Britishness is An Ethnic Construction
The purpose of writing this paper is to analyze and evaluate the argument that ‘Britishness is an ethnic construction’ from the perspective of both its advocates and opponents. The discussion will include evidence that supports the claim and also those who go against it in relation to the cultural and ethnic dimensions of Britishness in order to provide a better understanding of the events and circumstances that have shaped the past and present of Britain and have led to the development of the identity of Britishness.
Many sociologists have tried to define Britishness in diverse ways. Some have defined it as a ‘mixture’ of races resulting in the emergence of a unique ‘British Race’ with distinguishing characteristics while others have termed it as ‘national character’ that encompasses national customs, traditions, norms and values, molded by historical and environmental factors (On the Meaning n.d.). Such definitions, however, are not sufficient and deep enough to give a complete explanation of what Britishness really is. Being a matter of perception, britishness has different meaning for different people, but the argument that it is merely a product of ethnic factors is quite debatable.
Relation of Ethnicity with Britishness
Ethnic groups are often viewed as homogenous, bounded entities with ethnic labels associated with them and referring their connection with a particular material culture. Those who view Britishness as an ethnic identity only argue that it is an unsolidified, diverse and mobile ethnic identity that began to establish itself during the nineteenth century with the British Monarchy. Concerns regarding religion, ethnicity and national identity have always been at the forefront of political and social debates in modern Britain. Sociologists and political analysts have discussed Britishness among ethnic minorities for many decades, sparked by popular intergroup events such as Rushdie Affair in 1989, Notting Hill in 1958, the Oldham Race riots of 2001 and numerous others.
Britishness often tend to get muddled with Englishness, and it is supposed to because there are no clear boundaries that separate Englishness with Britishness. An authoritative answer can be a simple ground of differentiation that Englishness is the unique identity of people living in England while Britishness refers to custom values and traditions of Britain citizens (Betts 2007). Whichever definition we present of both the entities, it is clear that there is no clear boundary marking what we can call Britishness and Englishness given that the individualistic nature of both the identities are quite similar in terms of ethnicity and social trends.
Although the sense of Britishness is often considered as a construct of ethnicity, but is can be argued that race and ethnicity are not the only determinants of this national identity as geography, national symbols, political events and historic achievements, diversity, citizenship and immigration trends that have led to cultural diversity in Britain and have influenced the British culture in the realms of language, literature, arts, practices, habits and behaviors, are also equally important tools that have a fair share in shaping up the idea of Britishness (Ethnos Research 2005).
Although the British Isles and distinctive topographic features like Scottish Highlands and rolling hills, have been subject to influences of conquest and immigration since before the era of Christianity , most anthropologists and sociologists studying and writing about developments of race and ethnicity in the region restrain their historical contextualizing to the age following the second World War . The understandable reason for this confinement is that in this period only Britain saw huge numbers of non-white immigrants from different parts of the world. In fact, many diverse non-white populaces had already been residing in Britain before the arrival of Indian traders, Punjabi travelling salesman, Chinese seamen, Negros and black slaves (Banks 1996, p.86).
According to a research conducted by Ethnos Research and Consultancy organization to find out how people living in Britain and belonging to varied ethnicities perceive britishness, it was revealed that the ways in which ethnic groups in Britain, equally sharing britishness, personally relate to their national identity were quite varied (Ethnos Research 2005). The subjects for this research were UK passport holders, knowing that they are British citizens but most of them did not attach any significant value to it. However, white people and those belonging to ethnic minority groups in Wales and Scotland relate to the identity more strongly with the countries rather than with Britain.
In England, white participants considered themselves English first and then British, while those belonging to ethnic minorities perceived themselves as British, completely failing to identify themselves as English as they viewed Englishness as something exclusively associated with white people. In short, people from ethnic minority backgrounds residing in England were the ones who identified strongly with Britishness (Ethnos Research 2005). It was also revealed that people mainly relate to the ethnicity (geographical origins and their traditional cultures), religious and race or cultural sources of identification and these elements of national identifications are widely perceived as being compatible with Britishness.
It should also be kept in mind that, despite of identity connections and disconnections between people, the advent of the internet and modern communication technology has influenced social connectedness, to a great extent, that drives the factors, particularly crucial to forming a unified concept of identity, including the geographical, socioeconomic and cultural factors as explored the research study ‘Connected lives’ undertaken by Victoria university (Wellman et.al 2005). Most of the white population residing in Britain does not consider themselves as Britishers and prefer to register their identity as Scottish, Irish, English or Welsh. But a huge number of people from the ethnic groups confidently proclaim their Britishness and do not feel they are associated with any other national group (Carvel 2002).
These issues regarding national identity were explored for the first time in 2011 by a survey conducted by government’s general household, an extensive poll of approximately 9,000 British households, issued recently by the office for national statistics. As generally anticipated, the Scots were the ones least tending to assert their identity as British. More astonishingly, citizens old enough to recall the memories of the last war were less likely to acknowledge their Britishness than the young ones (Carvel 2002).
Grown-ups were asked to register how they like to describe themselves, picking one or more options from a national identities list including British, Welsh, English, Irish, Scottish or other. The results revealed that, for Britain as a whole, 31 percent people declare their nationality as British and gave no other varying reply, 50 percent of participants labeled themselves only as Scottish, English, Irish or Welsh, while 13% claimed both of these (Carvel 2002). Hence from what ground reality depicts, geographical origin and social and political history has much influence on shaping people’s perspectives of identity rather than only ethnic background.
What Britishness Means Today
Since the cultural influence as part of the region’s diversity has given rise to a mixed society, incorporating various cultural elements; Asian food, black music, morocco drugs, etc. Furthermore, 1997 landslide labor elections brought a more adaptive government to Westminster, which had a flexible attitude towards the matters of national identity as compared to the Pluralist Liberal establishments of the 19th and early 20th century. The concept of britishness has changed over the course of last two centuries, adapting to the changing demands and circumstances. The new version of Britishness not only embraces diversity but is constituted of this multiplicity, that not only engages religiousness and ethnicity, but also races, common customs, traditions, new ideologies and social concepts, geographic inheritance and arts and literature (Ward 2004, p.10).
As stated by Paul Ward, identification categories which people have allocated themselves have not been strictly defined along ethnic lines (Ward 2004, p.115). During a research carried out to address the questions related to national identities, a white youngster belonging to Southall described himself as related to ‘English black’ culture, conveying the wide scale existence of hybridity which is a very significant concept for understanding sense of Britishness that prevails today.
According to various studies aimed at understanding the psychological factors behind the notion of Britishness, it was indicated that just like any other concept portraying social identity, the concept of Britishness is to a great extent fluid and flexible, which can be linked with a range of varied and, in most cases, contradictory meanings. Yet, even though it has a flexible nature, the Britishness conception is also grounded in a specific social, economic, political, ideological and cultural reality (Ethnos Research 2005). Strong relationships related to age, class, ethnicity, religion and gender are primarily involved in outlining and maintaining the notion of Britishness.
It should also be kept in view while drawing out the connections of ethnicity with Britishness that ethnicity itself is not self-enclosed, rigid and exclusive. According to a practical definition of ethnicity, it entails a belief system in realms of cultural distinctiveness or an identification founded on mutual cultural traits (Ward 2004, p.115). This indicates that ethnicities are not fixed, neither there are any clear cut boundaries defining communities or races because today hybridity and diversity together has blur the lines separating ethnicity, races and communities.
Hence the amalgamation of ethnic groups and social communities has changed the rigidness that could have been allied with formation of a hard-edged concept of Britishness. Now there exists a ‘collective’ or ‘combined’ sense of identification owing to the ethnic and racial diversity that have emerged as a result of a long and consistent history of migrations leading to a society with multi-ethnic nature and diverse social and political ideological frameworks that, along with a number of other features, majorly including historical events, immigration trends, socio-economic and political changes, terrain origin, attitude towards gender and racism etc. have a crucial contribution in constructing the concept of Britishness (Ward 2004, p.116).
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Betts Alex 2007, Through my eyes: Englishness vs britishness, Albion Magazine Online, viewed 11 March 2012
Carvel John 2002, Sense of britishness more prevalent among ethnic minorities, survey shows, The
Guardian, viewed 11 March 2012
Ethnos Research and Consultancy 2005, Citizenship and belonging: What is britishness?,
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Wellman Barry et.al 2005, ‘Connected lives: The project’, in Purcell P (ed.), Networked
neighbourhoods, Springer, Berlin.
Ward Paul 2004, Britishness since 1870, Routlegde, New York.