnicity in the way the children imagined France and French people. The importance of “being white” came across very clearly in their responses, with one of the group even saying that she wasn’t French and never could be, because she was black. Another particularity that appeared in several children’s comments was importance of being “the same” as a way of affirming equality; the children affirming for example that racism means saying that people are different. In the context of this preliminary study it was hypothesised that this vision of equality could be understood in light of a particular understanding of equality as sameness existing within the French understanding of citizenship26. This connection is based on the idea of neutrality as a “bouleversement identitaire”27 by ← 20 | 21 → which an individual becomes a citizen through the domination of his/her other particular identities by the shared identity of common citizenship. The neutrality and equality upon which citizenship is based is thus also, in theory, based on a homogenisation of identity28. This slippage between homogeneity and equality has also been shown to be reflected in school textbooks and other materials, according to a HALDE study from 200729. Other theorists have even argued that this homogeneity, instead of attaining the neutrality it aspires to, in fact implicitly promotes an ethnic (white) norm that makes accessing the citizenship ideal particularly difficult for certain parts of the French population30. Moreover, the school system, in promoting a unified model of republican citizenship through an indifference to cultural differences, has also been found to be deeply ethnocentric in many respects31. In light of this literature it was thus hypothesised that the children’s vision of the French national group as white, and the importance they placed on being “the same”, might be interpreted as sign of the transmission of this particular vision of France and its political culture – part of “learning to be French”.

However, in order to test this hypothesis it was clearly necessary to compare these comments with those of children in a different political system. The importance of conducting an international comparison was therefore posed from the outset. England was selected as a comparison for both pragmatic reasons (to do with access and language – detailed in the methodology appendix), but also primarily because it was supposed that the multicultural tradition in Britain might provide a useful contrast to republican France, particularly in terms of the importance of ethnic norms, and the role of difference and sameness in the children’s ideas of belonging. The comparison was, however, limited to England ← 21 | 22 → (rather than Britain) primarily in order to avoid having to multiply field sites, and to avoid the salience of the national question in other parts of Britain32.

Although on questions of citizenship and nationhood, France is often compared to Germany33, and the United Kingdom to the United States34, there is also a substantial history of mutual evaluation and comparison “across the Channel”. Some theorists even suggest that the national identities of these two countries (such as they are) developed in direct opposition to each other. Jeremy Paxman traces this back to the Norman Conquest and the resulting ‘English’35 tradition of anti-French sentiment, partly in response to the Norman and Plantagenet monarchs and their ‘French’ courtly tongue36. Others situate the origin of this identity construction with the English reformation and the opposition between English Protestantism and French Catholicism37. Leah Greenfeld of course famously sums up the importance of this mutual gaze in her notion of “ressentiment”, which she sees as the driving force of nationalism, typified by the French resentment of England as a new power, and a driving force in the emergence of French nationalism at the end of the 19th century38. ← 22 | 23 → Anne-Marie Thiesse suggests that this mutual evaluation is characteristic of the historical development of national identities in Europe in general, the formation of which is “stemming from constant emulation”39 between nations. She argues that this is why national identities in Europe are so “similar in their differences”, each representing specific manifestations of a common norm40; sharing, as Billig would say, the international ideology of nationalism based on the universalisation of particularisms41.

Krishan Kumar has explicitly explored the two visions of nationalism and national identity that resulted from this cross-channel observation, arguing that they are characterised by “the narcissism of small differences”, rooted in their differing experiences of similar historical events, notably empire and colonisation. He also argues that the “revolutionary” experiences of France have given special importance to the role of history in the understanding of national identity, whereas the “evolutionary” trajectory of the English has led to a focus more on the present42. He argues that this, combined with the different focuses of their colonial missions led to an “indifference to nationalism” on the English side (given their ‘mission’ was founded in “Protestantism, parliamentary liberties, free trade and the rule of law”), and strong tradition of reflection on nationalism and the “national idea” in France (given their ‘mission’ was also to spread France’s “language, her culture, her arms and her genius”)43. Kumar also emphasises the role that these colonial missionary ideals had on the vision of citizenship at home and particularly on the importance of assimilation in France44 and policies of cultural diversity in the United Kingdom45.

Others have suggested that impact of these different colonial legacies has been overstated. Eric Bleich, for example, suggests that this theory “cannot cope with the variations in policy outcomes in both countries”, and specifically the attempts to assimilate immigrants in Britain prior to ← 23 | 24 → the 1960s and the brief push towards multiculturalism in France in the 1980s46. Indeed many authors suggest that the traditional opposition between multicultural Britain and assimilationist France is out of date.

In his book of the same name, Adrian Favell traced the complex history of these two “philosophies of integration” and showed that not only is there a phenomenological coherence internal to each model, in spite of the piecemeal appearance of the British approach. He also argues that these two philosophies are based on fundamentally different conceptions of political liberalism. Unlike other theorists who stress the contested nature of multicultural policy in the UK47, Favell argues that this “conception of Britain as a multi-racial and multicultural society…is one clearly accepted as a wide consensus by both sides of the political spectrum”48. Writing in 1998, Favell could argue that the xenophobic right in Britain had been essentially marginalised by the strength of this consensus. In light of the electoral successes of the British National Party49, and David Cameron announcing the failure of state multiculturalism in 201150 the picture may have evolved somewhat.

Since the London bombings in 2005, there has been an increase in political discourse on themes to do with shared values, patriotism, valuing unity rather than diversity51 and emphasising the need to develop a stronger national identity52 – themes that have also been popular in France in ← 24 | 25 → recent years. Furthermore, unlike the French, the British have introduced citizenship tests and “oaths” for immigrants, “clearly designed to indicate a stricter conformity to cultural norms”53. The fact that such oaths and tests do not (yet) exist in the French context, may be a sign that the French have a clearer understanding of themselves as a nation, and a clearer idea of what immigrants are expected to assimilate into54, than the English. Kumar writes that “the French think they have a model of citizenship and belonging to which all must conform; the English are alarmed at the pluralism they have so far encouraged, but find it difficult to define the model of English or British identity to which they might expect people – themselves included – to conform”55. This may be to do with the decentralisation of institutions in the UK, allowing for greater variability in policies to do with integration and citizenship norms56, or it may also be to do with an alleged tendency for understatement in England57 leading to an avoidance of these themes. It is worth noting that the same opposition between a strong cohesive understanding of the nation and a vague pluralist one was made in regard to citizenship education and the idea of national belonging that the school system in each country seeks to transmit58. Thus, although multiculturalism in the UK is not what it was in the 1980s, it is still interesting to consider what impact this heritage might have on the vision of national belonging children receive today in England – and how this vision might differ from that received by children in republican France. In light of the literature discussed above, we might expect to observe on one hand a strong stable “idea” of the nation and what it represents, and on the other, pluralism, diversity and the uncertain promotion of different ways of being English (or British). Studies in comparative education have incorporated issues of citizenship and nationality and have also found substantial differences between French and English children in terms of their “pride”59 in belonging or understandings ← 25 | 26 → of citizenship – another reason to use this pair of countries as the basis for our comparison.

What makes these two countries interesting on a comparative level is thus their combination of “like” and “unlike” characteristics. On one hand they differ on so many counts it would be impossible to call them similar: in terms of their political histories, the centralisation and governance of the state, its relation to religion and religious diversity, minority language policy, visions of ethnic and cultural diversity, attitudes toward the European Union – even without mentioning the possible weight of different philosophical traditions, in the forms of liberalism or republicanism and the impact that these have had on dominant understandings of the nation and citizenship60 (not to mention education…)61. One the other hand they are “close cousins” as Favell puts it, bearing “perhaps the closest family resemblance in Europe, even if they spend much of the time denying it in the name of national distinctiveness.”62

In conducting an international comparison it is of course important to balance these elements of similarity and difference; to find cases that are different enough so that a substantial increment in knowledge may be gained from the comparison, and similar enough that key explanatory factors might be identified if differences are observed in the results63. In this research however it is important to note that these two countries remain the context rather than the object of the study64, in the sense that the purpose here is not primarily to contribute to academic understanding of France and England and their models of nationhood, but rather to use them as sites for the exploration of the ways in which children in these contexts may understand and use the idea of nation and national ← 26 | 27 → belonging. If, in so doing, we observe systemic differences in the children’s responses that can be interpreted in light of some of the structural and cultural specificities outlined above, so much the better, but the objective is first and foremost to observe what children do with these notions.

C. Studying socialisation

If the decision to approach this research from the perspective of socialisation – from the child’s perspective – was made on theoretical grounds, it has serious epistemological implications. Studying such abstract concerns with children, in order to throw light on how they are made meaningful – how they are learnt and used – meant developing a methodology specifically for this purpose. For such a methodology to be viable it had to address a number of key issues, stemming both from the particular needs of the population interviewed, but also the ethical questions involved with interviewing them. It also raised questions about the kind of information that might be gathered in this way and the ways in which it could be most fruitfully analysed. A detailed discussion of the epistemological and ethical concerns encountered in developing this methodology are presented in the appendix, along with a discussion of the different stages of the research, observation and interview protocol, and the projective tasks and materials used.

Others have argued that the choice of methodological approach to research with children – and there are several – necessarily implicitly reflects the researchers’ vision of childhood and of children themselves65. Whether the child is seen from a developmental perspective (as an adult in the making) or as a “different species” (but not necessarily as inferior), will impact on how the researcher goes about soliciting their participation. These authors argue that traditional interview techniques are likely to be privileged by those who see the child as a small adult (more or less incomplete depending on the perspective) whereas those who consider childhood as a period in and of itself, and children as profoundly different from adults, (with different competencies and capabilities) are likely to choose more “creative” methodologies – precisely in order to draw on these specific “childhood” skills. An approach that considers children as “different but still equal” will use mixed methods, combining creative tasks with conversation and interview questions.

← 27 | 28 → This is essentially the approach taken in this research. If this methodology was designed to reflect a vision of the child on a more abstract level, it would have to be a vision that aims to reflect the diversity of children and their experiences. The particular position of children in society means that they have perspectives on the world that are different from adult perspectives and their status in society means that these perspectives are rarely given airtime. This is why theorists in the sociology of childhood have argued for increased accommodation of the child’s voice in academic research and the creation of a space within sociology where the specificities of this social experience – experience that is childhood in a given space and time – are awarded academic attention66.

The methodology is therefore designed to respond to the specific challenges inherent in interviewing children. It is based on qualitative semi-directive projective interviews conducted in France and England with 40 children in CE2/Year 4, aged 8 years old on average (see the appendix for a detailed presentation of the participants). Each child was interviewed twice, roughly two weeks apart. In addition to this, participant observation was conducted in the children’s schools, and interviews were also conducted with parents in the home environment, in order to have a perspective of the child and their world view that was as well-informed as possible.

As concerns the interviews themselves, they had to be adapted both to the age of respondents and the obtuseness of the subject at hand, which required a certain combination of flexibility and structure. After some preliminary exploratory interviews that had attempted a non-directive approach, it was found that a clear (if flexible) interview structure with key issues to be addressed, incorporating activities, books, drawings and projective tasks, helped the respondents engage with the interview situation. Moreover, it seems logical that if these are themes that children are not used to discussing, which are taken for granted, or which are touched with social taboo, more structured interviews may be helpful in order to address them. However, more structured doesn’t necessarily mean more directive. Danic et al. are correct in emphasising that often these themes are best approached through indirect questions that might raise related issues, rather than head on, in a way that might risk denying respondents ← 28 | 29 → the chance to provide their own interpretations and reactions67. The use of mixed methods, drawings, books and projective tasks aimed to introduce other ways – including non-verbal ways – of thinking about these issues.

Yet although they were structured, the interviews had to allow for the children to express their ideas as they wished, and to be flexible enough to follow respondents where their reasoning led – even if sometimes that meant taking long meandering journeys through seemingly unrelated ideas only to find that they were in fact simply following a different logic. Of course, these pathways do not always lead to material that is used directly in this analysis but they always provide a non-negligible insight into the child as a person with a particular take on the world. Following the children in this way also helped put them at ease with the interview situation – rather than giving them the impression that they simply had to answer a barrage of questions; flexibility in interview structure means being able to respond to the offers made by the child, which is an essential part of a reciprocal interview relationship.

Below is a very general presentation of the structure and organisation of the interviews, as well as the different discussion topics and activities used. The interview structure is based around themes rather than questions, given that adapting the questions to the child and the particular context was important. The interviews were designed to function as much as possible like a conversation in order to respect the child’s possible responses and reactions; to remain sufficiently flexible whilst still covering certain key areas and tasks. The dual interview structure meant that certain aspects of the first interview could be revisited and clarified in the second interview where necessary. A much more detailed presentation of the stages of the interviews, tasks and questions can be found in the appendix. Please refer to that section for an explanation and analysis of the reasoning behind the different elements of the interview and their development.

← 29 | 30 → First interview

Discussion: getting to know you, activities, hobbies, family and friends, school experiences.

Discussion: holidays and other countries, my country, nationality and being “English/French”, changing nationalities.

Discussion: rules and responsibilities in this country, leaders and authority, citizenship. Different kinds of leaders and power.

Difference between Queens and Presidents.

Book: Lucian (Vive la France!/ Long Live England!)

Lucian doesn’t want to play with anyone who isn’t “like him”, and specifically with Khelifa because she “isn’t English/French”

Discussion: moral evaluations of bullying, racism, ingroup/outgroup relations, ethnic and national identities, what you have to have/ to be in order to belong, and ascribed identities.

Activity: Power hierarchies
(distribute cards with political, cultural, religious and authority figures, children asked to comment them and order them from “most powerful” to “least powerful”, then comment on hierarchy).

Activity: Symbol cards
(distribute cards with geographical, political, national, religious and cultural symbolic elements. Children asked to comment and then to order them around an image of themselves in terms of likes and dislikes. Asked to comment overall image).



ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
Nationlism France, England Political socialisation childhood
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 452 pp., 41 ill., 6 tables

Biographical notes

Katharine Throssell (Volume editor)

Katharine Throssell is an associate researcher at the Institut des Sciences sociales du Politique in Paris, specialising in the study of political socialisation. She obtained her PhD in political science/ political sociology at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris.


Title: Child and Nation
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454 pages